Why Ehud Barak sees hope in Israeli unrest

Charles Krupa/AP/File
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, seen here at a 2016 lecture at Harvard University, helped shape the history of Israel.

Like so many long-distance relationships, this one had grown sporadic and virtual during the pandemic. So when Ehud and Nili Barak visited London from Israel in late March, it was a welcome opportunity to catch up at a little restaurant beside the Thames.

But Ehud and Nili aren’t just any Israelis. Ehud is the country’s most decorated soldier and a former prime minister. And this particular moment in time was like no other in Israel’s history. So “catching up” covered more than just life, work, and family. It took in what Israelis call the matzav – the situation – back home.

There, unprecedentedly large protests were forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition to postpone plans to gut the independent oversight role of the Supreme Court.

I didn’t cover Ehud Barak when I reported from the Middle East. But I helped him write a remarkable 2018 memoir – aptly called “My Country, My Life” because he has lived through, and helped shape, the entire history of Israel.

He’s also well placed to know what makes the current prime minister tick. Ehud had young Mr. Netanyahu under his special forces command a half-century ago. He outpolled Mr. Netanyahu to become prime minister. And he served later as defense minister in a Netanyahu-led coalition government.

The two men differ profoundly on many issues, including the need for a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. Ehud argues that permanent control over the West Bank will mean Israel either ceases to be a Jewish state or is no longer a democracy.

But the immediate threat to democracy, he is clear, comes from the Netanyahu government. He believes its proposed “judicial reform” would make Israel the kind of electoral autocracy that Viktor Orbán has created in Hungary.

Still, I was struck by the sense of optimism he has taken from the protests. Largely spontaneous, they have drawn newcomers to political engagement – young people, leaders of the technology sector, and members of elite military units. 

And the message he believes they have sent out is that the Netanyahu government’s “coup from above” will fail. Or, as he puts it, “Israel is not Hungary.”

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