Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak discusses Netanyahu's US trip, Israel's need to make a bold peace proposal, and whether Israel can work with the newly unified Palestinian Authority.
Edmund Sanders: By most accounts, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will not unveil a new peace initiative during his US trip, as you and others have urged. Is that a mistake?
Ehud Barak: I don’t know whether that’s a fact. I still hope he will say something clear about our intentions.
Sanders: So he might surprise everyone?
Barak: If you listen to his speech in the Knesset [on Monday], there were certain elements that were quite clear movement toward the positions that many of us here think are essential for any sincere Israeli proposal: namely, that we’ll make clear those elements that have to do with borders and the need to make major, painful concessions regarding what he called part of our fatherland.
Sanders: You called for something “daring.” Was that daring enough?
Barak: I don’t know how to judge it. It’s clear to me that Israel at this junction should act and not be paralyzed by the uncertainties, low visibility, volcanic eruptions, and historical earthquake around us. It makes sense that many people say, “Let’s not be too enthusiastic about doing something at any price.” On the other hand, I personally feel that we should be ready to move. We need to put [something] on the table, whether behind closed doors to the president or in public. We need to be ready to move toward a daring proposal that will include the readiness to deliver an answer to all the core issues.
Sanders: Should the US try to jump-start the process by putting forward an American proposal that frames some of the core issues?
Barak: I don’t know. It depends on the details. America, with all the question marks that have been raised about its effectiveness or strength in recent months, is still the most effective superpower and the most important player in the region. But neither Netanyahu or Obama or “the quartet” [the US, Russia, the UN, and the European Union] can do it alone. It depends on the sides and on many details. There should always be an American readiness to provide whatever services are needed in order to help the two sides move forward.
Sanders: Some argue that making concessions now will make Israel look weak and “reward” the Palestinian Authority for leaving the negotiating table and, most recently, reconciling with Hamas, which the US and Israel view as a terrorist group.
Barak: I don’t think so. Israel is the strongest country for 1,000 miles around Jerusalem, and we should be self-confident enough not to lose sight of what has to be done. What we need is a sense of direction and a readiness to take decisions. We have to do it.
I can’t tell you for sure it will work. It probably won’t. But we have a responsibility and a commitment to move. We should make it genuine, that if an agreement cannot be achieved at this juncture, the responsibility is on the other side’s shoulders. Probably along the way, we will find that while we are trying to find a breakthrough for a fully-fledged agreement, only an interim one can be achieved. So let’s find it. We should prepare for all three possibilities: a breakthrough agreement, stalemate, or an interim agreement. All three are better than the alternative, which might lead to growing isolation of Israel.
Sanders: In your assessment, are Palestinians ready to reach an agreement?
Barak: It’s more complicated for them than in the past. But I think [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] seems to me to be at least sincere. I can’t read his gut. [Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad is sincere. They are doing a good job in this bottom-up building of embryonic state institutions. There is more freedom, more normalcy, more security, and a much lower level of terror than in any previous years.