JERUSALEM – Like a bolt from the blue, Ehud Barak (“lightning” in Hebrew), lit up the somewhat somnolent summer skies over Israel on June 26 when he announced his return to politics. The 77-year-old former prime minister declared he was forming a new political party and would endeavor to engineer a broad center-left alignment aimed at unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The incumbent prime minister, who this month will surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion’s record as the country’s longest serving leader, is running scared. So scared, that only one month after pushing through a last-minute vote May 29 in the Knesset to force new elections, he put out feelers to the major opposition party, Blue and White, to form a broad-based coalition and forego the elections, set for September 17. Blue and White wasn’t interested.
Why is the Netanyahu so nervous? He is getting negative feedback from the electorate, which is becoming fed up with his cynical political machinations – all meant to stave off his looming personal indictment for graft – while he disregards what is best for the citizens.
The extra round of elections, engineered by Netanyahu after the results of the April 9 general elections did not supply him with a clear mandate to form a new government, is bringing the state to a political standstill and is costing the country hundreds of millions of shekels.
This is in sharp contrast to the formerly razor-sharp politician who had deftly outmaneuvered all his political rivals (including those in his own party) and had kept a stranglehold on the premiership over the last decade.
Despite publicly declaring before the April vote that he would not seek tailor-made legislation after the election to protect himself, the prime minister immediately broke his promise. He initiated a new immunity law and legislation to limit the power of the Supreme Court to overturn it. Since he was not able to cobble together a new government this legislation was stalled. With his graft indictment hearing set for October, Netanyahu seemed to be faltering.
However, the opposition is also in disarray. Despite winning the same number of seats, 35, as Netanyahu’s Likud party, Blue and White, led by former chief of staff Benny Gantz, is running a lackluster campaign. On the left, Labor, the party of Ben-Gurion, is licking its wounds after falling to a historic low, six seats, while Meretz only scraped by with four seats.
The right is also in disarray. The joker in the pack is Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, a long-time Netanyahu foe, who despite holding just five seats, blocked the prime minister from forming a government. This left Netanyahu and his Likud party in the doldrums. Whiz kids Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, the former leaders of the national religious Bayit Yehudi, cast their party adrift by abandoning it and forming a new party, the New Right, but failed to win a seat.
Then at the end of June, the old lion came roaring into the fray, electrifying the election campaign.
In his no-holds-barred style Barak declared, “The choice is between the State of Israel and the State of Netanyahu; between the shattering of Israeli democracy, damage to the rule of law; between the utter trampling of the Israeli government – and the Jewish, democratic state that Israel needs.”
Barak’s strategy is to form a broad center-left alliance with the target of winning a significant number of Knesset seats capable of influencing the make-up of the next government. He plans to align his Democratic Israel party with Labor and Meretz and a number of other center-left groupings. Among these is Tzipi Livni, who won more seats in the 2009 election than Netanyahu, who nonetheless became prime minister. Livni was unceremoniously dumped by then Labor leader Avi Gabbai before the last elections. Livni has indicated she would only return to politics if Labor and Democratic Israel form a joint ticket.
Barak is so keen for this to happen that he announced on Monday that he would be prepared to be number 2 to Amir Peretz, the recently elected chairman of Labor. The deadline for finalizing party tickets is August 1.
Others in Barak’s sights as candidates for his alignment are: Orly Levy-Abekasis, head of the social affairs party; Gesher, which failed to win any seats in the April elections; and left-wing, ultra-Orthodox social activist Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of late Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder of the Shas party. Bar-Shalom is the head of the Achi Yisraeli party, which did not run in the last elections.
Barak also hopes the main opposition party Blue and White will reveal its true center-right colors and siphon votes off the right-wing bloc that has kept the prime minister in power for the last decade. This could lead to a possible coalition between the center-left and the center-right and leave Netanyahu out in the cold.
So far, the top names on the Democratic Israel list are former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan and Noa Rothman, Yitzhak Rabin’s granddaughter. Golan, Barak’s number 2, caused an uproar when, still in uniform, he declared on Holocaust Remembrance Day that he was disturbed at “identifying horrifying processes that occurred in Europe …70, 80 and 90 years ago and finding evidence of their existence here in our midst, today, in 2016.”
After abandoning politics in 2013, Barak became a successful businessman, recently venturing into the development of medical cannabis.
So far public opinion polls have not been particularly flattering to Barak, giving his party a maximum of six seats, but do not underestimate this enterprising and energetic senior citizen.