In a surprise move, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has announced he’ll be leaving politics after the election on January 22. That doesn't mean his political career is done: in an Israeli political constellation of large egos, Barak's outshone all the others. Despite improved public opinion surveys for his Independence party after Operation Pillar of Cloud, though, it’s clear that the party won’t be a vehicle for a grand re-entrance. Labor won’t have him, after he cannibalized the party for personal gain. Likud doesn’t want him either: he’s a threat to prominent individuals’ own positions and to many he still represents the left and its delusions about peace. He has no viable political home.
But Israel, the Palestinians, and the rest of the world should hope that Barak somehow finds his way back to Defense, even if that means Benjamin Netanyahu, still likely to remain at the head of a coalition government, has to appoint him to the position. This would entail a fight: there are others in Likud who covet the position, particularly Moshe Ya’alon, and while Avigdor Lieberman says he’ll retain the Foreign Ministry, rumors persist that Netanyahu offered him his choice of ministries to run on a joint ticket with Likud; the second most powerful office in Israel has got to be a real temptation. The price of incurring those figures' anger is worth it.
This isn’t because Barak’s a pacifist who will avoid war with Hamas or Iran, or because he has a grand plan for Israel that will bring peace to the region. It’s because he’ll be needed to balance out the hawkish, even reckless, preferences of Lieberman, Eli Yishai, and others.
In Haaretz’s account of decision-making behind Operation Pillar of Defense, Barak cautioned against widening the air war into a ground invasion while Lieberman pressed for one. Netanyahu was uncertain—he could have gone either way. It was Barak’s convincing explanation and insistence on the correctness of his analysis—backed by his real security credentials—that eventually swayed Netanyahu.
In the larger ministerial security forum, Yishai, Yuval Steinitz, and others also thought a ground invasion was a good idea. While Benny Begin and Dan Meridor opposed it, their influence is at an all-time low, and it’s not even clear they’ll be around come January 23. Without Ehud Barak to balance the unreconstructed hawks, Netanyahu is more likely to follow their advice.
Barak would have gone into Gaza with ground troops if he thought it was necessary, but he was well aware of the costs of doing so, and he was comfortable taking Israel’s gains and moving on. This is his modus operandi: during his own tenure as Prime Minister, he shifted easily and rapidly between pursuing talks with the Syrians and the Palestinians as he saw fit. At Camp David, he broke the sacredness of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided and eternal capital. He doesn’t chase a military or diplomatic goal out of ideology, pride, revenge, or justice—he does it out of necessity.
Barak will do what he thinks is right for Israel. Of course, so will Lieberman and Yishai. But they have a hard time separating their perception of what’s right from what’s achievable and what is costly. Barak doesn’t. Israel could use that kind of clear thinking as the challenges of Hamas, the Palestinian bid at the U.N., Egypt, Syria, and Iran converge.