After six years out of public life, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister from 1999-2001, re-emerged as Minister of Defense a little over three months ago—and rarely has someone effected such a dramatic improvement, in such a short period of time, of Israel’s standing in the region. When Barak was elected Labor Party leader in June and obtained the defense portfolio, Israel was in the midst of several crises. Some of these had been exacerbated by Israeli mishandling, but all of them demanded far more in the way of self-assured and competent leadership than what the Olmert administration (and especially Barak’s feckless predecessor at Defense, Amir Peretz) were able to offer: the 2006 Lebanon War had gone badly and emboldened Syria and Iran; the Winograd Commission report had exposed a great deal of genuinely astonishing incompetence in the Israeli political and military echelon; Hamas had just taken Gaza; tensions along the border with Syria were escalating; and perhaps worst of all, there existed inside of Israel a debilitating lack of confidence in the government’s ability to handle the impending challenges.
The mood in Israel today is hardly one of wild optimism, especially regarding Iran, but Barak’s leadership has already demonstrated both to the Israeli public and to antagonistic regimes that the IDF intends to correct its blunders. According to many reports, Barak’s first priority upon returning to the government was planning Israel’s recent strike on Syria, a sophisticated and daring mission that appears to have been a perfect success on many levels—not least of which is a demonstration to Syria and Iran that the Israeli air force can easily defeat their new Russian air defense systems, and is not afraid of trying. Barak has warned Hamas that it faces a large-scale ground operation in Gaza in response to continued rocket fire, and has declared the implementation of comprehensive missile defense to be a central precondition of any IDF withdrawal from the West Bank.
Meanwhile, the IDF has stepped up the intensity of its training, especially in reserve units and among ground forces, and has begun pouring resources into developing a multi-tiered missile defense system that will be capable of defeating every type of enemy rocket. The IDF is also developing sophisticated countermeasures for installation on its Merkava tanks to defend against the kind of advanced anti-tank missiles that proved so deadly in southern Lebanon last summer. And Barak has pursued all of these operations and goals with an uncharacteristic sense of quiet determination, bluntly warning the Israeli public in one of his few public appearances against being “deceived by the illusion of a bogus calm.”
Barak has even attempted to rescue Gilad Shalit from captivity in Gaza, with a recent mission in which the Hamas chief who was in charge of the Gaza territory from which terrorists tunneled into Israel to abduct Shalit was himself abducted by IDF special operators, apparently dressed as members of Hamas’s Executive Force. The reemergence of Ehud Barak is emblematic of one of Israel’s greatest strengths: its ability to evaluate failure, assign blame, and quickly take corrective action. During the past three months, Israel has significantly renewed the deterrence and credibility of its armed forces. And Israel’s enemies surely have noticed.