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Likud Swings Right –Livni Enters & Barak Exits

Likud's swing to the Right will provide Israeli voters with a clearer choice in the January 22 election.

Tzipi Livni | Bibi Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

While Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu portrayed the new Likud list as 'a strong young national team', Labor's Shelly Yachimovich has blasted it as 'an extreme Right wing party with no social agenda'.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak probably left political life after his successful contribution to the recent Gaza operation before his party's poor showing in upcoming election. But he has also left his options open for a possible Netanyahu offer to return as defense minister if he forms the next government.

Tzipi Livni has entered the campaign claiming only she can attract moderate Likud supporters who are turned off by the new Likud ticket.

 It's a new ball game! Several dramatic developments have shocked Israel's political scene in the run-up to the January 22 election! The swing to the Right in the Likud primaries may have surprised even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who put a brave face on it by telling his cheering party members that they had selected a 'strong national ticket'. The Likud list is comprised of what can only be described as hard-line Right- wingers, who  favor wide scale settlement in Judea and Samaria and who oppose Netanyahu's own support of a two- state solution. For example Moshe Feiglin, who Netanyahu fought to keep off the Likud list in the past, won a surprising fourteenth place on the Likud candidate list. But what is no less surprising is that Benny Begin, the son of the late revered Likud leader Menachem Begin, was booted out. This was apparently because he was viewed as being too soft after working out the compromise to evacuate the illegal settlement of Migron to another location nearby. The symbolism is stark – the son of Menachem Begin, who enforced his father's respect for the law, was deemed unfit by the rank and file to represent the Likud in the upcoming election! Dan Meridor, another 'Likud Prince', (a son of the the old Herut's founding fathers) was also wiped off the Likud list. Meridor served as Menachem Begin's cabinet secretary and has recently adopted a more moderate stand by contending that Israel should build housing only within the existing security fence on the West Bank, that would   remain under Israeli control in any future peace accord with the Palestinians. These two Likudniks represent the classic Likud and also sit on Netanyahu's select nine-member security cabinet, that the PM praised for their contribution during the recent 'Pillar of Defense Operation'. Within twenty-four hours, Netanyahu has lost three of his most trusted and experienced advisers who were valued for their sound judgment and support. Who will the PM have to replace him if he forms the next cabinet?

Barak's exit from political life…

Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

'Surprise the enemy' was Ehud Barak's trademark as commander of the IDF's vaunted Special Forces Unit known as Sayaret Matkal. Once again he caught everyone by surprise by suddenly announcing his retirement from political life. Although Barak has been basking in his role as Defense Minister, the polls predicted his breakaway Independence party had an uncertain future in the upcoming election. So Barak bowed out amid speculation that Netanyahu might call upon him to again serve as defense minister in the future like Menachem Begin turned to another Laborite, Moshe Dayan, after the 1977 election. And with good reason, Barak has served as point man for the PM in Washington and the main architect of the unprecedented strategic relations despite the strained relations between Obama and Netanyahu. Netanyahu repeatedly sent Barak to the U.S. capital to smooth ruffled American feathers. However the Defense Minister has often been the punching bag for his new found Likud colleagues. In fact, he has been a stalking horse for party criticism that should have really been directed at Netanyahu.  For example, Cabinet Minister Yuli Edelstein exclaimed: "Good riddance to Barak, he blocked settlement growth in Judea & Samaria!" However his former Labor charged: "Barak served as Netanyahu's fig leaf for the settlement building". After the last election, Barak led Labor into Likud coalition after receiving the defense portfolio. Many of his Labor Knesset members opposed the move and eventually the party voted to bolt the government. But Barak and four other Laborites formed the Independence party and remained in the cabinet. Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich and other Laborites accused Barak of betraying and destroying the party. In announcing his decision, Barak made passing reference to 'some of the media, not all 'for complimenting him for his handling of 'Pillar of Cloud'. It is fair to say that Barak media bashing has been going on for years in Israel.

What are the roots of this phenomenon? As the IDF's most decorated soldier, Barak received five medals for valor. Born on a kibbutz, Barak grew up as a born leader with a penchant for taking apart clocks and then reassembling them – he also plays classical music on the piano.  In his words as a special-forces officer: "I often saw the whites of the enemy's eyes in close combat". Renowned as brilliant, Barak rose swiftly up the ranks to become IDF Chief of Staff. During his military career he also earned a Bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics as well as his Master's from Stanford in the U.S. After he entered politics, it was again widely predicted that he would rise to the top, which he did becoming prime minister in 1999. Barak likes to think big. In the year 2000, he went to Camp David where he offered Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines plus border swaps to include a sharing of Jerusalem, a symbolic return of some refugees in return for security arrangements and an end to the conflict. Arafat did not accept or reject it: he just walked away from an exasperated President Bill Clinton who hosted the summit. Barak came home to be tarred and feather not only by the Right but also from his own Labor party that charged he had put Arafat in an impossible position by offering too much! The Palestinian leader returned home to launch Intifada #2 for which Barak was also blamed. In my view, Barak drew the conclusion that there was no reasonable Palestinian partner for peace – that it was all a song and dance and the Palestinians would balk at ending the conflict and partitioning the Land of Israel. Or as American negotiator Dennis Ross put it: "Arafat was not ready to step up to the plate". For his part, Barak dedicated himself to strengthening Israel's security and preparing to defeat periodic Arab attacks in the future. In the meanwhile the Jewish state would continue to develop economically and bolster itself as 'a villa in the jungle' of the Middle East. But at the same time, Barak stressed the need to cooperate with the diplomatic efforts of the international community led by the U.S. until the time comes for a change in the Palestinian approach. (A similar peace deal was offered later by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and again the Palestinian leadership, this time President Mahmoud Abbas, turned down the offer). In Israel, Barak is perceived as being super-smart but very arrogant and very difficult to work with. In short, as a politician he became his own worst enemy. The fact of the matter is that if Prime Minister Netanyahu is now faced with a Likud-Lieberman caucus that insists on wide-scale settlement building in the territories, he will need Barak at his side more than ever. Then there's the Iranian nuclear conundrum on the horizon. However would Lieberman or the new Likud caucus agree to Barak again being co-opted as defense minister? This is a complicated issue on different levels involving who will succeed Netanyahu in the future. Moreover would Barak want to serve in a more Right wing government?

Livni throws in her hat, finally…

'I will fight for Israel's security and peace!' that was Tzipi Livni's battle-cry as she entered the election fray. After the selection of the new Likud-Lieberman list, it is shaping up to be a battle royal if there ever was one. Livni's new 'Movement' party will include some of her former Kadima colleagues who, discouraged with Shaul Mofaz, are champing at the bit for her return. And what of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he has yet to utter his final word. What are Livni's prospects? She is banking on the fact that her two Centrist rivals Shelly Yachmovich of Labor and Yair Lapid of the Future party have absolutely no senior governmental experience at a critical time for Israel in light of the tumult sweeping the Arab world and the Iranian nuclear threat. Moreover after the Likud's swing to the right, Livni also contends she will provide a Centrist candidate who can draw moderate Likud voters. The question is how many of them will reject the new Likud list and look for another party? By virtue of her being out of political life for a considerable time, the public will be interested in giving a look at this new-old candidate who actually won more votes than Netanyahu in the last election.

David Essing

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