Barak Backstabbed Bibi on Bombing?

Something caused Netanyahu to start talking about red lines instead of imminent attack. Did Barak flip-flop?

Gil Ronen,

Ehud Barak (file)
Ehud Barak (file)
Israel news photo: Flash 90

Pundits have noticed a toning down of the talk coming from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu regarding an Iran attack. In the past week and a half, Netanyahu has been talking about the need for the West to set "red lines" that would constitute a casus belli if Iran crosses them. Previously, the messages coming from the Prime Minister were mostly ones signaling Israel's resoluteness to attack Iran before the U.S elections.

What happened? The most popular theory in Israel's punditsphere is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak suddenly bailed out of the proverbial ship heading for an attack on Iran. Barak began voicing his trust in the American resolve vis-à-vis Iranian nuclear weapons and said Israel and the U.S. see the matter eye-to-eye.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is probably the minister closest to Netanyahu, went on Israel's most highly rated newscast – the Channel 2 Friday evening weekly summary – and laid into Barak in an unusually harsh way. Steinitz raised the possibility that Barak is "stinging" Netanyahu as he stung political allies in the past.

Netanyahu faces an extremely hostile and unabashedly political press at home that militantly opposes an Iranian strike by Israel, as well as pressure by the U.S. and other nations, to refrain from such an attack. However, as long as he had Barak by his side on this matter, he had the political maneuvering room to carry out the attack despite these pressures.

Barak, a former leader of the Labor party, is perceived as a scion of the "Old Guard" leftist elite that ruled Israel until Likud took over, and still does rule Israel through the court system and other institutions, in the eyes of many. Therefore, having him on board made it easier for Netanyahu to represent an Iran attack as a matter of survival, rather than a partisan political issue.

If Barak has bailed the ship of imminent attack, Netanyahu may feel that he has been left in the lurch without enough support for a strike he sees as vital for national survival – even though it is he, in the end, who can give orders for such an attack, with or without Barak.

There are many other possible explanations, however, for the toning down of the rhetoric from Netanyahu's quarters.

One is that Netanyahu wants to lay low before he pounces on Iran. Barak's statements could be part of a scheme intended to lull the enemy into complacency.

Another is that Netanyahu and Barak are more optimistic than they were regarding the possibility that Mitt Romney will replace Barack Obama at the White House. Israel may feel that once a second-term Obama administration is in place, the U.S. will be much more openly hostile to the Jewish state and may take active diplomatic or military measures to stymie a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran. If, however, Romney is elected, the chances that the U.S. would allow Israel to face Iran alone are much smaller.

Yet another possibility is that Israel has been given a commitment of some kind by Obama behind the scenes, and that this commitment convinces it that it will not have to face Iran alone.

Perhaps is that a military development on the ground or a secret technological advance are making Israel more confident that the Iranian challenge will be dealt with effectively before it can make a nuclear bomb.

All of the above are no more than informed speculations, however. It should be noted that the change in rhetoric is not a complete one, and that an Israeli attack on Iran is still possible at any time.