Analysis: The slow repackaging of the diplomat Ehud Barak

Now every statesman who comes to town gets a meeting with Olmert, Livni and - of late - Barak.

barak 224.88 (photo credit: )
barak 224.88
(photo credit: )
Back in January, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went on a tour of the West Bank accompanied by top IDF generals, with her office taking pains to distribute pictures of her surveying the scene, looking very serious and prime ministerial in a black leather jacket and sunglasses. That was just a few weeks before the Winograd Committee on the Second Lebanon War released its final report, and the tour - and the photos - seemed a thinly veiled attempt by Livni to brush up her security credentials in case Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced out of office after the Winograd Report, and her party came a-calling. Over the previous two-plus years Livni had developed an image as a stateswoman, but that was not enough to become prime minister. For that she needed to establish security credentials. Hence the tour and the pictures. Fast forward to the present. Again the country is gripped by uncertainty about Olmert's future. But this time it isn't Livni trying to buff up her security credentials, but rather Defense Minister Ehud Barak - Mr. Security - trying to shore up his diplomatic bona fides. Like Livni back in January, it's all an attempt at positioning for the day after Olmert. Neither Livni nor Barak think it is enough to be a foreign policy maven or a security expert to capture the prime minister's seat. They believe the country wants to see both attributes in one package. So the self-packaging begins. Take a look at Barak's recent schedule. In normal countries, when foreign leaders visit, they meet with their counterparts. A prime minister meets a prime minister, a foreign minister meets his colleague, and the two defense ministers sit down for talks about the military. Although in Israel the prime minister has long with met high-ranking officials who were not necessarily his counterpart, up until the last few weeks Barak did not customarily meet with visiting foreign ministers. No more. Now every statesman who comes to town gets a meeting with Olmert, Livni and - of late - Barak. For instance, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner will meet the triumvirate separately on Thursday, just as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did earlier in the week, and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did last week. One wonders if they are hearing the same message. And working on the principle that "if you do something but don't report it, it really didn't happen," Barak - in his meeting with Rice last week - was very keen on getting a photo opportunity. The US secretary of state, however, didn't want one, so Barak made sure the meeting was covered nonetheless by putting out a statement to the press saying he had invited Rice to visit the Ashkelon mall where a Grad missile had hit. Rice turned down the offer - the missile hit while the two were holding discussions - but news of the invitation itself ensured that the meeting was duly covered. While Barak - Hamlet-like - does not seem to have decided yet whether this is the most propitious time for him to leave the government - he could have done so in January, after the release of the Winograd Report - he obviously wants to leave his options open. And for that he is going to have to take pains to re-establish himself as a diplomat, no easy chore considering that in many people's mind he is most remembered for the disaster that was the Camp David summit in 2000. So, painstakingly - meeting after meeting with the Rices and Pelosis and Kouchners and Moratinos of the world - he is trying to resurrect his stature in the eyes of the public as a diplomat, and not only a general. Another sign of this new direction is that the statements to the press on Barak's various meetings - while still far from overly instructive - are not as painfully anemic as previously. While in the past his reports of these conversations were generally one or two sentences about a discussion that dealt with "regional and bilateral issues," on Monday - following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm e-Sheikh - he issued a two-page statement that actually had a modicum of content. "The defense minister reiterated his position that Israel is committed to the concept of 'two states for two peoples,' and that it is interested in progressing in the process with the Palestinians, despite the gaps that exists on the core issues," the statement read. "This progress obligates 'painful concessions' also on the Palestinian side." Those sounded like the words of one entrusted with the nation's diplomatic process, not its security portfolio. Or, more precisely, one who wants to convince the country he should be in charge of both.