Israel’s Odd Couple

March 28, 2012 § 4 Comments

The New York Times has a story this morning on the relationship between Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Israel’s version of Oscar and Felix. The piece does not cover much, if any, new ground, and regular readers of this blog (to the extent that there are any!) will be familiar with the politics and current whip count in the security cabinet for a strike on Iran. Two brief thoughts come to mind for me after reading the piece.

First, Netanyahu and Barak’s strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities have always been evident. Despite serving as a commando and being the brother of Israel’s most famous soldier, Netanyahu does not have lots of military street cred, and indeed has been more reserved on that front than any other prime minister of the last two decades. He has avoided conducting major military operations in Gaza or Lebanon and seems risk-averse, which is what makes his banging the drums of war on Iran such an interesting anomaly and leads to speculation on the influence of his father and the role that he sees for himself as preventer of another Holocaust. He relies on Barak’s presence at his side to give him cover in making a momentous military/security decision, since nobody questions the credentials of Israel’s most decorated solider. In light of this, the reporting and guessing about what Netanyahu wants and the efforts to convince him to wait are probably a waste of time, since the person who really needs to be influenced is Barak. Without Barak, Netanyahu cannot in all likelihood advocate for or carry out a strike, so any pressure the Obama administration or Israelis opposed to a strike are exerting should be aimed squarely at the defense minister rather than at the prime minister.

Second, and related to the first point, the fact that Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in Sayeret Matkal – which is the Israeli equivalent of the Navy Seals, and which was also commanded at various points by all three Netanyahu brothers and new Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz served in – takes on outsized relevance. I have never served in the military nor have I studied psychology so I make no pretense of being an expert on this topic, but I’ve got to imagine that it is a tough thing to disagree with or even override your former unit commander on military issues. Netanyahu is going to do what he thinks is best for Israel, but his decision must be that much easier for him to come to grips with when the commander of his extremely tight-knit military unit under whom he served agrees with him and backs him up. If that element disappears, I don’t know what it does to Netanyahu’s calculus, but surely it would have some effect.

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§ 4 Responses to Israel’s Odd Couple

  • […] and Barak are an odd pair, bound together over the Iran issue but not a good match in any other way. Barak has no attachment […]

  • Derick Schilling says:

    While Bibi, Iddo, and Yoni Netanyahu all served in the Sayeret Matkal, only Yoni was ever the unit’s commander. Shaul Mofaz was a deputy commander of the unit, but it’s not clear if he ever headed it.

    Shayetet (Flotilla) 13, the IDF naval special forces unit, is the Israeli equivalent of the US Navy SEALs. The closest equivalent to the Sayeret Matkal in the US is the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta; both were modeled on the British SAS.

    • Thanks for pointing that out – you are right on the Netanyahu brothers, and I have corrected the post. As for the Navy SEALS comparison, I did not mean it in the sense of both being naval special forces units, but in the sense that both are the most elite and prestigious of their respective armed forces commando units.

  • […] that the U.S. campaign has not won him over but that it has won over his defense minister, who as I have noted previously is the more crucial figure that the U.S. needs to convince to withhold from attacking. Share […]

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