Politics: Barak’s thunder gives Netanyahu a fright

The prime minister isn’t concerned that Ehud Barak could beat him again, but he is worried that he will chip away at his Mr. Security image.

Ehud Barak
In 1995, when Ehud Barak was fresh out of his post as IDF chief of staff, he spoke at a conference on fighting terrorism at New York’s Drake Hotel with the head of the FBI.
Barak’s recommendation at the event was for the United States to take key preparatory steps for an impending deluge of terrorist attacks.
“Imagine one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center has been hit and consider what precautionary measures you would take so the second tower wouldn’t fall,” Barak said six years before the September 11, 2001, attacks. Leading North Americans who were at the event, including the late Edgar Bronfman, reminded Barak of his warnings many years later. But no one took them seriously enough at the time to actually take the steps that could have prevented the attacks.
More than two decades later, Barak remains a proud prophet of doom, yet nowadays his warnings are taken very seriously.
The Jerusalem Post was the only newspaper to send a reporter to Barak’s speech at an event of the anti-Netanyahu organization Darkenu in Rishon Lezion on August 17. But Darkenu spokesman Eyal Basson sent out the speech, and the Hebrew papers made it front-page news.
A week later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the speech in a briefing for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) reporters and blasted Barak, calling him “the worst prime minister in Israel’s history.”
The top-rated nightly news on Channel 2 led with Netanyahu’s criticism from the closed-door briefing.
The prime minister’s reaction surprised many.
After all, the Likud had already issued a critical response to Barak the night of the speech.
Barak’s name in Hebrew means lightning, and lightning makes an impression when it strikes. But this was not the first time Barak criticized Netanyahu.
No one was more surprised that the Darkenu event attracted so much attention than the organizers of the event.
“The resident of Balfour Street [Netanyahu] lost control,” Basson said. “If he disagrees with what Barak said, maybe he should have ignored it, and people would have forgotten about it. His reaction inflamed it. I didn’t expect such a press echo of more than a week. But the resident of Balfour deserves the credit, not me.”
Why, then, did Netanyahu – a powerful prime minister who has been in office for more than 10 years cumulatively – bother responding to Barak, who served in the post for only 20 months and is out of politics, with barely any chance he will be invited back? First, the answer Netanyahu gave to the haredi press: Barak is attempting a political comeback. It makes sense that Netanyahu would be concerned about such a comeback, because Barak is the only candidate to have beaten Netanyahu in an election.
But at the Darkenu event, Barak was asked point-blank by a potential supporter in the crowd whether he is considering a comeback. He responded clearly and decisively: “In one word, no!” When Barak was asked why people are speculating about his political future, he responded by joking that only the Post heard him answer the question, and Israelis should read in English to know the truth.
Next, the answer given by Netanyahu’s aides. They said he speaks very candidly in his current round of briefings to reporters that are off the record. He answered a question about Barak honestly, and he did not expect his response to lead that evening’s news.
But Netanyahu knows very well how to brush off a question. He may do that better than any interviewee in the history of journalism.
Perhaps the real answer to why Netanyahu bothered responding to Barak is what Barak said at the event and how he said it. Barak accused Netanyahu of being a weak and paranoid leader of a government that harms the security of the state. He said Netanyahu made decisions based on personal considerations rather than the good of the country, and his continued rule was beginning to show “signs of fascism.”
“The countdown to the end of Netanyahu’s tenure has begun, and I think he understands that,” Barak told the crowd.
Perhaps what irked Netanyahu most was an allegation by Barak that he had exposed Israel to a security challenge and his subsequent refusal to tell anyone what he was referring to, even in a closed-door session of a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense subcommittee that has no leaks.
“No one knows what he is talking about,” Netanyahu said. “I asked my security advisers. No one has a clue.”
That kind of “I-know-somethingyou- don’t-know” attitude is understandably annoying and smug. Netanyahu knows that because he acts like that, too, sometimes. Seeing someone else do it to him might indeed be unpleasant.
What really seems to have bothered Netanyahu is that Barak once again chiseled at his mantle as Mr. Security that helps him win elections over and over again.
Netanyahu will need that mantle to defeat a former IDF chief in the next election, whether it ends up being Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz or Gabi Ashkenazi.
Like Barak, Netanyahu predicted the September 11, 2001, attacks. He called a press conference at the King David Hotel that day to hand out copies of his book, Fighting Terrorism, and make sure the world noticed his prediction. As with Barak, no one took steps to prevent the attacks.
But with a prime minister who already in 1996 warned the US Congress that Iran would pursue nuclear weapons, Israelis have learned to take Netanyahu’s doomsday predictions very seriously.