Analysis: Barak eyes the top spot, but Gaza stands in his way

Pacifying Gaza might be just what Barak needs to put the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon behind him.

barak intense (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
barak intense
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The way that Ehud Barak muscled Amir Peretz out of the Defense Ministry this weekend was definitely inelegant. And it gave the pundits the chance to do what they have been waiting to do for months - announce the return of "the old Barak." It was a clear indication of the wider game plan of the new Labor chairman: Barak intends to be the one setting the national agenda. That's why he wasn't prepared to wait for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to return from his US trip; he didn't want it to seem as if Olmert was the one appointing him to the post. Barak might have engaged Labor members during the primaries with something approaching humility, but now that those elections are over, he's acting as if to the manor born. Even before the results were ratified he had occupied the chairman's office at Labor headquarters, but he was only cooling his heels. Now he's moving his stuff into the Defense Ministry tower. The message is clear, to potential dissidents within Labor, to the coalition partners and to the opposition: Ehud Barak will be calling the shots. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu got the picture immediately. Friday's polls already showed Labor under Barak closing the wide margin Netanyahu had built up over the last 10 months. He tried to retake the initiative and on Sunday got up early to be interviewed on the talk shows on both main radio stations. So far, though, he hasn't managed to grab back the agenda. Barak, almost overnight, has taken the mantle of prime minister-in-waiting away from him. During the Labor race, most insiders believed that Olmert favored Barak to win. Unlike Ami Ayalon, who was set on bringing about a change of national leadership sooner than later, Barak seemed to offer the prospects of a period of political calm and a harmonious working relationship. The two Ehuds go back a long way. In the mid-1980s, the young general Barak was cultivating his political connections in the hope of securing a speedy promotion to the job of chief of General Staff. The young Likud MK Olmert was one of his first backers. Barak only reached the top of the military pyramid in 1991, but a firm friendship had already been established, and it was maintained even after Barak entered politics and the two were in rival parties. But the prime minister-defense minister relationship is rarely an easy one. Olmert and Barak might soon find out that there isn't enough room for the two of them in the same cabinet. The difficult decisions of Israeli defense policy are of a magnitude that mandate the prime minister's constant involvement. For that reason, premiers have preferred to keep the Defense portfolio for themselves in governments where they had the necessary political clout. Ceding the Defense Ministry to another minister was usually a sign of political weakness or lack of experience. The resulting partnership was usually difficult and sometimes disastrous. Sharett and Lavon, Eshkol and Dayan, Rabin and Peres, Begin and Weizman, Begin and Sharon, Netanyahu and Mordechai and, until last week Olmert and Peretz - it almost always ended acrimoniously. The defense minister always saw himself as Israel's next prime minister, a far worthier candidate for the job than the incumbent who quite rightly felt the heavy breathing over his shoulder. Barak is no exception; his stated objective is to replace his old friend as prime minister. He has also promised his own party to bring the general elections forward, to sometime in 2008. So what kind of a working relationship can we expect from the two Ehuds? Despite the rivalry, both have a clear interest in keeping their peace, at least for the next few months. Olmert hopes that with Peretz gone, his government will be seen in a more favorable light and his single-digit popularity ratings will finally start rising. Barak will be interested in using his new defense post to bolster his preferred image as the only responsible grown-up on the scene. But ultimately, though both men will probably work hard to put it off for as long as possible, the bust-up seems almost inevitable. Meanwhile Barak will have his work cut out for him in his new job and little time for political maneuvering. Two crucial junctures just down the road are the Syrian question, which many senior defense officials and officers expect to turn critical in a matter of months, if not weeks. And then, probably towards the end of the year, looms a decision on how to deal with the Iranians before they cross the nuclear threshold. But even before he approaches these twin furnaces, the Palestinian hot potato has already been thrown into his lap. Barak was extremely careful over the last few months to say nothing definite on security matters, not even to criticize the government's handling of matters during the Second Lebanon War. Now that he is in the hot seat, he will want to project his new image of listening first to all the professional advice before taking action. He will closely examine the IDF's plan for dealing with the Kassam problem. This plan has existed for months but the new situation of a Hamas-dominated Strip makes matters even more complex. On the one hand, there is the effort to isolate Gaza and create a modus vivendi in which Israel doesn't interfere and Sderot doesn't get fired upon. But, on the other, nobody believes this will work for long and the preferred solution, as Olmert has said over the last few days, is a multinational peacekeeping force in Gaza. In extremely unofficial and off-record talks, European nations that might just possibly be prepared to supply troops for such a force have intimated that, before they commit themselves, they expect Israel to go in and clear out most of the hardware that Hamas and its affiliates have stockpiled. This might be an incentive for Barak to send in the IDF. Perhaps Barak's biggest problem with the public, on his intended route back to the very top, is that the unilateral pull-out from Lebanon in 2000 was his baby, and it is still seen as the origin of all the troubles to have befallen us since then. A major pacification of Gaza, followed by the stationing of a multinational force, might seem just what he needs to put that behind him.