Ehud Barak As Tactician, Not Politician

At Open Zion I argue that Ehud Barak really is necessary to have in the Israeli government. The full piece is reprinted below.

Daniel Gavron has responded to my contention, here on Open Zion, that Benjamin Netanyahu should try to keep Ehud Barak at the Defense Ministry because he’ll be a restraining force on some of the more hawkish members of the new government formed after January 22. Gavron argues that Barak was a disaster as a politician and a strategist, and therefore good riddance.

Gavron’s argument builds on a particular interpretation of the failure of the peace process that puts most of the blame at Barak’s feet. Also, it’s not that Barak was a genius who always made the right decisions for Israel, but that compared to those who’ll be deciding on security matters, he thinks far more critically and will therefore be more open to alternate policies.

Gavron’s assertion hinges on the implication that Barak’s policies led to the Second Intifada, which in turn killed off the peace process because he chose to respond with brute force from the beginning. Yet the notion that Barak “decimated the Israeli peace camp” is ahistorical at best.

The flaws inherent in the Oslo process had already started the process of decline long before Barak. Settlement building continued apace under Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu before him. The shift from a collectivist ethos to consumerism and individualism that underlies Israelis’ lack of interest in the peace process was already evident by 1999.

By 1999, Palestinians themselves were wondering about the benefits and likely outcomes of the Oslo process. A March 1999 survey found that only 18.9% of Palestinians expected a Labor government would, if it won the May election, improve the Palestinian political condition; 49.8% expected things to remain the same, and 25.8% thought it would get worse.

I agree that Barak’s actions at Camp David were clumsy, but don’t see evidence they were nefarious. It’s not clear he was being deceitful in the way Gavron writes of his interview in September. By then Barak was more concerned with defending his actions, not proclaiming his true but previously hidden motives. Moreover, Barak’s decision to shift negotiations from Palestinians to Syrians and back indicates he wanted a deal with somebody, as opposed to trying to unmask every Arab actor around him.

And, of course, Barak really did make unprecedented offers, including on Jerusalem. He broke taboos that were strangling peace talks.

I also agree Barak was a terrible politician. He alienated every constituency he had, and his refusal to play nice with others—even to listen to them—caused considerable problems. And he made strategic errors: the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon is arguably one of them.

No one can claim Barak was a successful politician. But he was a constructive leader working to improve Israel’s security situation. Like Yitzhak Rabin, for Barak that could entail military or diplomatic tools. Given the results of the Likud primaries, whoever is brought into the ministerial security forum or Bibi’s inner cabinet will exert a less flexible line toward the West Bank, Hamas, Iran, and any number of other issues Israel will have to deal with.

Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai, Danny Danon, Moshe Ya’alon, Silvan Shalom, Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett—or any of the other likely contenders after January 22 for top ministries—have, based on their historical record, either given short shrift to diplomatic as opposed to military initiatives, overshadowed their diplomacy with clumsy or ham-handed efforts, or undermined their foreign policy efforts with illiberal domestic policies.

Netanyahu is of the right-wing, but he’s not an extremist. He’s demonstrated time and again his ability to learn from past mistakes and to adapt to the structural constraints that surround him. He’s open to changing ideas and policies; the others are less so. Barak is a necessary lever in that process when it comes to Israel’s major security challenges. He can, for instance, be expected to adopt non-military ideas when they are viable—and then convince the prime minister of their validity by the weight of his arguments and credentials.

Take settlements as another example. Barak’s record here isn’t stellar—in April he helped authorize three illegal outposts. But more often than not he’s been a constraint on settlement activity. It’s more than we can expect from the new Likud MKs.

Gavron writes: “A successful soldier and a man of brilliant intellect, Barak proved singularly inept as a political leader.” I wasn’t promoting Barak’s political instincts. Once we separate that from his qualities as Defense Minister in a very right-wing coalition government, what he has to offer today becomes more obvious. Who does Gavron think will replace Barak?

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