Washington — Israeli citizens will not mourn the absence of former defense minister Ehud Barak from their recently installed government, based on his domestic unpopularity. But the same may not be true in Washington, Barak’s real power base.
In the often tense relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama, it is Barak who, more than anyone, has kept open the lines of communication between Washington and Jerusalem.
In Netanyahu’s new government, sworn in March 15, Moshe (“Bogie”) Ya’alon will serve as the new defense minister. But few believe that Ya’alon is well suited to take up the crucial role that Barak played as the key interlocutor with Israel’s most important international ally.
“This relationship is not good enough and will probably never be,” former State Department official Aaron David Miller said, referring to Obama and Netanyahu. He was being diplomatic. Elsewhere, he has called it “probably the most dysfunctional of any two I’ve come across when studying or working on this issue.”
In his interview with the Forward, Miller, who is now vice president of new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, cited President Clinton and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s relations as an example of ties that were so close that they did not require any special envoy or go-between.
The question of who, then, will take up Barak’s role is an open and important one. And as some observers surveyed Israel’s new Cabinet on the eve of Obama’s first trip to Israel as president, they saw, really, only one possible candidate, however implausible: Netanyahu himself.
“If Obama’s visit achieves its goal, and relations improve, it could be that the center of gravity of the ties will return to the Prime Minister’s Office, as it has been for years,” said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 1992 to 1996.
Frictions over Israeli Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Iran’s nuclear program, and a sense of mutual mistrust, riddled the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama during their first four years in office.