Ehud Barak is Israel’s most decorated soldier and among its senior statesmen. He served as the IDF chief of staff from 1991 to 1995, the country’s prime minister from 1999 to 2001 and its defence minister from 2007 to 2013. His autobiography, My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace, was recently published.
Barak, 76, was recently in Toronto for the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Spirit of Hope dinner.
Was the rioting at the Gaza border the new normal, the future of protests for Palestinians?
I don’t know. Only time will tell. The situation is different in Gaza than in the West Bank. It’s true that some voices within the Palestinians are calling for total non-violence, but you cannot call these protests in Gaza non-violent.
Especially for us, for people from the centre-left camp in Israel who believe in the two-state solution … I hope it will stop. No one is happy when almost 60 people are killed in one day. Even six are too many. But in this case, we don’t have a lot of options. Israel cannot afford its border being crossed, not just for symbolic reasons.
But the real lesson from these events is the need to dig seriously into the roots of Gaza becoming a pressure cooker. We don’t have a quarrel with Gazans themselves; 1.8 million people want food, shelter, good education, reasonable quality of water and electricity around the clock. We have to sit down with the Egyptians and other neighbours and agencies to see what should and could be done to reduce the suffering in Gaza.
Is the notion of the two-state solution finished?
No. I think there are many people, especially right-wing people in Israel, which is now the government, and a few on the extreme left, who serve the same objective. The right wing in Israel and a few on the extreme left tend to argue that it’s over, we’ve crossed the point of no return. I don’t believe it. With the right cocktail of circumstances and followers and leadership on both sides, it could be solved – and 20 years later, you wouldn’t understand why the hell it took such a long time.
We’ve heard a great deal about missed Palestinian opportunities. What were some opportunities for peace Israel missed?
I don’t want to go to the past, to lament spilled milk. Nowadays, the main opportunity, which has been missed in front of our eyes for the last three years, is for a regional deal. There is a clear common interest among moderate Sunni Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan – and Israel – based on three elements: cornering Iran with its nuclear intentions, ending radical Muslim terror and joining hands in huge infrastructure projects in water and energy. And in a way, we are missing it.
There is a lot of talk about it and a lot of high-level contact, but not enough daring on the Israeli side. A regional deal cannot fly without Israel taking sincere steps toward the Palestinians. Sunni Arab leaders cannot feel safe if they normalize relations with Israel, engage with the Israeli public, accept Israel as a legitimate member of the community of nations while millions of Palestinians are what they describe as under the Israeli boot.
The options are clear. If another government in Israel believed in negotiations with the Palestinians, the process would have started. It probably would not have reached an agreement, but Sunni leaders do not necessarily need a final result – they need the process and a sincere one. So we are missing it, and I cannot understand the reason our government isn’t doing it: “It’s against our security.” That’s a great example of missed opportunity.
What are the implications for Israel over the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal?
I thought that pulling out was not the optimal way to deal with the problems. The problems are real – missiles, terror, insurgency – but there was a way to start negotiations with the Europeans, talk to Russia and start negotiating externally. But once Trump pulled out, it becomes a new reality.
It’s bad news and good news. The good news is that Iranians became more cautious. They are afraid that the Americans’ real intention now is to wait for the slightest violation of the deal, probably even a fabricated violation, and the Americans might launch a surgical military attack against a nuclear facility. They might even suspect that the Americans are aiming to remove the whole regime. So Iran is becoming more cautious.
There is, of course, some bad news. If Iran decides at some point to resume nuclear activities or uranium enrichment, they will argue that they were not the first ones to break the agreement – it was already broken by the Americans. It’s the same with the North Koreans. They will argue, “What sense does it make to make a deal with the American president if the next president can wake up one morning and just cancel it?” It’s not easy.
You are very hard on Israel’s current government. In your book, you call it “the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history. It has sought to redefine Zionism.” Who from the centre or left can replace Netanyahu?
I never saw a shortage of candidates. I basically have a good impression of Netanyahu as a human being, even at the height of my critique. Personally, I have more empathy for Netanyahu than the inner core of ministers around him. He was a good officer. As a politician, he’s not a lightweight. He’s thoughtful, knowledgeable, a very experienced politician. But he developed, in the last several years, a mindset that is a good recipe for survival – which is his main objective – but a bad recipe for statesmanship.
But his strategy seems to have worked. He is in a political comfort zone.
Sometimes strategic and political tactics work in spite of having no grounding in reality. In fact, I have said that this whole concept of “post-truth,” “alternative facts” and “fake news” has been part of the politics of Israel long before they got traction in the English language.
The government is bad because it’s wrong. It creates a cocktail of pessimism, passivity, deep anxiety and self-victimhood. It’s a poor recipe for statesmanship because it creates self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, the government always argues, “Wait, you will see Hamas come to the table.” How will Hamas come? Let’s strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which is anti-Hamas. But you find government ministers fighting to weaken the Palestinian Authority. I used to scold them: “Who do you expect will replace the Palestinian Authority? It will be Hamas.”
So the status quo does not favour Israel?
With the tailwind from Trump and the present situation in the Arab world, we could easily proactively start to make sure that a door to a two-state solution will not be closed. All our security experts are telling us, loud and clear, Israel is more secure and can fight terror more effectively if we muster the political will to delineate a line within Israel.
A line will include all our security needs and 80 per cent of the settlers. So the whole debate in Israel is around what to do with the last 20 per cent of the settlers spread all over the Palestinian-inhabited areas of the West Bank. These settlements, according to our experts – those in and out of uniform – are a burden on our security, not our salvation. They contribute nothing to our security.
I don’t underestimate the role of the biblical promise in our coming back to Israel after 2,000 years, but borders change according to the geopolitical situation, not according to promises. Promises give you a lot of inspiration, but you decide upon realities. Ultimate security comes from changing the rules of the game.
What is the greatest challenge Israel faces today?
To put a wedge in this slippery slope toward a one-state solution and change direction. It’s true that we have a populist, ultra-nationalist government, and like all populist, ultra-nationalist governments, they are trying to base the public’s national identity not on all the positive contributions we can make to the world or to ourselves, but by defining the collective as demons from without and traitors from within. That’s a popular way for authoritarian, ultra-populist leadership. It happens in front of our eyes. Israeli democracy is under direct attack, like an autoimmune disease, from our own government. The government attacks the Supreme Court, civil society and NGOs, the media, laws and rules of courts, the IDF and the civil service – and that’s a challenging and risky situation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.