Excerpts of interview by Washington Post's Janine Zacharia, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Friday, July 23, 2010
WP: You arrive in Washington on Monday. What is the primary objective of your trip?
Barak: I will go to look into the situation, what can be done in order to give a momentum to the peace process, especially with the Palestinians, but without losing sight of other issues from regional security, to the Syrians but mainly the Palestinian issue. We have of course to see what's going on with our relationship with the American defense establishment. The administration is doing a lot to support Israel's qualitative military edge. At the same time there are considerations in Washington about moving forward with major deals with our neighbors and we want to make sure that we are in an understanding with the administration regarding to this issue as well and of course while I'm there we'll talk about other regional issues from Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and, of course, Iran. I'll find an opportunity to meet with friends in the intelligence community and Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates, probably General Jones. While I'm in the United States I'll also meet with Ban Ki-moon and some other U.N. officials regarding remnants of the Goldstone report and what they plan regarding the [Gaza] flotilla, the review panel. Very busy schedule. Probably meet the press a little bit and some of the Congress leaders.
WP: What about the cost of relocating Jewish settlers back into Israel proper?
Barak: I think if we can get just loan guarantees for whatever will be needed for settlements that will suffice, but for security we might need an extra direct assistance. For the Palestinian side, it could be collected also from the European Union, from rich Arab, wealthy Arab countries. Some of them have sovereign funds of about a trillion dollars or more. I think that they can also give a shoulder to their Palestinian comrades.
I think that basically the situation right now is Israel is strong, self-confident and can afford taking the daring needed steps to put an end to the conflict and we have this kind of responsibility, should have our feet on the ground, and open eyed, with no illusions -- it's not North America, not Western Europe. This is a neighborhood where there is no mercy for the weak you know, or second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves. But I think that we are strong enough and should be self-confident enough, to stretch our hand and be ready to make peace, keeping always our attention to the security arrangements.
WP: Does Prime Minister Netanyahu agree with you on the need for a bold peace initiative?
Barak: I think, you know, following the impact and the reports from his last visit to Washington, I think that he convinced the president that he is there. But of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have to prove it in actions in the negotiations and as I mentioned we should never lose sight of the need for a regional security architecture for the whole region through multilateral arrangements, agreements, how to fight radical terror, how to protect security and assure stability and how to face external threats from players like Iran.
WP: Can Syria be weaned from Iran and if so what should the United States be doing to try to accomplish this?
Barak: I think that a breakthrough in the peace process with Syria achieving what I couldn't achieve with Bashar al Assad's father, with Hafez al Assad, could be a game-changer in the region. I think that it's strategically important. If, through making peace with us, Syria can normalize its relationship with the free world and open the way for economic recovery for securing civil society and development and taking them somehow at a certain point out of the radical axis that could be a game changer.
I think that it contributes to moderate Arab interests, to the interests of America in the region and of course to Israel. We know all what is at stake. I think that both sides understand what kind of decisions they will have to make in order to move forward. And I think that the right time -- I can't tell you when it will happen -- but the right time hopefully not too late -- we'll be able to tackle this issue as well.
We expect that a byproduct of any breakthrough with Syria will be also opportunity to make peace with Lebanon and putting an end to this abnormality of the Hezbollah militia, kind of state within a state, it's a militia that has members in parliament, and ministers in the government, they have veto power in the government and they have their own independent or probably Iranian proxy, or Iranian-inspired independent policies towards Israel and an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets.
WP: You have said Israel will hold the government of Lebanon responsible for any Hezbollah provocation. What does that mean?
Barak: It means that unlike what happened in 2006 where under request from the administration, [Secretary of State] Condoleezza [Rice] called at the time [Prime Minister] Olmert and asked him not to touch the precious government of Siniora, and we didn't. I think that they're responsible for what happens and if it happens that Hezbollah will shoot into Tel Aviv, we will not run after each Hezbollah terrorist or launcher of some rocket in all Lebanon. We'll see the government of Lebanon responsible for what happens, and for what happens within its government, its body politic, and its arsenal of munitions. And we will see it as a legitimate to hit any target that belongs to the Lebanese state, not just to the Hezbollah. And somehow, we are not looking for it. I am not threatening. We are not interested in such a deterioration. But being surrounded by so many proxies that operate not just under immediate threat under them, but probably activated by other players for external reasons, we cannot accept this abnormality and I believe that no other sovereign would have accepted it.
WP: What is the main difference now between the United States and Israel regarding Iran?
Barak: I think that the diagnosis became quite similar unlike the situation with the old, what was it NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] kind of document of several years ago when there was a difference. I think that observation of realities is coming closer, not just with the United States, basically with the European leading countries and more and more even the Russians and others understand that the Iranians are determined to reach nuclear capability. They are ready to dance in every arena. They are ready to defy and deceive and to cheat and to make diplomatic gestures and to renew them. It doesn't matter. They are determined to reach nuclear military capability and now it's still time for sanctions but do not be there forever and nothing short of much tighter sanctions could be if ever to convince them to stop it.
So we see about the diagnosis it's the same. Probably there are differences about what could be done about it, how should it be done, and what are the timeframe within which certain steps could be taken and beyond certain point cannot be taken because they are moving, they are accumulating more and more lowly enriched uranium and started only into medium enriched uranium.You know there are still two other stages but when they accumulate more and more material and more and more sites and more and more [are] dispersing it over more and more areas we should be observing all the aspects. We still believe that it's still time for sanctions but it will not be there forever. We recommended to friends and to colleagues all around the world not to remove any option from the table and we mean it.
WP: Do you think the United States is prepared to use military force if sanctions don't work?
Barak: I can't answer this question. I don't know. I think that the administration is serious about the nature of the threat, not just to Israel. It's a threat to any conceivable world order. We should understand a nuclear Iran means an inevitable new nuclear arms race in the Middle East that...It will intimidate Arab neighbors all around them, it will give a huge tailwind to the al-Qaeda, the Houtis in Yemen, the Somalis, Islamic Jihad, Lashkar-e-Taiba [in Pakistan], all these conglomerates of terrorist groups and it will start basically the countdown to a crude nuclear device in the hands of some terrorist groups. Even if such a countdown is going to take 10 years or 15 years, we are already too late to deploy for it. Just to think of the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf under a hegemonic Iran, kind of flows under the permission of the Iranians. That's something quite disturbing and I think that they are developing ground-to-ground missiles that now reaches Eastern Europe and some parts of Russia and some of the previous Soviet Union's Asian kind of members but in five years it might reach Western Europe.
WP: Can you elaborate more on the differences between the United States and Israel on Iran? Is it how much more time to give sanctions? When to bomb Iran?
Barak: I listened very carefully to the president's speech in Oslo when he got this Nobel Peace Prize. You couldn't miss the fact that it was extremely deliberate wording. And you see there something that few gatherings of Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies heard, of the need in this tough world to be ready to consider the use of force when all other options are genuinely exhausted. And it resonated in my ears with a speech that he gave many years ago before the start of the Iraqi war. War might be a necessity, cruel, tough thing you should do your best to avoid, but never lose sight of reality.
So I would not make predictions about what the administration could do if everything else won't work. I think that there [are] developments. If I watch to the extent I can see there is a change in the administration approach to this issue. It's not just change of phrases, they used to say 'it's unacceptable' and now they say 'we are determined' to prevent. I think that there is underlying basis; there are other things that are going on in this regard. It's not just making the rhetoric. I would not expect the president [to make] decisions in advance. But I think that the realities are coming to mind. You cannot ignore them. It's not the only threat when you look from our point of view. It's like you having nuclear, military effort somewhere in Cuba or Venezuela, that's the way we look at it. We think about it in much more concrete and immediate terms. You have also Afghanistan which has not yet been solved, Pakistan which could melt down at any moment which is a real strategic geopolitical nightmare. But I think Iran will still be a major test to the leadership of the free world in the coming years because if Iran can turn nuclear it's nothing to compare with the Soviet Union or China or even with India or Pakistan. It's an extremely radical state, somewhat messianic, which sponsors terror on a wide scale in many corners of the world. Think of it if Cuba would have developed a nuclear [arsenal]. And say explicitly they are going to destroy Florida or I don't know [the District of Columbia] has no right to exist. With our experience, our history, we take things seriously.
WP: Israel's patience seems to be dwindling regarding Iran.
Barak: I think that basically it's still time for sanctions. I think it's not a matter of years. It's not many years before we have to see. We believe in effective, doesn't matter how you call the sanctions, whether you call them crippling or paralyzing, or I don't know, lethal. I don't know. It should be effective, it should work. I don't see it working as of now. There were certain price to be paid for the coalition that imposed it...It has to include practically everything and we are not there yet and probably we cannot be there. Probably at a certain point we should realize that sanctions cannot work.
WP: What about the Palestinians?
Barak: We feel that we have to go from this somewhat artificial proximity talks into direct talks but of course once you are in direct talks we have to be able to put on the table the real issue and discuss all core issues.
The Israeli public elected a Knesset by which a government has been creating which is a right-wing government, (I represent the) center, left of center. I strongly believe that we have to establish or to strengthen our deep relationship with the United States within the context of a wider strategy of the free world in this region to face the real threats which are the radical terror, nuclear proliferation and rogue states, especially Iran and to be able to do it in a daring way. I believe, I believe -- it's not the formal position of the government -- that we should be ready to put on the table a plan which contains all the elements, namely realizing that there is a compelling imperative for us to have a two state solution be agreed upon and implemented before it's too late because between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean there live 11 million people if there is only one sovereign called Israel reigning over this region it will become inevitably even non-Jewish or non-democratic because if they cannot vote...if they can vote it's bi-national.
WP: Why are you sitting in a government with people who do not share your point of view on this?
Barak: I think we have to be able to delineate a border inside Eretz Yisroel in a way based on security and demographic considerations, where on inner side there is a solid Jewish majority for generations to come, on the other side demilitarized but viable independent Palestinian state economically, territorially politically, whatever. I think there is still an obstacle in Gaza, because they have about one half of their people and certain piece of ground and only access to the Mediterranean is there. It should be still solved within the Palestinian arena in a certain way. I believe that the Palestinian Authority should somehow resume its authority over Gaza.
WP: How? Should the Palestinian Authority do that?
Barak: I don't want to pretend to become omnipotent. It's important we should help the Palestinians' bottom-up effort and we are doing it to the extent we can't.
Barak: We should be able to concentrate on the settlement blocs, to establish security arrangements that will answer the previously mentioned considerations. We have to be able to bring back the isolated settlements into the settlement blocs or into Israel per se. We should find a way to deal with the Palestinian refugees issues in a way that [they] will be settled in a Palestinian state and to put [a] reasonable solution for Jerusalem that will keep our capital of course and somehow respect the heavily condensed or heavily dense Palestinians neighborhoods. And I think that it is possible. If we find during a direct negotiation that we cannot implement immediately all of it immediately probably we have to settle down for something like the second phase of the road map but it's up to both sides. We cannot impose it on the other side. So I basically believe that that's what we need to do. Now it's not a fully agreed upon policy within our government.
WP: Why is what you say relevant when the other major players in Netanyahu's government oppose what you say on this?
Barak: I think first of all that people are changing. If I compare the situation to Camp David 10 years ago, it's exactly 10 years ago, I was prime minister, at the time people like Ehud Olmert, future prime minister then mayor of Jerusalem, or Tzippi Livni was totally against it. Now they support it. I can tell you there is a drift, a gradual drift toward understanding thatit's urgent to reach a two-state solution among a wide silent majority in Israel.
The fact that [the] right wing won the election doesn't mean that the people doesn't understand what I've just said. It just means that they prefer to give the keys or the steering wheel for the negotiations not to some extreme leftist who seems to some people here to be utopian and probably not always cautious enough about security arrangements. But basically once we are in negotiations, I believe that the majority, great majority of voters for Likud, for Israel Beitenu of [Avigdor] Lieberman, and clearly for Kadima believe as I am, probably not happy to realize it, but understand that's the only solution. So I think the real need is to bring both sides into the room and start negotiations, overcome the Palestinian hesitation and probably overcome our own kind of considerations and moving into it because by waiting another decade or another half a generation will not change it, just will deepen the abnormalities or complicate the solution.