January 2016

Exclusive Q/A with Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak

An interview from his early December visit to South Palm Beach County

by Yaffi Spodek

What is your perspective on the global political landscape?

As 2015 draws to a close, we are experiencing an unprecedented geopolitical earthquake. We haven’t been through anything like this since the end of World War I. It is full of both opportunities and challenges. In the Middle East, within four short years, the Arab spring turned into the Islamic winter. Borders are erased. A nation state collapsed and centuries-old conflicts came back to life. This hadn’t happened over the last hundred years. Meanwhile, the whole world became one big global village, with everything dependent on everything else. No single player including the United States, China or Russia can tackle any major challenge in the world on its own and there's a need for cooperation.

Ehud Barak

The United States is still the mightiest power on earth, strategically, economically by far and even politically, but most dominant on the world screen is a strong perception that America is weakened. Objectively, it's not true, but these days, perceptions work as realities. Rivals – be they China, or Russia, Ayatollah in Iran, Assad in Syria, ISIS and Al-Qaeda – they are all actively probing the American strength and determination. Looking to the future, the result of this contest of political wills and of operational skills will define and shape the future of the world not just for 2016, but years beyond. Without any geopolitical center of gravity, there is an essential need for both leadership and cooperation and mutually agreed order of priorities. Neither is easy to achieve.

What is the biggest threat facing the world?

I'm confident that world terror should become the highest priority because this is the only challenge which is common for all. Terror is evolving and transforming but it's alive and always kicking. In Israel, we’ve known it from day one. I was 22 years when I was sent for the first time to a raid against terror. If someone would have told me then, that more than 50 years later terror would still be a major challenge – not just in Israel or the Middle East, but all around the world, including America, I would not have believed it. But that's the fact. We have to learn to live with it even as we fight it. On the operational level, fighting terror has never been a simple endeavor. You need to be ruthlessly focused on thinking out of the box ready to understand exactly what could happen and ready to respond within split seconds both to challenges and threats, as well as to opportunities.

Do you view ISIS as a serious threat?

ISIS is not really strong physically on the ground. Their real success is that they’ve never met a real rival to fight them decisively. They are very good in using modern encryption, the dark net, and raising and making money. They are showing quiet skill in hitting Europe and other rivals in their soft belly. They are motivating their people very effectively. With the United States and half a dozen other leading powers speaking out against ISIS, every passing week that they are still on their feet is a great source of inspiration to millions of extreme Muslims, including many newly radicalized.

How should we fight ISIS and other terror organizations?

These kinds of terror organizations cannot be defeated by self-denial. ISIS should be destroyed on the ground by an overwhelming physical attack. It's easier said than done because it should be led by Muslims and Arabs, not by new crusaders. However powerful ISIS is, they are a part of an international web that includes Al-Qaeda and another half dozen organizations just in Syria, as well as others in India, Yemen, Somali and Nigeria. We still have our Hezbollah and Hamas. Together, however loosely connected, with quiet resilience, they establish a web of terror which threatens everything we believe in and hold sacred: freedom, liberty and dignity of the human being. They feel that they have no physical borders and no boundaries in terms of behavior. That is what makes this a real war. The choice is painful but clear: destroy terror or be destroyed by it. There is no middle ground.

Ehud Barak was Israel's Prime Minister from 1999-2001

What do you think about the Iran deal?

It's a bad deal. I don't assume that the Iranians will break it in the coming four or five years because they want to harvest all the benefits that they got from it. It will make them a de facto threshold nuclear power and will threaten any kind of possibility of the nonproliferation treaty. In a way, the first few years are quite assured by their self-interest but when it comes to what will happen in five and 10 years from now, it's based on hopes. If you look at the reality, there were six examples in the last 35 years of countries who tried to get nuclear weapons. Two gave up voluntarily, Libya and South Africa. Two were blocked by surgical military attacks, Iraq and then Syria. Two others, Pakistan and North Korea, defied the whole world until they became nuclear. I'm quite confident that Iran is trying to go in the footsteps of Pakistan and North Korea, but it remains up to them. In this regard, it's bad, but it is a done deal and it cannot be canceled.

What are the next steps that can be taken?

I think Israel has to focus as soon as possible on resuming a working relationship with the White House to make sure that enough intelligence gathering assets will be allocated. We need to agree upon triggers and what constitutes a meaningful violation that tells us that Iran is trying to break out and reach a nuclear weapon. If both the American and Israeli governments reach a conclusion that the Iranians broke out of the agreement by trying to reach nuclear capability, we need to raise with the administration the thought of equipping Israel with the means to carry out an independent Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear plan. You can take it for granted that if Iran will try to break out, they will wait patiently until a moment will come when for whatever reasons, America will be paralyzed from responding. This kind of arrangement needs a very deep level of trust that I hope can still be found, but it's not easy these days. The last thing that could be promoted right now is to use the common interest that Israel has with those moderate Sunnite monarchs that have not yet collapsed in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt, even Turkey. The last two are not monarchs and Turkey is not even Arabic, but these nations together are a majority of strength in the Middle East who have common interest in fighting together against radical Muslim terror and putting at bay the nuclear intentions of Iran.

How can this be accomplished?

We have to understand that a precondition for such an international gathering on security arrangements for the whole region will be Israeli readiness to move forward on the Palestinian issue. Not because all the Arab leaders are great admirers of the Palestinians, but because they understand that their public in their own streets will not let them survive if they don't see Israel moving forward on the Palestinian issue. In Israel itself, we are in a microcosm of this earthquake in the world, the nexus of both a perfect storm at the meeting point of this clash of civilizations between the west and Islam, and at the same time at the eye of the storm of a hurricane that takes over the whole Muslim world.

Is Israel strong enough to protect itself from these threats?

This is bad news and good news. Bad news, the Middle East is a tough neighborhood. A nation cannot choose its neighbors. There is no mercy for the weak, no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves. We now have ISIS as a new potential driver but all the old ones – Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran – remain alive and kicking. The good news is the fact that Israel is the strongest country a thousand miles around Jerusalem, from Benghazi in Libya to Tehran, including those two places. We are strongest militarily because of the courage and resolve of our soldiers and commanders. We are also stronger strategically and economically. Israel is not the richest country in the region but we have by far the most vibrant economy. If we have a good relationship with the United States, we'll be the most powerful politically and diplomatically as well. This strength and self-confidence allows us to look at our tough neighbors and proactively do what should be done in order to protect our future. To quote FDR, we should ‘fear nothing but fear itself.’

What can be done to stop the most recent wave of terror in Israel?

In Israel, we all agree that only an iron will of Israeli readiness to stand will make the difference. We will never give up and will never capitulate to terror. This wave of terror will be destroyed the same way that the previous ones were crushed, by our security forces together with the citizens. Having said that, we have to think and not lose sight of the future. The real threat to the Zionist dream does not stem from either the Syrian or Iraqi forces which are now doomed or the Hezbollah rockets or the Hamas rockets and not even from ISIS. The real threat is that we will lose our own identity. We have a compelling imperative stemming from caring about our future, our identity and our security.

There is a need to be able to delineate a line within the land of Israel which will include the settlement blocs, strategic sites and a strip along the Jordan river and of course all the Jewish suburbs in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. We'll have 80% or 85% of the settlers, and will have a solid Jewish majority for generations to come. Beyond this reach, there is enough space for a viable demilitarized Palestinian state. That should be the long term plan. I tried to reach it and it’s been tried by others. We are not paralyzed from taking our fate in our hands and trying to decide what to do, even if it ends up being unilateral. We have a responsibility. Zionism is all about living the tradition of 2,000 years or being adrift on the waves of history. It's about taking action to change our reality for the better based on our readiness to take risk. Sometimes the biggest risk is being unworthy to take risk. We have to act decisively to put a wedge on this slippery slope toward a one-state nation which is the end of Zionism.

How can we as Jews in the diaspora help Israel now?

Part of our strength has to do with our relationship with you in the diaspora, including the South Palm Beach County Jewish community. Not just because of your political influence but also because of your relationship with us. It should stop being based on patronage or charity alone. It should be a real partnership, an honest, open discussion at eye level. We have a historic right to have our state in Israel and we dispute certain aspects of how to implement it. In this regard, we need you. I would like to see debate here the same way there is a debate is Israel. We are equal and have to deal with the challenges together. What you are doing here to help your communities and continuation of Jewish education is extremely important. My vision for Israel is clear. I see Israel strong, self-confident, living in the lowest profile of animosity with neighbors, pushing itself to the cutting edge of human societies in science, technology, education, quality of life, acting in cooperation together with the Jewish diaspora on strengthening both of us. Make your own children proud of the relationship and affiliation with Israel. For some of them, it means to go and spend their lives there. If we are determined, if we will understand that it's all about leadership and the decision is ours, no one can dictate to us anything, but no one can relieve us from the responsibility to take action. If this will be our attitude, we will be able to do it.

How does the work of this Jewish community make an impact in Israel and around the world?

First, I thank you for all the good the people of your community are doing: for Israel as a state, for the IDF and for the citizens of Israel. I also thank you for what you are doing here to help your local vulnerable and low-income people, and what you are doing for deprived communities of Jews all around the world. Thank you for keeping Jewish education alive and protecting the continuity of our people. Special thanks for sending your youngsters to Taglit Birthright and Masa and all the other trips that give students a direct personal Israeli experience. As Prime Minister, I worked to match millions of dollars raised by American philanthropists for Birthright and I'm proud of my role in that project. I think these trips are the single most important step that we can take to protect the affiliation and understanding of Israel for our youth. In so many ways, you are strengthening the state of Israel, and fortifying the relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora and between Israel and the United States I have asked myself more than once what it is that makes us, the Jewish people, so special and my answer is a unique spirit of solidarity. We are all responsible for one another. I salute the South Palm Beach Jewish community for standing tall with Israel and our Jewish people in so many ways: “Todah, todah, todah.”