Like Koizumi, who stepped down last year after five exceptionally successful years as prime minister of Japan, Barak, the leader of Israel’s long-embattled Labor Party, wants to make ballistic missile defense the center of his nation’s grand strategy -- and the basis for his own future second premiership.
Israel and Japan both face very serious threats of attacks by intermediate-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from wildly unpredictable extremist regimes well within firing range -- Iran in Israel’s case and North Korea in Japan’s. Both countries are small and their populations are disproportionately packed into major cities that would be prime targets. Both countries are longtime extremely close allies of the United States, with long histories of fruitful defense cooperation with major U.S. defense contractors, and both of them have already invested heavily in BMD.
But there the resemblance ends. Koizumi transformed the outlook of Japan's traditionally cautious Self Defense Forces and created a far-reaching, long-term strategic cooperation with the United States at the military and industrial levels that his successors probably could not undo even if they wanted to. Barak, on the other, hand, inherited an already massive investment in BMD by previous governments and Israel Defense Forces staffs and a long history of exceptionally close cooperation between Israeli and U.S. defense contractors on BMD programs.
However, Barak also inherited a BMD program that, while visionary and comprehensive, was in organizational disarray because of the incompetence of his predecessor -- as both defense minister and Labor Party leader -- Amir Peretz. Senior Israeli defense executives had been complaining that work on Iron Dome, the nation's top priority development program to defend the country against short-range ballistic-missile threats, was on hold and delayed possibly for years because Peretz simply had not taken the necessary budgetary issues in hand and made the necessary commitments.
Barak has changed all that: He was regarded as a disastrous failure in his brief and controversial premiership from 1999 to 2001, but before that he had a respected and successful, albeit not stand-out, term as ramat kal, or chief of staff, of the IDF. And in his younger years he was the most phenomenally successful Special Forces commander Israel’s elite forces ever had.
As long as veteran Gen. Ariel Sharon was prime minister of Israel, and especially after Sharon decisively beat the bloody Second Palestinian Intifada after using uncharacteristic and unfashionable but highly successful passive defense tactics -- building a massive security barrier to prevent suicide bombers from the Palestinian Authority territories getting into Israel -- Barak’s prospects appeared poor.
But for the past year and a half, Sharon has been comatose from a massive stroke in a Jerusalem hospital, and his longtime lieutenant and heir, current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, remains mired in single-digit approval figures in opinion polls following the way he and Peretz mishandled the brief mini-war against Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Party of God, in southern Lebanon last year.
Barak therefore is poised for a comeback. But he would be up against the old rival he defeated in the 1999 Israeli general election who has made a spectacular political comeback of his own. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has regained control of his old Likud Party and profited from the collapse in credibility of the new centrist Kadima movement that Sharon founded. Netanyahu is also riding high after an exceptionally successful stint as Israel’s finance minister during which he restored prosperity and growth after the collapse of tourism and investment in the early years of the Second Intifada.
To prove credible against Netanyahu, therefore, Barak must earn a record of achievement as defense minister to compare to Netanyahu's achievements as finance minister.
(Next: BMD and the peace process)