Barack and Barak Need a Champion in the Israeli Cabinet

Both Barack Obama and Ehud Barak share the commitment to a peace built on two states and to a robust, militarily secured Israel. Now that Ehud Barak has retired, who in Israel's cabinet will voice this position with sufficient force and influence?

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Barack Obama needs an Ehud Barak. If one emerges at the highest levels of the government of Israel, there is hope that the stirring vision Obama articulated in his Jerusalem address on Thursday will actually be realized.

I support Obama and admire Barak. Many Israelis do not agree with either part of that sentence. Nonetheless, both of these men are forward-looking, tough-minded thinkers, and despite their differences, some combination of their views is the only hope that Israel can move beyond the current stalemate and avoid growing political isolation.

Obama on his visit did exactly what we expected him to do, and did it better than we anticipated. He offered ironclad support for Israel’s security needs and unambiguous commitment to a two-state solution. Those who needed reassurance on the security front received it; he had uttered the words before, but not in the Land of Israel and never in such a powerful and personal way. At the same time, those who bizarrely imagined that the President came solely to charm and would be silent on two states were disappointed. Of course, anyone who thought this never understood the President at all; the idea of two states is not a rhetorical flourish for Obama but is the very heart of his worldview.

The week before Obama’s arrival in Israel, Ehud Barak retired. As Minister of Defense, he had won the confidence of the Israeli people by steering them through difficult times -a war with Hamas, threats from Iran, and unrest and uncertainty in the region.

The retirement was little noticed, overshadowed by the upcoming Presidential visit. This seems, somehow, terribly unfair. Obama’s words on security commitments rang true because Ehud Barak had spent six years developing ties and furthering close cooperation with American defense officials. For much of this time, he had, in effect, been responsible for all political and strategic relations with the U.S.; Prime Minister Netanyahu trusted him to be Israel’s spokesman in America, and relied on him at a time when Netanyahu’s own ties with the Administration were tense.

As a politician, Barak was a disaster. Although a former Prime Minister, he seemed to generate little loyalty and no affection among Israel’s political class. In those days when I visited the Knesset several times a year, it was hard to find anyone outside of his immediate circle that had a nice word to say about his conduct of political matters—even when he returned to politics as the leader of the Labor Party.

But with American Jews, Barak was highly effective. He made time for them and understood the role that they played. And while he lacked the oratorical skills of Netanyahu and the relaxed political style of Olmert, his appearances in America were exceedingly impressive, mostly because he spoke directly and in a way that made sense. He was uncompromising on Israel’s security, low-key and analytical in his approach, and he talked tough—very tough—on Iran; at the same time, he was emphatic that a two-state solution was essential if Israel were to remain a Jewish and democratic state. Many in Israel’s last government hemmed, hawed, and danced around these issues; Barak did not. He wanted a strong, secure Israel and a two-state solution, and insisted there was no contradiction between the two.

And this is the connection with Obama, who shares the commitment to a peace built on two states and to a robust and militarily secure Israel. Barak, it should be said, is more skeptical than Obama about the prospects of an agreement with the Palestinian leadership. Still, he understands that the drift toward a bi-national state is a disaster. Both at AIPAC and in a Wall Street Journal published the day before Obama's visit, Barak made clear that if the Palestinians will not make peace, Israel must consider unilateral steps to separate from the West Bank.

But Barak is gone, and the question is: Who in the new government will replace him? Who will possess the political wisdom to support two states, an understanding of the complexities of Israel’s relationship with America, the security credentials that will lend credibility to his views, and a position that is senior enough to exert influence on both the government and the Knesset?

A replacement will not be easy to find. Moshe Ya’alon, the new Defense Minister, is a former Chief of Staff but an adamant opponent of a two-state solution. Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid lack defense experience, and in any case, Lapid may not have the interest and Livni may not have the influence. Will Prime Minister Netanyahu, on record as supporting two states, take on the role himself?

These are matters for Israel’s leaders to decide, but this much is clear: President Obama’s visit has created a new reality and a new set of expectations. But if stagnation is to be avoided, these expectations need a champion in Israel’s government. Ehud Barak, an unappreciated Israeli hero, deserves our gratitude and our thanks. Now we need another voice like him.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

Ehud Barak listening to Barack Obama during a meeting in Maryland, Dec. 2011.Credit: White House

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