Israel’s Odd Couple
Oct 27, 2009 | Amotz Asa-El
Bibi and Barak find common ground
By Amotz Asa-El
Surprises are nothing new in Israeli politics, where over the years doves have waged wars, hawks struck peace deals and socialists launched market reforms. Even so, the axis that has emerged between last decade’s archrivals Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak has caught everyone off-guard and come to dominate Israeli politics.
The harmony between the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister is firm and visible. Though the rivalry between the parties they lead is rooted in prewar animosities between people who are long dead, the two leaders have become so intimate that they spend hours every day discussing anything and everything, from geopolitics to small-time intrigues. Both share with each other a great deal more than they do with their own party colleagues.
Personal alliances between ideological rivals have thrived in the past in Israel’s tough coalition politics; David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin harmonised with assorted religious leaders, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir cooperated for the better part of six years, and Ariel Sharon waltzed along with the liberal Tommy Lapid before replacing him with other allies.
Still, in terms of its warmth, substance, roots and implications – the Netanyahu-Barak truce is different.
Having created a cabinet with no fewer than 30 ministers, a mini-parliament that includes a full quarter of the Knesset, Netanyahu formed a cosier, seven-member forum where issues are discussed more intimately and securely. Still, Netanyahu has apparently concluded in recent months that for all his key moves Barak is the pivot, as he is both indispensible and sufficient for getting things done – politically, diplomatically or economically.
With outspoken Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ostracised by the Arab world and at the same time entangled with money-laundering allegations, Barak has become a de-facto foreign minister. He meets on Netanyahu’s behalf with world leaders from Hosni Mubarak to Barack Obama and holds conversations with European foreign ministers as part of Netanyahu’s effort to control the Goldstone Report’s damage. Lieberman makes do with the diplomatic periphery, cultivating Israel’s ties with Africa, East Europe and Latin America.
Barak has also been economically pivotal, first delivering for Netanyahu the labour unions, then tempering Labor’s opposition to a land reform that was particularly dear to Netanyahu. Most recently, the two decided between them, with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, to cut all ministerial budgets by two percent in order to enlarge the defence budget and to finance a swine-flu vaccination drive. Once agreed between them, the cut passed easily in a special cabinet vote.
What, then, has given rise to this alliance?
First, there is an old camaraderie between the two men, whose acquaintance harks back to the early 1970s, when Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in the IDF’s elite commando unit, Sayeret Hamatkal. In those years, Barak also became close with Netanyahu’s older brother, Yoni, who was killed in 1976 while commanding that unit’s hostage-rescue operation at Entebbe, Uganda.
As veterans of that unit, where only a select few are accepted, and as former prime ministers, Barak and Netanyahu are believed to share both a disparaging image of most other politicians, along with a genuine admiration for each other. Barak, for instance, praised Netanyahu for his speech at the United Nations General Assembly with a kind of warmth that made many in Labor squirm. Moreover, he defended the prime minister’s attack from the UN podium on Iran’s Holocaust denial, a choice that some on the Left challenged, arguing that denial does not deserve or merit public debate.
In sum, Barak has come a long way since leading, as head of the opposition, the campaign against Netanyahu’s previous premiership, an effort that culminated in Netanyahu’s electoral trouncing by Barak in May 1999. As it panned out, Barak’s own premiership soon proved even more disagreeable to most Israelis, and less than two years later they handed him the worst electoral defeat in Israeli history, replacing him with Ariel Sharon. A decade on, a humbled Netanyahu and Barak, now 60 and 67 respectively, are therefore much more cautious than back when they were celebrated as the faces of Israel’s first generation of homegrown leaders.
Still, besides their shared nostalgia, elitism and political maturation, there is also a good measure of expediency at play in the Barak-Netanyahu affinity.
For Netanyahu, Barak’s presence by his left shoulder is crucial as he struggles to convince the international community that Lieberman’s presence to his right does not mean he is averse to peace deals. Equally important for him has been Barak’s delivery of industrial quiet at an economically sensitive time, when the unions could have easily ignited widespread labour unrest. Better yet from his viewpoint, Netanyahu knows that the more Barak serves him, the more Labor is prone to split down the middle, a process that is already well underway, with nearly half its Knesset faction openly challenging Barak’s leadership.
For his part, Barak appears to have given up on seeing his party return to power, at least under his leadership, and is therefore focusing instead on nurturing his personal position within the decision-making process.
Casting her shadow over all this is Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and her party, Kadima.
For both Likud and Labor, the five-year-old party established by Ariel Sharon in the last weeks of his career is a political eyesore and a historic aberration. The way they see it, Israel’s political scene should return to the domination of the two major parties and their respective sets of satellites, the way it was until the 1990s.
The emergence of a centrist force like Kadima, which blends economic conservatism with diplomatic flexibility and cultural liberalism, has already cost the two traditional political powers dearly, as nearly every Kadima voter is a former voter for Likud or Labor. That is why on the morning after February’s general election both Netanyahu and Barak saw in Livni’s isolation a major goal – and the only way for them to accomplish it was by joining hands.
Paradoxically, in doing this the two found themselves effectively taking entire pages from Livni’s playbook, emulating her quest for the political centre that enabled her to win over much of the middle class and garner more votes than either of them.
For Barak, this meant defying his party’s vocal left wing, both by joining hands with Netanyahu, that circle’s Antichrist ever since he slashed social spending as treasurer in ‘03, and by cohabitating with Avigdor Lieberman, whose pronouncements concerning Israeli Arabs’ loyalty and Palestinian leaders’ implacability are to them anathema. For Netanyahu, at the same time, accommodating Barak meant compromising his economic and national tenets, both by expanding the deficit, and by publicly accepting the two-state formula.
Of those two retreats, the latter was clearly the more painful for Netanyahu to make, considering the Revisionist education he received from his hawkish father, Cornell University historian Benzion Netanyahu, now 100-years-old and fully alert – especially when Israeli leaders offer what he sees as ill-advised territorial concessions.
Yet the younger Netanyahu has made the leap, and in doing so, more than anyone else, he relied on Ehud Barak.
Sceptics belittle the significance of this harmony, saying that Barak no longer stands for much besides himself, as his party has shrunk to hardly a tenth of the Knesset and its ideology has been rejected by that 60% of the electorate who voted for Netanyahu, Livni and Lieberman. According to this school, the Barak-Netanyahu alliance is mainly about personal dynamics.
Others argue that social-democratic economics is making a comeback in America and may eventually do so in Israel as well, and that Barak is still younger than Sharon and Rabin were when they made their comebacks – well after having heard their own political eulogies. The way this school sees it, the Barak-Netanyahu alliance is more than a political aberration – it in fact embodies the Israeli consensus.
Either way, for now the best way to get anything done in Israel is to enter Netanyahu’s office during one of the long hours he spends there with his former army buddy and political nemesis.