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The audacious Mr. Ehud Barak

Call it the audacity of hope. Only Ehud Barak could do it: turn certain defeat into one last desperate chance for victory. When faced with no further options, he maneuvered himself into a position where all options are still open to him.

Only him: the master of intrigue, Israel’s most decorated soldier, the man who personally snatched Syrian generals from their bedrooms, and entered Beirut dressed as a woman, only he could cook up this kind of gamble. A truly Sayeret Matkal-like operation – uncanny, unpredictable, with little or no chance for success, but if pulled off, extremely brilliant. Nothing in the military and political career of Ehud Barak suggests the conventional.

Barak’s path to becoming the next defense minister in the next government is now – wait for it – easier than it was just before he announced his retirement from politics.

For Barak, the polls were unambiguous, with no room for interpretation. Barak’s Independence party was not going to cross the electoral threshold in the next Knesset elections in January. His political life now had a definite expiry date. He knew he was not going to be appointed defense minister in the next government, as the pressure against this move inside the Likud was far too great. He knew there was no chance in hell that Labor, the party he scuttled to form Independence, would take him back. There was no other political home for him. He knew he was heading for an ignominious defeat, not befitting a warrior of his stature.

Perhaps his only political hope lay with the Likud, which only points to how desperate his situation really was. His chances of getting a reserved slot as defense minister on Likud’s list were non-existent. In fact, the majority of Likud’s politicians are happy to see the back of Ehud Barak. Let’s rephrase that: they’re over the moon. Barak fought with all of them. He fought with Netanyahu over Obama, over what the prime minister thought was Barak’s badmouthing of him in Washington; and of his meeting with Tzippi Livni in New York. He fought with Moshe Ya’alon over everything, mostly because Ya’alon desperately wants to be defense minister and because Barak ridiculed Ya’alon’s ‘Ministry of Strategic Affairs’ where, according to Barak, there really is nothing strategic going on. He fought with Ya’alon, Edelstein, and Erdan and all of the other right wing nationalist ministers and MKs in the Likud over settlement expansion and outpost removal. He fought with them over evacuating settler homes in Hebron and Migron. He fought with Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar over Ariel University Center’s status, which Barak, as sovereign in the West Bank, is still refusing to approve as a formal university. He fought with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz over the defense budget. In fact, Ehud Barak’s battles with Steinitz and Ya’alon were extraordinarily public, and the animosity between them was laid bare in every newspaper and on every TV news show. It was truly horrible to watch the country’s defense and finance minister’s trash talking each other while simultaneously telling us that the security threats we face are truly ominous.

As an experienced general, he decided not to enter a battle he knew he was going to lose. So instead of washing up on the shore as a beached whale, Barak turned on a thread and walked gracefully into the ocean, slowly enough for someone to call him back.

A graceful exit, saying he was leaving political life at the end of a distinguished military career, and was now going to spend time with his family, reading and writing books. Really now. Ehud Barak is as likely to sit at home and write a memoir as Vladimir Putin is likely to take up synchronized swimming. Barak left a political stage that was not working in his favor and opened up another political stage that just might.

By exiting gracefully at the helm of a party that had zero chance of crossing the electoral threshold, Barak positions himself as the mythological defense minister, the elder statesman-general that any prime minister would be wise to keep at his side, party politics be what they may. Barak’s resignation Monday was not a charade; he really means to resign from the defense ministry and from the Knesset. It’s not a charade; it’s more of a calculated gamble, an audacious chess move by a grandmaster that plays on several dimensions at once. It’s so audacious, it’s such a hail-Mary pass, a one-in-a-million, all or nothing move, that it could only have been cooked up in Ehud Barak’s mind. In his press conference on Monday, Barak said he was not shutting the door on being called back to the flag, if and when that call comes. If my expertise are needed, I will share them, he said. With this, Barak leaves the door open for the next prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, to bring Mr. Barak back as a “professional appointee” if it is politically expedient for him to do so.

If Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu joint list does particularly well at the polls in January, Netanyahu will have the political cache to appoint whomever he wants to the coveted positions of defense, finance and foreign ministries. “We are faced with the challenge of our generation,” he could say, adding “and to face this challenge I need the most experienced people at my side.” If Netanyahu does badly at the polls, which he is not expected to do, Netanyahu will most likely have to appoint Moshe Yaalon or Avigdor Lieberman to the defense ministry, neither of whom he really wants in there. Ya’alon is a supporter of the outposts and may cause diplomatic headaches for a Netanyahu government. Lieberman is unpredictable, and extremely ambitious. I don’t think Netanyahu will sleep peacefully at night with Lieberman at the MOD. And neither will our immediate neighbors, Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Morsi included.

With Barak gone, Netanyahu’s next government will lose the most experienced minister of defense this country has had since Yitzhak Rabin. There will be nobody left to put the brakes on outposts. There will be nobody left to defend the Supreme Court. Significantly, Netanyahu will also lose the most experienced and connected Israeli conduit to the Obama White House as well as to the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This could not have come at a worse time and Netanyahu must be aware of that. With Iran looming in the spring, Netanyahu will want the gravitas and connections of Ehud Barak at his side, either as defense minister, or in some other capacity. Respected as a general, reviled as a politician, Ehud Barak may be exiting public life for now, but chances are we’ll see him back before very long.

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