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Getting Off the Ground

Labor leader Ehud Barak's campaign fortunes are rising, thanks to a political gamble and the clearing of his name

by Larry Derfner

March 18, 1999 | 6:59 pm

Until the last couple of weeks, the best thing one could say about Ehud Barak's campaign for prime minister was that it couldn't get any worse.

But, as the May 17 election draws closer, a couple of good things have happened to the Labor Party leader that have finally gotten his campaign off the ground.

One was his placement of veteran Sephardic politician David Levy and the liberal Orthodox movement Meimad (Dimension) on the Labor Party's Knesset ticket, now known as "One Israel."

The other, and far more dramatic, development was the clearing of Barak's name, which the Likud had besmirched in connection with a 1992 training accident during which five Israeli army commandos were killed.

Barak, then military chief of staff, had supervised the training exercise. Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, in a play on Barak's name, popularized the phrase Ehud "Barach" ("ran away"), claiming that Barak had flown off from the accident site in a helicopter without first giving any attention to the wounded and dying.

But the state comptroller's investigative report, released on Monday, determined that Barak had remained on the scene until doctors, paramedics and medivacs had arrived and attended to the victims. "Under these conditions, the claims against the chief of staff cannot be supported," State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg wrote.

"Ehud Did Not Run Away," read the headlines in Israel's two largest newspapers, Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv. "The blood libel against me is over," said Barak.

Yet even before the report was published, last weekend's public opinion survey conducted by Dr. Mina Tsemach, Israel's most prominent pollster, found Barak leading Netanyahu, 46 percent to 41 percent, in a runoff election.

This rise in the Labor leader's fortunes, following a long period in which he lost ground to Netanyahu and was being criticized as a hopeless electoral prospect, came from an unexpected source: the One Israel gambit. Critics, even those who are rooting for Barak, had argued that putting Levy and Meimad on the ticket wouldn't change traditional Sephardic and Orthodox antipathy to the secular, progressive Labor Party.

But it seems to have done that, especially with Sephardim. Barak has been touring Israel's poor, mainly Sephardic development towns and bazaars with Levy in tow (or in the lead), and he's been getting a warm welcome everywhere.

The idea was inspired by the Clinton-Gore bus tour of the 1992 campaign -- whose adviser, James Carville, is also adviser to the 1999 Barak campaign. Carville had argued that Barak goes over much better with Israelis in person than on TV -- he could hardly go over much worse -- so he should press as much flesh as possible. Barak, like Labor candidates traditionally, is treated with suspicion by poor Sephardim, but since these people voted overwhelmingly for Netanyahu in 1996 and have little to show for it, Barak thinks he can pull them his way, and he's reaching out to touch them.

The state comptroller's report, however, provided a much stronger shot in the arm for Barak, and a major embarrassment for the Likud. The phrase "Ehud Barak runs away" was a central motif in the Likud's campaign. At one recent gathering, Netanyahu mentioned the name "Barak," then prompted the crowd to call out, "ran away!" The chant "Ehud ran away" had become the signature taunt of pro-Netanyahu activists whenever Barak came to town.

No more. While Hanegbi stood by his accusations, and even called for Barak to resign from the campaign, the Likud issued a statement calling Hanegbi's remarks "inappropriate."

While Barak inches up and Netanyahu slips down, Center Party leader Yitzhak Mordechai is stuck where he's been all along -- the most popular candidate in any head-to-head race, but still a long shot to ever make it into the runoffs. Tsemach's poll found him beating Netanyahu, 50 percent to 37 percent, in a runoff, but finishing third and out of the money in the first round, with 17 percent to Barak's 31 percent and Netanyahu's 33 percent. (The first two finishers in the May 17 election will advance to the runoff on June 1.)

Faced with the necessity of pulling votes away from Barak if he hopes to make it into the runoff, Mordechai issued his first attacks on his Labor Party rival. Speaking before an impressive convention of thousands of Center Party supporters in Tel Aviv, Mordechai got everyone's attention when he said, "Ehud Barak is incapable of understanding the Eastern mentality."

This was unanimously viewed as a barely veiled attempt to attract Sephardic voters by reminding them that he, Mordechai, was Sephardic while Barak was Ashkenazic. But then, if Israel's first Sephardic candidate for prime minister can't play the "ethnic card," who can?

Meanwhile, the fourth candidate in the race, right-wing leader Benny Begin, hurt his reputation for spotless integrity by making Knesset Member Rehavam Ze'evi the number-two candidate on his ticket.

During the Shamir administration, Begin raised a vociferous moral argument against bringing Ze'evi into the Cabinet. Ze'evi, leader of the Moledet (Homeland) Party, favors solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict by forcing the 2.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza to emigrate.

In an interview a couple of years ago, Ze'evi called Martin Indyk, then-U.S. ambassador to Israel, a "Jewboy." When Indyk saw Ze'evi at a public function, the ambassador told the Knesset member that if it weren't for the constraints of diplomacy, he would "punch him in the nose." Ze'evi replied, "Try me, Jewboy." Indyk, now an assistant secretary of state, avoided an international incident by walking away.

Begin has no chance of being elected prime minister; he would do well to get more than 5 percent of the vote. But by being number two on Begin's list, Ze'evi is now virtually assured of being re-elected to the Knesset for his fourth term.

"Ehud ran away" probably won't be heard again, but Ze'evi definitely will be. Win one, lose one.

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