Remember on Friday when I wrote that Ehud Barak is looking ahead to elections and is going to try and distance himself from Bibi Netanyahu? We got some further confirmation of this yesterday with Barak’s interview in Israel Hayom (the full interview was published today), in which he advocated that Israel pursue a policy of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank while holding onto the three largest settlement blocs – Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Maale Adumim – which contain 90% of the settler population in the West Bank. Predictably, Barak got blasted from both the left and the right and was accused by everyone of naked electioneering and fishing for votes.
There is something slightly off about Barak calling for unilateral withdrawal though in an effort to make himself more popular with voters. First, Barak was the first Israeli politician to attempt this maneuver when he withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon during his stint as prime minister, and in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War it is widely perceived to have been a strategic failure. Given that Barak is already associated with a failed unilateral withdrawal, it seems strange for him to remind voters of his previous failure by advocating for another unilateral move. Second, as Yesha head Dani Dayan and others pointed out in the course of criticizing Barak, unilateral withdrawal is not particularly popular with the Israeli public, and so you have this curious anomaly where a bunch of politicians are calling out Barak for trying to gin up votes while simultaneously reminding everyone that there are no votes to be had in what Barak is advocating. If Barak is trying to appeal to voters, why would he do so by pushing a policy that is massively unpopular? Third, new elections have yet to be scheduled and are unlikely to be held sooner than six months from now, so if Barak thinks that unilateral withdrawal is the key to his political resurgence, why bring it up now rather than closer to the election?
I think that Barak does indeed have politics in mind, but it is not so much about trying to lock down votes right now as it is about beginning the process of breaking up with Netanyahu. Barak is smart enough to see that while Netanyahu is almost certainly going to remain as prime minister after the next election, his stock and popularity have suffered a big hit. Barak at this point is going to do everything he can to put distance between himself and Bibi and try to make voters believe that he and Netanyahu have not been as close as everyone thinks. He is going to seize on any high profile issue, irrespective of its popularity, that creates a contrast with Netanyahu – unilateral withdrawal, dismantling illegal settlement outposts or neighborhoods, prosecuting settlers who build without a permit, etc. – in an attempt to reestablish his street cred with the center and the left, who think he has given cover to Bibi’s war talk on Iran. I am also going to go on record with the controversial call of the day, which is that at some point before the next election, Barak is going to go so far as to quit his post as defense minister. As I’ve written, I don’t think that an Israeli strike on Iran is in the cards at the moment, and that means that Barak’s raison d’être in this government is largely over. He is not going to be allowed to run on Likud’s list and there is no way or reason for him to continue to hitch his wagon to Netanyahu’s star. The visit with Rahm last week – which, by the way, Netanyahu did not know about – and the interview with Israel Hayom are the beginning of the end for the Netanyahu-Barak relationship of convenience.