Who is the real man?
Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s trip to London this week to meet American negotiator George Mitchell was unremarkable for any breakthrough on the thorny issue of settlement building. It was, however, a useful illustration of the real mindset of both sides in this uneasy relationship.
On the Israeli side, the fact that Mr Barak is the main representative in the country’s most vital strategic alliance is a sign of the dysfunctionality of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government — only 100 days after it was sworn in.
Mr Barak led Labour to its most dismal poll showing in history, and after the open revolt of a third of its Knesset faction, can rely on the backing of barely a handful of MKs. Despite this, he is still the government’s sole responsible grown-up.
The Prime Minister is frustrated by his dealings with Barack Obama’s White House: he is convinced they want to get rid of him. His Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, after being snubbed at every stop on his maiden diplomatic tour, has no appetite for seeing the wily ex-senator again. They have reluctantly allowed Ehud Barak to become Israel’s statesman for all occasions, a poor man’s Shimon Peres.
But while Mr Barak’s prominence is a sign of the inherent weakness of the Netanyahu administration, the apparent willingness of the US to engage with him is also instructive.
There is no other minister in this government who bears as much responsibility for the settlement situation as Barak. As Defence Minister, he has done little to stop building in the West Bank, which is under his direct jurisdiction.
And despite repeated promises, none of the large illegal outposts has been touched. If the Americans really see the settlements as an obstacle to peace, they should regard Mr Barak as the main culprit. Instead, as the ostensible leader of the government’s left wing, he is their preferred interlocutor.
Despite all the rhetoric, Washington has bigger fish to fry than the Palestinian problem. As long as it creates the impression that unlike the Bush administration, it is pressing Israel over the settlements, everything is fine.