Chuck Hagel Friend Requests Ehud Barak

by Marsha B. Cohen

Newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is scheduled to meet with Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday morning, March 5. There’s more to this meeting than one might infer from harrumphing members of the right who see this meeting as one more opportunity to regurgitate smears against the former Nebraska Senator.

Barak congratulated Hagel on his appointment during his opening remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2013 Policy Conference, predicting that he “will no doubt serve his country in the same way in which he served both on the battlefield and in Congress.” Barak’s words were met with “uncharacteristically lukewarm applause from an enthusiastic audience that responded warmly to the rest of his speech,” according to Buzzfeed.

AIPAC remained officially neutral in the controversy surrounding the Hagel nomination, arousing ire and even eliciting mockery from pro-Israel right-wing ideologues — including the Middle East Forum‘s Daniel Pipes, Washington Post “Right Turn” blogger Jennifer Rubin and Lee Smith of Tablet Magazine — for not using its substantial congressional clout to firmly oppose Hagel. Nonetheless, ex-AIPAC Executive Director Morris Amitay was among the first voices to openly express antagonism toward Hagel in the Washington Free Beacon when the nomination was still just a rumor. And former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, who now heads The Israel Project but is still regarded by AIPAC as a major organizational player, also disseminated anti-Hagel sentiment.

Barak attended AIPAC in lieu of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who most attendees almost certainly would have preferred be there in person instead of via video conference. Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted that this is the first time in at least seven years that AIPAC’s annual meeting was not attended by the Prime Minister of Israel or the US President.

Most AIPAC devotees have only sketchy insight into Israel politics and little idea of how Israel’s political system actually functions. They’re content with uncritically loving “Israel” and discriminating against Arabs and Iran (as well as Jewish “leftists”), with little or no concern for the knotty details of the wrangling required to build and maintain a coalition. Some may not even realize that Barak is a lame-duck — a man without a party or a place in Israel’s political structure. He will have no political standing in Israel once Netanyahu manages to whip-stitch together a crazy quilt government, comprised of a patchwork of parties with widely divergent political priorities that will enable his minority Likud party to govern with at least 61 of the 120 seats in Israel’s Parliament (Knesset). Once he does, Barak will be a nobody — at least in Israel.

Nevertheless, Barak is still Israel’s Defense Minister. AIPAC’s clueless minions can’t very well criticize Barak for meeting with the new Secretary of Defense, or Hagel for meeting with Barak. At the same time, Hagel’s meeting with Barak right now allows the Obama administration to connect with Israel’s defense establishment in a way that cannot be construed as endorsing or otherwise  interfering in Israeli domestic politics.

While AIPAC conference-attendees may idolize Netanyahu, many probably don’t know — or don’t want to know — that Barak is less a fan than a “frenemy” of the Israeli Prime Minister. Beyond their political rivalry, Barak believes that Netanyahu botched relations with the US. Back in October, before Barak had announced his retirement, Isabel Kershner pointed out in the New York Times that Netanyahu had accused Barak of deliberately exacerbating “tensions between the prime minister and Washington in an attempt to make himself look like the moderate who can repair relations.” In response “Mr. Barak’s office issued a statement saying that the defense minister ‘works to strengthen relations with the United States and at their heart, the security relationship’,” wrote Kershner.

As it turned out, Netanyahu called elections in January and Barak declined to participate. Nonetheless, he has remained on as Defense Minister until Netanyahu, whose Likud party captured the largest number of parliamentary seats but nowhere near a majority, can put together a coalition of parties that will guarantee him at least 61 votes in Israel’s 120-seat Parliament (Knesset). Although some predicted that immediately after the Israeli election Netanyahu might attract an unprecedented “national unity government” with as many as 88 Knesset members, forming a governing coalition with even a simple majority is proving to be a major headache for for the Prime Minister. He even asked for a two week extension of the normal time permitted for a Prime Minister to form a coalition government from President Shimon Peres and now has until mid-March. Israeli media sources have reported that President Obama may cancel his trip if Netanyahu hasn’t formed a government by March 16.

Having Hagel meet with the outgoing Israeli Defense Minister now, before Netanyahu forms his next government — be it accidentally, coincidentally or deliberately — is a stroke of genius (or very good luck) on the part of the Obama administration regardless of whether it was Hagel’s own idea or not. Yes, the meeting coincides with the last day of AIPAC’s policy conference. More importantly, it brings together the independent-minded Hagel with an outgoing Israeli Defense Minister who has little love for Netanyahu.

One of AIPAC’s objectives is to assure that, no matter how deep the slashes to US government-spending in view of the sequester may be, a reduction in aid to Israel will be kept minimal to nonexistent. According to the Times of Israel, “Israeli defense planners are bracing for a potentially dramatic cut in US assistance that may slash as much as $300 million in aid over the next seven months due to sequestration.” Anticipated cost increases coupled with the reduction of US aid will mean “a painful squeeze on Israel’s defense budget, exacerbating an expected budget crunch for the IDF caused by government plans to cut Israel’s own defense-driven budget deficit of recent years.”

Such and similar claims about “a painful squeeze” will no doubt be both credible and popular at AIPAC, although there are strong grounds for skepticism about their underlying assumptions. Israeli security expert Reuven Pedatzur revealed in Haaretz last August that Israel’s defense budget has “actually swelled in the past few years,” and includes “some hugely expensive projects whose operational necessity is questionable.”

Barak not only knows how bloated Israel’s defense budget is, he’s largely responsible for it. Just recently, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a television interviewer that Israel had wasted nearly $3 billion on “harebrained adventures” to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” Barak defended the expenditures in a statement released by his office that stated, “Investment in fortifying military capabilities is not a waste; the capabilities that were built up serve the IDF in meeting current and future challenges.”

Barak may accordingly use his time with Hagel this week to lobby for continued funding of unnecessary military projects and Hagel, bludgeoned and bloody from his battle with the bullies of the self-described “pro-Israel community”, may oblige. But an alternative scenario is also possible. Barak is perfectly situated to privately point out to Hagel where judicious cuts in military support for Israel can best be made, without seriously jeopardizing Israel’s ability to defend itself. Such recommendations could provide Hagel with some much-needed political cover if and when the Obama administration surgically strikes at projects that are beneficial to Israel and dear to the hearts of numerous members of Congress but are — or ought to be — relatively low priority.

Barak also has no incentive at this point to keep any secrets about Netanyahu’s true intentions regarding Iran from the new Secretary of Defense. Although he had been vehement about not allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, Barak’s announced retirement from politics was viewed by some as a worrisome indicator that Israel would be edging closer to war with Iran after the election.

This author had the temerity to suggest back in December that Barak might be situating himself to “maintain his close ties with the Obama administration — and perhaps forge evens stronger ties — once he is unencumbered by his role as an Israeli politician.” During his visit to the Pentagon in December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta awarded Barak the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service. If he plays his cards right, Barak might benefit in his post-political career by maintaining his close contacts within the US defense establishment.

Barak’s characteristic Cheshire-cat grin attests to his ability to continuously reinvent himself. The immediate upshot of the Hagel-Barak meeting will no doubt reiterate platitudes such as “all options are on the table,” that “Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons” and reaffirm the “unshakeable bond” between the US and Israel. The most interesting outcome of the meeting, however, probably won’t be publicized — at least not right away.

Photo: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Credit: DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.