Bibi vs. Barak – sign of impending elections?

Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu

Defence Minister Ehud Barak and PM Binyamin Netanyahu

The Israeli news has been dominated in the last few days by the latest sparring between PM Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak. What implications does this rift have for the Israeli political process?

One of the major points of the rift between the two men is that Barak is being accused of bringing America as a wedge issue into the Israeli political process – as opposed to the accusation that Netanyahu has involved Israel in the American elections.

In America, both Republicans and Democrats are accused of using Israel against each other to win votes ahead of elections • But now the tables seem to have turned as Netanyahu and Barak accuse each other of harming ties with the U.S. for political gain.

With the backdrop of the possibility of early elections, unprecedented tension has been reported in the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. According to Israel Radio, Netanyahu harshly criticized Barak during a closed-door conversation with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Tuesday. Netanyahu said Barak had tried to drive a wedge between the prime minister and the American government during Barak’s recent trip to the U.S., according to a Channel 2 report.

[...]

Netanyahu confidants said Barak has decided to separate himself from the prime minister due to electoral considerations. Barak is hoping that the Independence party, which he founded in 2011 after he left Labor, will earn enough votes in the next elections to surpass the threshold required to receive seats in the Knesset.

“For a time, Barak tried to play a double game, as he thought Netanyahu would reserve the position of defense minister for him,” the Netanyahu confidants said. “But when he understood that this would not happen, he began to attack the prime minister.”

Finance Ministry officials said Steinitz has been cautioning Netanyahu about Barak for months.

The Times of Israel concurs that the uncharacteristic sniping from Netanyahu is a sign that elections are near:

One of Israel’s more improbable but strongest political partnerships of recent years was showing cracks Tuesday, amid increasing speculation that general elections are approaching.

In a rare instance of discord, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a swipe at Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a meeting on the upcoming budget. In the meeting, with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu accused Barak of fomenting tension between the Israeli and US governments during a recent visit to the US.

According to a Channel 2 News report, Steinitz told Netanyahu to watch out for Barak as he would sabotage their efforts to pass an unpopular proposed budget. Netanyahu reportedly responded that the budget wasn’t the only issue they had to be wary of, stating that “Barak went to the US to play the role of the moderate ‘savior,’ reconciling between the sides” over the best way to grapple with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear drive.

Netanyahu’s rare rebuke of Barak may reflect his new frustration with the defense minister who, despite his left-of-center political views regarding the Palestinians, had until recently appeared to agree with the prime minister on the urgent need for a preemptive military strike on Iran.

Barak has recently backed away from the imminent imperative to strike Iran, however, leaving Netanyahu somewhat isolated in the face of broad US and domestic opposition to a strike on Iran, which in turn, makes it unlikely the prime minister would order such an attack.

[...]

Channel 10 News reported that the fallout between the two was due to Netanyahu’s refusal to guarantee Barak the defense portfolio in a future government.

Barak, who broke away from the Labor party last year to form his Atzmaut (Independence) party, is believed to have little chance of clearing the electoral threshold in the next election and getting back into the Knesset; he would therefore be dependent on Netanyahu to re-appoint him to the post. But if the prime minister were to do so, he would risk internal strife in his Likud party, many of whose members dislike and distrust the relatively dovish Barak, and several of whose senior members covet the job of defense minister.

[...]

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu held meetings with coalition members on passing the budget. Analysts said little progress was made, bolstering the sense that the country will indeed head toward elections early next year rather than in the fall as scheduled.

“If we don’t get a majority in favor of a responsible budget, we will complete a four-year term and go to elections,” Netanyahu reportedly said in closed talks, adding that the decision on whether or not to hold elections will be made by October 15. The deadline for passing the budget is November 1.

Ehud Barak himself confirmed that he has been working on strengthening ties with the US, implying that Netanyahu was at fault for the tension between himself and President Obama:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak struck back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday as a verbal feud between the two political allies escalated, with Barak saying he had strengthened ties with the US — and implying that Netanyahu damaged them.

The tensions between the two most influential figures in Israel’s government are generally seen as a sign that the dissolution of the government, and early elections, are imminent.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu criticized Barak over a recent visit to Washington, DC, in which the defense minister met with US officials, including Chicago mayor and former US President Barack Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel.

Netanyahu said Barak “went to the US to play the role of the moderate ‘savior,’ reconciling the sides” over the best way to grapple with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, according to a report on Channel 2 TV.

Netanyahu’s aides claim that he was also kept in the dark about Barak’s meeting with Rahm Emanuel, former aide to President Obama and now Mayor of Chicago:

Officials close to Benjamin Netanyahu stated Wednesday that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s meeting with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel two weeks ago was not coordinated with the prime minister and he was not briefed on it either. Following Ynet’s exclusive report on the meeting, officials at the Defense Ministry claimed the meeting was not kept secret from Netanyahu.

Netanyahu was reportedly furious with Barak for acting behind his back by holding a secret meeting with Obama’s close acquaintance Emanuel, which has brought the tension between the PM and the defense minister to new heights.

Two weeks ago, during an official visit to the US, Barak held a secret meeting with the former White house chief of staff. Barak flew to Chicago especially for the meeting, and the two discussed the recently faltering ties between Israel and the United States.

Emanuel later addressed the meeting and rejected speculations saying he was asked to serve as a diplomatic conduit, in light of growing tension between US President Barack Obama and Netanyahu. “If the government of Israel has something to say, they know how to reach the White House and they know how to reach officials there,” said Emanuel to the “Chicago Sun Times.”

Ehud Barak defended himself from Netanyahu’s accusations:

Meanwhile, sources close to Barak insist there is no crisis between the defense minister and the prime minister. “As far as the defense minister is concerned there is no rift,” one source said.”

The sources highlighted a line of issues that warrant Israeli communication with the Americans. “When Israel needs special assistance for the Iron Dome or Magic Wand, Israel and the defense minister turn to the US,” one source said. “When an angry mob is threatening to hurt Israelis at the Cairo embassy, Israel turns to the US for help.”

Barak’s associates also addressed the joint Israeli-US military drill scheduled to take place next month. “Israel is working closely with the US on this.”

“Israel maintains its responsibility for security at trying times. However, in order to avoid being relatively isolated “the day after” we need to lay the groundwork for trust and cooperation with the administration, Pentagon and Congress and that is exactly what the defense minister is doing and has been doing.”

The general feeling in Israel is that all these very public arguments are a sign that “the affair is over” as Yisrael Hayom puts it, and that elections are in the air.

From the first link:

The music of political collapse is all around us, but the loudest noise is the collapse of what used to be the most impenetrable wall of all — the close relationship between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. After Netanyahu’s attack on Barak — which took the form of leaked comments to the press — it is clear that things cannot go on as they were, that the tight-knit relationship is over. What haven’t Barak and Netanyahu gone through over the past three years? They’ve been the targets of innumerable attempts to divide them, sully them, break them apart. But they stood firm, to the chagrin and envy of many government ministers and top Likud politicians.

Many people warned Netanyahu of Barak’s penchant for betrayal. Remember what he did to Olmert toward the end of his term, they warned. Netanyahu took note and carried on. Until now.

Barak has understood from Netanyahu that he cannot be assured of serving as defense minister in the next government, a fact that forces him to run alone in the next elections. This is why he needed to distance himself from Netanyahu and move out from under the prime minister’s shade. Netanyahu saw this as crossing a red line. It’s one thing to brief reporters at Haaretz and receive favorable press there, but to drag Netanyahu’s name through the Potomac mud is another thing entirely.

Between early elections in Feb. 2013 and holding them at their original date in Oct. 2013 are eight months.

Netanyahu has many political calculations to make: Shas could collapse [with the entry of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri into the fray with his own party]; Avigdor Lieberman’s political and legal fate is still up in the air; and Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich could strengthen. Netanyahu might be thinking that it would be better to sacrifice eight months — and hold early elections — in favor of securing four more years, instead of staying in power for another eight months and possibly imperiling that time.

From the second link:

Since the moment it became clear that suspicion and criticism have come to characterize the most stable relationship in the government, that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a political reality has been created pointing toward early elections. It is not important if the suspicions are well-founded or not. It does not matter if Barak was trying to sell the Americans an alternative to Netanyahu’s policies or not. The situation has resulted from the subjective feelings of each of them, individually.

At the crux of the matter, as it was expressed by one of the most prominent leaders in the Arab world, is not just the apparent rift between Israel and the U.S. that aids Iran’s efforts to advance its nuclear project. Disputes between top Israeli politicians have the same effect.

I just hope that if even if there are elections, and it looks increasingly likely as the above articles all explain, the two men will manage to put away their differences in public for the benefit of the whole country. Whatever they feel about each other, public splits are just fodder for our enemies.

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5 Responses to Bibi vs. Barak – sign of impending elections?

  1. peteca1 says:

    Wow – this is pretty dramatic stuff.
    Right now I would like to hear your opinion on one thing, Anne. Let’s suppose that Mr. Netanyahu does decide to hold an early election in Jan or Feb of 2013. And apparently this also means that he could dissolve the existing Knesset in the middle of October, 2012. Does this mean that Mr. Netanyahu would have unilateral powers to make key decisions for Israel during the 3-4 months before a new election? If the Knesset is gone – does this remove all checks and balances from his actions? It’s no secret that Bibi has been frustrated by security leaks from people inside the Knesset. Is this a window of opportunity for sole decision making??? Talk about drama in high places :-)
    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      I’m afraid it’s not quite as dramatic as all that Pete. As far as I know (but I might be wrong) the Knesset continues functioning even after dissolution, until a new Knesset is elected. There may even be some limits on what the PM can do if the Knesset has been dissolved, so rather than being given free rein, Netanyahu might have less room to maneuver. Again, I’m not 100% positive about this. We’ll just have to wait and see!

      Meanwhile, here are a couple of links about the functioning of the Knesset:

      The Knesset

      The Knesset usually serves for four years, but may dissolve itself or be dissolved by the prime minister any time during its term. Until a new Knesset is formally constituted following elections, full authority remains with the outgoing one.

      Also see:The work of the Knesset

  2. reality says:

    its pathetic that just because Barak(never was a good choice although he was a good soldier , but has been terrible in allowing building in the Judea & Shomron)wants a seat in the Knesset & he’ll jeapordise our safety for that. I think its high time that Netanyahu looks for someone else( eg Effie Eitam -wonderful soldier with a good head on his shoulders) as defense minister. We really don’t need in fighting right now. Today the headlines are saying that Yair Lapid doesn’t want us to attack Iran-let Barak join him & everyone in the country will know exactly which way to vote. It’ll make things a lot clearer which is what is needed right now.

    • peteca1 says:

      As an outsider – I have to agree with you. Mr. Barak needs to remember which hat he is wearing. He is the Defense Minister, and it carries a special responsibility. He cannot also play politics while holding that job. If he wants to play politics and work out deals with the US administration – then he should step aside.

      Haaretz had a very interesting article yesterday – pointing out that 80% of Bibi’s major campaign donors are actually Americans. Presumably, many are wealthy American Jews. The issue is – should foreigners have that much influence in Israeli politics – good question!? You could ask the same question about Barak – who is really giving him money right now? Looking at those names could be interesting.

      Perhaps Israel should enact laws that foreign donors can only contribute some limited amount of campaign money??

      • anneinpt says:

        There are campaign finance laws already in place, Pete. Here’s a link with information about the rules: Campaign finance funding.

        A short relevant quote:

        Individual contributions to general elections are permitted as long as they originate from donors who are Israeli citizens and residents above the age of eighteen, and are not anonymous. This is based on an express prohibition against anonymous donations,[7] and on a requirement that contributions may only be made by a voter as defined in the Elections Law.[8]

        Although foreign individual contributions are prohibited in general elections, they are permitted in primaries.

        It goes on in great detail about exact sums etc.

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