The scheming for Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's ouster is unrelenting. The most vocal assaults come from inside his own disaffected Labor party, although many hands are stirring the broth. Wednesday, Nov. 3, two of the stalwarts who helped get him elected as Labor party leader publicly turned against him.
In a television interview, Ofer Eini, Chairman of the powerful Histadrut Labor Federation of national trade unions, commented that only an 'ahbal' (slang for hopeless moron) would illegally employ a Filipina housekeeper while serving as defense minister. Eini wondered aloud: "Aren't there enough Israeli workers around? … The trade union leader went on to remark: "He never misses making a mistake," insinuating that as defense minister too, Barak's judgment on such critical security issues as standing up to threats from Iran, Syria and Hizballah, is not to be trusted either.
While political infighting in Israel has never been conducted with kid gloves, Eini's personal assault on Barak hit a new level of brutality. No sooner had he hit the headlines when Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told a Labor meeting that the party (under Barak's leadership) had never been in such dire straits and would sink unless an outsider stepped in to save it from eclipse.
One of the names bandied in Labor circles is that of Gaby Ashkenazi, who retires as IDF Chief of Staff next spring.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Jerusalem describe these outbursts as the tip of an iceberg or, rather, the steam rising from a cauldron. Underneath, military, political and economic battles are raging over three unresolved conflicts: The future of government and its head, the political identity of the Israel Defense Forces' Chief of Staff and the winner of the contest for control over the domestic media market, which in Israeli is hugely profitable in contrast to other countries.
Whereas factional infighting and rivalries are par for the course in many places, in Israel they have become tangled up into a dangerous ball which warring elements are kicking to pieces on political, security and financial playing fields, thereby shaking the government to its foundations. In Israel too, the real issues and their interconnections are rarely brought out in the open – certainly not in the domestic media.
Our political experts, therefore, offer some brief pointers to illuminate the dynamics of the current imbroglio:
Was the Harpaz scheme part of an attempted coup?
1. During the first stage of this factional war, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 458 of Aug. 19 reported Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's struggle to prevent his government from breaking up under the weight of an intrigue over the appointment of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, OC Southern Command, as the next chief of staff.
Netanyahu backed the defense minister against a scheme led by (Res.) Lt.-Col. Boaz Harpaz to derail the Galant appointment and enable the incumbent Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi to serve another year when his stint runs out in March, 2011.
Barak won that round. Galant's appointment was confirmed.
The second stage, the frontal assault on the defense minister, aims higher at bringing down the Netanyahu government. It finds the State Comptroller and police quietly investigating the suspicion that the Harpaz "document" casting aspersions on Gen. Galant was cooked up with the connivance of circles close to Chief of Staff Ashkenazi. This would mean that a group of high-ranking officers is willing to concoct a fake document to preserve their grip on the top level of the armed forces.
The defense minister has spoken frankly of the first putsch attempt in the country's history to seize control of the IDF and demanded a thorough investigation to uncover the conspirators. Interestingly, whenever the investigation gets close to Ashkenazi and his bureau, the verbal attacks on Barak grow more venomous.
The Mozes media empire is gunning for Netanyahu
2. Arnon Mozes, proprietor of Israel's biggest media empire, dislikes Netanyahu and wants to replace him with the dovish opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, head of Kadima. His empire has branched out from the Yediot Aharonot daily to cable television, the financial daily Globes and many other outlets.
Mozes is wielding all his outlets and editorial columns to fighting Netanyahu tooth and nail.
He also has a business interest in toppling the prime minister.
As overlord of the national media, he is challenged by the Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands, who established a free daily newspaper published Monday to Friday in tabloid format. (Adelson's purchase of Marina Bay Sands casino and resort in Singapore for $.5.7 billion in April has already generated $485.9 million in net revenue).
In less than a year, the free tabloid's circulation, supported by Adelson's bottomless resources, has climbed to the number two slot and Yediot Aharonot is starting to take losses, except on its weekend edition.
Whereas Mozes backs Livni, Adelson champions Netanyahu – another major bone of contention.
The two media barons are now warring over the post of chief of staff: Mozes backs the incumbent Ashkenazi for at least another year in office because his political views are close to those of the Kadima leader, whereas Adelson is fighting in Galant's corner, preferring his apparent hawkish leanings.
Push Barak out and the government will follow
3. Adelson is not the only tycoon on Israel's political and media playing field.
He was joined recently by a far less flamboyant figure, Zaki Rachiv, an almost unknown Israeli high-tech millionaire of Egyptian descent. Rachiv has just acquired half the stock of Maariv, a former rival of Mozes' Yediot Aharonot, which is on its last feet and which he plans to turn into a second free newspaper for evening distribution.
The new arrival has decided to cooperate with Adelson as part of his business strategy.
Mozes and his clique believe that Netanyahu in power is the recipe for the Adelson-Rachiv duo to rise to the top of the media industry and push him out. To save his empire from two powerful business threats, he has made unseating the Netanyahu-Barak government and its replacement with a Livni administration his top priority and is bending all his editorial resources to breaking up Netanyahu's coalition partnership with Barak on the road to this goal. Hence the multi-directional attacks coming at the defense minister day after day.
Ashkenazi as a key piece on the board
4. They have already given Chief of Staff Ashkenazi the cue to look forward to taking his place on stage.
After losing the first round in the battle over the appointment of the next chief of staff, Livni's backers and Israel's other doves have regrouped around a new scenario: Assuming they can topple Netanyahu one way or another and install the Kadima leader in his place, Ashkenazi – having by then shed his uniform – will step in as defense minister in place of the departed Barak. He will then be in position to superimpose his dovish views on the incoming Chief of Staff, Yoav Galant, and curb any proactive operational initiatives.
For now, there is no sign of the Mozes-Livni duo getting their wish to disfodge the Netanyahu-Barak duo, but if they keep on chipping away long enough, they may achieve results, although not perhaps exactly what they expect.
While these schemes are being hatched outside government, they are also engaging the offices of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak and Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, where the business of designing tactics against Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas must also go forward.