An Interview with Ehud Barak

10 Years ago Defense Minster Ehud Barak, Foriegn Minister Tzpi Livni and Presidential Candidate Barack Obama

Ehud Barak, former IDF Chief of Staff, former Defense Minister, former Prime Minister, most Decorated officer in the history of the country, has become the most outspoken critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over the course of the last two years. Barak recently authored a new book, titled: “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace”. The day immediately after the new election was called, I had the opportunity to discuss his life, his book, and the state of affairs in Israel today with Barak in an hour long interview. It was Christmas Day 2018.The interview has been very lightly edited, with select sections available in audio- by Marc Schulman

Question- You talk about your childhood at the Kibbutz but you never really say how it prepared you for the rest of your life, what was the contribution of the Kibbutz for what you ended up doing?

Answer: I thought it was natural on many levels. On a personal level I was brought up in a very warm and encouraging environment. I did not sleep in my parents' room, I slept in the children’s rooms. I felt that the time I spent with them was quality time. I was surrounded by warmth and supportive situations. There was a certain balance. I always felt safe. This instills self-confidence in someone for the rest of his life. That is the greatest gift from my parents. They instilled in me self-confidence in what I can achieve. That is number one.

Number two is that the very atmosphere of the Kibbutz was one of service. The whole project was a sort of summer camp for youngsters, who were at the service of a cause that goes beyond their skin and beyond themselves. I was part of a pioneer movement that served the cause to establish a Jewish State. You never go exactly in the footsteps of your parents, we did not have to start a new Kibbutz. When I grew up there was already a state. We transformed, many of us to become officers in the army. It was a kind of upward mobility, it was available to everyone wherever you came from, and together with the spirit that came from the Kibbutz movement many of us chose that path.

Kibbutzim were never more than 2% or 3% of the population, but at the beginning of the state 40% of the ministers came from a Kibbutz background and 20% of Knesset members came from Kibbutzim. The reason is they were at the front — the place where whole ideas were tested. In a way, I have some sympathy with the settlers. I find with some of the settlers that something similar happens there to what happened to us. There is a second generation of idealists who are willing to give their lives for the cause they have fought for. They cannot build more and more settlements. So many of them are in the army, you see the same percentage (as there was once of Kibbutz kids). Almost half of the elite corps in officer’s school is made up of sons and daughters of settlers.

The third element is the team spirit. I was brought up in children’s society. We were brought up to make our own decisions. All the youth who were 15 or 16 ran the show, with very few adults overseeing us. They were around. There was a stratified system. Everyone at the age of six received a mentor and when he became 12, he became the mentor of a six-year-old. We were expected to run our cultural life, to decide what we should grow in our small garden, what animals to care for — We had a goat, a chicken, and a donkey or two. I started to work in teams. You become a little tougher. If it does not kill you, it strengthen you in a way. Some people emerged from the education of Kibbutz with a somewhat damaged psyche, a little bit sensitive here or there. But those who went through it, it was a great gift. It was a humbling experience.

I described it in my book that my parents' house was smaller than this room. There was no running water, nothing, just a table, and a bed. There was no place for a king or queen size. It was one small bed, with a pull-out under it that they would open every night. It was a totally simple spartan lifestyle.

Question: In your book, you wrote about Moshe Dayan’s famous speech commemorating Roi Rothberg’s death. Later on, you recount the 1998 interview where you talk about what you would do if you were a Palestinian. Do you think that we Israelis don’t show enough empathy towards the Palestinians, even if we are right?

Answer: It is tough for us to show empathy, when blood is still in the streets, and everyone knows people who were killed; their beloved ones, women and children, elderly people, innocent civilians. Sometimes its even soldiers that were killed or attacked by people they are trying to secure. So it’s not easy to demand empathy. But I don’t think the issue is empathy. Dayan did not have empathy towards the Gazans and I did not have empathy toward the terrorists. We both have a realistic way of looking at life. [When I answered the question in 1998] I did not say anything supportive about terror. The continuation of the same sentence was that I am against any form of terror. They are murderous terrorists.

I mentioned in the book, Arafat argued at Camp David that “Barak also had blood on his hands and Lipkin (Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former chief of staff) also had blood on his hands.” So I told him in front of Clinton — Yes, we had blood on our hands. But the blood of terrorists. We were sent by a freely elected government to kill terrorists, who are trying to kill us. We never deliberately attacked a civilian, or killed an old man or woman. That is the whole difference between terror and fighting against terror. So, I did not say something about terror, but the circumstances under which a person is born and raised has a major role in shaping his attitude. Then I said what would have happened if I was born a Palestinian, [meaning] not a Jewish Kibbutznik, but a Palestinian. I answered as a different person. It does not reflect what I think. It was the same with Dayan. He understood the Arabs. He grew up with them. He knew the language. He tried to come to grips with the reality. He did not know Rothberg. I gave a eulogy for Yoni Netanyahu. I knew him very well. He was my deputy, my friend. I knew him very well. Dayan did not know Roi Rothberg. He just made a political statement, a very strong, eloquent statement, but it came to grips with reality — Don’t ask yourself why they hate us, if we were them we would hate us as well. They're looking for eight years at the land that their grandparents had, and we are making it flourish. We have to be tough and stand firm, to be ready to fight or else we will disappear.

Question: So maybe I should have used reality at this point that Israelis don't see the reality?

Many Israelis ignore the realities. The reality is that we are tough. We are surrounded by enemies. I never hide that. But we have to question ourselves. It is clear that the settlement blocs and the Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green line in Jerusalem are part of our security and will remain part of Israel. But many Israelis delude themselves, or are brainwashed by the government that the isolated settlements, which all together are no more than 20% of the settlers in settlements, are deliberately placed between two Arab villages or cities, in order to torpedo any separation. That is the whole difference, 80% of the settlers are in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem or the settlement blocs, and there is a full consensus that they should be part of Israel in any settlement. But the other 20% are not making any contribution to our security. It a burden on our security, it gets in the way of the IDF preparing for what it has to do. It’s all damage.

The government behaves as if they prefer the Hamas. They are yielding to Hamas under fire and signaling to other Palestinians and others in the Arab world that Israel understands only force. Abu Mazen is far from being my cup of tea, certainly short of being the perfect partner. But compared to Hamas he is obviously much better. That is part of reality. He cooperates with us on fighting terror. Daily he cooperates. If an Israeli gets trapped due to a mistake in a Palestinian city, then their police will come and try to get them out before they get lynched or something else, and they also cooperate on many other issues. The government talks one way and behaves the opposite way, and that is a problem.

Questioner adds: I was on the TV with Michael Kleiner (former Likud MK), after the Gaza ceasefire and he said we had to stop [this round of fighting] so as not to weaken Hamas, because then the Palestinian Authority would take over and that would be bad.

Barak: I always ask them [the government] what is the purpose of the deliberate attempt to weaken Abu Mazen? Even in the book, I say whom do you think is going to replace the Authority? Do you think it will be B’nei Akiva or Betar? No, it will be Hamas and then you will complain that the Hamas is there. But you idiots, you brought the Hamas.

Question: On the left, when they criticize you, they often criticize you for not going far enough at Camp David. But they completely ignore the Clinton proposal that went much further [which Barak accepted and Arafat dismissed]. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. The Jews created the profession called psychoanalysis [to understand] the human psyche on the individual level. Now we need experts on the collective level. I can’t explain all the malaise of the left-wing. First of all, it is legitimate, but basically, it is part of a pattern that people are always looking. They are longing for the road not taken. You take a step that reflects the best of your judgment of what should be done to avoid a clash that I predicted years earlier, and you find people who say another number of steps could have been taken. It’s typical of the left to say — If we only had given a little more, what could have happened — Arafat would say, “Wow they gave me another 2% of the area.” No, that would not make a difference.

No matter what the urban legends tell you, we never tried to dictate a plan to Arafat. We never told him to take it or leave it. We said: “Here is our plan. You can have reservations with part or all of it, but we expect you to use it as a basis for negotiation. It was a very generous plan. It covered 90% of what he [Arafat] could have dreamed of, and we only said take it as a basis of negotiations. Then, he rejected and turned to terror.

Clinton was right. He called me, when I was already on vacation in Sardinia after I left and said that Sontag wrote an article criticizing what we did. What is she talking about, Barak? We probably made 100 mistakes, but what does it matter. In the end, he took a far-reaching proposal that was to serve as a basis of negotiations and he turned to terror. That means that Arafat was not there, [not ready to make peace], for whatever reason. People argue that Barak's failure at Camp David caused the second intifada — nonsense, nonsense. I wrote an article before I became Prime Minister, when I was in the opposition, called “Silent Lambs” and it was about Netanyahu and all his government being silent lambs, sitting on the deck of the Titanic and doing nothing to avoid the disaster that is coming.


Question: Arafat said, “No”. Do you think there is a Palestinian leader that can ever say, “Yes?”

Yes, I think that the Israeli public is brainwashed to think that the Arabs are the same Arabs, like the sea is the same sea, and we don't have a chance to do anything. It’s a lie. It’s true that they are not the best neighbors. We would prefer to have the Canadians as neighbors, not the Americans [he says with a smile]. I mentioned in the book that a child cannot choose his parents, and a nation cannot choose its neighbors. They are whoever they are, and once they are there, you have to settle with them. So, once again, you have to come to grips with the realities. My real call all along, even today, is come to grip with reality. Defy the temptation that is very effective in marketing, or reality TV, and even politics in recent years, to yield to fake news to ‘post-truths’. Part of the human psyche needs it, but you should know when you are entertaining yourself and when you a reacting with real reality — with real reality it does not work. The only thing that works is a fact-based, truth-based operation. I call for a realistic reality. Look at the reality, and you will see what should be done with any issue which is on the table.

Question: In the same regard, you say in the book that Bibi’s call for a Jewish State was more of a ploy, but that is what was said in the original UN resolution.

Barak: I don’t think it was so much of a ploy, but a mistake. It does not serve Israel. It is like the fake concept that the isolated settlements serve our security. It's not true. Ok, it sounds tempting. Who the hell is questioning our right to be a Jewish State? How come? But when you think about it logically, it does not make any sense.

However, coming back to the previous question — Are the Arabs the same Arabs? We celebrated last year 50 years since the ’67 war. You might be too young to remember [he says looking at me] How old were you?

Questioner: I was in 7th grade and I went to the White House to protest for Israel.
Barak: When? The Yom Kippur war?

Questioner: No, in ’67.

Barak: I was a young captain in the army, and a student in the University. Immediately after the war, the area under our control was tripled. A few days after the war, the government of Israel decided that everything except Jerusalem — an area two times larger than the State of Israel at the time — would be a deposit for negotiations. The Arabs gathered a few months later in Khartoum and said their famous “Three No’s” — No for negotiations; No for recombination; and No for peace. Every thing taken would be recovered by force. But since then, we have had 40 years of peace with Egypt. It did not collapse, even when Israeli tanks rolled into a neighboring capital in Beirut, or even when Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood took over in Egypt.

Something extremely powerful and extremely effective has kept the peace. It's not the kind of peace you have in America, but its Middle-East peace. Then, we have the peace with Jordan we have the longest border. I won't even dive into the details of the kind of cooperation we have in fighting terror, and 15 years there are Saudi and then Arab league proposals. There are still disputes. They want 67 borders. We want settlement blocs, and some land on our sides. There are many details. We can’t accept it as is. But to say that the Arabs are the same, and nothing has changed, that’s ridiculous.

Not to mention the opportunity that we have had for the last three or four years, based on our legendary foreign minister would say that the Palestinians would never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Now we are adopting this same behavior. For three years our government is missing an opportunity to create a grand alliance of moderate Sunni states, the Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan, to join hands in cornering the radical Iranian hegemonic nuclear ambitions; to strike against radical Muslim terror; and to work together on huge regional infrastructure projects. Together, we can stop what I call the “Shiite banana state” that stretches from Iran, through Baghdad and Damascus. However, we missed the opportunity, because Bibi insists on spreading many kinds of signals, rumors whatever good news — but he misses the reality that you cannot accomplish this without dealing with the Palestinians. The Arab autocrats cannot afford to move into public recognition and accept us into the Middle East nations, when Palestinian seem to be permanently under our control. It does not work — not because they love the Palestinians, but because their public will not understand. They will not feel safe in their own seats [of power] if they let it happen. So, here for the sake of the idea of one state, the extremists in Israel are like the tail wagging the dog, i.e., the government and we are missing the opportunity. What needs to be done is not done. It is replaced with photo-ops and stories that are fake news, artificially produced fake news.

Question: Skipping forward — Specifically, what happened that persuaded you to return to public life?

Starting three years ago, I have been very disturbed by the direction this government was taking. After the last election, it was for the first time a purely right-wing government. The cat was out of the bag. You see the real face of it, with an ultra-nationalist, messianic, racist dark vision. Israel is on a steep slope and suffers from an auto immune disease. The bodies that are supposed to protect the country, the institutions and tools that are supposed to protect democracy are attacking our own system. It’s a crazy situation. The Minister of Justice attacks the Supreme Court. The Minister of Education attacks the Universities. The Minister of Culture attacks the playwrights and actors. The Ministers of the Cabinet attack the Chief of Staff. It is crazy. They are leaking childish actions between them, recording.

And Netanyahu attacks everything around him that does not fawn over him, including the state controller that he personally nominated after screening him and the police chief, whom he appointed after screening. It is crazy. It is unbalanced. The government attacks the very foundations and institutions of democracy. They try to limit the authority of the Supreme Court, and they try to legislate clearly unconstitutional laws that will bring the leadership to the Hague (the international court of justice) — and that clearly contradict Israeli laws. They are warned by the authorities and everyone, and they keep doing it — crazy, crazy.

They are trying to shut the free media by either buying it, controlling it through proxies, or boycotting certain outlets or certain journalists, or by criticizing them. We are not the only place where this is happening. They attack every NGO and human rights organization. They try systematically to shape the moral values and ethical code of the IDF — that is an attack against democracy. This [the attack] is coming from our own executive branch. This is something that should be stopped.

You know from history it is always the same thing these are people who do not have a healthy national attitude — being proud of our legacy, of our history, our future, what we brought to the world, what we can still bring to the world, the aspiration of being a light unto the nations. And as any other dark ultra-nationalist, xenophobia movement of the last 250 years, they follow the same pattern. They, without having anything that will support them from within, they draw their sense of direction and purpose and meaning by looking outward. By seeing Amaleks — I call it Hitler of the day — all around and traitors from within. Only with this emotional world of being surrounded by imminent existential threats and suffering from those traitors who are stabbing us in the back from within, is the only thing that gives them a sense of meaning. I think that is very dangerous to modern society. It happens not only in Israel, there were liberal democracy, and that is the only kind of democracy. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy. A democracy is not about the rights of the majority to set the direction. It is about keeping certain rights of minorities, and the possibility to replace them.

Now we have a person that both the police and the prosecutors office said should stand trial for three different cases, (the fourth one was pushed under the rug somehow). They are three instances of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust — and in Israel we are going to ask if we want to elect him once again as Prime Minister? That's crazy, that’s just crazy.

Question: The same way the Trump base does not seem to be moved by anything, the Bibi base does not seem to be moved by anything either.

First, I think there are many that will be moved to act. Second, there is the need for the fighting spirit of those who want to see a different Israel. I can give you an example from 10 years ago, when I was Minister of Defense in the government of another Prime Minister, named Ehud Olmert, who admitted he got cash dollars in envelopes for whatever reasons. I said: “Our parents didn’t dream about a Jewish State and we didn’t fight for it for a Jewish State in which a Prime Minister gets cash in envelopes for whatever purpose.” So I said, “Mr. Prime Minister, you have to resign, or else I will, and it will lead to elections. Now we see spineless ministers, none of them are daring to do the same, by providing the example that others will follow. I said it within days, Tzipi Livni joined and other ministers joined, and it was over..

Here, Bibi’s real success is in brainwashing too many people to think that he’s a magician. First of all, I defeated this magician by an precedented margin that has not been matched since. I said then, and I say now — when you hire a magician to entertain your grandchild, or your child's tenth birthday, you hire him and you pay him, but you don’t believe he has any supernatural power. You know that he does the tricks faster than you can observe them. If you took a high-resolution fast camera, you would see how he takes things from the sleeves. However, you know that that is entertainment for the kids. It’s worth it — the fact that people actually believe that eventually reality always backfires on you.

We now realize that Putin is not his friend. Putin was operating agents who are expert at knowing what makes you tick; what makes dopamine from your glands, or what happens in your Hippocampus, and he [the agent] does it. He sees that some people need flattering, so he does it — but he does what's good for Russia. Another one needs photo ops, so he gives photo ops — but takes what he needs. However, he [Putin] is not a friend of Bibi and Trump is not someone who will listen to him [Bibi], beyond a certain extent that contradicts his own ideas on how to make America great again, or how to bring the boys home [e.g. from Syria].

Everything evaporates. I was Prime minister for two years whenever I got many invitations to participate in celebrations of newly elected Presidents all around the world. I didn’t fly myself. I was Minister of Defense at the same time, and I never left the country for five days to accept the new President of Brazil. It is ridiculous and sounds like he [Bibi] is disconnected from reality. I would send the youngest, newest minister [on such an excursion], to get some exposure to diplomatic protocols. It’s crazy. The man lost his relevance, but he is still a good actor. So, he tries to hide it from the public.

Questioner: Last night Yair Lapid said that something has happened and he’s not the same Bibi. Is he?

Barak: No, he is different. People ask me how come you defend him? I was his commander in Special Forces, similar to Seal Team Six or Delta Force (long before these units came into existence, but a version of it). Bibi was a young officer under my command. He was a good officer. I later defeated him in the ballots, and ten years later, I was Defense Minister in his government. People ask me how come you spent several years with him as Defense Minister. I say he changed since then. In that government, we had a balanced group of ministers. There were people around him in the very inner core of the cabinet, people like Dan Meridor, or Benny Begin, Bogie Ya’alon, myself. He [Bibi] would sometimes have some crazy ideas, and Meridor would look at Begin, and then Begin would look at me, and I would look at Ya’alon, and he [Bibi] saw that and the idea died before it went anywhere. [In that Cabinet] He was balanced by people with principles and experience. Now, he is surrounded by people who have neither principles, nor experience. So he found himself, on the one hand, isolated, but on the other manipulated by the most extremist views.

His lesson from being defeated by me is — never lose your base. Never do something that will lose your base. So the base so probably the family, probably some extremists, some ideologues I say it doesn’t matter. He acts against everything that he says. We need three principle elements: Security, ahead of any other consideration. We live in a tough neighborhood. The Middle East is not the Middle West. So, security must be ahead of anything else. Second, the unity of the people is more important than the continuity of the land. And third, is that the Declaration of Independence is the de facto constitution of Israel. 80% of the country believes in these three principals.

But Bibi was very clever disguising his real intentions that are now exposed, by this government by saying the opposite. He always talks about security, but acts against it. He [Bibi] signals to everyone that he yields only to power; — [e.g.] that it is better to send [fire/incendiary] balloons, or support terror, than to cooperate with us on security. By his very attitude towards the Palestinians and the Hezbollah, he signals a lack of focus on how to actually deal with security. Second, he is talking about the unity of the people. But actually, he spreads hatred, and rivalry, and incitement of each group against the others. When Lieberman was nominated three years ago, they said they were for unity, but act the opposite.

The same is true when it comes to the constitution to pass this law of the nation [nation-state law]. It is fake, on the one hand, because it repeats everything that is precious to all of us, on the other hand, it omits one thing —[i.e.] that everyone is equal, irrespective of his gender, or race, color or faith. This element is the only thing that is missing, and when Benny Begin, a devoted right wing Likudnik the son of Menachem Begin, insisted it be included, he was rejected, and they are passing these laws.

At some point, the government initiated a bill that gives the government the power to confiscate the private land of living Palestinians their fields, in areas where Israel has not even claimed sovereignty. And Bibi said, “That’s a crazy law. It will bring us to the Hague” (international court of justice).

But he is Bibi, and he did not knock on the table and say — and therefore, we are not going to discuss it in the government, and we are not going to discuss it in the ministerial committee of justice, and we are not going to put in on the table of the Knesset. He said instead, “Let’s wait to see the response”. So, then he received a letter — within six hours — from 26 of his 30 members of Knesset demanding that he pass it — and as always, he yielded to them. It is crazy. Now, they passed a law that will legalize, in a tricky way, 2,000 buildings that were built on Palestinian land. They can pass it, but it will be a sign going in the way of the Afrikaners. It sounds very similar.

The third law would allow the expulsions of [Palestinian] families from their towns and move them to other towns in the West Bank. It's against Israeli law. It's against International law — and according to all our experts in the security services, it hurts security and encourages terror. They do it because blood is boiling when someone is killed, and they need to respond to their base. Boiling blood is a natural human response [to acts of deadly terror], but that is not the basis of launching a strategy. A strategy is launched from a different level of coming to grips with reality. You must act upon reality and not act upon illusion, delusions, or wishful thinking that is a good idea for everybody.

ow they will use it.

Questioner: Where do you see the country in 20 years?

Barak: I am very optimistic. I believe we will keep climbing, we will keep moving ahead. I don't think in any of these deterministic views that we have passed the point of no return. There is no point of no return, because it is all about [keeping the] fighting spirit, the will to change, and the need to fulfill the Zionist dream of taking our destiny in our own hands. I used to tell Bibi and Lieberman — you are talking the rhetoric of a spine made of stainless steel, but your actions are kind of the ultimate proof of the saying that, “It is easier to take the people out of the galut (exile), than to take the galut out of the people. You behave like ‘Shtetl Yidin’.