Ehud Barak is fighting for his political future. And if there’s anyone in Israel who knows how to fight against impossible odds, it’s him. Israel’s most decorated soldier of all time, the legendary commander of the IDF’s most elite unit, the man who spent most of his life biting on a dagger between his teeth – is now facing a hopeless battle for political survival. Hopeless because, apart from a fistful of nondescript members of Knesset, the defense minister has no political base, no allies in any of the other parties, and has been finally precluded from an assured place on the next Likud list. With no real political home [his Independence Party is not polled to clear the electoral threshold] and nowhere else to go, the warrior is cornered. And now he’s doing what all good warriors are trained to do: fight their way out, by all means possible, take no prisoners, no holds barred.
First, Barak went after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer who knows a thing or two about scrapping. After Lieberman launched into Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ for his speech at the United Nations General Assembly [in which Abbas labeled Israel an Apartheid state carrying out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians], saying that Abbas should be removed from power, Barak issued a statement saying that Lieberman “should not be formulating his own private diplomatic policy with the Palestinians, should not be calling for the removal of Abbas, and in any case does not represent Israeli government policy.”
Ouch. In other words, Barak was saying: “you can visit Bosnia and Tonga, but let the big boys handle the real diplomacy with America and the Palestinians.” It was not a shot across the bow; it was an invitation to a knife fight. So far, Lieberman hasn’t accepted, yet. And he might not have to.
For just as Barak was wiping Lieberman’s blood from his dagger, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was once under Barak’s command in The Unit, dropped a bomb on his own minister of defense. In leaked comments to Channel 2 television, the most widely viewed prime time news show in the country, Netanyahu was reported to have told Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that Barak was “stoking conflict” between Jerusalem and the White House, and then presenting himself as the “savior” of the crucial alliance.
Steinitz, who has never seen a day of battle in his life, has been directing sniper fire at Barak for months, mostly over Barak’s obstinate refusal to cut the defense budget but also over Barak’s demand to be included on the Likud list in the next election. Two weeks ago Steinitz traded his sniper rifle for an RPG when he publicly warned Netanyahu to be wary of Barak’s “treacherous nature.”
But on Tuesday night, the hand-held weapons were put down in favor of much bigger munitions. Netanyahu and Steinitz were ostensibly meeting to discuss the severe, and necessary, cuts to the 2013 national budget, and the trouble they’re going to have passing it through their coalition partners. But what came out of the meeting instead of a balanced budget was a blistering political attack on Barak, accusing him of the worst possible treachery.
“He traveled to the US to stoke the conflict between us and the Americans in order to come off as the savior – the moderate party that reconciles between the sides,” Netanyahu said, according to a source who was present at the meeting.
Barak must have been stunned by the shockwaves, but regained his footing and responded quickly.
In press releases to the media, both on the record but mostly off, Barak intimated that it was Netanyahu’s clear and public preference for Mitt Romney and his pressure on the Obama administration to take action on Iran which was causing serious fires in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. Furthermore, Barak seemed to be saying, it was the minister of defense who was trying to put those fires out. Barak’s media statements left no room for doubt: Barak was the guardian of the most strategically valuable asset the State of Israel has: its bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle in Congress; guarding it against Netanyahu, who was recklessly placing that support in grave danger. Barak’s media briefing is a burst of well-aimed cover fire.
But Barak is hopelessly isolated and outgunned. He has no friends in any of the center-left parties; certainly none in Labor, which he abandoned and tried to dismember. He has no friends in Kadima or in Yair Lapid’s new party. Barak has taken the word ‘Independence’ – the name of his party – to an entirely new level. He may as well call it ‘Completely Alone.”
But Barak is not the only one pinned down and taking fire from several directions. Netanyahu’s attack on his defense minister is an indication that the prime minister finds himself in an impossible situation regarding the 2013 state budget. Netanyahu has to pass a particularly austere budget and has to find some 15 billion shekels of cuts in it. When he looks to make cuts to Shas’ child and housing alliances, he hits a wall of rejection. Cuts to child allowances and housing benefits spell catastrophe for the ultra-Orthodox sector, so Shas will fight them tooth and nail. Netanyahu doesn’t want to lose their electoral support though, which comes in at about 18 Knesset seats, all told [together with the UTJ].
When Netanyahu looks to make cuts to the bloated civil service, he runs into the powerful Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, who can threaten to flood the streets with protesting workers. The one thing Netanyahu doesn’t want to see going into elections are streets full of protesting blue-collar workers, and definitely not people setting themselves on fire, as was a brief trend here recently. I’m not the bad guy, Netanyahu says, I’ve governed responsibly and spent responsibly. But deep cuts are necessary. So if Netanyahu can’t cut from the haredim, and he can’t cut from the government workforce, and he can’t raise taxes any more than he already has, the only other place he can get such a big chunk of change is the defense budget. Hence his need to weaken Barak, who has stood firm against cuts to the military’s finances.
Netanyahu confidants said Barak has decided to separate himself from the prime minister due to electoral considerations and that Barak is hoping that the Independence party, which he founded in 2011 after he left Labor, will earn enough votes in the next elections to surpass the threshold required to receive seats in the Knesset.
If this is really what Barak hopes to achieve, his fight with the prime minister might not get him there, as Netanyahu remains popular, and has recently moved to lower the volume in Israel’s tempestuous relationship with the Obama administration. The sad and ironic fact is that, more than Israel has become a wedge issue in the American election, America has become a wedge issue in the upcoming Israeli elections. All options remain on the table, but the tables have definitely turned.