Barak and Peres -  Olivier Fitoussi - February 2012
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, and President Shimon Peres. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Defense Minister Ehud Barak strongly criticized President Shimon Peres on Thursday, after a Haaretz report revealed that Peres is expected to tell U.S. President Barack Obama that he does not believe Israel should attack Iran in the near future.

The two presidents are due to meet in Washington, D.C., on Sunday March 4.

"With all due respect to various officeholders from the past and present, the rumor that there is [only] one government in Israel has also reached the United States," Barak said sarcastically in private conversations, adding: "In the end, there is an elected [Israeli] government that makes the decisions and that is its responsibility."

During Barak's criticism of the Israeli president, he made reference to Peres' conduct in the early 1980s when Israel attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, when Menachem Begin was prime minister.

"It's the same Shimon Peres who in 1981 opposed the bombing of the reactor in Iraq," the defense minister said.

"Peres argued then that Begin was leading us to a holocaust, and there are those who claim that, to this day, Peres thinks the attack on the reactor was a mistake. Imagine what would have happened if the Americans and their allies had attempted to get [Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait if he had three atomic bombs. The Americans said in retrospect that Begin was farsighted," Barak reportedly said.

Barak's harsh criticism of Peres is unusual in that over the past three years, the defense minister has carefully accorded respect to Peres, even meeting with him every Sunday before cabinet meetings.

Nonetheless, tension between the two has been simmering for over a year on the Iranian issue, as far back as the tenure of former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

In Barak's office, Ashkenazi - who opposed an assault on Iran - was thought to have enlisted Peres as a supporter of his stance during his dispute on the issue with Barak.

Thursday's Haaretz report about Peres raised eyebrows in both the Prime Minister's Office and in Barak's bureau. Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the premier was surprised to read Peres' comments in the newspaper. They called the comments very disturbing, and added that although the president has the right to express an opinion, ultimately there is only one prime minister in Israel, and he's the one who is responsible for making decisions.

Peres and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet on Friday, which will give them an opportunity to discuss the issue. Thursday morning, however, staff from the two offices were already on the telephone with each other in an effort to head off a crisis. Peres' advisers denied the comments attributed to the Israeli president on the Iranian issue and also denied that he intended to convey such a message to President Obama.

After contact with Peres' office from the Prime Minister's Office and from Barak's office, Peres committed to redress the situation in a speech later in the day to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, toeing Netanyahu and Barak's line.

Peres delivered the speech on Thursday and underlined the fact that Israel is a sovereign country that has the right and the ability to defend itself. "When we say that all options are on the table on Iran, we really mean it," he told his audience. The president called a nuclear Iran a threat not only to Israel but to the entire world.