Analysis: Barak steps up to the plate in DC

Barak, like Peres and Meridor before him, hits from the Left side of the plate and therefore has much in common with Obama.

barak goes mad 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
barak goes mad 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went to Cheltenham High School outside Philadelphia at the same time as future baseball great Reggie Jackson, who was three years ahead of him, in the same class as his brother Yoni. Netanyahu, who expressed his affection for NFL football when he was ambassador to the United Nations, has never showed any particular affection for baseball, not even when the Philadelphia Phillies, who are adored at Cheltenham, won the World Series in October. But Netanyahu no doubt understands the rules of baseball better than his predecessors at the Prime Minister's Office. He knows that he gets only three strikes and just three outs, and that this could hold true not only in baseball, but also in his relations with the Chicago White Sox fan in the White House, US President Barack Obama. Ahead of his own visit to the United States, Netanyahu sent President Shimon Peres to Washington as his lead-off man to face Obama. Peres, who has been around long enough to see and take part in his share of historic events, told the president that Netanyahu wanted to make history. And yet, despite Peres's purported persuasive abilities, Obama still gave Netanyahu the third degree on settlements when he came to Washington. He didn't agree to a firm deadline on Iran. And he didn't see the linkage between Iran and the Palestinian issue the same way Israel does. After those key disagreements in Washington, Netanyahu appeared to accept Obama's linkage of West Bank building to the Iranian threat when he told the Likud faction that removing unauthorized outposts was necessary to persuade America to stop Iran. Netanyahu then sent another heavy hitter, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor, to meet with Obama's representatives in London and tell them that he was ready to surrender the outposts, but not to stop natural growth in the settlements. Meridor, who might be the most dovish minister in the cabinet, was reportedly also asked to explain the political pressure Netanyahu was under from the Right. And yet, after the meetings were over, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still said that Israel had to freeze building in settlements, making a point of saying "not just outposts" and without exceptions for natural growth - a position that pits America against not only the Right in Netanyahu's government, but also a consensus of Israelis who believe that places like Efrat and Ma'aleh Adumim must be treated differently than an isolated hilltop caravan. A State Department spokesman then downplayed the April 2004 letter written by then-president George W. Bush, in which America agreed that Israel's final borders would not be where they were before 1967, which Israel saw as tacit approval to build in consensus settlements. In doing so, Obama is failing to honor a commitment by his predecessor, while he expects Netanyahu to honor the Annapolis process of former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Not only was the Obama administration not impressed by Netanyahu's political bind, according to The Washington Post, he listened to Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas urge him to bring down Netanyahu's government so he could be replaced by opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu was even quoted by Ma'ariv columnist Ben Caspit on Sunday as saying about the Obama administration, "What do they want from me? Do they want the government to fall?" The same Caspit revealed last week that Obama's chief of staff and resident Israel expert in the White House, Rahm Emanuel, referred to Netanyahu in closed conversations as a "bullshitter." That's where the game stands right now, in the ninth inning ahead of Obama's two key speeches about the Middle East in Cairo on Thursday and to the Quartet later this month. And Netanyahu has one hitter left. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, like Peres and Meridor before him, hits from the Left side of the plate and therefore has much in common with Obama. But there are signs that he can be more of a hit with the Obama administration than the other two were. First of all, he has a longstanding relationship with top American players such as Clinton, whose husband was in the White House when Barak was prime minister, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whom he has known for decades and with whom he stayed when he came to the US as a private citizen a few years ago. Secondly, the Democrats know he did everything possible to bring about peace with the Palestinians. The Clinton administration gave him credit for his efforts and blamed former PA chairman Yasser Arafat for Camp David's failure. And perhaps most importantly, Barak has power that Peres and Meridor do not, because as defense minister, he can remove outposts and roadblocks and take real steps to improve the lives of the Palestinian people. That's something that can no doubt appeal to Obama. In his first contact with the Obama administration as prime minister, Netanyahu gave US envoy George Mitchell a baseball from the inaugural season of the Israeli baseball league. Since then, Netanyahu and his players have whiffed and whiffed. But perhaps Barak can hit the home run in Washington that Netanyahu's government needs now more than ever.