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Israel as a "Mansion in the Jungle"

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This week, Israel's Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak left the party along with four of his Knesset colleagues to form a small new party that immediately joined Prime Minister Netanyahu's ruling coalition. This move was seen as another tactical maneuver in the Byzantine world of Israeli coalition politics.

But this is a too narrow interpretation. Barak's step, coordinated with Prime Minister Netanyahu, was taken to dampen the possibility of conflict in the Middle East but is more likely to bring war closer.

The theory adopted by most Israeli commentators for Barak's move is that he took this step as an act of political survival. Barak long ago lost political support from within his own party, who within three months his party would have left the coalition and voted him out as leader. Instead, just like the leader of an elite commando unit he once was, he launched a preemptive strike. This way he prevented this ouster and cemented his position as Defense Minister in the current government and the next one should Netanyahu be reelected in less than two years.

This explanation is reinforced by Barak's character which is defined, even by his close confidants as opportunist and narcissistic. But there is another explanation. Perhaps this step is similar to what Moshe Dayan did in 1977.

Dayan was a model for Barak's generation - he was also a Chief of Staff who went on to become Defense Minister, whose political world crashed down on him in 1973 with the Egyptian surprise attack of Yom Kippur War, in which Israel lost 2,300 dead. Dayan betrayed his party when in 1977 he served in the Begin government as Defense Minister. Begin was the great rival to the Israeli left but Dayan joined him to assist in making peace with Egypt. This, he thought, would improve his image in future history books. And he was correct.

Barak also had his political world crushed in 2000 when instead of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians the second Intifada broke out costing the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis. In the elections of 2000 he lead the Labor Party to the biggest defeat in its history and his standing has never recovered eversince. If he can bring about an agreement with the Palestinians, history will remember his contributions just as it remembers Dayan's.

This way of thinking fits hand in glove with the Prime Minister's image, who also failed in his first term. What kind of legacy can he leave now that the Israeli public has given him a second chance? If he could achieve peace he could be a Nobel Prize laureate.

But there is a third explanation, which seems to be the most applicable. Despite their rhetoric, neither Barak nor Netanyahu trust the Palestinian leadership and do not believe that peace can be achieved in the near future. Barak and Netanyahu are of the school of thought that Israel is a "Mansion in the Jungle" and needs to act that way. For them, peace talks are not conducted so much with the intention of bringing about peace, as they are meant to stop the campaign of delegitimization against Israel.

This attitude has hardened over the past couple months. The crisis in Lebanon, the growing military power of Hezbollah and Hamas, the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, doubts about the stability of the government in Egypt, the ascendance of Turkey as a regional power, the weakening of pro-Western Arab regimes, and of the US itself, all point to a jungle that is becoming more dangerous. Under these circumstances giving up strategically important lands is unthinkable.

Above all stands the Iranian threat. Since taking office, Netanyahu has seen Iran as a danger to Israel's existence. Barak disagrees with this notion, Israel's existence, but does believe that Iran crossing the nuclear threshold will radically diminish Israel's strategic position. Indeed, Netanyahu and Barak are at the head of the hawkish camp advocating a military strike on Iran if need be. (By the way, leading the moderate camp are two security professionals - Commander-in-Chief Gabi Ashkenazi and head of the Mossad Meir Dagan, both of whom are now being replaced. Dagan warned against a preemptive strike in his farewell speech. Ashkenazi is being forced out because Barak wanted to replace him with a more subservient and less dovish Commander-in-Chief.)

From their point of view, Netanyahu and Barak's legacy will not be whether they solve the Palestinian problem, for that is unsolvable, but whether or not they can remove the Iranian threat - even at the cost of war. With this goal in mind having a moderate Labor Party in the government would simply be an obstacle.

So which of the two explanations is most plausible, notwithstanding Barak's personal character? Both he and Netanyahu hinted over the past couple weeks that Israel is about to make a surprising diplomatic move. If this actually happens then we'll know that Barak's decision was indeed like Dayan's. If not and it turns out that these hints are just an exercise in public diplomacy, it will suggest that "Mansion in the Jungle" thinking has won out and Netanyahu's is preparing for war. The moment of truth is near.

Yoram Peri, a former advisor to Prime Minister Rabin, is Abraham and Jack Kay professor in Israel Studies at UMD, College Park and the author of Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military shapes Israeli policy.