The announcement by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak that he will leave politics after Israel’s elections in January 2013 is being treated as a surprise by both Israeli and international media. Yet in reality, Barak’s departure--his second retirement, after losing the 2001 elections to Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party--is long overdue. He is among the last left-wing hawks in Israel, a species now as rare as the Blue Dog Democrats in the U.S.
Barak is the most decorated soldier in Israel’s storied military history. He guided Israel through both Gaza wars, and is considered the architect of Israel’s strategy against Iran. He is also a man of the left, a leader of the Labor Party during its late-1990s revival and a regular participant in the Socialist International.
That combination of hawkishness and leftism is increasingly rare in the west, but lasted in Israel due to unique circumstances. Those include the fact that Israeli politics has been dominated by left-wing movements since before the founding of the country, including the collective farms of the kibbutzim and a politically dominant trade union organization. In addition, Israel has always faced existential threats from its neighbors and from international terror, meaning that a strong defense policy had been the default for most mainstream political parties, left and right.
In the 1990s, Barak's Labor Party embraced negotiations with Israel’s enemies, convincing Israelis that it could “pursue peace as if there were no terrorism, and fight terrorism as if there is no peace process.” That policy faltered, due to persistent Palestinian terror and incitement, and the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli extremist in 1995. The policy returned with Barak’s election as prime minister in 1999.
Barak oversaw Israel’s ill-fated withdrawal from southern Lebanon. He also took great political risks in the hope of striking a deal with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, offering Palestinians a state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, and parts of East Jerusalem. But Arafat balked, and the Palestinian Authority launched a new round of terrorism with the second intifada in September 2011, which quickly escalated.
Despite the ongoing violence, Barak continued to try to reach an agreement in the last weeks of his government. But the Israeli voters who went to the polls in January 2001 were fed up with both Palestinian attacks and the Labor Party’s failed assurances. The Sharon government took the fight to Palestinian terror organizations and built a barrier, the so-called “wall,” in the West Bank that almost completely ended suicide bombings.
The Labor Party never regained its footing. Former general Amram Mitzna--like Barak, a left-wing hawk--ran against Sharon in 2003 on a platform of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon defeated him, then adopted his, pulling all soldiers and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. That led to a split in the Likud, to the formation of Sharon's Kadima Party--and, in the end, to more Palestinian terror in the form of rocket attacks by Hamas and others.
The Labor Party continued to fade, due to the failure of the peace process in which it had invested so heavily. The new Middle East that it promised to Israelis--one in which concessions to the Palestinians would eventually be rewarded--failed to appear. When Barak returned to politics in 2005, and to the Labor Party leadership in 2007, it was as a hawk promising better leadership on defense, not as a dove with a better peace plan.
Meanwhile, what was left of the Israeli left began to drift to the extreme. Both the Labor rank-and-file and the leadership of the centrist, post-Sharon Kadima Party opposition were tempted by the illusion that echoing some aspects of international pressure on the government would win them domestic leverage. Even Barak used--or, rather, misused--the epithet “apartheid” to warn Israelis about their future without a peace agreement.
But for Barak, the reality of Israel’s defense needs trumped the utopianism of his earlier political career. And when Labor left Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition in 2011, Barak was a man without a party, forming his own “Independence” list to keep his post. A leftist to the end, he refused to join the conservative Likud--and so he departs Israeli public life as the last Scoop Jackson, the last Joe Lieberman, the last hawk on the left.