Barak is Israel’s de-facto foreign minister

Turkish demonstrators against Ehud Barak, visiting Ankara this week

Turkish demonstrators against Ehud Barak, visiting Ankara this week

No new strategic agreements or arms deals were signed during Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s visit to Ankara on Sunday; he did not even get to meet the prime minister.

Still, the half-day trip was described as “very positive”. These days, any diplomatic contact between Israel and Turkey that does not end acrimoniously is seen as a definite success.

He might be the leader of a crumbling party (the latest polls give Labour a mere six Knesset seats if elections were held today), but within the cabinet, Mr Barak is the responsible grown-up. Half his parliamentary party is not speaking to him, but he is PM Netanyahu’s closest confidant and besides holding the cabinet’s most sensitive portfolio, he is also unofficially the government’s senior diplomatic emissary.

When Israel’s regional strategic alliances are jeopardised by senior ministers’ inflammatory statements, he is sent to Cairo, Amman or Ankara to calm the waters. In capitals where Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is persona non grata, in the small handful of Muslim countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, Mr Barak is an honoured guest.

But Mr Barak is also the preferred interlocutor of Israel’s traditional allies. In the last 10 months, he has racked up more meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative George Mitchell than Mr Lieberman. Both sides tacitly acknowledge that Mr Barak is the one who can do business.

Morale within the professional ranks of the Foreign Ministry has never been lower. They have been almost totally usurped from their traditional role, not just by Mr Barak, but by a whole group of ambassadors-at-large who have become the government’s point-men around the globe.

To some degree this has often been the case, with the Prime Minister’s Office taking charge of Israel’s most crucial overseas relationship (the US), but never to such a degree.

In addition to Mr Barak, a group of trusted senior officials, none of them diplomats, routinely fly off to represent the government in high-level talks. It includes IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, both of whose international briefs have expanded way beyond ties with their professional counterparts.

National Security Council head Uzi Arad, Mr Barak’s military adjutant Brigadier General Mike Herzog and Mr Netanyahu’s old friend and lawyer, Yitzhak Molcho, have all been racking up frequent flyer miles recently.

Over them all stands Israel’s mega-statesman, President Shimon Peres, who can be relied upon to make a timely phone call when things overseas get really sticky.

Mr Lieberman does not seem concerned that his ambassadors are rapidly becoming irrelevant. He seems quite content to summon them all to Jerusalem, as he did two weeks ago, and harangue them on the need to project a more muscular image. Conciliatory peace-seeking is out; from now on they must all aggressively defend Israel’s honour against all those hostile foreigners, and no, the peace process won’t be going anywhere in the next decade.

If at first the career diplomats thought that Mr Lieberman’s deputy, former ambassador in Washington Danny Ayalon, would balance his political master, the ritual humiliation of the Turkish ambassador last week finished off their last hope.

All they have to cling to now are the reports that a criminal indictment against Mr Lieberman for money laundering charges is not far off and that his replacement will enable the foreign service to reassert itself.

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010