Binyamin Netanyahu (left) is "a Titanic about to run into an iceberg," says Ehud Barak (right). Netanyahu photo by Peter Halmagyi
Just after dawn two years ago today, May 29, 1996, the all-night vote count finally tipped against Shimon Peres and for Binyamin Netanyahu, who would become the new prime minister. In the intervening two years, Peres was succeeded as head of the Labor Party by the slain Yitzhak Rabin's protegé, Ehud Barak. After a long stretch of running ahead of Netanyahu in the polls, Barak has now slipped behind.
Some of his more dovish party colleagues, like Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg, are openly saying he's leaving the field to Bibi, that as opposition leader he's not much of a leader at all. Two years into the Netanyahu era, Barak, a retired army chief of staff and the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, looks as though he might have been ambushed by the Peter Principle.
Not so, says the challenger, sounding confident, maybe over-confident. In a half-hour interview marking two years of the Netanyahu government, Barak says the grumbling being heard against him is nothing compared to the Rabin-Peres spats that went on while Labor was previously in the opposition, and even less compared to the abuse Netanyahu had to contend with in his party when the Likud was in the back benches.
"The opposition 'street' isn't dead, it's that our people keep saying it's dead, so the media writes it up that way," Barak said. Considering that Netanyahu has just come off the country's jubilee celebrations, which naturally reflects well on the prime minister, Barak says he's not doing badly.
Yet after floundering in front of the rest of the world, the peace process has not yet broken down in chaos and bloodshed. For most of the Israeli public, it's a matter of so far, so good, which is bad for Barak.
On the day of this interview, Barak had taken the unprecedented step of playing a little rougher. Barak had already said that the Labor Party would begin organizing more protests, demonstrating outside Netanyahu's home, stirring things up. "The moment of truth has arrived, and Netanyahu and his government must b e held accountable," Barak said, pointing to the all-but-official breakdown of the Oslo peace process.
But if the opposition's battle is nigh, why has it been so long in coming ? "You can't fight all-out all the time," he said. "The timing has to be right. If we organized one mass demonstration after another, and by the third time we got 10 percent of the crowd we had the first time, and people saw that despite all this the government was still standing, where would that get us?"
Between the rocky relations with the U.S., the increasing threat of Palestinian terror and the deteriorating economy, Barak says he believes Netanyahu is "a Titanic about to run into an iceberg."
"Whether it's an American withdrawal from the peace process, or, God forbid, a surge of terror, or a sharp economic downturn, I'm sure it's going to come," he continued. The job for the opposition now, he says, it to "pull off Netanyahu's mask."
The Labor leader complained that he has been beset by rumors passed by various politicos to an overeager press. Likewise with all the swirling rumors of an impending deal with Netanyahu for a national unity government that would give Barak the defense portfolio. "For now, it's not on the agenda," is all he will say.
What he will say is that he expects new elections within the next year. "And I will win."