He thought the protests would lead him back to the Prime Ministers office
Ehud Barak is a central figure in the protest movement against judicial reform. If you have been following the media, you may get the impression that although he is adamantly against Netanyahu and judicial reform, he is merely providing commentary and interpreting events. The reality is the opposite. Do not be deceived by his age or because he is a former prime minister and supposed elder statesman. At 81 years old, Barak is one of the main architects behind the current mass demonstrations. Yet, his involvement goes deeper. Barak is not only orchestrating today’s mass demonstrations, he has been integral in forming the anti-Bibi movement over the past seven years.
Bodies floating in the Yarkon River
Recently, a chilling video of a Zoom conversation was circulated in which Barak describes a scenario of how he will return to power. He mentions that he has a friend, a historian, who told to him that he will become Prime Minister again when there are “bodies floating in the Yarkon river” of Jews murdered in a civil war. Barak immediately said that this should never happen. Yet, that he would mention such a grotesque idea, a truly horrifying scenario is disturbing. Moreover, this comment was made to a forum whose whole raison d’être is to get rid of Netanyahu and explore ideas on how to implement such a plan. Perhaps this was a slip of the tongue, or maybe it was said by someone whose purpose in orchestrating these protests is about his own return to power.
Nonetheless, the Zoom conversation video containing the “bodies in the Yarkon river” comment actually occurred in 2020 during the Corona pandemic, years before judicial reform became a legislative issue. Meaning, the notion that it is specifically judicial reform that is bothering Barak, or the people he is guiding, is bogus. And the fact that Barak was having conversations with those who raised the idea of mass civil disobedience only serves to reinforce Barak’s role in guiding these protests.
However, if this is the case, how did Barak go from being Bibi’s loyal coalition partner, his defense minister through difficult years with Obama, to suddenly becoming a sworn enemy?
Barak was a loyal partner to Netanyahu
Ehud Barak retired from political life in 2001 after being defeated in a landslide victory by Likud’s Ariel Sharon. He made his first political comeback in 2006 when he served as Minister of Defense in the Olmert government (2006-2009) and continued in this position in the Netanyahu government until 2013.
He was a full policy partner under Netanyahu, including during difficult times of confrontation with Obama, and provided the Likud government with broad legitimacy as a coalition partner coming from the center-left. Thanks to Barak, the second Netanyahu government (2009-2013) enjoyed a coalition majority of 74 MKs when it was founded. Even when the Labor Party withdrew from the government, reducing the coalition to 66 MKs, Barak remained loyal to Netanyahu. He split from Labor and formed the Independence Party and thus remained a coalition partner. He paid a high price for it and had to retire from political life ahead of the next election. It is hard to believe that this is the same Barak, now a bitter opponent of Netanyahu.
After leaving the Ministry of Defense in March 2013, Barak disappeared from political life and thus ended the era of his first political comeback. A look at his Twitter page shows that during his time under Netanyahu, his tweets were in line with a Defense Minister supporting the current government coalition. His last tweet is from January 2013 about a speech at the economic conference in Davos, and then nothing for three years.
Barak praises Bibi on his 63rd birthday in 2013
Barak’s second political comeback
In the spring of 2016, Barak suddenly returned with a vengeance. His first tweet on May 21 references an interview he gave to Channel 10 the previous day, in which he said, that “Zionism, which desires life, and the buds of fascism, as you see now in the Israeli government, cannot live together.”
After that, the blitz begins. A month later, in a speech at the Herzliya conference (an annual summit held to discuss matters of national security and policy) on June 17, Barak explains that “the government must come to its senses, if it does not do so, we will all have to get up from our comfortable and less comfortable seats and overthrow it, through a popular protest.” The following day he claimed in a televised interview that “Netanyahu understands that the countdown to the end of his reign has begun.” Two months later, on August 18, at the Darkeinu conference, he warned that “pessimism, passivity, anxiety and helplessness – are not a good recipe for responsible and reasonable management of a country.”
There is one central message that runs through all of his tweets, speeches and media appearances in the period immediately after his return to public life: the government is not legitimate, being a coalition partner in that government is illegitimate, and the only proper course of action is to topple it through a popular protest.
These are Barak’s words at the Herzliya conference, pay attention to the recurring motifs that he still talks about today:
“We have been led for more than a year by a prime minister and a government that is weak, limp and all talk, even according to senior members of its coalition, deceitful and extremist, that fails repeatedly, in guaranteeing security, undermining the fabric of democracy in Israel, failing in managing diplomatic relations with the United States and in stabilizing Israel’s position in the world… Here, I call on the government to come to its senses and immediately get back on track. If you don’t do that, we will all have to get up from our comfortable and less comfortable seats – and overthrow it, through a popular protest and through the voter’s ballot – before it’s too late.”
These are the components of Ehud Barak’s second political comeback: de-legitimization of the government, a deep animus towards Bibi and therefore the slogan ‘anything-but-Bibi’, and mass demonstrations.
Barak’s old friend returns to public life
As Barak is returning to public life, his friend also suddenly re-enters public life. Eldad Yaniv, a former member of Barak’s election campaign for Prime Minister in 1999, which was managed through two straw NGOs that were later at the center of a police investigation, suddenly begins organizing demonstrations. The first was in Petah Tivka, in front of Avichai Mandelblit’s house, the legal adviser to the government. The next one is in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem. From anti-Bibi protests in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem seven years ago, the anti-Bibi movement has expanded to the “crime minister” demonstrations, the slogan of “anything-but-Bibi” which has come to define the rallying cry of the Israeli left, and now the massive anti-judicial reform Tel-Aviv demonstrations on Kaplan Street.
One may ask: What happened in the spring of 2016? What happened then that brought Barak out of his silence and created the conditions for a new political era?
Lieberman spoils the party for Barak
There were two major events that occurred in the Spring of 2016. The first was political, involving Prime Minister Netanyahu and Labor Party Head Isaac Herzog. The fourth Netanyahu government that was sworn in in 2015 was the closest thing to a “complete right-wing” government. Although Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party was Left-leaning, it was also considered a moderate wing of the Likud.
The government was formed with a slim majority of 61 mandates, and Netanyahu sought to expand his coalition. In the spring of 2016, talks were held with then-Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, who was promised the position of Minister of Defense. The talks were unsuccessful and Herzog described in retrospect in private conservations that he was interested in a unity government but was pressured by the radical wing of the Labor Party to forego the offer. When the talks failed, Netanyahu offered the position to MK Avigdor Lieberman.
The second event was a judicial one involving Ela’or Azaria affair, an IDF combat soldier who was charged with manslaughter for killing a wounded terrorist. This issue dominated the public agenda at the time since many thought that Azaria should not have been charged with any crime. It also created a political crisis with Defense Minister Ya’alon resigned from the Knesset and was later replaced by Avigdor Lieberman, who was considered an extreme rightist and a fascist. Lieberman’s entry into the coalition increased the coalition to a solid majority of 66 members. With Yaalon out, and Lieberman in, there was a feeling amongst the opposition that the government was radical, problematic, and dangerous.
I have no evidence of this, but we can assume that Barak and his cohorts were among the “radical elements” who put pressure on Herzog to refuse the requests for forming a unity government with Netanyahu. The assumption was Herzog’s refusal would hasten the collapse of the government, which was hanging by a narrow majority of 61 seats (the minimum requirement to form a government) and unstable. This would provide Barak with his opportunity to become a major player again in Israeli politics. However, Lieberman’s entry spoiled the party. The government was now stable, though, in Barak’s view, it was a “fascist government.”
This is where the next element comes in – the criminal investigations of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Criminal investigations against Netanyahu – Barak sees an opportunity
We know today that at the same time of the aforementioned political crisis in early 2016, the investigations against Netanyahu (the criminal allegations accusing him of various financial crimes and breaches of trust) began to take shape. At the time, Avichai Mandelblit, legal adviser to the Government, and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, were both relatively new to their positions. Both were considered “Netanyahu’s” people and yet mysteriously both, who were to have key roles in the investigations against Netanyahu, suddenly became seemingly hostile to Bibi. It’s hard to label this sequence of events as mere coincidence.
Four criminal investigations had been launched against Netanyahu.
Case 1000: Netanyahu was accused of accepting bribes and the details were well known by the end of 2016.
Case 2000: Netanyahu was accused of making illicit deals with the owner of Yediot Acharonot newspaper, Nuni Moses in return for favorable coverage. The intensive leaks from the Bibi-Nuni tapes became a household item by the beginning of 2017.
Case 3000: Hatched through journalist Raviv Drucker’s investigations, that were broadcast in the fall of 2016, this focused on potential crimes committed when Israel bought submarines from Germany. The case was closed in 2018.
Case 4000: This was added in 2017, when Netanyahu was accused of providing regulatory benefits to Sha’ul Alovich, head of communications conglomerate Bezek, in return for favorable coverage on the major Israeli news site Walla.
These four cases formed the case against Bibi and formed the mantra of the new protest era: bribery, deception, and breach of trust. This has been the rallying cry for the protest movement against Netanyahu until the current judicial reform protests. This protest movement, beginning almost seven years ago, was the wave Barak rode hoping it would carry back him to the Prime Minister’s office.
But he didn’t only ride the wave. I believe Barak had a central role in taking three major events, the Netanyahu investigations, the protest movement, and the political boycott against the right and was instrumental in shaping their framework for the last seven years.
Since then Barak has been briefing, advising, and spearheading the demonstrations, directing their every move. The protestors were always looking for an opportunity through which public opinion could be mobilized and the government toppled. Initially, they focused on investigations and corruption, on exerting pressure on Mandelblit and calls for Netanyahu to resign due to the suspicions, within the framework of the Black Flags movement, the Crime Minister smear campaign, and the protests outside of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem. During the Corona period, the movement mutated into protests against the “dictatorship” that Netanyahu was establishing through the emergency measures during the Pandemic.
With the establishment of the current government, the major issue on the agenda is judicial reform, and it seems that the protest around this issue succeeded in reaching wide and significant audiences.
It should be noted, however, that Barak’s initial critique against Netanyahu in 2016 was actually regarding the creation of a Palestinian state. In his first speech back in the public eye in 2016, at the Herzliya conference, he said: “What is really the priority of Netanyahu and his government today is not Israel’s security, and it is not the preservation of democracy, but the creeping and insidious promotion… of the ‘one country’ agenda from the Jordan to the sea.” Nice to know Barak’s real agenda.
Barak settles into his new role
Barak’s failed run for the Israeli parliament in the 2019 elections finally convinced him that his talent was best used to lead protests on the ground. Those who follow his activity in Zoom calls, interviews, and tweets can notice his pattern of action. Barak openly admits that he connects protestors with funding and assists in resource mobilization. He describes methods of action of exerting pressure on Mandelblit, on the courts and on the entire political system. He sees the protest as the most important movement of the last generation. I brought examples of this in my podcast ‘Useful Idiots‘.
The founder of the 555 Pilots Forum testified, for example, that Barak advised him: “You are a strong role model in Israeli society, you need to find a group among you that is ready to carry out protest actions on the border of legality that will attract public attention and ignite a wave of mass demonstrations.” The Air Force ignited that wave when many of its pilots refused to show up for reserve duty in protest of the judicial reform. Barak himself said on Zoom with the same forum that although he is not funding the protest from his own pocket, he is doing everything he can “including helping to raise funds so that this protest will succeed”.
And this is how he sums up his activities: “The protest is the only real thing happening today. Without it, nothing would have happened here. Without it, indictments would not have been filed. Without the protest, [Gideon]Sa’ar’s party (New Hope) would not have been established. Without it, the court would not have shown the first signs of independence. I think that the protest is the most exciting thing that has happened to me.”
Barak understands aggressive activism and using the public presence on the streets. This was the essence of the NGO affair in the 1999 elections. It created extensive activity, seemingly sporadic and unorganized, of young people who demonstrated at intersections, attended rallies, distributed propaganda, and the like. The presence on the ground and the activity in the streets was the public atmosphere, which caused Barak to be elected Prime Minister. He is using the same tactics today, in the ninth decade of his life, and Israel is on fire. Barak couldn’t be happier.