This is not the first time Ehud Barak has visited the United States. The Pentagon has a tradition of hosting defense officials with great respect, such that even the toughest and most analytical among them grows at least 20 centimeters above his natural height. Past and present generals also have a common language with their hosts.
Our ties with the U.S., Barak said recently, are the mainstay of Israel's security and the main source of its qualitative edge in advanced weapons systems. The U.S. does not merely provide economic assistance of $3 billion per year, it also keeps spare parts and ammunition in American warehouses in Israel and makes it possible for the Israel Defense Forces to rely on them in times of need.
Yet on his return from Washington this time we did not see a self-satisfied Barak, but rather a party leader who is aware of Israel's obligation to do its part in keeping faith, and maintaining the relationship, with the present administration. It is not wise to embark on a confrontation with America, he told a meeting of the Labor Party's Knesset faction. And a confrontation is likely if Israel does not present a diplomatic program dealing with the core issues - settlements, borders, and other basic questions that must be resolved for the conflict to end.
Relations with U.S. President Barack Obama are not as close as they were with his two predecessors. But a love affair between leaders is not necessary in order to get things done. There was no love lost between the southerner Jimmy Carter and the extremist Menachem Begin, yet they achieved something unimaginable: a peace with Egypt that has lasted to this day.
Barak is of the opinion that we must go along with Obama's demands. This is not the time for Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu to act like Yitzhak Shamir did - that is, not to decide. He must expand the government, in order to change the nature of the dialogue with the U.S. administration by presenting a detailed plan for resolving the conflict. Without presenting a plan, we will not be able to mend our relationship with the administration.
If that is what he believes, why does he not quit the government? His response is that he is not in favor of leaving the government, but of expanding it. If we were not inside, he says, it would be an extremist right-wing government. By process of elimination, one can conclude that he would like Kadima to be brought into the government.
Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni says privately that she believes Barak truly is worried - in part because the day will come when he will be asked what he hopes to accomplish in a right-wing government. Bibi, in her opinion, has not yet crossed the Rubicon. Netanyahu's goal is still the same as it always was - to survive his term of office without making a decision. Even his famous statement at Bar-Ilan University about two states for two peoples was like pulling teeth.
In the government's present composition, there is no majority for a historic move. The campaign against Moshe Feiglin was much ado about nothing. The Bibi government, with the exception of Labor, is a right-wing government.
Netanyahu's problem, says one of his friends, is his family: His father, wife, children and brother-in-law are all right-wing. And apart from two members of the seven-man inner cabinet, the decision-making nucleus opposes significant concessions. Who says Benny Begin does not understand that he is there only to prove that there is no real partner on the other side? Attorney Yitzhak Molcho, Bibi's diplomatic adviser, is a man of words, "but we have passed the stage of words," Livni says.
Livni thinks solving the conflict with the Palestinians is more complex than making peace with Egypt: It involves dealing with violent settlers, the relocation of dozens of settlements, the presence of Hamas and other extremist organizations and the difficulty of drawing permanent borders. She believes Bibi will try to drag out the talks, but the Americans will not allow him to do so. They will want to get down to a discussion of the core issues immediately. Your security is no longer an excuse, they will say; after all, the Palestinians have already agreed to a demilitarized state.
In Livni's opinion, portions of the right understand that the time has come to discuss the core issues. But it is difficult to get her excited about the idea of Kadima joining Bibi's government. As both a woman and a politician, she has probably not forgotten how Barak, via calculated foot-dragging, prevented her from becoming prime minister without the need for an election. If Barak is dissatisfied with Bibi's conduct, he can quit the government. Bibi is dependent on Barak, so if Barak pulls out, the government will have begun the countdown to its demise.
With the government's current composition, there is no majority for serious moves, Livni says. Bibi's concern is genuine: In America, people are falling in line behind the president. It is enough that those with influence have gotten the message that the president means business; luncheons with Elie Wiesel and speeches by Ron Lauder are to no avail. If we continue dragging our feet, the president could begin turning a cold shoulder to us. That would arouse schadenfreude among those who always viewed our ties with America as a thorn in their flesh.
Barak, who has now discovered Obama's America, must realize that the government in its present form is not built for making fateful decisions, and take the initiative to get Kadima into the government, preferably at the expense of Shas. Two birds with one stone.
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