Netanyahu and Barak experiencing reportedly unprecendented tension

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in March 2011, with Netanyahu holding an Iranian instruction manual for the C-704 anti-ship missile. [IDF photo]

With the backdrop of the possibility of early elections in Israel, unprecedented tension has been reported in the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Netanyahu on Oct. 3 accused Barak of “working to undermine” him and straying from official government policy, telling his close associates that he “no longer has trust in Barak.” The prime minister said that on the defense chief’s recent trip to the United States, Barak offered himself as a “moderate and responsible alternative” to Netanyahu and criticized Netanyahu’s “radical and unrealistic policies.” Barak was trying to drive a wedge between the prime minister and the American government, Israel’s Channel 2 reported.

Additionally, according to Israel Radio, Netanyahu harshly criticized Barak during a closed-door conversation with Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Oct. 2.  Netanyahu was meeting with Steinitz about the state budget. During the meeting, Steinitz warned Netanyahu about Barak, saying the defense minister would act against the prime minister if he decided it was politically advantageous for him. This statement prompted Netanyahu’s comments about Barak. 

“[Barak] traveled to the U.S. to stoke the dispute between us and Obama in order to come off as the savior and the moderate, the mediator between the sides,” Netanyahu was reported to have said.

However, a Barak associare said Oct. 3 that the defense minister “was dispatched to the United States at the behest of the government, and duly represented the coalition; Barak heaped praise on Netanyahu at every high level meeting with administration officials during the trip, just like he has done so over the past several years.”

Netanyahu confidants said Barak has decided to separate himself from the prime minister due to electoral considerations. Barak is hoping that the Independence party, which he founded in 2011 after he left Labor, will earn enough votes in the next elections to surpass the threshold required to receive seats in the Knesset.

“For a time, Barak tried to play a double game, as he thought Netanyahu would reserve the position of defense minister for him,” the Netanyahu confidants said. “But when he understood that this would not happen, he began to attack the prime minister.”

Finance Ministry officials said Steinitz has been cautioning Netanyahu about Barak for months.

“[Barak] is the only person holding up the passing of the budget formulated by Netanyahu and Steinitz, because it requires a four billion shekel cut to the defense budget,” a Finance Ministry official said. “Without the support of the Independence party, it will be impossible to pass the budget in the Knesset.”

In response, Barak’s office said that Barak had not changed his views on political, economic and military matters, that until now the basis for close cooperation between him and Netanyahu was their agreement to disagree on a variety of issues, and that the only change was Netanyahu’s reaction. “It is no secret that in closed government discussion rooms, and occasionally in public, Ehud Barak has positions that are different from most other members of the government, including the prime minister, on issues such as the Palestinians, socio-economic affairs and the relationship with the U.S.,” Barak’s office said.

“During his trips to the U.S., Barak has defended the government’s positions and has tried to contribute, often successfully, to lowering tensions between the governments and strengthening security ties,” according to the defense minister’s office.

A defense ministry source on Oct. 3 emphasized the vital strategic significance of Israel’s security ties with the U.S., stating that Barak has worked to maintain and bolster those ties since he became defense minister five years ago, including the last three-and-a-half years in the Netanyahu government.

Accentuating his differences with Netanyahu, Barak last month called for a unilateral withdrawal from most of Judea and Samaria if peace efforts with the Palestinians remained stalled.

Barak’s proposal, made in an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom, was widely seen as a bid to stake out new political ground before a possible election, which Netanyahu could opt to call in an attempt to build new alliances rather than battle with his current coalition partners over the 2013 state budget, which will include severe austerity measures. Barak has resisted Finance Ministry calls to rein in defense spending and impose steep defense cuts. Other parties in the coalition have also balked at cuts in spending that could affect core constituencies.