Analysis

Three Israeli Prime Ministers, One Explosive Hatred

From the ruins of the Syrian reactor that Israel destroyed in 2007, a bitter battle has erupted between ex-PM Olmert and Barak. 'Rocket man' Bibi is thrilled

Illustration: Olmert and Barak fight standing on top of a fighter jet, as Assad watches from below.
Amos Biderman

In July 2007, when the security cabinet was immersed in marathon discussions, sometimes twice a week, about the nuclear reactor at Deir el-Zour in Syria, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On noticed changes in the tone and approach in Ehud Barak, the defense minister. The sense of urgency that had prevailed at meetings ahead of the date at which it was estimated the reactor would enter operation and become “hot,” gave way to arguments in favor of delay, to second thoughts, to grousing.

>> No longer a secret: How Israel destroyed Syria's nuclear reactor

Bar-On, a senior figure in Kadima, then the ruling party, under the leadership of Ehud Olmert, invited himself to a meeting with the prime minister. “Ehud, do you understand what’s going on here?” he asked.

What are you talking about, Olmert replied.

“Are they getting cold feet?” Bar-On asked about the defense establishment and the person heading it.

Why do you ask, wondered Olmert aloud. Bar-On wasn’t sure whether his friend was putting on an act and only wanted to hear his opinion, or whether he really was blind to developments.

“Well, I am your doomsayer,” Bar-On said jokingly, “so in that capacity I’m telling you that Barak is out to get the operation postponed.” What’s his interest, Olmert pressed him.

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“If I see only gray,” said Bar-On, “then he wants to distance the operation as far as possible from Amir Peretz [Barak’s predecessor as defense minister, during whose term operational plans involving hitting the reactor had begun to take shape]. But if I see black, then he wants it all to happen after you [are out of office].”

About two months before that conversation, Judge Eliahu Winograd had released the interim report of the committee he headed, which was investigating the events of the Second Lebanon War the previous year. The withering documented depicted the prime minister, the chief of staff and the defense minister as a group of charlatans, rash and superficial. A group that was not fit to navigate the ship of state.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert jokes with Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a press conference following a meeting of the security cabinet in Tel Aviv, Jan. 17, 2009.
AP Photo/Dan Balilty

Olmert’s image had been severely damaged. He was more or less down to single-digit results in the polls. To call him a “lame duck” was to flatter him. The general view in the political arena was that the Winograd panel’s final report would put paid to Olmert’s political career. (In the end, the report was not submitted until late January 2008, by which time Olmert was also the focus of several corruption investigations, which led to his eventual decision to step down.)

“Barak wants to delay so that after you’re thrown out he will be elected prime minister and reap exclusive glory for destroying the reactor,” Bar-On claimed. You’ve got a sharp eye, Olmert told him.

In the meetings that followed, Bar-On continued to challenge the defense establishment, and especially the defense minister, to explain why the operation should be delayed. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi (this was during the period before the Harpaz affair, when he and Barak became enemies) did not take a clear position. You could take what he said either way; he wasn’t looking for trouble.

This week Bar-On recalled that, “Barak offered a series of excuses that didn’t sound serious. Something about an arms ship that was supposed to arrive. A real brawl erupted. After conversations I had with ministers, and conversations that Olmert had, most members of the security cabinet understood exactly what was going on. The carcass lay reeking in the security cabinet conference room. It was an open secret.”

MK Isaac Herzog, who at the time was a member of the security cabinet on behalf of the Labor Party – then led by Barak – supports Bar-On’s narrative completely.

“Barak held back the operation for entire weeks, for incomprehensible reasons,” he explained this week.

The tension, bad blood and suspicion that bubbled beneath the surface turned into an open, bitter rivalry between the prime minister and the defense minister. “Olmert would burst out at him with horrible shouting,” Herzog said. “He has a habit of waving his hands. Barak sat opposite him in the security cabinet meetings, and the prime minister would simply scream, at him, ‘I won’t let you! I won’t allow you!’ and wave his hands in Barak’s face.”

In a series of interviews held this week, Barak rejected the allegations out of hand. His rationale sounds logical: He had taken over as defense minister in June 2007 and found a plan that had been drawn up during the tenure of his predecessor, Peretz. Now, as the person in charge, and one, moreover, who had been involved in planning and authorizing operations no less complex over decades – it was incumbent on him to investigate, press, probe and look for alternatives. Any judicious, responsible defense minister, and certainly “Mr. Defense,” would have done no less.

As evidence of that, the plan that was eventually approved and executed successfully, in the early hours of September 6, 2007, did not exist as such when Barak entered the Defense Ministry. It was born thanks to his efforts.

Barak recalled this week that Meir Dagan, then head of Mossad, had wanted to rush the operation. Barak thought there was time and no, he was not planning to attack a “hot” reactor. “One day Dagan came into one of the meetings and claimed that information had been leaked to another country, a friendly one. I told him that that country most likely heard about it from the Americans. And if, God forbid, the matter were to go on to become known to the Syrians, there was more of a likelihood that it would have been leaked from this room, than from the country in question.”

On the eve of the operation, Olmert convened the security cabinet again. Pulling a booklet out of his briefcase, he embarked on a 40-minute speech that Herzog describes now as “amazing,” a “formative moment.” “For 40 minutes he elaborated and reasoned, raised questions and replied to them, presented the risks and explained the advantages. You could have heard a fly in the room.”

The difficulties raised by Barak pushed the operation back from August. In the middle of that month, Herzog and his wife, Michal, flew to Cyprus for a weekend vacation, staying as close as possible to Israel, a 40-minute flight away. Just in case. They ran into other vacationers there, Tzipi Livni and Naftali Spitzer, her husband. She too wanted to relax close to home. Herzog and Livni, who were in on the secret, occasionally huddled together, leaving Michal and Naftali to wonder what in the world they had to mumble about, with lips barely moving.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“That’s where the friendship began and the trust between us sprang up,” Herzog said this week. “That’s where Zionist Union was founded.”

Great. Two positive outcomes that ensured Israel continued existence resulted from the destruction of the reactor.

A hate story

Three prime ministers live among us: Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert and Barak. Utter hatred exists between them, absolute loathing, of an unbelievable intensity. The insults they’ve hurled and continue to hurl at each other symbolize the burial of mamlakhtiyut – statesmanlike behavior. (“I do not harbor any hatred in my heart,” Barak said this week, when I shared my sense with him. “I even feel empathy toward Bibi, more than his ministers do toward him.”)

All three leaders have worked closely with or served under one another – or both. Barak was Netanyahu’s revered commander in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit and defense minister in his government. Barak was also defense minister under Olmert. Netanyahu and Olmert were senior ministers in Ariel Sharon’s second government. They share hundreds of hours of joint work and jointly held deep secrets that only prime ministers know. And they share neither one iota of fraternity, a sense of shared destiny or mutual respect for the high position they each achieved.

Even in the toughest times in the decades-long fraught relationships between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, between Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, and between Ariel Sharon and Rabin and Peres and Shamir – the dialogue did not descend to such depths. There were mockery, harsh remarks, sarcasm and sometimes cursing. But no one ever ridiculed the hair color of his rival the way Olmert did Netanyahu’s, in his TV interview with Gil Riva last week. For certain, no one ever said of his former colleague that the task of mopping the prison corridor and perhaps the inhalation of bleach fumes that entailed had totally derailed his judgment, as Barak said of Olmert in Raviv Drucker’s riveting film on Channel 10 this week. And certainly no serving prime minister tweeted and wrote toxic Facebook posts about his predecessors.

(The exception this week was Tzipi Livni. She was actually only acting prime minister and almost prime minister, but she had enough style and decency in her television interviews, while assuming some credit for herself, to praise Olmert for the way he handled himself in the period leading up to the attack on the Syrian reactor. He on the other hand, hurls quite a bit of mud at her in his newly published memoir.)

The three months that passed between Barak’s appointment as defense minister in the Olmert government until the attack in Syria brought to an end many years of friendship between the two. Olmert was convinced that Barak, driven by political motives, was trying to get the operation postponed until he had left office.

Ahead of the attack, Olmert talked to Netanyahu, head of Likud, who as then-opposition leader was already in on the plan, about the possibility of establishing a national unity government if Syrian President Bashar Assad reacted by launching missiles at Israel, and a war resulted. Olmert first revealed these contacts in Drucker’s film. The conversations did happen and Netanyahu shared the information with only a handful of top people in Likud. The agreement woud be that four Likud ministers would be coopted into the government: Netanyahu, Gideon Sa’ar, Yuval Steinitz and Silvan Shalom.

The idea of Netanyahu’s becoming defense minister was also discussed. That idea had been mooted earlier, after the Second Lebanon War, and more acutely after the war ended, when Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman joined Olmert’s wobbly coalition, leaving behind a weak, small opposition. Both Olmert and Netanyahu considered the idea favorably.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the the Knesset, January 28, 2008.
\ Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS

This is intriguing for a few reasons: 1. Considering the known rivalry between the two men, apparently the new rivalry, with Barak, prevailed over that with Netanyahu; 2. Because of his poor showings in the polls, and with a view to the final Winograd report, Olmert was considered politically moribund. Netanyahu figured that if a war were to erupt following Israel’s heroic destruction of the reactor, Olmert would surge in popularity again, and it would be better for him to be among decision makers instead of in the opposition wilderness; 3. Netanyahu had already been in the opposition for two years after resigning from Sharon’s government in 2005 on the eve of the Gaza Strip disengagement. He hated it. He was bored and looking for action.

Assad, who chose not to respond to the attack on the reactor, just as the director of Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, had predicted, made the emergency-government option irrelevant, thereby determining the fate of two prime ministers: the one in power and the one who succeeded him in early 2009.

Bloated egos

Twelve hours and 12 minutes elapsed from the moment the censorial dam burst this week, allowing the story of the attack on the Syrian reactor at Deir el-Zour to find its way to the Israeli media, until the time Netanyahu saw fit to comment on it. It’s not by chance that the country’s fastest tweeter took his time. He delighted in the mutual mudslinging that erupted between his two predecessors, Olmert and Barak, who came off like two embittered, grumpy pensioners, and the surviving former heads of the intelligence establishment.

The boys slugged it out, and Bibi kept his distance. What we saw beginning at 5 A.M. Wednesday was an orgy of bloated egos, “droppings” (in the colorful term of Defense Minister Lieberman) of TMI, a carnival of self-congratulations and plenty of Israeli provincialism. The operation was a tremendous success, the planning was exemplary, and luck also favored Israel. But hey, isn’t that what these guys are there for? There, in the bureaus, the bases and the war rooms? Strange that even the pilots who’d been involved in the operation were swept up in the torrent and gushed about their experiences in the media this week.

Netanyahu obviously loved the fact that for a whole day one single narrative dominated: the importance of destroying a nuclear reactor that posed a threat to Israel. Look, we dared, we attacked, we bombed, and it’s good that we did so. In his laconic, coolish response, he emphasized that “Israel’s policy was and remains consistent: to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons.”

The policy may be consistent, the practice is less so. Menachem Begin bombed Iraq in 1981 without bragging about it beforehand. Afterward he didn’t restrain himself. Olmert dropped 18 tons of bombs in Syria without delivering panicky speeches or sowing fear about an imminent second Holocaust. After that successful attack, he displayed truly noble responsibility when he abstained from playing politics despite his fading public opinion ratings. By contrast, the current guy has been fulminating and scaring his nation for a decade now, if not two. If he had a chance to take military action, it passed with the spirit of the time.

Yet still, in the short term, at least, with the police investigations against him ongoing, the story of the reactor’s destruction plays into Netanyahu’s hands. In the collective consciousness, the feeling is gaining strength that as long as threats to Israel remain, the leader of the country must be someone with security and diplomatic experience. MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay are nonentities on that playing field. Lapid was briefly a member of the security cabinet (as were hundreds of ministers and officials over time) and likes to harp on it. But he was a featherweight there. Gabbay doesn’t even have the feathers.

If one of the two roosters named Ehud that have pecked away at each other this week were involved in politics today, Netanyahu would be more worried, not to say hysterical. But they are passé, and he has concerns in other quarters.

Bad timing

Is Ehud Olmert mulling a political comeback? Sounds off the wall. Delusional. The man, who is now 72, was convicted, jailed, and can’t, under the law, become a publicly elected official for seven years. But some say he’s thinking about it.

For example, if President Reuven Rivlin grants him a total pardon as part of the celebrations of Israel’s 70th anniversary, the opprobrium will be erased and the legal obstacle removed. The chance of that happening is lower than the likelihood that Rivlin will resign as president and run for prime minister as head of Zionist Union. (Though there’s no doubt that he’d be welcome there – they’re looking for a leader.)

Olmert made a serious mistake this week. Instead of waiting and publishing his book a few days after the story broke about the bombing of the reactor, in which he’s been depicted by everyone – almost – as a responsible, courageous prime minister, he allowed excerpts from the book to be published in Yedioth Ahronoth last Friday, both in print and online.

He compounded the error when he chose to grant an “interview” to a talent of his choosing from the Keshet television franchise, Gil Riva, and proceeded to deluge the kid with embarrassing lies and outlandish tales, which couldn’t stand up to a simple Google test, and collapsed minutes after being uttered.

For example, that Olmert never asked his secretary, Shula Zaken, to defend him (as though we’ve forgotten the criminal-style recording in which he implores her to assume the blame for the money from Talansky). Or that he only received a few envelopes of cash, totaling a few hundred dollars (not hundreds of thousands, as the trial revealed), which only covered day-to-day expenses on his official trips abroad (as though the daily expenses incurred by a mayor or minister invited to give a talk aren’t fully covered by his sponsor, municipality or government ministry). Pathetic falsehoods and fairy tales overlain with garbage, an array of slanders and settling of accounts with the top members of the state prosecution of that time.

Olmert’s bitter foe, Ehud Barak, didn’t let the opportunity go by. Even before the censors allowed the publication of the Syrian reactor story, Barak gave interviews in which he portrayed Olmert as an “inveterate liar, with bona fides from the court.” Barak’s goal was to lay the groundwork for the second act in their war over the Deir el-Zour narrative. He assumed, undoubtedly, that on this front his media situation would be less beneficial than Olmert’s. After all, the latter was the prime minister at the time and he still has quite a few admirers who can testify to the way he functioned.

Barak wanted to get into a matchup with Olmert, in advance of their next clash, with a significant question mark already hanging over the latter about his credibility and his ability to tell the truth. And Olmert played into his hands. If his book had come out after the reactor festival, who would have had the patience to deal with all this garbage, with Zaken and Talansky? Who would have listened to all of that, when the person at the center of tale is perceived as an Israeli hero, of the same caliber as Menachem Begin?