Opinion

'Just crazy': Israel's Former Prime Minister on Netanyahu Reelection Bid | Opinion

Ehud Barak, former IDF Chief of Staff, former Defense Minister, former Prime Minister, and the most decorated officer in Israeli history, has, over the course of the last two years, become the most outspoken critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak recently authored a new book, titled “My Country, My Life.” The day immediately after the new election was called, I had the opportunity to discuss his life, his book, and the state of affairs in Israel today with Barak.

“My Country, My Life” chronicles Barak’s life from childhood to recent times. The writing was very self-reflective with regard to the impact his childhood had on him, though one passage stood out. “My parents were courteous and polite with each other, but never showed any physical affection in our presence, “ Barak writes. None of the adults [on the kibutz] did … Only in later years, did I come to see the lasting effect on me … In politics, I think that it did for a considerable time inhibit my ability to connect with the public ...”   

Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Barak recalls in the book a famous speech given in 1956 by then-Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, at the memorial for Roi Rotberg, a member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, where Dayan said of the Palestinians: “Why should we talk about their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, while before their eyes we have been transforming the land and the villages where they and their fathers dwelt.”

Later on, Barak talks about the moment when he was asked by journalist Gideon Levy  what he would have done if he had been a Palestinian. Barak replied that had he been born a Palestinian, he probably would have joined one of the groups resisting the Israelis.  

I asked Barak whether he thought one of Israel’s problems is that we are not empathetic enough to the plight of the Palestinians. “It is tough for us to show empathy when blood is still in the streets and everyone knows people who were killed; their beloved ones, women and children, elderly people, innocent civilians and sometimes even soldiers that were killed or attacked by people they are trying to secure,” he told me. “So it’s not easy to demand empathy. But I don’t think empathy is the issue. Dayan did not have empathy towards the Gazans and I did not have empathy toward the terrorists. We both have a realistic way of looking at life.”

In one of the central sections of the book, Barak describes his Camp David meeting with Arafat, and the events, both during and after the conference where Arafat responded with his famous “No” to the deal Barak was proposing. Many on the Left have never forgiven Barak for pushing that exchange, saying it was too early, or that he did not offer enough at Camp David. When asked about his offer and Clinton’s later proposal, which he accepted and Arafat turned down, he shrugs the criticism off. “They are longing for the road not taken. You take a step that reflects the best of your judgment of what should be done to avoid a clash that I had predicted years earlier, and you find people asking why another number of steps were not taken."

“It’s typical of the Left to say, ‘if we only had given a little more, what would have happened’—[as if] Arafat would have then said, ‘Wow, they gave me another 2% of the area’,” Barak goes on.  “No, it would not have made a difference. No matter what the urban legends tell you, we never tried to dictate a plan to Arafat. We never told him to take it or leave it. We said: ‘Here is our plan. You can have reservations on part or all of it, but we expect you to make it the basis of our negotiations.’ It was a very generous offer. It covered 90% of what he could dream of, and we only said to take it as a basis of negotiations. Then, he rejected it and turned to terror.”

The last section of the book is devoted to what Barak sees as the challenges Israel faces now.  Barak has been one of the most consistent critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu. “Starting three years ago, I was very disturbed by the direction the government was taking,” Barak says.  “After the last election, there was a purely right-wing government, for the first time. The cat was out of the bag. You could see the real face of it, with an ultra-nationalist, messianic, racist dark vision. Israel is on a steep slope and suffers from an autoimmune disease. The bodies that are supposed to protect the country, the institutions and tools that are supposed to safeguard democracy are attacking our own system. That is a crazy situation.”

With the election now less than 100 days away and Netanyahu’s insistence he will run for reelection despite the recommendations to indict him on multiple counts of corruption, Barak pointed out the absurdity of the prime minister’s position. “We now have a person whom both the police and the prosecutor’s office said should stand trial for three different cases, with a fourth case somehow put under the rug,” he said. “These are three instances of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. But in Israel, we are going to question whether we want to elect him once again as a Prime Minister — that’s crazy, that’s just crazy.”

Yet despite all this, Barak remains positive about Israel’s future. “I am very optimistic. I believe we will keep climbing, we’ll keep moving ahead.  I don't believe in any of these deterministic views that we have passed the point of no return. There is no ‘point of no return,’ because it is all about the fighting spirit, having the will to change, and the need to fulfill the Zionist dream of taking our destiny in our hands,” he says, when asked where he sees Israel in 30 years. “I used to tell Bibi and Lieberman—You speak the rhetoric of a spine made of stainless steel, but your actions are a kind of ultimate proof the saying, ‘It is easier to take the people out of the galut (exile), than to take the galut out of the people.” 

We spoke a while longer—the full-length interview can be read here—but there was one question that I did not ask him, since I knew he would not know the answer yet: Are you going to run in this election, and if so, with whom? Stay tuned.

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