The classically enigmatic farewell of Ehud Barak

The classically enigmatic farewell of Ehud Barak

The defense minister’s years in office were characterized by covert operations, a hawkish view on Iran’s nuclear program — and a clear-eyed assessment of an army’s ability to combat terror

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the cockpit of an F-16 at the Ramat David airbase (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense/ Flash 90)
Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the cockpit of an F-16 at the Ramat David airbase (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense/ Flash 90)

Two weeks ago, Ehud Barak, who announced his retirement from politics on Monday, eulogized Moshe Dayan. He spoke of “a brave man, devoid of any outward expression of fear,” who liked to question warriors before missions and “peel away every last bit of habitual thought or action.”

Barak then told a story. On May 9, 1972, shortly after midnight, he lay at the head of two lines of warriors, some 30 yards behind Sabena flight 571, which had been hijacked en route from Vienna to Tel Aviv. One hour before first light, defense minister Dayan, almost alone, approached the formation. He asked for the plan. Barak explained. Dayan stood there in silence. Up ahead, in the right-hand column, was Dayan’s nephew, his dead brother’s only son, Uzi. “He didn’t ask anything about it and I didn’t address the matter,” Barak recalled.

They discussed the details of the plan. Barak said that Dayan lingered, clearly at home and at ease among the soldiers, “the root and the well” of his existence.

Hours later, Dayan authorized the ultimately successful mission to overcome the hijackers. Afterward, there was a party. Everyone, from the prime minister to the flight attendants, was there. Dayan, he said, looked as though he’d been forced to attend “by diabolic compulsion” and merely shook a few hands, distributed a few “cynical smiles,” and then departed. “The contrast,” Barak said, of the ease among the soldiers and the discomfort among others, “was etched into my memory.”

In fact, he might as well have been speaking of himself. Unpredictable, enigmatic, learned, strategically astute and “emotionally handicapped,” according to many, Barak has stood at the helm of the Defense Ministry for the past five and a half years. During this, his second tenure, he reportedly presided over the IAF strike against the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007; Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-9; an alleged series of cyber attacks and assassinations in Iran and Syria; the fraught preparations for an Israeli strike against the nuclear facilities in Iran; and, most recently, the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari and Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.

As a rule, he appears to have been wary of the feasible gains that the army could make against terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, and bold in regards to the nuclear threats in the region and the specific threats that could be addressed through commando operations.

Already during the early days of the Second Lebanon War, Ehud Barak, a civilian at the time, invited himself to the home of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. His message, according to a recent report by Yossi Verter in Haaretz, was to bring the mission to a close. “The major goals of the mission have been met,” he reportedly said, noting that the air force had eliminated most of Hezbollah’s medium-range missiles and that from that point on “what should take three days or 13 days, stretches on for 30 days.”

Barak felt that in a protracted battle against a terror organization the gains are almost always smothered by the losses. Olmert did not heed the advice; the war went on for 34 days.

Ten months later, in June 2007, with the commission of inquiry into the war close to reporting its initial findings, Barak was appointed defense minister in Olmert’s cabinet.

By then, according to Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman’s “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars,” the Mossad, in a daring raid, had already confirmed that Syria, apparently with the aid of North Korea, was well on its way toward a plutonium-based nuclear reactor. The book paints a portrait of Barak as wildly opportunistic, arguing that he advocated against the strike in Syria, despite the fact that the plant was to be operational within months, because he wanted to wait for the Winograd Commission report, which he believed would at least indirectly oust Olmert from office.

Barak has never directly addressed those claims. Israel has still not officially taken credit for the air strike. All Barak has said is that Olmert proved during his tenure that when using military force he required “supervision” and that that is precisely what he provided. In the end, in a cabinet decision, Barak voted in favor of the strike, which was opposed only by then-minister of internal security Avi Dichter.

During the following year, in missions that would have required Mossad and military cooperation, Hezbollah chief of military operations Imad Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus when the headrest of his vehicle exploded; Syrian General Mohammed Suleiman, liaison to Hezbollah and commander of Syria’s “strategic weapons” programs, was killed in his garden in Tartous, Syria, by a single shot from an offshore sniper; and a 23-truck convoy of alleged Iranian, Gaza-bound arms was bombed by F-16s in Sudan, some 850 miles from Israel. Israel has not taken responsibility for any of these operations. If, however, the reports from outside Israel are to be believed, then it is safe to assume that Barak was at least partially responsible for peeling away the traces of habitual thought and action in the run-up to the missions.

In Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-9, and again in Operation Pillar of Defense four years later, he engineered a surprise opening to the strikes in Gaza and advocated for brief campaigns. In the first case his advice went unheeded, with Olmert and then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni pushing ahead toward a 22-day ground offensive; in the latter campaign, which ended Thursday, he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inflicted several blows on Hamas, killing the organization’s military leader and wiping out much of their arms, and promptly retreated, feeling they had accomplished all that was possible against a terror organization that had laid roots in an area thick with civilians.

Like Dayan, Barak was a difficult person to get close to, and even flattering reports — such as Dan Margalit and Ronen Bergman’s “The Pit” — note that his ability to give a person attention and a sense of importance “were not extraordinary.”

This characteristic was likely at the root of his feud with former IDF chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. The two distrusted each other and quarreled bitterly over everything from military appointments to the necessity of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities. In 2010, Ashkenazi received a directive from Netanyahu and Barak to step up military readiness for a strike against Iran, according to a recent “Uvda” (“Fact”) program on Channel 2. Ashkenazi effectively refused the order, calling it “a strategic mistake.”

The matter of military appointments, particularly regarding Ashkenazi’s successor, escalated into a sort of blood feud featuring forged documents and a virtually complete disconnect between the defense minister and the chief of the General Staff.

The state comptroller has investigated the matter, and his report is due in two weeks’ time. Elections are seven weeks after that. Barak said Monday morning that he would not run for reelection and that he wished to spend “more time with my family.”

A reporter on Army Radio, though, asked Barak’s brother, Avinoam Brug, if he could envision a scenario in which, as in May 1967, Barak, like Dayan, was called back into office to calm an existentially panicked nation. “If they want to, they could borrow his mind,” Brug said.

Ever since he joined the military in November 1959, it has been his strongest suit.

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