Grinning through each reversal, the ever-bumbling, deeply unpopular Ehud Barak maneuvers to remain a political force in Israel and its leading voice to the West
Early this morning, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called a Knesset news conference on very short notice to announce that he was leaving the Labor Party—the party that up until that moment he had led. The move had been planned and executed just the way that Barak likes to do things: It was a total surprise to friends and foes alike. “Absolute secrecy, exactly like they used to do in Sayeret Matkal,” bragged one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides, referring to the IDF’s elite unit, in which Netanyahu served under Barak in the early 1970s.
Comparing himself to David Ben Gurion and Ariel Sharon, Barak announced that he would be leaving the Labor party along with another minister and three other Knesset members to establish a new center-Zionist “Independence Party,” which would remain part of Netanyahu’s government. The move was planned in secret by Barak and Netanyahu, and it immediately shored up the governing Likud coalition by depriving the left-wing members of the Labor Party, which Barak left behind, of any leverage against the prime minister. The three remaining Labor ministers in the Netanyahu government reacted by immediately quitting it.
While Sharon’s split from the Likud to form Kadima in 2005 was a move made to advance a particular political agenda, many observers saw Barak’s maneuver as a characteristic piece of selfishness whose intended beneficiary was Barak himself. And it will likely further lower the reputation of Israel’s most widely loathed public figure. A few months ago, a panel of journalists and experts was convened by the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’ir to select the most hated Israeli. Out of 50 contestants—including Netanyahu and other politicians and media personalities—the hands-down winner was Barak.
Such mocking disregard might surprise non-Israelis. Barak enjoys enormous respect in the international community, where he is almost universally considered to be the most responsible and serious member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. And because the widely disliked Avigdor Lieberman is Israel’s foreign minister, Barak also serves as Israel’s de facto diplomat-in-chief; last month, he made his ninth visit to the United States in three years. Barak remains the Obama Administration’s main point of contact in Israel’s government, and, although his relationship with President Bill Clinton has been thorny at times, these days both Clintons (including the now-more important one, Hillary) seem to think highly of him. Nearly all of the relevant administration officials—including Dennis Ross, now Clinton’s special envoy for the region, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—have known and respected Barak for two decades and clear time on their schedules for him whenever he passes through Washington.
And yet within Israel, the verdict of Ha’ir’s unpopularity contest surprised no one. Barak is now enjoying unparalleled status as a public punching bag; indeed, it is doubtful that any other Israeli politician has achieved lower popularity in recent years—quite a feat, given the competition from figures like the brutish Lieberman, the corrupt and incompetent Ehud Olmert, and the blinkered leadership of Shas. The contempt in which Barak is held is even more astonishing when one considers his pedigree: He is one of the three most decorated officers in the history of the IDF and holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and math and a master’s degree in engineering-economic systems from Stanford University. He is even, some claim, a very capable amateur pianist. But all of his credentials and talents have never translated to more than a rudimentary ability to connect with people. Barak, an oft-told joke goes, will one day commit suicide by leaping from his IQ to his EQ.
Indeed, dislike for the current defense minister has become so ingrained in the Israeli psyche that his own political handlers have tried to ride the wave rather than fight it: Two years ago, when Barak’s campaign for prime minister ran into a ditch during Knesset elections, his aides fought back with a series of advertisements portraying Barak as “not a sahbak”—the Arabic word meaning friend or “man of the people”—but as “a leader.” The meaning was clear: You might not want to make small talk with Barak at a party, or invite him over to watch soccer on TV, but you might at least trust him to be a responsible grown-up.
The ads did little good. Labor won only 13 Knesset seats (out of 120)—an all-time low for the party. And these days, the most common expression describing Barak is another Arabic term: ahabal, an idiot or fool. In November, Ofer Eini—a member of Histadrut, Barak’s own party—lobbed the now-infamous insult at Barak during a television interview. Eini was responding to a question about the scandal du jour, that Barak’s wife, Nili Barak-Priel, had been caught employing an illegal maid from the Philippines. “Barak has this quality: He never misses a mistake,” claimed Eini. “You’re a member of the government. What the hell do you bring a Philippine worker for? Employ an Israeli one. You should set an example. You need to be an ahabal to do such a thing, really! You know it’s against the law. Did you think that they wouldn’t catch you? Well, they did.” Eini’s language was harsh, but the expression stuck, summing up what large swaths of the Israeli public believe to be an inglorious and costly string of mistakes, both personal and public.
“There’s something slightly autistic about him,” admits a senior official in Israel’s defense administration, who has known Barak for decades. “He hardly listens to criticism, least of all when he’s convinced that he’s right and everybody else is wrong.” Still, one-on-one, Barak is very convincing and, until very recently, public opinion polls showed an interesting pattern: Most Israelis trusted him as a defense minister, though not as a possible prime minister.
Now almost no one trusts him, in either role.
By all accounts, Barak’s problems began a decade ago, during his term as prime minister, which is widely seen by Israelis as an unqualified disaster. After an unprecedented 12-point victory over Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1999, Barak managed to squander nearly all of his public support outside the Labor Party within 20 months as prime minister during which he delivered only one crucial, strategic decision: the unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, which ended 18 years of Israeli occupation. But he then promised to try and achieve regional peace “in 15 months”—and failed miserably. Negotiations with Syria reached a dead end, and the July 2000 Camp David peace summit with the Palestinians famously achieved nothing. Barak went to Camp David supported by only a quarter of Knesset members, and he avoided an immediate ouster only because the summit was held during the Knesset’s summer recess. The peace talks failed not because of Barak, but because Yasser Arafat refused to compromise—a conclusion supported by Bill Clinton, who gave full backing to Barak’s accusations against the PLO chairman. But Arafat can’t have been encouraged by the prospect of compromise with a leader who was clearly a political lame duck. Barak’s string of political failures got even longer two months later, when the second Intifada broke out, plunging the country into nightmarish violence and leading most Israelis to blame the prime minister for being both naïve and unprepared.
Barak was able to make a political comeback—of sorts. After the IDF’s fiasco during the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Amir Peretz, then head of the Labor Party and minister of defense, was widely criticized as unfit for his job. In May 2007, Barak quickly maneuvered him out of both the Labor leadership and the defense ministry, taking his place in Ehud Olmert’s government. Now Barak had a new problem: During his six years out of government, he had been mainly occupied with his flourishing business career. His affluence wasn’t easily accepted by Israeli voters, who generally believe that the leader of what is still supposed to be a workers’ party should not be worth millions of dollars (and be seen flaunting his wealth). To be fair, Barak’s focus on his business career while out of office was no different from Netanyahu’s (and was certainly less outrageous than Olmert’s). But for Barak, an image of ostentatious luxury was quite damaging—and was not helped by his purchase of a $10 million apartment at Tel Aviv’s most luxurious high-rise. Whatever sympathy and forgiveness he received from the Israeli electorate upon his return was soon replaced by contempt.
It didn’t take long for Barak and Olmert to grab for each other’s throats. Serving in the same government, the former friends quickly found each other intolerable. Olmert became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals (he is now standing trial for some of these), and Barak eventually demanded his resignation, forcing the prime minister to retire. But even before this final break, it seemed impossible for Olmert and Barak to agree on anything. In February 2009, Olmert refused to surrender to Barak’s pressure and approve a deal with Hamas in which Israel would release a thousand Palestinian prisoners in return for Gilad Shalit. When Israel invaded parts of the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, Barak’s resistance prevented Olmert from gambling on a full-scale reoccupation of the Strip, which Olmert had hoped would lead to the final defeat of Hamas in Gaza. At this point, there emerged a fierce—and still ongoing—argument between Barak and Olmert, hard to decipher because of restrictions by Israeli military censorship, about the decision-making process before certain Israeli actions abroad, which international media organizations have assumed refers to the successful bombing of a Syrian nuclear plant in September 2007, which Olmert is said to have championed, and Barak, it is implied, opposed.
Yet after Olmert stepped down as prime minister, it began to appear that the only Israeli politician that Barak could get along with was himself. When Tzipi Livni, Olmert’s successor as head of the Kadima party, tried to form a new coalition, Barak did not go out of his way to help her. During the election campaign, he publicly insulted Livni by calling her by “Tzipora”—her full name, but also widely seen as an anachronistic grandmotherly moniker—in a radio interview. He notably withheld even cursory approval for Livni’s performance while trying to raise the same argument Hillary Clinton first used against Barack Obama, asking, in political advertisements, “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?” The answer of the Israeli electorate seemed clear: anybody but you.
And so, the defense minister’s new image has gradually consolidated: arrogant, aloof, condescending, a habitual intriguer against his fellow ministers and political partners who is constantly accused of corruption, although, unlike many of his colleagues, he has never been indicted for any crime. Even his experience in defense matters—his greatest public asset—has evaporated in the eyes of most voters. His personal friction with Olmert prevented him from playing a bigger role in that government, and his public support has collapsed during Netanyahu’s term.
Yet in spite of his obvious political weakness—or because of it—his personal relationship with Netanyahu is surprisingly good. Both men, each of whom had an unpleasant term as prime minister during the 1990s, seem to have gotten beyond their past confrontations, perhaps brought together by shared antipathy for their fellow politicians and for the press. As Netanyahu’s point man in the United States diplomatic and defense establishments, Barak’s importance is much greater than his party’s role in the coalition might suggest. As a result, Netanyahu has given Barak almost unlimited freedom to deal with military issues and has listened to most of the defense minister’s advice regarding the peace process.
Continue reading: “Mr. Defense,” the quarrel with Gabi Ashkenazi, and Israel’s Mr. Unpopularity. Or view as a single page.
Perhaps the greatest mark of Barak’s influence behind closed doors is the fact that his positions about major security and diplomatic questions are hard to pin down. In public, especially in the United States, he pays lip service to ideas considered “correct” in the eyes of the international community, like peace with Syria and the pressing need for a Palestinian state. But when Moshe Ya’alon, a member of the prime minister’s inner Cabinet, said recently that not one of Netanyahu’s top seven ministers believed there was a chance of achieving peace with the Palestinians, Barak didn’t bother to protest. When faced with important dilemmas, such as whether to continue the attack on Hamas during Cast Lead, Barak comes off as a moderate, preventing Israel from going too far. Yet when it comes to a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, Barak—who frequently asserts that “all options should remain open”—is considered a hawk, like his boss.
Given all of this—not least of all his flourishing relationship with Netanyahu—Barak should be enjoying the unparalleled respect of his peers and adoration of at least some part of the Israeli public. But he has managed again to sabotage himself. Late last year, Barak—long known as “Mr. Defense”—undermined his own public authority on military matters by engaging in a drawn-out and sordid quarrel with Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the IDF. The relationship, by all accounts, began swimmingly. Ashkenazi had been appointed to his job three months before Barak’s comeback and gradually attained huge credit in Israeli public opinion for presumably fixing what was wrong with the army after its failure in Lebanon. And, for once, Barak did not try to interfere. They met for dinners with their wives, and their relationship was portrayed by the press as being warm and supportive. They reportedly combined to produce what became known as the “Barak-Ashkenazi doctrine” of limited warfare with the goal of strengthening Israel’s deterrence, which would shape Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, against the more maximalist goals of Olmert and Southern Command chief Yoav Galant.
But in the aftermath of the war in Gaza, which was widely seen in Israel as a success, an ugly battle erupted between the two men over who deserved credit for their joint doctrine. Ashkenazi’s cronies began leaking unflattering stories about Barak to reporters, and Barak lost his composure. Instead of taking the advice of his aides, who suggested that Barak “hug” the chief of staff—i.e., keep his popular enemy close—the defense minister chose instead to publicly alienate Ashkenazi. The ensuing bickering struck many Israelis as unprofessional and absurd. To take only the most ridiculous example, the men began fighting over Barak’s tendency for tardiness. “I understand that party matters come first,” the major general sniped sarcastically, according to a source, while impatiently waiting for Barak to start a regular Thursday morning meeting regarding the army’s confidential operations. In turn, Barak began to deliberately postpone approval for the chief of staff’s meetings with other ministers and foreign visitors. When journalists asked the defense minister why he insisted on humiliating the chief of staff, Barak retorted: “Gabi is too sensitive.” Then, a week after Barak appointed a new media adviser, a photograph was distributed to the press; in it, an assertive Barak is seen briefing a division commander while Ashkenazi, looking exhausted and unkempt, watches from behind. The morning after, Ashkenazi barged into the adviser’s office and threw the newspaper on his desk. “Don’t think I don’t understand what you’re trying to do,” he shouted.
The sparring between the two men has only gotten worse, as plans got under way to pick Ashkenazi’s successor. Each IDF chief’s term lasts four years, and Ashkenazi’s will end in February 2011. Once his final year began, Ashkenazi hinted to his friends that he might be interested in an extension for a fifth year, but Barak refused. Instead, the defense minister’s advisers indicated that he was considering the appointment of General Galant—a man despised by Ashkenazi. In August, the media got hold of what soon became known as the “Galant Document”—an informal summary of an intended smear campaign against Ashkenazi and Galant’s rivals for his job. Ashkenazi declaimed his outrage. But a police investigation revealed that an Ashkenazi crony had forged the document—and the chief’s own office had leaked it. Ashkenazi, of course, denied he was in on the scheme, a protestation that Barak does not believe. And yet Israeli public opinion sees it differently, blaming Barak for airing the army’s dirty laundry and humiliating Ashkenazi. And one thing is clear: The two most senior men in Israel’s defense administration have lately been busier plotting against each other than preparing for possible fights with Iran or Hezbollah.
The quarrel with Ashkenazi came at a bad time for Barak. The police are investigating the Philippine worker scandal, while the comptroller has been looking into other affairs, among them Mrs. Barak-Priel’s attempt at opening a public relations company that relied heavily on her husband’s connections. The worst scandal came in October 2009, when the comptroller published a lethal report on the lavish spending of Barak’s entourage during a visit to the Paris Air Show in June of that year. The day the report was published, Barak happened to be visiting Poland. He was photographed in Warsaw wearing an expensive, if outdated, fedora. Ever since, when the press wants to portray Barak as disconnected and uninterested in his voters—which these days is quite often—it uses the fedora picture.
Though Barak should probably take most of the blame for his public image, he might be right in assuming that Israeli media has judged him harshly. At least some of the attacks against him seem motivated by his political alliance with Netanyahu, whose actions are in turn likely to determine Barak’s political future. If Netanyahu is heading toward an eventual attempt at a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as some still presume, the political verdict against Barak might be delayed. Indeed, whenever Barak is asked about the public’s contempt, he answers that bigger, more important issues are at stake, quipping that the future of the state of Israel should not be decided as if it was the fate of a contestant in a reality TV show. It seems likely that if Netanyahu would promise Barak the defense portfolio in his next government, Barak might join as an independent “professional” committed to the greater good of Israel—just as he has now abandoned the sinking Labor Party ship without looking back.
In the meantime, Israel’s Mr. Unpopularity continues to serve his country in his own inimitable way. In a radio interview a few weeks ago, Barak boasted of his survival skills, with his typical combination of confidence and deafness. “Look at all these politicians who hoped to eulogize me,” he said. “Where are they now?”
Amos Harel is the defense analyst for Haaretz. Avi Issacharoff is the newspaper’s Arab affairs correspondent. They blog at MESS Report, on Haaretz.com.
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