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Defense Minister Ehud Barak might not like to talk to journalists, but he does know how to show them respect.
On Monday, in his first public appearance since marrying Nili Priel over the weekend, Barak spoke at a memorial evening at Tel Aviv University in honor of distinguished Haaretz military commentator Ze'ev Schiff.
Since taking up his post a month-and-a-half ago, Barak has rarely been seen in public, let alone to speak. Unlike past defense ministers Shaul Mofaz and Amir Peretz, who visited IDF bases every Tuesday together with a large entourage of reporters and cameramen, Barak conducts his tours discreetly and behind the scenes.
The time will come, however, when Barak will need to open his mouth and begin letting the public in on his policies, strategies and politics. His staff has already begun to realize that the quiet strategy, which brought him back to power in the Labor primaries, is not going to work when he makes a bid for prime minister in the next general elections.
This week, in addition to his public appearance at the TAU event, Barak made two additional excursions outside his office on the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
The first was to the Rafael Armament Development Authority in the North, where he surveyed some of its latest inventions and received a comprehensive briefing on the development of the Iron Dome missile defense system that is designed to intercept Kassam rockets and Katyusha rockets.
Barak's second visit was to the Hatzerim Air Force Base in the Negev where he received briefings from OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy and his senior staff on the IAF's operational needs in face of the growing regional threats, primarily Syria and Iran.
The three events encapsulate the challenges and predicaments the new defense minister is facing. At the Schiff memorial, Barak used his speech as an opportunity to speak out against the growing number of youths who dodge the draft. He warned that if immediate steps are not taken, the IDF, which has prided itself for close to 60 years in being a "people's army," will soon become an "army of half the people."
A former chief of General Staff and the country's most decorated officer, Barak recalled the days when soldiers were national heroes, unlike today when role models are the finalists on Kochav Nolad - the local version of American Idol - a large number of whom evaded military service.
At Rafael, Barak laid out his vision for a complete and multi-layered missile defense program. The IDF already has the Arrow to counter long-range ballistic missiles - like the Iranian Shihab - and is currently investing hundreds of millions of dollars in two additional systems - one to intercept medium-range rockets like the Iranian Fajr and Zelzal and another to intercept the short-range Kassam and Katyusha, 4,000 of which pounded the North during last summer's war.
Alongside a multi-layered missile defense system, Barak's strategy for ensuring the country's security also includes the procurement of new and advanced military platforms that will contribute to "long-range capabilities."
This is where his visit to Hatzerim enters the picture. Throughout his long military and political career, Barak made several key decisions that tremendously upgraded the IDF's capabilities, particularly its "long-range capabilities." Most notably was his 1999 decision as prime minister and defense minister to purchase more than 100 F-16Is, capable of flying missions deep into Iran and Libya. As chief of General Staff, Barak also pushed ahead a project to develop and manufacture long-range Predator unmanned aerial vehicles.
"Under the current strategic reality, Israel needs to operate far from its borders in a complex environment while ensuring complete accuracy," Barak said this week in a closed-door meeting when explaining his policy.
If he remains defense minister over the next year, he will need to make a number of key decisions concerning which new military platforms the IDF will procure over the next decade.
The US decision this week to increase military aid to Israel from an annual $2.4 billion to $3 billion is a significant factor in that decision-making process. With the additional funds, new military systems that until now generals could only dream of are turning into a reality. Later this month, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi will convene the General Staff for a week-long workshop during which the IDF multiyear budget and work plans will be determined.
The increase in foreign aid is part of a US package to boost friendly countries in the Middle East in face of Iran's pursuit of nuclear power. Despite the financial boost, the defense establishment is not thrilled with the deal under which Saudi Arabia will be getting JDAM smart bombs.
In June, Amos Gilad, head of the Diplomatic-Security Bureau at the Defense Ministry, headed a delegation to Washington to try to convince the Americans to change the proposed deal with the Saudis. During their meetings the Israelis offered to tone down their opposition in exchange for the Bush administration's permission to purchase the embargoed F-22, the world's only operational fifth-generation stealth fighter.
The US rejected the request, leaving Gilad, who was accompanied to Washington by OC Planning Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, to return home frustrated and empty-handed. In closed conversations since then, Gilad has on more than one occasion warned of the Saudi deal, claiming it poses a strategic threat to the country.
So while the IAF for now will probably not get the F-22, the IDF does have the opportunity to use the boost in US military aid to purchase additional advanced systems. The Navy is pushing to buy the Littoral Combat Ship, developed by Lockheed Martin and believed to be the future for countries like Israel that require a fast, agile and rapid-deployment fleet.
The IAF has already decided to purchase Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35. But with delivery not expected until 2014 and the US opposed to the sale of the F-22, the air force is considering making another purchase of either F-15s or F-16s so not to allow seven years to pass without the delivery of new aircraft.
The IAF is also hoping that the new funds will permit the purchase of the new Hercules transport aircraft - the C-130 "J" model - to update the current fleet, some of which dates back almost 50 years.
Alongside the new platforms which will no doubt grant Israel a strategic edge in the region, Barak has additional plans for retaining the IDF's qualitative advantage. He said this week that he believed the IDF needed to formulate a work plan that will provide better deterrence in the face of growing regional threats, as well as a better-trained and prepared military that can bring quick resolutions to conflicts with clear and decisive victories.
"The war needs to be won on enemy soil and with minimal damage to the home front," Barak said. "The victory needs to come quickly and it needs to be clear who has won."
He was hinting at the many failures of the Second Lebanon War - during which the home front was bombed daily, Hizbullah was not defeated and the outcome was not clear.
To make these goals possible, Barak is asking the government to increase the defense budget by NIS 5 billion, which he plans to use to reestablish two armored divisions dismantled in 2003. "They are needed to attain better maneuverability on the battlefield," he said, raising quite a few eyebrows in the IDF and the Defense Ministry.
In 2003, the IDF succeeded in reducing a planned cut of NIS 5b. from the defense budget to NIS 3.5b. As a result, Shaul Mofaz, defense minister at the time, and Ashkenazi, then deputy chief of General Staff, agreed to cut the two divisions and reinforce the existing other divisions with Merkava Mk 3 and 4.
The difficulty in reestablishing the divisions is primarily financial and would cost, senior officers estimated this week, hundreds of millions of dollars. Without an increase in the defense budget, this plan will remain on paper.