Barak Goes to Washington, May Burnish Credentials While There

Israel's defense minister is likely to strike a sympathetic pose when in the US this weekend ahead of a visit by Netanyahu. Barak is likely to offer a more consensual approach to Washington on Iran, leaving the prime minister, who has appeared to back Obama's rival in the US presidential election campaign, more isolated than ever — and burnishing his own political credentials.

al-monitor U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (L) address the media at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Aug. 1, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.

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us elections, us, romney, obama, netanyahu, livni, israeli elections, iran, benjamin netanyahu, barak

Sep 21, 2012

On the eve of the Jewish New Year [Sept.16], [the Israeli Defense Minister] Ehud Barak departed for Europe on a private vacation, after which he took off to America. Over the past three years, Ehud Barak has travelled to the United States dozens of times. If people were to do the math, they might find out that no other Israeli]defense minister has ever gotten even remotely close to the number of times Barak has gone there. Yet it seems to me that from Barak’s standpoint, this trip is of particular importance. If I understand anything about this man, who serves as the defense minister, but dreams (seriously!) of becoming the prime minister again, this will be the trip where he will give Benjamin Netanyahu the final snub.

Arriving in New York and Washington ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, which is slated to take place immediately thereafter [Sept. 27], Barak will be like the pillar of fire before the camp (allusion to the Book of Exodus). In our case, however, it will be the pillar of fire that burns the camp. Barak will be the paragon of anti-Bibi. In his interviews and in his talks, the Israeli defense minister will — suddenly and magically — re-emerge as the moderate, sane, sober person who recognizes America’s superiority. For Ehud Barak, this is just a simple technical tweak, taking off one mask and donning another so he can move forward.

As someone who has just woken up from the oppressive and sustained influence of hallucinogens, Barak will perform an uncanny back-flip somersault, asserting that Israel does not interfere with the American election campaign and that it has no interest in stirring the local political pot (although Netanyahu vigorously does). Intimating that he doesn’t (and never did!) have any intention of striking Iran before the US election and without first coordinating the move with the United States, he will nonetheless underscore Israel’s sovereignty and its right for self-defense, as well as its right to call tough decisions relating thereto. Yet he will bundle this up with the need to take into consideration the positions and needs of “our greatest friend.” Announcing the urgent need to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, he might even go as far as to say that we need to mend fences with the Turks, et cetera, et cetera. As if this has all been a mare’s nest; as if he has never sat at dozens of secret meetings and pushed, with all his persuasive skills and passionate Messianism, to strike Iran here and now; as if he had not applied unrelenting pressure on ministers, generals and statesmen. You name it. 

To date, it was customary to think that Barak and Bibi had pulled a sophisticated fast one on the world, taking America “for a spin,” while playing the hold-me-back game vis-à-vis Iran. Many people now tend to think that deception was indeed at play here, but the victim was not America; rather, it was Netanyahu. Barak took him for a spin, bringing him to the trough, but not letting him have a sip of water. 

Netanyahu’s Penny Drops

It seems to me that Netanyahu is beginning to understand the magnitude of the crisis of his future relationships with Washington. Showing a demonstrative lead in the polls, President Obama fairs even better among the members of the Electoral College. It seems that it would take a miracle to save Romney and the people who had their future riding on him. It is this miracle that Netanyahu and American business magnate Sheldon Adelson are piously praying for. While Bibi is trying to convince the Americans that he is not meddling in the election campaign and that he is only interested in the spinning centrifuges at Kom in Iran, bizarre yet typical mishaps keep befalling him day in day out.

While coasting between American TV networks two nights ago [19 Sept. 19], explaining with his polished English how he was in no way, shape or form interfering with the struggle between Romney and Obama, Netanyahu suddenly saw one his former advisors — a professor by the name of Israel Hanukoglu — pop up. Publishing an “investigative report” on his web site, the professor contended that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was forged, that he was not even born in the United States, so he cannot therefore be a president. Although swiftly removed from the web site (probably due to heavy pressure from Netanyahu), the report, meanwhile, was re-posted on many Republican web sites in the United States.

Yesterday [Sept. 20], on the other hand, it was reported that Republican groups working for Mitt Romney in Florida — a critical state in the campaign — were using excerpts from Netanyahu’s speeches to convince voters in this swing state to switch from Obama to Romney. And after all that, Bibi has to prove that he has no mistress and that her name isn’t Adelson. Obama, for sure, won’t buy into it.

In view of the extensive damage to the very delicate fabric of the important relationships between Washington and Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s associates are starting — very gingerly, quietly and on tiptoes — to plan for the day after, assuming that a miracle will not happen, and that Romney will be rocketed ignominiously back home on Nov. 7. The prime minister’s people know full well what they should expect from the White House during Obama’s second term. They appreciate perfectly the intense loathing that has been built up around the American president toward anything that symbolizes or feels like the prime minister of Israel. They know that the rehabilitation work ahead of them is (nearly) chanceless. It can be compared to the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center 15 minutes after they gave in: piles of rubble, billows of fire and smoke, and deafening silence.

Survival 2013

And yet Netanyahu will have no choice. He will have to survive. It still remains unclear whether he would be better off holding the elections (in Israel) as soon as possible, before Obama tells the Israeli public that reelecting the Israeli Premier would cost it dearly, or as late as possible to allow the American president to chill out, so as to be able to curry his favor. What’s clear, however, is that Netanyahu will have to pay dearly for his antics. This is very bad news for Israel’s right-wing circles, the settlers, and anyone who had his fate riding on the one who had his fate riding on Mitt Romney (meaning Netanyahu). My jaw would not drop if Obama’s second term in office were to start with another construction moratorium in the settlements and the resumption of the talks with the Palestinians, assuming that Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen were to have survived by then. (If it were up to Foreign Minister Liberman, he wouldn’t). 

Incidentally, this is what Ehud Barak, the Israeli chameleon who now sports the colors of peace and reconciliation, is relying on. What Netanyahu will need the most after November is peace and conciliation. Barak’s work premise is that if he does win a seat, and if Netanyahu does after all win the election, he will have to set up a moderate, centrist government that will speak peace, not war; a government that will wink at America and compensate it to some extent for its antics in the previous term. Life’s crazy here in Israel, so you never know. We might even find Tzipi Livni (former Head of centrist Kadima party) as foreign minister in Netanyahu’s third government. 

In that government, Barak would be a much-needed commodity. That’s Barak’s limited plan. That’s the Minor League for him. But there is also the Major League. Barak is counting on the vacuum and the fact that his Independence Party (founded by Barak in 2011) is already garnering enough votes to get into the Knesset. Once this happens, Barak believes he can take off and break through. The people who detest Bibi, who voted in droves for the Kadima party (but no more), will look to the right, then look to the left, see Shelly Yachimovich (Head of the Labor party — Ehud Barak’s former party) on one hand, and Yair Lapid and his newly founded centrist Yesh Atid party on the other, and vacillate. Shelly is a socialist, Lapid is inexperienced. Who should we give the keys to? Who would we want to see in those decisive moments — with the experience, the levelheadedness, the security background, etc.? 

And then they will all converge toward him. 

More from  Ben Caspit