Grinning through each reversal, the ever-bumbling, deeply unpopular Ehud Barak maneuvers to remain a political force in Israel and its leading voice to the West
Perhaps the greatest mark of Barak’s influence behind closed doors is the fact that his positions about major security and diplomatic questions are hard to pin down. In public, especially in the United States, he pays lip service to ideas considered “correct” in the eyes of the international community, like peace with Syria and the pressing need for a Palestinian state. But when Moshe Ya’alon, a member of the prime minister’s inner Cabinet, said recently that not one of Netanyahu’s top seven ministers believed there was a chance of achieving peace with the Palestinians, Barak didn’t bother to protest. When faced with important dilemmas, such as whether to continue the attack on Hamas during Cast Lead, Barak comes off as a moderate, preventing Israel from going too far. Yet when it comes to a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, Barak—who frequently asserts that “all options should remain open”—is considered a hawk, like his boss.
Given all of this—not least of all his flourishing relationship with Netanyahu—Barak should be enjoying the unparalleled respect of his peers and adoration of at least some part of the Israeli public. But he has managed again to sabotage himself. Late last year, Barak—long known as “Mr. Defense”—undermined his own public authority on military matters by engaging in a drawn-out and sordid quarrel with Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the IDF. The relationship, by all accounts, began swimmingly. Ashkenazi had been appointed to his job three months before Barak’s comeback and gradually attained huge credit in Israeli public opinion for presumably fixing what was wrong with the army after its failure in Lebanon. And, for once, Barak did not try to interfere. They met for dinners with their wives, and their relationship was portrayed by the press as being warm and supportive. They reportedly combined to produce what became known as the “Barak-Ashkenazi doctrine” of limited warfare with the goal of strengthening Israel’s deterrence, which would shape Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, against the more maximalist goals of Olmert and Southern Command chief Yoav Galant.
But in the aftermath of the war in Gaza, which was widely seen in Israel as a success, an ugly battle erupted between the two men over who deserved credit for their joint doctrine. Ashkenazi’s cronies began leaking unflattering stories about Barak to reporters, and Barak lost his composure. Instead of taking the advice of his aides, who suggested that Barak “hug” the chief of staff—i.e., keep his popular enemy close—the defense minister chose instead to publicly alienate Ashkenazi. The ensuing bickering struck many Israelis as unprofessional and absurd. To take only the most ridiculous example, the men began fighting over Barak’s tendency for tardiness. “I understand that party matters come first,” the major general sniped sarcastically, according to a source, while impatiently waiting for Barak to start a regular Thursday morning meeting regarding the army’s confidential operations. In turn, Barak began to deliberately postpone approval for the chief of staff’s meetings with other ministers and foreign visitors. When journalists asked the defense minister why he insisted on humiliating the chief of staff, Barak retorted: “Gabi is too sensitive.” Then, a week after Barak appointed a new media adviser, a photograph was distributed to the press; in it, an assertive Barak is seen briefing a division commander while Ashkenazi, looking exhausted and unkempt, watches from behind. The morning after, Ashkenazi barged into the adviser’s office and threw the newspaper on his desk. “Don’t think I don’t understand what you’re trying to do,” he shouted.
The sparring between the two men has only gotten worse, as plans got under way to pick Ashkenazi’s successor. Each IDF chief’s term lasts four years, and Ashkenazi’s will end in February 2011. Once his final year began, Ashkenazi hinted to his friends that he might be interested in an extension for a fifth year, but Barak refused. Instead, the defense minister’s advisers indicated that he was considering the appointment of General Galant—a man despised by Ashkenazi. In August, the media got hold of what soon became known as the “Galant Document”—an informal summary of an intended smear campaign against Ashkenazi and Galant’s rivals for his job. Ashkenazi declaimed his outrage. But a police investigation revealed that an Ashkenazi crony had forged the document—and the chief’s own office had leaked it. Ashkenazi, of course, denied he was in on the scheme, a protestation that Barak does not believe. And yet Israeli public opinion sees it differently, blaming Barak for airing the army’s dirty laundry and humiliating Ashkenazi. And one thing is clear: The two most senior men in Israel’s defense administration have lately been busier plotting against each other than preparing for possible fights with Iran or Hezbollah.
The quarrel with Ashkenazi came at a bad time for Barak. The police are investigating the Philippine worker scandal, while the comptroller has been looking into other affairs, among them Mrs. Barak-Priel’s attempt at opening a public relations company that relied heavily on her husband’s connections. The worst scandal came in October 2009, when the comptroller published a lethal report on the lavish spending of Barak’s entourage during a visit to the Paris Air Show in June of that year. The day the report was published, Barak happened to be visiting Poland. He was photographed in Warsaw wearing an expensive, if outdated, fedora. Ever since, when the press wants to portray Barak as disconnected and uninterested in his voters—which these days is quite often—it uses the fedora picture.
Though Barak should probably take most of the blame for his public image, he might be right in assuming that Israeli media has judged him harshly. At least some of the attacks against him seem motivated by his political alliance with Netanyahu, whose actions are in turn likely to determine Barak’s political future. If Netanyahu is heading toward an eventual attempt at a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as some still presume, the political verdict against Barak might be delayed. Indeed, whenever Barak is asked about the public’s contempt, he answers that bigger, more important issues are at stake, quipping that the future of the state of Israel should not be decided as if it was the fate of a contestant in a reality TV show. It seems likely that if Netanyahu would promise Barak the defense portfolio in his next government, Barak might join as an independent “professional” committed to the greater good of Israel—just as he has now abandoned the sinking Labor Party ship without looking back.
In the meantime, Israel’s Mr. Unpopularity continues to serve his country in his own inimitable way. In a radio interview a few weeks ago, Barak boasted of his survival skills, with his typical combination of confidence and deafness. “Look at all these politicians who hoped to eulogize me,” he said. “Where are they now?”
Amos Harel is the defense analyst for Haaretz. Avi Issacharoff is the newspaper’s Arab affairs correspondent. They blog at MESS Report, on Haaretz.com.
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