Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Barak, or inconsequence

Ehud Barak’s recent departure from Israel’s Labor Party to form his own faction offered an instructive moment in Israeli politics. It’s hardly the merits of the man that make it so. Rather, the transition was the latest confirmation that Israel’s so-called “peace camp” is a thing of the past in terms of political effectiveness, as the consensus in the country on relations with the Palestinians moves politically rightward.

The mediocrity of Barak’s record has reflected that change. It wasn’t always that way. In 1999, when he became prime minister, Barak was seen as the inheritor of Yitzhak Rabin, someone who would inject life into the moribund peace negotiations that had languished under the tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu. We were reminded that Barak was brainy and could be both gentle and rough: He could play the piano skillfully, and skillfully assassinate Palestinian leaders, as he did Khalil al-Wazir in Tunis. This helped earn him, with a colleague, the status of most decorated soldier in Israeli history.

Barak’s only term as prime minister, between 1999 and 2001, was defeated by hubris. He entered office ambitiously promising success on the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese tracks, yet left having achieved almost nothing. Barak did pull his soldiers out of South Lebanon in May 2000, but Israel received nothing in exchange. In light of the prime minister’s failures elsewhere, that exit, which was soon perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a defeat, took on added importance and became a yardstick for Israeli vulnerabilities.

With Syria, Barak’s vulnerabilities came to full light. He told his American interlocutors upon arriving in Washington in December 1999 for the Shepherdstown talks with Syria’s foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, that he did not have a mandate to surrender the Golan Heights down to the shores of Lake Tiberias. This represented a step backward from what Rabin had promised the Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad – showing, not for the last time, that Barak frequently promised what he could not deliver. The Shepherdstown talks collapsed and the prime minister’s reluctance to take risks on the Golan helped push the Syrian-Israeli track into a dead end after Assad held an abortive meeting with Bill Clinton in Geneva.

Barak’s legacy may be safer when it comes to the climactic moment of negotiations with the Palestinians: the Camp David talks of July 2000. The general opinion is that Israel offered the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, major concessions, but that an agreement was derailed by Arafat’s refusal to accept Israeli conditions on Jerusalem. However, that interpretation has been disputed, thanks largely to the publication by Robert Malley, a Clinton administration staffer who was present at the talks, and Hussein Agha of an article in The New York Review of Books questioning the orthodoxy. The “blame Arafat” line, they wrote, “fails to capture why what so many viewed as a generous Israeli offer, the Palestinians viewed as neither generous, nor Israeli, nor, indeed, as an offer.”

Their perspective was challenged by other officials who had been at Camp David, but Barak’s proposals did him no good at home. Once the Palestinians embarked upon a new intifada, the prime minister became a sitting duck. By then the high hopes of the years before had evaporated. Barak had struck out everywhere because he had too confidently imagined he could succeed everywhere. He was defeated by Ariel Sharon in the elections of 2001, resigned as leader of the Labor Party and for years worked outside politics.

The comeback was no more impressive. Only in 2007 did Barak regain leadership of Labor, and then by a narrow margin. In the 2009 elections Labor won a mere 13 seats in the Knesset. Despite initially saying the party would not join the government, Barak reversed course to become defense minister. Other party members were unhappy with this, and the ongoing tension between Barak and his colleagues over peace negotiations with the Palestinians pushed him to go his own way this week.

Perhaps Barak thinks he can do what Sharon did when he left Likud to form Kadima. If so, that, too, would be a sign of an over-adventurous ego. The Israeli defense minister has increasingly seemed little more than a good resume wrapped around a core of inconsequence. He has failed to stake out a position that anyone might readily identify as his. Barak’s compromises with Netanyahu, his refusal to push hard in favor of his declared positions on peace with the Arabs, even the fact that he appears to have misled the Obama administration over his effectiveness in swaying the prime minister, all suggest he is far closer to being an opportunist than the near redeemer he was portrayed as more than a decade ago.

If Barak has become so elastic, that’s because he is adapting to an Israel much different, at least to the outside world, than the one that elected him in 1999. The old parameters, those of an Israeli peace camp squaring off against a pro-settlement camp, were undermined by Sharon, who evacuated Gaza to better consolidate Israeli control over other Palestinian areas. This strategy, of offering absorbable concessions to enhance Israel’s long-term territorial domination, has been imitated by Netanyahu, and poses no problems for most Israeli voters. It’s a testament to Labor’s futility that Israel’s government is made stronger by its ministers’ walk-out.

Barak may have dealt a harsh blow to Labor, but this won’t hasten his own political renaissance. His repositioning makes a good headline, but is not overly meaningful. Perhaps that’s because Israel itself is finding meaningful politics more and more elusive.

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