WASHINGTON (JTA) — Fifteen years after Ehud Barak walked into politics wearing the warrior’s mantle, he is easing into the diplomat’s lapels.
The former military chief of staff, whose 1999-2001 premiership was dogged by his reputation as cerebral and remote, in his current role as defense minister is emerging as the Netanyahu government’s most accessible and conciliatory figure, according to watchers of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
"There’s no doubt that Barak has emerged as a de facto go-to person at a time that some of the other bilateral relationships have proven to be contentious," said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is close to some of the Obama administration’s top Middle East policy figures. "We know about the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. Barak has proven the one channel who has proven most durable. He’s viewed in this administration as a moderating force."
Barak’s visit to Washington last week could not have contrasted more starkly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip here in late March.
Netanyahu couldn’t get a photo op with his counterpart, President Obama; Barak received a red carpet and a Pentagon honor guard from his counterpart, Robert Gates. Netanyahu practically had to bang down the White House door to get some Obama face time; the president "popped in" on a meeting between Barak and National Security Advisor James Jones and stayed for 40 minutes.
For the Obama administration, the former warrior Barak is the favored diplomat and the former diplomat Netanyahu is the suspect street fighter.
The warm words for Barak are a matter in part of timing: Barak’s visit came after the administration launched a charm offensive on Israel and the Jewish organizational leadership to reverse the bad feelings arising from the smackdown of Netanyahu over what the administration saw as his humiliation of Vice President Joe Biden during an early March visit when Israel announced a major building start in eastern Jerusalem.
But it is clear, too, that the Obama officials simply like Barak much better than Netanyahu. Dennis Ross, who now runs Iran policy for the White House, wrote in "The Missing Peace," his 2004 account of his Clinton-era peace brokering, that Barak "did not play games or tricks," clearly a relief after three years of Netanyahu, whom he called a "leader who had two legs walking in different directions." Ross, in his rare public moments, jokes that the White House will not permit him to discuss his books.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shared the stage with Barak at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Washington conference last week and appeared genuinely pleased to embrace "my longtime friend Ehud Barak, who has had nearly as many incarnations in public service as I have."
Clinton continued in terms that one might ascribe to a loving, faithful partner.
"Ehud and I had a wonderful meeting the other day here in Washington and covered a lot of ground," she said. "And as friends do, much was said and much didn’t need to be said. So I’m delighted that he is here with us as well."
Barak returned the love, making clear that as far as he was concerned, the bad blood was gone.
"These differences, the slight disagreements, are behind us," he told the AJC.
Again, the contrast: Clinton’s last major interaction with Netanyahu was a 43-minute March 12 dressing-down over the phone in which she made clear that the Jerusalem announcement was an "insult."
Some Jewish leaders are leery of appearances of favoritism and wonder whether the Obama administration is replaying Bill Clinton presidency tactics of making it clear to the Israeli electorate which leader it prefers; President Clinton’s icy relationship with Netanyahu then helped Barak win the 1999 elections.
"The Obama administration would like to dump Netanyahu," said Tom Neumann, who directs the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. "They’d much rather deal with Ehud Barak or" opposition leader "Tzipi Livni because they’re not so hawkish."
If that’s the strategy it might backfire, warned Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director.
"They need to deal with it very carefully," he said. "If they overplay it, they will undermine the role that Barak plays. You can’t fix insulting the prime minister by being nice to his defense minister."
Israelis are not as likely this time around to perceive such favoritism as meddling, if only because Barak’s chances of becoming prime minister again are virtually nil. His Labor Party won only 13 seats in the 2009 elections, making it the fourth-largest bloc in the Knesset, and he can barely control his own caucus, which chafes at its association with an otherwise rightist government.
In fact, the abandonment of higher ambitions — at least for now — may have helped liberate Barak from the constraints that kept him from effective diplomacy in the past.
The notion of favoritism "doesn’t apply to this government, he’s not the leader of anything," said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations who advised Barak when he was prime minister. "He’s not a politically heavyweight person, but he’s serious" as Netanyahu’s partner in shaping policy. "If the politics are absent, it allows you to do that. He’s liberated by not having a political future."
Barak, 68, appears as energetic as ever. On a recent Washington visit he defied a flashing red pedestrian traffic signal, striding confidently across Connecticut Avenue while security agents and aides half his age trotted to keep up with him.
If Barak indeed has given up his ambitions for winning back the leadership, he appears unbothered by it — a sharp change from what some saw as his unfettered ambition in the 1990s, when Barak alienated colleagues by cutting them off.
Then he was much more warrior than diplomat. One of his first Cabinet votes when he joined the Rabin government in 1995 was against the second component of the Oslo accords; he never overcame his distrust for Yasser Arafat. While Arafat’s intransigence is seen as mostly to blame for the failed 2000 Camp David talks, it did not help that Barak refused to personally meet with the Palestinian leader.
Barak and Netanyahu, 60, work closely and well together, say those who know them. Their alliance sustains the prophecy of a front-page story in the supplement to the now defunct Hadashot newspaper in 1986.
"Within 10 years, one of these men will be prime minister," the paper said, a bold prediction considering their relatively low positions: Netanyahu was U.N. ambassador, Barak headed the Central Command.
Yet within a decade, Netanyahu indeed was prime minister — and Barak would take the job from him.
Now their positions are reversed: Barak, the nation’s most decorated soldier, who commanded Netanyahu in the successful 1972 raid on a hijacked airliner, defers to Netanyahu in public and private. Barak repeatedly describes Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution last summer as courageous. In meetings Barak eyes Netanyahu, waiting until he is sure that the prime minister has made his point before adding his insights.
It is also true, though, that Barak pushes the dovish agenda more than any other Cabinet minister. Netanyahu may have embraced the possibility of two states, but it is only Barak who repeatedly invokes what he sees as the doomsday alternative. Continued control of the West Bank will mean Israel "will become inevitably either not Jewish or not democratic," he told the AJC, invoking the specter of intractably intertwined enemies in Belfast and Bosnia. "Neither is the Zionist dream."
Barak has pushed for Israel to launch a major peace initiative. He also gently reminds Netanyahu of the potential benefits of peace.
In recent meetings, when Netanyahu would defiantly announce that he had rebuffed a Syrian overture to resume Turkish-brokered peace talks with the precondition that Israel ultimately would return the whole of the Golan Heights, Barak would add that Israel sees peeling away Syria from Iranian influence as a long-term strategic goal.
The Labor Party leader is clearly frustrated by the absence of others left of center in the government. Barak would like stronger support from his own party, and wants Livni to come in to balance — or even drive out — the far rightists. Barak likens the government to one of national unity, but with a limping left leg. And he tells an old army joke to describe his feelings about leftists who won’t support him in supporting Netanyahu: The young soldier who fails the pilot course is asked where he wants to transfer. "Anti-aircraft," he says. His officer is surprised — the young man has promise, why would he select such grunt status? "Because if I can’t fly, I’m going to make sure no one can."
Other factors promoting Barak’s centrality to the process include the absence of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman from any serious role in the U.S.-Israel relationship while he beats back a major corruption investigation; the centrality of Israel’s defense strategies in framing its foreign policies; and the fact that the defense aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship has emerged as stronger despite the tensions in other areas.
U.S. and Israeli officials repeatedly note that the military relationship has gone from strength to strength, with increased intelligence sharing, joint maneuvers and cooperation on developing anti-missile systems.
Defense News reported Monday that Israel was upgrading its fighter jets with U.S.-manufactured "bunker duster" systems, precision-guided weapons that can penetrate reinforced concrete — a facility that would be key to any strike on suspected Iranian nuclear sites.
The officials especially emphasize the closeness as it pertains to the suspected Iranian nuclear threat. Iran and its backing, through Syria, of Lebanon’s Hezbollah was a focus of a rare joint Pentagon news conference Gates hosted with Barak last week.
"Syria and Iran are providing Hezbollah with rockets and missiles of ever-increasing capability," Gates said. "And we are at a point now when Hezbollah — where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world. And this is obviously destabilizing for the whole region, and so we’re watching it very carefully."
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Makovsky said the security relationship is closer than ever.
"You have to be an air traffic controller,” he said, “to keep up with the number of high-level visits between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to Iran.”
And Barak, more than anyone else, appears to be benefiting most from the diplomatic frequent flier points.