Leader of the newly-established Israel Democratic Party (Yisrael Demokratit), Ehud Barak, has apologised for the killing of 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel during his tenure as Israeli prime minister.
Speaking on Israeli Public Radio today, Barak said that he “take[s] responsibility for what happened during [his] tenure as prime minister, including the October events,” referring to the killing of 12 Arab-Israeli protesters by Israeli forces.
Another Palestinian was killed in the Gaza Strip and scores were wounded in what became a seminal moment in the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising across the territories which took place between September 2000 and early 2005.
“There is no place for protesters to be killed by their country’s security forces,” Barak continued, adding: “I am expressing my regret and apology before the families and before Israeli society.”
Barak also acknowledged comments made by Esawi Freige, an Arab-Israeli Knesset Member (MK) with left-wing party Meretz, who earlier this month called on the former prime minister to pull out of September’s election race in light of the killings.
Freige added that his party would reject any agreement with Barak’s Israel Democratic Party over the killings, saying: “Do us a favour. Save your apology. Return to your luxury towers and let us do the work, don’t get in our way. The Arabs don’t want to be a fig leaf and a lifesaver. We want to be partners.”
Responding to these comments today, Barak said that “[Freige] wrote important words that come from a place of pain. These things should never happen, not then and not today. I am not evading responsibility over events from the past, but I believe I can be part of the solution.”
Barak’s comments will likely be seen as a bid to reach out to Meretz ahead of the 1 August deadline to declare party slates for the 17 September general election.
Though, following the formation of the Israel Democratic Party in June, talk quickly emerged of a broad left-wing merger which would comprise Barak’s party, Meretz and the Israeli Labor Party, these hopes were dashed this week when the Labor party’s recently-elected chairman, Amir Peretz, announced his party would merge with Gesher.
Gesher is headed by Orly Levy-Abekasis, a former MK with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. She left the party in 2016 over Yisrael Beiteinu’s entry into government, saying it had abandoned its social platform during negotiations. She has since been serving as an independent MK.
Meretz was reportedly outraged at the move, saying in a statement that “Amir Peretz is repeating [former Labor leader] Avi Gabbay’s mistake and is destroying the chances of unions in the left bloc. Instead of a large union, he chose a small defence.”
With both Barak’s Democratic party and Meretz teetering near the minimum 3.25 per cent electoral threshold needed to sit in the Knesset, both risk political extinction if they waste crucial left-wing votes.
Meretz relied heavily on Palestinian citizens of Israel’s votes in the April election; how the 1.8-million-strong community will respond, both to Barak’s apology and to Meretz’s potential merger with the former prime minister’s party, is as yet unclear.
Barak’s apology is also likely an attempt to deflect attention away from the scandal surrounding his association with Jeffrey Epstein, a US billionaire who was this month arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking underage girls.
In an affair that has marred his political comeback, Barak was revealed to have held a multi-million-dollar business partnership with Epstein as recently as 2015. Just days after details of the partnership emerged, Barak announced that, in light of the accusations made against Epstein, he had instructed his lawyers to look into breaking off the association.
Barak has also threatened to sue British newspaper the Daily Mail for publishing photos of him entering Epstein’s New York mansion alongside photos of young women the paper claimed he had entered the property on the same day.
These revelations left Barak reeling, particularly given the huge pressure applied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called for his election rival to be “investigated immediately” over his ties to the US billionaire. Netanyahu will likely use Barak’s apology as another opportunity to attack his long-time rival, trying to discredit any opposition figure as too weak to be prime minister.