Israel Pulse

Netanyahu, Barak locked in dirtiest fight yet

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Article Summary
The upcoming Israeli elections are already reminiscent of 1999, when Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu first exchanged vitriolic rhetoric and outrageous accusations.

The bottom of the barrel was struck on July 18, when an unidentified right-wing supporter tweeted that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is running in the Sept. 17 Knesset elections, had a daughter out of wedlock in 1987, when he was serving as a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces. Yair Netanyahu, son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was among the 40 re-tweeters.

The fact that an “inciting prostitute-user who receives protection, lives a parasitic lifestyle and gets tight Shin Bet security" is a "disgrace,” the former IDF chief said at a launch event the same day for his new Israel Democratic Party. The festive launch turned into brawl between Barak and his former junior officer, a battle in which both are exposing their dark sides. For both of them, it is a struggle for political survival. Barak is performing poorly in the polls, which indicate his new party may not receive sufficient votes to get into the Knesset, and is fighting for legitimacy in the face of publications insinuating that he had nefarious contacts with accused sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Netanyahu is also fighting for political survival, but his situation is worse given the three criminal indictments hanging over his head.

In certain respects, this is a replay of the 1999 election campaign. Twenty years after Barak defeated Netanyahu for the premiership, the two are going at each other in another round. Barak is 77 and Netanyahu will turn 70 in October. The years have not dulled their historic rivalry. Barak was the mythological, celebrated commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando force when Netanyahu served under him as a junior officer in the same unit. For many years, Netanyahu revered Barak, who had also been close to his older brother Yoni Netanyahu, killed in the Entebbe hostage rescue operation. Admiration turned to bitter rivalry when Netanyahu decided to go into politics and became prime minister in 1996, but three years later, his former commanding officer kicked him out of office. Netanyahu swore to return, and kept his promise. Barak was defeated, eventually returning to politics and forming a strategic alliance with Netanyahu in 2009. Four years later, in 2013, Barak pulled out. Now he is back for a final round that will be the most violent and bitter of them all. They are lowering the bar every day. Anything goes; victory is all that counts, just as was the case when they served as commandos.

Barak’s July 17 campaign speech included a blatant attack on Netanyahu. There was nothing Barak did not throw in Netanyahu’s face. He accused him of employing sex offenders or “those who support pedophiles” (a veiled reference to Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, suspected of helping an accused Australian sexual predator evade extradition). Barak went on to recall the persistent accusations against Netanyahu of taking part in incitement that culminated in the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and further accused him of mounting attacks against anyone who does not share his views. Barak’s problem is that at the height of his assault on Netanyahu, and even as he was positioning himself as the country’s top fighter against corruption, some unappetizing scandals, to say the least, are coming to light and undermining his legitimacy. Among them are reports of him receiving money from Epstein, a Wexner Foundation donor, and his alleged socializing with the man while he was hosting young girls in his apartment.

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Netanyahu's secret weapon is his son Yair, one of Twitter's most vulgar and crass users. Yair is an enfant terrible who can say anything he wants while his father keeps a safe distance and looks on fondly at his son’s performances. While Barak rolls up his sleeves and dives deep into the political sewage, Netanyahu dispatches his son to the front, knowing there is nothing he will not do. For example, take the tweet he posted during Barak’s speech this week. “The fact that Barak brought with him publicly-funded Shin Bet security to the private pedophilia island of Epstein in the Caribbean, even though it has been 20 years since he served for only one year as Israel’s most failed PM, is the real disgrace,” wrote Yair. "Barak, you should be ashamed of yourself! Old geezer, drunk on whiskey, probably suffering from dementia!"

Once again, it appears the level of discourse cannot go any lower, but there is a good chance it will. Either way, Barak is fighting against all odds this time. The Daily Mail photo that shows him entering Epstein’s home allegedly for a sex party, his face partly hidden by a scarf and hat, appears to be a public relations disaster. The tabloid’s insinuation that some young women entered the building and went to the same party as Barak did not serve him well. Barak denies it all, of course, and he has instructed his lawyers to sue the tabloid for libel.

The wave of mudslinging against him on social media has not abated. Nor have strident demands that he explain why he received millions of dollars from the Wexner Foundation several years ago. Given this state of affairs, rather than mounting a counter-attack, Barak finds himself on the defensive. Meanwhile, newly chosen Labor chair Amir Peretz announced July 18 that he is teaming up with former Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, sinking the prospects of a union between Barak and Labor or Barak and the left-wing Meretz. If Barak is forced to run alone, it could be tragic not just for him but also for the entire leftist bloc. If he cannot cross the electoral threshold and win sufficient votes to get into the Knesset, tens of thousands of votes for the left will be wasted on him. It would serve Netanyahu well. As the right struggles with division itself, division on the left will cost the it critical votes in an election in which every vote could be crucial. If this gloomy prediction comes true for Barak, he will have to make a personal strategic decision that could be one of the toughest of his life: to step down before the elections and win the dubious title of making the shortest political comeback of all time, or to keep fighting against all odds.

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Found in: benny gantz, israeli elections, israeli politics, ehud barak, benjamin netanyahu

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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