It’s time for Barak to go

Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be out of step politically with his American hosts.

Syrian President Bashar Assad at polling station 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/SANA)
Syrian President Bashar Assad at polling station 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/SANA)
Despite his frequent flights to Washington, D.C., Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be out of step politically with his American hosts.
One day after he declared that Syrian President Bashar Assad (personally) will have to step down because of the ongoing revolt against his regime, but that his regime can remain in power, the US State Department said the incumbent Syrian regime would have to go too.
In an interview with CNN in Washington, Barak advocated strong (presumably military) action to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear arms capability. However, the Obama administration appears to prefer a diplomatic solution to this problem.
Barak also is believed to be at loggerheads with the highest echelon of Israel’s military establishment – the general staff. This was described in astonishing detail by Reuven Pedatzur in a column that appeared in the daily Haaretz. Pedatzur told of Barak’s alleged intention to wage a legal offensive against these officers.
His longevity as a key member of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government is virtually inexplicable.
One of its most important portfolios – defense – has remained in his hands despite the fact that his current parliamentary standing is based on a miniscule party that he formed after being ousted as the Labor party’s leader. Known as Atzmaut (Independence), it has only five of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
In essence, Barak, who is 70 years old, no longer has a mass following and voices views and assessments that derive from his own political agenda rather than from a policy platform on the basis of which he recruited his supporters.
The strangest aspect of Barak’s role as a cabinet member is the extent to which he acts as an adjunct foreign minister during his frequent trips abroad and dabbles in diplomatic issues rather than limiting himself to subjects linked to national defense and security.
Conceivably, the rationale for this activity is that he also enjoys the status of a deputy prime minister.
One cannot escape the impression that Netanyahu’s apparent yen to keep him at his side stems from the period in which both men served in one of the IDF’s elite anti-terror units. One of its most celebrated exploits was the overpowering of the hijackers who had seized a Belgian Sabena jet after it landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport, May 9, 1972.
At the personal level, there are some serious questions that should be asked about the sources of Barak’s personal wealth.
Within less than a year after his term as the IDF’s chief of staff expired, he had become a millionaire. However, the Israeli news media’s investigative reporters never tried to find out if there was any linkage between Barak’s financial prowess and his contact with the American military-industrial complex..
Another reason to wonder about Barak’s value as a policymaker is that he does not represent or advocate any clear-cut political ideology – neither the ethnocentric nationalism of the Likud party nor the social democracy of Labor.
There undoubtedly are several other high-ranking members of Netanyahu’s incumbent cabinet who could replace Barak as defense minister. And indeed, the time evidently has come for a change, especially in view of the reported tension between him and the generals who are supposed to serve willingly and under him.
Pedatzur’s reference to Barak’s dissatisfaction with the former chief of staff, Lt.-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, is a case in point. If it were to be brought out into the open the result might cause astonishment or incredulity. This in itself is an unhealthy situation, especially because the components of Barak’s critique could be leaked. The reaction this would draw from Ashkenazi might undermine public confidence in the entire military defense setup and harm national morale.
One way to avoid such an outcome would be to let Barak go while the going is good.
He does not have an irrevocable claim to the defense ministry nor is his ministerial status of unlimited duration. If Netanyahu were to choose a successor to Barak there would not be a political uproar or a split within his own party.
On the contrary, the notion that Barak’s tenure can and should be extended by his being coopted by or admitted to the Likud is ridiculous.
Barak, who came from the kibbutz movement where he was exposed to socialist thinking, is not and probably never will be a militant nationalist.
Besides, his career in government has been long enough. If he is compelled to revert to civilian life the transition will be relatively easy for him. He evidently has a lot of money at his disposal.
One footnote to all this is worth remembering: The campaign slogan he used when he ran for the premiership as Labor’s candidate in 1999 was, “We Here; They There” – a condescending reference to the idea of two states for two peoples, one Jewish and the other Arab. That idea has turned out to be a non-starter and may be doomed to political oblivion despite Barak’s having advocated it.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.