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White House Was Foolish In Overestimating Barak’s Pull

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The White House was misled by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. And that does not surprise me.

Publicly, the White House is saying that nothing in the relationship between Barak, who just this week left the Labor Party to form a new political faction, and the administration has changed. Privately, the White House is expressing disappointment, frustration and even anger.

From the early days of the Obama administration Barak had sold himself as the best, perhaps even the only, person able to guide the Israeli cabinet in the direction that most pleased the United States.

Barak was supposed to deliver Netanyahu and his government on a silver platter; he was to ensure that Israel would conform to U.S. interests and adhere – even embrace – American policy decisions.

White House aides have described the unparalleled access Barak enjoyed with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They paint a picture of a teacher/student relationship, with the Israeli as teacher. He charmed and impressed seasoned State Department honchos with his analysis and insight. He spoke and everyone listened.

Ehud Barak was accorded more respect by the U.S. as Israel’s defense minister in an opposition government than he’d been years earlier as Israel’s prime minister.

And then one day the White House realized Barak could not deliver as promised. Barak did not have the influence over Prime Minister Netanyahu that he professed to have, that the West Wing assumed he had, that he led everyone to believe he had.

The emperor was wearing no clothes.

Barak’s Labor Party was the left balance in Netanyahu’s right wing government. But the few votes he carried could hardly be considered a mainstay of the coalition. Even if Labor withdrew from that coalition, the Likud government would still remain standing – tottering a bit, but standing and solvent.

Finally the Obama administration’s blinders lifted and U.S. officials actually realized the defense minister’s party was so tiny that it wielded no power. Not only that, they realized there was a serious threat to Barak’s leadership within his own party. Other leaders within the party were calling for his resignation.

The question, of course, is why the administration was wearing blinders in the first place. Anyone who follows Israeli politics could have easily read the situation. You don’t have to be a diplomat to see what was happening – so why didn’t the diplomats see what was happening?

Yes, Ehud Barak is charming and even convincing. Barak is also self important and aggrandizing. Giving credit where it is due, his analysis is often brilliant and he is a master strategist. His tactics are well thought through and he grasps issues with ease. But he could never deliver what the White House expected. The only person who could do that was – and is – Netanyahu.

The administration began giving Barak the proverbial cold shoulder even before his decision to leave Labor. During his last visit he was allotted a short fifteen minutes with Hillary Clinton. That was the extent of his access.

Is Barak to blame for his failure to deliver? Honestly, I don’t think he is. It’s just that was always intoxicated by the power of the White House. It began while he was Israeli prime minister during the last year and a half of the Clinton administration.

The real error was made by a myopic White House in not spending any time or exerting any effort to investigate the claims Barak was making. The obvious was right there in front of them and administration officials chose to ignore it.

Barak was always simply the head of one of the coalition parties. By definition a coalition party compromises on party principles once it joins a government. Labor was no exception to that rule. Likud did what was expected – it made promises and offered its own compromises, not only to Barak’s left-leaning Labor but to right-wing parties as well. That’s how a government is cobbled together. It’s the parliamentary way.

To imagine that one man heading a small party would be able to sway a ruling government, no matter how persuasive a character that man may have been in the administration’s eyes, was a show of poor judgment and inexperienced governing.

Now it just so happens that Netanyahu, of his own volition, was willing to go along with most of the Obama administration’s demands. He just wanted them in writing – and that is where it all fell apart.

In sum, this was a blunder that could easily have been avoided; a textbook example of how diplomacy should not be practiced.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book, “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World,” is available at Amazon.com. He maintains The Micah Report at www.micahhalpern.com.

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