Barak Waves Goodbye After Long and Stormy Term as Defense Minister

The gap between the defense establishment's admiration and his public image informed the unusually long tenure of Ehud Barak as minister of defense.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

For 2,095 days, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was “Mr. Security,” until last night’s official farewell event with the security establishment. Almost six years have passed since June 2007 the third-longest term of one man in this office since Israel was founded. Only David Ben-Gurion in his second term as defense minister (eight years) and Moshe Dayan (seven years) served longer.

Barak’s biography, so proudly presented on his official website, leaves no achievement out. Somewhat surprisingly, the attacks attributed by foreign sources to Israel are not missing from that list. One of them is the aerial attack on the Syrian nuclear facility at Dir al-Zur in 2007, which foreign reports ascribed to Israel. Barak, according to various European and American media outlets, was actually against that strike. The New Yorker reported that Barak wanted to put off the planned date of attack so the Israel Defense Forces could prepare for a possible violent Syrian response. However, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert feared that Barak wanted to wait until the final version of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War, hoping it would force Olmert to resign, leaving Barak to succeed him and reap the benefits of the operation’s success.

Barak’s credit

That wasn’t the only time Barak took credit for an attack about which Israel had no official comment. For example, in late January, two months after he announced his intention to retire from political life, a weapons convoy near the Syrian-Lebanese was bombed from the air, which foreign sources said the Israel Air Force had carried out. A week later, at an international security conference, Barak said that what happened in Syria was “proof [that] when we say something we mean it,” a statement that sounded like confirmation of an Israeli strike.

During his term in office, Barak chalked up a number of domestic achievements that shored up his status. One was Operation Cast Lead at the turn of 2009, which included boots on the ground in the Strip, and the other was Operation Pillar of Defense in November, which began with the targeted assassination of the head of the Hamas military wing, Ahmed Jabari. Barak also promoted the installation of the Iron Dome missile interception system which became operational during his term and continued testing of the Arrow 3 interception system against missiles with chemical or nuclear warheads.

Politically, the attitude to him was more ambivalent. Although he advanced construction plans in the West Bank, he was one of the few figures in the outgoing government who mentioned the Palestinian issue, reiterating his believe that if negotiations failed, Israel should consider unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. He was also known in Jerusalem for his frequent meetings with U.S. officials, especially during the rough patch in U.S.-Israel ties over the course of the presidential election campaign.

And yet there is a huge gap between the admiration Barak gets from the defense establishment and his public image. Reports of his luxury apartment in Tel Aviv’s Akirov Towers and the Filipina foreign worker in his home earned him the public’s disgust. Opinion polls prior to his decision to retire had his party, Atzma’ut, in danger of failing to pass the electoral threshold.

“That’s one of the frustrations of the job, that you can’t talk about most of the achievements,” Barak’s media adviser, Barak Seri, told Haaretz during the minister’s term in office. “It sounds like a cliche, but the country owes him a lot,” Seri added.

Another cloud over Barak’s term in recent years is the Harpaz affair, involving a document forged in a bid to keep Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant from being appointed successor to then-IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and the muddy relationship between Barak and Ashkenazi that preceded it. At the press conference where he announced his retirement, he said: “We gave the IDF back the ethical code of our lives and it understands the subservience of the military echelon to the political one.” Privately, Barak told associates that he had paid a huge price for his part in the affair, including a mortal blow to the public’s positive feelings for him.

Unclear future

Barak’s future is not clear, although he is likely to return to the business world. At a press conference in November, less than a week after Operation Pillar of Defense ended, he said he wanted to “study, write, live and enjoy,” that he had had enough of politics, which was “never his passion.”

Barak, who was 71 last month, said since then in an interview with CNN that he was leaving political life for at least five years. “He certainly won’t be bored,” his brother, Avinoam Brog, told Army Radio Wednesday, adding that he was sure that research institutes in Israel and elsewhere would be “happy to host him.”

In his farewell tour of various army units, including sailing on a missile ship from Haifa Naval Base, his office published pictures of him smiling, his famed determined gestures replaced by waved goodbyes to the sailors.

Ehud Barak and Avigdor Lieberman at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Comittee earlier this week.Credit: Emil Salman

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