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.

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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

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