Ariel Schalit/AP
In this August 6 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) and Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak stand next to the wreckage of an Egyptian military vehicle after militants burst it through a security fence into Israel from Egypt, at an Israeli military base along the border with Egypt, southern Israel.

Is Israel's Barak breaking with Netanyahu over Iran?

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who until now was a steadfast ally of Netanyahu's push for military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, appears to be carving out a new position, though he is denying it.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to ramp up pressure on Iran’s nuclear program with hints he might order a unilateral attack on Iran, he's been staunchly supported by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Lately, there have been cracks emerging in that support.

Amid this week’s flare-up between Mr. Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over how to confront Iran, the Israeli defense minister appeared to break ranks. In a press statement, he criticized the prime minister for his public scolding of the White House, saying “we must not forget that the U.S. is Israel’s main ally’’ and that differences should be resolved behind closed doors.

Observers believe those remarks have wider significance: After months of publicly and privately expressing support for an aggressive posture towards Iran, Mr. Barak seems to have joined those opposing an attack any time soon. With much of Israel’s military establishment and the US opposed to a strike, a Barak defection would isolate the Israeli prime minister as the lone proponent of military action at the upper reaches of either country.

“[Barak] came to recognize that without America you can’t do a thing like attack an Iranian nuclear site,” said Shimon Shiffer, a veteran columnist at the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. “He is not with Netanyahu at this stage. Their alliance is over.”

Perhaps. But Barak himself is denying major differences. "I always see eye to eye [with Netanyahu]. We see a similar threat," he told Israel's Globes newspaper, according to Haaretz. "It is extremely important that when Israel says it cannot allow Iran to attain nuclear capability and that all options are on the table that it means it," he said.

He also downplayed public differences between the US and Israel over Iran. "I'm saying loud and clear: there is something wrong with the discourse taking place here. The descriptions of the crisis and the differences between us and the Americans are extremely exaggerated."

What's really going on? Many in the Israeli establishment have been concerned at the seemingly antagonistic relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, who currently has a slight polling lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Israel has relied on a close relationship with the US throughout its history, and many politicians have been concerned that Israel's interests could be harmed by rancor with a sitting US president.

Barak is clearly not about to resign from Israel’s coalition. He's expected to visit the US in the coming weeks and will probably lay the groundwork for Netanyahu’s visit to New York at the end of the month. A date for a meeting between the prime minister and the US president has not yet been set.

A former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff and former prime minister from the left wing Labor Party, Barak’s presence alongside Mr. Netanyahu gives the government’s policy toward Iran more credibility among the Israeli center left.

Though Barak was supportive of a return to peace negotiations with the Palestinians – serving as the leading dove on that issue in the cabinet –  he has been considered a hawk on Iran and at times seemed even more keen than Netanyahu to hit the Islamic republic.

Netanyahu is insisting that the US be more specific in setting a “red line” that would trigger a military attack against Iran, arguing only a more firm effort at deterrence will prompt Tehran to stop its nuclear program without force.

Despite widespread worry in Israel that civilians would be exposed to massive rocket barrages if a regional war were to break out afterward, Barak has even predicted Israel would only suffer a few hundred casualties.

But in recent weeks, Barak has made a number of statements stressing US seriousness about confronting Iran. Just last week, he highlighted the “impressive preparations” by the US to “confront Iran on all fronts.” He also said Israel will try to delay war for as long as possible.

While observers acknowledge that the defense minister is often difficult to read and likes to surprise people, it appears that Mr. Barak has eased his own rhetoric in response to stepped up messages from the Obama administration that they thought a unilateral Israeli attack foolhardy and dangerous. Some political allies of the prime minister have accused the defense minister of running scared.

 Whatever the reason, without the support of Barak, or the top brass in the IDF, or the US, Israel’s prime minister will have a hard time ordering such a fateful attack.

"My sense is that [Barak] believes the moment of truth has passed,” says David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel news website, “and that he’s looking for a way down.”

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