A rift between Netanyahu and Barak? Not so fast

Political maneuvering scores headlines in Israel and abroad.

A rift between Netanyahu and Barak? Not so fast
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in a briefing to the press on Iran (photo: IDF Spokesperson / CC BY-NC 2.0)

The New York Times reported this morning on a “growing rift” between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The disagreements between the two regarding the strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the government’s attitude towards the American administration have found their way into the public sphere, with proxies for both sides attacking each other on every possible issue, from policy to personal character.

So, the strongest political alliance Israel has known in years is coming to an end? Don’t be so sure. Despite the obvious differences in their political approach (most notably, with regards to the U.S.), many within the Israeli political system suspect that the all-too-public dispute is a political stunt, designed to create the necessary separation between the two in the coming elections.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is expected to announce early elections soon, due to take place in February instead of October 2013. Even if he doesn’t, we are still entering an election year. In the past, Netanyahu considered adding Barak to the Likud roster for the next Knesset, but due to the control of the hard right of the party machine, it seems like a too big a challenge, even for Bibi. It’s clear that Barak’s newly formed party, Atzmaut, will have to face the test in the polling booths.

In recent polls, Barak hovers on – and sometimes crosses – the 2 percent threshold that would get him into the Knesset. A little push, and he’ll be there. Barak’s constituency is to the left of Likud’s, so a small dispute with the prime minister could serve him very well. Considering the fact that it’s pretty certain that Netanyahu will be the next prime minister, I am willing to bet that there are just enough Israelis who would like to see Barak acting as “the responsible adult” at his side.

Meretz’s leader, Zehava Gal-On, posted this message on her Facebook wall yesterday:

It seems that friends Barak and Netanyahu really think that we are that naïve or foolish. They think we will buy their spin. That we will suddenly believe, out of the blue, that a black cat has crossed between them. So no. Oh no […]

We know that there is no rift between Netanyahu and his partner Barak. This dispute is staged and coordinated for the elections, so that Barak can run with Atzmaut as opposition to Netanyahu, thus taking votes from the center-left bloc […] it’s clear as day that right after the elections, Barak will fall again into Netanyahu’s arms… make no mistake, the alliance between Bibi and Barak is as tight and deep as ever.

The publicity the dispute has received in what is usually a very tight political ship run by Netanyahu suggests that Gal-On knows what she is talking about, especially given the fact that Israel Yahom, of all papers, is pushing the story so hard. (It’s the top headline today.) Since when does the Netanyahu daily report on rifts in the coalition?

But even more telling is the fact that a senior proxy to Netanyahu admitted this fact, telling Haaretz that:

If the defense minister was not functioning according to Netanyahu’s expectations, he would be fired. The truth is that there is professional harmony between them. It became important for Barak to recruit center-left votes to pass the electoral threshold, after he realized that he had no chance of getting a guaranteed place on the Likud Knesset list. To Netanyahu, on the other hand, it’s important to put some distance between himself and Barak, who is seen as the settlers’ enemy.