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Will Ehud Barak return to politics?

Labor party activists, who met recently with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, believe that he is the only person able to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak gestures during the 49th Conference on Security Policy in Munich February 3, 2013. Senior politicians along with the leader of the Syrian opposition are in Munich providing a rare opportunity for talks to revive efforts to end the civil war in Syria.       REUTERS/Michael Dalder(GERMANY - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS) - RTR3DAJJ

Former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak held a meeting two weeks ago with key political activists from the Labor Party. The participating activists left with the feeling that Barak was examining the possibility of returning to political life before the next elections as the leader who can unite Israel’s center-left camp.

It was an unusual meeting. Ever since he retired in November 2012, Barak has cut himself off completely from any political activity, and it looked like he had finally withdrawn from public life. Now, however, following the controversial conclusion of Operation Protective Edge and the ongoing political vacuum, reflected by the absence of any political alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak may have identified an opening for a comeback.

The event took place at Barak’s home in the center of Tel Aviv. It was organized by Yossi Shriqui, former head of the Labor Party branch in the southern town of Netivot, and someone who has been identified with Barak ever since he first entered politics in the early 1990s. Also at the meeting was Pini Kabalo, the chairman of the Labor Party in the Labor Union, considered to be one of the party’s main field operatives.

The conversation which took place was political in essence, focusing to a large degree on the implication of the last conflict in the Gaza Strip. Barak left the participants with the impression that he doesn’t see anyone from the political center and left who can pose a real challenge to a Likud government headed by Netanyahu. He then hinted that only he and late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, both of them former chiefs of staff, were able to get voters on the right to support the left, thereby defeating the Likud and bringing the Labor Party to power.

The party activists left the meeting with the impression that Barak was trying to assess the political preparedness among party field operatives in advance of a possible return to public life after he quit the Labor Party in January 2011 and founded the Ha'atzmaut (Independence) Party with four other Knesset members. At the time, it was only natural that his move generated great anger against him within the Labor Party.

In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Shriqui called Barak the most suitable person to lead the State of Israel, adding that he hoped the former head of the Labor Party would return to lead the center-left bloc in the next elections. “The State of Israel is in dire need of change in terms of foreign policy, security, and economic priorities,” said Shriqui. “We need an initiative to restart the negotiations on the basis of a two-state solution, and to do that, we need to harness the support of the other Arab states and US President Barack Obama. This runs contrary to the antagonistic policies of Netanyahu and his cohorts.”

He continued: “Since Netanyahu has no rival with the necessary stature within the Likud party, or within the political center or even in the Zionist left, then the rational center must consolidate its forces and present a joint list based on common principles. That list would be headed by Barak, who has already proved that he knows how to defeat Bibi [Netanyahu].”

When asked whether he came away with the impression that Barak even wants to return to politics, Shriqui avoided any explicit answer: “What I am saying is that we need Barak. His absence is obvious, especially after Operation Protective Edge. Even the heads of local authorities aligned with the Likud asked, ‘Where’s Barak?’ I think that [Labor Party Chairman] Isaac Herzog, [Justice Minister] Tzipi Livni, [Finance Minister] Yair Lapid and [former Defense Minister] Shaul Mofaz should call on him to return. I hope that this will happen and that he agrees.

Shriqui also claims that despite the anger felt toward Barak for splitting the Labor Party, most party members want him back. “I know that plenty of people want to see Ehud [Barak] come back,” says Shriqui. “He made his mistakes, but it is time to put that aside and to summon him to the flag. It is important to remember that he rehabilitated the army after the Second Lebanon War. He is Mr. Security. Everybody knows what his abilities are.”

Despite Shriqui’s enthusiasm, another senior Labor Party official is putting a damper on the idea. He says that the intensity of the hostility toward Barak persists to an extent that will prevent him from turning back the wheel. “He split us up and then he left. It was a huge trauma,” says that senior official. “It looks to me like Barak wants us to come calling on him to be our savior, but that won’t happen. I understand that he is sending people out to the various mayors to find out if there is any possibility of arranging a comeback for him. Frankly, it all sounds delusional.”

Barak, 72, entered politics shortly before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Four years later, he managed to get himself elected prime minister on behalf of the Labor Party, but his government collapsed less than two years later. He was forced to advance the elections, and lost to Ariel Sharon in 2001. He then retired from politics for the first time and went into private business.

He tried a return to politics in 2004, marketing himself as the “new Barak,” a more experienced leader who learned from his mistakes. This comeback was only completed in 2007, when he was elected head of the Labor Party and appointed Defense Minister in Ehud Olmert’s government. In 2009, he led the Labor Party to its greatest defeat in history, winning only 13 seats. After those elections, he joined Netanyahu’s second government as defense minister. Two years later, he split the Labor Party.

In November 2011, after polls predicted that his Ha'atzmaut Party would not pass the electoral threshold in the upcoming elections, Barak announced his retirement, explaining that he wanted, “to learn, to write, to live, and also to enjoy life.” He then went back into private business, serving among other things as a member of the Board of Directors of CIFC, an American corporation that is traded on the NASDAQ, and as an adviser to the Swiss bank Julius Baer Group.

His last public appearance was on the day that Operation Protective Edge began July 8, when he delivered a speech at the Haaretz Peace Conference. At that event, Barak called on the government to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative. He also criticized the prime minister, contending that he prefers holding on to his seat over advancing the diplomatic process. More explicitly, he said, “Netanyahu is doing what many political actors in many places do. Rabin, [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and I didn’t act that way. The three of us said that we were moving forward, fully aware that we were putting our political survival at risk.”

Barak was absent throughout the conflict in Gaza and the south. He made no public declarations and held no interviews, sparking rumors that he was unwell. According to Shriqui, “Those were just malicious rumors invented by his rivals.”

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