OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Ehud Barak’s complicated position in Israeli politics and industry

Two stories have come out that placed the left’s anti-government riots in a new light.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at a protest in Tel Aviv against the government's planned judicial reforms, Feb. 25, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at a protest in Tel Aviv against the government's planned judicial reforms, Feb. 25, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90.
Caroline B. Glick
Caroline B. Glick is the senior contributing editor of Jewish News Syndicate and host of the “Caroline Glick Show” on JNS. She is also the diplomatic commentator for Israel’s Channel 14, as well as a columnist for Newsweek. Glick is the senior fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Center for Security Policy in Washington and a lecturer at Israel’s College of Statesmanship.

This week, two stories came out that placed the left’s anti-government riots in a new light.

First, in a podcast with Haaretz reporter Amir Oren, Gilead Sher—one of the leaders of the “Resistance” against the Netanyahu government—explained that he and his colleagues put together the organizational and financial structure for the mass rioting that Israel has experienced since January, before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues formed the government. In other words, the riots, protests, acts of political violence and intimidation that have swamped Israel since January were not spontaneous responses to the government’s legal reform proposals. They were planned and financed weeks before Justice Minister Yariv Levin was appointed to his position and well before the government took any position on anything.

Sher served as Ehud Barak’s chief of staff during Barak’s brief tenure as prime minister from 1999-2001. He was Barak’s chief negotiator with the PLO at the failed Camp David Peace Summit and has remained close to Barak ever since.

Speaking to Oren, Sher revealed that the plot to light the country on fire was hatched in mid-December, three weeks before the government was formed. In a meeting hosted by Yossi Kutchik, who served as the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Barak’s premiership, Sher and Kutchik met with former IDF Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz and high-tech billionaire and far-left political activist Orni Petruschka.

In Sher’s telling, “The four of us met and very quickly, maybe a week or two, we were joined by a number of other people.”

Among others, Sher mentioned former deputy attorney general Dina Zilber and Shikma Bressler. In 2020, Bressler burst into the public consciousness as head of the “Black Flags” group of anti-Netanyahu protesters. As Israel’s Channel 13 revealed in January 2020, Bressler’s group was funded by Ehud Barak.

Barele Crombly, who organized several of the right’s major pro-judicial reform protests, claimed in a recent interview that Barak is one of the largest funders of the “Resistance.” Crombly claimed that “Ehud Barak is funding the protest with millions if not tens of millions of shekels.”

Sher’s claims were later expanded by former leftist activist Eldad Yaniv. Yaniv, who was a senior adviser to Barak during his 1999 campaign against Netanyahu and maintained close ties to the former premier in the intervening years, organized the 2017 protests outside then-Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s home demanding that he indict Netanyahu. After the Nov. 1 elections, Yaniv broke with his political colleagues because he felt that the public had spoken and that Netanyahu and his government had the right to lead the country.

After Sher gave his interview, Yaniv explained on Channel 11 said that the same people Sher mentioned in his interview approached him before the elections. Convinced by their polling data that Netanyahu and the religious right would win the elections, they asked Yaniv to begin planning the campaign Sher claims he initiated last December.

The first thing that we learn from these revelations again is that the impetus for the protests and direct actions against Netanyahu, his government and the majority of the Israeli public that voted for Netanyahu’s government was not the government’s judicial reform agenda, nor any other policy the government has launched. Rather, the protests were a preconceived program to paralyze and destabilize the government with the plan to overthrow it. The anti-judicial reform banner was attached to the protests because it was the new government’s first major initiative.

The other aspect that is notable is the apparent centrality of Ehud Barak in everything that has happened. Barak has been one of the most outspoken and radical critics of Netanyahu and his government. And now we learn that while he wasn’t present at the meeting Sher described, Sher and Kutchik—like many of the dozens of retired generals, colonels and high-tech tycoons running the protest and riot campaigns—are closely associated with Barak. These are the people who initiated the hi-tech sector’s anti-government campaign and who organized retired generals to take a leading role in calling for active duty reservists to refuse to serve in reserves.

‘Deliberately destroying’ an industry to placate Washington

The second major story this week was an expose by the Financial Times regarding Israeli cyber security firm Paragon. Barak sits on the firm’s board of directors.

Israel was arguably the first country to recognize the centrality of cyber security for 21st-century intelligence operations. In recent decades, former soldiers and officers from the IDF’s cyber intelligence unit 8200 formed private companies that developed cyber espionage tools used by Israel’s intelligence agencies, and, under the strict supervision of the Defense Ministry, exported those tools to friendly nations. Cyber tools are vital to today’s counterterror operations. Untold numbers of lives in Israel and around the world have been saved through the penetration of the electronic communications of terrorists.

Beginning in 2018, an NGO called Citizen Lab which operates out of the University of Toronto began publishing a series of reports claiming that one Israeli cyber firm, NSO Group, was being used by authoritarian regimes to harm journalists and human-rights activists. That report, together with several follow-up reports with additional allegations, most of which were debunked, formed the basis of the Biden administration’s decision in November 2021 to blacklist NSO Group and Candiru, another Israeli cybersecurity firm. Notably, The New York Times reported last year that days after the United States blacklisted NSO Group, it signed a secret contract with the group to purchase NSO’s geolocation tool that can covertly track mobile phones around the world without the owner’s knowledge.

Last July, two weeks after the Bennett-Lapid-Gantz government lost its parliamentary majority and new elections were called, Channel 13’s military correspondent Alon Ben David reported that the Biden administration and the U.S. intelligence agencies had decided to destroy Israel’s cybersecurity industry and force Israel’s cybersecurity firms to transfer their ownership, operations—and allegiance—to the United States.

The Bennett-Lapid-Gantz government was beholden to the Biden administration as no previous Israeli government had ever felt beholden to any U.S. administration. Rather than defend Israel’s industry, according to Ben David, the government was “deliberately destroying” the industry to placate Washington. “The Defense Ministry has already frozen most of the export licenses and the Americans have simply decided to shut down our offensive cyber industry and transfer it to them,” Ben David explained.

The heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies were up in arms. They told Ben David that shuttering the industry would cause massive harm to Israel’s capacity to defend itself. But in short order, Israel’s cybersecurity firms folded, sold their shares or closed their offensive cyber divisions.

Not all Israeli firms were upset about what was happening. As Ben David put it: “Unfortunately, there were Israeli companies that, in their greed for sales, gave the Americans the excuse to act.”

Ben David didn’t provide any details about which Israeli firms were benefiting from the U.S.’s bare-knuckled assault on Israel’s cyber industry. This week, the Financial Times appears to have provided the backstory. According to a news report, as Citizen Lab was going after NSO Group, NSO Group’s competitor with a cyber weapon of its own called Graphite, decided to take advantage of the situation. The competitor’s name was Paragon.

According to the report, “In 2019, even before work on Graphite had been completed…, Paragon hired DC-based WestExec Advisors, the influential advisory group staffed by ex-Obama White House officials including Michele Flournoy, Avril Haines and Antony Blinken. Ex-U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, was also consulted.”

After Biden’s election, Haines was appointed director of national intelligence and Blinken became secretary of state.

The Financial Times’ report continues, “WestExec said it ‘advised Paragon on its strategic approach to the U.S. and European markets, as well as the formulation of its industry-leading ethical commitments designed to ensure the appropriate use of its technology.’”

The report explained, “American approval, even if indirect, has been at the heart of Paragon’s strategy. The company sought a list of allied nations that the US wouldn’t object to seeing deploy Graphite.”

Last year, Paragon won a contract to provide cyber security tools to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. As the Financial Times’ story explains, while Paragon built its marketing strategy on subordinating its activities to U.S. approval, NSO Group worked with the government of Israel which provided it with export licenses to countries that Israel wished to assist. Israel’s cybersecurity prowess is one of the foundations of its strategic ties with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. And as Ben David hinted, the sale of NSO’s Pegasus spyware to these countries was one of the reasons that the Abraham Accords were achieved.

Barak’s position in the United States is strong but precarious. On the one hand, he enjoys close relations with senior U.S. political and national security officials. On the other hand, Barak’s name has come up as one of the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s associates. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that according to Epstein’s diary, Epstein met Barak 30 times between 2013 and 2017. Barak also flew several times with Epstein on Epstein’s private jet. Epstein was convicted of child sex solicitation in 2009.

Barak told the Journal that his wife and security detail accompanied him on all of his flights.

In 2020, court documents revealed that in a sworn deposition, Epstein victim Virginia Giuffre claimed that Epstein forced her to have sex with Barak. Barak flatly rejected the allegation, and others have challenged Giuffre’s credibility.

In July 2019, while Epstein was jailed in Manhattan pending trial on child sex trafficking charges, the Daily Mail published a photo of Barak taken in January 2016. The photograph showed Barak wearing a facemask and standing outside Epstein’s New York townhouse. In the four hours that followed, four young women were photographed entering Epstein’s home.

Barak admitted that it was him in the photograph but insisted that his meeting that day with Epstein was innocent. “I was there for lunch or a chat, nothing else. So what? I never attended a party with him. I never met Epstein in the company of women or young girls.” Barak said in a comment to The Daily Beast. Barak also admitted to flying on Epstein’s plane to his island residence in the Caribbean where Epstein allegedly held illicit sex parties with underage girls.

Also in July 2019, Haaretz reported that in 2015, Epstein invested millions of dollars in Barak’s company Carbyne, which develops geolocation software for emergency services.

Several men whose names were associated with Epstein, including Prince Andrew, and senior Morgan Stanley executive Jes Staley were forced to resign their positions and withdraw from public life. Barak’s close ties to Epstein, in contrast, have been downplayed by the Israeli media and ignored by the state prosecution. Obviously, the situation would change immediately if U.S. officials decided to investigate Barak’s close ties to Epstein.

Barak’s Twitter feed is filled with enraged, threatening posts against Netanyahu and his coalition partners. In recent weeks, it has focused its ire at opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, whom Barak has been trying to intimidate into rejecting all efforts to negotiate an agreed program for judicial reform with the government, under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.

It is impossible to know whether Barak’s ties with senior U.S. officials are related to his multiyear efforts to oust Netanyahu from power. But from this week’s revelations we learned that Barak’s associates organized the continuous campaign to destabilize and paralyze the Netanyahu government, and that they began their efforts before the government was formed. We also learned that Barak benefited personally from the U.S. move to seize Israel’s cybertechnology industry.

Beyond that, we know that Netanyahu is the Israeli leader who transformed Israel into an independent, regional power and did so despite the fervent opposition of Barak, his associates and key members of the Biden administration.

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