Baratz Affair: An IED That Could Have Blown Up the Negotiations With Obama

Netanyahu had three months to Google Ran Baratz before choosing him as the face of the State of Israel; the emergence of his post against Rivlin was embarrassing for the PM, but the attacks on Obama and Kerry troubled him a lot more.

Olivier Fitoussi and Lior Mizrahi

When Israeli blogger Tal Schneider first reported on Wednesday afternoon that Ran Baratz was tapped as head of the National Information Directorate and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman the news caught some of his closest advisors, who were hearing about it for the first time, by surprise. At first many journalists, politicians and diplomats tried to understand who Ran Baratz was, although a few Google searches and a quick burrow into the man's Facebook page made it clear that we're looking at yet another appointment which will go awry for Netanyahu. 

It is not clear who planted the idea in Netanyahu's brain of nominating Baratz as his personal spokesman, as the face of the State of Israel and the man who would skip from one TV studio to another on his behalf. Maybe it was actually the Mufti who convinced him to do this. What is certain is that this did not happen yesterday. Israeli journalist Ben Caspit reported in the Maariv daily way back in August that Netanyahu had invited Baratz to a meeting regarding precisely this matter. 

Netanyahu has three months to size Baratz up, to go through his past with a fine-toothed comb, and to check every mention of his name on the internet. A pretty natural, basic and necessary procedure in 2015. Netanyahu didn't do this, and we can see the result. In posts published over the past day Netanyahu reiterated that he was not aware of Baratz's Facebook meditations. He is telling the truth, but it is hard to believe that he didn't hear the same views when he interviewed Baratz for the position. If anything – we should assume that Baratz's views on Rivlin, Obama, the media and others were what brought him this far.    

The posts in which Baratz lashed out at President Rivlin like the worst of internet trolls were embarrassing for Netanyahu, but what really troubled the prime minister were Baratz's attacks on U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. It's not that Netanyahu disagrees with what Baratz wrote, but there's a big, and even lethal difference between thinking something and posting it on Facebook.  

The reason for Netanyahu's anxious rush to put out the fire was his meeting with Obama at the White House next Monday. The Baratz affair had the potential of becoming an IED which could blow up the sensitive negotiations held between Israel and the U.S. over the American defense aid package for the day after the nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu realized that when Baratz's posts make headlines on the New York Times, the entire maneuver may be torpedoed. 

Obama and Kerry didn't need Baratz to know what Netanyahu and his associates think about them. At first they considered a sharp public response, but finally made due with a limp, passive-aggressive statement, and with extracting a promise from Netanyahu that he'll put the appointment on hold and reexamine it when he returns from Washington. Sharper messages were relayed behind closed doors, in the meeting between National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen and his American counterpart Susan Rice at the White House on Thursday. Poor Cohen, who managed to read the reports about Baratz's statement on U.S. media just a few hours before, knew what he was going into.  

Baratz has a Phd in Greek philosophy and is an amateur satirist, but is essentially an ignoramus in anything relating to U.S.-Israel relations and to the unprecedented diplomatic and security aid Obama has given Israel over the last seven years. Obama acted with maturity by remaining composed in the face of the hasbra chief's name-calling. Pushing the aid for Israel forward is more important for him than his honor. The fact that sometime in the next few months he'll sign a check worth over $40 billion to fortify Israel's security for the next decade just goes to show how ridiculous, out of touch and surreal Baratz's accusations of the U.S. president of anti-Semitism were. 

Despite this embarrassing and serious gaffe, Netanyahu still hasn't given up on Baratz's appointment. He bought some time by announcing he will hold off the appointment until his return from the U.S. When he gets back in a week's time he'll see what's what – if more cabinet ministers oppose the appointment, if the subject isn't on the front pages, and if the meeting with Obama goes well or not. Then he'll decide. And maybe Netanyahu's excitement over his new child prodigy will fizz away as quickly as it started, like on many other occasions. Then Dr. Baratz might find out that he and Bibi are no longer an item.