Netanyahu Had an Offshore Account, but Let’s Keep an Eye on Barak

Ehud Barak, who until March was Israel’s defense minister, is an adviser to companies on sensitive issues like Iran. What’s he telling them?

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

When the poet John Donne wrote “No Man Is an Island,” he was writing from the vantage point of an island dweller, an Englishman surrounded by water and beyond it the continent of Europe. Four hundred years later, it turns out that two Israeli prime ministers have had islands of their own. Ariel Sharon had his Greek island, and Benjamin Netayahu the Isle of Jersey.

In Jersey, Netanyahu deposited income from the work he did during his 1999-2002 stint out of politics.During those years he produced words. As a lecturer he was much in demand, but he also demanded much. His reputation preceded him and his wallet followed close behind.

Toward the end of this period, Netanyahu started the motions of returning home – to politics. One move was reconciling, at least temporarily, with his media critics. In those days, he and Ehud Barak competed in the lecture market. It was said Netanyahu had wanted to be prime minister so he could eventually win the title “former prime minister.” That way he could make the big bucks.

The idea outraged Netanyahu, not only because of the financial motive attributed to him, but because he had been put in the same category as Barak. He was incensed to think audiences were paying tens of thousands of dollars, near his personal record, to listen to Barak.

The tidy sums Barak received for lectures had a totally different purpose, Netanyahu explained. Their aim was to hide the real source of Barak’s income, he said. Whatever the source, it wasn’t for Netanyahu to guess. That was a matter for journalists. Back then, Netanyahu saw nothing wrong with journalists probing into prime ministers’ income and expense provisions. That went for prime ministers both past and present, at least most prime ministers.

Five years later Barak returned to politics and became defense minister. Now he’s a former prime minister and, according to a summary of his resume, provided as bait to his clients, a former foreign minister and a former interior minister. (In these last two posts he served for only a few months, but what counts is the quality.)

Barak was appointed adviser to the Swiss banking group Julius Baer. He's also an adviser to Ergo, a global intelligence and advisory firm. This company boasts intelligence, security and diplomacy veterans from all over the world. A senior one, not just alphabetically, is Barak. One topic is the conflict between Israel and Iran.

Ergo promises to share with clients a forecast of whether Israel will attack Iran; in the next quarter, for example. This is important information for investors and governments. It’s worth buying – from a man who until a year ago was Netanyahu’s partner in Israel’s Iran policy. Obviously he’s not going to sell obvious stuff or things that appear in newspaper headlines. That trick can only be played once.

Nobody disputes Barak’s awareness of the need to secure information; after all, he preaches on that issue to others. But who makes sure he doesn’t blurt out state secrets?

Other has-beens’ lectures and articles are under some kind of supervision, whether in advance or in retrospect. The military censors read everything and can punish people, although in reality they’re passive to the point of groveling when it comes to public figures, unlike journalists. And there’s no knowing what’s being said privately and whether Barak is trying to influence policy with his connections so it coincides with his assessments.

Ergo’s Evan Pressman was happy to respond to a query about Barak. First he wondered if we were interested in purchasing a briefing from him – but he was tightfisted with details and refused to say exactly what had been said behind closed doors. The only sound coming from there is the ka-ching of the cash register.

It's hard to say goodbye: Defense Minister Ehud Barak gestures at the Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 3, 2013.Credit: AP

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