Bibi or Barak: Who will plunge us into Mideast war?

As U.S. officials seek to head off an Israeli attack on Iran, the character of two old soldiers will be decisive

Topics: Israel, Iran,

Bibi or Barak: Who will plunge us into Mideast war?Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

In their joint management of what appears, at least, to be the run-up to an Israeli attack on Iran, who is pushing harder for war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Ehud Barak?

A casual observer would probably say Netanyahu. He’s the Likud hard-liner, the settlement-builder, the one who’s always comparing Iran to the Nazis; Barak is the peacemaker from Camp David, the good friend of Bill and Hillary. Barak is an honorary Democrat; Netanyahu is the Republicans’ fantasy pick for president.

While all this seems true, it doesn’t necessarily tell you which of them is more determined to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Ha’aretz is reporting (here and here) that U.S. officials say Barak is the one. As National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon and National Intelligence Agency chief James Clapper arrived in Jerusalem this week to press the case against an Israeli attack, Ha’aretz reported:

The Americans are particularly worried about the hawkish line that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has adopted on the matter. They apparently have the impression, however, that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has yet to come to a final stance on the dispute.

Knowing where Netanyahu and Barak stand on the Israeli political spectrum is little help in gauging which one will be more in favor of the military option when decision time comes, which could be as early as spring. Their war records as prime minister, their character, their readiness to withstand American pressure, and the power relationship between them are much stronger indicators of what they will do on Iran than their views on West Bank settlements.

For all their militant rhetoric, neither one ever started a war from the prime minister’s office, which was held by Netanyahu for six years (1996-99 and 2009-present), and by Barak for a year-and-a-half (1999-2001). Both followed standard-issue, tough Israeli policy on Palestinian terror, but the most notable military move by either one was Barak’s withdrawal of armed forces from Lebanon. (The most enthusiastic warrior of 21stcentury Israel was the most dovish P.M. of all on the Palestinian question: Ehud Olmert, who in three years fought Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and in between bombed Syria’s upstart nuclear reactor.)

Judging by their records, then, neither Netanyahu nor Barak is eager to attack a foreign country. But the specter of a regime as radical as Iran’s closing in on nuclear capability is something Israel has never faced, so past performance counts for only so much.

As for which man is more likely to stand up to pressure from the Obama administration, that’s clearly Netanyahu. He and President Obama are fundamentally different, not to say natural enemies. The prime minister is a Toscanini in orchestrating congressional opposition to White House strong-arming.

For Barak, White House pressure was never much of an issue. He was regarded as an ally by Clinton and Obama, until the current administration saw he was stringing them along on Netanyahu’s sincerity about peace. Now that he’s reportedly considered the true Iran hawk in Israel’s government, the White House would seem to have little use for him.

“He panics under pressure”

Then there’s the character issue, and on this score I’d say Barak would be more likely than Netanyahu to point for war. One of the three most decorated soldiers in Israeli history, Barak has bragged about killing Arab enemies while “seeing the whites of their eyes.” He’s a menacing individual, a systems analyst with a taste for violence; while playing “no, after you” with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000, he grinned while manhandling the Palestinian through the door. Years later, in his political comeback, Barak stormed a Labor Party stage, his bodyguards tailing him, tore the microphone out of a party elder’s hand and demanded that the membership give him his way. He’s more ruthless than Netanyahu, and no less ambitious.

As for the prime minister, if this were strictly an issue of character, or personality, I think that when the moment came to bomb or not to bomb, he would back off. To quote Ariel Sharon: “Netanyahu lacks the sound judgment and iron nerves required of an Israeli prime minister. He panics under pressure.” On the basis of personality alone, bombing Iran and starting what could turn into a long regional war seems too big for Bibi. Political cartoons often show him in a nervous sweat. It’s commonly noted in the media that he is intimidated by his (third) wife, Sara, and that she runs her own personal “court” inside his bureau. As Israeli leaders go, he radiates instability.

You Might Also Like

Commenting on the latest shakeup in Netanyahu’s office, Yediot Aharonot diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer wrote on Wednesday: “I’ve been covering the activities of prime ministers since Menachem Begin. I spent many hours watching their bureaus at work, and I can honestly say that I’ve never come across a working environment so divisive and anarchic as this one.”

The only prime minister’s office he ever covered that rivaled Netanyahu’s for intrigue and disorder, Shiffer wrote, was Barak’s.

I asked two retired Mossad chiefs, an army ex-chief of staff and a former defense and foreign minister, all of whom made life-or-death decisions separately with Barak and Netanyahu, which seemed more likely to go to war with Iran, and which seemed to have more influence over the other. The Mossadniks and the army man had no comment,  another indicator that the Israeli security officials don’t care to debate the issue publicly. Former defense and foreign minister Moshe Arens, a hawk on Iran, said there was no reason to assume the two men differed in their views. As for which had more influence over the other, Arens said: “I don’t know. Maybe they themselves have no way of knowing.”

Much has been written about the two men’s relationship, which goes back 40 years to when Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in Sayeret Matcal, Israel’s most legendary  commando unit. Barak, at 70, is eight years older than the prime minister. Face-to-face, the defense minister would seem to be the senior partner. However, there’s no evidence that Netanyahu is submissive at work to his former commander.

Moreover, Barak needs his one-time lieutenant much, much more than the other way around. Without Netanyahu, the defense minister’s political career is over. In recent years he’s become terminally unpopular on a personal level with the public and his political colleagues. He’s highly respected, though, as Israel’s top military technocrat, which is the reason Netanyahu keeps him around.

But the most important element in the power relationship between the two, certainly in a decision on starting a war with Iran, is that Netanyahu is the prime minister and Barak isn’t. It will be Netanyahu calling (or calling off) this shot.

Myself, I cannot envision him as prime minister of Israel on the day after Iran has reached the point where it is beyond Israel’s ability to stop it from building nuclear weapons, a point Israelis estimate will arrive around September. I can’t imagine Netanyahu envisioning himself in such a helpless predicament facing such a threat. From childhood, from his family – especially his 101-year-old father, Benzion, a great historian of the Spanish Inquisition whose stated political views make his son’s seem positively  liberal – from the heroic death of his brother, Yonatan, in the raid on Entebbe, from his understanding of history, Bibi Netanyahu inherited, and has nurtured, a grim certainty of what happens to Jews when they are vulnerable.

Speaking about International Holocaust Day in a cabinet meeting early this month, he said that what’s changed for Jews since the Holocaust is “not the lack of enemies – the same will to exterminate the Jewish people, first of all the state that was founded; that will remain and has not changed.” What’s different, he said, is that now Jews have the power and will to defend themselves.

“The Jewish people, the government of Israel,” he said, “have the right, the duty and the capability to prevent another extermination of the Jewish people or attack on its state.”

On May 5, Netanyahu will be at the White House to hear from Obama why he shouldn’t go to war. According to Ha’aretz, the president will come to the meeting armed with a statement of support from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who will convey it privately to Obama at the AIPAC convention.

The Americans will be ganging up on Netanyahu, isolating him from his supposedly more hawkish partner, Barak. But even by himself, Netanyahu should prove an awfully hard nut for Obama to crack, especially on the matter at hand.

Larry Derfner is an Israeli journalist who writes for +972 Magazine and American Jewish publications.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>