TEL AVIV—Ehud Barak—Israel’s most decorated soldier, former army chief of staff, and former prime minister—was in an introspective and relaxed mood one recent Friday.
Not surprising for a man, now 76 and sporting a late-age black beard, whose life began even before Israel’s creation and brought him to the state’s highest pinnacles of power. Also explaining the mood was the English-language memoir he has coming out this week in the U.S.—titled My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace—a “long and weighty effort,” he said with relief, that interweaves his own personal and political journey with that of his nation.
A notoriously evasive interview subject, Barak’s responses come out in torrents, like a university lecturer confident in both his own intellect and that of his audience. At various points during a long and expansive conversation—about Iran, Syria, Russia, the Palestinians, Benjamin Netanyahu, and more—he throws in references to Hume, Kant, Fukuyama and Jonathan Haidt, as well as the many Israeli and world leaders (Obama, Putin, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, to name a few) he has worked with going back decades.
He’s not obfuscating necessarily, but rather patiently explaining, trying to convince, trying to make you see things his way. If hesitation creeps into his voice—if he feigns uncertainty—then it’s likely for a greater purpose. “I do my best to open people’s eyes and make people aware of where this government is taking us,” he said, jibing with his recent reemergence on the public stage as a fierce critic of the current Netanyahu government.
There are few in Israeli politics with the experience and gravitas to make a stronger case. Yet he himself has been out of politics for five years now, his last position as Netanyahu’s defense minister, a role his left-wing (Labor Party) base likely still hasn’t forgiven. It’s precisely this fact, though, combined with the reality that he’s one of only three still-living prime ministers, that arguably gives him the most insight into the many fraught issues facing Israel today.
Take the perceived weightiest of them all: Iran. Barak, as defense minister from 2009 to 2013, was deeply involved in the run-up to the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement. Indeed, he, more than Netanyahu, was known to be a hardliner on the issue, even going so far as to ready Israel for a preemptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. “For a variety of reasons it didn’t happen,” he told me. “There was actually strong opposition from within the security establishment and also from the [Israeli] president and the media. A lot of opposition.”
However, once U.S. President Barack Obama signed the nuclear deal with Iran, in 2015, Barak’s thinking changed—a point obviously relevant for the current moment. “I think this deal was bad, I said it in real time, and other approaches should have been taken. But once it was signed it’s no longer a philosophical question, it’s a practical question. Is it smarter to tear it apart or keep it in place?” he posited. “And here there are many points of view on both sides. There’s a lot of logic in maintaining it in place.”
The Iranians, according to Barak, “are bad guys and they remain bad guys,” but after the deal was signed and began to be implemented they “kept the letter of the agreement quite systematically… [and] all in all it delays the new starting point or countdown towards a nuclear capability.”
“Obama was an intelligent president,” Barak went on, “he understood that he took a certain gamble for the first half of the term of the agreement. It’s clear that the Iranians would do nothing because they want to harvest all the benefits. But about the second half, it’s only a gamble.”
If Barak had his way post-deal, Israel and the U.S.—including under Obama—would have come together behind closed doors to hedge against the risk: bringing all their intelligence assets to bear on monitoring Iran’s behavior, finding agreement on what exactly would constitute a nuclear “breakout,” as well as clear guidelines for putting the military option back on the table. “I thought we could do it,” he said, “but Bibi”—as he repeatedly called Netanyahu, using his nickname—“chose to do something else with the big speech [to the U.S. Congress in 2015] that I thought was a mistake. But that’s all about the past.”
This wasn’t the only time during the conversation that Barak diverged from his former boss on Iran strategy (and many issues besides). Even Netanyahu’s public reveal last week of over a hundred thousand documents from Iran’s nuclear archive, allegedly obtained via a daring Mossad operation, failed to sway Barak’s opinion.
As Barak put it, “it was a truly remarkable intelligence achievement... and there was lots of material [there], but nothing that’s new. Nothing substantive about what they did and didn’t do that wasn’t already known to intelligence for years now. Not one new item. In this respect, [Netanyahu] didn’t bring what he should have brought, i.e. the smoking gun.”
Contra Netanyahu’s emphasis on Tehran’s perfidiousness, Barak stressed that “everyone knew the whole time that Iran is lying,” and that was one of the reasons for all the arrangements in the nuclear agreement. “There’s no proof that [Iran] continued doing things that aren’t permitted,” he stated flatly.
Netanyahu’s performance, though, may have served a different purpose: to sway public opinion in general, and support Donald Trump’s inclination to pull out of the nuclear deal on March 12 in particular. Barak assessed that this was almost a foregone conclusion, especially with John Bolton and Mike Pompeo now advising the U.S. president. For all that, he didn’t think that the U.S. pulling out would necessarily spell the end of the nuclear deal (a multinational agreement, it should be remembered, between Iran and five additional world powers) nor that Iran itself would pull out and race ahead towards a bomb.
“[The Iranians] aren’t backgammon players, they’re chess players,” he said, using a cliché that coming from someone else’s mouth, with less direct experience battling Iran and its proxies, would’ve seemed trite. “They are clever and self-controlled enough not to provide this excuse,” especially to this wildcard U.S. administration. Iran’s real fear, he observed, was a direct military clash with the U.S. that would spell the end of the Islamic Republic; they would, at least in the early going, likely avoid giving Trump this pretext.
In the longer term, however, the U.S. leaving the agreement may provide Tehran diplomatic cover if it was caught violating the terms of the deal. “The Americans started it, American behavior basically legitimized our own deviation,” Barak said, channeling his inner Iranian official.
Barak freely admitted that this was all speculation: an assessment, to be sure, based on his time at the highest levels of global politics, but also a dangerous game. There was no guarantee that Netanyahu and Trump’s wishes—to apply renewed pressure on Iran, in the hope of getting “a better deal”—would work out. Wouldn’t the chances of miscalculation and war increase?
“The best is always to be extremely calculated and perceived as totally unpredictable. In the real world that’s not easy to execute,” he said.
As with most Israeli officials who came up through the military, Barak maintains a remarkable equanimity regarding the prospects of potential future conflicts. He recalls, albeit as a young child, Israel’s first war, for its independence in 1947-48, and the American assessments that the fledgling Jewish community in the Holy Land wouldn’t survive. Put in this light, the looming confrontation, for instance, between Israel and Iran over Syria and possibly Lebanon too “isn’t inevitable… and nobody needs it, certainly not Israel,” he said, but more to the point, “we’re the strongest country in the region so if we’re compelled or coerced into a war we’ll hit back very strongly.”
The fact that this arena has come to the fore in recent months, with Tehran and Jerusalem now publicly trading threats and occasional direct fire, isn’t helpful—he would’ve much preferred to keep all of it “out of the public eye… and run through clandestine channels.” Surprisingly, he had relatively positive words for the Russian role in Syria.
“I’ve known Putin from his first day in the Kremlin, he’s an extremely practical person, effective, with two feet well on the ground,” Barak said. Russian interests in Syria, supporting their client Bashar al-Assad, were complicated, he allowed, but that didn’t mean that they were wholly in line with those of Iran or Hezbollah. “I met with Putin more than once during the critical stages of the Syrian civil war… we exchanged views very openly. We have to take the Russians as a fact, and a fact that’s not necessarily unfriendly to Israel,” he added. “[So] Russia is not just part of the problem—it could be part of the solution… They could be a stabilizer if we find ourselves on the verge of deterioration or escalation.”
Closer to home, Barak wasn’t too alarmed, either, by the recent bloodshed on the Gaza border, or the prospects of increased violence in the wider Palestinian Territories come mid-May when the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, coincides with the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We should never underestimate anything, but we also shouldn’t be alarmed by everything. You need to walk between those two lines,” Barak said, like a man who had gone countless rounds in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We’re in a tough neighborhood, but we have the tools to handle these types of things.” Indeed, in line with most Israelis, Barak was grateful to Trump for his “very important and positive” decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem on May 14.
In truth, though, the only real issue that alarmed him was the Palestinian question, and the lack of any tangible moves towards, if not peace, then a separation or “painful divorce.” Unlike Iran, Barak was adamant on this point: the only existential risk facing Israel was the prospect of a one-state reality. “We’ll end up either as a non-Jewish or a non-democratic entity, or probably both, with a lot violence or even a civil war. Something that has nothing to do with the Zionist vision or project.”
The dilemma that began after the 1967 war, with the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and, subsequently, the massive settlement enterprise, had in Barak’s telling now morphed into a debate about what to do with the isolated settlements. “This is the entire heart of the argument,” he said. “At the end everyone in Israel agrees that eighty percent of the settlers that live in the settlement blocs and the [east] Jerusalem neighborhoods—whose entire territory is 5 percent [of the West Bank]—would leave approximately 94 percent of the territory for the Palestinians.”
“The Right wants everything, and at the end it’ll clash with the world who will demand that there’ll be nothing,” he continued. “There’s no logic, because strategically and truthfully we just need the settlement blocs. This is the technical argument. But anyone who wants one-state has to continue with the isolated settlements because that’s what helps him to undermine [the prospect of a two-state solution].”
And yet, hadn’t Barak been the one that seared in the Israeli consciousness the notion that there was “no partner” on the Palestinian side, coming out of the failed Camp David peace summit in July 2000 when he was prime minister? “This is a bit of an urban legend,” he replied forcefully. “What I actually said was ‘we don’t have a partner in Arafat this moment’… it’s not ‘no partner’ cosmically, universally… it was just an objective description of what I found.”
For nearly two decades this one statement had been “processed and simplified and distorted…into something that matches the feeling of frustration” in Israeli society, he continued.
“What really happened when I came to power?” he said. “I looked at it… as coming to a two-family home, us and the Palestinians. And a fire is about to break out on both sides. The leaders want to put the fire out, but the other guy [Arafat] already has a medal for being the best firefighter—the Nobel Peace Prize—but you can’t know if in reality he’s not a pyromaniac. And you can’t know! Unless you go to Camp David and try to make a very generous [offer].”
For Barak now this was all in the past. He stressed repeatedly that regardless of the leadership on the Palestinian side, Israel had to take certain steps in order to keep the option of two states alive. “It’s about us, our future, our identity, and our security.”
Given the stakes, how did he explain the fact that others in Israel, especially the current government, viewed things so diametrically different?
“There are cynical people in politics. They’re intelligent people—[so] it’s hard to assess that they don’t see what I see... [but] with political people you have no choice but to judge them not on what you think they understand but on their actions in practice.”
In this regard, his criticism of Netanyahu is unsparing, summing up years of disappointment with a man whom he has known since their days together in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. “Bibi is serious, he’s not a lightweight. He’s a thoughtful person, but he developed a mindset that is extremely pessimistic, passive, anxious and self-victimizing. This is a good recipe for politics and a bad recipe for statesmanship.”
Netanyahu, in Barak’s telling, understood the risks outlined above, as well as the opportunities involved in the Palestinian issue—especially as a necessary precondition for a full, public alliance with the moderate Sunni Arab states in the region. “It’s on the table, and Bibi talks about it,” he said. “But somehow deep in his heart he’s rejecting it, he doesn’t want to move.”
It wasn’t a coincidence, Barak said, that nearly all senior Israeli security officials, similar to him, who enter politics come out on the left side of the political spectrum. “I call it ‘the reality principle, stupid!’ These people are dealing with life and death on a daily basis, protecting our people, so they make judgments on how to be most effective to protect the country to save lives. They don’t think politically. And it ended up that their positions are on the center-left side—it means something about the reality, not about them.”
For all that, though, the Israeli Right has been winning elections for most of the last 40 years (except for Barak and Yitzhak Rabin’s tenures in the 1990s). It seems that even with the Israeli security establishment firmly in favor of separating from the Palestinians, the Israeli public remains unconvinced. The power and political influence of the generals in Israeli society isn’t what it once was, was it?
Barak agreed, and chalked it up to, essentially, Israel being a victim of its own success. After 1967, and certainly by the 1980s, there was no real existential security threat facing Israel. Wars became smaller and less conclusive, special forces operations less “James Bond” and more surgical. Couple this with a modernizing society and booming economy, and “many other arenas were created,” he said, “from which people could distinguish themselves and reach high levels of public attention and recognition”—hi-tech, academia, journalism, television—“more than a general who does important things… but you don’t see him every day.”
Barak, inevitably, wouldn’t be drawn on whether he planned to re-enter politics. “I hope not,” he demurred, unconvincingly, “but you can never say never in politics.” Perhaps if there was an acute crisis he would “feel compelled” to come back, although he was at pains to stress that he hoped such a crisis wouldn’t arise.
Despite Netanyahu and the Palestinian question, he was very optimistic about the Jewish State’s future, an optimism, he said, that was “based on something concrete—it’s up to us.”
“Sometimes the greatest risk is being unable to take one,” he said. “The entire history of Zionism was built on a well-calibrated judgement of reality and the readiness to take important steps to avoid a future calamity… I’m a big believer in the abilities and talents and the capacity to come to our senses in time. And to take the appropriate actions so that our worst predictions don’t come true.”
Barak had built his career, and life, on just such bold action, some would say for both good and ill—whether as a commando, senior military officer, and statesman. As the interview came to a close, Barak’s next guest was already waiting. Like Barak in his day, this individual was a recently retired army chief of staff who was now weighing entering politics, as the latest “great white hope” of the Israeli Left.
“Are you two thinking of forming a party?” this reporter asked, only half-in-jest. Barak deflected the question, saying only that his guest was a big fan of heavy motorcycles. Sure.
Perhaps Ehud Barak has one more ride left on his journey, and one last chapter to write.