Strange bedfellows

bibi-barakBinyamin Netanyahu’s improbable courtship of Ehud Barak is proving the popular saying of American essayist Charles Dudley Warner that “politics makes strange bedfellows.”

How ironic it is that Barak, who defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 elections and reversed his policies, is now lining up behind the Likud leader. How ironic it is that Netanyahu, whose “concerned citizen” speech helped unravel Barak’s government as the second intifada took hold, is now carrying a torch for Barak’s views on national security.

In trying to explain this unlikely love affair, some commentators have suggested that the two men, who share a well-known history of competition dating back to their time in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaisance unit, have come to understand one another.

Naivete aside, though, this alliance is clearly about political survival. It recalls another quote, this one from Napoleon Bonaparte: “Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.” Well then, what do these men fear? Being out of power, being irrelevant. And what is their self interest? Remaining in power, remaining relevant.

Without joining forces, they both risk stinging defeats that neither man can accept. If Netanyahu’s narrow coalition fails to hold, his grip on the premiership will slip. If Barak heads a weakling Labor in the opposition, he will not only lose the Defense Ministry but he will lose his status as “Mr. Security.” Social affairs was never his strong suit, so he will quickly fade within his party and be replaced by a younger candidate with much stronger welfare state credentials.

Now, there is nothing unusual about politicians jettisoning political principles for political expediency. What is particularly galling about the embrace between these two men, however, is this: We just had an election, and Likud and Labor were at opposite ends of it. They have changed their tune from “Not him, but me” to “Well, hey, how about us, together?”

As much as both men are trying to sell this move as a necessary step in extraordinary times, it doesn’t wash. There has been no new event from the period of the campaign until now that justifies totally abandonding the decision of the electorate. There has been no 9/11, for example, to wipe out distinctions between one Zionist party and the other. There is only this: an inconclusive election result, leaving little room for indecisive leaders to maneuver.

Actually, I use the word “leaders” loosely. Both Netanyahu and Barak ran on the vague cache of their personal experience and charisma; their campaigns conspicuously lacked a clear articulation of the men’s vision for this country and their plan for moving it toward that vision. It was one of the most disappointing aspects of the election.

Following the muddled and ineffective government of Ehud Olmert, this country desperately needs someone who is willing to stand up and declare, “This is my goal, and this is my path. Follow me!” You know, the kind of thing you would expect from someone who had grown up in Sayeret Matkal.

Instead of leading, though, Netanyahu and Barak are trying to merely inherit power. They have traded courage for conniving.

The less likely it becomes that Netanyahu will be able to cobble together a coalition under the current circumstances, the more it becomes necessary to consider the possibility of a new election. And this time, let us put the leaders of the four largest parties — Tzipi Livni of Kadima, Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu and Barak — in front of a camera, and let us make them tell us, as clearly as can be, what it is they want to do for us and for this country. Then let us decide.

…And when we do, let us also remember another one of Napoleon’s gems: “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.”

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