While You Were Out

Barak today remains the only connection to those far-off days, and resembles Ben-Gurion no less than the Akirov Towers building where he lives resembles the hut in Kibbutz Sde Boker where Ben-Gurion spent his last years.

When Ehud Barak enters the conference room in the chief of staff's bureau for his first meeting with the General Staff, he will see on the northern wall a familiar but misleading statement above the curlicued signature of David Ben-Gurion: "Every Jewish mother will know that she has placed the fate of her son in the hands of commanders who are worthy of this." Ostensibly, there is someone to rely on. But, in fact, the words were ripped out of their context, as though Theodor Herzl were quoted as saying, with no qualifications, "It is not a dream."

On July 2, 1963, when defense minister Ben-Gurion took his leave of the General Staff, he expressed a "wish" that the generals would see to it "that in the future, too, this will be an army that will generate respect, and above all will generate trust in the soldier and in the soldier's mother." Only if "the commanders generate the trust, the love, the tenacity in their soldiers, will every Jewish mother know [those things]," etc. Among those present were the deputy defense minister, Shimon Peres, the chief of staff, Zvi Zur, and his deputy, Yitzhak Rabin, who in a voice choking with emotion implored B-G not to leave. Absent from the event, owing to his junior rank and his duties in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal, was a certain Ehud Brug-Barak, a 21-year-old second lieutenant, who a few weeks earlier had been cited by Zur for directing operations deep inside enemy territory.

Apart from the "eternal" Peres, Barak today remains the only connection to those far-off days, and resembles Ben-Gurion no less than the Akirov Towers building where he lives resembles the hut in Kibbutz Sde Boker where Ben-Gurion spent his last years.

Ben-Gurion would find very little trust, love and tenacity in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of 2007. Internal intrigues have shattered the thin coating of the unity of the goal. There is no correlation between performance, promotion and due reward; everything is arbitrary, dependent on factionalism and caprice. The Dan Halutz faction was deposed and was succeeded by the Gabi Ashkenazi faction. The senior officer corps has high regard for Ashkenazi, but not much fondness. If the chief of staff abhors a major general who was appointed to an important post by his predecessor, Halutz, his attitude toward him is blunt and not exactly oozing in diplomatic mannerisms. Ashkenazi had an easy life, but one fraught with weighty responsibility, vis-a-vis outgoing Defense Minister Amir Peretz; Barak will remove from him, and take upon himself, the image of the supreme security authority.

The message for Ashkenazi, then, is that at last he will have an experienced partner with whom to share the burden. The problem, from his point of view, is that Barak will not be just a partner, but the senior member of the duo: Barak was chief of staff when Ashkenazi was head of the operations division, and then prime minister and defense minister when Ashkenazi was GOC Northern Command. After the echoes of the mutual compliments fade, this is a situation that invites friction. Barak did not have peaceful relations with Shaul Mofaz, who was chief of staff in the previous round, and then Barak was busy mainly with his duties as prime minister and held the defense portfolio as a part-time job.

During his years of exile in the big wide world of business, Barak reflected on the wisdom of holding both posts and decided that when he reassumes the premiership, he will not hold the defense portfolio as well. Politically, he was ready for this even before his election in 1999, when he prepared to take on Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and hoped, in vain, that Amnon Lipkin-Shahak would make do with the defense portfolio in a Barak government, in return for dropping his independent run for prime minister. Now the choice is not his to make, because between Barak and the Prime Minister's Bureau lie the next elections. The years are pressing; the glory of operations such as "Aviv Neurim" (Spring of Youth, involving missions aimed at killing PLO militants in Beirut in 1973) has been tainted by the civilian blandness of the last decade. Today, at the age of 65, Barak can only wonder: Where is spring, where is youth?

In the ceremony at which he will take over from Peretz, Barak will find it difficult, if he even bothers to make the effort, to hide the feeling that everything is again under control. The commander of the elite commando unit has returned to his base after a short leave, during which the armament officer tried to fill in to the best of his limited ability.

Peretz ignored all the warning signs that were placed in his path. Immediately after the election last year, he did not exploit the opportunity to form a government of 61 MKs with the support of Netanyahu, and thereby sent a message of lack of confidence in himself vis-a-vis the post of prime minister. He did not demand that Ehud Olmert give Labor the justice portfolio - it was important for him to placate the masters of the various sectors in his party, and to give them the agriculture and infrastructure portfolios. Peretz thereby became a passive partner to the assault of Haim Ramon and Daniel Friedmann, the past and present justice ministers, on the judicial and law-enforcement systems. Peretz also did not appoint an experienced and loyal director general or a bureau chief immediately after he took over as defense minister, someothing that might have spared him from making the mistakes of a new recruit.

The verity that became a cliche - almost like "Every Jewish mother will know" - is that Peretz amazed his listeners by asking the right questions. Well, Little Red Riding Hood also asked all the right grandmother questions, but to deal with a wolf you need a hunter.