Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ehud Barak

A Plea for Sanity in the Battle over Bibi

Last week, Bloomberg released a poll on partisan attitudes in the U.S. toward Israel that was immediately misunderstood by a vast swath of the commentariat. It wasn’t completely the commentators’ fault. They should have read it more carefully, but the poll was worded in such a way as to be more than useless; it was irresponsible. And while the poor polling question can excuse some of the confusion, it shouldn’t excuse the hysterical commentary it inspired in some quarters, though it was revealing to get an unfiltered look at what some pundits really think about Israel.

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Last week, Bloomberg released a poll on partisan attitudes in the U.S. toward Israel that was immediately misunderstood by a vast swath of the commentariat. It wasn’t completely the commentators’ fault. They should have read it more carefully, but the poll was worded in such a way as to be more than useless; it was irresponsible. And while the poor polling question can excuse some of the confusion, it shouldn’t excuse the hysterical commentary it inspired in some quarters, though it was revealing to get an unfiltered look at what some pundits really think about Israel.

One question in the poll found, as paraphrased by a Bloomberg reporter, that Republicans were “more sympathetic to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than to their own president, 67 percent to 16 percent, while Democrats are more sympathetic to President Barack Obama than to Israel’s prime minister, 76 percent to 9 percent.” The reporter’s choice of phrasing “than to their own president” (my italics) is telling, and was reflected in some of the more extreme responses to the poll.

But the question that confused people was as follows:

When it comes to relations between the U.S. and Israel, which of the following do you agree with more?

(Read options. Rotate.)

45            Israel is an important ally, the only democracy in the region, and we should support it even if our interests diverge

47            Israel is an ally but we should pursue America’s interests when we disagree with them

8            Not sure

Republicans were more likely to give the first answer, Democrats the second.

The problematic nature of the wording becomes clear as soon as you read the actual poll question. But reporting on the poll may have taken the form of a game of “telephone.” Bloomberg’s own report on its poll muddied the waters immediately, suggesting that the poll said that Republicans opted for supporting Israel in a zero-sum faceoff when our interests diverged with those of the Israelis. But that’s not what the question says. It’s not an either/or question.

For example: a few years ago then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave an interview to the Washington Post. During the course of the interview, Barak was asked about the Syrian civil war. He responded that the Assads should be removed from power if possible but only their innermost circle; stability should be prioritized over total revolution. Barak was clearly nervous about Syria being a repeat of Egypt, where a stability-minded dictator was removed and replaced (temporarily) with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood who intended to shift Egypt’s allegiances toward Israel’s (and the West’s) enemies in the region.

But that was not American policy at the time, at least on paper. Washington was leaning toward a wholesale power shift, with the caveat that it be brought about by negotiations.

According to the common interpretation of the Bloomberg poll, that meant that support for Israel should at that point disappear until the two were back on the same page. A similar conflict even arose over Ukraine. Should the disagreement over Ukraine have imperiled the alliance?

Of course not. Sometimes our interests diverge. Those times are the exceptions, not the rule. And it would be silly to suggest that “support” for Israel should be untenable at that time. Sometimes we disagree, it’s really as simple as that.

Additionally, not all conflicts can be weighed equally. For example: let’s say you believe it’s in America’s interest to have an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that removes Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, ignores Israeli security needs in the West Bank, and includes a deal on refugees that would put Israel’s demographic future in question. The majority of Israelis would oppose those terms. Should Americans support it? Is it enough that it’s in America’s interest, in your opinion, or should Israeli sovereignty and self-determination predominate? Barack Obama thought it was in America’s interest to interfere in Israel’s election. Is it wrong for an American to disagree and to hold that Israel’s democratic process should be respected?

You get the point. Moreover, the American sympathy for Israel is based not only on mutual strategic interests but also on history, religion, politics–the works. What poll respondents are saying is that the U.S.-Israel relationship is strong enough to withstand the occasional argument.

But if you were looking to misread the poll, it would be easy to do so. Slate’s William Saletan wrote a bizarre column using the poll to attack Republicans as disloyal. What Republicans revealed when they invited Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress “against the will of a Democratic president” (His Majesty will not be pleased) and again by the Republicans surveyed in the Bloomberg poll is that “They have adopted Netanyahu as their leader.” Here’s Saletan’s conclusion:

That split points to a more fundamental challenge. Does a majority of the Republican Party identify more with Israeli interests than with American interests? When Israel’s prime minister speaks on the floor of Congress, do Republicans feel more allegiance to him than to their president? If so, will the feeling subside once Obama leaves office? Or does it signify an enduring rift in the fabric of this country?

So are Republicans permanent traitors taking orders from the Israeli government, or will they one day love their country again? Stay tuned!

The heated rhetoric around Netanyahu has lost all proportion. And it isn’t limited to the anti-Bibi guns on the left. Just before the Israeli elections, NRO’s Quin Hillyer wrote a column headlined “Israelis Should Send Obama a Message of Defiance.” The column had high praise for Netanyahu, and also included this strange concern:

Americans who love Israel will, of course, continue to love it regardless. But we fear that, without Netanyahu’s leadership, there will be less of Israel left to love.

If he was speaking figuratively, that plainly makes no sense. If he was speaking literally–as in, the other side would throw a fire sale on Israeli land–it ignores the reality on the ground as well as the more hawkish tendencies of Labor leader Isaac Herzog, to say nothing of the fact that Bibi himself presided over a two-track negotiating process with the Palestinians that he let one of his main political rivals lead.

Look, Netanyahu’s an eloquent spokesman for Western ideals and values, and it’s easy to see why English-speaking conservatives enjoy his leadership. But even while winning a convincing victory, his party still only won less than a quarter of the vote. Israel is a diverse country with diverse politics. Bibi is a product of Israel; Israel is not a product of Bibi.

Both sides should keep this in mind, but the left obviously needs this reminder more than the right. Because even at its most adulatory, American admiration for Netanyahu is not treasonous. And the simple fact that it’s being treated as if it were should serve as a much-needed wake-up call for American liberals.

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Does Iran Agreement Make an Israeli Unity Government More Likely?

The negotiating posture of the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett can best be described as a strange mix of hardball and desperation. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in last month’s Knesset elections, he was tasked with forming a governing coalition. Jewish Home’s share of the Knesset seats dropped to single digits. The result has left Bennett demanding a princely sum to join the coalition while also insisting he’s being ignored so Likud can bring Labor into the coalition. Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed completely unrealistic, but is it less so now in light of the U.S.-Iran “framework” agreement?

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The negotiating posture of the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett can best be described as a strange mix of hardball and desperation. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in last month’s Knesset elections, he was tasked with forming a governing coalition. Jewish Home’s share of the Knesset seats dropped to single digits. The result has left Bennett demanding a princely sum to join the coalition while also insisting he’s being ignored so Likud can bring Labor into the coalition. Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed completely unrealistic, but is it less so now in light of the U.S.-Iran “framework” agreement?

The argument goes something like this. The classic cliché of Israeli politics is that only the left can make war and only the right can make peace, because each would have enough support for the initiative from the opposition leaders to prevent domestic politics from getting in the way. It’s an exaggeration but there’s much truth to it. Netanyahu signed a deal with Arafat at Wye River and Ariel Sharon instituted the Gaza disengagement, while Israel’s major land wars were mostly wrapped up by the time the left lost its first Knesset election.

This dynamic, plus the politician’s ever-present desire to be a part of legacy-defining events, has made a possible unity government in which Likud would bring Labor into the coalition more realistic. The event in question, of course, is an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

If a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program does actually get signed, whether it’s by the June 30 deadline or a later date, the devil will be in the details. But the framework agreement, intended to be an outline for a final deal, is a monument to the Obama administration’s serial capitulation.

A best-case scenario is that the deal would establish and legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear power–though it is unlikely anyone will be able to see the best-case scenario from wherever we actually end up in late June. All of which means Obama is willing to toss some more fuel on the fires of the Middle East on his way out the door. The allies he’s abandoned to this future will have to decide how best to put out the flames of Obama’s failures.

One way would be do something Netanyahu has always wanted to avoid: an Israeli strike on Iran. The Obama administration has boasted in the past that it exploited Netanyahu’s hesitation to use military force and Israel’s trust in America to prevent a strike on Iran. Team Obama now thinks an Israeli strike is so unlikely as to openly mock Bibi’s moderation (a moderation they won’t admit to unless it involves getting to toss grade-school insults at the Israelis).

Isaac Herzog, whose Labor Party seemed poised to go into the opposition, is not the dove the White House obviously thinks he is. Hence, a unity government might make sense.

But those who advocate a unity government, such as Haaretz’s Aluf Benn, are missing the fact that it is Herzog, not Netanyahu who is likely to be the largest impediment to such a coalition. Benn writes:

Netanyahu needs Herzog as a moderate foreign minister, who will be in charge of repairing relations with the Obama administration. There is no one suitable for the job in the proposed right-wing government. … Appointing Herzog will also enable Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, a right-wing political hack who is disconnected from the administration, to be replaced by a professional diplomat with experience and multiple connections, such as Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor.

Why would Netanyahu dislike this arrangement? He would oppose swapping out Dermer not because he’d have any objection to Prosor but because it would be a stinging rebuke to his own close advisor. But giving a major position like foreign minister to Herzog would have a great deal of upside for him. Bringing Herzog into the government gives him an excuse not to have to choose between Avigdor Lieberman and Bennett for the Foreign Ministry. It would give him a more expansive governing mandate. It would not only tamp down leftist discontent if Israel does decide it needs to strike Iran but would also make it more challenging for Western leaders to whine about right-wing militancy after such a strike. It would clear the space, also, for possible electoral reforms that might make coalition-building less of a headache. And it would have Labor buy-in on Netanyahu’s preferred economic policies.

Indeed, in 2009 Netanyahu brought Labor into his coalition, though he perhaps wanted to have Ehud Barak as his defense minister more than any other benefit the party brought to the table. And he wanted the opposition party, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, in the coalition too. Why not? The more the merrier.

But is there such a clear case for Herzog? Here he has to game out a few scenarios. Kadima went into steep decline soon after that election and Livni lost a battle for the party’s leadership. So Herzog might look at that and think the lesson is he should join the government when given the opportunity. Yet at the same time, Labor’s joining the Netanyahu government in that very same coalition was the final straw for Laborites who finally had their opportunity to get rid of Barak.

Herzog also has to be quite careful about internal dissent. After improving Labor’s gains in the last election, then-party leader Shelly Yachimovich lost her leadership battle to … Herzog. Meanwhile, Yachimovich might have been better positioned to lead Labor in this past election, in which economic issues played an important role. The last thing Herzog needs now is buyer’s remorse from his own supporters.

Additionally, Labor was neck and neck with Likud in the polls and then established a lead before the elections. Yet they lost, and it wasn’t all that close either. Perhaps Labor dropped the ball, or perhaps they just didn’t see what Likud pollsters swear they saw all along. Whatever the case, discontent with Herzog is likely to bubble up to the surface.

Will joining a Netanyahu government protect his leadership? It can be argued that it will increase his national stature by demonstrating a willingness to put patriotism above politics. And it might show the country that he is, in fact, no dove, and thus make him a more plausible prime minister going forward.

The problem is that all these benefits will likely inflame his leftist base, who are not so hawkish and who are sensitive to the idea of being coopted by Likud. Herzog will try to find the right balance, but it’s doubtful Netanyahu is the one who needs convincing here.

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Malley’s Rise and Obama’s Blame-Israel Policy

Back in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was being careful about quashing any notion that he was hostile to Israel or friendly to its foes. So when it was revealed that Robert Malley was a foreign-policy advisor to his campaign, he was quickly canned. But Malley, who served in the Clinton administration and then subsequently acted as an apologist for Yasir Arafat, had met with Hamas, and was a persistent critic of Israel’s governments (those led by Labor as well as Likud), is back. Last year, after President Obama was reelected, Malley joined his National Security Council. This week, we learned that Malley has gotten a promotion and will now head the Middle East desk at the NSC. As much as any of the rumors floating around Washington about the president’s intention to resurrect the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process, this appointment indicates that the administration is not only determined to make another push but that all the pressure and the inevitable blame for its failure will be placed on Israel.

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Back in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama was being careful about quashing any notion that he was hostile to Israel or friendly to its foes. So when it was revealed that Robert Malley was a foreign-policy advisor to his campaign, he was quickly canned. But Malley, who served in the Clinton administration and then subsequently acted as an apologist for Yasir Arafat, had met with Hamas, and was a persistent critic of Israel’s governments (those led by Labor as well as Likud), is back. Last year, after President Obama was reelected, Malley joined his National Security Council. This week, we learned that Malley has gotten a promotion and will now head the Middle East desk at the NSC. As much as any of the rumors floating around Washington about the president’s intention to resurrect the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process, this appointment indicates that the administration is not only determined to make another push but that all the pressure and the inevitable blame for its failure will be placed on Israel.

That a veteran foreign-policy hand that served Bill Clinton would get a job in the Obama administration is hardly a surprise. But Malley is no ordinary ex-Clinton staffer.

As part of the White House staff, Malley joined the president at the 2000 Camp David Summit where then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tried, with Clinton’s urging, to bring the conflict to an end. To do so, he offered Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat independence and sovereignty on terms that no previous Israeli government had ever considered. He put on the table terms that would create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza, most of the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem. But Arafat stunned both Barak and Clinton by saying “no.” He repeated that refusal in the waning days of the Clinton administration in January 2001 even after Barak tried to sweeten the already generous terms. Mahmoud Abbas repeated that refusal when Ehud Olmert offered even better terms in 2008 and again when the Palestinian leader refused to negotiate with current Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Malley understands the reason why the Palestinians refused to make peace. As he admitted in a New York Times op-ed he wrote with Hussein Agha, Palestinians have never let go of their demand for a “right of return” that is incompatible with Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. That’s why neither Arafat nor Abbas is capable of accepting any peace deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But the significant thing to remember about this NSC appointment is that in the aftermath of Camp David, Malley defended Arafat. Bill Clinton has spent the years since that disaster publicly blasting Arafat for saying no to a golden opportunity to make peace and costing him a Nobel Peace Prize in the bargain. Malley thought it was “simplistic” to simply blame Arafat because he believed it wrong to expect any Palestinian leader to simply end the conflict on terms that provide Israeli security or grants legitimacy to a Jewish state. To Malley’s thinking, the fact that Arafat replied to Barak’s unprecedented and generous peace offer with not only a “no,” but also a terrorist war of attrition known as the Second Intifada was understandable if not necessarily commendable.

His record makes it clear that Malley isn’t merely unsympathetic to the Jewish state but that he views the quest for a two-state solution on any basis that could provide for Israel’s long-term survival as something that Western leaders should not try to impose on the Palestinians.

Thus, putting Malley in a position of influence isn’t merely harmful symbolism as was the case with the 2008 campaign. Rather, by putting him in charge of the Middle East desk at the NSC, the administration is ensuring that any effort to promote the peace process will be predicated solely on pressure on Israel to make concessions on security and its rights while the Palestinians will not be expected to do anything.

That doesn’t sound very different from the American role during the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative. Despite Abbas blowing up the talks by signing a unity pact with Hamas and ditching the talks to go to the United Nations in violation of the PA’s Oslo commitments to gain recognition for the Palestinians, President Obama still blamed it all on Israel. But now that Malley’s role is even more defined there will be no doubt that U.S. policy will be focused exclusively on pressuring Israel. Rather than it being Israel that lacks real faith in a fair two-state solution, with Malley helping to run our Middle East policy it will be the U.S. that will be undermining the admittedly slim hopes for an end to the conflict.

But Malley’s appointment isn’t merely another indication of the president’s antipathy for Israel’s government. It is also a gesture of contempt for pro-Israel Democrats that defended Obama’s bona fides on Israel in both 2008 and 2012. As the president uses his final two years in office to hammer Israel and further undermines the minimal chances for peace by giving the Palestinians license to stonewall negotiations, those friends of Israel would voted for the president should remember how they were suckered.

Even more importantly, as Americans view the drama of the Middle East over the course of the last 22 months of the Obama presidency, they would do well to remember that in an administration that will be consistently blaming Israel for the lack of peace (whether it is led by Benjamin Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog) the person whispering these conclusions in the president’s ear is the same guy that was offering alibis for a terrorist murderer like Yasir Arafat.

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Bill Clinton: Bibi Derangement Syndrome’s Patient Zero

Ever since leaving office, Bill Clinton’s fabrications about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have only become more fanciful and self-serving, the consistent element of which is his adamant refusal to tell the truth. But there’s another common thread to Clinton’s world of make believe: he is patient zero of the ensuing epidemic of Bibi Derangement Syndrome.

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Ever since leaving office, Bill Clinton’s fabrications about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have only become more fanciful and self-serving, the consistent element of which is his adamant refusal to tell the truth. But there’s another common thread to Clinton’s world of make believe: he is patient zero of the ensuing epidemic of Bibi Derangement Syndrome.

The latest episode of Clinton’s condition took place at the Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa, when Clinton was goaded into defending his Middle East policy by a pro-Palestinian activist. Caleb Howe has the transcript of the video captured by C-Span cameras:

Activist: If we don’t force [Netanyahu] to make peace, we will not have peace.

Clinton: Wait, wait, wait. First of all, I agree with that. But in 2000, Ehud Barak, I got him to agree to something that I’m not sure I would have gotten Rabin to agree to, and Rabin was murdered for giving land to the Palestinians.

Activist: I agree. But Netanyahu is not the guy.

Clinton: So, they got … I agree with that, but we had, I had him a state, they would have gotten 96% of the West Bank, land swap in Gaza, appropriate water rights … and East Jerusalem! Something that hasn’t even been discussed since I left office.

And by the way, don’t forget, both Arafat and Abbas later said they would take it. They said, they said, ‘we changed our minds, we want it now’ and by then they had a government wouldn’t give it to them.

Let’s unpack this. First of all, Clinton agrees that Netanyahu must be forced by the U.S. to make peace. Presumably Clinton doesn’t agree with Samantha Power that the U.S. should invade Israel to force this peace, but he never says exactly which gun he’d prefer be held to Bibi’s head. (Perhaps holding up weapons resupply during wartime, as President Obama has done?)

He also agrees with the protester that Netanyahu is “not the guy” with whom such a peace agreement can be signed. This will likely not make Israelis too happy, because they know from experience that when Clinton doesn’t want an Israeli prime minister in office, he jumps right into the elections to try to arrange his preferred outcome.

In 1996, this meddling took the form of Clinton pretty much openly campaigning for Netanyahu’s opponent, Shimon Peres. In 1999, this meant Clinton’s advisors helping to run Ehud Barak’s campaign. The first time he was nearly successful–if memory serves, many Israelis went to sleep with Peres leading the election returns and woke to prime minister-elect Netanyahu. The second time he was successful.

But all along it was personal animus that guided Clinton–a deeply dangerous and thoroughly irresponsible way to conduct foreign policy, which helps explain why Clinton’s foreign policy was such a mess. Say what you will about George W. Bush’s case for regime change in Iraq, but it rested on more than “There’s something about this guy I just don’t like.” The same cannot be said for Clinton.

Indeed, it wasn’t as though Netanyahu was intransigent on matters of peace with the Palestinians. Once in office, Netanyahu too struck deals with Arafat. He agreed to the Wye River accords despite his belief that Clinton went back on a promise to free Pollard, and he agreed to redeploy troops from Hebron while continuing to implement Oslo.

Next, we have Clinton’s assertion that giving Palestinians sovereignty in East Jerusalem is “Something that hasn’t even been discussed since I left office.” This is obviously untrue. During the Bush presidency, Ehud Olmert made such an offer to Mahmoud Abbas, who walked away. Not only that, but even Netanyahu has hinted at a willingness to divide Jerusalem.

That also undercuts the latter part of that claim by Clinton, that Abbas regretted saying no but by the time he wanted such a deal it was off the table. It was not off the table; it was offered, again, to Abbas directly.

So is anything Clinton said true? Actually, there is a kernel of truth–no doubt purely accidental–in what he said about Barak and Rabin. But it further undermines his point. Rabin was far from the two-state-cheerleader the left makes him out to be. He was far more reluctant to consider dividing Jerusalem and establishing a fully independent Palestinian state than his later successors–including Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi now is to the left of where Rabin was then on pretty much all the main issues.

So is Barak, of course, which was Clinton’s point. But the real story here is the fact that you can’t simply jump from Rabin to Barak: Netanyahu was in between, and he played a significant role by forcing the right to accept and implement Oslo in order to govern and by showing the Israeli right could be talked into withdrawing from territory, even places as holy and significant as Hebron. The rightist premiers that followed Barak continued withdrawing from territory and offering peace plans to the Palestinian leadership.

When it comes to Israel, liberal politicians tend to fall into one of two categories: either they’re ignorant of Israeli history and politics, or they assume their audience to be. For Clinton it’s almost surely the latter, which makes it all the more ignoble.

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Israel Now Criticized for Wanting Peace

Because there are only so many complaints that can be lodged at Israel (thought the well does seem bottomless at times), it was perhaps inevitable that the criticism of the Jewish state would produce some strange narratives. Those who feel compelled to oppose whatever Israel is doing at any given time are going to have to latch on, occasionally, to counterintuitive accusations. And a recent critique of Israeli policy fits that bill.

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Because there are only so many complaints that can be lodged at Israel (thought the well does seem bottomless at times), it was perhaps inevitable that the criticism of the Jewish state would produce some strange narratives. Those who feel compelled to oppose whatever Israel is doing at any given time are going to have to latch on, occasionally, to counterintuitive accusations. And a recent critique of Israeli policy fits that bill.

Portraying Israel as the warlike aggressor gets increasingly ridiculous, as Hamas initiates each round of violence with indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians in much of the country, including Israel’s major port city, its capital, and the area near its major international airport. Additionally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has exhibited restraint, attempting to stave off the need for a limited ground incursion, which has now commenced, with repeated attempts at a truce. And that, apparently, is the new objection to Israel’s actions.

BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel reports on two consecutive efforts by Israel to get Hamas to “yes” in talks for a truce:

“There were talks, and they were a step in the right direction, but to declare that a cease-fire agreement was reached is premature,” said one Palestinian official currently in Cairo on the delegation. “Hamas has made it clear that their demands have not yet been met, and there are further discussions to be held.” This appeared to echo previous concerns when a cease-fire deal was announced by Israel on Tuesday, despite claims from Hamas that it had not been consulted and would not have accepted the offer.

Chief among the demands of Hamas, he said, was that Egypt open its Rafah crossing with Gaza, and Israel ease the naval blockade of Gaza.

“We do not understand the reports currently in the media, they are misleading,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the group had agreed not to speak to media until a cease-fire was officially announced. He added that it was his suspicion that someone from the Israeli delegation leaked information to the BBC, in the hopes that announcing a cease-fire deal would pressure Hamas into agreeing to the offer already on the table.

Israel tried to get a ceasefire–not just a temporary humanitarian ceasefire, but a cessation of the current round of violence–on Tuesday, but couldn’t get Hamas to sign on. They tried again, and the Palestinians accused Israel of leaking news of an agreement in order to pressure Hamas to accept the truce. The Israelis, in other words, stand accused of being too aggressively peace-minded.

There was a similar complaint, though concerning a different era, in the July 12 edition of the Economist. The magazine ran a book review on Ahron Bregman’s latest history of the post-1967 conflict. According to the review, Bregman–who served in the Israel Defense Forces during its first Lebanon war and subsequently left Israel “unhappy about the country’s policy towards the Palestinians,” according to the Economist–accuses then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak of manipulating the U.S. and Yasser Arafat into the peace process. From the review:

In 1999 Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, lured Mr Clinton, Mr Bregman suggests, into one failed summit after another, providing Mr Barak with enough cover to allow him to claim that Israel had no partner for peace.

After persuading Mr Clinton to tempt President Assad to Geneva in March 2000 with the promise of ground-breaking proposals, says the author, Mr Barak back-pedalled on an earlier Israeli promise of a full withdrawal. Hours before the summit was due to start, Mr Barak insisted that Israel should keep a sliver of land, 400 metres wide, on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Mr Assad withdrew.

Four months later Mr Barak persuaded Mr Clinton to try again, cajoling a wary Yasser Arafat to negotiate a final settlement at Camp David.

Yet Barak didn’t walk away from the deal on the table; Arafat did. Bregman seems to paint Barak as a serial flake, ending the prospect of peace with Syria and “cajoling” Arafat to a peace summit in order that Barak’s grand gamble would fail, forever tarnishing his legacy and beginning the end of his career as a potential premier and heralding the descent of his Labor Party into near-irrelevance.

No one looks very intelligent claiming that Israel is run by warmongers. So the new plan is to condemn Israel for its enthusiasm for peace negotiations. Israelis have long known that whatever they do, they’ll be criticized for it, and this appears to be just the latest iteration of Israel’s opponents’ fundamental hypocrisy.

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Avigdor Lieberman Returns

The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

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The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

“This chapter is behind me,” Haaretz quotes Lieberman as saying after the acquittal. “I am now focusing on the challenges ahead.”

Lieberman’s political power does not stem from his job title; it’s the other way around. Yet his relative political independence has always been something of a barometer of his electoral strength, and the argument can be made that it’s on the wane, acquittal or no acquittal.

Lieberman started out managing Netanyahu’s campaigns in the early 1990s, and when Netanyahu became prime minister, Lieberman was arguably the Likud Party’s second most powerful member. Yet Lieberman had found a way to tap into the Russian immigrant community’s desire for authentic political representation–Lieberman was himself a Soviet immigrant–in a way that others, like Natan Sharansky, didn’t. In 1999 he formed his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu. As his domestic constituency grew in influence, prime ministers made it a point to find a place for him in their governments, until they started needing Lieberman more than he needed them.

There was always going to be a ceiling of support over Lieberman for demographic reasons. But it was a high ceiling: Russian immigrants account for about 20 percent of Jewish Israelis. Additionally, in an age of fragmented party politics in Israel, Lieberman’s ability to garner 15 or so seats per Knesset was worth steadily more as it became rare for the winning party to even break the 30-seat barrier.

But it also meant Yisrael Beiteinu was perpetually a bridesmaid, and so a year ago Lieberman merged with Likud. He did so because he is younger than the Likud old guard and was positioning himself to one day inherit the Prime Minister’s Office. But Israeli politics is governed by a centripetal force that keeps the Knesset consistently close to the Israeli political center (which is to the right of where most Westerners think it is) and thus militates against the accumulation of overwhelming power in any one party’s hands. Minor parties are also disproportionately powerful in Israel, so larger parties tend to produce diminishing returns after a while.

Because of all that, the new Likud-Beiteinu party did not gain the vote share of the two parties combined; it simply fell into place as a strangely throwback version of Likud, with Bibi and Lieberman at the helm. It is to that party that Lieberman now returns.

Lieberman’s portfolio remains a powerful one, and self-styled “centrist” flash-in-the-pan parties tend to fizzle, so Lieberman may still be better positioned for the long haul than his political rivals. But oh how he has political rivals! In his absence, Israel saw the rise of another secular nationalist–albeit slightly less nationalist–who is seen as far more palatable to the West in Yair Lapid. And the Israeli political scene welcomed the charismatic tech entrepreneur and pro-settlement politician Naftali Bennett, whose new party won 12 seats in the last elections (and briefly made liberal American journalists lose their minds–something he has in common with Lieberman).

On the left, the Israeli Labor Party is showing signs of life with a new leader, Shelly Yachimovich. Tzipi Livni is still hanging around, and her work on the peace negotiations arguably enabled Netanyahu to let her act as foreign minister the way Ehud Barak did when he was defense minister. Speaking of defense minister, Barak’s departure from government opened the space for Moshe Ya’alon to take the defense portfolio, giving Lieberman another powerful rival within Likud.

And yet, Lieberman doesn’t appear too concerned, perhaps because his career has acquired a reputation for indestructibility. Indeed, there is something comical about the way Lieberman’s political career rolls along like a tank despite the scandals, intrigue, and alienation associated with it. His adversaries have always underestimated his toughness and political skills, a mistake that has consistently served him well and may yet continue to do so.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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The Complicated Politics of the Israel-Hamas Cease-Fire

At the beginning of this year, as speculation over whether Israel was preparing to strike Iran’s nuclear program reached something of a crescendo, one of Israel’s most respected journalists sat down with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The journalist, Ronen Bergman, asked Barak about the former political and military figures who had begun to publicly argue against a strike. Barak responded with a reminder about the burden of responsibility he carries along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions,” Barak said. “But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.” Barak wasn’t trying to be dramatic; rather, he was making make a point about the historical weight that rests on nearly every major decision made by the Israeli leadership. Many in the press took this as a declaration by Barak that he would always err on the side of the hawks—why take any chances? But in reality, as we saw this week with Operation Pillar of Defense, it can often mean just the opposite. Barak Ravid reports:

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At the beginning of this year, as speculation over whether Israel was preparing to strike Iran’s nuclear program reached something of a crescendo, one of Israel’s most respected journalists sat down with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The journalist, Ronen Bergman, asked Barak about the former political and military figures who had begun to publicly argue against a strike. Barak responded with a reminder about the burden of responsibility he carries along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions,” Barak said. “But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.” Barak wasn’t trying to be dramatic; rather, he was making make a point about the historical weight that rests on nearly every major decision made by the Israeli leadership. Many in the press took this as a declaration by Barak that he would always err on the side of the hawks—why take any chances? But in reality, as we saw this week with Operation Pillar of Defense, it can often mean just the opposite. Barak Ravid reports:

At Tuesday’s meeting, just before U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived, it became clear to Israel that the principles for a cease-fire being proposed by Egypt were much closer to Hamas’ positions than to its own. The assumption voiced by intelligence officials at the triumvirate meeting was that, contrary to the situation during Mubarak’s era, the Egyptians are aligning with Hamas and trying to provide it with achievements.

This triggered an acerbic dispute between Barak and Lieberman. The defense minister, opposed to an expansion of the operation, thought Israel should respond positively to Egypt’s proposal for a cease-fire and end the operation. Barak said at the meeting that the precise wording of the Egyptian draft is not important since the end of fighting and Israel’s power of deterrence would be tested by the reality on the ground.

Despite a clear lack of trust in their Egyptian counterparts, Barak argued for, and Netanyahu accepted, the merits of ending the conflict without a ground incursion into Gaza. Netanyahu, as we’ve written here before, bears almost no relation to the caricature painted of him in the Western press. The journalists who have spent the last year or two republishing rumors of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran that never materialized too often believed their own spin. Netanyahu, they said, was a warmonger who would order risky comprehensive military operations over the objections of the Israeli public. But in fact, as we learned this week, the Israeli public opposed the cease-fire that brought an end to Operation Pillar of Defense—by a wide margin.

They tended to agree with Avigdor Lieberman, that Israel’s deterrence had not yet been restored. And this wasn’t coming from the peanut gallery sitting on the sidelines. As the Times of Israel reports, there was noticeable and vocal dissent within the military—soldiers who were called up just in case and expressed vehement disappointment that they were never ordered into Gaza.

Netanyahu’s acceptance of the cease-fire is certainly popular outside Israel, especially among his fellow diplomats and heads of state. But there is some risk here too; Netanyahu’s counterparts abroad don’t care what the terms of the deal are, and they don’t much care for Israel’s deterrent capability. They want, more than anything, for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to look like a pragmatic dealmaker, to assuage Western fears that a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt will side with Hamas, which has its roots in the Brotherhood as well, rather than with Western interests.

And any goodwill Netanyahu earns will dissipate almost immediately; “Bibi the Peacemaker” runs counter to the narrative the media constructed and from which they seem constitutionally incapable of deviating. They told us Netanyahu was launching this conflict to shore up his reelection prospects. That it seems to have done the reverse—he is still favored, but looks to be somewhat weakened by the cease-fire—is an example of the difficult position in which Israel finds itself. Israelis prove time and again that their state can uphold both democracy and national security—two things increasingly unimportant to the Jewish state’s critics abroad.

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Israeli Poll Shows Labor at a Crossroads

Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

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Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

A new centrist party formed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid would win more seats in the next Knesset than the Likud, according to a new Haaretz poll. Were such a party to be formed, it would grab 25 seats, compared to Likud’s 24. However, the survey also indicates that, whatever its composition, a right-wing bloc would not lose its Knesset majority….

According to the poll, even if former Prime Minister Olmert and former Kadima leader Livni join forces, or if Livni instead links up with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, they would face a right-wing bloc, a bloc of “natural partners,” that would retain its majority – meaning that Benjamin Netanyahu would remain prime minister after the January 22 elections. In a worst-case scenario from his perspective, he would just have to sweat a little more before reaching the finish line.

The third scenario would be if the current party composition remains unchanged. In that case, the poll projects a 65-seat governing coalition for the rightist bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, and the Orthodox Shas party.

That first scenario, which projects a one-vote win for the centrist supergroup but a failure to form a coalition, leading Netanyahu’s Likud to put his coalition back together, is an almost exact replay of what actually happened the last time Livni led a party that challenged Netanyahu. In 2009, Livni’s Kadima garnered one more Knesset seat than Netanyahu’s Likud, but was unable to form a coalition. (The Kadima win was less than it seemed; voters wanted a rightist coalition, and they got one.)

But there is a fascinating side story to compliment this one, also on Haaretz’s website. The paper reports that the Labor party, now led by Shelly Yachimovich, is working hard to recruit young talent, leaders from Israel’s social protest movement, and popular military and media figures to run in this winter’s election on the Labor slate. This is fascinating in part because it stands in such contrast not only to the first story, but also to conventional wisdom. As the first Haaretz story shows, in Israel the electoral success of a political party is overwhelmingly dependent on the popularity of its leader. (Just for fun, ask a Western media personality who rails against the Orthodox and Russian immigrant parties to name anyone besides the leader of those parties. They probably can’t.)

And in fact, a Livni-Olmert-Lapid party is considered a supergroup despite the fact that poll respondents were given only three names. Who else is on the ticket? Who cares? Yet the Labor party, which until recently was led by Ehud Barak, is rebuilding from the ground up. It cannot trade on Yachimovich’s name or fame. And the strategy represents an honest grappling with the Israeli left’s freefall. Yachimovich is saying, in effect, this isn’t your father’s Labor party.

It is also, however, risky. The Israeli left has had its clock cleaned in Knesset elections over the past decade because the electorate has moved to the right–at least on the peace process. Yachimovich is branding Labor as being further to the left than it has been under the hawkish Barak. It she is successful, it will be a big victory for a rejuvenated left. If not, it will have been a massive missed opportunity to grab what’s left of the political center before someone else does.

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The Predictably Unpredictable Israeli Political Scene

Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.

But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.

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Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.

But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.

There is also the question of capability. Livni has always been well liked, but never evolved into a natural leader or even a particularly good politician. (She even tried, and failed, to oust Olmert when he seemed most politically vulnerable.) Since her rivals were Ehud Barak, Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman–three masterful politicians–even winning national elections couldn’t get Livni into the prime minister’s office. As for Olmert: Jonathan noted recently that Olmert’s entire approval rating was once within the margin of error. In other words, it was statistically possible that zero percent of those polled approved of Olmert. And Lapid is a newcomer; he only registered his party in the spring, and it’s unclear how well he can play the game. Faced with the same Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman competition that swept Livni out of the political scene, it’s entirely possible Lapid will have a welcome-to-the-NFL moment this year.

But there’s one caveat to that: Barak is now something of a wild card. In order to stay in Netanyahu’s government, in which he is defense minister and at times appears to be both co-premier and co-foreign minister, Barak had to leave the Labor party he led for years. He didn’t take enough Labor defectors with him to form a competitive party, so he is something of a paradox: tremendously powerful and influential but possibly without a party that could keep him in the Knesset.

It seemed that Barak’s initial strategy when defecting was to ingratiate himself enough with Netanyahu to earn a spot on the Likud’s next Knesset roster. But in order to do so and ensure he gets a Knesset seat and retains an influential portfolio, he would have to be given very high placement on that list (some speculated he was even angling for the No. 2 spot). But Likud has its own primary and internal elections, and Netanyahu would never risk his own position as leader of the Likud to face down the rebellion that Barak’s plan would surely bring.

Seen in that light, Barak’s decision to meet with Livni two weeks ago, and the evident displeasure it brought Netanyahu, begin to make more sense. Without his own party and without Likud, Barak stands to lose the most in early elections. So he needs a home, or at least a coalition partner. Would Livni and Olmert return to Kadima? Could they even return to Kadima after Shaul Mofaz’s commanding primary victory over Livni and given Olmert’s unpopularity and legal troubles? Would they form a new party?

In order to stop Netanyahu, they may have to form a blocking coalition–which is what Netanyahu did to Livni in 2009–to prevent Likud from being able to form a government even if it wins the elections outright. They would have to ally with Labor to do that, and would need Kadima as well. But without Lieberman, who has been something of a coalition kingmaker for years now, they would probably still fail. (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party has held steady at about 15 seats; the Orthodox Shas party at about 10.)

But if Labor outpaces expectations, and Kadima puts the band back together, even the unlikely is still possible.

If this all sounds confusing now, just wait until it gets going. As Netanyahu and Mofaz demonstrated a few months ago, in Israel the political scene can change on a dime–and then change again before anyone has caught his breath. Considering the histories of Olmert and Livni, it could also all fall apart. But the player to watch will continue to be Barak—the most powerful defense minister since Ariel Sharon with a four-front foreign policy crisis looming and in search of a political home with elections four months away. Yet considering Barak’s clout and his recent ability to attract enough stragglers for a modest following, it’s entirely possible that despite everything, the governing coalition that emerges in February will be identical to the one currently governing Israel.

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Is Abbas Israel’s Necessary Enemy?

As we noted on Thursday, the main point to be gleaned from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations was his utter irrelevance. That Abbas was reduced to pleading with a friendly audience not to ignore his cause was both pathetic and a clear sign he is painfully aware that the international community has lost interest in him, if not the Palestinians as a whole. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spoke from the same podium shortly after Abbas spoke, confirmed Abbas’s insignificance by only briefly mentioning the Palestinians in remarks that were centered on the Iranian nuclear threat. But the PA head’s latest insults directed at Israel did not go completely unanswered by Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one to pull his punches, pointed out the obvious when he said, as Haaretz reports:

Lieberman characterized Abbas as “the biggest obstacle to peace…everyone who heard Abbas’s speech understands that he does not intend, and does not want, to be a partner in a peace agreement,” while in a meeting in New York with foreign ministers of France, Spain, Russia and others.

Lieberman is right about all of this, but his desire to see Abbas replaced as head of the Palestinian Authority generated a response from his cabinet colleague, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who characterized Lieberman’s statement as detrimental to Israel’s interests. Barak said the alternative to Abbas’s rule in the West Bank is Hamas. That both men are basically right about Abbas sums up Israel’s peace process dilemma in a nutshell.

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As we noted on Thursday, the main point to be gleaned from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations was his utter irrelevance. That Abbas was reduced to pleading with a friendly audience not to ignore his cause was both pathetic and a clear sign he is painfully aware that the international community has lost interest in him, if not the Palestinians as a whole. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spoke from the same podium shortly after Abbas spoke, confirmed Abbas’s insignificance by only briefly mentioning the Palestinians in remarks that were centered on the Iranian nuclear threat. But the PA head’s latest insults directed at Israel did not go completely unanswered by Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one to pull his punches, pointed out the obvious when he said, as Haaretz reports:

Lieberman characterized Abbas as “the biggest obstacle to peace…everyone who heard Abbas’s speech understands that he does not intend, and does not want, to be a partner in a peace agreement,” while in a meeting in New York with foreign ministers of France, Spain, Russia and others.

Lieberman is right about all of this, but his desire to see Abbas replaced as head of the Palestinian Authority generated a response from his cabinet colleague, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who characterized Lieberman’s statement as detrimental to Israel’s interests. Barak said the alternative to Abbas’s rule in the West Bank is Hamas. That both men are basically right about Abbas sums up Israel’s peace process dilemma in a nutshell.

Though Lieberman is generally dismissed as a bull in the diplomatic china shop, his disgust with Abbas is entirely justified. The Palestinian’s stated desire for negotiations is given the lie by the fact that he has refused to negotiate for the past four years, even during a period when Israel adopted a West Bank settlement freeze. That followed his refusal even to discuss a generous peace offer from Israel in 2008 that would have given the Palestinians an independent state in almost the entire West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. Abbas has neither the interest nor the will to make peace. Whatever his personal inclinations, he knows the Palestinians won’t accept any accord that legitimizes a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, and he will never sign any treaty that would conclusively end the conflict. The PA leader sanctions the fomenting of anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel in his official media. Abbas is also corrupt and undemocratic, as he is currently serving in the eighth year of a four-year presidential term because he is afraid of facing his Hamas rivals in a free election.

But Barak is right when he notes that the alternative to Abbas is far worse. Were the Islamists of Hamas who currently run Gaza to extend their rule to the West Bank, it would produce a security nightmare for Israel. Abbas is an obstacle to a peace settlement. But the choice for Israel is not between peace with the PA or war with Hamas, but between the unsatisfactory status quo and a worsening security situation with a Hamas that has gained strength at Abbas’s expense.

The notion of a “Palestinian Spring” in which West Bankers would rise up and throw out a corrupt Fatah would not lead to either democracy or peace, but a Hamas government that would be a formula for further instability and violence.

Critics of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu like to blame him and Israel for the stalemate in the peace process, but Israelis understand that peace simply isn’t an option until there is a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians that might make it a possibility. The best scenario they can hope for is a continuation of a situation where terrorism is under control. For that, as Barak argues, they need Abbas and Fatah. He may be an enemy, but under the current circumstances, he appears to be a necessary one. That’s a hard truth that both left-wing Israel-haters and Israeli right-wingers must make their peace with.

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Egypt’s Uprising Has Lessons for Everyone

One characteristic of a deeply complex geopolitical event is the tension between the lessons we choose to learn from past experiences and those we forget, or dismiss. But the role of history looms large, and this is no different with the Arab Spring. Is it like 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern European states began to throw off the yoke of the Soviet Union? Or is it more like 1848, when teetering historic European powers fell one after another in popular uprisings? It turned out that this was far too wide a scope. Each of the world’s endangered autocrats has instead watched how the last domino fell in order to avoid being the next. And no single domino dominates the world’s imagination more than Egypt.

So now that Egypt’s revolution seems to have been hijacked (the word “coup” has been bandied about) by the military and the old guard (though the government may have an Islamist figurehead), what has everyone learned? Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has learned he can retain power by slaughtering his people and not giving in. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has learned if he is to survive he ought to make sure the domino in front of him doesn’t fall first. Assad is that domino, and he also happens to be both an enemy and neighbor of Israel. So in the Washington Post’s long interview with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Syria was unsurprisingly the subject of a good portion of it, and the most interesting exchange:

[WP:] Going back to Syria, do you think the West should arm the opposition?

[Barak:] I think many steps should be taken. Russia has invested a lot of political capital and money in the [Assad] regime. They should have a certain role if we want to succeed. The whole structure of the Syrian state should not be blamed — it is a family and certain individuals [who are responsible]. I believe that if America and Russia talk[ed] together about who can use what leverage, that could be extremely effective. And of course Turkey, the most important neighbor of Syria. What can we do in order to remove this family from power without destroying Syria as a state? Not repeat the mistakes that were made in Iraq, where everything from the Baath Party to the military was dismantled. There’s no need to do that [and increase] the chances that they will end up with a chaotic civil war, where the bad guys will be more prominent. It’s time for the world to dictate to Mr. Assad to move out of power or else. But the “or else” can be convincing only if America and Russia will join hands.

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One characteristic of a deeply complex geopolitical event is the tension between the lessons we choose to learn from past experiences and those we forget, or dismiss. But the role of history looms large, and this is no different with the Arab Spring. Is it like 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern European states began to throw off the yoke of the Soviet Union? Or is it more like 1848, when teetering historic European powers fell one after another in popular uprisings? It turned out that this was far too wide a scope. Each of the world’s endangered autocrats has instead watched how the last domino fell in order to avoid being the next. And no single domino dominates the world’s imagination more than Egypt.

So now that Egypt’s revolution seems to have been hijacked (the word “coup” has been bandied about) by the military and the old guard (though the government may have an Islamist figurehead), what has everyone learned? Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has learned he can retain power by slaughtering his people and not giving in. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has learned if he is to survive he ought to make sure the domino in front of him doesn’t fall first. Assad is that domino, and he also happens to be both an enemy and neighbor of Israel. So in the Washington Post’s long interview with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Syria was unsurprisingly the subject of a good portion of it, and the most interesting exchange:

[WP:] Going back to Syria, do you think the West should arm the opposition?

[Barak:] I think many steps should be taken. Russia has invested a lot of political capital and money in the [Assad] regime. They should have a certain role if we want to succeed. The whole structure of the Syrian state should not be blamed — it is a family and certain individuals [who are responsible]. I believe that if America and Russia talk[ed] together about who can use what leverage, that could be extremely effective. And of course Turkey, the most important neighbor of Syria. What can we do in order to remove this family from power without destroying Syria as a state? Not repeat the mistakes that were made in Iraq, where everything from the Baath Party to the military was dismantled. There’s no need to do that [and increase] the chances that they will end up with a chaotic civil war, where the bad guys will be more prominent. It’s time for the world to dictate to Mr. Assad to move out of power or else. But the “or else” can be convincing only if America and Russia will join hands.

This is something of a counterintuitive assessment, to say the least. First of all, Syria is already involved in a chaotic (and bloody) civil war. Second, the “bad guys” are already prominent in that civil war–the Syrian regime’s military, at the command and control of Assad. And third, there is no indication the Syrian opposition would accept a transition in which only a handful of top officials cede power to the existing establishment. Thus, it would likely not end the civil war.

What’s happening here is the result of the tension between lessons learned and lessons lost. Assad, watching Egypt, is learning he must set the military upon the people if he is to survive, and the military is learning from Egypt it need not respect the wishes of the protesters.

The West is learning two lessons from Egypt: a rushed transition controlled by the military will likely lead to a continued military dictatorship, and the stability of autocratic regimes is a myth. That Barak is still holding on to this myth has much to do with the neighborhood in which Israel resides. The political movements with any coherent sense of mission and stable political networks in the Middle East are Islamist groups, most notably among them the Muslim Brotherhood. It has become the only serious opposition in Egypt, and it surely doesn’t help that Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

Barak’s concerns are understandable, but his proposed solution is a lesson lost. It is precisely the “stability” of autocrats like Hosni Mubarak that suffocated any liberal momentum among the populace, depriving it of experience and organization that could compete, perhaps, with that of the Brotherhood. As one of the two men most responsible for the defense and survival of the Jewish state in this environment, Barak is not in an enviable position at this moment. But history doesn’t dole out sympathy, just lessons.

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Wake Up and Smell the Arabic Coffee

Even Israeli leaders are calling for stronger Western action against Syria. In the wake of the Houla massacre, Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized the expulsions of Syrian diplomats as inadequate and said, “More concrete action is required. These are crimes against humanity and it’s impossible that the international community is going to stand aside.”

On one level this might not seem terribly surprising—Syria is, after all, in a longstanding state of war with Israel, and the Assad regime has long been a leading backer of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other anti-Israeli terrorist groups. So it makes sense that Israeli leaders would call for tougher action against Assad. Except that for years Israeli leaders have viewed the Assad regime as a bulwark of stability and have dismissed calls for supporting the opposition. I remember a few years ago having an argument with a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem on this very issue; he dismissed my suggestion that it would be better for Assad to go as the fantasy of an American who did not have to live next door to Syria.

Now even the Israelis realize that the Assads deliver a faux stability and that their removal actually has the potential—not the certainty but the potential—to improve the strategic outlook for Israel while hurting Israel’s main enemy, Iran. If only the Obama administration had reached a similar conclusion.

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Even Israeli leaders are calling for stronger Western action against Syria. In the wake of the Houla massacre, Defense Minister Ehud Barak criticized the expulsions of Syrian diplomats as inadequate and said, “More concrete action is required. These are crimes against humanity and it’s impossible that the international community is going to stand aside.”

On one level this might not seem terribly surprising—Syria is, after all, in a longstanding state of war with Israel, and the Assad regime has long been a leading backer of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other anti-Israeli terrorist groups. So it makes sense that Israeli leaders would call for tougher action against Assad. Except that for years Israeli leaders have viewed the Assad regime as a bulwark of stability and have dismissed calls for supporting the opposition. I remember a few years ago having an argument with a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem on this very issue; he dismissed my suggestion that it would be better for Assad to go as the fantasy of an American who did not have to live next door to Syria.

Now even the Israelis realize that the Assads deliver a faux stability and that their removal actually has the potential—not the certainty but the potential—to improve the strategic outlook for Israel while hurting Israel’s main enemy, Iran. If only the Obama administration had reached a similar conclusion.

Instead, even in the wake of the latest atrocities, the president and his aides are still locked in diplomatic never-never land where the magical intervention of Kofi Annan or Vladimir Putin will somehow resolve the situation. They should wake up and smell the Arabic coffee. Only American-led action has any chance of ending the killing anytime soon.

There is no mystery about what it would take: provide arms, communications gear and other important help to the more moderate factions of Syrian rebels; help them to become better organized; support Turkey in establishing safe zones inside Syria; and possibly commit to using air strikes, either to defend the safe zones or to strike regime targets. Yet there is little sign the Obama administration is reconsidering its opposition to such steps. Thus, the killing goes on.

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“The Sword On Our Neck”

Remember when Meir Dagan, upon leaving office as head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, gave a briefing to the press, where he warned against hasty military decisions and said that “Israel should not hasten to attack Iran, doing so only when the sword is upon its neck”?

In a clear reference to Dagan’s words, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has just said, in a lecture delivered earlier today at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies that “the metaphorical sword is now on our neck.”

Israel is the only country in the world that launched, not once but twice, a preemptive strike on an adversary’s nuclear facilities. These words should not be taken lightly by Western policymakers intent on stretching the ongoing negotiating round with Iran at least until the November U.S. presidential elections.

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Remember when Meir Dagan, upon leaving office as head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, gave a briefing to the press, where he warned against hasty military decisions and said that “Israel should not hasten to attack Iran, doing so only when the sword is upon its neck”?

In a clear reference to Dagan’s words, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has just said, in a lecture delivered earlier today at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies that “the metaphorical sword is now on our neck.”

Israel is the only country in the world that launched, not once but twice, a preemptive strike on an adversary’s nuclear facilities. These words should not be taken lightly by Western policymakers intent on stretching the ongoing negotiating round with Iran at least until the November U.S. presidential elections.

Barak’s speech is a warning then – and one that diplomats reading progress into Iran’s foot dragging last week in Baghdad would be foolish to downplay.

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Israel’s “Worst Case” Scenario After Iran

You could argue that this leak – which has the Israelis gaming out an Iranian-led assault on Israel and capping Israeli casualties at below 300 – is a ruse designed to make the world think they’re not bluffing about a kinetic operation against Iranian nuclear facilities. Alternatively, it could be that the report is absolutely true, and that having already concluded that an attack would reap significant benefits, the Israelis are now confirming that its costs have been exaggerated. The math would then work itself out:

In the event of an Iranian attack on Israel, less than 300 people would be killed during three weeks of non-stop fighting on multiple fronts, according to estimates delivered to the security cabinet in a briefing, Channel 10 reported on Monday. According to the estimates, described as a worst-case scenario, thousands of missiles would be launched toward Israel from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza as part of the Iranian attack. The scenario took into account Israel’s defenses as of 2012, with the Iron Dome rocket-defense system not yet at its full deployment.

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You could argue that this leak – which has the Israelis gaming out an Iranian-led assault on Israel and capping Israeli casualties at below 300 – is a ruse designed to make the world think they’re not bluffing about a kinetic operation against Iranian nuclear facilities. Alternatively, it could be that the report is absolutely true, and that having already concluded that an attack would reap significant benefits, the Israelis are now confirming that its costs have been exaggerated. The math would then work itself out:

In the event of an Iranian attack on Israel, less than 300 people would be killed during three weeks of non-stop fighting on multiple fronts, according to estimates delivered to the security cabinet in a briefing, Channel 10 reported on Monday. According to the estimates, described as a worst-case scenario, thousands of missiles would be launched toward Israel from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza as part of the Iranian attack. The scenario took into account Israel’s defenses as of 2012, with the Iron Dome rocket-defense system not yet at its full deployment.

These assessments are in line with statements by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to the effect that scenarios describing unending cataclysmic war are overblown.

It’s apparently taken as a given that Iran and its proxies would have leeway to target Israeli civilians in the aftermath of Israeli pin-point strikes. Rockets and missiles fired at Israeli civilian centers would be shrugged off by the international community with something in between “well, what did you expect would happen” and “if you think about it, the Israelis kind of have it coming.” Even pro-forma condemnations about limiting the violence and calls to think about the morning after would be slow in arriving, except in the immediate aftermath of Israeli strikes against attacks from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and perhaps even Egypt and Syria.

The double standards, indifference, and rationalizations with which atrocities against Israeli civilians are greeted, of course, is exactly why Jerusalem is committed to holding its genocidal enemies to conventional means. Given that Iranian leaders are again exhorting the religiously-driven annihilation of Israel, it’s no wonder that solid majorities of Israelis are supporting last-ditch military strikes on Iran.

On one side they see 300 deaths. On the other side they see the events depicted in this harrowing video, which you shouldn’t watch if you’re easily shaken:

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The Cost of Inaction on Iranian Nukes

Jeffrey Goldberg, Ronen Bergman, and various other commentators believe that an Israeli strike on Iran is more likely than not this year. I agree that the odds are in favor of such a preemptive strike, and that there are compelling reasons for Israel to act before November—not only because of the progress Iran is likely to make in its nuclear program by the fall but also because of a widespread perception that President Obama will have to be more supportive of America’s closest ally in the region before the election than after it. What I don’t know—know one does—is what the impact of such strikes would be: how much would they set back the Iranian nuclear program and how would Iran respond?

Goldberg reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are fairly optimistic about the damage that Israel could do to Iran’s nuclear complex and sanguine about the prospects of Iranian retaliation: “Some Israeli officials believe that Iran’s leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture, rather than declare all-out war,” Goldberg writes. Moreover, he adds: “Some Israeli security officials also believe that Iran won’t target American ships or installations in the Middle East in retaliation for a strike, as many American officials fear, because the leadership in Tehran understands that American retaliation for an Iranian attack could be so severe as to threaten the regime itself.

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Jeffrey Goldberg, Ronen Bergman, and various other commentators believe that an Israeli strike on Iran is more likely than not this year. I agree that the odds are in favor of such a preemptive strike, and that there are compelling reasons for Israel to act before November—not only because of the progress Iran is likely to make in its nuclear program by the fall but also because of a widespread perception that President Obama will have to be more supportive of America’s closest ally in the region before the election than after it. What I don’t know—know one does—is what the impact of such strikes would be: how much would they set back the Iranian nuclear program and how would Iran respond?

Goldberg reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are fairly optimistic about the damage that Israel could do to Iran’s nuclear complex and sanguine about the prospects of Iranian retaliation: “Some Israeli officials believe that Iran’s leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture, rather than declare all-out war,” Goldberg writes. Moreover, he adds: “Some Israeli security officials also believe that Iran won’t target American ships or installations in the Middle East in retaliation for a strike, as many American officials fear, because the leadership in Tehran understands that American retaliation for an Iranian attack could be so severe as to threaten the regime itself.

The New York Times reports that a Central Command war game raised greater concerns about Iranian retaliation including possibly missile strikes on U.S. facilities and warships in the Persian Gulf. Those are legitimate concerns but Iran would be making a serious miscalculation if it gave the U.S. an excuse to unleash our own, much more formidable air forces against its nuclear installations. That doesn’t mean that Iran won’t do it—its leadership has miscalculated before and will do so again—but it should caution against assuming that the U.S. will automatically become embroiled in a war with Iran after an Israeli attack. I think Iran is more likely to unleash a massive missile barrage against Israel using its Hezbollah proxies and to step up terrorist attacks on U.S. targets in the region.

Whatever the risks of Israeli action, we must never lost sight of the disastrous consequences of inaction—namely the almost certain acquisition of nuclear weapons by the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism. That is a frightening thought that should put the fallout from any military action into perspective. Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated living soldier and a man who knows a thing or two about warfare, says, “A war is no picnic,” but he believes the consequences of action—which are certain to be far greater for Israel than for the U.S.—will be manageable: “There will not be 100,000 dead or 10,000 dead or 1,000 dead. The state of Israel will not be destroyed.” The other possibility is that if Iran does acquire nukes, then the destruction of Israel becomes a much more imaginable possibility.

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Dagan’s Tactical Disagreement

One of the standard themes of those who claim there is no need to take action to halt Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability is that intelligence experts dispute the notion that this program poses a threat to Israel or the West. The star of this campaign is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who will be featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes” this Sunday. The interview is being hailed by some as debunking what they consider to be the alarmism expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, therefore giving cover to those who wish to table the entire subject rather than to ramp up the pressure on Tehran.

But as with many previous statements by Dagan, the excerpts of the interview that have been released are bound to disappoint Iran’s apologists. Though Dagan is fiercely antagonistic to both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposed to an air strike on Iran now, he clearly views Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to Israel and believes it must be stopped. His differences with Israel’s government center on how much time we have before it is too late and what measures would be most effective in doing the job.

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One of the standard themes of those who claim there is no need to take action to halt Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability is that intelligence experts dispute the notion that this program poses a threat to Israel or the West. The star of this campaign is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who will be featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes” this Sunday. The interview is being hailed by some as debunking what they consider to be the alarmism expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, therefore giving cover to those who wish to table the entire subject rather than to ramp up the pressure on Tehran.

But as with many previous statements by Dagan, the excerpts of the interview that have been released are bound to disappoint Iran’s apologists. Though Dagan is fiercely antagonistic to both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposed to an air strike on Iran now, he clearly views Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to Israel and believes it must be stopped. His differences with Israel’s government center on how much time we have before it is too late and what measures would be most effective in doing the job.

Those who are promoting Dagan as a counterpoint to Netanyahu should remember a few key facts about his unprecedented public advocacy on the Iran issue that are not well known in the United States. Far from being an entirely dispassionate intelligence professional, Dagan’s anger at Netanyahu and Barak stems in no small part from the fact that the pair are the ones responsible for his being fired from his job. This happened after a series of intelligence failures–the most public of which was the disastrous hit on a Hamas official in Dubai.

Second, though interviewer Leslie Stahl focuses her attention on Dagan’s opposition to a strike on Iran now, the subtext to his position is that he spent much of his time at the head of the Mossad working on efforts to spike the ayatollah’s nuclear ambition. Under his leadership, Israeli intelligence concentrated much of its resources on covert activities whose purpose was to slow or stop progress toward an Iranian bomb. Although he says he considers the Iranian regime “rational” (though he added “not exactly our [idea of] rational”), that doesn’t mean he thinks containing a nuclear Iran (something President Obama has now specifically rejected) is a good idea.

Instead, as one might expect from a veteran spook, Dagan wants more emphasis on covert activities and other efforts that are aimed at an even more ambitious project than a mere surgical taking out of Iran’s nuclear facilities: regime change. In the sense that a democratic Iran, or at least one not ruled by Islamist fanatics, would be much safer for Israel and the rest of the world, he is, of course, right. But to say his opinions on this subject are somehow more realistic than the less grandiose intentions of Netanyahu and Barak, who only wish to make sure Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn’t get his hands on a nuke, is obviously a stretch.

The question of how much time Israel has before it is too late to do anything about an Iranian nuclear weapon is not unimportant. Dagan is clearly of the opinion the situation is not yet critical. But, as he was careful to point out to Stahl, “I never said a lot of time. [There is] more time.”

All of which paints a picture of a difference of opinion within the top levels of Israeli intelligence which is more about tactics and timing than, as Netanyahu’s critics as well as Israel-haters seem to imply, about the critical nature of the threat itself. Meir Dagan’s opinions deserve to be heard and considered, but they should be understood as coming from within a consensus that views Iranian nukes as a deadly threat, not outside of it.

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Israeli Shakeup Another Setback for Obama

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East. Read More

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East.

From the moment he took office, Obama has sought to overturn the cozier relationship that existed between Washington and Jerusalem under his predecessor. Throughout his first year in office, Obama seemed to be aiming at unseating Netanyahu, who had been elected weeks after the president was sworn in. By picking pointless fights over settlements and Jewish building in Jerusalem, Obama sought to destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition and hoped Livni would soon replace him. But his ill-considered attacks merely strengthened Netanyahu, who wisely sought to avoid a direct confrontation with his country’s only ally. It was already obvious that, far from collapsing, Netanyahu’s government would survive to the end of its four-year term or close to it. While the outcome of the next Israeli election that will probably occur in 2013 is as difficult to predict as that of Obama’s own re-election effort in 2012, Barak’s move renders the hopes of Livni — the Israeli leader whom both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to treat as America’s favorite Israeli — less likely.

That means Obama is going to have to spend the rest of his term continuing to try to learn to live with the wily Netanyahu. Both Obama and the Palestinian Authority have spent the past two years acting as if they were just waiting around for a new weaker-willed Israeli government to materialize that would then magically create the circumstances under which peace would be achieved. As Barak-faction member Einat Wilf told the New York Times today, “I don’t belong to the camp that believes Israel is solely responsible for the failure of these negotiations. The Palestinians bear responsibility for not entering the talks. Some people have sent them a message to wait around for a new government.”

Barak’s move makes it clear that isn’t going to happen. While Israel’s critics will lament this development, it is high time that Americans accept the fact that the verdict of the Jewish state’s voters must be respected and that the Israeli consensus that has developed about the futility of further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians is entirely justified.

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Barak Pulls a Sharon

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

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