Former PM Barak, others join forces before Israeli elections

JERUSALEM (AP) — A trio of forces on the Israeli left — including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — united on Thursday ahead of the country’s upcoming elections, looking to pose a powerful contrast to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative ruling Likud party.

The newly formed “Democratic Union” said in a joint statement it would be made up of Barak’s “Democratic Israel” faction, the dovish Meretz party and senior Labor Party official Stav Shaffir.

With just a week left to present the final lists for the September balloting, all sides were concerned they might not get enough votes by themselves to cross the electoral threshold.

The move comes amid a flurry of machinations ahead of the “do-over” election in September, after Netanyahu failed to form a parliamentary majority following his victory in April’s vote. To avoid giving his opponents a chance to build an alternative government, he dissolved parliament and forced an unprecedented new election campaign.

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Netanyahu’s various rivals have been seeking to seize on the rare opportunity to unseat him by putting their own differences aside. Barak, who in 1999 became prime minister by becoming the only person to date to defeat Netanyahu in a head-on showdown, dramatically came out of retirement last month with the stated ambition of toppling Netanyahu again by helping opposition forces create a large enough bloc to unseat Likud.

However, his new faction has so far failed to make much of a splash in the polls. The former military chief’s main contribution seemed to be getting under the skin of Netanyahu and his family. Though Barak is headlining the maneuver, the 77-year-old will not lead the new list and does not appear to be a candidate to replace Netanyahu himself.

The joint list will be headed by Nitzan Horowitz, the newly elected, openly gay leader of Meretz. Shaffir, a rising star in Labor, bolted from the venerable party to be second on the new list, while Barak will be placed in the tenth slot.

At a press conference in Tel Aviv with Shaffir and Barak, Horowitz said the party aimed to “create significant political power the likes of which the left hasn’t seen in years.” The three leaders all spoke of “regime change” and ousting Netanyahu from office.

With Labor announcing a joint run focused on social and economic issues with the small Gesher party, “Democratic Israel” looks to have seized the mantle of peacemaking with the Palestinians and is poised to reintroduce an agenda that has long been missing from the Israeli political discourse.

Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg, a former party leader, called the new alliance a “dramatic move to strengthen the left” and a “significant boost to justice and equality as an alternative to the corrupt and messianic right.”

The move appeared to be facilitated by Barak’s apology earlier this week for the killing of 13 Arab protesters by Israeli police in 2000 while he was prime minister. Meretz relies heavily on support among Israel’s Arab minority and one of their prominent Arab lawmakers had called on Barak to apologize.

Since his return to politics, Barak has also been under fire for his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier jailed on sex-trafficking charges. Barak received some $2 million in grants last decade from the Wexner Foundation, of which Epstein was a trustee, and Epstein had also invested in a start-up company founded by Barak. The former prime minister has denounced Epstein and says he has “cut all ties” to him.

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