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Mira Sucharov and Rhonda Spivak

Ehud Barak
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Ehud Barak and his wife Nili Priel.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.


By Mira Sucharov and Rhonda Spivak, November 1, 2009

[Editor’s note: Mira Sucahrov, Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University debates the editor of the Winnipeg Jewish Review over whether Ehud Barak ought to have joined Netanyahu’s coalition government in February 2009. This article was first published six months ago in March 2009, and is being re-printed below.]

Dear Rhonda,
When I read about Ehud Barak's Labour Party joining the Likud-led coalition (with Binyamin Netanyahu -- Bibi -- as prime minister), I wondered how Barak had slept that night. I do wonder how the largest party of the left (though now dwindling in the shadow of centrist Kadima) could agree to join such a squarely right-leaning coalition -- and not feel it's betraying its support base. Surely Labour voters want to see progress on the peace process, and not the wildly disingenuous "economic peace" that Bibi favours. Surely Labour supporters are concerned about the religious right wielding more control over the civil realm in Israel. And surely Labour supporters cringed at Avigdor Lieberman's promise to make all Israelis take a loyalty oath -- or risk having their citizenship revoked.

Dear Mira,

Surely, there are Labour voters pleased with Barak’s  joining  a Likud led government.  Remember, some Israelis voted for Labour because they wanted Barak to continue as Minister of Defense, which wouldn’t happen otherwise. Also, Barak’s decision may in fact turn out to be a positive development economically for Labour’s voters (and the whole country). Histadrut Labour Federation leader Ofer Eini supported Barak’s move because Netanyahu agreed to give 100 million shekel for retraining employees, funding day care and after school care, investing in factories and not cutting salaries in the public sector. Labour is not likely to have achieved all of this if it had remained outside the coalition. And wasn’t it Amir Peretz (Labour’s former leader, and Barak detracter) who campaigned on socio-economic issues but didn’t deliver anything?

On the diplomatic front, Barak is viewed by those in Washington and elsewhere as a man who really did try to negotiate a two state solution with the Palestinians in the  Clinton-Barak-Arafat- talks in 2000. Dennis Ross, Hillary Clinton, and others in the Obama administration know and trust Barak.  Hopefully, he will act as a counterbalance to the more right wing parties in the coalition.

Although Labour voters in principal would be prepared to give up the West Bank, I don’t think most of them favour  pulling out if it leads to a Hamas takeover in the West Bank. No one wants Hamas to be able to fire grad missiles at Ben-Gurion Airport or the Azrieli towers in Tel-Aviv. After Hamas’s takeover in Gaza, even many proponents of a two state solution want to proceed cautiously.  Also, President Shimon Peres has supported this Netanyahu-Barak union, and he certainly is a friend of the peace process, isn’t he?  ( Associated Press quoted Peres on March 30, as saying "...They [the new Israeli government]are saying… they are going to respect the previous government commitments. So I would think this is a very reasonable and promising beginning.")

While I agree with you that many Labour voters don’t like Leiberman’s call for loyalty oaths, I think even Leiberman knows that this will never be implemented. 

The thing that I think is most likely to keep Barak awake at night is something you haven’t mentioned-  the“Iranian problem.” Don’t you think it is a good thing that Netanyahu and Barak will work together in deciding what Israel should do to try to
prevent Iran from going nuclear? Isn’t it better for the Israeli government to be stable so it can focus on Iran, rather than focus on what it takes just to stay in power?

Dear Rhonda,

Labour members might be in favour of Barak becoming defense minister, but the party was highly divided the party joining the coalition. The final vote was only 55% in favour. The Labour party has been massively infirmed by the rise of the centrist Kadima party, and is sadly limping along in the shadow of its heyday as Israel’s undefeated governing party for the first three decades of the state’s existence. Kadima, unlike most other centrist parties in Israel’s history (most of whom met a swift demise after their initial appearance on the political scene), seems here to stay. A new rift within the Labour party is certainly not what the party needs.

On the relationship between Barak and the U.S., you’re right that American negotiators have viewed Barak as more serious about the peace process than are his Likud rivals. And true, the narrative that the U.S. team took away from the failed Camp David talks in 2000 was that Arafat, rather than Barak, stonewalled. But that isn’t the whole story. As political scientist Jeremy Pressman has written, Barak later admitted he wasn’t really serious about a territorially contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank. And six months later, when the Clinton Plan was unveiled, Barak declared his opposition to Clinton’s proposal on refugees, as well as to the notion of Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif. So while the American administration might think of Barak as a counterweight to Likud’s more ideologically hawkish policies, we cannot trust that he actually will be that voice of compromise.

You also rightly note that Israelis are hesitant to engage in quick withdrawal from the West Bank without assurances that that territory will not become another launching pad for peace-process spoilers, as was Gaza in the wake of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal. But it’s difficult to isolate the cause of Hamas rockets. While Hamas is no great lover of Israel, Israel’s withdraw from the Strip still left the state in control of Gaza’s borders and airspace. Plus, the West Bank remains under occupation. With Gaza’s population having suffered from the economic blockade imposed on it by Israel (which in turn stemmed from Israeli fears of weapons smuggling – but as we can see, the logic becomes difficult to untangle at a certain point), it is difficult to know whether rockets might not have ceased had Israel proved that territorial withdrawal also meant ceding actual control over the area.

Finally, the question of Iran. As we saw in the eight adventurist years of the Bush Administration which saw U.S. foreign policy perverted by the distracting war on terror, and an imbroglio in Iraq, brinkmanship doesn’t work. No doubt a Likud-led coalition will be more likely to contemplate an attack on Iran to infirm its nuclear potential. But I would put my money on an engagement approach – such as U.S. President Barack Obama is pursuing -- being a better approach. Negotiations allow more face-saving than do airstrikes (or worse), something that’s key to diffusing current tensions in the pained Middle East.

Something tells me we’ll have a lot more to discuss in the coming months. For now, thanks for the chat.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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