At an event Thursday night at Latrun to mark the first anniversary of Maj. Gen. Israel Tal's death, the author Amos Oz, who was a close friend of Tal's, mentioned the general's habit of educating military and political figures - army commanders, cabinet ministers, heads of state. "He was not particularly successful with the heads of state," Oz said, in an obvious dig at the keynote speaker, one of Tal's proteges - Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Twenty years ago, Shimon Peres named Oz and Barak as his unwilling heirs to the Labor Party's throne; not that Peres intended, then or anytime since, to ever step down. Today, with the exception of President Peres - who has great public influence but is impotent politically - Barak is the tribal elder when it comes to military and foreign policy issues. His accumulated five-and-a -half years as defense minister make him the fourth-longest holder of the position, after David Ben-Gurion (14 years ), Yitzhak Rabin (nine ) and Moshe Dayan (seven ). But Barak is not taking advantage of the dwindling vestiges of his power in order to shape a better future for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respects Barak, but he fears Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; and for Netanyahu, fear is the closest adviser.
Netanyahu has managed to lose Egypt and Jordan for Israel; Turkey decided on its own to lose Israel. And Washington is against him. The prime minister's visit to New York signals acceptance of the failure of his Palestinian policy and of an approaching general election. Who knows better than Netanyahu, Israel's UN ambassador in the 1980s, that not even the most silver of tongues in the General Assembly can change the voting instructions issued to the delegations by their capitals? As in the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu will be speechifying chiefly for his home audience. To hell with statesmanship, long live politics.
The State Comptroller's report on the chain of events surrounding the appointment of the Israel Defense Forces' 20th chief of staff will shed unflattering light on Barak's role in the affair: He took on the role of vetting the candidates, but in fact had already decided on Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant - without proper examination. That was one reason for Barak's efforts to divert the attention of the public and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and for the subplot that developed into the Boaz Harpaz affair. In the past few weeks, Barak's camp has made a transparent attempt to turn the "Harpaz affair" into the "Harpaz-Ashkenazi affair," and then into the "Ashkenazi-Harpaz affair." Any moment now it will become the "Ashkenazi affair."
In addition to the report being hammered together in the State Comptroller's Office, the battle is being conducted in two legal arenas: negotiations over a plea bargain between the state prosecution and Harpaz, and former IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu's libel suit against McCann Erickson. The advertising agency has refused to say who was behind an advertisement against Benayahu, Ashkenazi, Lindenstrauss and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.
Barak, who was never questioned by the police in connection with the Harpaz affair (and therefore, unlike Ashkenazi, cannot claim that his version of events was verified ), has been fanning the flames in a way that he had not been observed doing since the Tze'elim 2 training accident of 1992. Barak is infuriated by the possibility, which has more in common with conspiracy theories than reality, that the grunts from the Golani Brigade could have put one over on the sophisticated fighting machines from Sayeret Matkal, the general staff's elite special-operations force. Instead of letting Ashkenazi quietly cool down, Barak brought him back into public awareness.
And instead of turning his energy toward bringing Netanyahu on board the disaster-averting peace process, he wages war against the Finance Ministry over cutting the defense budget, with verbal aggression similar to that unleashed against Ashkenazi on Barak's behalf. Were he to question figures in certain departments of the General Staff, he could find NIS 3 billion or NIS 4 billion a year to trim from the budget, especially on construction.
During Henry Kissinger's glory days in the Nixon and Ford administrations, one of his aides said that America's greatest foreign policy asset was Kissinger's mind and that its greatest liability was Kissinger's ego. It may already be too late, but if Barak does not permit his mind to overcome his ego, once and for all, his culpability in Israel's security and political situation will be equal to that of Netanyahu.
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