Israel's Minister of Defense Ehud Barak (Thomas Brown / Staff)
TEL AVIV — Contenders from all shades of the Israeli political spectrum are jockeying to relieve Ehud Barak after he retires from politics early next year.
After five years as defense minister and another two under his own short-lived 1999-2001 term as Israeli prime minister, Barak surprised many with his Nov. 26 announcement that he would not run in the Jan. 22 elections. But Barak, observers here said, is a master strategist and commando of covert operations who may manage to retain the defense portfolio despite the anemic electoral prospects driving his political retirement.
In fact, Barak intimated as much when he told reporters here, “As long as my council is sought after and received, then I will present it before the prime minister and the heads of the establishment on any diplomatic or military matter, as and when I am requested to do so.”
Out of the many names bandied about to take the top defense post, three have floated to the surface in the week following Barak’s announcement: Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and veteran Labor Party politician Benjamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer.
But some observers aren’t ready to count Barak out just yet.
A former Israeli military chief of staff who rose rapidly to the top of Israeli politics as self-proclaimed heir to the politically moderate-yet-security-hawkish precepts of slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, Barak broke away early last year from the Labor Party he led to retain his seat in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government.
If Netanyahu wins big, as expected, in the upcoming election and insists — in the interest of national security — on appointing a proven, yet unelected leader in the top security post, Barak may not need to vacate his 14th-floor offices at Ministry of Defense headquarters here, observers said.
Others, however, said that scenario is unlikely, and not because of Barak’s desire to spend more time with family or to allow “new people to enter senior positions in Israeli politics,” as he told reporters on Nov. 26.
Skeptics of the Barak comeback scenario cite the decisive rightward shift in Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its merger with Lieberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party.
“With Netanyahu, he might have managed to close a deal, but Lieberman is a different story entirely. Anyone who has been listening to Lieberman lately can only conclude that while the Defense Ministry is part of Barak’s past and present, with Lieberman at the top, it will not be in his future,” wrote Ha’aretz political analyst Yossi Verter in Nov. 27 editions of Israel’s respected daily paper.
Netanyahu won’t risk losing support of party hard-liners by inviting Barak back into government, said Rami Tal, a veteran Israeli commentator and book editor for Israel’s Yediot Ahronot who worked with Netanyahu and nearly a dozen other top political figures on autobiographies.
And that assumes, many here added, that Netanyahu still wants Barak as his wingman in the MoD after their public rift over the need for Washington’s support as a prerequisite for military action in Iran.
Tal said the results from last week’s Likud Party primary, in which moderate party veterans such as Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor were ousted in favor of extremists, “proved that Netanyahu lost control of his party.”
In a Nov. 27 interview, Tal likened Netanyahu’s predicament in the upcoming election to that of the U.S. Republican Party, where “those in leadership positions are much further to the right of average Republican voters.”
Netanyahu, according to Tal, “wants to repair relations with Turkey and wants results vis a vis Iran, which means he needs a defense minister with a mandate to operate ... and you can’t operate without significant party support.”
Ya’alon From Likud
Observers here expect Netanyahu to tap Ya’alon, his strategic affairs minister, as defense minister in his next government.
Like Barak, Ya’alon is a former military chief of staff and director of military intelligence who hails from Israel’s kibbutz movement. But unlike Barak, who exchanged his Spartan, socialist upbringing for a life of luxury and wealth, Ya’alon retains a reputation of farm-bred modesty.
A principled, yet pragmatic security hawk, Ya’alon clashed with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
Earlier in his tenure as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Ya’alon commanded Israel’s Defensive Shield anti-terror incursion throughout the West Bank. At the time, he cited among his operational goals the need to “engrave upon the Palestinian consciousness” that political objectives cannot be achieved through terrorism.
As for Iran, Ya’alon told an interviewer on Israel’s Arutz Sheva pro-settlement podcast last month that Tehran is 12 to 18 months away from nuclear weapon capability. That’s a conservative assessment compared with the few months cited by Netanyahu before Iran reaches the so-called red line.
In June, when asked by Ari Shavit of Israel’s Ha’aretz if Israel must choose between living with an Iranian bomb or bombing Iranian nuclear targets, Ya’alon replied, “I hope we will not get there. The international community can still act aggressively and with determination. … But if the question is [Iranian] bomb or [Israeli] bombing, the answer is clear: bomb.”
Lieberman’s First Right of Refusal
But despite Ya’alon’s security background and high ranking in Nov. 26 Likud primaries, others speculate that Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, will claim the defense portfolio as his own.
Under an October agreement between Netanyahu and Lieberman that merged the two parties into a single ticket, Lieberman has first right of refusal over MoD.
After serving the past four years as Netanyahu’s top diplomat and with previous stints as minister of strategic affairs, transportation and national infrastructure, sources close to the combative, Moldova-born politician said the MoD job would solidify his way to the premiership following Netanyahu’s retirement.
Lieberman backers said the controversial, populist politician who supported swapping large populated areas of Israeli Arab citizens in exchange for permanent Israeli control of Jewish-populated areas of the West Bank has considerably matured in recent years.
The man who once said former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak “can go to hell” if he refused to visit Israel praised Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for “responsible leadership” that ended combat in Gaza last month without a bloody ground war.
Those championing Lieberman for defense minister said the rapport he enjoys with Russian President Vladimir Putin could serve Israel well in mitigating Moscow’s unhelpful support for regional adversaries.
And if Netanyahu is concerned about Lieberman’s lacking relations in Washington, he may opt to appoint Barak as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, observers here said.
“If Bibi ever decided to attack Iran, Evet wants to be there to share the glory,” an Israeli lawmaker told Defense News, using Netanyahu’s nickname and Lieberman’s given name before immigrating here from the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s.
To help burnish his image with Israel’s non-Russian electorate, Lieberman enlisted Yair Shamir, the pedigreed son of a pre-state warrior and former Likud prime minister, as No. 2 on his party’s slate.
A former Israel Air Force officer, accomplished businessman and former chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries, Shamir’s name has also been raised as possible defense minister. But since the Likud-Israel Our Home deal precludes Lieberman from claiming both the foreign and defense ministry portfolios in the coming government, Shamir’s prospects for MoD are much likelier in any prospective future Lieberman-dominated government.
What About Fuad?
In the event that the Barak-abandoned Labor Party now led by former television journalist Shelly Yachimovich scores strong in the polls, Netanyahu-Lieberman may be forced to hammer out a coalition deal with those still committed to realizing Rabin’s two-state vision of a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestine.
A Ha’aretz poll on Nov. 27 projected 18 seats for Labor and 11 for the right-wing Shas religious party. The poll projected a combined 17 seats for new centrist parties established by former Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni, TV personality Yair Lapid and the remnants of Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party now led by Shaul Mofaz, another former defense minister and IDF chief of staff.
And while myriad names are bandied about as prospective candidates for defense minister under a Netanyahu-Lieberman-led coalition government, a possible choice is Ben-Eliezer, the veteran Labor Party politician.
At 75 and still recovering from a serious illness in late 2010, Ben-Eliezer poses no threat to the political ambitions of Lieberman and other rising stars within the ranks of Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
A retired major general and former defense minister, Ben-Eliezer has ample experience in the security sphere and could serve as a credible counterweight to government hard-liners in working with the White House toward a Palestinian peace deal.
“Fuad could succeed where Barak failed, in bridging the gaps between the White House and the prime minister’s office on the Palestinian issue. The question is, does he have the physical strength needed for the job?” an Israeli lawmaker told Defense News.
“It all depends on how well we do in elections and the coalition negotiations to come after that,” Ben-Eliezer told Defense News Nov. 27. “But I’m completely healthy, ready and most definitely willing to return to MoD and help steer our government through the enormous security challenges ahead.”