A Fear of Irrelevance

Ehud Barak is terrified of leaving the government before a major diplomatic initiative gets under way.

The Labor Party is on its way out of the coalition. Frustrated cabinet members are growing increasingly critical. It isn't just about the stagnation on the diplomatic front, or the feeling that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has misled them with his talk of peace. Netanyahu's public standing is slipping, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is coming across as the government's strongman, and the Labor ministers are looking like a bunch of losers trapped on a burning train.

The man who is keeping them in the government, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, faced down his comrades this week. "I know a little more and I know the time has not yet come," he explained in a lecture Tuesday. After two years of being half of a happy couple with Netanyahu, Barak is giving him an implicit ultimatum: Come out with a diplomatic initiative now, because in April-May it will all be over.

barak - Alon Ron - December 30 2010
Alon Ron

Barak is in love with the calendar; his situation assessment always relies on dates. So now we have a new target - the spring.

Why the spring? Barak is worried about the Palestinians' diplomatic maneuvering to obtain international recognition of an independent Palestine based on the 1967 borders. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are apparently planning to act in September, before the United States begins its presidential election year. At that time they will convene the United Nations General Assembly and pass "the recognition resolution." General Assembly resolutions are not binding, but Israel will find itself internationally isolated. The territories will be transformed from a bargaining chip into a burden.

Most of the world supports the Palestinians: The wave of recognition that began in Argentina and Brazil and has moved into Central America will gradually spread to Europe, Asia and Africa. The few countries that will vote against the resolution, or will abstain, will probably be angry at Israel for causing them discomfort. The United States will ostensibly stand by Israel.

Barak is warning that Israel faces "delegitimization," which he sees as more dangerous than Hamas. There is only one way to defend the country from it: to preempt the Palestinians' UN initiative and come out with an Israeli initiative that will convince the international community that Jerusalem is ready to partition the land.

Abbas has been telling the world he has presented Netanyahu with detailed positions on all of the core issues and Netanyahu has not answered him, or has agreed to discuss only other matters. This is the Palestinian version of "there is no partner." The world believes him.

According to Barak's version of events, he and Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor are trying to persuade their colleagues in the ministerial forum of seven that Israel must initiate a move. Barak has appealed to the prime minister, his aides and the septet ministers; he has warned them of the diplomatic trap Abbas is laying for Israel and he has proposed a way out. He supports Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz's plan: a framework for a permanent status agreement, centering on evacuating the settlements outside the major blocs over the long term. But they are not listening to him. Lieberman and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon are bringing up ridiculous suggestions, which no one in the world would accept and which only depict Israel as obstinate.

Netanyahu is coming across as someone who missed the opportunity for a diplomatic initiative for two years, and has wasted the trust created with U.S. President Barack Obama in their July meeting.

Intellectually, the prime minister understands why Israel needs an agreement with the Palestinians. But he does not have sufficient inner conviction to advance a diplomatic initiative, he is not prepared to take risks and he wants to reserve for himself the ability to pull out of the process at any moment. This makes it impossible to progress.

It is clear to Barak why Netanyahu is afraid of a diplomatic adventure that would make his partners on the right abandon him: He does not want to be out of his office. The government's makeup does not suit the diplomatic situation, warns Barak.

There are two possible solutions. Either Kadima joins the government, or a diplomatic solution somehow appears and opposition leader Tzipi Livni will have to support it.

Livni is prepared to join the government only in place of Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, not with them. Netanyahu is convinced this is a maneuver and if he distances the rightist factions, Livni's Kadima will exploit the opportunity and topple him. That's what you did in my last term, Netanyahu is reminding Barak, when I went for the Wye agreement with the Palestinians and instead of a safety net, I got early elections.

Barak is saying to Netanyahu: Who do you fear - Lieberman? That cynical man who, if he comes into power, will quickly strike an agreement and say that he had no choice, that his predecessors eroded Israel's position and conceded everything? In order to protect yourself from Lieberman, you are avoiding something good for the country.

Netanyahu is not convinced. But as Barak sees it, his role in the government is to persuade Netanyahu to move. If Labor quits, the chance of a diplomatic initiative will be lost, but the government will not fall. Barak is not Lieberman, who has 15 Knesset seats and could topple Netanyahu if he leaves the coalition. If Labor goes, that will not lead immediately to elections - it will only leave Israel under a narrow right-wing government that will annoy the world and get the country in trouble.

However, it's not just concern for the country that is guiding Barak, but also the fear that he will flee the government too soon and will look like an idiot. That is what happened to two other generals who crashed in politics: Meir Amit, who resigned from Menachem Begin's government "because of the diplomatic stagnation" just a moment before Camp David, and Amram Mitzna, who refused to join the government in 2003 because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would not tell him he would evacuate Netzarim. In the end, Begin made peace, Sharon evacuated the Gaza Strip, and Amit and Mitzna were left on the political margins.

Therefore, Barak will remain beside Netanyahu for the time being, until he is convinced there is no chance of a diplomatic initiative. In his lecture this week he planted future excuses for resignation: He demanded making Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech about the two-state solution a government resolution, and immediately embarking on a diplomatic initiative. But the hour has not yet come. Maybe it will in the spring.