Ehud Barak to step down: On his de-evolution, and Israel’s

The defense minister symbolizes the 21st-century failure of the Israeli ‘warrior for peace.’

Ehud Barak, who announced his retirement from politics today, said a couple of very brave things in his political career. “If I were a Palestinian at the right age, I would have joined one of the terrorist organizations at a certain stage,” he said early on. A couple of years ago he said: “If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic… If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.”

Unfortunately, those words represent what a lot of people (myself included) once thought Barak might become, but they clash almost completely with the real Barak and his actual deeds. The words that reflect his true legacy, the operative words of his career, are “we have no partner,” which he said after returning from Camp David in 2000, and, a few years later, that Israel is a “villa in the jungle.”

As a statesman, Barak had one great, brave achievement – the 2000 pullout from Lebanon, which he carried out in defiance of the military brass. After that, his career was a series of tentative impulses toward peace that the warrior and establishment insider in him always managed to overcome.

He moved toward peace with Syria, but got cold feet midway through, sitting on his plane in Washington, where the talks were supposed to continue, telling Martin Indyk: “I can’t do it,” and adding later, “I can’t look like a freier [sucker] in front of my people.”

He made Arafat a reasonable opening offer at Camp David, but when Arafat didn’t accept it right off the bat, he refused to talk to the Palestinian leader anymore.

Later, as defense minister, he opposed the strike on Syria’s embryonic nuclear reactor, but then went along with the majority. Same thing in Operation Cast Lead, when he wanted a cease-fire after a few days. Same thing just now in Operation Pillar of Defense, when he reportedly wanted to accept the Egyptians’ initial cease-fire terms, which called for opening Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza.

And for the nearly four years of the current government, he has probably been best known for serving as Netanyahu’s partner in the drive for an attack on Iran. On this issue, he had no impulse for peace to overcome. (In the last couple of months, as it became clear Obama wasn’t going to strike Iran or back an Israeli attack, Barak seemed to get off the train; indecisiveness has been a hallmark of his career.)

Aside from being warmonger No. 2 on Iran, Barak has been the centrist fig leaf to the world for the most right-wing government this country’s ever had. He’s been Fortress Israel’s military technocrat. The right wing thinks he’s been the spoke in the wheels of the settlement drive, but at most he’s slowed the rate of growth slightly; in all, he’s gone along with this most pro-settlement, pro-occupation government.

Barak symbolizes the 21st-century failure of the Israeli “warrior for peace.” The men of this class proved themselves in the peace treaty with Egypt, and made a good try in the Oslo Accord – and Barak, again, giving him his due, was head and shoulders above them all in the pullout from Lebanon. But since then, with the anomalous exception of the Gaza disengagement, the “enlightened” Israeli military leader who knows the occupation is crazy, who has no use for the settlements, who is well to the left of public opinion, has either gone silent or gone along with the program. Like Barak, the other liberal ex-general types in this country are too much the warrior and too much the establishment insider to say, This is wrong, this country has become a war machine and little else, things have to change radically.

So there is no leadership for change. The last time there was a leader who seemed like he might actually save this country was in September 2000, when Barak was prime minister, right before the deluge. Since then, his de-evolution and Israel’s have taken the same course.