What may be the end of a beautiful friendship

It began when Netanyahu wanted a unity gov’t and Livni refused, but Barak wanted to remain defense minister. Then for several years, they were inseparable, right until Barak realized that the elections were coming.


By Mati Tuchfeld


It is amazing how many people have been waiting for this moment. For four years they have been looking on, green with envy, at this unlikely, nearly mythical relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. They have been waiting with baited breath for this relationship to end badly. In the eyes of senior cabinet ministers, especially ones from Likud, the close ties between Netanyahu and Barak have brought almost nothing but calamity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Will the two patch up their differences or continue to drift apart? – Photo: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch

It was clear from the get-go that one day this would end, they said out of jealously, or perhaps prophecy. After all, Barak is known for his short-lived relationships: That is what he did with his former political patrons, that is what he did to his party (Labor), and that is what he did to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It was just a matter of time before he did it to Netanyahu, again.

But in practice, reality is far more complex than senior Likud members would have us think, those same Likud members who have been clamoring for Netanyahu’s ear for four years only to be edged out by Barak. The truth is that these two needed each other throughout this four-year term: Netanyahu wanted desperately to head a unity government, former opposition leader and Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni consistently refused to join his coalition, so he turned to Barak. For his part, Barak wanted more than anything to hold onto the defense minister’s seat.

That is how it began. This week, it apparently ended.

In recent years, Barak has been viewed as Netanyahu’s “launderer” — a sort of flak jacket protecting Netanyahu from the world, and from the rightist elements within the Likud. Netanyahu found it convenient to hide behind Barak when he froze construction in Judea and Samaria, or when he stopped short of recognizing the university center in Ariel as an official university. Likud members also found it much easier to go after Barak than after the prime minister.

But over the last two months it has just not been working anymore. The cooperation dissipated and gradually gave way to a real split.

The one person who paid the highest price for Netanyahu’s close relationship with Barak was Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogey) Yaalon, who would have been appointed defense minister if it hadn’t been for Barak. This produced an ongoing battle between the two, especially over Israel’s conduct during the 2010 Marmara fiasco. But recently, it was actually Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz who became Barak’s biggest critic.

Several months ago, when the government was discussing austerity measures that were to be imposed on the public, it was important to Netanyahu to coordinate the measures with Barak in advance. A bitter argument broke out between Steinitz and Barak, most of which was waged over the pages of the newspapers and on radio talk shows.

In the end, everything was settled, much to the chagrin of several coalition parties. The agreement that was struck stipulated that Barak and his party’s ministers would support the austerity measures. But at the last minute it emerged that Barak doesn’t feel that he is bound by agreements. He and his ministers voted against the measures.

This caused much embarrassment, and it looked like it was turning into a farce. A majority was ultimately achieved in favor of the measures, but this incident was enough to turn Steinitz into Barak’s biggest enemy from that point forward.

“Watch out for him” Steinitz warned Netanyahu at every opportunity. “His political and personal considerations will always outweigh any other consideration.”

And still, despite the cooling relationship, the closeness Netanyahu and Barak shared, with three or four conversations per day, on good days, was largely preserved. Until Barak’s last trip to the U.S., that is.

In a conversation with Steinitz, which was leaked to Channel 2, Netanyahu said that Barak was sabotaging his relationship with the Americans. In conversations with other people, who wanted to know what the comment was all about, even harsher words were heard. “It’s not an act,” Netanyahu told one conversation partner. “Barak went against me in front of the American administration. You don’t do that. He is trying to present himself as a moderate, responsible leader that they can work with, while simultaneously speaking ill of me and of my policies.”

“They can’t fire inside the tank,” Barak used to say to fellow Labor Party members who would criticize him. “He can’t piss inside the tent,” Netanyahu paraphrased when describing Barak’s actions this week, in a less than subtle way.

In a statement, Barak insisted that the allegations weren’t true. He insisted that he had visited the U.S. to represent the government’s policies, and it wasn’t his first time. But all that doesn’t really matter. Anyone who knows Netanyahu knows that he does not tolerate subversiveness. He even revoked the position of stand-in prime minister, who would take his place if her were to become incapacitated, explaining that there was something subversive about a stand-in post.

Barak’s associates are saying that the arguments between Netanyahu and Barak are a natural byproduct of the imminent election. Barak won’t get enough votes to get into the Knesset if he is perceived as Netanyahu’s right hand man and close ally, and there is no room for Barak in the right-wing camp. On the other hand, there is a vacuum on the Left, into which he is trying to wedge himself, but they don’t like Netanyahu in the Left.

Barak’s camp denied Netanyahu’s allegations outright. “Everywhere he went, he perfectly represented the government’s position,” said one associate. “Contrary to reports, he and the prime minister see eye to eye on the Iranian issue. He praised Netanyahu and his policies during every meeting he held [with American officials]. It is not clear where Netanyahu got the idea that he was being subversive.”

The quarrel between Netanyahu and Barak is just one of many signs that elections are coming. Netanyahu’s initial assessment, before he traveled to New York for the U.N. General Assembly last week, was that since no one wants early elections, he would be able to enlist enough support for the 2013 budget to get it approved (failing to gain the necessary majority would force him to call early elections).

But Netanyahu refused to reveal all the budget details without a commitment, in advance, from party leaders, that they would support the budget. This year’s budget was a tough one, rife with cuts and austerity measures. Netanyahu doesn’t want to head into elections after having failed to pass this budget.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for example, has given the impression that he is willing to negotiate; that he is not interested in early elections and that unless the budget severely cuts into the issues that he cares about, he would be willing to move forward. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, however, took a different approach. He has been piling on the obstacles since the word go. Instead of telling Netanyahu explicitly that he does not want early elections, he started singing songs about cuts to child stipends and National Insurance stipends.

Barak, who would presumably do anything to stay in the defense minister’s post, preferably forever, also didn’t supply the goods. He talked about the budget cuts harming Israel’s security and that he would not support it.

Based on all this, Netanyahu realized that there was no way to avoid early elections. But it’s not over until it’s over: Several months ago he was also in a situation where early elections were unavoidable, and the snowball just got bigger and bigger as it rolled down the slope, taking on gargantuan proportions when the Knesset was expected to pass a law that would disperse the Knesset, all three readings, in one day. But after the first reading, suddenly everything came to a halt. Kadima joined the coalition and the rest is history. Elections were averted. So despite speculations that this time elections are a done deal, no one can really predict when the elections will actually be.

And still, most individuals involved in the process believe that the decision is final. Talks with coalition parties, in efforts to pass the budget, were held on several planes. Coalition Chairman MK Zeev Elkin (Likud) held direct talks with the factions. Behind the scenes, Netanyahu’s former bureau chief Natan Eshel was in talks with party heads. Both mediators ultimately got a negative answer regarding the parties’ willingness to pass the budget.

Eshel is still Netanyahu’s closest confidant. The bond between Eshel and Barak is also very strong, and they have both gone out of their way to shower compliments on one another on more than one occasion. But Eshel’s loyalties lie with Netanyahu. No one is deluding themselves on that front, least of all Barak.

Dichter’s choice

The person who actually might find himself torn between Netanyahu and Barak is Homefront Defense Minister Avi Dichter. Dichter was jointly appointed by the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister. The appointment was designed in collaboration. Two meetings with Barak and one more meeting with Netanyahu. In certain respects, Dichter is directly subordinate to Barak, but his future isn’t clear.

Now Dichter has to choose, not just because of the early elections but also because of the spat. Netanyahu is very interested in Dichter, as is Barak. The choice is a tough one. Either way, it won’t be a bed of roses for Dichter. If he joins Barak’s Independence party, even if he is promised the number three spot, after Shalom Simhon, there is no guarantee that the party will even exist after the election next February.

But if he joins Netanyahu’s Likud party there is also a problem. The Likud list is packed. There is no room for new people. But if I had to wager a guess, I would say that Dichter is headed to Likud.

There is also a third option. It seems far-fetched but possible to a certain degree: Several weeks ago, Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich approached Dichter and asked him to join her party. Go back to your roots, she said to him. You were raised in a Mapai home (a reference to the party that preceded Labor). Yachimovich desperately needs Dichter’s defense credentials at her side. The possibility that former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi or former Military Intelligence director Amos Yadlin will fill that spot is growing ever less likely as the elections are moved up. The cooling off period that they have to wait out before entering politics is too long.

And so, barring any dramatic events, the elections will most likely be held in early to mid-February. Exactly four years since the last election. The different parties are already busily preparing. Ironically, it is the reigning party, which could stay where it is at best or lose everything at worst, that is most eager to start the race. Among the opposition, however, spirits are lower than ever.

The MKs are worried about their futures

On Tuesday, more than 3,000 Likud activists, ministers and MKs flocked to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s backyard. Katz’s party is an annual happening, but the dimensions of this week’s event were a one-time thing. The energy was bursting. Anyone who wants to participate in the party’s primary, or show internal party politics prowess, was there. Some people even organized buses.

The Likud primaries will probably be very quick. Rumors coming from Netanyahu’s camp indicate that they will be held as early as mid-November, exactly one month after he announces early elections. Netanyahu doesn’t have an arsenal of attractive names and political stars this time around. That is why he prefers to get the internal fighting out of the way as soon as possible.

Katz’s even may have been the highlight of the last few months, but it wasn’t the only gathering of Likud activists. It was preceded by the traditional Rosh Hashanah toasts. The event halls were packed. MKs scurried back and forth between events. After all, at least seven of them won’t be in the next Knesset.

And it wasn’t just the MKs. The ministers, too, are dashing back and forth incessantly. Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, for example, has been “scouring the Likud chapters across the country and conquering Likud strongholds,” as Uri Faraj, the chairman of the Petah Tikva chapter says. “I believe that she is well on her way to reliving her glory days on the Likud list.”

Shalom Gavra, one of the prominent activists at the Rishon Letzion chapter, the second largest chapter in the country, added that “if I had to point to the one minister, of the veteran ministers, who has been on the rise in recent months, I would point to Limor Livnat.”

No cameras

While Katz’s party was underway, another annual event took place, at the home of Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz. Two years ago, at the height of the tensions between Mofaz and his predecessor, the then-reigning Kadima Chairwoman, Livni, made a surprise visit to Mofaz’s sukkah for a photo op and a hug with her bitter enemy, Mofaz. This year Livni didn’t make it, neither did her loyalists. MKs from Livni’s camp did show up, but many of them did so upon being asked personally by Mofaz.

Mofaz, who apparently feared that not enough people would attend his event, closed the event off to the media. In the end, it turned out that Mofaz’s fears were a bit exaggerated, but somewhat justified. Some 200 people turned out, nearly half of them from the Arab sector. The Arab half brought most of the refreshments. There is no money in the Kadima budget for refreshments. There was also a large Ethiopian showing brought by Shlomo Molla, who is in effect no longer a member of Kadima.

The mood was pessimistic. Dejection abounded. There wasn’t a single person there who wasn’t worried about their future. The coffers are empty. The polls are at rock bottom. Mofaz hasn’t decided yet whether to hold a party primary or to appoint a committee to assemble the party list. In any case, it seems that the true battles are still ahead for Mofaz.

In a few days’ time, Livni will be boarding a plane, accompanied by her husband, and going to Italy for vacation. In contrast with the atmosphere in Kadima, everything seems to be peachy for her. Just last month she traveled to New York twice, and the preparations for her return to politics are underway.

Livni has no doubt: It will be between herself and Netanyahu in the next elections. Just like last time. She refuses to be the number two to Yair Lapid or to Shelly Yachimovich and certainly not to Mofaz. She is not coming back to Kadima even if the party rolls out a red carpet for her.

In recent weeks, Livni conducted several private polls. In each one she got no less than 14 seats if she decided to run on her own. And that is before she even announced she is running. Her dream is to recruit Yair Lapid to her party. It is highly unlikely that this is possible before the upcoming elections. In the meantime, her loyal associate Haim Ramon is constantly stirring the pot. But she has yet to promise anything to all those MKs who are waiting with baited breath to see if she will take them with her.

Last week, Livni met with Avraham Poraz. According to Channel 10’s website, the meeting aimed to test the waters and determine whether Livni would be able to head a new party built on a platform of the Hetz (arrow) party Poraz had once established.

This is nothing new. Establishing a new party is an exhausting procedure, and involves a lot of time and money. When Barak established Independence, he did it by reviving Avigdor Kahalani’s old Third Way party rather than forming an entirely new entity.

Usually, anyone who revives a “shelved” party looks for a party that reflects their own worldview. It was no coincidence that Livni found Hetz. It was a party that rose from the ruins of Shinui. Both parties participated in the 2006 elections and neither amassed enough votes to enter the Knesset.

In a campaign spot run by Hetz, may it rest in peace, ultra-Orthodox men were seen exploding into puffs of smoke the way germs explode in toothpaste commercials. The racist connotations of this ad enraged not only the ultra-Orthodox but also other parties. It was ultimately the young activists belonging to Meretz who filed an official complaint against the spot.

MK Otniel Schneller, who has not yet chosen a political home for the near future, said that Livni’s choice of reviving the Hetz party is very appropriate. “I always said that Livni took the party in a leftist anti-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) direction,” Schneller said. “But they told me I was exaggerating. Livni’s meeting with Poraz, and pursuit of Hetz, are proof that I was right. When I joined Kadima it was a traditional center-right party. Livni, and then Mofaz, turned it into a liberal, secular, leftist party. There is nothing for me in a party like that.”

View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=5990