Al-Monitor correspondent and foreign policy telepath Laura Rozen asks in a tweet this evening whether the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak signifies a legitimate political dispute or is merely political kabuki. Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly called the meeting after DM Barak's trip to the United States during which he met with former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.
The question is a good one because the answer is unclear. Both reasons -manufactured crisis and genuine dispute - have credible support.
On the one hand, Israeli MKs have opined that Barak and Netanyahu are distancing themselves from each other in order to gain center-left support for the governing coalition, of which the Labor party (led by Barak until he split and formed the further left Atzmaut party in 2011) remains a partner. For Netanyahu, the fighting allows him to keep in the good graces of his far-right coalition partners and the more conservative wing of Likud. In fact, his accusation that Barak's visit to the United States is harming Israel is a talking point of conservative Likud MK Danny Danon. For his part, Barak's standing up to the Prime Minister gains the Labor party support from left-wing partners. This empowers Barak, but also Netanyahu, since Labor is part of the coalition. In addition, Netanyahu is playing the long game with regards to the next elections, with some reports suggesting he is considering calling early elections in February 2013. Shoring up political support now is a useful way to shape the political arena for those elections.
On the other hand, that relations between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations are suffering is no secret. Last month, PM Netanyahu questioned the moral authority of the United States after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the United States is "not setting deadlines" for Iran and considers diplomacy the best approach. In late August PM Netanyahu got into a shouting match with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro over policy differences between Israel and the United States. At last week's meeting of the United Nations, PM Netanyahu was given a phone call to President Obama but not a face-to-face meeting. It is likely the Prime Minister is a true believer that setting red lines is crucial to stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. Given that this is the case, it is reasonable that he would perceive the more centrist DM Barak's visit to the U.S. as undermining the national interest. Barak may be setting himself up as a new Shimon Peres (with whom the Obama administration enjoys good relations), but diluting the message of urgency coming out of Jerusalem could easily be understood by PM Netanyahu as threatening to his attempts to deter Iran. This policy motive may also explain why the meeting between them occurred tonight, before the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, rather than a more visible time in the news cycle. It also explains why after the meeting DM Barak released a statement specifically noting that he and PM Netanyahu "see eye-to-eye on every aspect of the Iranian threat" even though DM Barak came out opposing an airstrike just one month ago.
The question of which motivation is the real one is difficult because both are plausible. Both elections and Iran are strong motivators for the Prime Minister, and his reasons for any given action may relate just as much to one as to the other. As the issue plays out over the coming weeks, it may become more clear why Prime Minister Netanyahu and DM Barak continue to clash with each other. Until then, taking seriously the idea that both motivations may be at play is worthwhile. Good policy and good politics need not always clash (though the American checks and balances system incentivizes it here in Washington). Perhaps the most plausible explanation at the moment is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is sanctioning DM Barak in order to kill two birds with one stone.