Despite his frequent flights to Washington, D.C., Defense Minister Ehud Barak
seems to be out of step politically with his American hosts.
after he declared that Syrian President Bashar Assad (personally) will have to
step down because of the ongoing revolt against his regime, but that his regime
can remain in power, the US State Department said the incumbent Syrian regime
would have to go too.
In an interview with CNN in Washington, Barak
advocated strong (presumably military) action to stop Iran from obtaining a
nuclear arms capability. However, the Obama administration appears to prefer a
diplomatic solution to this problem.
Barak also is believed to be at
loggerheads with the highest echelon of Israel’s military establishment – the
general staff. This was described in astonishing detail by Reuven Pedatzur in a
column that appeared in the daily Haaretz. Pedatzur told of Barak’s alleged
intention to wage a legal offensive against these officers.
as a key member of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government is
One of its most important portfolios – defense –
has remained in his hands despite the fact that his current parliamentary
standing is based on a miniscule party that he formed after being ousted as the
Labor party’s leader. Known as Atzmaut (Independence), it has only five of the
Knesset’s 120 seats.
In essence, Barak, who is 70 years old, no longer
has a mass following and voices views and assessments that derive from his own
political agenda rather than from a policy platform on the basis of which he
recruited his supporters.
The strangest aspect of Barak’s role as a
cabinet member is the extent to which he acts as an adjunct foreign minister
during his frequent trips abroad and dabbles in diplomatic issues rather than
limiting himself to subjects linked to national defense and
Conceivably, the rationale for this activity is that he also
enjoys the status of a deputy prime minister.
One cannot escape the
impression that Netanyahu’s apparent yen to keep him at his side stems from the
period in which both men served in one of the IDF’s elite anti-terror units. One
of its most celebrated exploits was the overpowering of the hijackers who had
seized a Belgian Sabena jet after it landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport,
May 9, 1972.
At the personal level, there are some serious questions that
should be asked about the sources of Barak’s personal wealth.
than a year after his term as the IDF’s chief of staff expired, he had become a
millionaire. However, the Israeli news media’s investigative reporters
never tried to find out if there was any linkage between Barak’s financial
prowess and his contact with the American military-industrial
Another reason to wonder about Barak’s value as a policymaker
is that he does not represent or advocate any clear-cut political ideology –
neither the ethnocentric nationalism of the Likud party nor the social democracy
There undoubtedly are several other high-ranking members of
Netanyahu’s incumbent cabinet who could replace Barak as defense minister. And
indeed, the time evidently has come for a change, especially in view of the
reported tension between him and the generals who are supposed to serve
willingly and under him.
Pedatzur’s reference to Barak’s dissatisfaction
with the former chief of staff, Lt.-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, is a case in point. If
it were to be brought out into the open the result might cause astonishment or
incredulity. This in itself is an unhealthy situation, especially because the
components of Barak’s critique could be leaked. The reaction this would draw
from Ashkenazi might undermine public confidence in the entire military defense
setup and harm national morale.
One way to avoid such an outcome would be
to let Barak go while the going is good.
He does not have an irrevocable
claim to the defense ministry nor is his ministerial status of unlimited
duration. If Netanyahu were to choose a successor to Barak there would not be a
political uproar or a split within his own party.
On the contrary, the
notion that Barak’s tenure can and should be extended by his being coopted by or
admitted to the Likud is ridiculous.
Barak, who came from the kibbutz
movement where he was exposed to socialist thinking, is not and probably never
will be a militant nationalist.
Besides, his career in government has
been long enough. If he is compelled to revert to civilian life the transition
will be relatively easy for him. He evidently has a lot of money at his
One footnote to all this is worth remembering: The campaign
slogan he used when he ran for the premiership as Labor’s candidate in 1999 was,
“We Here; They There” – a condescending reference to the idea of two states for
two peoples, one Jewish and the other Arab. That idea has turned out to
be a non-starter and may be doomed to political oblivion despite Barak’s having
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.