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Israel’s Next Defense Minister

In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu earned the opportunity to form a governing coalition after the 2009 Israeli Knesset elections, he offered the major party leaders he vanquished an opportunity to join an expansive coalition, headed by his Likud. But it was universally understood that Netanyahu desperately wanted as his defense minister Barak, one of Israel’s most highly decorated soldiers and Netanyahu’s former commander in the elite unit known as Sayeret Matkal. Barak, at the time, was running the Labor party. Though Likud had a stronger reputation among foreign policy hawks than Labor, Netanyahu wanted–in addition to the appearance of bipartisanship–Barak’s stamp of approval for his own administration’s foreign policy. It would–as Sharon’s endorsement had done for Rabin four decades earlier–do much to put the public’s mind at ease.

Barak joined the coalition, but the party used that decision as the final straw to expel its leader (Barak technically “left” Labor, but the divorce was a long time coming). Barak took a few Laborites with him and formed a minor party. That party has disappeared, as did Barak’s chance to win a Knesset seat in this month’s elections. So he “retired” from political life. If Netanyahu’s party wins the elections, it would surprise exactly no one if Netanyahu reappoints Barak to be his defense minister–Barak wouldn’t have to own a Knesset seat to take the position–coaxing the supposedly reluctant old bull out of retirement to once again serve his country. (One can easily imagine how this will play out in the mind of the famously haughty Barak. The people need you, Hudi; how can you say no?)

One of the reasons Israelis expect this coming charade is because there are very few people, if any, who could provide the both the cross-party credibility and the public’s trust to serve as defense minister at a time when resolution of the Iranian threat one way or another seems right around the corner. But perhaps there is one obstacle, however remote, to this scenario. Times of Israel editor David Horovitz writes today that when blending his party with Likud, Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman believed he could have his choice of plum portfolios if and when he is legally permitted to return to the government (it could be within months–but there is an outside chance it could be years). Horovitz writes:

Publicly, this least diplomatic of politicians had assured the electorate that he liked being foreign minister just fine, and would probably stay at the ministry after the elections as well. Privately, it was apparently vouchsafed to certain privileged journalists, he actually had his sights on the powerful Finance Ministry job. However, it has also been quite credibly suggested to me, Liberman didn’t want Finance and didn’t want Foreign. He intended to take the post of defense minister.

We should know immediately after the election where Lieberman intends to end up; as Horovitz writes, if Netanyahu, when doling out portfolios, keeps any of the important ones for himself, it may be a strong clue he’s safeguarding it for Lieberman. Additionally, Barak is no placeholder. If he’s offered the defense ministry and takes it, that’s exactly where he’ll stay.

Just because Lieberman wants the defense ministry doesn’t mean he’ll get it. Netanyahu presumably understands that giving that job to Lieberman would be the exact opposite of appointing Barak to the defense ministry. Rather than reaching across the isle, it would be viewed as a sop to those to Netanyahu’s right. And rather than the defense ministry being guided by a trusted hand, it would be run by an unpredictable and brusque politician a decade and a half younger than Barak. That age difference, however, is also why Lieberman can afford to be patient and not push for the defense portfolio. A savvy politician, Lieberman is more likely to bide his time than challenge Barak and Netanyahu. But the alternative will only increase the hopes of many Israelis–not to mention Western leaders–that Barak’s “retirement” is just for show.


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