Former PM Ehud Barak was a guest of Q&A on Monday, July 19. Many thanks to the thousands of people who participated in this live event.
Barak spent a whirlwind 30 months in office, after beating Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1999 elections. After failing to make peace with Syria, he made good on his promise to pull the army out of Lebanon within a year of taking office.
He then embarked on his most ambitious project - forging an end-of-conflict deal with the Palestinians. But his summit with Yasser Arafat at Camp David collapsed and a few months later the second intifada erupted. Barak has blamed Arafat for the failure of Camp David and the subsequent violence.
After the outbreak of hostilities, Barak was trounced at the polls by Ariel Sharon in early 2001.
If the price for making peace with the Palestinians is giving up the Temple Mount, would you sign such an agreement?
Phoenix, Arizona , U.S.A.
I am convinced - and I have told President Clinton and Arafat - that no Israeli prime minister, myself included, will ever sign an agreement that passes sovereignty over the Temple Mount to Palestinian hands. But having said that, this doesn't mean we don't respect the freedom of worship for Muslims at the mosques that have been there for hundreds of years. And it does not exclude a variety of solutions that will meet both the practices on the ground and the needs - religious and symbolic - of both sides.
Do you think that you made a mistake by negotiating with Arafat?
New York, U.S.A.
When I came to power, Oslo was already six years old, and both Labor and Likud (Netanyahu's government) had dealt with Arafat. I basically feel that we had to deal with him and try to find a solution to the conflict, but at the same time to be open-eyed and realistic enough to understand that if there is no partner it must be known now - before we gave up the tangible assets in our hands, not after we had given them.
Unfortunately, at Camp David we found that Arafat does not recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Zionist, democratic and Jewish state - and that what he wants to correct is not 1967, namely occupation, but 1947, namely the very establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. And that's what made him a "no partner."
Do you intend to run for office in the next election? (A similar question was asked by Arthur from Sydney, Australia and Yehuda from Los Angeles, U.S.A.)
When I left office I told my people I am taking a pause from political life, but I remain a "reservist officer." Namely, I know I can be called on for duty, but expect not to be called unless it is absolutely necessary. Which means that when we know when the next elections are going to be, I will have to make a decision.
In his new autobiography, President Clinton says that you were responsible for the breakdown in peace talks with Syria; he accuses you of drawing out the negotiations and not making concessions to make the Israeli public think you were a tough negotiator. Clinton writes, "Barak had not been in politics long, and I thought he had gotten some very bad advice. If Barak had made real peace with Syria, it would lift his standing in Israel and across the world, and increase the chances of success with the Palestinians. If he failed, a few days of good poll numbers would vanish in the wind. As hard as I tried, I couldn't change Barak's mind." What is your response to Clinton's accusations?
Scotch Plains, New Jersey, U.S.A.
It had never been about polls, and not even about Clinton's position or thoughts. It was about the Syrian position. The Syrians were never ready to strike a deal that could be acceptable to any Israeli prime minister. Syria demanded direct, irreversible political commitment from Israel to accept the Syrian terms regarding the border of June 4, 1967, in advance, before negotiations opened and as a precondition to their opening. That is something that I could never have accepted.
In fact, there were no polls that showed at any point that Israelis would not accept a sensible agreement. And I feel the last person who has to respond to polls after being ready to pull out of Lebanon against the judgment of the Israeli defense and political establishment, independent of the polls, and after being ready to go to Camp David and try to strike a deal with the Palestinians against the judgment of the political establishment and the polls of the time.
The uppermost responsibility of an Israeli prime minister is to secure the future and the vital interest of the State of Israel - and this, and only this, is what I was focused on. If the price of this is at a certain point to disappoint anyone, including American friends and a very friendly American president, an Israeli prime minister should be ready to pay this price.
Is there a credible Palestinian partner for a two-state solution? Does the collapse of the Camp David talks amount to a concession that a two-state solution is not the win-win formula that the Zionist left has peddled? Does this not imply that we are in a de facto binational situation and that power-sharing arrangements may provide the answer?
Tel Aviv, Israel
In fact, there is no credible Palestinian partner for negotiation at the present. No doubt, there are many honest and courageous individuals among the Palestinian people, but with the present political system on the Palestinian side, they are irrelevant. The only relevant person is Chairman Arafat - and he's not a partner, and to the best of my judgement is not going to be transformed at the age of 75.
That doesn't mean that the two-sate solution is no longer a solution - in fact, it is the only possible one from a Zionist point of view. Between the Jordan and the Mediterranean there are 10 million human beings - 6.5 million Israelis and 3.5 million Palestinians. If Israel is the only political entity within this area, it will inevitably become either non-Jewish or non-democratic. If the Palestinian bloc can vote, we will have a binational system par excellence. If they cannot vote, it will become an apartheid system par excellence. Neither is the Zionist dream.
Thus we have a compelling imperative to disengage. As long as there is no partner, we have to take unilateral steps to disengage ourselves from the Palestinians and create a temporary security barrier within which we will have a solid Jewish majority for generations to come. At the same time, in order to retain the high moral ground and maintain our internal unity, we have to be ready to remove all the isolated settlements beyond the security fence and bring them back into Israel or the settlement blocs. Simultaneously, we have to put on the table an acceptable peace plan based on the principles of Camp David and announce loud and clear that we are ready to resume negotiations based on this plan, with no preconditions beyond the absence of violence. And make clear it is the other side that must bear responsibility for our being compelled to take unilateral steps.
It seems that the security fence has prevented and will prevent suicide attacks in the immediate future. Does this mean that the intifada's main objective of perpetrating suicide attacks inside Israel has failed? If so, does this by implication largely mean that the intifada itself has failed? In view of the above, how do you see the next stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict panning out?
I was the one who pointed to the need to build this security fence, in a way that would include 7 or 8 percent of the West Bank with 70 or 80 percent of the settlers and simultaneously bring back home the rest of the settlers into the settlement blocs or into Israel proper. And of course, I saw in it the immediate benefits to personal security and the prevention of terrorism.
Unfortunately, it took our government two-and-a-half years and many hundreds of people buried to reach the same obvious conclusion. And even now, almost four years later, only one third of the fence is built. Now the next stage should be a crash program 24/7/365 to complete the fence while simultaneously moving 70 isolated settlements with about 70,000 people into Israel and saying loud and clear: We will keep striking at terror but we are ready to open negotiations any morning, based on the same "Camp David principles." By the time a new Palestinian leadership will emerge that will be ready to make the tough decisions and strike a deal, by the same token, we will be ready to respond.
How do you explain that after the beginning of the second intifada, all world leaders, especially those in the EU, supported Arafat? Why didn't Arafat lose this support after refusing to sign a peace agreement with Israel?
Probably the reason is that the Camp David summit was carried out under American auspices and the Europeans suffered from the two famous syndromes: NIH - "not invented here," or WDB - "we do it better." More seriously, we can see the fruits of Camp David now all around the world. It was a turning point after which the credibility of Arafat deteriorated continuously and was epitomized just a few days ago with his public denunciation by UN envoy Terje Larsen.
The day before violence erupted on the Temple Mount in September 2000, you spoke privately and alone with Arafat in your garden for around one hour. What was said? Did you leave with the impression that an agreement was likely?
Dr. Jonathan Rynhold
Mr. Arafat is not a highly communicative person, and there is never something important to write home about from our conversations with him.
That should not lead us to underestimate his sophistication as a politician. He is a great actor on the world diplomatic arena who is very skillful in using every tool at his disposal, from the weakness of the Palestinian people to the fragility of his own appearance, as diplomatic tools. It is now clear that he decided deliberately and consciously to turn to terror, and that is something that we will never, ever yield to. Period.
In retrospect, do you think that Oslo was a mistake? What can be done to stop the violence against us?
Oslo was a historic necessity, because, as I have always said, there is a compelling imperative for us to disengage from the Palestinians and create two states for the two nations. A Jewish state cannot execute this unilaterally before trying to genuinely reach it through an agreement. There were many technical weak points in the structure of the Oslo agreements, and probably some mistakes in its implementation. But on the general level we cannot but try it, be ready to strike a deal if there had been a partner, and be ready to take the necessary unilateral steps once it had become clear there wasn't one.
Your proposal to Syria for peace was to give them back the Golan Heights except for a small strip of land that bordered on the Kinneret. I would assume that would have included Mount Hermon. Would Israel be taking a risk giving up that radar station, which is considered "the eyes of the Middle East?" Thank you.
The early warning station on Mount Hermon is a highly essential for our early warning system and its importance had been taken into account during the negotiations, and should be taken into account in any future negotiations.
Numerous Israeli and American officials have stated that you never made a "generous" offer to Arafat during Camp David. Even the well known Israeli scholar Tanya Reinhart wrote in her book that your offer was a political ploy and most importantly was NEVER submitted in writing. Do you have a document in your possession that Haaretz can publish to prove them wrong?
Fort Myers, U. S. A.
No Palestinian propaganda - not even a few misled Israeli journalists or politicians - can change reality. There was a far-reaching generous offer on the table at Camp David that was repeated by President Clinton in front of Arafat and several of his deputies, and was backed by me as well. Arafat rejected it even as a basis for negotiations, and turned deliberately and consciously to terror.
It had been agreed at Camp David that nothing would be put on record until a package had been agreed upon, and that's the reason we didn't formalize it in writing - neither us nor the Americans. Unfortunately, we were exposed more than once to Arafat's practice of taking conditional offers that had been put on the table and trying to turn them into the starting point for the next round of negotiation - and we just couldn't afford being manipulated so cheaply by him.
What is your assessment of the consequences of the war in Iraq on Israel's security? (A similar question was asked by Rai de la Nano from Berlin, Germany)
Israel was placed in an overall better strategic position once the Iraqi army and the manic regime of Saddam Hussein were out. Iraq participated in almost every war against Israel and is considered a potentially major threat in any future war.
I still believe that despite all the obstacles in the rebuilding of a normal Iraq, the region as a whole has a better future as a result of the removal of Saddam Hussein. Probably, more bad news is waiting for us down the street, but ultimately in retrospect, the toppling of Saddam Hussein might end up being a turning point at which the process toward more open political systems within the Arab world has been accelerated.
In your opinion, do you think French Jews should immigrate to Israel like the prime minister has suggested?
I would love to see Jews from all around the world coming to Israel and French Jews are clearly included. There are some waves of anti-Semitism in many corners of the world and it is a reminder to us that anti-Semitism is a kind of malaise that has not been fully rooted out of mankind's culture. But I think that the responses in recent times of world governments, including France, to the immediate events that are of an anti-Semitic nature is encouraging and tells us that something has changed after all.
What should Israel do in the face of the growing nuclear threat from Iran?
Tel Aviv, Israel
I don't think that Iran under the ayatollahs is a significant threat to Israel that might worsen by having a nuclear Iran, but I think that a nuclear Iran under the ayatollahs is a major threat to the stability of the whole world. And it does not serve the strategic interests of Israel to shape us as the arch-rival of the Iranian regime or as the exclusive cause of its nuclear pursuit. I strongly believe that in five years from now, the ayatollahs will not rule over Iran - probably earlier - and I still remember that Iran had never participated in a direct war against Israel and that the Iranian people and regime were our best friends in the Middle East just a generation ago. I suggest we consider very carefully, with far-sighted perspective, any concrete opposition to be taken or shaped vis-a-vis Iran.
Do you see that the intifada was brought about and encouraged by our unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon? If so, do you think a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will lead to an intensification of the intifada, as it will be regarded as a victory for terrorism? (A similar question was asked by Nagi N. Najjar from Lebanon)
That's nonsense. I can understand why the Palestinians adopted this story - or even why the frustrated Hezbollah, which found itself paralyzed from acting against Israel by the presence of the invisible wall of international legitimacy, did so - but I cannot see why Israelis should fall into this trap. Can anyone seriously think that if we were still in Lebanon, bleeding continuously, the Palestinians would never have raised their heads and would have accepted being under Israeli occupation forever? The opposite is true. When the inevitable eruption of violence would have taken place, we would have been paralyzed by the need to deal with two fronts simultaneously, and it would be much more complicated to execute operations like Defensive Shield without risking an immediate deterioration into a regional war.
The whole argument about more terror resulting from leaving Lebanon is ridiculous. We are talking as if there were no Palestinians terror when we were in Lebanon, which is not true. I decided to end a tragedy that lasted 18 years and cost the lives of 1,000 Israelis, and I was proud of being able to do it against the judgement of so many.
The case with Gaza is different, because in Lebanon we could withdraw to an international border backed by a UN Security Council resolution and expect the government of Lebanon to take care of the rest.
Do you think Israel should comply with the advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice, taking into account the comments made by Yosef Lapid that "Israel is on the verge of becoming an international pariah" and that if Israel does not respect human rights in the territories "we'll be putting ourselves in the situation in which South Africa found itself"?
I think we should totally reject the opinion of the court in The Hague, but we should follow our real interests and sense of security for Israel and fairness for the Palestinians and follow our Supreme Court decisions.
There is a threat to our occupying the moral high ground in the world, but the way to avoid being another old South Africa is, as I have said, to launch a crash program to complete the two-thirds of the fence that has not yet been built - according to a line that will include, as I have mentioned, only 7 or 8 percent of the West Bank, with 70 or 80 percent of the settlers, and the minimal possible number of Palestinians. It is only by setting this fence and removing isolated settlements that we can reoccupy the moral high ground in the world. But even this might not suffice if Israel cannot explicitly add its readiness to negotiate a peace plan based on Camp David at any moment, without preconditions except for the absence of violence.
What do you think about Amos Malka's rejection of the assessment that Arafat would never agree to a peace agreement without the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees in order to expose Israel to a demographic threat? (A similar question was asked by Shaun from Melbourne, Australia)
To the best of my memory, the difference between Malka and Gilad's assessments at the time were negligible. And having been the head of the intelligence community in the past, I always took into account the fact that in their assessments, they have to cover a spectrum of possible positions and scenarios.
It's not an important issue, because I put it to the test, and what we have found in the test of reality is that Arafat's strategy is to keep the political right of return alive in any agreement in order to help the transformation from within of the internal demography of Israel, using the very rules of democracy we play by.
Do you think that Peres can lead the Labor Party to victory in the next elections, or is a younger person needed?
Ramat Gan , Israel
Peres is the elected leader of Labor and he deserves the trust and support of all of us. When the next elections draw closer, this will be the proper time to raise this question again.
What would you say is the ideology of the Labor Party, now that Likud, headed by Sharon, seems to apply a strategy which is as leftist as the Labor Party since the Oslo Accords? What can the Labor Party today, in your opinion, offer to the Israeli public that the Likud can not?
I never thought of politics in terms of party lines as the decisive element, but rather looked at what the country and the nation need. I took, as a Labor leader, the positions that I believed reflect the vital interests, the future and security of Israel, and under these lines proposed the disengagement from the Palestinians, the establishment of the fence and the policy of "We are here, they are there." In the equivalent of a national referendum in the 2001 elections, the fact that Likud came to the same conclusion after three or four years should not move Labor from its original position, and we should just like it that they are joining our position.
The real malaise in Labor, as well as other leftist parties in the world, is that sometimes they develop a fixation with differentiating themselves from right-wing parties - and that, in real political life, means self-marginalization. So the answer is to wake up and take once against the political high ground of what's good for the country and never be frightened by the fact that others are joining.
Do you feel the current situation in Gaza can lead to the collapse of Arafat's support among the "Palestinian" people?
I cannot say that I have the answer. It's too early to judge. But it clearly reflects a deep dissatisfaction with the corruption and the absence of transparency and accountability within Arafat's Authority. I believe the Palestinian people, at a certain point, will let a different, more responsible, leadership emerge. But I cannot say when this will come about.
Do you think that the economic situation in Israel can improve without the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Freiburg , Germany
A solution to the Israeli -Palestinian conflict would have changed the economic situation in Israel dramatically for the positive. In fact, the last two eruptions of growth in our economy concurred with Rabin's government (Oslo) and my government (Camp David).
But even short of having a solution for the conflict, the very establishment of a fully-fledged security fence as I proposed in 2001 would have dramatically changed the security situation, would have saved the lives of many hundreds and would create a different level of personal safety and provided a precondition for a much higher rate of economic growth.
As an ex-military person, what is your opinion about the settlements? Are they really needed for Israel's defense in the long run?
New York, U.S.A.
The three main settlement blocs around Jerusalem - Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Givat Ze'ev - together with the Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line (11 of them with 170,000 people) are essential for the long-term future of Jerusalem as a viable capital of Israel. And [they] will help it remain bigger, stronger, and more Jewish than ever in history, even if in a permanent agreement we will give up some of the heavily populated Arab neighborhoods, not including the Old City, to the Palestinians.
A strip east of Ben-Gurion airport, held by Israel, beyond the 1967 borders, is important for the long-term security of our only international airport. And certain modifications all along the narrow waist of pre-'67 Israel are also important. But all these corrections together should not necessarily include more than 7 or 8 percent of the area of the West Bank, as I mentioned.
In the current situation, I would also retain Ariel within the fence, as long as there is no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate a plan based on Camp David. But as I mentioned earlier, simultaneously with the accelerated building of the fence I would consider removing all the isolated settlements, not just three or four of them, and bring them back into the main settlement blocs or Israel proper.
Many on the left accuse you of undermining the peace camp by selling the idea of no partner on the Palestinian side. What is your response?
I'm not selling any idea, but as national leader I feel compelled to tell the truth, however tough and uncomfortable it might have been. Once we had found that Arafat does not recognize the right of Jewish people to have a state of their own if the price is to give up the political right of return to Israel and recognize our affiliation to our holy places, and that he deliberately turned to terror, it would be total naivete not to be able to recognize this reality, however painful, and take action based on it.
As I have already said, I found that Arafat is no partner for the present. When the time comes for a different Palestinian leader to emerge, who will be ready to change direction and take direction toward peace, I am confident that we will be able to stretch our hand toward peace.
Do you support Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan?
Cape Town , South Africa
Sharon's pullout plan from Gaza is a first step in the right direction, and however hesitant and incomplete, it should be supported and backed by any responsible Israeli. I am confident that some of his leading opponents on this issue - Netanyahu and Shalom, for example - would have gone the same route, probably further, had they been prime minister at the present.
I am confident that both Sharon, as well as Sharon and Netanyahu - whatever they choose to tell the people today - will know that it will not end with a pullout from Gaza, and that the only way for Israel to regain its security, its position in the world arena, its economic and social development, and internal unity, is by following fully the policies I pointed to in the elections of 2001. Namely, building the fence, removing isolated settlements from all around Judea and Samaria, and continuing to strike at terror, while leaving the door open for a resumption of negotiations.
Do you feel that an international forum rather than an American president could serve negotiations better in the attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians?
Los Angeles, U.S.A.
An American president is a preferred broker in the international forum but reality might lead in the future to a wider role for other players. Under these circumstances, it is important for Israel to ensure an American leading role in the process, in the shaping of a solution, even if their ultimate legitimacy for its stability will have to be drawn from more generally accepted international sources.
Do you think that some of the Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants should have the right to return to their former homes in Israel? If so, how many should come back? Was this one of the contributing factors leading to the collapse of the Oslo peace process? Was Arafat willing to negotiate on this issue or was he being deliberately evasive?
I have said to both President Clinton and Chairman Arafat more than once that Israel will never accept the "right of return" into Israel of even a single Palestinian refugee. But at the same time, it's a matter of fact that Israeli governments - both Labor and Likud - all through the years, allowed individual Palestinians to enter Israel based on humanitarian grounds, such as family reunification. The numbers accumulated over the years and have reached some 20,000, maybe a little bit more.
I think that continued sensitivity to humanitarian needs is in place, but the principle we set at Camp David and which in fact existed even prior to this, that not a single Palestinian can have a political right of return, should remain a cornerstone of our position.
During Camp David, Israel showed readiness to help the world community in solving the refugee problem through a variety of other solutions to their needs, mainly financial compensation from an international fund and emigration into a future Palestinian state.
On the assumption that Israel will withdraw from Gaza, how would you propose to deal with the possibility of more Qassam rockets being fired on residents of Ashkelon, Zikim, Sderot and other cities?
Tel Aviv, Israel
The IDF and security services will have to be very creative in attempts to reduce the firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza after a withdrawal, and re-entering when the need arises should not be excluded. But the real challenge there is for the political echelon to be able to shape a much more coherent and consistent disengagement plan that will include the areas beyond the fence in Judea and Samaria, and will create international legitimacy for the lines we adopt, so that the illegitimacy of attacking over these lines will be added to the efforts of the IDF and the intelligence community in securing Israel.
What reasons do you see for the U.S. failure to stabilize Iraq after a quick military victory? Is it possible that any meaningful initiative for the Middle East peace process will be delayed for years simply because the U.S. is overwhelmed with its tasks in Iraq?
There was a certain misreading of the realities of the rebuilding of Iraq, partially stemming from the very brilliant military triumph that preceded it. Many mistakes, admittedly, were made - from dismantling the army to the dismantling of the Ba'ath party, to the inability to re-hire the civil servants from all sectors who worked under Saddam Hussein, in order to work for the new authority. It might take quite a long time before the Americans can leave, and some damage will remain when they do.
Moreover, it's clear that any immediate efforts to forge a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian arena have been complicated by the Allies' failure to rebuild Iraq. But I should restate my position, or my belief, that in the longer term, it might end up being an important turning point in the relationship between Arab regimes and their societies and vis-a-vis the rest of the world. I strongly believe that the decisions made by Bush, Tony Blair, Aznar, Berlusconi and Howard - sometimes against public opinion in their own backyards - were courageous steps that will ultimately be judged kindly by history, within the context of the international struggle against terror, rogue regimes and the proliferation of nuclear technologies.
Would you agree that the election system in Israel makes it difficult to make policy and carry it out?
Tel Aviv, Israel
I fully agree. And we see it in the fact that for almost 15 years now, every government has served between six months and three years, and the moment a leader begins to take a course that is highly important for the whole nation in the long run, he begins to count down his days in office as a result of the capacity of temporary coalition interest groups to topple him.
I would prefer a presidential system, like the American or French, where the long-term objectives of the whole public are aligned with those of the elected leader by making him stay there for four years, even if the steps that are taken to correct central issues are causing certain pain along the way, as always in life. In any such plan, an element of regional representation should be put in the picture.