(June 30, 2019 / JNS) In an attempt to hand Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the second defeat of his long political career, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced last week the formation of a new left-wing party that will compete in Israel’s September election.
Barak told JNS that his goal with the new party, which a Channel 13 poll found would win six seats if the election were held today, is to bring Netanyahu’s “tenure to an end” and to reform Israeli society.
The former prime minister was critical of Blue and White’s effort to topple Netanyahu in the April election, implying the party’s campaign had been too kind.
Barak said that he, on the other hand, was prepared to do “whatever necessary, within the confines of the law, in order to win.”
Though Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud Party tied with 35 mandates apiece, 65 Knesset members recommended Netanyahu as prime minister, compared to just 45 for Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
Despite the recommendations, however, Netanyahu was unable to muster a majority coalition, forcing another election, the second in just six months.
At the press conference in Tel Aviv last Wednesday at which he announced his return to politics, Barak noted that he had been Netanyahu’s commander in the army and had soundly defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 election.
Urging Netanyahu to resign under the threat of probable indictments in three separate breach of trust cases, Barak challenged the 10-year incumbent, stating: “Bibi, this is your last chance to go home on your own.”
Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel Defense Forces history, served as Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff from 1991 to 1995, and then as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, defeating a young Netanyahu after his first term as prime minister.
Barak offered major land-for-peace concessions to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the infamous 2000 Camp David summit. Arafat rejected Barak’s offer and instead launched the Second Intifada. After serving barely a year-and-a-half as prime minister, Barak lost the 2001 elections to then-Likud leader Ariel Sharon.
Barak returned to head the Labor Party in 2007, and later served as defense minister under Netanyahu before leaving politics again in 2013.
Former Labor minister and party secretary Eitan Cabel told JNS he was “saddened” by Barak’s return to politics.
“I would never go to a doctor a third time after he almost killed me twice,” said Cabel. “Barak has been given two opportunities to lead the Israeli left, and he failed. His return will only hurt the center-left bloc.”
‘A blow to our right flank’
Initial polls indicate Barak’s new party could win as many as six seats, but more significantly they note that a center-left bloc that includes Arab parties could compete for a narrow Knesset majority of 61 seats.
Barak made it clear that he is pushing for the parties seeking to challenge Netanyahu to merge with his new party to form a large center-left bloc. Numerous Israeli television reports have indicated that Barak would like to form a political alliance with Blue and White.
However, as Blue and White includes outspoken right-leaning MKs, including former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, it would likely be hesitant to merge with the more clearly left-wing Barak.
Indeed, Blue and White MK Meir Cohen told JNS that “a merger with Blue and White is not on the table right now,” and said that Barak and his team “are left-wing.”
Kan News reported a Blue and White Party source stating that the possibility of a merger with Barak “is a blow to our right flank. We need to bring votes from the right. This is the only way to expand the bloc.”
Cohen, however, left the door open for a possible alliance closer to the election, stating that “no person is invalid” during a campaign.
Other possible mergers for Barak could include the clearly left-wing Labor and Meretz parties.
Labor, Barak’s former party, holds its leadership primary on Tuesday, between 67-year-old former Defense Minister Amir Peretz and 39-year-old MK Itzik Shmuli.
Peretz, who lost to Barak in the 2007 Labor leadership primary, has made it clear he would demand to lead any new political alliance, an arrangement which Barak would likely reject.
Shmuli, on the other hand, may be more willing to yield the number one slot to the elder statesman Barak.
Newly elected Meretz party chairman Nitzan Horowitz has made it clear that he is eager to merge with other parties to strengthen the left-wing bloc, leaving open the possibility of another candidate, such as Barak, leading a joint party list.
Yet a Barak-Labor-Meretz merger would likely take seats from Blue and White. Indeed, with Barak in the race it will be difficult for Blue and White to repeat its April success.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said that Barak’s announcement will ultimately have no bearing on the final election results. “The left can decide how they want to divide their votes between Meretz, Labor, Ehud Barak, and Blue and White,” she said.
Joining Barak’s new party are former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, entrepreneur Kobi Richter, who aided in the formation of Blue and White, law professor Yifat Bitton, and former Labor party activist Yair Pink.
Barak and his new, as-yet unnamed party will develop a platform in the coming weeks and continue recruiting personalities, but this return to politics of a former prime minister has already added a new dimension to Israel’s September election cycle.