The General

An Interview with Ehud Barak

Many try to convince the public and the rest of the world that the demand for two states and the basic security of Israel are incompatible. You cannot have both. That's not true on the, so to speak, technical issues; professionally it's not true. It's not a political issue. Of course, you can add a layer of politics to it. But at its foundation it is a professional question: could Israel be, or can't it be defended effectively if it lives side-by-side with a Palestinian state? The answer is for sure yes. That’s my private position. It's the position of 90 percent of Israeli senior commanders of the IDF, the Secret Service, the Mossad, the police.

OR: Do you think Iran is still an existential threat to Israel?

Barak: I would say that Iran in the long term remains a potential source of existential threat to Israel, if it turns into a nuclear military power. But that had been delayed for about 10 years. They will not achieve breakout in the coming six or seven years -- just because they want to harvest all the benefits.

Our interest is to use this window of opportunity to change the reality on the ground, to aid this bloc of national and regional powers, who might create a forum, backed by the United States, which will isolate Iran as long as they carry on with their hegemonic and nuclear intentions. At a certain point, we might have to once again physically block them from those aspirations. But we don't even have a common border with Iran. It requires regional and international conditions, the focus of which should be unique, intimate relations with the United States, in order to enable this. Instead of fretting about the existence of a potential long-term existential threat, let's redirect our efforts to make it non-existent -- or to deal with it if we will need to once again.

I want to correct the record here on striking Iran. I am not trigger-happy. I just realize that a moment might come where we -- based on realities -- would have no choice but to contemplate a surgical strike. The preconditions as we saw them were three. The first was the existence of preparation and capability. We need to have international legitimation to act; this could be interpreted in more than one way, but basically there should be an element of legitimacy to whatever we are doing. The existence of the Iran deal weakens dramatically this legitimacy. And there should be what we call a compelling imperative to do it now, not later. The compelling imperative might emerge from a need to stop the drift of Iran toward was we call its zone of immunity.

From year to year, the Iranians have more enriched uranium, in higher levels; more centrifuges, more and better-defended installations. So think about it: you don't undertake surgical military operations in order just to do something. You do it in order to delay the development of nuclear weapons capability by a considerable time frame -- three years, four years, five years at the most. Because of their advancement on this front, it might be the case that a surgical operation would delay them by half a year -- which doesn't justify the effort or the risk.

Compare it to a train entering a tunnel. You want to intercept this train. The last moment you can do so is just before it enters the tunnel. In this case, imagine a two-mile-long train that goes very slowly. You can hit it at any given point as it goes into the tunnel. But with the passage of time, you can cause less and less damage.

I don't like this deal. It's a bad deal. But it's a done deal. In a way, my complaint is that maybe we missed an opportunity immediately after the striking of the deal. There was a moment of grace in which we could have had far-reaching coordination with the United States, not just to increase the level of support of probably $45 billion over 10 years but also to get to an understanding about how to make sure that we are allocating enough intelligence-gathering resources to know what Iran is doing, if they are deciding to break out. Because as you might remember, the Fordow installation was discovered quite incidentally. It was not a result of stellar intelligence. It was found accidentally.

We need a renewal of friendship with the U.S. if a surgical military operation is being brought back to the table, so that we could get from America the physical means that might enable Israel to carry out its own independent, effective, surgical operation against Iran. Because if there is breakout, if they choose deliberately to break out, they will do it at a moment where America (for whatever reason) can do nothing. Because you are involved somewhere else, or because it's an interregnum. It has been done. Basically Iran is following in the footsteps of North Korean and Pakistan.

OR: Do you think Iran will obtain nuclear weapons?

Barak: I think that they will try. It depends on our cleverness in avoiding it. About 15 years ago America repositioned weapons in Israel. Some of them are sophisticated munitions. Basically, the administration knew that in a worst-case scenario, Israel might approach these weapons even without having explicit proof of Iranian breakout. But in the past, there was no way to arrange it otherwise. If you want to save time, you have to deploy weapons like that on the ground, and that includes the risk of their being misused. Nowadays, you can easily arrange that sophisticated weapons that you deploy in Israel would not be operational unless both governments agreed to it.

I don't want to go into the technicalities of it, but basically there was a great opportunity which stemmed from the genuine interest of Obama's administration. Obama's not stupid. He understands that he made a great gamble: quite secure for the first six or seven years, but quite questionable after that. He knows the only thing that he can do to hedge the risks embedded in his strategy is to provide Israel with the means to act. If it doesn't, his whole legacy is under threat of being destroyed if Iran breaks out and launches a nuclear weapon.