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What Ehud Barak Taught the Middle East

Today’s announcement that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not compete in the country’s upcoming election in January can’t be considered much of a surprise. Barak, who broke away from the Labor Party in 2011, knows that the odds are against his small Independence Party gaining enough votes to send him back to the Knesset. Thus, his statement that he is stepping down from electoral politics is more of a concession to reality than anything else. But this doesn’t mean he won’t continue in his current job.

Since the law allows the prime minister to appoint individuals who are not members of the Knesset to cabinet posts, it is more than likely that Barak will still be giving the orders at the Kirya in Tel Aviv next year. Yet, as Aluf Benn notes in Haaretz, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does bring him back, his influence in the next government will be diminished since, unlike cabinet colleagues like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he will have no political constituency at his back. This means that although the 70-year-old former prime minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is probably not actually retiring from public life, it is an appropriate moment to ponder the significance of his career.

Barak is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history and his legacy as chief of staff and then later as defense minister is one that has generated wide and deserved praise. But he has also been the author of some of the biggest blunders in the country’s history without which his political failures would not have been explicable. While Barak will hope to be remembered chiefly for his exploits as a commando and then for successful military operations like the recently completed Operation Pillar of Defense, his role in ordering the IDF’s precipitate retreat from Lebanon and the diplomatic fiasco at Camp David in 2000 that led to the second intifada continue to loom large in his biography. Those who lament the demise of the peace process need look no further than Barak’s experiences as prime minister to understand why the country has rejected the policies of the left.

Barak is likely to be asked to stay on at the Defense Ministry next year for two reasons.

One is that his competence in military affairs stands head and shoulders above any of the politicians who would like to add the crucial post to their resumes. The example of Amir Peretz, a union hack whom Ehud Olmert appointed to the position in 2006, and whose incompetence materially contributed to the disasters of the second Lebanon War that year, means that no Israeli prime minister is likely to ever again treat the job as just a patronage plum.

The second is that Barak’s presence in the cabinet gives Netanyahu political cover. Barak makes the government, which is otherwise dominated by figures from Netanyahu’s Likud and other factions in the country’s national camp, appear more centrist. It also allows Netanyahu to fend off any initiatives from Lieberman or other right-wingers by letting Barak oppose them. Though Barak has at times been critical of the government’s stands on the Palestinians and has been notable for his friendly relationship with the Obama administration (especially when compared to the prime minister), he has been a good partner for Netanyahu and has generally acted in concert on the big issues. Without Barak, it is impossible to imagine that the prime minister would even contemplate a strike on Iran or other controversial military moves.

However, if we are to understand why Barak, who was once Netanyahu’s immediate commander in the army when they were both young men, wound up his subordinate in politics, we have to go back to his brief tenure as prime minister. In 1999, Barak routed Netanyahu in a direct election for prime minister. Netanyahu’s first term was not without its successes, but by the time he was defeated for re-election he had worn out his welcome. Barak was seen as a technocrat rather than a Labor Party ideologue and therefore better qualified to lead the country. But in just 20 short months (the shortest tenure of any prime minister in the country’s history), Barak conclusively proved that skeptics about the peace process were right.

Barak was applauded for bringing to an abrupt end Israel’s 18-year-old military presence in southern Lebanon in 2000. Israelis were as sick of the quagmire there as the Lebanese were. But by bugging out in a fashion that allowed Hezbollah to represent the move as a defeat for Israel and a victory for terrorism, Barak laid the foundation for future disasters such as the even more spectacularly disastrous pullout from Gaza that Ariel Sharon orchestrated in 2005.

However, Barak’s decision to try and end the conflict with the Palestinians in one stroke at the Camp David conference in July 2000 was even more problematic. Barak offered Yasir Arafat an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, terms that most Israelis thought too generous. When Arafat rejected the offer, Barak sweetened it the following January in Taba only to get the same response. By then, Arafat had answered what he and the Palestinians thought was Barak’s weakness by launching a terrorist war of attrition known as the second intifada.

Though 12 years later many American Jews and most of the Washington foreign policy establishment still haven’t absorbed the lessons of this debacle, the overwhelming majority of Israelis drew conclusions about the Palestinians from these events that continue to shape Israel’s political future.

Barak taught the Palestinians to think that terrorism will cause Israel to back down and retreat, leading them to think that more violence and intransigence rather than moderation and negotiation will get them what they want. At the same time, he taught Israelis that retreats like his Lebanon bug-out and the Gaza withdrawal it inspired, as well as the concessions that he made at Camp David, only lead to more sorrow for the country. Almost single-handedly (though it must be conceded that he couldn’t have done it without Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas), Barak inculcated in the Israeli public the understanding that they have no partner for peace and that the intractable conflict can only be managed rather than solved.

Though Barak is rightly seen as being as much a failure as a politician as he was a success as a soldier, his mishaps in office have probably done more to influence the country’s politics than anything any other Israeli has done. While he may continue at the Defense Ministry for years to come, it is these lessons that he taught both Israelis and the Palestinians that may be his most lasting legacy.


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