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Love's Labor's Lost

How Ehud Barak may resurrect his career, destroy his party, and save his country this week.

As the leftist Labor Party slowly awakens from the shock of winning only 13 seats in Israel's elections last month (a historical low for the party), Ehud Barak has begun pushing his party to join Binyamin Netanyahu’s fledgling right-wing coalition. His critics paint him as narcissistic opportunist who is sacrificing his party's future to save his own career. His supporters claim he is putting the interest of the country before that of the party.

This Tuesday, the party's central committee will convene to vote on whether to accept or reject Netanyahu’s proposal. The showdown may lead to Barak’s political demise--losing the vote will effectively end his stint as party leader. The results of the vote will not only determine the future of the party that ruled Israel in its formative years and essentially created the country as we know it today, as well as determine the future of Israel's most decorated military man and once most celebrated politician. It could also determine the future of the country in one of the most pivotal moments of its history.

Those highlighting Barak’s personal motives have a strong case. “It’s desperation meets desperation,” wrote the authoritative columnists of Israel’s leading paper, Yediot Aharonot, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shifer--describing Netanyahu’s desperation for a workable government and Barak’s desperation as a man “who has nothing, not a comfortable chair in the defense ministry, not the title of head of opposition,” and threatened by the possibility of being removed from being the head of his party. Barnea and Shifer point out, as most political commentators did this weekend, the hypocrisy of Barak’s promise not long ago to serve the country from the opposition. “We are not afraid to sit in the opposition and serve the people from there," he said in early February.

With Barak’s military record, Israeli commentators are finding it hard to avoid the “fight of his life” clichŽs and “political battlefield” metaphors. But doomsday scenarios don't only involve Barak: Either result in this week's vote could lead to the destruction of Labor, as both camps refuse to promise to accept the party’s Central Committee decision. Though Barak has promised to “stay in the Labor Party,” some believe that if he loses the vote, he might bolt from the party with some Labor allies and join the Netanyahu coalition as an independent faction. But even if he wins the vote and the party officially decides to join the coalition, Labor parliamentarians who oppose Barak might refuse to vote for the government in the Knesset. They claim that joining Netanyahu will be the last straw on the way to Labor’s elimination, with Kadima’s Tzipi Livni becoming the only alternative for left-of-center voters who do not want to vote for a fringe party. Labor will lose its one last chance to reshape, reorganize, and recover from defeat--its one last chance to avoid complete irrelevance.

Barak’s supporters--who claim that he is "consider[ing] what is best for the party, and far more important--what is best for the country,” as he himself recently argued--have become the subject of much ridicule by the country’s elite pundits. “All this talk about ‘country’,” wrote Ben Caspit of Maariv, “is hard to believe.” Yossi Verter of Haaretz wrote that Barak “waived the white flag” because he doesn’t believe the Labor has a real chance to overcome the verdict of voters. As was demonstrated in the elections, neither the public nor its pundits have much love for Barak. He has earned his reputation as a lousy politician, instrumentalist in his dealings with others and dismissive of his party’s apparatus. He has very few friends, and many enemies. Thus, joining Netanyahu is really his only hope. Netanyahu, strangely, is one of few people who still has respect for Barak, valuing his strategic and military expertise and admiring his ability to remain cool-headed in times of crisis.

As happens in cases in which the villain can be easily recognized, the ability of people to separate their feelings from the broader picture is often limited. Those arguing that Barak’s behavior is problematic, that he fails to separate Israel’s needs from his own personal political fate, have every right to be angry, even appalled, by his manipulative ways and egotistic calculations. They can also persuasively argue that Barak’s intention of bringing the party into the coalition endangers its hope for a better outcome in future elections--even possibly destroying it completely.

However, all this still doesn’t mean that a government in which Barak’s party is a member isn’t better for Israel than the government Netanyahu will have without Labor. Labor will add to this government’s political stability, will make Netanyahu less dependent on the more radical elements of this coalition, and will assist it by giving it more international legitimacy. (The world is not eagerly awaiting Netanyahu.) New elections within a year--a narrow coalition cannot survive for much longer--would certainly not be in Israel's interests.

By joining the coalition, Barak reinforces the negative view most Israelis have of his personal qualities, and it might jeopardize Labor's future. But as legitimate as it is to question Barak's motives, a coalition with Labor as an active member is better for the country.

Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv-based writer and editor, blogs daily at Rosner’s Domain.

By Shmuel Rosner