Analyze This: Barak's decision

'New Barak' plays it safe, but the old one must soon take risks.

In June 1972, a bold plan was hatched to bring home three Israeli Air Force pilots being held prisoner in Syria. "Operation Crate 3" involved IDF commandos from the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) crossing into Lebanon and snatching five Syrian intelligence officers stationed near the border, and then using them as chips in a hostage exchange for the pilots. Though the operation remains classified, some details have emerged. In one account, the first attempt to carry out the snatch failed because a nervous IDF leadership refused to give the green light to then-Sayeret Matkal commander Ehud Barak. Reportedly, an enraged Barak made sure that when the second try was to be attempted, he was stationed in the command center in order to argue over any hesitations by his superior officers. The mission succeeded, and just as according to plan, the Syrian officers were subsequently exchanged for the IAF pilots. It is stories such as this that earned the defense minister his near-mythic stature in the military, propelling him to IDF chief of General Staff, and later a lightning political career that saw him gain the premiership just five years after leaving the military. To some degree they continue to help maintain his reputation throughout a less-than-sterling political career; as John McCain is now proving in the US presidential race, battlefield bravery can keep its considerable shine even when a military hero's standing is tarnished by subsequent missteps in public life. Certainly, Barak's decision Sunday to remain in the government despite his earlier promise to step down following the release of the Winograd Committee's final report will hardly go down on his resume as a profile-in-courage moment. Still, his declaration last May at Kibbutz Sdot Yam to tender his resignation on principle if Olmert would not, appears far more in keeping with a Barak tradition of sudden bold moves that appear in retrospect more hasty and reckless than well thought-out, especially as regards the consequences. That, of course, is the flip side of daring courage. Just as Barak's willingness to push the envelope was a factor in the Tze'elim Bet disaster in 1992 during his tenure as chief of General Staff, so too in his political career when he rashly decided in 2000 to call early elections against the advice of his political advisers and the logic of polls giving him little chance against his rivals. When Barak returned to public life as Labor chairman last year, it was supposedly with a political maturity that included the willingness to look more carefully before he leaped - or for that matter, pushed others. Although this would be the more charitable view of his post-Winograd backtracking, it's not one the defense minister should expect will earn him any brownie points. Even the majority of Labor voters who polls show support the party remaining in the coalition in order to keep Binyamin Netanyahu from returning to power, are unlikely to give Barak much personal credit for taking a pragmatic decision that involved his going back on his word. After all, the reason that Labor voters returned Barak to the party's chairmanship was not due to any particular belief in his new-found political skills. It was because after the disappointment of the Second Lebanon War, the legendary commando, the "Mr. Security" of our age, seemed the best option for a party floundering in the wake of Amir Peretz's tenure. What's more, Labor voters remembered that as prime minister Barak was equally willing to make bold decisions, in particular the Lebanon pull-out and the attempt at a final status agreement with the Palestinians at Camp David. Although the Right regards both as dangerous follies, certainly Barak's own ideological camp gives him credit for at least trying to move forward on key peace-and-security issues. The defense minister knows full well then that if he is to both reinforce his standing in his own party, and even more important, to reach beyond it to the Israeli center, what he needs next is not careful political calculation, but some of the old battlefield daring. Thus it is surely no coincidence that Barak chose this morning to also announce his support for the construction of a barrier along the Egyptian border, a project that is overdue for decades, but has attained a new urgency with the porous situation at the Gaza-Sinai border. Building fences (including completing the West Bank security barrier) won't be enough though to provide security in the south, as Sderot's plight has amply demonstrated. Even if a major military operation in Gaza may provide nothing more than temporary relief to the Negev communities besieged by Kassams, the stakes have now been considerably raised by Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin's assertion Sunday that the breach in the Gaza border fence has allowed Hamas to bring in long-range rockets and anti-aircraft missiles. Even if a stormy winter season is not the best time to launch a serious military operation and the costs may be high, Barak may have no chance now but to show that both he - and an IDF slammed by the Winograd Report - still have the capability to respond proactively to imminent threats despite the risks. Of course, Barak - and Olmert - could well argue that was exactly the case with last September's IAF air strike on an alleged Syrian nuclear plant, except that the still-classified nature of that operation precludes that option - which at any rate would not bring much comfort to the citizens of Sderot. Nor, for that matter, the family of Gilad Schalit. Resolving the fate of the kidnapped Israeli corporal may lie beyond any current viable military solution, but Barak's responsibility certainly extends beyond those parameters. His voice has thus far been noticeably absent in the policy debate between those like Diskin, who favor retaining the current qualifications of those Palestinian terrorists who can be freed in exchange for Schalit's release, and those such as Ofer Dekel, the official assigned by the PM's office to handle the Schalit issue, who want to relax those standards. Again, maybe this is the new Barak, more circumspect and calculating in his words and deeds, more willing to take the more cautious line, such as also with his reluctance to speak in a more direct manner regarding the current negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. But if the defense minister is going to justify his decision to remain in the government, it's the old Barak who wasn't afraid to take risky moves - and their consequences - that has to reemerge in the coming year.