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Ehud Barak on Israel and the Middle East

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.

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.

I assume that common sense would bring Israel to do whatever it takes, because that creates not just the actual hedging of the risk, but also a powerful explanation. “‘How did you dare to conclude this deal?’” ‘We did it because it was the right thing but we hedged the risk by providing Israel with the means to act.’” But this arrangement takes such a deep mutual trust, such a deep understanding, such a deep sensitivity to the other government, that it was rendered practically impossible by Netanyahu when he decided to go — against all odds, and with what I predicted was no more than a one-percent chance — fight President Obama in his own backyard on the Iran deal.

I was in favor being prepared. I was not happy. We always realized that it should be only the last resort, if nothing else could work. But if this is the case, we should be genuinely capable of executing it. Without that, everything is hollow. Just some fake reality show.

OR: Yet Obama, rather than saying, “If we don’t get a deal, the Israelis will intervene,” criticized them in strong terms.

Barak: I’m not sure that’s the case. there were certain voices in Israel — civil servants, even President Peres — who said, “You cannot act if America doesn’t give you a green light.” That is not true. I talked to two American presidents, told both of them the same thing. When it comes to our own crucial security, we cannot vote delegating the authority or the responsibility for making decisions on those issues even to our best friends — which happen to be you. We have to take those decisions on our own. Neither of them liked this answer, but both respected it.

They insisted that this might end up being a major mistake, but no-one should ever question the right or responsibility of Israeli leaders to act as sovereigns.

OR: Why do you think the international campaign to delegitimize Israel exists, and what can be done to combat it?

Barak: I think there is a lot of anti-Semitism and hatred, and even anti-Semitism that turned into a hatred or delegitimization of Israel. But we should not generalize. It’s true for some extreme right-wing or extreme left-wing groups in Europe, it’s true for the heads of Al Qaeda and ISIS, and probably some Arab states in our neighborhood and several others. The extreme part of BDS carries within it anti-Semitism disguised as care for Palestinians. But that is not part of Merkel or May or Obama or Putin or Xi.

Our real struggle is to legitimize Israel in the minds of hundreds of millions all around the world, and their governments — especially in the free world. So those who think differently shouldn’t be fought just through rhetoric. There is a need to push back against them with rhetoric. But rhetoric will not decide this question, it will be decided only by policy. It has to do with the reality. Israel for its first 30 years was perceived basically as a young nation: successful, reflecting the dreams of many other parts of humanity, reflecting what’s good about the community of world nations enabling this nation that came out of the ashes of the Holocaust to establish a Jewish homeland.

Nowadays, generations have changed. Neither the public nor its leaders have the Holocaust as part of their life experience or personal memories, and they do not remember even exactly the circumstances that led to the establishment of the State of Israel. But they see on the screens, day and night, every day, the Israeli armed forces. Armed to the teeth. Israel, which was traditionally the David against the Goliath of the Arab neighborhood, turned in the public mind as a result of this daily exposure into the Goliath — especially vis-à-vis young Palestinians who are literally using the weapon of David: the thrown stone.

We have to work on it. But when it comes to really changing the tendency, which is dangerous because it penetrates deeper and deeper into different layers of society, especially the young generation in American universities, and even more especially the young Jewish generation. It is really disturbing, and we have to think about it. But we have  to realize that it’s not enough to fight back. It is not enough to kill the mosquitoes. We have to think about draining the swamp, looking into the root causes of this — and whenever it doesn’t contradict our basic security interests, we must act to minimize the risk.

I was a graduate student some 35 years ago at Stanford. And at every leading university in the country, you would find an active groups of Jews and Israelis or former Israelis or even non-Jews who were fighting for the cause of Israel. Now in every leading university — I’ve done the lecture circuit, so I know — you find an active cell of Jews, Israelis, former Israelis and Palestinians fighting for the Palestinians. Of course you find the Hillel House and some Jewish encounters. It’s an important debate, but it won’t suffice. We should think over the whole thing.

And we should think it not because of world opinion, but because of our own existence. The problem between us and the Palestinians is painful but simple. Between the River Jordan to the east and the Mediterranean to the west, there are 8.5 million Israelis and 5.5 million Palestinians. If this bloc of 5.5 million persons clearly has national aspirations and if you have only one political unit named Israel, it will become inevitably — and that’s the key word, “inevitably” — a non-Jewish or a non-democratic state. Because if this bloc of Palestinians can vote, it will become overnight a binational state. And in a few years — bear in mind 1.5 million Israelis are Arabs; add them to the 5.5 million — this is a binational state with an Arab majority, and almost surely with internal permanent civil war. That’s not the Zionist dream.

If they can out-vote, you cannot avoid a comparison to the apartheid system. This also will depend on harsh violence, with the shadow of unsustainability and collapse always hovering over it. That’s also not the Zionist dream. We have a compelling imperative stemming not from  Arab world, not from world opinion, but from our own security and identity, to disengage from the Palestinians, to be able to master the political will, to delineate the line within the land of Israel within which we’ll have settlement blocs: the Jewish suburbs in Eastern Jerusalem, a narrow strip along the River Jordan, and certain strategic sites. A line which won’t take more than seven percent of the overall territory but within which we have a Jewish majority for generations to come, and beyond which there is a place for a viable Palestinian state. It’s in our interest.

So when the government of Israel delays this, they act against their basic security and other national interests. It’s a government that’s legitimate. It’s my government, in a way. But it took the wrong path, one that put us on a slippery slope. Their only argument is that without holding on to the whole area in the West Bank, Israel is under existential threat. That’s not true. The only elements which have to do with security are the settlement blocs and this strip along the River Jordan, and probably one or two strategic sites. That’s it. The activity that is now carried out in the isolated settlements — poking the eyes of the neighboring populations — is an act that destroys Israel’s security. As are the attempts to weaken the Palestinian Authority. You will find that the government always says that “We are a Jewish state, we are for unity of the people ahead of unity of the land.” But the real actions are totally opposing these statements. It’s a disguise, a veil, a smokescreen.

These actions the government has taken especially in the last two years, where there are no excuses anymore. It’s a purely right-wing government. You can’t say Tzipi Livni or Barack Obama is blocking us from doing what we want. Now, supposedly when the Right can do what it wants, this agenda surfaces.

I tell the settlers that the real enemy of 80 percent of you  — those who live in these settlement blocs and the 12 neighborhoods in Jerusalem; more than 200,000 people — is your own government. It’s the Netanyahu government that keeps building the isolated settlements and more or less forcing the world to look at all settlements as a unitary bloc, rather than saying, “Okay, we are committed to these settlements in the settlement blocs, which cover a negligible fraction of the area. We will not build in the isolated settlements beyond a new kindergarten or a new mikveh.” The fact that government doesn’t have the political will or the clarity of sight to say this means that basically they want to continue the isolated settlement activity in order to impose a de facto irreversible situation. Their idea that the world will have to accept it and get used to it is nonsense. It could hardly be done successfully by China or Russia. It cannot be done by Israel.

Our real tragedy is within. I tend to tell the public and the government, “There are many threats to Israel right now. One of them shouldn’t be underestimated. Our army is the strongest and we have to keep it this way and protect all the other aspects of our generalized security.” But having said that, the truth is that there is no existential threat to Israel now stemming out from the outside. If there is any existential threat to us it is from the inside. It is its own government that leads us on this slippery slope.

I say the most urgent and important mission for our generation is to put a wedge on this slippery slope. I raised it with Bibi and Lieberman years ago when I was still in government. They tried to argue with me: “What is the risk?” I describe them as post-Zionists. I told Bibi, “Your rhetoric is all about having a stainless-steel spine, but your behavior is living proof of the old saying that it’s easier to take people out of the golah than to take the golah out of people. You are galutig people. You behave as if we didn’t see Zionism taking proactive steps in order to change reality against risk. But sometimes the biggest risk is being unable to take one. You are paralyzed. You’re waiting for someone to drag you into the inevitable solution.”

So they asked me, “What is the risk we are taking by being passive and letting events happen as they may?” I told them, “There are three types of risks. Number one, you won’t feel it, but with every five years that pass, you are facing a more limited and constrained set of options for Israel. We could get 20 years ago more than we might be able to get now, and in five years the proposal will be even more limited. Time is not on our side in terms of the options, of how to conclude a peace. Secondly, nothing will change. When the time comes to strike the deal, you will need a magnifying glass to see the difference in what goes on the table in that moment and what will be finally in place. The only difference will be that the both our graveyard and that of the Palestinians will be bigger. And any grave is a human being lost.”

“But the most dangerous element is that at certain point, you might cross on the slippery slope without noticing it. There’s a point of no return when the accumulation of your positions, your steps, your perception in the world, and the constraints on your political maneuvers as a result of what you’ve already legislated will leave you like the proverbial frogs in the pan of water coming to a boil:  when they start to jump, they realize it’s too late.”

OR: Do you think that Israeli public opinion about Palestinian intransigence might change? What is needed to take advantage of the opportunity that you outline?

Barak: First of all, I should tell you about the public. Almost 40 years ago, Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem. A year after he visited Jerusalem and supposedly broke all the psychological barriers, Begin went to Camp David to negotiate the framework agreement that preceded the peace. Three weeks before he went there, two-thirds of the public in the polls were against giving Egypt the whole Sinai. Begin came back, after three weeks, with the framework agreement signed. It had to be ratified by the Knesset. He passed it. And within three weeks, two-thirds of the public were for giving away the whole Sinai. So there is the public, and there is leadership. The public is movable.

Secondly, I think that the practice of our leadership these days is guided by a fine-tuned weather vane instead of a compass. Ideology, weakness, a strong instinct and ambition to survive in power: these are the three elements. They overlook the survival element.

Netanyahu is weak. He lost control of his party and he is dragged by the extreme right. And he is ideologically both of the right-wingers and surrounded by extreme right-wingers and their friends. And he wants to survive in power. The combination of these three elements make him a user of this weather vane. He wakes up in the morning, asks what Naftali Bennett has said, and takes his cue from that. It’s ridiculous.

It’s not something that’s written in heaven. He’s a savvy politician. He understands the human weaknesses of others and can be quite effective, but that won’t go forever. The government tries to blur the landscape so that people will keep feeling that they are doing their best! “What else could we do? Barak pulled out of Lebanon, we got missiles; Sharon pulled out of Gaza; we got missiles.” He doesn’t mention that no one wants to go back in, because deep in the bottom of their guts they know it was worse, not better, when we were in there.

Basically, he allowed this situation and told people there is nothing to do, and that the Arabs want to throw us into the sea. But the reality is that we have this compelling imperative to disengage, and the only way to know whether it’s possible or not is to try. He should have been now deep into an American-backed conference or a conference with moderate Sunni Muslim leadership on these issues, and he needed to be deep into discussion with the Palestinians. In this regard, Trump might bring good news with him.

But assume for a moment that, metaphysically speaking, God already knows that all our efforts to make a full breakthrough will fail. Still, we have to think realistically and act in our interest. Start disengagement unilaterally, backed by the United States and the world community, by taking steps that will start this disengagement without closing the doors on the option of transforming it into a full-scale dialogue when the time is ripe. Bibi is doing the opposite. He is trying to take steps that will make sure that it won’t be able to happen. That’s a big difference.

Now, a group of Israeli generals and senior officials of the Shin Bet and the Mossad and the Israeli police — 270 of them — has proposed a plan, which is totally independent. Their organization is called CIS, Commanders for Israel’s Security, and it’s led by a legendary general from the Yom Kippur War named Amnon Reshef.

Their plan is very practical, simple, common-sense advice about what to do on the ground, what to do in the world of messaging, what to do in regard to the Palestinians and the larger neighborhood. It’s called Security First.

A normal government would just have a seminar of two days on this plan and let the public discuss it for another two weeks, and then start to work. But that goes against Bibi’s agenda so his government won’t do it. And people do not have a reliable source of information, or sources of genuine information about issues. So they only way for them is to consider everything as though it had come before an adversarial court. There’s the defense, there is the prosecution. They fight and as a result, the public can make up its mind. There is no opposition. Bibi’s brainwashing is working, because there is no other voice.

I sometimes find myself looking to comedians like Alec Baldwin, or Jon Stewart, or the Israeli version of people like that. It’s the only opposition in Israel. The only ones who can look people in the face and say, “This is a bad government. They’re not serving our security. They’re acting against our security, and against our interest.”

OR: Do you think that if the Palestinian and Israeli leadership manages to reach and implement a deal that there would be a spike in violence? Do you think the broader Arab world will accept such a deal?

Barak: The situation is unlike what followed World War II. A few months after the fires stopped, after Nazism was defeated, there were the people in France and in Germany — like Konrad Adenauer or Erich Schumann — who were already ripe to change history. Three times in the previous 75 years the Germans entered Paris. And they were ripe: the same basic ground, the same basic religion, the same common history. So there it was ripe. The moment you stop killing, you can start making peace.

In the Middle East, it’s different. The only way to do it, if there is to be any peace, will be an almost artificial legal structure shaped and then embraced by leadership, by political leadership. A contract. And only once this contract is in place and the basic constraints are created, a generations-long process that has the rhythms of education will start to normalize the relationship between the peoples. It might take generations, and the Arab world is different from Western Europe in terms of its ripeness for the modern nation-state. It’s not an accident that they collapsed, especially the dictatorships. Those who have an emir or sheik or king who relates himself to heaven or to Mohammed somehow survive. There is no tradition of democracy. There was no civil society, no middle class. The pre-requisites for democracy were not present.

It will take many years, probably two generations, but we know that it will happen. Look at what happened with Egypt. The peace with Egypt withstood not just an Israeli invasion into the capital of a neighboring Arab state, a member of the Arab League, and a long subsequent occupation, as well as the ups and downs of peoples all around the Middle East. Even a Muslim Brotherhood government didn’t cancel the peace. With Jordan we have a better situation. Our treaty with them withstood quite heavy pressure.

So it can work. To those who say it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change — that’s not true. It changes very slowly, but it changes.

I met once with an Arab leader in Europe. He asked me, “Barak, tell me. Why do you focus all your energy and animosity against us?” I said, “We came here, after two thousand years, to a small piece of land. You have a huge Arab territory existing all around the Middle East. You opposed the Umnited Nations Partition Plan; all of you attacked us before we could even stand on our feet and tried to kill us. We will never be apologetic about surviving it and in the aftermath of the wars 650,000 people left what became Israel. But by two years afterwards, 650,000 Jews had come from all over the Arab world. We never called them refugees, we called them brothers. Now, they and their offspring are majority of Israeli society.”

“Tell me, Barak,” he responded, “there were so many hundreds of years where you lived in Muslim countries as communities. Your situation was short of perfect, but basically, you enjoyed quite a level of tolerance. The Holocaust did not happen in the Muslim world. Are you okay already with the Germans?”

This was not easy to answer. So I said, “They admit, they are ready to compensate.” He added, “And with the Polish and Ukrainians? The Lithuanians? You’re okay with all of them? Can you remind me how many years it took since the crematory fires died out until you recognized a different Germany?”

The answer is seven years.  Yes, we will never have a normal relationship to the German people. The first time I entered Germany I was in a train, and the conductor was speaking German — I felt a shiver in my spine. But we manage. When people tell you, “No, it’s impossible,” it’s not true. Go to Dublin. Go to the Balkans, to Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. It’s short of perfect, but these are places where for hundreds of years, two communities bled into each other. And you see people are recuperating. So I’m confident that we should not lose hope.

OR: Is there anybody that you see on the Israeli political landscape that can be the kind of leader you are talking about?

Barak: My belief is that politics doesn’t happen between the ears. It happens in the gut. You can’t easily move people for what they believe just by arguing something. People are ready to change their mind only when there is an apparent trauma from without or within, or a coming election when it’s clear there is something important to be decided. Basically, any movement in public sentiment needs as a precondition that the souls and the minds of people be open. That doesn’t happen these days.

The restaurants are full in Tel Aviv. When you enter after midnight on a weekend Ben Gurion Airport, it’s unbelievably crowded. Huge masses of Israelis are travelling out of the country. People basically feel we have a vibrant economy — probably in spite of the government — but it doesn’t matter if it were bad, because then we would blame the government. People are not imminently aware of the dangers that await us around this issue. It’s not easy. The absence of opposition for several years — they think that that’s normal. The new normal is that the government does whatever it wants.

I criticize it. I gave a speech at the Herzliya Conference a year ago. Bibi was going to appear after me, but he canceled at the last moment. I made in that speech a prediction with regard to the one-state agenda.

Now, Bibi and Bennett and Lieberman are not stupid people. They understood that they will need — in order to achieve their goal — to legislate things that bypass Israeli law and go against international law and against common sense. They would have to find a way to pass a law that allows them to confiscate private property — the land of people living in an area where Israel doesn’t have even sovereignty — or to announce the segregation of buses or to pass a law that allows members of Knesset to send out of the house another member who was duly elected. Not through a court, but through a decision of his colleagues. Not to mention what might be needed at the end, when it comes to operations of the IDF and the civil service: the government would have to wink at them to do what’s needed without saying it. According to Israeli law, an officer or a senior official has not the right but the obligation to refuse blatantly illegal orders.

I predicted almost a year ago we would see this government working actively, knowingly, to undermine the confidence of the Supreme Court, because otherwise the Supreme Court would block their legislation and tell them its unconstitutional. They would act to shut up the free media, because the free media in a healthy civil society will bring hundreds of thousands to protests in the main squares in big cities. They will have to shatter the ethical code and the values system of the IDF. Because otherwise they can’t move forward. I saw it. I didn’t just predict it out of my imagination.

I called it budding fascism. And my prediction was highly criticized. But every element of my prediction happened in front of our eyes in Israel. It’s a government that leads Israel in a steep, steep spiral downward.

You know Benny Begin. The son of Menachem Begin, he is a member of Israel’s extreme right wing, and he called the law that allowed the confiscation of private land a certain denigrating word in Hebrew for the act of arbitrarily grabbing someone else’s property. In February, when this law was first brought to the table of the government, Bibi reportedly called it crazy and said it would bring us to the Hague, to the International Criminal Court. Even Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, arguably even more extremist, agreed that this is a bad law that might risk us being brought to the Hague. But because Bibi is weak and indecisive, he didn’t complete the sentence and say: “It’s over. Don’t show it to me, remove it from the table, I don’t want to see it.” Instead, he waited for a few hours. He always waits to see.

Within six hours, he got a protest from 26 out of 30 of his Likud members of Knesset. They signed a demand to keep moving with this law. It means that he himself, Steinitz and Begin, and probably someone else didn’t sign. What does that mean? All these 26, they know that within a year and a half or two years, they will stand for election. And from experience they know that 40 percent of them will not be be re-elected. So they acted out of an instinct for survival. But the fact that they dared to sign a demand to pass this law shows that they don’t see Bibi as the leader of the party. He will not influence the question whether they will win re-election — they believe that the settlers will do it. Because the settlers took over using some lacunae in the primary laws. They took over. It’s a hostile takeover of Likud. They will decide.

It’s crazy. It would be crazy if it happened in Holland or Denmark, but these places are still quiet. In Israel, it’s a real risk to our future.

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