Barak - AP - Septmerber 6, 2010
Defense Minister Ehud Barak speaks to Labor party members in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010. Photo by AP
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One day in 1990, Ehud Barak walked out of the office he then occupied as deputy IDF chief of staff, entered the adjacent office and spoke his mind to its startled occupants. "Moshe Arens will be defense minister," he said. It was late spring, after the forced resignation of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres from the government. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir didn't like Barak, the leading candidate for army chief in the Rabin era, and favored Barak's rivals Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Yossi Peled for the post.

At the time, Barak was so determined, so cunning and creative, that he would stop at nothing to see his man chosen for the job. That's how he always is in his personal dealings - and yet those qualities of his seem to disappear entirely when he is called upon to make political decisions.

Barak has just such a decision to make now. He must choose whether he intends to remain a docile assistant of Benjamin Netanyahu, a mercenary of the Likud's right flank, or to pull himself together and pursue (outside the government if necessary ) the kind of policy driven by security exigencies.

Hanging in the balance is the package offered by Barack Obama: giving Israel security guarantees in exchange for renewal of the settlement building freeze for two months. Choosing the settlements over such an agreement is tantamount to scuppering the talks with Mahmoud Abbas (and perhaps effecting the end of the Palestinian leader's career as well ), bolstering U.S. support for an independent Palestinian state within a year despite Israeli opposition and bringing about a head-on collision with the White House.

For the defense minister, the decision should be a no-brainer. He knows, after all, that the overall security value of the settlements is negative, and that even if some security value is attributed to them, it is dwarfed by the defense assets Israel is likely to lose should it lose American support. But none of this is significant when Netanyahu, who is hostage to the settlers, refuses to cede an inch.

Who knows better than Netanyahu that in English, unlike Hebrew, the word "settlement" can refer either to a community across the Green Line or to an agreement? In his desire to avoid a conflict with the settlers, the prime minister is missing an opportunity to settle the Mideast conflict. Instead of prevailing alongside Obama, Netanyahu wants to prevail over Obama. The U.S. president needs the additional two months of the freeze to concentrate fully on the midterm elections coming up next month. But Netanyahu seeks to keep that same achievement from him for the same reason, hoping to find a weakened Obama after the midterms and a strengthened Republican Party in Congress, perhaps even in the majority. The result will only be more hatred for Netanyahu and the country he represents.

For a year and a half, Barak the slave has served his masters faithfully. Now he must choose between them and what he knows is best for Israel. If he doesn't seize the opportunity now, he may well lose it.