January 8, 2009 | 2:13 pm
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
A few weeks ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was considered a dead man walking in Israeli politics. Members of his Labor Party were plotting to replace him after elections on Feb. 10, if not before. Under his leadership, the storied party of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir had sunk so low in the polls that there was serious talk it might disappear.
No one is talking like that now. Twelve days into a punishing war that he is leading against Hamas in Gaza, Labor’s poll numbers are spiking. Mr. Barak is everywhere, in sunglasses and leather jacket, striding among his military commanders, talking strategy, calculating the next move.
“The respect I get when I go into schools since the war is amazing, and it is all about Barak,” remarked Daniel Ben-Simon, a Labor Party candidate for Parliament. “Israel’s MacArthur is back.”
There is, however, much irony — and uncertainty — in this political upheaval. Although Mr. Barak has gained from the war, he was opposed to it for far longer than any of the other top leaders and has been the most eager of them for a cease-fire since it began. Many abroad recall Mr. Barak as the prime minister who in 2000 went further than any Israeli leader in peace offers to the Palestinians, only to see the deal fail and explode in a violent Palestinian uprising that drove him from power.
If the current war goes on for long and kills many young Israeli men on the battlefield — so far casualties have been few and his shock-and-awe approach of the first days has been widely admired in Israel — Mr. Barak’s gains may again disappear. But his caution has gained him renewed support from the left.
Furious and frightened after thousands of projectiles had rained down on the south over several years, Israelis yearned for a traditional Zionist warrior to rally around and send a harsh message to Hamas. For months, Mr. Barak, the natural candidate for that warrior role, declined.
At 66, Mr. Barak is the country’s most decorated soldier, famous for having foiled an airplane hijacking years ago while disguised in a mechanic’s uniform and for leading a revenge killing operation against Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon while dressed as a woman. A skilled pianist famed for a steel-trap mind, he has also been the military chief of staff.
But he never took Hamas as seriously as many others, considering it a relatively small strategic challenge whose rockets and arms buildup could be tolerated for a while to allow bigger problems to be handled.
“His eyes are focused on Iran,” noted Gilead Sher, who was his chief of staff when he was prime minister a decade ago. “Hamas and Hezbollah largely worry him in relation to Iran.”
This, too, is an irony of Mr. Barak’s renewed popularity from the war, because his failure to grasp how average Israelis viewed the rockets is part of a larger political failure on his part. He lacks the kind of easy direct contact with the public that makes for a successful political leader.
In fact, only days before beginning the war, Mr. Barak was berated at an internal Labor Party meeting over his lack of response to the rockets.
“Members were asking aloud what had happened to him, whether he had lost it,” a party member who was present recalled. “One member, a minister, said, ‘I’m embarrassed to walk in the street and hear people talk about you as a big nothing. I get text messages from my cousins in the south asking what’s going on. Why aren’t we attacking?’ ”
Mr. Barak, the party member said, flew into a rage, saying he had seen more blood than anyone in the room, that he had witnessed things so horrible they would faint just hearing of them, that he would not be lectured to on the need to be tough.
At that time, Labor was polling about 8 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, with the opposition Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, at 30 and the centrist Kadima, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in the mid-20s. Today polls show Labor around 16 to 18; some are fantasizing about squeezing past Kadima for second place.
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