Ehud Barak Emil Salman 17.1.2011
Defense Minister Ehud Barak Photo by Emil Salman
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The race for Israel Defense Forces chief of staff appears to be over. Now the next race has begun - for the position of defense minister.

The disintegration of Ehud Barak's public standing - because of his role in interpersonal conflicts among leading defense officials, his failed effort to crown Yoav Galant the next chief of staff and his resignation from the Labor Party - has brought out of the woodwork those who would vie for his seat.

The first sign that the race has begun came last week, when several politicians revolted against Barak's attempt to appoint Yair Naveh as interim IDF chief. They compelled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was initially responsive to Barak's suggestion, to pull an about face and force through Benny Gantz's appointment, which the prime minister said would stabilize the system.

Of the political figures who brought about the turnaround, four of them - all of whom see themselves as suitable candidates to replace Barak as defense minister - stand out: ministers Dan Meridor, Silvan Shalom and Moshe Ya'alon (all Likud MKs ), and MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ), who previously held the post and currently heads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

As long as Barak was portrayed as the dominant member of Netanyahu's cabinet, who always had the prime minister's ear, these four political figures adopted a pro-establishment pose. None of them opposed Galant's appointment before the scandal broke over his use of public land. But once Barak got weaker and lost his party backing, and once the call to oust him gained public support, Meridor, Shalom, Ya'alon and Mofaz rushed to line up against him - and demonstrate that they, and not the incumbent defense minister, are the ones who decide who takes charge of the IDF.

Each of the four candidates brings a different set of experiences to the table. Though Mofaz has already served as defense minister, and as IDF chief of staff before then, he belongs to the largest opposition party and has so far resisted Netanyahu's attempts to get him to desert Kadima. Ya'alon also served as IDF chief of staff, but has yet to head a major government ministry.

As a former minister of finance and foreign affairs, who has also served as deputy defense minister, Shalom has government experience, but was never a high-ranking officer. And Meridor has experience in strategic affairs and headed a task force on updating Israel's security methods, but like Shalom, he's a civilian, not a general.

But the results of the race for defense minister depend less on the candidates' background than on political circumstances. If Netanyahu gives in to public pressure and says goodbye to Barak - his former commander and rival, and his current partner and adviser - he will have to choose between a narrow right-wing government with National Union and an additional attempt to rip apart Kadima and bring the party deserters into the coalition. If Kadima does end up splitting apart, Mofaz would be the natural candidate to replace Barak.

But if Netanyahu is forced to make do with a right-wing government, he will have to choose among the three Likud candidates. Meridor and Ya'alon, who are close to Netanyahu, have a better chance than Shalom, Netanyahu's sworn rival.

The contest between them will be influenced by the government's domestic and international situation at the time. Appointing Meridor would convey moderation and be viewed positively by other countries, but would be seen domestically as taking a relatively weak position on defense. Ya'alon would be seen as a military expert, but his hawkish views would make it more difficult for Netanyahu abroad.

Party politics will also have an effect. Ya'alon is seen as a potential Likud leader in the post-Netanyahu era, while Meridor isn't (if he has any such ambitions, he has kept them to himself ). If Netanyahu promotes Ya'alon, he will signal that the former chief of staff is Netanyahu's chosen successor, but will also be risking helping a future rival. Giving Meridor the job would have less of an impact on the impending battle for the leadership of Likud.

But all this speculation is coming too early. Barak is still defense minister, and Netanyahu is in no rush to kick him out. There's nothing more convenient for an Israeli prime minister than a defense minister who is considered a military professional but doesn't have political backing.

In such a situation, Netanyahu can go around Barak when he makes security-related decisions, as he did in the Gantz appointment, while knowing that if something goes wrong - as with the deadly naval raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla in May - the complaints will be directed toward the expert minister, not toward him.

Netanyahu will try to stick with this setup as long as he can. But the would-be defense ministers are letting him know that he won't have too many more opportunities to shore up the unpopular defense minister.