Thursday, March 26, 2009

Israel has a government, finally

Thursday - Thank you, Ehud Barak


If Israel's 2008 campaign had been waged on the basis of whose slogan was closest to the truth, Labor's Ehud Barak would easily have captured a plurality of the Knesset - and not a miserable 13 seats. For his campaign accurately presented him as not "nice" or "likable" or "trendy," but the leader you turn to "at the moment of truth."

On Tuesday, Barak delivered. He persuaded party activists - 680 to 507 - to endorse the deal he had initialed earlier with Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu to bring Labor into the government.

Now, with parliamentary backing from Israel Beiteinu (15 seats), Shas (11) and Labor (13), and the likelihood that United Torah Judaism (5) will eventually shore up the government, Netanyahu has more than enough support in the 120-member Knesset to present his government next week.

FOLLOWING Labor's dismal performance in the February 10 elections, party leaders, with Barak in the forefront, argued that Labor needed to stay out of the new government and focus on rehabilitating itself in opposition - though who's to say the party would not have dissolved there, its members melting into Kadima or Meretz?

Partly for demographic and sociological reasons, Labor, once the country's vanguard party, has steadily lost its identity, and its constituency. Repeatedly serving as a junior partner in someone else's government, its mission became blurred.

Barak may indeed have a Napoleon complex. And it is easy for a jaded public to be cynical about the zigzagging leader's motivations. What matters at this stage, however, is that his joining the government is good for Israel.

At home, thanks to the strong support of Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini, Labor's participation gives voice, at least nominally, to working people at a time of unprecedented economic dislocation. Abroad, it dramatically improves how the country is perceived in Washington and Europe, and partially ameliorates Netanyahu's injudicious, if unavoidable, appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.

When Kadima rejected joining forces with Likud because Netanyahu would not agree to a power-sharing rotation government, he was forced to cobble together a parliamentary coalition that was unpalatable, both in terms of internal cohesion and external appearance. It would have consisted of Shas, Israel Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi (which garnered less than three percent of the popular vote), the National Union (just over three percent) and United Torah Judaism (four percent).

Clearly, such a government could neither have represented the will of Israel's body politic within government nor, beyond our shores, the country's true ethos.

Barak is picking up Livni's slack. Whatever his impetus, he is right that Israelis have no "spare" country to play politics with while economic, diplomatic and security crises of immense proportions loom.

For all his quirks, Barak is known abroad as a tough man who knows how to compromise. When he says he won't be a "fig-leaf" for Israeli foot-dragging if the Palestinians start singing a different tune, world leaders will be inclined to believe him.

WE WERE struck by a particularly tendentious "question" posed to President Barack Obama in his Tuesday primetime news conference, primarily devoted to domestic issues. It offers insight into what Israel is up against.

Stefan Collison of Agence France-Presse: "Mr. President, you came to office pledging to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. How realistic do you think those hopes are now, given the likelihood of a prime minister who is not fully signed up to a two-state solution and a foreign minister who has been accused of insulting Arabs?"

Obama answered, reasonably, that "We don't yet know what the Israeli government is going to look like, and we don't yet know what the future shape of Palestinian leadership is going to be comprised of." But he would keep trying to bring the sides closer, he said.

Israel's adversaries want the focus to be on the "occupation" and, now, the new government's supposed rejection of a two-state solution.

It would have been far better to have Livni in the government telling the world about everything she and Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians, that they rejected. But Barak's joining is the next best thing.

Now, maybe, some of the spotlight will shift to where it belongs - on Palestinian intransigence.

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