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Barak’s Gambit

We’re not just talking politics here, but Israeli politics, where everything flies. Therefore it’s indeed too early to conclude that Netanyahu will end up with a narrow coalition. Noah was quick to announce that Netanyahu and Labor’s Ehud Barak have reportedly struck a deal to join forces. But there is more to the story. Netanyahu has offered Barak a good bargain, and is trying to convince other Labor leaders not to stand in the way of the deal. Barak would like to accept the extended hand, but he can’t. Not without his party’s approval. Barak is in a difficult spot, and has decided to gamble his way out it.

Netanyahu’s efforts to garner either Kadima’s or Labor’s support for his coalition are challenged by inverse dynamics on each front: in Kadima he finds a party receptive to coalition negotiations but headed by a leader that wants to hear none of it; in Labor he has a receptive leader but a reluctant party base. Barak is keeping the flame of unity alive with just a handful of Labor friends, while most Labor leaders have avowed to resist all temptations and boycott the coalition altogether. Their motives seem more political than ideological: Labor’s relevance in Israeli politics is rapidly eroding and most of its leaders believe seizing control of the opposition is the only way to boost their party’s standing.

But Barak himself wants to join Netanyahu. He may believe it would be best for the country, but he may also be motivated by personal incentives: he wants to serve as Defense Minister and has realized his long-term grip on Labor’s leadership is slipping, as are his prospects of ever ascending to the Prime Ministership again. Therefore, he is willing to compromise so long as he can keep Defense, regardless of the detrimental consequences to his party.

This is a risky move. Barak is trying to implement his plan by going above (or below) the heads of most other party leaders and turning to Labor’s Central Committee, through which he stands a better chance of garnering the approval he needs. Such a maneuver will translate into a fierce row with the next generation of party leaders. If Barak fails to pull this through, his chances for survival as party leader will take a further hit; it also means that Barak is willing to risk losing some friends on his thorny path to the coalition.

Of the two alternatives available to him, Barak chose bold confrontation. Since many of his friends were already starting to whisper about the “day after Barak,” he has decided to take this risk. After all, this has always been his style: high stakes and high risks. He figures it’s worth aiming high and either winning it all (Defense) or at least losing honorably for a worthy cause (unity government), instead of dragging his feet for another couple of months before slowly falling into obscurity.



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