Two weeks after he left power, Ehud Barak received a vacation offer from the Israeli consul in Los Angeles, Yuval Rotem. “It’s time to get some fresh air,” Rotem, wrote him. “Whether you’re on Malibu Beach, at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game or in a fun hotel in Las Vegas, the world looks different, and you deserve that feeling.”
Three months later, Benjamin Netanyahu, then a private citizen, wrote a businessman named John M. Barbieri the following: “I was delighted to hear from you and I was very much intrigued by your letter. Could we meet in August when I visit Los Angeles? I will ask our mutual friend, Consul General Yuval Rotem, to arrange our meeting.”
Rotem is now the Foreign Ministry’s director general, a Netanyahu appointment. He is a clever, talented and experienced diplomat. He is very well connected. He is not the kind of person to go to war so the ministry’s position will be heard. The acting foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, whom Netanyahu was forced to appoint on Sunday, will enter the weakest Foreign Ministry ever seen in Israeli history. Its budgets have been slashed, morale is at rock-bottom. Good people have fled and continue to flee.
It’s not only the Foreign Ministry. It’s hard to think of a point in time in our history – perhaps during the Ben-Gurion era – when the decision-making process on the diplomatic and security fronts was in the hands of one person. There is no defense minister, and there was no foreign minister for the past four years. A man full of operational experience heads the Mossad, but he’s a brown-noser regarding the prime minister. Yossi Cohen has allowed an unprecedented number of revelations about Mossad operations. Netanyahu had a substantial political interest in revealing these operations.
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The National Security Council was never an all-powerful body. In recent years it became a diplomatic-security laundry service for the prime minister’s political needs. Matters came to a head when Meir Ben Shabbat, the council’s head, went on a personal mission on Netanyahu’s behalf to lobby a rabbi close to Habayit Hayehudi. He explained afterward that he thought it was not the right time for elections.
The cabinet is comprised of very few people who could challenge Netanyahu, and most of his comrades depend entirely upon him. They don’t think it’s time to pick a fight with him over a diplomatic issue.
We tried to report for years on the decision-making process that led to the 2007 Israeli bombing of the nuclear reactor in Syria. We petitioned the High Court twice and lost both times. Defense establish representatives, as high up as the head of Military Intelligence, asserted that a public Israeli admission was liable to provoke the Syrians. Even after they approved the media’s reporting of the operation, a representative of the military censor told me he thought the Syrians would respond militarily. Assad has absorbed hundreds of Israeli attacks by now, I answered him. Will he respond to an attack from 2007? Yes, he said.
Now Netanyahu is boorishly flouting Israeli policy. He leaked an awkward video, in which representatives of Gulf states speak against Iran. Netanyahu also admits to an attack on an Iranian target “yesterday,” saying the time has come for clarity. That could be, but who in the diplomatic-security establishment knew about the policy change? Will anyone in Netanyahu’s inner circle dare to demand an explanation from him?
I don’t want to overstate the historical significance. The head of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman, seems fairly independent. It also seems that IDF chief Aviv Kochavi does not always nod his head to everything the prime minister says. And still, Netanyahu is championing a host of controversial policies – regarding Poland, Hungary, Gaza and even U.S. President Donald Trump. It’s scary to think that he’s doing it all alone – without consultations or due diligence, or something that would reduce the chance that even he will regret it later.