Will Ehud Barak be leaving US Politics too?

by Marsha B. Cohen

Ehud Barak is retiring from Israeli politics in 2013, after two decades. Or so he says.

A career officer in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) before entering politics, Barak’s first mention in the US press appears to have been on May 22, 1993, when the New York Times‘ Clyde Haberman noted, “Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, army chief of staff during the 1967 war, relies heavily on the military and political advice of the current chief, Lieut. Gen. Ehud Barak”. Although still IDF Chief of Staff at the time, he was “reportedly being groomed by Mr. Rabin for future Labor Party leadership.”

Born in 1942, Barak was part of a new wave of native born military retirees who entered Israeli politics in the 1990s, finally replacing Israel’s pre-state gerontocracy on both the left and the right. (That gerontocracy persists in the person of 89-year-old President Shimon Peres, whose 66-year political career has spanned 11 US presidencies from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barak Obama.) When Barak retired from the IDF, Rabin named him to the cabinet post of Interior Minister. Even then Barak was cultivating American contacts. According to Haberman, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Israel in February, General Barak was on hand almost everywhere the American went.” Apparently Barak cultivated close ties with Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. Now Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, Panetta responded to the announcement of Barak’s intended departure from Israel’s political scene by presenting Barak with the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

When Barak retired from the IDF, Rabin named him to the cabinet post of Interior Minister. After Rabin’s assassination on Nov. 4, 1995, Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres  gave Barak the post of Foreign Minister,  which Peres himself had held under Rabin. Barak was elected a Labor Party member of Israel’s Knesset in 1996, where he served as a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. That same year,  in Israel’s first direct (non-parliamentary) election for  Prime Minister,  Peres lost the premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak subsequently replaced Peres as leader of the Labor Party.

Barak defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 election.  In 2000  he ended Israel’s 17 year occupation of southern Lebanon, ordering the overnight withdrawal of all IDF troops, a controversial decision considered long overdue by some Israelis, criticized as too hasty by others. Marketing himself as a peacemaker in Yitzhak Rabin’s image, Barak curried American favor by meeting with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat under  Clinton’s mediating auspices in 2000 at Camp David.  The talks ended in failure. Barak’s stated efforts to reach a peace agreement between Israel and Syria also failed.

After Ariel Sharon’s ceremonious and provocative visit to the Temple Mount with half a dozen members of the Likud opposition in September 2000 precipitated Palestinian outrage that turned violent (now known as the Second Intifada), Barak was forced to call for new elections. As attacks on Israeli civilians became more widespread, Labor was trounced by Likud, making Sharon Prime Minister in Barak’s stead.

Barak spent six years in “the private sector,” rebranding himself as a businessman involved in various energy and security projects, but nonetheless plotting his return to politics. He advocated  military action by the US to forcibly remove Saddam Hussein from power. “President Bush’s policy of ousting Saddam Hussein creates an extraordinary standard of strategic and moral clarity,” he wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times. None too pleased with “the in-depth, genuine — and so typically American — public debate that is developing before our eyes about Iraq” that might “dilute this clarity”  Barak even laid out the necessary military strategy for Bush: “a surgical operation to hit the core of the regime,” and, just in case that didn’t finish the job, a ready-to go “a full-scale operation to include major airborne and ground forces, perhaps 300,000 soldiers.”

Barak returned to politics in 2005, after four years in “the private sector” a/k/a Ehud Barak Ltd. After Ehud Olmert became acting Prime Minister when Sharon went into a coma following a stroke in early 2006, Barak joined Olmert’s cabinet, becoming Minister of Defense. Barak strategized and oversaw the three week IDF operation to counter rocket fire from the Gaza Strip known as “Operation Cast Lead.” Although many Israelis at the time considered Cast Lead to have been justified, necessary, and well executed, outside the country, Israel was criticized  for what was seen as excessive and disproportionate use of force inside the densely populated Gaza Strip.

After polls revealed his personal unpopularity with voters, Barak did not seek leadership of the Labor party leader in 2005, but he regained control of the party in June 2007. Deborah Sontag of the New York Times described Barak as “a kind of hawkish dove” who “casts himself in the image of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroder — as the leader of a political movement that is finding its way from left to center.”

But the inglorious outcome of the 2009 election, necessitated by Ehud Olmert’s downfall amid accusations of corruption, reduced the Labor party — once proud political standard-bearer of the statism of Israel’s founders — to a puny party that placed fourth in the election. Barak was blamed for the loss, and he was increasingly regarded as an opportunist and political chameleon, particularly when he joined Netanyah’s Likud-led government in exchange for the keeping the defense portfolio

Facing the increasing unlikelihood that he will hold onto the post of Defense Minister in the next Netanyahu government — widely regarded as a shoo-in when Israeli elections take place in January 2013 — and lacking the personal popularity that might someday make him Prime Minister again, Barak seems to have chosen to give up on Israeli politics altogether.

Barak’s political obituaries in the Israeli media are mostly muted by dislike for him as a person and a politician. But he wins points from some Israeli journalists for his military acumen. Yoel Marcus writes in Haaretz:

His record as defense minister is excellent – even his rivals admit that, though they add it’s a shame he’s not a mensch. His loyal aides when he was prime minister left angry and bitter. His secretaries dubbed him “Napo,” short for Napoleon. As prime minister he failed, but as a strategist and leader he was considered a genius, even abroad.

During his not quite four years  in Netanyahu’s government, Barak has been sending mixed signals on his views of  Iran’s nuclear program and how Israel should deal with it. In November 2011, as my Lobe Log colleague Jasmin Ramsey reported, Barak told Charlie Rose that if he were Iran, he would “probably want nuclear weapons.” But this recent Haaretz editorial argues that “Netanyahu considered Barak a close adviser and partner in the formulation of policy toward Iran”, and Larry Derfner of +972 Mag points out that during Barak’s tenure at the helm of the Netanyahu government’s Defense ministry, “he has probably been best known for serving as Netanyahu’s partner in the drive for an attack on Iran.”

In the weeks before his announced retirement, Barak seemed to be situating himself as the Israeli political leader  far better equipped to maintain good relations with the US than Netanyahu. Isabel Kershner reported in the New York Times on Oct. 3 that a rift was growing between Barak and Netanyahu, citing Shmuel Sandler, a politics and foreign policy expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University (and at one time my next door neighbor). With the Israel elections coming, Sandler suggested that Barak wants to separate himself from Netanyahu. “What is his claim to fame? That he has good relations with Washington,” said Sandler to the Times.

If so, this raises interesting questions about Panetta’s presentation of a Distinguished Service medal to Barak three days after his announced withdrawal from politics. It certainly bolsters Barak’s pro-American image, but was the award presentation planned before Panetta knew Barak would be retiring? Is it an American plea for Barak not to leave the Israeli political scene? Or is it a harbinger that Barak will 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?

– Dr. Marsha B. Cohen is an independent scholar, news analyst, writer and lecturer in Miami, FL specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations. An Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Florida International University for over a decade, she now writes and lectures in a variety of venues on the role of religion in politics and world affairs.

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.