Politics and the Defense Minister: Why Ehud Barak Resigned

Israel clearly met its military goals in the Gaza conflict but Hamas seems to have emerged stronger politically. Israel's Defense Minister, however, has not.

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Xinhua News Agency / eyevine

Israeli Defense Minister and Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem on Jan. 17, 2011.

Historically, there was only one way to understand the resignation of an Israeli Defense Minister in the wake of a conflict that ended in any kind of ambiguity: as an indicator of blame. But Ehud Barak’s surprise announcement Monday morning that he is retiring from politics was truly unexpected, in part because the Israeli military is confident that it prevailed in the eight-day conflict in the Gaza Strip that ended last week. And in military terms, it apparently did. But there’s also the question of politics, and that’s where the problem lay for both Israel in the wake of Gaza and the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history — on the cusp of an election that polls and analysts say offered only humiliation for him. Barak was elected Prime Minister in 1999 by a large margin, but his 20-month term in the office was the briefest in the country’s history, and, electorally at least, it’s been downhill since.

Monday’s announcement that he would leave after the Jan. 22 elections was widely understood as an expression of his famous foresight and analytical skills: there was almost no chance he’d be elected to the Knesset. He left the Labor Party in January 2011 amid infighting over its diminishing fortunes, and polls showed that Independence, the party he formed with four fellow defectors, was unlikely to garner enough votes to return any of them to the Knesset. A brilliant soldier and defense theorist, he was defined in the political realm by his decision to buy a $6.5 million apartment in one of the tallest buildings in Tel Aviv, a move seen as high-handed at best, arrogant at worst, but by any measure oblivious to public perception.

(PHOTOS: A New Gaza War: Israel and Palestinian Militants Trade Fire)

“Sadly, to this date a wide gap remains between the man and his public image,” Einat Wilf, who defected from Labor with him, said in a statement, “and I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to appreciate the man rather than fall prey to the image.”

Image is the essential reality of politics, however, which is why Gaza went from a clear victory for Israel in its first days to something else by the time the cease-fire was signed. Militarily, what the Israelis call Operation Defensive Pillar accomplished almost everything its planners hoped. Within hours of its Nov. 14 launch, Israeli missiles and bombs destroyed the major strategic weapons gathered in Gaza by the militant group Hamas over the course of the past four years, Israeli military officials tell TIME. The militants lost most of their inventory of Iranian-made missiles and resorted to homemade variations launched toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where they did little damage. About 1,000 missile pits — holes in which missiles are pre-positioned and launched by remote control — were destroyed and 33 enemy military commanders killed, including militants who had been trained for months in Iran. Their knowledge went with them. In Yedioth Ahronoth, reporter Alex Fishman notes that Israeli forces also knocked back a budding drone threat inside Gaza, where militants were preparing UAVs that could guide bombs into specific targets inside Israel.

And yet, “For its part, Hamas can claim a major triumph,” said the respected International Crisis Group in a 22-page report. “It showed it would not be intimidated and has basked in unparalleled visits to Gaza by Arab officials. The cease-fire agreement promised greater access of Gaza to the outside world, a considerable and long-sought achievement. The Islamist movement proved itself the central player in Palestinian politics.”

(MORE: Who Won in Gaza? Body Language and the Cease-Fire)

The gains to Gazans are clear. The day after the cease-fire took effect, Palestinian fishermen ventured six miles (10 km) into the Mediterranean to cast their nets — twice as far as they’d been allowed to venture in the past before coming under fire from Israeli patrol boats. The Oslo Accord describes territorial waters extending to 20 miles, but even the three additional miles will increase catches by as much as 700 tons a year, according to Gisha, an Israeli group that advocates for freedom of movement for Gazans.

Gaza’s other boundaries — the long fenced areas that border Israel — also were made more commodious by the cease-fire. Before Pillar of Defense, Israeli gunners fired shots at anyone who ventured within 0.9 miles (1,500 m) of the fence. Farmers are now working within 330 ft. (100 m) of the fence, reclaiming as much as 35% of Gaza’s arable land, according to Gisha.

“That perception is reality,” Robert Blecher of Crisis Group tells TIME. “If people are celebrating in Gaza, that increases Hamas’ margin of maneuver in the Strip, and that is important. I don’t think it is secondary to how many rockets were destroyed and how many Hamas leaders were killed.”

Blecher says the dimensions of Hamas’ victory will depend on whether Egypt or Israel actually opens the gates to the enclave and allows farmers to export what they can grow and others simply to travel, presumably through the Rafah crossing to Egypt. “The length of time the cease-fire is going to last is directly linked to the robustness and rapidity with which Gaza is opened,” Blecher says.

(MORE: Iron Dome: A Missile Shield That Works)

There’s a new reality on Israel’s side of the fence as well. Israeli diplomats are talking with their Turkish counterparts, trying to mend the damage in relations between the onetime allies since the May 2010 MV Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos killed six Turks trying to break the blockade to reach Gaza with a cargo of food, toys and construction material. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused Turkey’s demand for an apology, choosing an isolation that Washington, for one, says Israel can no longer afford. The morning after the cease-fire was announced, the best-connected columnist in Israel, Nahum Barnea, wrote:

The U.S. administration made it clear to Israel in the course of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit that it has an array of its own interests in the Middle East. It is banking on the Islamic regimes in Egypt and Turkey. Their governments were democratically elected; they, and the other Sunni governments — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the emirates — view Shiite Iran as their bitter adversary. They are members of a single coalition with the United States against Assad’s Syria.  The Americans expect Israel to help them strengthen the moderate Arab bloc, and for it to do so immediately. First of all, Israel needs to show more flexibility in its policies that affect Abu Mazen. It needs to find a way to ease things for [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s Turkey and [President Mohamed] Morsi’s Egypt. That means that the administration expects the Netanyahu government to make a veritable shift in its foreign policy, and this is happening at a very inconvenient time — on the eve of elections.

Uncertain of Egypt since the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascension to power, Israel tested not only Hamas but also Cairo when it launched its offensive, nominally aimed at coercing Hamas into halting the launch of missiles and rockets toward the communities of southern Israel. It ended with Hamas becoming stronger politically and Netanyahu, in his announcement of the cease-fire, appearing chastened. Polls showed that half of Israelis wanted the assault to continue. “Israel went into this operation with the goal of restoring deterrence and came out of it the party being deterred,” says Blecher. “If I were Israel, I’d be really hesitant about doing this again, if the cease-fire unravels down the road.”

 — With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

MORE: 10 Questions for Ehud Barak

24 comments
TedLeavensworth
TedLeavensworth

I wonder who pays Karl Vick to say  "Hamas becoming stronger politically"  ?   Sadam Husein also said that he won the war and his enemy are already queing up to ask  his forgiveness.  Those guys ( whether Husein is a first or middle name)  alsays say they win but somehow it appears they beg for mercy, money and understanding...  

falcon269
falcon269

Poisoning of Arafat? Tactical nuclear attack on Iran? Targeted assassinations? Repression of millions?

Kastal
Kastal

Hamas had no victory in the recent bombings of the Gaza strip by Israel; except political propaganda. Palestinian civilians are the biggest victims of the political influence that both Iran with Hezbollah; and the sunni countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar..) are willing to gain in the region. Unfortunately palestinians have no clever leadership in Gaza. This leadership which is causing more harm to its own people than to Israel.

sensi
sensi

The Israeli army killed 9 civilians (8 turks and 1 american-turk) during the Marmara botched assault, not 6...

danapointdaddy
danapointdaddy

Hamas can have a real victory, not a "perception is reality" version, when it recognizes Israel's right to exist, stops perpetrating violence, negotiates in good faith, and learns to compromise in negotiations... when they love their children more than they hate jews, things can change.

none of the above has happened yet.

btt1943
btt1943

A brilliant military man and shrewd politician with rare foresight, he certainly knows what he is doing. If one cannot have one's way, why linger on? (mtd1943)

mrxexon
mrxexon

Of course the question remains, does he see something on the horizon he wants no part of? Like an attack on Iran?

It's a rats leave the ship scenario. Or maybe he's leaving for reasons that have been publically stated? Either way, this is certain to affect any plans Israel has in regards to Iran.

x

Instead
Instead

Israel remains strong, and all her enemies will fall no matter the cloak they use to cover their lies and deceits. Barack's no politician and has overstayed his political life, only the liberals would be crying for him. When Israel needs to pick his military brain he will be called up, they never really retire from the military.

sensi
sensi

@danapointdaddy What a pavlovian  and fallacious garbage. Funny that you don't ask for land-grabbing, non negotiating, military occupier and bad faith Israel to recognize Palestinian right to exist and to have a State...

sensi
sensi

@mrxexon Barak is one of the two nutjobs and liars who tried to get they war with Iran, the other being of course pathological liar Bibi Netanyahu, that guy who is claiming that Iran is "months from the bomb" since no less than 1992 during a speech at the knesset...

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@mrxexon Your later point really depends on who he's replaced by and how the early elections in January go. From my understanding, his stance, politically as an independent, has been weakened greatly over the last few years as the country has become polarized to the left and right with no clear center. Give me a Hawk and it could be game on with Iran. I had not read anything about this, put a news report this evening showed hundreds if not thousands of Iranian military personnel being flown into Syria, which in my book is a serious provocation and certainly the type that will be commonplace if Iran gets the bomb.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@TravisBaylor 

Sounds like a lot more than I'm sure you get paid to copy/paste this spam dude.  Maybe you should take part in your own scam.

danapointdaddy
danapointdaddy

@sensi @danapointdaddy they have a right to exist, but need to respect the rights of israel to exist before any progress will be made.

keep slinging your propagandist poop, nothing will change until arabs learn to behave in a civilized manner.

stop hating israel and jews, grow the f up.

Rachel421
Rachel421

@sensi @danapointdaddy That was meant to be "stark" contrast, not "start" contrast.  I apologize for not doing a better job of proofing this.

Rachel421
Rachel421

@sensi @danapointdaddy There are certainly civilized Arabs, secular Arabs and Arabs who want peace but you also need to admit that none of these have been the desires nor actions of Hamas, which is why Israel needs to make certain it cannot get more influence in the region, nor destabilize Israel.  

For those of us who actually support ALL human and civil rights, hearing Hamas describe homosexuality as a sin "worse than terrorism" is alarming at best - and should cause great concern when it's remembered Hamas gets much of its backing from two countries that systematically torture and execute their own gays.  Tell me, Sensi, do you support Hamas' right to exist even if that means the violent oppression if not slaughter of gays by Hamas?  In start contrast, Israel is the only place in the Middle East where gays can live freely and openly and Tel Aviv has been ranked as among the most gay friendly cities in the world.  In this regard, which place is the more civilized?  I'm not gay but you can guess where I'd rather live in terms of freedom.  There's only one true Democracy in the Middle East and it's even allowed a mosque to be built in the Knesset in order to better represent its Muslim politicians.  I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Hamas to be so tolerant of its religious minorities.

Besides its horrific treatment toward gays, some of us were also paying attention when Hamas started threatening other Palestinians in Gaza when those Palestinians dared not follow a narrow, cherry-picked version of Islam.  This included open threats to male hairdressers who kept female clients, to outspoken feminists and pretty much anyone who dared criticize Hamas.  While it may do some admirable work in trying to help with (certain) social causes in Gaza, it should also be acknowledged that anyone who receives aid by Hamas must pledge an oath of loyalty to that organization.  This leads me to believe, even when offering aid to those who most need it, Hamas' intentions are anything but admirable.

The biggest threat to Muslims in the Middle East  has always, sadly, been from other Muslims.  Perhaps this is why those Muslims who have suffered oppression (or much worse) by other Muslim groups tend to support Israel's right to exist and often fight within the IDF?   I'm also guessing this is why the overwhelming number of Arabs in Israel support Israel's right to be an independent Jewish state.

sensi
sensi

@danapointdaddy @sensi Oh, and things will change on the 29th november, when the Palestinians are recognized by the UN general assembly.

sensi
sensi

@danapointdaddy @sensi You are again a joke, again resorting to pitiful namecalling and misrepresentation, be sure that arabs people are more civilized than you are, that I have absolutelly no issue with jewish people contrarily to your pathetic claim, and neither with a democratic israel when it will finally respect the people it oppress. Oh yeah "grow the f up" seems pretty mature for a clown.

matthias
matthias

@galens @danapointdaddy @Instead oh come on. Israel isnt wrong because its Jewish, and you arent open-minded just cause you voted for Obama. open-minded would be criticising the Israeli stance on Palestine without attacking their religion. you cant blame the entire religion for the actions of one state. otherwise you'd also hate all Muslims for the actions of Hamas, or all Buddhists for oppression in Burma. your bigotry is not a solution and only makes it worse

galens
galens

@danapointdaddy @galens @Instead 

bigots beget bigots, the land of god, unless you are not Jewish ;) !!

I am a bigot and racist, that is why I voted for Obama and feel the Palestinians need more voice and less oppression, please save the spinning history, just quit settling on their lands!