Ehud Barak, who on Monday announced that he is quitting politics, has been the chief author of Israel’s national security policy for a generation. He has served as military chief of staff, foreign minister, opposition leader, prime minister and currently defence minister, and his ideas underlie most war and peace decisions. Barak’s failed peace proposal to Yasser Arafat is still widely considered to be the basis for any future deal, while his pullout from Lebanon in 2000 serves as the model for Israeli unilateralism. For better or worse, his conclusion of the Camp David debacle – “We have no Palestinian partner” – continues to be the mainstream political thinking in Israel – which makes him the anathema of Israel’s dwindling peace camp.
Barak made his name as a young officer in the special forces, where his daring, cunning and salesmanship propelled him to the highest ranks. He took his love of secretive schemes to politics, where he perfected the art of wrongfooting the media and the public. He did it again on Monday, announcing his withdrawal from the current election campaign less than a week after leading the IDF in Operation Pillar of Defence against Hamas in Gaza, which ended in another fragile ceasefire.
A mathematician by training, Barak is the least emotional of Israel’s leaders. Unlike prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Barak would rarely mention the Holocaust as the basis for policy, or ask the Palestinians to accept Israel’s narrative. Barak’s worldview is built around power. He views Israel as a western bastion in a hostile, Arab Middle East – “a villa in the jungle”. In his mind, the conflict is perpetual. “Those who cannot cope with the situation here should move to Switzerland or Finland,” he said during the latest round of fighting, when Tel Aviv was under rocket attack.
Alas, Barak’s lack of emotion also makes him the worst politician. Never a team player, he collected enemies throughout his career. To the general public, Barak is the “most hated person”. Several years ago he bought a luxury apartment in one of Tel Aviv’s most expensive high-rises. It was a smart move financially (he sold it for a fortune) but a political own goal at a time when most Israelis complained about the rising cost of living. The arrogant nouveau riche from Akirov Towers became unelectable.
One Israeli, however, couldn’t care less about Barak’s personal taste, and valued his strategic advice more than any other. Netanyahu was a junior officer under Barak and remains in awe of him. He kept him at his side as defence minister, giving him full authority over military affairs, and using Barak as his personal emissary to Washington.
Since taking office in 2009, Netanyahu has focused on preparing Israelis and the international community for a historic confrontation with Iran. He found Barak a willing partner in making the case for the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities as the only means to prevent it from getting the bomb and altering the regional power balance against Israel. So far their threats have rung hollow in the face of American opposition and an unenthusiastic public. But Netanyahu has warned that next spring or summer will mark the end of Israeli patience with diplomacy or sanctions, and it is widely speculated that Barak will join Netanyahu’s post-election cabinet as a “professional” defence minister (ie not a Knesset member.) So they could still pull off their ultimate trick together.
If Barak leaves the scene after the 22 January election, the leading aspirants for his job will be Avigdor Lieberman, the current foreign minister, and Moshe Yaalon, the deputy prime minister. Both are hardliners on the Palestinian issue and less hawkish than Barak on Iran. Lieberman lacks military experience, but has more political clout than Yaalon, the former chief of staff. Both aim for the leadership of Likud after Netanyahu, and would therefore steer the governnment further to the right, to appease their voter base. Barak was often criticized as “Bibi’s fig leaf”, but his departure is bad news for Israel’s moderates.
Aluf Benn is a columnist and editor-at-large for Ha’aretz. Formerly, he was the Israeli’s daily newspaper’s diplomatic editor.