Israel Needs a Divorce â" From the Palestinians and Its Own Prime Minister
Subscribe to The Global POLITICO on Apple Podcasts here. | Subscribe via Stitcher here.
Israel has long had famo usly contentious politics.
Story Continued Below
But even by those standards, former Prime Minister Ehud Barakâs recent and unusually vituperative campaign against his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has by turns surprised, provoked and, depending on their political persuasion, infuriated Israelis.
Barak, the longtime Labor Party leader who was trounced by Netanyahu in 2001 after the collapse of American-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians but later went on to serve in Netanyahuâs cabinet as defense minister, retired from politics a few years back. But it seems he couldnât stay out of the public arena for long. Over the last year, heâs reemerged to trash Netanyahu in a variety of Israeli forums, a critique he took international over the weekend with a scathing New York Times op-ed that said Israel must be saved from its own government and blasted Netanyahu as âirrational, bordering on messianic.â
In a sal vo well-timed to coincide with this weekâs debate in Washington over the state of President Trumpâs progress toward the âultimate dealâ in the Middle East he has promised, Barak warns that neither Netanyahu â" nor by extension his allies in the Trump White House â" is serious about the âtwo-state solutionâ that remains the official policy of both countries. And he accuses Netanyahu not only of attacking Israelâs democratic institutions but also of being a sort of global early-warning indicator of Trumpism, overwhelming Israeli society with âfake news, alternative facts and whataboutismâ well before anyone imagined Donald Trump in the U.S. presidency.
I sat down on Saturday with Barak to hear his case firsthand, meeting on the sidelines of the Saban Forum, the annual Washington conclave of Israel watchers from both countries hosted by the Brookings Institution. Netanyahuâs perceived failings was a theme of the discussion, from what Barak sees as the âil lusionary thinkingâ that will likely doom this round of peace talks to the obsession with Netanyahuâs own political survival that is a âreal danger to the very foundations of Israel as a democracy.â
Many commentators have suggested Barak went too far in blasting away at his prime minister â" and in an American publication to boot. But he was unapologetic when we met. âYou know,â he told me, âpolitics is not about schmoozing; itâs about boxing.â
Consider the transcript that follows of our discussion â" for a special bonus episode of The Global Politico -- his opening punches.
Susan Glasser: This is Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. We are delighted to have as our guest this week on The Global POLITICO former, and perhaps future, Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak, whoâs here in Washington for the annual Saban Forum, which is pretty much a gathering of whoâs who of figures both from Israel and from t he United States who are concerned and make it their business to know whatâs going on in the region. But I canât think of anyone better, and a better time to talk with him than Prime Minister Barak.
Today you have a piece in The New York Times that is really, I must say, kind of an explosive piece. You say we must save Israel from its government. You sayâ"
Ehud Barak: Oh, thatâs the title The New York Times called it..
Glasser: Thatâs The New York Times title. Whatâs your title?
Barak: My title was âChange Has to Come,â which is somewhat similar, yes.
Glasser: Somewhat similar. Itâs really a call to action in many ways. You say that the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu has become âirrational, bordering on messianic,â that itâs headed right towards a one-state solution, rather than a two-state solution. You have some strong words about the prime ministerâs devaluing of the institutions of democracy. You even say that the prime minister elevated âfake news, alternative facts, and whataboutismâ to an art form long before we were talking about that here in the United States.
So, what prompted this outcry?
Barak: First of all, the truth. Itâs the truth. We areâ"you know, we are celebrating 70 years of the U.N. General Assembly that decided the establishing of Israel together with the Palestinian state. We agreed to this partition plan; the Arabs rejected it, and opened a war. The achievements of Israel since then are unprecedented. We have huge achievement.
But in spite of these achievements we are now, our future is shadowed by an agendaâ"a dangerous agenda of this purely right government. Itâs a freely elected government; itâs my government as well, but I donât like it. I donât like the direction it takes, which the agenda of one state, namely creeping annexation of the West Bank in a way that will make any future divorce from the Palestinians practically impo ssible.
And thatâs a tragedy, because if on the whole area between the River Jordan to the Mediterranean there will be only one political unity named Israel. It will become inevitably either non-Jewish, or non-democratic, probably both. Thatâs a tragedy. And we allâ"we, Israel, we all agree that settlement blocks were in the Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalemâ"
Glasser: In Jerusalem.
Barak: Which are altogether 80 percent of the settlers. They will remain part of Israel in any case, even if it will cost a certain [inaudible] when any agreement will come. We agree even more that probably the time is not right for any breakthrough. No one knows until you try. Probably there is no way to reach an agreement now with the Palestinians; it still does not relieve us from the responsibility to make sure that we are strengthening Israel, not weakening it, and that we are heading into the right direction.
Glasser: Well, listen, you mentioned the time m ight not be right for an agreement, but weâre here in Washington, where the Trump administration both plans, apparently, to recognize Jerusalem as the capital, and at the same time is working on some sort of an outline of its own proposed peace plan that itâs going to reveal some time in the coming months. What do you think about that effort?
Barak: I would like to encourage them on both steps. You know, itâs very important not just to announce Israel is the capital, even to bring the embassyâ"not just the American embassyâ"I, as an Israeli, I would like to see all the embassies of any nation. Jerusalem is our capital. Probably not everyone on Earth likes it, but itâs our capital.
So thatâs a positive step, and I hope it will not create any problems with our neighbors. And I for sure wish and hope that the Greenblatt and Kushner team will come with something backed by the president which is a serious, decisive, daring proposal that the American administrat ion believes could be a launching pad for negotiations. I would be happy.
I just said that because of the discourse in Israel, which is most skeptical about whether we can do something, because, you know, Rabin tried, Peres tried, I tried, even Bibi tried in his first term. Olmert tried after us. All prime ministers in the last 25 years tried to achieve peace with the Palestinians; it didnât work.
So, I cannot really relieve the Palestinians from their share of responsibility for what happened. They bear much more than 50 percent of the responsibility for it. But my argument is that even if an agreement is not availableâ"and I hope thatâs not the caseâ"but even if thatâs the case, we should still act not to block the very narrow opening toward the divorce from the Palestinians, because the real tragedy will end up having one state. Thatâs something that we cannot afford.
You know, itâsâ"I compare the Middle East to a big condominium, we called share d residence? Well, you have many families that you donât like; some of them are bad families. But, unlike in a condominium, you are doomed to be with your neighbors; a person cannot choose his parents, and a nation cannot choose its neighbors, they were both there. One of them which happened to be quite problematic, short of perfect, called the Palestinians. So we have problems with them.
We are still sharing the same condominium, but why to share the same apartment? Why not to divorce? Eighty-five percent of Israeli public want a divorce from the Palestinian. So, who is blocking it? Our own government, by keep instilling and developing those isolated settlements less than 100 in number, about 100,000 people in them, which are spread over the whole area.
Glasser: Of the West Bank.
Barak: Not just within the settlement blocks, which are going to remain part of Israel because they are important for security.
Glasser: So, itâs interesting. You made this marriage metaphor about a divorce, and letâs get on with the divorce, rather than continue in this unhappy farce, even if it seems stable. Thereâs another marriage metaphor that I want to throw at you that has to do with the current theory of how to proceed on peace. Prime Minister Netanyahuâ"and it seems now to be embraced by the Trump administrationâ"has this theory that they should work more with the other Arab statesâ"in particular, the Gulf statesâ"and pursue a sort of âoutside-inâ theory of peace. That in the past youâve focused on the Palestinians, but how about if you get buy-in from around the region? And, there was a senior Israeli official at this conference, made the point. He said, âWell, we do really have a relationship with the Saudis now, but itâs like a man and his illicit girlfriend.â You know, the erring husband doesnât want to admit it; the girlfriend would like to make it public; but nonetheless, this relationship is still happening. Theyâ re still sleeping together. Do you think thatâs true, first of all, or has Israel placed too much hope in the idea that the Saudis and other Gulf states are actually going to be constructive here, or recognize Israel finally? I meanâ"
Barak: The opportunity is genuine and it is there for three years now, and I have a strong complaint against the Netanyahu government for missing it. Our legendary foreign minister, Abba Eban, used to say that the Palestinians had never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. So, we start to adopt the same pattern, which is very dangerous for us.
For three years now, probably more, there is a clear common interest developed between Israel and the leading Sunni moderate entities. The Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan. And the common interest is to block radical Muslim terror, to counter the Iranian hegemonic and nuclear intentions, and to join hands in a huge infrastructure project from water, energy, transportation, whateve r, in the whole Middle East.
And we are missing this opportunity. Bibi made a form of art out of talking about everything, but doing nothing about it. We know that there were contacts in the last year of the Obama administration, intensive ones, including a high-level, extremely high level, the top level, meetings with Arab neighbors in order to launch it, and at the right moment Bibi withdrew.
Now, the reason is that he understands, but cannot take the decision to move forward with the Palestinians, to start a sincere discussion about where we are heading with the Palestinians. The reason is that the Arab leaders, they donât have a love affair with the Palestinians or the Palestinian leadership, but the publics have, and they cannot feel safe in their own chairs if they accept Israel, the mistress, so to speak, to acknowledge her as a main, the Unter den Linden, the main road, as long as we are not moving forward with the Palestinians.
So, thatâs somethin g that could not be bypassed, and the idea that you find a weak moment of the Saudi king, or the crown prince, or a weak moment for [Egyptian leader] Sissi and you coerce them into accepting us against the judgment and theâ"
Glasser: But that seems very farfetched.
Barak: Itâs farfetched. Itâs part of illusionary thinking about geopolitics. Geopolitics needs not just rhetoric, not just certain instincts, not just political skillful manipulation; it needs vision and what the Germans call erdungâ"you have to be connected to the ground always. You cannot float on your wishful thinking and hope that some miracles will become reality.
So, we are missing this opportunity. Both you and I keep blaming our own government for having at least half of it, and that might be a falcon for the Kushner/Greenblatt team, because the relation with those moderate Sunni regimes is in the hands of America, and they can use it. But it cannot fly if it just will be left to the goo dwill of Abu Mazen and Netanyahu. It wonât fly because there is a need, if the administration would just put paint or delineate an outline of something that they cannot impose, but just propose to both sides to negotiate, they will come to the room, because no one would like to upset Trumpâ"but they will start from day one with preparing the blame game, not seriously trying to solve the problems.
Glasser: Yes, somebody said to me thatâs their chief specialty that they both have in common, is an expertiseâ"
Barak: Yeah, they already getâ"itâs the third probably or fourth president that they are playing very successfully until he ends his political capital or his term or two terms in power.
Glasser: So, basically, you agree with those who say that peace is very unlikely because both Netanyahu and Abu Mazen are weak figures who are not interested, really, in making a deal, or donât have the ability to make a deal right now. Is that right?
Barak: You know, Iâm a little bit cautious to guess something which is consequential for the future. You cannot know until you try. And I donât see any reason why shouldnât we try? No one in the world really, seriously believes that this tiny Palestinian entity, surrounded all around by Israel, who happen to be as a result of our achievements the mightiest military, economic power in the region.
And allegedly, according to foreign sources, even a nuclear power. So, what the hell [can] this, then, militarized Palestinian state can do to threaten the existence of Israel? No one takes it seriously. No one believes that that is true. Of course, we are living in a tough neighborhood. The Middle East is nothing to compare with the Midwest, itâs different. Different places. We always envy you for having the Canadians as a neighbor. We wish to have oneâ"
Glasser: We seem to be kind of making the Canadians a little scared this year, I have to tell you.
Barak: Probably , probably, but itâs out of myâ"
Glasser: The Mexicans, too.
Barak: Out of my zone of conversation. So, I basically feel that we have to be much more confident, much more. Israel can. Israel is so powerful and backed by the United States. It can afford shaping its future out of a positive self-confidence. So, we should try, and if it happensâ"and probably the case, that the Palestinians are not right for a breakthroughâ"so, we still have to ask ourselves what were we doing with this window of time? Will we use it in order to nurture, help, taking further steps that will strengthen Israel?
Make it more secure, but at the same time, leave this opening for a Palestinian agreement once they are ripe for it, or, are we using it to torpedo any possible option of divorce by sticking as many sticks in the wheels of such opportunity by keep building these isolated settlements? And remember, the isolated settlement is basically no more than 20 percent of the settle rs.
At the same time, the settlement blocks do not cover more than 5 or 6 percent of the whole area of the West Bank. So there is a solution here. Have only 80 percent of the area, of the Biblical land of Israelâ"80 percentâ"but with 80 percent of Jews, rather than have 100 percent of the land with only 50 percent of Jews right now, which is a tragedy.
Glasser: So, why, in your view, is Netanyahu acting in this way, and do you thinkâ"youâve become much more outspoken politically once again over the last year. Why are you speaking out now? Do you see that this might be finally the time to end his prime ministership?
Barak: First of all, Netanyahu drifted in the recent years into a mindset which is extremely pessimist, passive, deeply anxious, and a mood of victimhood. And thatâs probably quiteâ"sometimes could be quite good, to see people surviving strategy for a politician, but itâs a bad recipe for reaching the, or making the critical choices that Is rael has to make in this generation.
And, as a result of it, he lost his grip on his own party. Heâs kind of in a way extorted by the extreme right. By using some lacunas in our primary rules they took overâ"the extreme right took over his own party apparatus, and Bibi is basically pushed or dragged by the extreme right into position which now with all this cloud of criminal investigation around him, around his inner circle, around too many of those who were working with him on half a dozen of different scandals.
The issue of survivability becomes subconsciously more important than running Israel into a better future. So, at the same time, this was his mindset, which is passive pessimism, hyper-anxiousâ"and with his investigations, and with the drive to survive in power. And thatâs blurred the judgment; it leads us to bad places.
In the recent year, becauseâ"recent 18 monthsâ"because this purely right government, with the clear agenda of one stateâ"t hey fully understand that the practices that will be needed vis Ã vis the Palestinians under our control, on the way to one state, would include us practicing steps which contradict head-on the Israeli and international law.
So, it ended up that the governmentâ"our own elected governmentâ"opened a kind of fully-fledged assault on the Israel Supreme Court, on the civil society, on the free media, and even on the ethical code of the idea of the defense forces of Israel, in order to correct all the system, make it more maneuverable to all the needs of thisâ"Iâll call it bizarre vision of one state. And thatâs a real danger to the very foundations of Israel as a democracy.
So, I keep telling our people, âWake up! This government is not working for you any more. They are working for the survivability of its leader; theyâre working for this dark vision, ultra-national vision of one state; and they are working under this mindset of passivity, pessimism, hyper-an xiety.â You know, I donât underestimate any threat around us. But no threat around us is existential. Israel isâ"happily enoughâ"strong enough to protect itself now, and in the foreseeable future, against any threat.
Glasser: So, do you think that Netanyahu is beatable? You were the last politician to have beat him in a general election.
Barak: The only.
Glasser: The only. So, how would you beat him? And, would you consider running again yourself?
Barak: Some mayâ"20 years ago, when I took power of Labor, I took the leadership of Labor, the mood in the opposition was very similar to the present one. People believed that Bibi the Wizard, on the TV and unbeatable, no one can do anythingâ"
Glasser: After his first prime ministership?
Barak: Yes, during itâ"after he defeated Shimon Peres, the legendary. So, I said, you know I happened to know him from the age of when he was a young officer under my command in the Israel equivalent of Seal Team 6 or Delta Forces, which I commanded at the time. And Iâve known him from early youth. I knew his brother, the one who was killed in Entebbe; he was my deputy. I knew the other brother.
And I know him in bad times and good times. So I thought heâs not a wizard; thereâs nothing supernatural. Heâs a systematic person, heâs knowledgeable. He will make sure the playing ground is level, and work hard, and we will win. Stop worrying. We will win. We got them to act, and never be reluctant to enter into the arena and get into the boxing.
You know, politics is not about schmoozing, itâs about boxing. And you have to enter the arena; you have to come close enough that your face would ready the face of the other guy; and the price is that he can reach your face. You have toâ"
Glasser: That sounds like a very Donald Trump thing.
Barak: To get blowsâ"yeah, but thatâs the nature of politics. So I think something similar is needed today.
Barak: I found the new guy at Laborâ"Avi Gabbayâ"promising. I was the only one probablyâ"except for his mother, which, sheâs about my ageâ"we were the only two persons who believed that he will take over Labor when he started.
Glasser: Right. For our listeners, he just became the chairman this summer, after a surprise election.
Barak: Yeah. So, he got it within a few months. And he already proved that he can do things that most of the people can argue for, in details that he never do. Heâs systematic; heâs energetic; heâs focused, and practical. We should understand in our democracy, itâs not enough to have a vision about what to do; the challenge to be elected is totally different from the challenge to run a country.
But it happens to be a precondition. You cannot implement any vision, however great or promising, if you do not come to power. And I think that this guy has the capacity to come to power, and Iâm determined to support him.
I told all the departments, objectively speaking, I am the most kind of better-prepared, right person to run. I did every possible role in our intelligence system, our army, and our foreignâ"I was Foreign Minister, Interior Minister, Defense Minister, Prime Minister, Defense Minister once againâ"so, I know all the systems.
But that doesnât mean that I have to go there. For me, a situation that will impose upon me to consider it is so drastic and extreme, that I hope will never be done. And that I can support from the position of worried citizen with an access to the loudspeakers or to the screen, to help Israel to wake up, take the fate in their hands, and remove this government.
As I mentioned, itâs a freely-elected government, but itâs a bad one, so it should be replaced.
Glasser: So, do you expect elections next spring?
Barak: Iâm not sure. Nominally, you know, you are lucky in America; you know in advance. You donâ t know who will be elected, but you know in advance in what weekend will be the last weekend before election, or the election will take place. We donât know it; it can happen any day within the kind of early warning of 100 days. So, you should be prepared.
And eye-to-eye, to wake up the people for the need to prepare seriously in order to remove this government, put Israel back on track, take it on a different trajectory, which is basically a combiningâ"caring about our security, about the unity and the integrity of the people, the head of the sanctity of the land, and accepting the principles of our Declaration of Independence as the de facto constitution. These are elements agreed by all of us, but we somehow lost contact with the need to implement them and not to listen to a government which, pro forma, tells you that they are on the right principles, but practically doing day and night exactly the opposite of what should stem out of these principles.
Glasser: So, this is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. One last question, because weâre here in Washington, and thereâs a sense in recent years, as part of the Netanyahu government, the fact that heâs been in office for so long, has become very identified with the Republican Party here, first on Capitol Hill, and now, working very closely with the Trump administration. Do you think that poses any risks for Israel?
Barak: There is two sides for it. One is that there is good news, which is close coordination, close or intimate working together. It was, I believe, also with the previous administration; they helped us a lot. But on the level of personal and political relationship, it was very bad.
Glasser: Right. Theyâre very close, now, thatâs right.
Barak: Now, itâsâ"to be close to an American president, itâs good for Israel. But the fact that the way that Bibi intervened into the American internal politics, rather than just public kind of informatio nâ"immediately after the signing of the deal, was a great mistake.
Glasser: The Iran deal.
Barak: And I told him it at that time. We, both of us, believed that itâs a bad deal and probably a better one should be achieved, or probably it shouldnât have been signed. But basically, itâs a done deal. And once itâs a done dealâ"I told Netanyahuâ"we can always share our belief that itâs a bad deal with any congressman or senator, and anyone in the administration. But there is a fine line that we are cautious not to cross, and this a delve into intervention into American politics as the State of Israel, not as individuals who happen to know many senators who care about it. And that should not have happened.
Bibi would have better make his great speech to the Congressâ¦. Anyhow, you have the 85 percent of the senators and the representatives and for sure, 100 percent of those who support Israel, and to use the other day to go behind closed door to the Hil l and talk to the different leading committees behind closed door, both houses, and tell them you can openly discuss, even in more detail, what are the real challenges for Israel. And he couldnât stand the temptation to intervene, and to the best of my judgment, caused major damage.
Glasser: So, do you think that this is going to change the politics in America of support for Israel? I mean, many people are worried that already young Democrats, young Jews in America, are much less viscerally connected to Israel.
Barak: I hope not, but the reality is that there is a deterioration. I remember my days as a graduate student at Stanford, within any leading university, a very active Israeli [support], for Israel, Jews fighting for the cause of Israel. Now you find Israelis, former Israelis, and Arabs, and Jews, fighting for the Palestinian cause. We are somehow losing the moral high ground, and I keep telling our people itâs great to deal with propaganda, to activate many ways, to deploy PR firms all around the world.
We can easily change the way Israel is perceived by governments in the free world, by the Jewish communityâ"especially the young generationâ"if we resume, or revive the instinct to always, always hold the moral high ground. Alwaysâ"donât be just strongâ"be on the right side of history, on the right side of human values and behavior. It will pay off, especially for a country like Israel.
Weâve somehow, under this government, lost this instinct. We behave as if we are totally indifferent to who holds the moral high ground, and we pay, and we keep paying the price for this.
Glasser: Ehud Barak, thank you so much for being guest this week on The Global POLITICO. This is really an honor to have such a big frame conversation around Israel. And I thank, of course, all of our listeners on The Global POLITICO. You can listen to us on iTunes or whatever is your favorite podcast platform. You can email me any time a t email@example.com.
Thank you again, Prime Minister.
Barak: Thank you for having me.
Glasser: Thank you.