Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, warned this week that the government he helps to lead is leading the country to disaster. Speaking to the Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv on Sunday March 13, he said that the country faces a “diplomatic tsunami that the majority of the country is unaware of.” He sounds upset. Not so upset that he would consider quitting the government he accuses of bringing on the disaster. But, you know, upset. He wants us to know.
He said that the Palestinian quest for international recognition was gaining momentum and would crest in September, when the U.N. General Assembly convenes. He laid much of the blame on his partner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for refusing to make a clear choice for peace. According to the Washington Times’ report on the speech, he said Netanyahu’s indecisiveness was “pushing Israel into a corner from which the old South Africa’s deterioration began.”
The Washington Times story said that more than 110 countries have announced their recognition of the Palestinian state, and that the Palestinian Authority was hoping to reach 150 by September, when it plans to ask to General Assembly for formal recognition.
Now, here’s what seems to me to be the real stunner in all this: What Barak wants Netanyahu to do is offer to begin genuine negotiations. Barak acknowledges that Israel hasn’t been willing to discuss the main issues in dispute with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has been insisting that negotiations begin with Israel’s security considerations and only then proceed to Palestinian concerns on borders, refugees and Jerusalem. Here’s Barak, as quoted in Ynetnews.com:
We have not tried to put all core issues on the table in the past two years. Israel must say it is ready to discuss security borders, refugees and Jerusalem and it will get a chance. If it fails, responsibility will be placed on the other side.
Palestinians have complained about this repeatedly, citing as the reason they insist on a settlement freeze before resuming talks. As long as there are no discussions planned on borders, they want some guarantee that Israeli settlement activity won’t have closed off their options by the time they get around to the topic.
Atilla Shomfalvi, Ynet’s lead political writer, writes (Hebrew only) that Barak didn’t say much that he hadn’t said before (though explicitly blaming Netanyahu for a looming disaster sounds pretty new to me) on — but that timing is everything. While Barak was speaking in Tel Aviv on Sunday, Netanyahu was in Jerusalem speaking at the funeral of the five murdered members of the Fogel family of Itamar, vowing to continue building and declaring that their murders show what Israel is up against. That is, pretty much the opposite of what Barak was saying.
But it’s basically political theater, Shomfalvi writes. The day before, Barak and Netanyahu had jointly put together the announcement of 400-plus new housing starts in the settlements as a response to the Itamar killings. Shomfalvi thinks there was probably more coordination than meets the eye in their dueling messages on Sunday. Netanyahu was speaking to inflamed Israeli public opinion (and helping to inflame it further, it’s worth noting) while Barak was addressing a global audience to show that Israel’s leadership is still reasonable and has its eye on the diplomatic ball.
Or, more to the point, the two men were both addressing their own political bases, Netanyahu on the right, Barak on the left. Although it’s hard to think of Barak as still having a political base. He’s pretty well burned his bridges to the left, the right still hates him and polls show that if elections were held now his little 5-seat Atzma’ut party, which he led out of Labor recently, wouldn’t get a single seat in the Knesset.
How badly are his bridges burned? Haim Oron, the head of Meretz and one of the most mellow and best-liked members of the Knesset, says in a devastating interview in Haaretz this week that Barak is “the most dangerous person in Israel.”
Haaretz itself opines on Barak in an editorial this week, titled “Barak’s talk is right but his actions are wrong,” saying that “by continuing to serve under Netanyahu, Barak is supporting a policy that he himself believes is devastating for Israel’s future.” Heck of a job, Ehud.
The right is even more worked up about Mr. Security. Knesset member Yaakov Katz of the militantly pro-settler National Union Party openly accused Barak this week of being “indirectly responsible” for the deaths of the Fogels. The charge: demolishing illegal outposts, advocating a Palestinian state — nothing new. A government minister, Michael Eitan of Likud, responded by demanding that Katz retract his words, but Katz refused.
More fun on the right: About 80 young people from Itamar rallied (here is Ynet.com’s Hebrew report) outside Labor leader Barak’s multimillion-dollar condo apartment in the swank Akirov Towers in north Tel Aviv, driving a bulldozer and carrying signs that called for “a demolition order against Barak.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).