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Ehud Barak: Netanyahu must take 'daring’ steps toward peace

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak discusses Netanyahu's US trip, Israel's need to make a bold peace proposal, and whether Israel can work with the newly unified Palestinian Authority.

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Sanders: Can Israel work with a PA that includes Hamas?

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Barak: People here say, “Oh, that’s a catastrophe.” I say that doesn’t make sense. We cannot say on the one hand that [Abbas] is not a real partner because any negotiations would be, at most, an agreement that you put on the shelf because he doesn’t control half his people, and then on the other side, when he tries to resume control [of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip], to say, “Now they are lost.” It’s not lost. But we should say loud and clear, if and when they form a technocratic government, we expect the government, Fatah and mainly Hamas, to be ready to explicitly accept … recognition of Israel, acceptance of all previous agreements, and denouncing terror.

Sanders: For two years, people close to Netanyahu have predicted that he would surprise the world by making a dramatic peace overture. Now some doubt it will ever happen.

Barak: I don’t buy this description that he should surprise us, or that he just has to surprise us by making this inevitable step. It’s much more complicated. He should reach a painful point where, under the circumstances, he feels it is his responsibility to do it.

Sanders: Will he reach that point?

Barak: I hope. I’m in the government to make sure that if there’s an opportunity to make peace, it won’t be missed. I believe that if Netanyahu is met with a responsive Palestinian leadership and supportive American administration and quartet, he might be able to make the decisions. He fully understands the reality.

I hope we will not be blinded by the warm atmosphere of the meeting in the US, both in the administration and the Congress. Probably there will be a very warm atmosphere. But we still have to be aware that beyond the warmth and the basic common values, there is a job to be done, which is pushing forward the prospect and probability of the peace process.

Sanders: Critics call you a fig leaf for Netanyahu. Has your participation in the government made a difference to the peace process?

Barak: I’m confident that without me, you would have never seen the Bar-Ilan [University] speech [of June 2009, in which Netanyahu became the first Likud Party prime minister to endorse a two-state solution]. You never would have seen a freeze on building settlements for 10 months. You would probably have found Israel less restrained and disciplined in some sensitive moments regarding the use of force. A right-wing government could accelerate the process of isolating Israel. That’s my role. People on the left tend to say, Barak is just a fig leaf. People on the right say Barak drags Netanyahu by the nose. The reality is different. There is a certain point where I probably push him beyond what he was planning to do otherwise. There are certain points where I make gestures and I can suppress a criticism in public. The difference between us and many of our critics is they look up and see other layers of authority over them. When we look up, we see the sky. We feel the responsibility to make the decision.

Sanders: Are we closer or farther away from resolving the conflict today than when you negotiated at Camp David in 2000?

Barak: We’re closer. We found that [now-deceased Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat was not focusing on solving 1967 and the occupation, but on 1947 and the very establishment of Israel. Some people on the right wing believe that’s the case right now. I don’t buy it. The other side has changed. Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Fayyad say loud and clear, if there is an agreement that meets their minimum demands, they are ready to sign an end of conflict and claims. That’s exactly what Arafat rejected. They are willing to consider more moderate ideas than Arafat. I think this leadership is more ripe. We won’t know until we try. You cannot just produce self-fulfilling prophecies, or say we are not acting because we don’t think it will work.

Sanders: What are the chances of another Palestinian uprising?

Barak: History never repeats itself in the same way. The second intifada [Palestinian uprising] was totally different from the first. The first was stones and violence, the second was suicide bombing. It’s quite possible that we’ll see other ways of protest. What characterized the Palestinian approach for the last few years is they identified that soft power works more effectively or at least as effectively as terror. Once they removed terror, the only element that remains is that Israel is reigning over another people for 43 years. Even what is happening in the other Arab countries in the past few months can resonate here as we saw a few days ago [when hundreds of Palestinian refugees tried to break through borders with Lebanon and Syria].

Sanders: Is that just as threatening to Israel? How do you handle, say, 100,000 Palestinians marching to Jerusalem?

Barak: We have been looking for several months about how to deal with such events. We are thinking about it a lot: how to face it on the technical level, how to block, how to stop, how to deal with such possibilities. It’s a changed picture.

Sanders: You’ve argued in the past that if Israel signs a peace deal, it should receive a substantial increase in US military aid to offset the new security risks you might face. If Israel doesn’t reach a peace deal, should it expect less additional aid?

Barak: It’s clear to everyone, including America, that in this turbulent region, the only stable place is Israel. You can easily justify to anyone about the need to keep supporting Israel. We get very generous support. We need it. But of course, if we don’t move forward, our justification to demand more support will be somewhat weakened.

© 2011 Global Viewpoint Network/Los Angeles Times.

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