Lessons on Iran from Ehud Barak’s actions in Hebron (TIMES OF ISRAEL) By DAVID HOROVITZ 04/06/12)
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This week’s surprise settler eviction underlines the defense
minister’s penchant for acting when his adversaries least expect it
After a few dozen Jewish settlers moved into a disputed building in
the West Bank city of Hebron last week, Israel’s military hierarchy –
headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak – swiftly declared that their
presence was illegal.
Whether or not they had purchased the Beit Hamachpela building fair
and square from its rightful owners – a question that is still being
investigated — they had not received the necessary permission from
the Israeli military administration to take over the property, and
would thus be removed, the military said. This prior military consent
is deemed particularly essential in volatile Hebron, a city holy to
Jews, Christians and Muslims that is divided into Israeli- and
The deadline for the settlers to depart voluntarily was set by Barak
for 3 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. If the occupants were not out by
then, they were told, the security forces would remove them.
Outraged members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing
Likud party castigated Barak for his intransigence. Theirs was a
government dedicated to expanding the Jewish presence in the disputed
West Bank, yet here was the defense minister seeking to constrain it.
They loudly demanded to know what Barak – who currently heads a small
splinter faction called “Atzmaut” (Independence) having split from
the Labor Party last year – was doing in the government at all, let
alone dictating policy on the issue of settlements.
One minister went to visit the settlers in their new home, others
sent messages of support. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
threatened a coalition crisis.
And their protests seemed to have won the day.
Tuesday’s deadline came and went. The settlers declared that they had
submitted all relevant paperwork to the military authorities. And
that evening, Netanyahu announced that they would be given more time
to prove their legitimate ownership of the property. He was working,
he said, in coordination with Barak. No action would be taken, it was
indicated, for at least another three weeks.
But then, a little after noon on Wednesday — when the settlers
understandably believed the battle, if not the war, had been won –
the security forces moved in. Some 150 members of elite and other
police units surrounded the building, swiftly entered, and removed
the handful of adults and dozen or so youngsters who were inside
preparing for this weekend’s Passover festival. There was no
resistance. The eviction was as quick and clinical as it was
Before it was even over, Barak had assembled members of the press to
brief them about the operation. The settlers were “invaders” who
would not be allowed to “create facts on the ground in breach of the
rule of law.” They had been removed in accordance with the law, he
said, and he hoped that similar intervention would not be necessary
in the future.
Outraged, the humiliated Likud ministers turned first on Barak, and
then on Netanyahu. It swiftly became clear that the prime minister
had been party to the entire process. Barak had told him
that “operational considerations” required that the eviction go ahead
without delay – to minimize the likelihood of violence – and the
attorney general had advised that the law similarly required speedy
action. Netanyahu had assented.
The prime minister moved quickly to pledge his personal commitment to
the settlement enterprise in general and to the settlers of Hebron in
particular. He vowed that, if the settlers could prove their
ownership of the disputed building, they would be allowed to return.
His ministers grumbled. The settlers fumed, threatened new
initiatives, and set up a protest tent near the building. But the
crisis, for a while at least, was resolved. Ehud Barak had prevailed.
There is, it need hardly be stated, no remote comparison to be drawn
between the operational considerations involved in evicting fewer
than 20 of your own citizens from a single building in an area
already under your military control and the challenge of thwarting a
network of nuclear facilities constructed with maximal protection by
an enemy nation thousands of miles away.
And yet, for an international community obsessing over the question
of whether Israel is poised to strike at Iran and how it might do so,
there may be some lessons to be drawn, nonetheless, from Barak’s
handling of this week’s Hebron settler episode.
Chief among these is never to lose track of Barak’s insistent desire
to do the unexpected. The former chief of staff is also the army’s
most-decorated ex-soldier, a man who transformed the IDF’s Sayeret
Matkal commando unit into a mythologized elite by carrying out
operations using means no one had previously conceived and in places
no one had dreamed it could act.
He also has an astute sense of timing. He ordered action in Hebron
when the settlers least anticipated it, when the prime minister had
indicated that nothing was going to happen – when the adversary was
vulnerable, when the guards were down.
Another thing: Barak does not tend to talk about the operations he is
planning. When Israel struck in Syria in 2007, destroying what was
subsequently widely reported to have been a Korean-built nuclear
reactor, Barak had issued no previous threats to attack. This is
particularly worth noting in the Iranian context. Barak, like
Netanyahu, has spoken a great deal about the imperative to thwart
Iran’s nuclear drive. He has said very little about how Israel might
go about doing so, if all else fails. Many assumptions have been made
about military strikes at key facilities. Barak has confirmed none of
Barak is also a savvy, calculating individual. He reportedly delayed
the strike in Syria for several months while he refined the operation
and analyzed the likely fallout. He left the Syrians seething, but
rightly bet that they would not hit back. He’s left the Hebron
settlers seething, knows that extremists among them have issued
various threats of revenge, but evidently believes these can be
He recognizes, of course, that an Israeli strike on Iran would cause
a great deal more than mere seething. He realizes it could prompt a
range of vicious Iranian responses – via terrorism, missile attacks
and the deployment of Iran’s well-armed proxy forces, Hamas and
Hezbollah, to Israel’s north and south. He’s heard American officials
predicting nothing short of a regional cataclysm, World War III. He
himself has spoken of the complexity of tackling the Iranian nuclear
drive, and muttered about hundreds of casualties, while declaring
that it would be a far more complex challenge to face off against an
Iran that has achieved a nuclear weapons capability. The calculations
are in full sway.
Finally, the Hebron affair underlines the fact that Netanyahu plainly
likes having Ehud Barak at his side, even at a certain political
cost, as the clock ticks down on Iran. In a coalition comprised of
numerous small parties and egotistical individuals jockeying for
power, there is no other reason for Barak to be there, no
arithmetical justification for his presence in the much coveted
defense minister’s job.
The prime minister evidently sees him as someone with experience and
good judgment who can dependably get the job done. This faith was
vindicated in the handling of last month’s brief Israel-Gaza flare-
up. It was vindicated in Hebron this week. Will it be vindicated
where Iran is concerned? (© 2012 THE TIMES OF ISRAEL 04/06/12)
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