Former Defense Chiefs Provide a Night of the Long Knives for Netanyahu

On Thursday both Moshe Ya’alon and Ehud Barak gave speeches saying Bibi’s got to go, with Barak turning the foray into a slasher film.

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Ehud Barak speaking at the Herzlia Conference, June 16, 2016.
DARK KNIGHT: Ehud Barak speaking at the Herzlia Conference, June 16, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Anyone who heard the speeches by Moshe Ya’alon and Ehud Barak on Thursday could have gotten the impression the next election campaign was just around the corner. Ya’alon, defense minister until just last month, reiterated what he said upon his resignation: He’ll run in a bid to lead the country.

The other guy, in his new incarnation as a prophet of wrath and fury, knows he can’t even begin to dream about being prime minister again without getting laughed at. He sufficed with urging people to get out of their comfy chairs and as everyone knows, nothing is as comfy as first class and help bring down our “hijacked” government and leader.

In the afternoon, we still thought Ya’alon, who ramped up his criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a notch, was the beef. A few hours later, it turned out Ya’alon wasn’t even the appetizer for the six-course meal Barak served us. Ya’alon was at best lukewarm water before the menu hit the table.

Ya’alon spoke without pathos; he spared us the thunder and lightning. In his low-key manner, he made clear that in the next election, which is not at all clear is in the offing, he will run for prime minister.

He doesn’t see anyone else as a claimant to the throne, no one as experienced and fit for the job as he. His agenda will be to join right-wing policies with moderate positions on defense, amid a return to liberal values and a moral, unifying leadership that respects the rule of law not one that divides, incites or inflames.

In comparison to Ya’alon, Barak’s speech could have lit up the city. We were reminded us of his best days as opposition leader during Netanyahu’s first government in the ‘90s. Such speeches brought him to power in 1999. Back then he was fresh and promising, today he isn’t.

Ya’alon chose his words carefully and didn’t bother to mention Netanyahu by name; he only blasted “the leadership.” Barak didn’t choose his words so carefully; he didn’t spare the whips and chains. To add to his arsenal, he stabbed Netanyahu in the back with not just one verbal knife; he used the whole kitchen.

LOW KEY: Moshe Ya'alon at the annual Herzliya Conference, June 16, 2016. Credit: Moti Milrod

He then twisted the knives again and again. It was a magnificent slaughter: reasoned, organized, fluent and merciless. Whether it was kosher depends on the eyes and ears of the audience.

The speech by “the leader of the parliamentary opposition” Isaac Herzog wasn’t in the same league. Herzog mostly mourned that Netanyahu had turned him a cold shoulder and built a purely right-wing government. You could derive from his words that if Netanyahu would drop Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, Herzog would rush to join the government and save our homeland. So now we can say with a great deal of certainty that this option is dead and buried.

The two speeches, Ya’alon’s and in particular Barak’s, have launched a new debate in the Israeli political stratosphere. These guys are connecting with many of the center-left voters who, according to recent polls, would consider voting for a moderate right-wing party just to boot Netanyahu and Likud out.

Obviously Barak and Ya’alon aren’t as pure as Venus rising from the sea. They both served under the man they’ve just insulted. Barak was there for four years until 2013, and we never heard such analyses from him back then.

Ya’alon replaced Barak, and until he left a few weeks ago not of his own free will he was loyal to his boss. And of course he would have stayed on if he wasn’t kicked out in order to placate Avigdor Lieberman.

Both Barak and Ya’alon said many times as defense minister that Iran was an existential threat to Israel. Barak pushed for an attack against the Islamic Republic in 2010 and 2011; only later did he change his mind.

But one fact towers over all this: All told, Netanyahu has been prime minister for 10 years, over four terms. In his first term, from 1996 to 1999, his defense minister was the retired general Yitzhak Mordechai. Near the end of Netanyahu’s first term, Mordechai left Likud and founded a party whose entire purpose was to replace Netanyahu.

Barak was Netanyahu’s second defense minister, from 2009 to 2013. Ya’alon was the third, from 2013 until last month. We heard them both Thursday, clear and determined. The question is whether the problem is with the rotating defense ministers or the solitary prime minister.

It’s too early to guess who will run where and with whom in the next Knesset election. Rivers running with inflated ego separate these gentlemen and the forging of a single political framework.

But the potential exists. Two former IDF chiefs are also expected to join the fray: Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz. While Ashkenazi is hiding from the public eye (though it’s unclear why), Gantz seems to be enjoying the spotlight. Just last week he made two public appearances.

Netanyahu can’t count on Gantz’s support; he’ll have to search high and low for his own Mr. Defense. Likud MKs Avi Dichter and Anat Berko the first a former security chief, the second a countererrorism guru won’t be good enough. As for Lieberman, who’s still in training, it’s not worth banking on.