For Israel's Ehud Barak, alliance with Netanyahu makes for complicated role

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 26, 2009

JERUSALEM -- It has been only a few months since Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak led his Labor Party into a surprise alliance with the conservative government of Binyamin Netanyahu. Since then, Barak has faced a rebellion in his party, taken a nose dive in public opinion polls and suffered a series of public embarrassments.

Still, the former prime minister is arguably in one of the more influential periods of his political life, guiding Israeli defense policy through a time of deep concern about Iran, serving as a chief go-between with the Obama administration and helping shape the government's approach to the conflict with the Palestinians.

In a way, Barak is playing an exceptionally complex role: providing a centrist cast to a coalition that might otherwise rank among the more conservative in recent Israeli history, but doing so, some argue, at the expense of his party and his own political future.

"His slogan was that only he can stop Netanyahu," by arguing for more centrist policies from within the cabinet, said Amir Peretz, a former defense minister and one of several Labor Party members who wanted to remain in the opposition. "For us, it is a severe ideological crisis."

Labor, which descended from the Israeli political party affiliated with the kibbutz movement, public labor unions and other institutions that shaped the state from its earliest years, was the party of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who led Israel into breakthrough peace accords with the Palestinians in the early 1990s. In recent years, though, it has been in decline.

In elections this year, Labor finished fourth, with 13 of the 120 seats in parliament -- less than the upstart nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party led by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and only two more seats than the Shas ultra-Orthodox religious party.

Subsequent polls show Labor continuing to lose support among an electorate that has shifted toward Netanyahu's Likud and the centrist Kadima party. Support for Barak as a possible future prime minister was at 5 percent in a poll last month by the Israeli daily Haaretz, his standing buffeted by reports about a $3,000-a-night hotel room he booked on a government trip to Paris.

Labor has, some argue, also lost its philosophical urgency as acceptance of a Palestinian state has become more widespread. Even the guarded support given to the idea by long-skeptical politicians such as Netanyahu has shifted the discussion from basic principles to the tactics of when and under what conditions that state will emerge, said Yuli Tamir, a Labor Party lawmaker and founder of the Peace Now movement.

"And in the tactical debate, we are losing" to those who argue for caution in surrendering land in the West Bank to the Palestinians and for tougher security safeguards, Tamir said.

Barak, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is among those who take a demanding approach toward Palestinian statehood, a view shaped by the collapse of negotiations he held a decade ago during an 18-month stint as prime minister.

He famously departed from those talks, held at Camp David and encouraged by President Bill Clinton, blaming Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and saying there was "no partner" on the Palestinian side. Years of intense violence followed.

Many on the Israeli left argue that Barak shares responsibility for the breakdown in negotiations and say it turned him into a politician who invokes the spirit of Rabin in public but in practice is as cautious about the Palestinians as Netanyahu and others on the right. That can be seen, according to Tamir and others, in Barak's tentative handling of a series of issues over which he has authority as defense minister.

Under the current government, the Defense Ministry has removed some of the hundreds of barriers placed around the occupied West Bank to control Palestinian movement, but it has not met a more long-standing Israeli promise to take down dozens of unauthorized Jewish outposts in the territory. Supreme Court orders to reroute the security barrier that runs around and through the West Bank have not been fulfilled.

But officials in Netanyahu's government and others familiar with Barak's position say his presence in the coalition has allowed Labor to play a role significant beyond its numbers. The 13 Labor members in parliament hold seven cabinet posts. Along with his Defense Ministry roles, Barak has served as a sort of substitute foreign minister, replacing Lieberman in talks with a U.S. administration whose key figures are familiar to him from his work with the Clinton administration.

According to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he and Barak have maintained contact at a time when high-level discussions between the two sides are at an ebb. And if peace negotiations resume and make progress, Israeli officials say, Barak's presence in the government will help put a stamp of consensus on any decisions.

Netanyahu "wanted Barak there for balance," said one government official, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the politically sensitive subject. The official noted that the two politicians share a military pedigree -- Barak was commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit in which Netanyahu served -- and have been growing closer politically.

When Netanyahu expressed support for the first time, in June, for establishment of a Palestinian state, the official said, he "was moving toward Barak. And if you look at what has happened since Camp David, there is no doubt Barak has moved much closer to Netanyahu."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company