With the backdrop of the possibility of early elections, unprecedented tension has been reported in the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. According to Israel Radio, Netanyahu harshly criticized Barak during a closed-door conversation with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Tuesday. Netanyahu said Barak had tried to drive a wedge between the prime minister and the American government during Barak's recent trip to the U.S., according to a Channel 2 report.
Netanyahu was meeting with Steinitz about the state budget. During the meeting, Steinitz warned Netanyahu about Barak, saying the defense minister would act against the prime minister if he decided it was politically advantageous for him. This statement prompted Netanyahu's comments about Barak.
"[Barak] traveled to the U.S. to stoke the dispute between us and Obama in order to come off as the savior and the moderate, the mediator between the sides," Netanyahu was reported to have said.
Netanyahu confidants said Barak has decided to separate himself from the prime minister due to electoral considerations. Barak is hoping that the Independence party, which he founded in 2011 after he left Labor, will earn enough votes in the next elections to surpass the threshold required to receive seats in the Knesset.
"For a time, Barak tried to play a double game, as he thought Netanyahu would reserve the position of defense minister for him," the Netanyahu confidants said. "But when he understood that this would not happen, he began to attack the prime minister."
Finance Ministry officials said Steinitz has been cautioning Netanyahu about Barak for months.
"[Barak] is the only person holding up the passing of the budget formulated by Netanyahu and Steinitz, because it requires a four billion shekel cut to the defense budget," a Finance Ministry official said. "Without the support of the Independence party, it will be impossible to pass the budget in the Knesset."
In response to the report, Barak's office said that Barak had not changed his views on political, economic and military matters, that until now the basis for close cooperation between him and Netanyahu was their agreement to disagree on a variety of issues, and that the only change was Netanyahu's reaction. "It is no secret that in closed government discussion rooms, and occasionally in public, Ehud Barak has positions that are different from most other members of the government, including the prime minister, on issues such as the Palestinians, socio-economic affairs and the relationship with the U.S."
"During his trips to the U.S., Barak has defended the government's positions and has tried to contribute, often successfully, to lowering tensions between the governments and strengthening security ties."
A Defense Ministry source on Wednesday emphasized the vital strategic significance of Israel's security ties with the U.S., stating that Barak has worked to maintain and bolster those ties since he became defense minister five years ago, including the last three-and-a-half years in the Netanyahu government.