Dan Williams writes: Forty years before becoming Israel’s top decision-making duo, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak first made news on the blood-stained wing of a hijacked Belgian airliner.
Disguised as tousle-haired mechanics, with slim pistols concealed beneath their white overalls, Israel’s future prime minister and defence chief had stormed the Sabena jet at Lod airport near Tel Aviv as part of Sayeret Matkal, the secret special forces regiment which Barak, then aged 30, led.
Netanyahu, eight years younger, was largely untested in counter-terrorism operations. “It was the first time I had ever held a handgun,” he would later remember.
The dozen or so clambering commandos killed two Palestinian Black September gunmen and overpowered two grenade-wielding women with them. One of the 100 hostages died but the raid was hailed a master-stroke, the only casualty among Barak’s men being Netanyahu, shot in the arm by a comrade – “He took it just fine,” the unit’s then deputy chief, Danny Yatom, recalls drily.
That mission in May 1972, one of the few by Sayeret Matkal on which details have been made public, crystallises for many Israelis the view that Netanyahu and Barak still today operate as a covert team, crafting strategy with a maverick intimacy born behind enemy lines and a clubby elitism that eclipses their markedly divergent personalities and politics.
The inner dynamics of the relationship resonate widely, as friends and foes weigh up whether they might order an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. But this powerful odd couple, the old leftist and the right-winger, the ex-commander and his more popular former subordinate, the cool tactician and impulsive visionary, is an enigma, even for those who know them well.
Giving little away, Barak himself told a radio interviewer last week: “There is no difference between us on how we see things … There are always differences on this detail or that, but all in all we see things eye to eye.”
That is quite a statement for a man who, when Labour party leader in 1999, usurped Netanyahu as prime minister after an election where Barak campaigned to halt his liberal assault on Israel’s socialist economic model and seek a deal with Palestinians that was anathema to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.
And the portrayal of harmony, now that the shifting ground of Israeli politics has since 2009 brought them together in coalition, belies discernable public differences on Iran, albeit differences of emphasis rather than substance on whether Tehran, for all its denials, is seeking a nuclear weapons capability.
Netanyahu, a conservative ideologue fond of quoting Winston Churchill, casts an Iranian bomb as a second Holocaust in-the-making which must be prevented at all costs. Barak, a famously unflappable and cold-eyed political pragmatist, prefers to portray reining in Tehran as an international challenge and to remind his compatriots of Israel’s regional military supremacy.
Whether the balance of their views augurs a “pre-emptive” attack on Iran, or conversely, a hand-on-hilt resignation to its atomic ambitions, is, constitutionally, for Netanyahu to decide. But his reliance on his former Sayeret Matkal commander has some wondering who really calls the shots on such fateful questions.
“Barak’s status is nothing less than partnership in the prime ministership — ‘Prime Minister II’,” wrote Boaz Haetzni for the right-wing news service Arutz-7, whose contributors are often critical of Netanyahu’s support for his defence minister.
Amir Oren of the liberal Haaretz newspaper argues much of Barak’s support in the wider electorate derives from a belief among voters that he “would function as the ‘responsible adult’ on the Iranian issue and restrain Netanyahu” from rash decisions liable to plunge the region into unbridled conflict and fray Israel’s alliance with its vital ally in Washington.
Yet the idea that Netanyahu is subordinate to Barak, or even on an equal footing, is ridiculed by confidants of both men — including several who served with them in Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli version of Britain’s SAS or the American Delta Force.