Israel's greatest threats are internal, not Hamas or Iran, says former prime minister Ehud Barak

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak calls the Middle East a 'tough neighbourhood,' doesn't underestimate — or apologize for — Israel's position of strength. Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American human rights attorney, argues that Barak’s views are emblematic of a wider problem in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Benjamin Netanyahu is leading Israel to an unsolvable contradiction, says Barak

Ehud Barak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012, when Barak was working as his defence minister. He has written a book about growing up in the country he would one day lead. ( Uriel Sinai/Getty Images; Raincoast Books)
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has developed a sense of deep pessimism and anxiety, according to his predecessor Ehud Barak.

"He developed in the last few years a mood, a mindset, of deep pessimism, passivity, deep anxiety and a sense of self-victimhood," said Barak, who has a long history with Netanyahu.

"That's a miracle to me — [to be] the only potent player on hand, and the ultimate victim on the other, at the same time, simultaneously.

"That for me was always the verbal gymnastics of a magician."

Barak was Netanyahu's commanding officer when they served together in the Sayeret Matkal Israel's elite commando unit in the early 1970s. In 1999, Barak beat Netanyahu by a wide margin to become Israel's tenth prime minister.

When Netanyahu himself rose to power, Barak served as his defence minister and deputy prime minister.

Netanyahu's outlook is well suited to politics, Barak told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, because "you don't dare to do anything, so you cannot be blamed for anything." But it limits the effective practice of statesmanship.

Ehud Barak dressed as a woman during an attack on the leadership of Black September after the Munich Olympics massacre. He describes the operation to Anna Maria Tremonti. 3:07

Barak was six years old when Israel declared itself an independent state. He describes growing up with the country he went on to lead in his new book My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace.

The 'real threat to Israel'

The Middle East is a "tough neighbourhood," Barak said, but he doesn't underestimate — or apologize for — Israel's position of strength. He said that the biggest threat the country faces, however, does not come from Hamas or Iran.

"Israel is now stronger than any neighbour or combination of neighbours," he said. "None of them, including Iran, in the foreseeable future can create an existential threat to Israel."

The real threat to the Zionist project "comes from within — this strategy of the government to close the door on any option of disengagement, of what I call divorce from the Palestinians, of building fences that will make us good neighbours."

He told Tremonti that building Israeli settlements was leading the country to an "unsolvable contradiction."

"The idea — the very tempting, almost seducing idea — of having only one state on this whole biblical area will lead inevitably to either a non-Jewish or non-democratic state," he said, adding that there are now 13 million Jewish and Arab people between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Barak welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, but criticized some of Benjamin Netanyahu's policies. (Sebastian Scheiner/The Associated Press)

He said that a single Israeli-Palestinian state where everyone is granted the right to vote would become "a bi-national state immediately." Such a state would likely have a Muslim majority, "and probably permanent civil war."

On the other hand, "if they cannot vote, you cannot call it a democracy," he said.

Barak said such a situation would lead to "the permanent control of other people against their will," but he refused to call it apartheid, a phrase he has used in the past.

"It leads inevitably into an Israel which is either non-Jewish, or non-democratic," he reiterated, "and neither is the Zionist dream."

The Israeli prime minister is the only potent player on one hand, and the ultimate victim on the other, Ehud Barak tells Anna Maria Tremonti 1:34

Palestinians 'pushed into a corner'

After listening to Tremonti's interview with Barark, Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American human rights attorney, said that he was "speaking out of forked tongues" and showed "very little to none self-critical analysis" of his own record.

"Under his tenure he oversaw an increase in the settlement enterprise," she told Tremonti, "That wasn't just a function of the Likud government, but very much an ambition of the Labor government."

Palestinians are being pushed into a corner; the arrangement is untenable.- Noura   Erakat

Erakat, an assistant professor at George Mason University, argued that Palestinians are "being pushed into a corner; the arrangement is untenable." Proposals for peace never truly involve power-sharing, she said, and what Israel has offered in the past is "not statehood and not sovereignty."

"Palestinians have only asked for that, have recognized Israel," she said, "and have not had the chance to negotiate that basic thing.

"And yet you can have Israelis like Ehud Barak, who boasts of assassination campaigns and who oversaw a war on the Gaza Strip in 2008 and 2009, [who can] still present himself as the peacemaker."

A total loss of trust stymies all efforts to find peace in the Middle East, Ehud Barak tells Anna Maria Tremonti 0:38

'More settlements, more war'

Erakat agreed with Barak on one point: his criticism of Netanyahu's undermining of the Palestinian Authority.

Barak told Tremonti he always asks one question of Israel's leaders: "Who will replace [the Palestinian Authority]?"

"It won't be the youth movement of the religious Zionists of Betar or Likud," he said, "it will be Hamas — and then you will complain: 'How come the Hamas came?'

"You destroyed the Palestinian Authority so the vacuum was filled by Hamas."

Erakat argued that the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas has been the most conciliatory Israel has ever dealt with, but it has been met with "more settlements, more settlers, more war."

"The message that has been sent to Palestinians watching is that we give Israel everything they ask for ... and yet Israel doesn't want peace with us."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.

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