Ehud Barak's Iran bombshell could shake up Israeli politics

Monday, August 24, 2015
Ehud Barak

JERUSALEM -- Former defense minister Ehud Barak's comments that Israel nearly attacked Iran's nuclear facilities, but the plan was scuttled by military men and cowardly politicians, could shake up Israeli politics.

The leaked interview, in which Barak also described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as indecisive and pessimistic, was the talk of the town Sunday in an Israel obsessed about Iran. But beyond the hand-wringing, the calculating Barak may have been focused on the future, perhaps for a run at the country's leadership.

Also a former prime minister, Barak enjoys respect as the last leader of the moderate Labor Party to win an election, defeating Netanyahu in 1999. But he is seen by analysts as having squandered his opportunity, lasting two years in a term that cemented his reputation as arrogant and prone to overcomplicated analysis and nonstop machinations.

Barak later returned to politics, serving as defense minister from 2007 to 2013, when he was aligned with a re-elected Netanyahu on the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. He left politics as the Labor Party was weak and torn between factions. Barak, 73, may be running out of chances for another comeback.

In the recordings, Barak addressed one of the country's deepest secrets -- whether Israel was prepared to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.

For years, he and Netanyahu issued veiled threats to attack if the world did not take action. Those threats, often dismissed by commentators as bluster, were seen widely as a key factor in rallying international sanctions against Iran.

Barak told his interviewer he and Netanyahu favored an attack in 2010, but the military chief of staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, said Israel did not have the operational capability.

"You can't go to the Cabinet when the chief of staff will go and say, 'Excuse me, I told you no,"' Barak said.

The next year, he said, two influential Cabinet ministers had second thoughts and scuttled an attack. In 2012, a joint military exercise with the U.S. and a planned visit by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta got in the way, he said.

Channel 2 said Barak unsuccessfully tried to prevent it from airing the interview, but that the military censor's office permitted it. There was no comment Sunday from Barak, Netanyahu or Ashkenazi, the former military chief.

The Cabinet ministers singled out by Barak -- Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon -- also declined to comment.

Avigdor Lieberman, then-Israel's foreign minister, appeared to support Barak's version in an interview with Channel 2. "If a prime minister cannot pass through his Cabinet a decision that he wanted, probably there is a problem," Lieberman said Sunday.

Danny Dor, one of the authors of the new book, said Barak knew he was being recorded and that there was never any promise not to publish them. And few have seemed to question that Barak knew what he was doing in giving the interview.

"What is certain is that there is a motive. Some hidden intent," wrote commentator Sima Kadmon in the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper.

Barak may be intent on repairing his tarnished image and claiming a place in history. But the comments also come as Israel's dovish left desperately searches for a leader. Like other Labor figures, Barak -- much more than Netanyahu -- would prioritize disengaging from the West Bank and its millions of Palestinians chafing under Israeli occupation.

Isaac Herzog, a mild-mannered lawyer who lost to Netanyahu in Israel's March election that pollsters said was up for grabs, is sure to face a leadership crisis in the coming months.

Centrist Israelis are searching for a leader who can give Netanyahu a fight, mainly over the Palestinians but also the country's move toward conservatism and religion.

The seeming front-runner to replace Herzog is Ashkenazi, the former military chief singled out by Barak as blocking the attack on Iran.

Ashkenazi has been caught up in a scandal surrounding the appointment of his successor in 2010. At the time, Barak accused his army chief of improperly interfering in the appointment process.

But prosecutors recently determined there was not enough evidence to indict, preparing the way for what is expected to be a dramatic entrance into politics. Herzog already has voiced hope that Ashkenazi joins the Labor Party.

Barak and Ashkenazi remain bitter enemies and analysts say Barak's comments now may be timed to trip up his old foe.

Barak "wants to remind people where he was, what he did, how important he was, how rational he was," said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "When Ashkenazi starts doing the political lecture circuit, Barak wants to be able to create and raise as many obstacles as possible."

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