In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress of having a belief that runs counter to existing facts and information. Rather than change beliefs based on facts, you ignore or dismiss the facts and keep the beliefs. This phenomenon is crucial in understanding the attitude and opinion that many in Israel’s center-left political camp have of Ehud Barak. Labor MK and former close associate of Barak, Eitan Cabal, manifested this phenomenon perfectly when he wrote on Facebook that he agreed with every word Barak said about Netanyahu at the recent Herzliya Conference, but attacked Barak for his “podium commentary” and for his past political deeds. To both fully agree with Barak’s statements and then dismiss them without a second thought is irrational.
Cabal is not alone in his treatment of Barak; many people support Barak’s stated vision of the country and policy prescriptions, and would love to see Netanyahu replaced by a center-left political leader, but have a hard time taking the rational next step of expressing support for Barak or even his ideas. That is to say, people’s feelings towards Barak are so negative that they are prepared to make decisions that are against their own interest. Why?
One of the most recent complaints about Barak, echoed by Cabal in his recent Facebook post, is that Barak divided the Labor party. While it is technically true, consider the context in which Barak chose to leave Labor to form the Independence faction.
Barak won the leadership election of the Labor party in 2007. After the 2009 Israel elections, Barak, with the support of the Histadrut labor federation, won a vote within the Labor central committee to join Netanyahu’s government. Despite this, many in the Labor party, including Cabal, rejected the outcome of the decision and tried desperately to get a third of the Labor MKs to split the party. In 2011, Barak, recognizing the dysfunctionality of the public rebellion, decided to take the initiative himself and leave Labor to start a new faction with the MKs who still supported his leadership.
Given that the 2011 leadership race following his departure rejuvenated the Labor party, increasing its membership and increasing its share of the votes in the subsequent election, Barak can hardly be accused of damaging the party. If anything his move had the opposite effect. Barak’s decision to leave the party was precisely what those attacking him now (and at the time) wanted and it served their interests as much as Barak’s, which was to remain an influential and moderating force within the government.
The other common criticism against Barak from the Left is that following the 2000 Camp David talks led by President Clinton, Barak famously said we don’t have a partner for peace, which allegedly “broke the peace camp.” Barak had everything to gain if Arafat had agreed to the peace offer on the table. He would have claimed a glorious victory in a transformative diplomatic agreement, likely received a Nobel Peace Prize, and Israel would have witnessed the new dawn that he spoke about in his 1999 election victory speech.
Despite the failure of Camp David to bring about an agreement, Barak and Arafat continued to negotiate, including at Barak’s residence for dinner on September 25, 2000, days before the Second Intifada broke out. Afterwards, on October 7, 2000, when the violence started, Barak said in a statement that Israel was “witnessing an acute and violent escalation in our relations with the Palestinians,” blaming Arafat for not stopping the violence. He went on to say “today, the picture that is emerging, is that there is apparently no partner for peace.” Barak described this realization as a “painful truth,” but Barak’s use of the qualifier “today” was intended to indicate a temporary situation which needed to be overcome, not a permanent condition. Affirming this, he went on to say “our peace efforts have not weakened us, but rather strengthened our internal unity… We must not lose hope.”
The apparent lack of a partner was a genuine realization Barak came to based on the situation at the time. Today, 16 years later, it is childish and vindictive to blame Barak for that observation.
The situation today in the region may be different, but Barak’s courage, vision and leadership remain steadfast. Barak talks today of an opportunity to improve Israel and its relationship with the Arab world, and he has the ideas, skills, and credentials to lead Israel. One should not give in to cognitive dissonance and let old beliefs, as deep and emotional as they are, to interfere with new facts, opportunity, and hope.
The author worked in the Knesset as a foreign policy adviser and holds a master’s degree in diplomacy and conflict resolution from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.