The End of an Era - Barak Bids Defense Ministry Goodbye

Reflections on the almost six years Ehud Barak spent in his most recent spin in the Defense Ministry, during which he chalked up no few successes even as his electoral clout plummeted.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Hugs and kisses are the two dominant elements in the photos that were being disseminated of late by the office of Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the eve of his departure from the ministry. One can understand the need of the new U.S. secretary of defense Chuck Hagel for Barak's public embrace, who sought to be exonerated of accusations of Israel-hating. But even past-and-possibley-future Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman submitted to a cordial pat on the back from Barak in a photo taken Monday.

Barak, who celebrated his 71st birthday last month, resembles a bar-mitzvah kid in the pictures. Another few days and he will fade from our lives, leaving behind his Cheshire-cat smile, at the end of a long term and a half in the Defense Ministry - a period of almost six consecutive years. It was a relatively quiet period in Israeli terms - one without a war. That said, operations were carried out, some under-the-radar (bombing raids in both Syria and Sudan, for which Israel did not take official responsibility), and a few that appeared quite prominently over it, such as two large-scale operations in the Gaza Strip.

In these years, Barak wasted most of the public credit he had accumulated in the period he was outside the political arena. But the decline in his electoral clout should not be attributed to his performance in the Defense Ministry; indeed, periodic surveys showed that most Israelis continued to place trust in his intelligence and experience. The problem, rather, lay with his personality. To begin with, there were his frequent quarrels - first with Ehud Olmert, who was an unpopular prime minister himself, and afterward with the now-former chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi.

As the latest media images indicate, Barak is leaving on an overall conciliatory note, with one blatant exception: the conflict with Ashkenazi, which reached its peak in the Harpaz affair (involving a forged document and an attempt to influence the selection of the chief of staff who would follow Ashkenazi). Here, Barak actually emerged victorious. Not only does the final version of the state comptroller's report on the subject impute most of the blame to Ashkenazi, but a Military Police investigation into the role of Ashkenazi and his deputy Erez Weiner in the affair is also under way. There's a gag order on that investigation, but it's safe to say that stacks of new documents are already piling up in the offices of the Military Police. Barak, in his round of farewell visits to the Israel Defense Forces, including a meeting with the senior command level on Wednesday, referred to the affair and the lessons to be learned from it extensively in the remarks he delivered.

When asked recently if he would consider a return to political life, Barak mentioned President Shimon Peres, whose political career is alive and well as he approaches the age of 90. In an interview with CNN, Barak said he might return in another five years.

In addition to the personal quarrels, his status was also undermined by his political zigzags notably his linkup with Benjamin Netanyahu after the 2009 election, and then his surprising dead-of-night departure from the Labor Party and the creation of Atzmaut, a Potemkin village-like Knesset faction.

That was probably the point at which the last of Barak’s voters abandoned him. Realistic as always, he announced last November that he would not run in the January election. If he was hoping that his buddy Netanyahu was going to call him back as a professional appointment afterward, Likud’s narrow victory showed him that this was unlikely to happen.

Incisive thinking

What kind of defense minister was Barak? People who took part in meetings he chaired were amazed at his incisive thinking, at the way in which he was able to identify and formulate issues at the heart of the matter and to make a decision even in meetings in which he appeared to be bored by the more banal aspects of the day-to-day management of the defense establishment. He certainly exercised a major influence on the IDF’s procurement plans whether in the form of the purchase of six submarines from Germany (which the General Staff did not want), the F-35 project or the immense investment in preparing a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Barak was less adept when it came to appointments. His candidate for chief of staff in 2011, Yoav Galant, was disqualified in an unprecedented manner at the last minute, because of a relatively marginal episode that was handled badly (both by Galant himself and by Barak and Netanyahu). The man who was appointed instead, Benny Gantz, was only Barak’s third choice, but the two found a way to get along, thanks largely to Gantz’s strategic decision to avoid hopeless quarrels with the minister.

Barak did not foment a revolution within the IDF during his current term in the Defense Ministry. Along with Ashkenazi, he led the effort to rehabilitate the army after the comparative failure of its performance in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, under the unreliable leadership of Amir Peretz (defense minister) and Dan Halutz (chief of staff).

Many positive things were done in the early years, but at present the IDF’s ground forces (particularly the reserves) are again in a situation that is starting to cause concern, due to a slashed training budget. Gantz will have to make sure that this state of affairs is not aggravated by the anticipated cuts in the next defense budget. More important, he and the likely next defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, will have to foment a true revolution in building up IDF forces, after years of only minor changes.

When Barak entered the Netanyahu government, in 2009, he frequently mentioned the importance of the peace process with the Palestinians. He was perceived, both at home and overseas, as the leader of the relatively moderate branch of a right-wing government the minister who would be the liaison with the international community and work to renew negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Barak succeeded in the first task (hence his dozens of visits to Washington, while Foreign Minister Lieberman focused on the other half of the globe), but failed in the second. The wind seemed to have gone out of Barak’s sails completely after Netanyahu blocked his attempt to declare an additional construction-freeze period in the settlements.

Still a mystery

Barak’s true position with regard to the Iranian threat remains a mystery. He said little about the subject until he partnered politically with Netanyahu. At the beginning of their political romance, Barak situated himself in the hawkish wing of the ministerial forum of seven, and maintained firmly that Israel was obliged to look reality in the face and take its fate into its own hands. Retired generals, journalists and experts from academia were invited to nighttime conversations with a figure identified only as “the decision maker,” in which he consistently preached the need to prepare for the Iranian challenge and, at least implicitly, also to deal directly with it.

Barak can be amazingly impressive in tete-a-tete conversations. Many people came out of them convinced of the rightness of a future move by Israel against Iran; others undoubtedly began the process of applying for a Polish passport.

But no attack has so far taken place. According to reports in local and foreign media, the possibility of launching one was seriously discussed every summer during the past few years, but on each occasion the Netanyahu-Barak duo was stymied by double pressure against an uncoordinated Israeli move: from the U.S. administration, and from the heads of Israel’s defense and security services.

According to a persistent claim by senior figures in the political and defense establishments, Barak moderated his stand in the last round, and Netanyahu also dropped the idea temporarily after finding himself, as in a movie cartoon, alone on the edge of the abyss after discovering that his close pal made a spectacular last-minute U-turn.

Barak himself denies this vehemently. He maintains that he acts according to an orderly doctrine about Iran, from which he has not budged by so much as a millimeter. It was a combination of circumstances the Obama administration’s opposition ahead of the last U.S. election, together with an Iranian decision to divert some of its enriched uranium to research purposes, thus slowing down Tehran’s march toward a bomb that dictated the deferral of the decision.

Still, even if this is really the case, it is difficult to reconcile the vigorous late-night preaching of several years ago, steeped in a powerful historical awareness, with the end-of-semester atmosphere that has characterized Barak’s behavior since the January 22 election. Cynics might say that it’s simply because now the Iranian problem is all ours, not his.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak in his last appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in March 2013. Even Avigdor Lieberman got a cordial pat on the back.Credit: Emil Salman

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