The motives behind Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's precipitate walkout from the Labor party which he chaired to create Atzmaut (Independence) Monday, Jan. 17, are beginning to fall into place amid the political commotion he stirred up.
In shocked Labor circles, where he was never really trusted, his name is now mud. In one stroke, he shrank the strength of the party which founded Israel under David Ben Gurion and which dominated Israeli politics for decades, from a so-so 13 members (out of 120) to a poor eight.
In contrast, the four who clung to his shirttails came out laughing: The new faction of five won four cabinet portfolios in the coalition headed by Barak's partner in the stratagem, the Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Most of all, he buttressed his long-term retention of the defense ministry by giving the wobbling coalition which was not expected to survive beyond 2011 a new lease of life.
But behind the open balance sheet, the Barak-Netanyahu ploy was actuated by hidden motives, two of which DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Jerusalem sources can reveal.
Barak confided privately to his friends that he had to move fast for the government to be in good shape to take advantage of a dramatic diplomatic development in negotiations with a Palestinian official, whom he did not identify. So as not to miss out on this "possibly historic development," he explained, Israel needed a stable, cohesive government, steady and long-lived enough to take the plunge. This he thought he had achieved.
A new peacemaking track opening up
But first, the defense minister said he had to persuade Prime Minister Netanyahu that the opportunity of this new secret track and the chance of diplomatic progress toward an accommodation must not be missed. He was even able to bring Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hawkish Israel Beitenu, aboard.
In his private conversations, Barak insisted that this trio was the only force in Israeli politics today capable of pursuing this track and achieving progress towards a deal with the Palestinians. To this end, he was willing to endure the opprobrium heaped on him by his long-time colleagues in the slowly-dying Labor and the opposition Kadima,
When this secret diplomatic track bears fruit and the truth comes out, Barak is sure he will gather kudos from all his critics – for the Netanyahu government as well as for himself.
In terms of local politics, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports Barak, a former prime minister and chief of staff, is looking forward to a merger of Likud, Atzmaut and Israel Beteinu to create a new centrist bloc with enough popular appeal to sweep the next general election which falls due in two years.
By lasting full term, this government would break the mold which has cut short the life of the last half dozen Israeli coalition governments.
He pushed back first
And in fact, Barak jumped before he was pushed.
In the 2009 election, he led Labor to its worst-ever result of 13 seats, dropping to fourth place in the Knesset and out of the race against Likud for the first time. His personal popularity was sinking too. Several Laborites were pushing for an urgent primary in the coming weeks to unseat him. Three Labor cabinet ministers were constantly threatening to quit and bring the government down.
By splitting Labor, Barak has reduced Netanyahu's majority to 66 MKs, but believes he has gained four loyal ministers and got rid of three Laborites who always had one foot out the door.
That part of the political campaign against the defense minister was pursued in the open.
But away from the public eye, Barak charges top Israeli figures with waging a darker intrigue against him. In private, he names President Shimon Peres (a former Laborite who switched to Kadima) as conniving not only with top politicians but also with top IDF military officers to get at him by an improper campaign to defeat the government's choice of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as the next chief of staff. The general is currently working alongside the incumbent Maj. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi before replacing him next month.
Even in Israel's turbulent public life, no political figure has ever been charged with violating this ultimate taboo with its murky overtones of a military coup. Barak claims he had no choice but to cut short this dangerous intrigue.
The Galant Document as lead-in to plot against Barak
The Israeli public is already too familiar with the "Galant Document" affair which blew up in August 2009. It focused on a forged blueprint composed as a sort of road map for high-ranking serving and reserve officers to follow in order to obstruct Galant's appointment and get Gen. Ashkenazi's tenure extended after it runs out on Feb. 14.
Ashkenazi admitted that this "document" sat on his desk for months. The prevailing theory among Israeli political and military insiders was that, if not composed by the Chief of Staff, it was drawn up with his knowledge.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly 458, in first reporting on this affair on August 20, 2010 (Israel's Generals Prey to Intrigue: Netanyahu Struggles to Keep his Government from Breaking Up), concluded that "the crisis will rumble on after Chapter One is closed. For now, public confidence in the high Israeli command and the prime minister as a firm leader with a steady hand in national affairs has been seriously damaged. Historically speaking, Israel takes many wasted years to recover from a malaise such as the one generated by the Galant Document."
It is apparent now that by dividing Labor, Barak launched Chapter Two of the Galant Document affair.
In closed conversations with his associates, the defense minister explicitly and bluntly accused President Peres of collusion with the outgoing Chief of Staff to achieve four goals:
The President and the General
1. To preempt the appointment of Maj. Gen Galant as the next IDF chief of staff.
Barak implied that Peres had regretted supporting the Netanyahu-Barak coalition after the 2009 election and was now inclined to back fading left-wing elements headed by Kadima which is led ineffectually by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
Peres turned his attention to the soon-to-be civilian Gaby Ashkenazi, whom the Left is beginning to be hold up as a great new hope, more capable of lifting it out of its decline and challenging the ruling rightist camp than Livni.
By law, IDF officers must wait three years after shedding their uniforms before going into politics.
During that period, Peres believes Ashkenazi's impact will be dimmed and the Left recede further – especially if the hawkish Galant succeeds him and makes an impact. The president was therefore intent on keeping Ashkenazi on as top soldier at all costs.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that Barak stated in the closed meetings with his associates, that he had in his possession plenty of material evidence that Peres and Ashkenazi had met in secret several times in recent months to work on steps for overturning the government's Galant appointment.
Why not go all the way and topple the government?
2. That material included steps for Barak's own ouster from the defense ministry as a means of reversing the Galant appointment. A new defense minister, they are said to have calculated, might well drop Galant in favor of his own candidate for chief of staff.
3. Barak believes that Peres and Ashkenazi eventually asked themselves why they should pursue their scheme step by step – first getting rid of Galant, then the defense minister – when it made more sense to go straight to the top, that is aim for the prime minister and topple his government.
Although Barak did not say so explicitly, his listeners understood he was charging the two with colluding in a political-military coup to overthrow the elected government. To foil their scheme, the defense minister decided he must strike swiftly and secretly to take himself and his loyalists out of range and cut out of the coalition the Labor ministers and MKs who would be drawn into any scheme for undermining the Likud-led government.
Our sources doubt that accusations as serious as the ones Barak harbors against top national figures can be kept quiet for long. Publicity will raise the stakes in the contest between the two sides of Israel's political arena to epic proportions.