Back on top
As someone who promised Israelis that he would bring back the sparkle to their eyes and the knife between their teeth, Ehud Barak feels he's accomplished his mission. But he still has no solution to the Qassams.
For many Israelis, the main outcome of the Second Lebanon War was a loss of collective self-confidence. Those who grew up on tales of the Six-Day War, Operation Entebbe and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor had trouble understanding how the Israel Defense Forces could have failed in its confrontation with a small Lebanese guerrilla organization. The anxiety has been palpable ever since, in every conversation about the situation, but worsened after Hamas took over Gaza in the space of just three days. How will we survive the threat of radical Islam? What will we do about Iran? Have they discovered how to undermine us? Will Zionism endure and will our children continue to live here, or will we have to wander in exile once again?
The man who promised to turn around the bleak mood, and to put the sparkle back in Israelis' eyes and the knife between their teeth, is Defense Minister Ehud Barak. That was his message in his campaign for the Labor Party leadership, in which he vowed to restore the nation's security and to rehabilitate its deterrent capability. After 100 days on the job, Barak feels he's accomplished this mission. He's feeling very upbeat these days. He sees self-confidence returning, and believes that Israel's power of deterrence can again be felt.
Amos Yadlin, the head of Military Intelligence, said at the beginning of the week that Israeli deterrent power had been restored "and this affects all the regional systems, including Iran and Syria." Barak agrees with this assessment. It's just a shame that all the ups and downs he has been through in recent years - his fall from the premiership and comeback to the Defense Ministry - haven't taught him to express himself more simply. His brilliant analyses are still a bit convoluted, not to say tedious. Deterrence, as he sees it, means having the feeling that Israel can take a sober look at situations, complicated as they may be, and determine how to act. That it has the ability to make decisions, and the professional skill to carry them out. And if this works properly, then the citizenry should be able to enjoy some peace of mind and the country's true situation will thus be profoundly affected.
Legacy of silence
If this lengthy explanation is a little hard to follow, then it's enough to look at the newspaper headlines from the past weeks. After a long period of being on the defensive, of being on the receiving end of humiliation, Israel is again being seen as a victorious initiator. Here is a report about the bombing of a nuclear facility in Syria (according to foreign sources); there you'll find a story about the abduction of senior Hamas officials from Gaza; and then there's a declaration about reducing the electricity supply to the Gaza Strip and about an imminent operation against the Qassam barrages.
Barak is photographed at military drills, Barak is battling over the budget, Barak is taking on the draft dodgers, Barak is preventing concessions to the Palestinians. The dearth of leaks from within the defense establishment, and the sense that officials there are enjoying working with "one of their own" after Amir Peretz's brief and embarrassing tenure, are playing to Barak's favor. For now, at least, he's the master of the house at army headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Barak has always related more to historical figures than to his own contemporaries, and is fond of quoting Napoleon. He certainly must have learned from him about the importance of luck in the careers of generals and army commanders. Without question, "the operation in Syria" worked to his benefit. According to the foreign media, Israel obtained information six months ago about suspicious nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea. Peretz was defense minister then. So it's not surprising that he was the first politician to speak in the media about the importance of "the foray." One can just picture him sitting in his house in Sderot, frustratedly fantasizing about what would have been if the primaries had only been postponed by a few months.
What is Barak's contribution to the decision-making at the top? Upon assuming the post, he set certain work rules. Situational assessments and instructions must be delivered in writing, and not through winks or verbal understandings. Subordinates will receive backing from him even if they make mistakes, because one learns from mistakes; only mistakes in conduct when under fire will not be forgiven, since they reflect on the functioning of the army as a whole. Meetings of senior officers with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must be approved by the defense minister. Barak isn't keen on the legacy of Ariel Sharon, who used to skip over the hierarchy and place calls from the Prime Minister's Office directly to commanders in the field. This is Barak's deal: Olmert gets to enjoy having an experienced security figure by his side, and in return he has to refrain from meddling with the IDF.
But Barak's chief influence has been in imposing a policy of silence regarding operational matters. According to his thinking, before deciding upon an operation that will take place over the border, the other side's reaction must be considered and an attempt must be made to influence it. Such an operation does not end once the forces return home, but when the enemy responds.
In 1988, Israel assassinated Palestinian Liberation Organization official Abu Jihad in his home in Tunis. Barak, who was deputy chief of staff at the time, recommended that Israel not take responsibility officially. Everyone knew who was behind it, anyway, and it wasn't worth Israel's while to push the Palestinians into a wave of assassinations and counter-assassinations. It wasn't hard to convince then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir that it was best to keep quiet. As a former underground fighter, Shamir already had an aversion to bragging of this sort.
In 2007, the reality is different, and the hunger to take credit for success is greater than ever - especially after the lack of success in Lebanon. Barak is probably the one who convinced Olmert that silence was preferable to self-praise. The international reactions to the "operation in Syria" subsequently proved the value of this approach. But all this was nothing compared to the public slip by Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak's historic rival, who let the big secret out in a television interview on Wednesday. It was the sort of political knock-out one can only dream of: Ehud and Ehud are quiet and responsible, while Bibi, who wasn't even involved in the fateful decision, lets his big mouth get him into trouble in a TV studio.
Barak has an interesting take on the issue of credit. True, the prime minister is the ultimate decision-maker, but the heads of the defense establishment, particularly if they are experienced and expert at what they do, bear extra responsibility for having recommended a plan of action. The fact is that it was the chief of staff and the defense minister who paid the personal price for the Second Lebanon War, and not Olmert, who is still in office.
In Barak's view, the main error in the conduct of the last war was that, in Israel's response to the abduction of the soldiers in the North, operational plans that were intended for other scenarios were pulled out, and no one stopped to think for a moment about what to do and how to do it in the best way possible. Instead of defining goals, they fought as to who would get the credit.
Barak believes that Israel had two alternatives in the summer of 2006: either to decide to wipe out the Hezbollah threat, and consequently to call up the reserves, train them for a month and then embark on a wide-scale ground operation - or to suffice with a quick and well-aimed blow, backed up by a political exit strategy.
Opposite of Camp David
Barak and Olmert will soon face a similar quandary when they have to decide whether to launch an incursion into Gaza. At the cabinet meeting this week, Barak repeated his assessment that each day is bringing us closer to a broad action there. He knows that Israel could find itself without any alternative, perhaps following a major terror attack, but he still has certain hesitations. An invasion of Gaza could bring about a temporary reduction in the Qassam fire, a decrease in the flow of weapons to the Gaza Strip and the destruction of Hamas' governing infrastructure. On the negative side, though, stands the experience that Israel and other nations have had in the past generation in confronting threats of this nature. Barak knows that every operational achievement in the short term accelerates problematic processes on the other side, and therefore the other side's anticipated response must be given due consideration before the safety catch is released. It is the defense establishment that will have to bear the consequences, after all.
In the Palestinian sphere, Barak, as expected, has adopted a security-oriented stance. He sees the West Bank as a dilemma. Israel needs to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and weaken Hamas, but not compromise on its security. A withdrawal there will only be possible when the separation fence is completed, and Israel is equipped with a "multilayered" rocket-defense system, whose development Barak views as a central, national project. Granted, it's impossible to guarantee that no terrorist will get through and that no bomb will ever be detonated, but the security reality will be different. Just as the air force created a reality in which any unidentified aircraft over the country's airspace is intercepted, and Israelis do not fear aerial bombardments.
Barak's approach, which is stingy as far as gestures to the Palestinians are concerned, seems to stand in contradiction to the talks that Olmert is having with Abbas ahead of the peace summit scheduled for Washington in November. Olmert promised freedom of movement in the West Bank, and Barak stalled and stalled, and finally consented to open up a few remote paths leading to some Palestinian villages. He also said he would "consider" the assignment of Palestinian police officers to direct traffic in one or two cities, but only during the daytime. There was no originality or boldness here: Like his predecessors, Barak offered the Palestinians only an empty gesture, just to be able to make it through U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit in peace.
Barak recommends that the government hold a thorough discussion of Israel's interests and of the positions on the Palestinian side, and that it seek a political formula that is meaty enough not to humiliate the Palestinians, but general enough so the Israelis won't feel like chumps who made substantial concessions on the core issues without getting anything in return. He is adamant that Israel mustn't make any unilateral withdrawals from positions it has held for 40 years just to please an American administration that will be out of office a little over a year from now. In particular, there should be no talk about the '67 lines at the start of the negotiations, and UN Resolution 194 (which the Palestinians interpret as recognition of the refugees' right of return) must not be cited as the basis for an agreement.
He has harsh criticism for his big rival, Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon. The political plans that Ramon is advocating are too extreme, Barak feels, and reflect unrestrained behavior and a lack of self-control. Ramon, who thrives on just this sort of tension, isn't fazed. His positions, say his aides, are a lot more moderate than what Barak offered Yasser Arafat at Camp David.
Ramon is well aware that this is the most sensitive point for Barak. Seven years after the failed summit at Camp David, and the intifada that erupted in its wake, he's still picking at the scab, unable to leave the wound alone. He didn't learn from Sharon, who, on his climb back to the top, stopped speaking about the first Lebanon War. Barak remains convinced that he acted properly when he sought to pursue the political route to the end with Yasser Arafat, in an attempt to prevent the volcanic eruption that would be caused by prolonging the occupation.
What has changed since then? The political process in which Olmert is currently engaged appears to Barak to be the exact opposite of what went on at Camp David. Then Israel spoke with Arafat, whose desire to reach an accord was in doubt, although his ability to implement one was not. Now Israel is dealing with Abbas, a relatively positive figure, and Salam Fayad, a totally positive figure, with the danger of their falling from power and being replaced by Hamas hovering in the background. The goodwill of these two men is not in question, but even if an understanding is attained, it's doubtful whether they'll be able to stand behind it and implement it.
Olmert isn't particularly nonplussed by his defense minister's skepticism and wariness. If anything, it just strengthens his position in the negotiations with Abbas and in fending off Rice's pressures. At the end of the day, Barak and the Labor Party will support any agreement that Olmert brings to a vote. They have no choice, and Barak also knows this quite well, of course. But in the meantime he's still enjoying his new role as Mister Security.