Ehud Barak showed up in Chicago yesterday to meet with his old friend Rahm Emanuel amidst growing tension between the U.S. and Israel over the issue of red lines on Iran and just weeks before the presidential election. This was clearly not just a social call, and in fact Emanuel’s spokesman said that the meeting was an “official visit.” The question is what exactly Barak is up to, since Emanuel has no formal role in making foreign policy anymore now that he is the mayor of Chicago rather than President Obama’s chief of staff. Furthermore, Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror has been in Washington the past couple of days for previously undisclosed meetings with the White House to smooth out differences between the U.S. and Israel over Iran, so there would be no reason for Barak to be talking national security issues with Emanuel.
According to both Ynet and Ha’aretz, Barak’s mission was to begin healing the rift between Washington and Jerusalem, although the two differed on whether Barak was here on a mission from Bibi Netanyahu or was acting on his own. According to Ynet, “it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was informed” of the meeting, while Ha’aretz reports that “Netanyahu sent a message of appeasement to the Obama campaign in the form of Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The message: The Israeli leader is not meddling in the elections taking place in the United States.”
So what’s really going on here? Did Bibi dispatch Barak in order to send a message through an Obama confidante, or is Barak doing his own thing? If I had to guess, I’d go with the latter for a few reasons. First, if Netanyahu was trying to reassure Obama that he is not meddling in American presidential politics, he wouldn’t be sending Barak with that message, as the two Israelis have a partnership of strategic convenience but are not close political allies in any significant sense. Barak may be trusted in Washington to a much higher degree than Netanyahu, but the person to deliver a political message of that nature would be someone like Ron Dermer and not Barak. When the president of the United States is angry because he thinks that you are interfering in his country’s internal politics, you send one of your most trusted aides to rebut the assertion rather than send your defense minister who belongs to another party.
Second, I’m not sure that it is actually in Barak’s interests to try and help out Netanyahu with Obama, as opposed to making sure that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong. To put it bluntly, Barak’s priority is that Israel get all the defense and security and diplomatic help from the U.S. that it can muster and not whether Netanyahu can schedule meetings with Obama whenever he wants. It seems pretty clear to me that Netanyahu’s amateurish attempt to pressure the White House is an idea that he ginned up all on his own and that the rest of the political and defense establishment wants little part of it, and there is no reason for Barak to help Netanyahu climb down from the limb as long as the administration’s anger is directed at Netanyahu rather than Israel. The story about Barak trying to make sure that the relationship between the two countries remains strong rings truer to me than the version in which he is trying to spin Netanyahu’s public comments and interviews as benign.
Which brings me to the third point, which is that Barak is looking ahead to the next Israeli elections and is trying to set himself up for a resurgence. Barak is nothing if not a smart tactician, and I think he sees the handwriting on the wall at this point, which is that an Israeli strike is unlikely to occur and that makes him expendable to Netanyahu and the governing coalition since Likud hardliners are constantly after his head. Barak is trying to distance himself from Netanyahu so that he can make a credible run with Tzipi Livni or Yair Lapid in a new center-left party, which is why it was leaked that he no longer agrees with Netanyahu on the need for a strike and why he is going to start taking a harder stance on illegal settlement building. Meeting with Emanuel makes perfect sense given Rahm’s status within the Democratic Party and Barak’s position on the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum, since Barak wants to make sure that he maintains good ties with the Democrats and is seen as a credible figure by the U.S. Barak has a reputation for looking out for himself above all else, and I think the meeting with Emanuel fits into this patter. It is about letting the White House know that he does not agree with anything that Netanyahu is doing, and that should he find himself in a stronger political position after the next election he will make the relationship with the U.S. his top priority. There is no reason in the context of Israeli domestic politics for Barak to throw Netanyahu a lifeline; in fact, given outside events, there is every reason for Barak to let him drown.