J.J. Goldberg

Israel's Dangerous Musical Chairs: Barak, Bibi, the Flotilla and the Iranian Threat

By J.J. Goldberg

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Must reading on Barak’s resignation from Labor: Haaretz military correspondent Amir Oren writes today about the very complicated relationship between Barak’s defection, the retirement of Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and his replacement by Yoav Galant, and the Turkish flotilla.

Barak defected to save his own skin, of course. Avi Braverman and Buzhi Herzog were about to force a meeting of the Labor Party convention, which possibly would have decided to leave the Netanyahu government and probably would have set a date for a new party leadership primary. That would put a big shadow over Barak’s continued leadership and set the clock ticking on his service as defense minister. As Aluf Benn writes today, Barak very much wants to stay in government because he and Bibi want to keep up the pressure for a military attack on Iran.

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was a major obstacle to attacking Iran, because he’s against it. He’s been dismissed without the usual one-year term extension and is to be replaced Feb. 14 by Galant, who is all for the attack. This far, no surprises.

Meir Dagan, the just-departed head of the Mossad, was another obstacle to war. He’s against attacking Iran for the same reason Ashkenazi is against it - it would be enormously costly to Israel in terms of home front damage, Israeli civilian deaths, international condemnation and possibly worse if Iran retaliates with terror attacks against Western targets, which will get Westerners even madder at Israel. None of that is worth risking if the bomb be stopped or delayed without war. That’s why Dagan said last week, on departing the office, that Iran can’t get the bomb until 2015 because of successful covert work and sanctions. His point was that there are other ways besides war that work as well or better (war would only create a couple of years delay, which is what the covert action did) to stop the Iran bomb.

Dagan’s comment infuriated Bibi - who publicly dismissed it as intelligence speculation. And looks as though Bibi’s people planted a pretty vicious Fox News blog note alleging that Dagan had sabotaged Israeli policy for the sake of some personal grandstanding. You could say a lot about Dagan but not that.

Dagan qualified his statement this week, which led to a ton of headlines implying that he misspoke (mostly they said “back-pedaled”). But if you read what he said, he was really saying that the success of covert action so far doesn’t mean anyone can relax - it just means the pressure must continue. That was obvious the first time he spoke. So why did Bibi get upset? Because Bibi doens’t believe pressure - or, for that matter, success, apparently - is enough. He wants war on the table.

That stop-the-next-war message was also the thinking behind the Knesset testimony in November by outgoing military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, an ally of Ashkenazi, that Tel Aviv is probably the target in the next war. His point was that it’s critically important that there not be a next war. That’s also why Yadlin, Dagan and Shin Bet chief Diskin have all been pushing for the last two years to reopen negotiations with Syria.

Now Dagan has been replaced Tamir Pardo, who reputedly shares the Bibi-Barak appetite for war, and Ashkenazi is about to be replaced by Galant, things will be much easier. The peaceniks will be safely out of the way.

But wait: Galant’s entry is suddenly in doubt. The Green Movement sued in Supreme Court to stop Galant’s promotion on grounds of an alleged shady real estate deal in which he privately appropriated state land to improve access to his personal homestead on Moshav Amikam. The Turkel Commission, which approves senior government appointments, didn’t think the allegations were worth exploring. Now the state comptroller has given the attorney general new documents, which haven’t been made public but were enough to have the attorney general for a freeze on Galant’s promotion. He’s supposed to decide by Feb. 1 whether to dismiss the charges, to call for further investigation-which would mean Galant enters the job under a cloud-or recommend immediate legal action, which would probably derail the promotion altogether. If there isn’t a clean bill of health, Ashkenazi would have to stay on, which is a nightmare scenario for Barak. They could have deputy COS Yair Naveh step in, but he’s new and doesn’t really know his way around the Kirya these days. Or, most likely, they could recall recently retired deputy COS Benny Gantz, who is allied to Ashkenazi but isn’t as formidable a dove.

And get this: If the Turkel commission had the information on Galant but ignored it, why? Was there pressure from Bibi and/or Barak to push the promotion through so they could get on with their sabre-rattling? That’s part of what the attorney general and the Supreme Court are looking at now. If the court decides that the Turkel commission mishandled the Galant appointment, that would severely damage the credibility of the other major commission Judge Turkel is heading up right now, investigating the Flotilla Fiasco. Another nightmare scenario for Defense Minister Barak.


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