The General

An Interview with Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak served as prime minister of Israel during some of its most hopeful and troubled recent years. He is no ordinary former head of state: he played a key role, both as a solider and later as a defense minister, in helping his nation survive the difficult years after its founding to become a regional power. But the current political landscape of his country has him deeply worried, with the lack of a healthy opposition to Netanyahu’s Likud-run government and a focus on the wants of politicians rather than the strategic needs of the nation. Here, he explains what Israel is getting wrong and how the conflict with the Palestinians might be resolved, and lays out the gravest existential threat his country faces.

Ehud Barak seeks to bolster the security of Israel.

Ehud Barak seeks to bolster the security of Israel.

Octavian Report: Are you optimistic at the moment about Israel and its prospects?

Ehud Barak: I'm optimistic. The situation's very tough, but I tend to be optimistic. You know our late leader, Shimon Peres, used to say that he noticed optimists and pessimists die on the same day for the same reasons. So why spend your life as a pessimist? It's even worse. Probably optimists live longer, scientifically. I really believe in Churchill’s statement that the difference between optimists and pessimists is that pessimists see the difficulties in any opportunity and that optimists see opportunity in any difficulties. In this regard, I’m a little bit different from any of my colleagues, including the current Prime Minister of Israel. He and many others follow the conventional wisdom of the Middle East, where they say that the pessimist is an optimist with experience. I do not yield to this view. We usually do not acknowledge a war before our noses, as was said about the British. But there is a certain ability in our people -- when worst comes to worst -- to unite and find a way out of our troubles. 

If you listen to Danny Ayalon in his recent speeches for Holocaust Memorial Day and for our memorial day for fallen soldiers, he sees existential threats around us and he threatened that whoever threatens our existence might precipitate destruction on his own head. I found this a total misreading of reality. I see the opportunities here. Yes, what happens now around us represents a period where evil is even more dramatic. It’s a tough neighborhood, the Middle East -- no mercy for the weak. I once described our situation as a villa in the jungle. Inside your villa you have a Jacuzzi. When you step out, you have to understand that the laws of the jungle prevail.

So it's tough. But the good news is that Israel is the strongest country in the region, based on its achievement over the past 70 years. It is the strongest not not just militarily, but strategically as well, with what we call its strategic safety net. We're not the biggest economy, but we are by far the most vibrant one. The shekel is one of the stablest and strongest currencies among  members of the OECD. More Israeli startups and venture capital are produced in Israel than almost anywhere outside of Silicon Valley or the area around Boston. More Israeli companies are traded on the Nasdaq than companies from any other country outside of North America. If we run our business cleverly with the Americans as inspiration, we will also become the strongest in terms of diplomatic power and the potential of being equipped with the best weapons: keeping what's called a qualitative military edge over our neighbors. We're the strongest. The good news is, because we are stronger, we can afford to make strategic calculations out of strength and self-confidence, and be ready to take the steps which are needed to handle the situation and get out of these dire straits. And it depends on us, not just on the others.

Without underestimating any new threat -- like ISIS or Al Qaeda -- let me say the old ones are all alive and kicking, like Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet we still can say honestly that none of them is or is going to be in the foreseeable future an existential threat to the State of Israel. They are collapsing states -- and that, in fact, creates more  opportunities than threats. Take the Iran question, where the nuclear issue is being delayed by 10 years. Over those 10 years, our emerging common interest with moderate Sunni states -- Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan -- will solidify around the concrete issues facing us. Struggling against radical Muslim terror; trying to combat Iran’s hegemonic and nuclear intentions; joining hands in huge, region-spanning infrastructural projects in energy and water transport and desalinization (let me add that we cannot solve the Palestinian issue without the aforementioned allies). These are all opportunities.

I see a great opportunity in an international conference with the Arab world in regard to the Palestinian issues. When we deal on our own with the Palestinians on their own, we tend to believe that we have nothing to get, only something to give. Which is not exactly true, but it's the popular street-level perception. But from the larger Arab  world, we clearly have a lot to get. We have drafted a commission to determine if we are ready to negotiate based on the Saudi plan or the Arab League plan (with our reservations, of course). That's a great opportunity.  So I am optimistic.

OR: During the 2000 negotiations at Camp David, you outlined what a two-state solution might look like. Those negotiations failed, but do you see any possibility of change now?

Barak: The world has changed. Abu Mazen is not our friend. But he's not Arafat, who was a revolutionary terrorist and couldn't stand the idea of compromise -- even a symbolic one.

Israel used to say that all Arabs are the same. Not true. We're 50 years past the Six-Day War. We changed. We made Israel into a regional superpower.

Immediately after that war, the Israeli government was ready to look at the newly acquired territories as a chip for negotiation -- with the probable exception of Jerusalem. Arab leaders, immediately after the war, rejected it at the Khartoum Summit with the famed “three no’s”: no to recognition, no to negotiation, no to peace. Since then -- you don't feel it from day to day, sometimes not even from year to year -- if you look at the overall trajectory, we fought this war against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. With two of them we now have now peace agreements -- and our treaty with Egypt will see its 40th anniversary next March.

Our treaty with Jordan has lasted for more than 20 years. Syria is not a threat for many years now. The three “No’s” of Khartoum after the Camp David Summit of 2000 turned into the Arab League proposal and the Saudi proposal, however incomplete they are. They talk about peace, recognition, and acceptance of Israel in exchange for territorial withdrawals based on the lines of 1967. There is a clear direction here. I think that this direction gives hope. The reality is that we’ll never know without trying, without being daring enough to fly. I don't see the risks in trying. We are the strongest country in the region. No one can compel us to agree to a proposal from the larger Arab world which genuinely threatens our security.