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Would it not be right to say that from a certain stage you began to be dazzled by the process, that between September 2000 and January 2001 you entered a state of vertigo?

"There was no spiral and no vertigo. Take a look at the actual summation. At the end of October we had three or four Israelis who were killed. In March, when I concluded my term in office, we had 49 Israelis who had been killed. That is in fact serious violence. So the public decided against me and chose the sweet promises of Sharon. But today we are at 600 Israelis who have been killed and 1,700 Palestinians who have been killed. We are in a recession and at a dead end."

Are you aware of the fact that in those final months of your term in office there was a feeling of a total loss of control in the country?

"Yes, yes. But loss of control over what? It is not pleasant to have shooting at [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Gilo. But I say, Friends, if we allow the negotiations to conclude without having exhausted them, we will bury hundreds of our people and also find ourselves on a collision course with the world and torn apart within. So, what kind of dizziness are you talking about? It all exists only in the world of images. But I have been a doer my whole life and therefore I do not become hysterical even in difficult situations. Throughout that whole period I exercised good judgment. I did exactly what I believed should be done."

Didn't the Clinton parameters of December 2000 go beyond the red line? Do you really think that Israel could have existed in security within the framework of those parameters?

"The content of the parameters scraped the edge of what Israel can allow itself even in a peace settlement. Therefore, toward the end of Clinton's presidency, I sent him a 20-page document detailing all our reservations. The two main points that I explained to him over and over were that I would not sign any document that transfers sovereignty on the Temple Mount to the Palestinians and that no Israeli prime minister will accept even one refugee on the basis of the right of return."

But you didn't want to go to the Taba conference?

"It was plain to me that there was no chance of reaching a settlement at Taba. Therefore I said there would be no negotiations and there would be no delegation and there would be no official discussions and no documentation. Nor would Americans be present in the room. The only thing that took place at Taba were non-binding contacts between senior Israelis and senior Palestinians."

Did you come under internal political pressure to force you to go to Taba against your will?

"Maybe those who approached me and wanted very much to go there thought they exerted some sort of effective pressure on me. But it was important for me that people like Yossi Beilin [from Labor] and Yossi Sarid [the Meretz party leader], who were not at Camp David, would see with their own eyes what Shlomo Ben-Ami [Barak's foreign minister] and I saw with our eyes at Camp David."

And what did you see?

"That at the deepest level Arafat does not accept the moral and juridical right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. That, as distinguished from [David] Ben-Gurion, who had an obsession to establish Jewish sovereignty in part of the Land of Israel, Arafat's obsession is not to establish Palestinian sovereignty in part of the land but `to correct the injustice of 1948' - in other words, to destroy the State of Israel."

Did Sarid and Beilin in fact see that at Taba?

"Yossi Sarid did. But Beilin is so deeply involved that he finds it difficult to see this very clear thing."

Did you know about Yossi Beilin's Taba document concerning the principle of return and the adoption of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, of December 1948, which addresses the refugee issue?

"Beilin said something about wanting to raise a private idea of his own. But Beilin knew from me that there is no such Israeli position, that in fact we hold the opposite position. So his document has no validity."

Did you see the document or not?

"No. I did not see the document."

In other words, Yossi Beilin conveyed a far-reaching document to the Palestinians without first showing it to the prime minister? Do you think that shows proper management of a state establishment?

"That document is not a document of the State of Israel. It has no validity. I agree that it is a bad document. But if Beilin intimated to anyone that he was speaking for the State of Israel, he exceeded his authority. I don't believe he did that. The way Yossi or his Palestinian interlocutors or [European Union envoy to the Middle East peace process Miguel] Moratinos tend to describe what happened as though they were within touching distance of peace has no foundation."

The lesson: Confronting the reality principle

When all is said and done, when one looks at this whole episode of the Barak tenure and when one hears your explanations, the question that arises is very simple. If everything was so all right, why was it so not all right in the end? Why did it all collapse?

"Even though we did not achieve peace, Camp David had three extraordinarily important long-term results. One, demarcation of the space within which any peace agreement will be defined even if it is not achieved for another five or ten or fifteen years. Two, Arafat was exposed, which is very, very important. But the third thing is what explains the critical attitude toward me: the actions I took shattered the old paradigms of Israeli politics. I broke a series of taboos and brought down the two sections of the public from the two hot-air balloons of messianic visions on the right and wishful thinking on the left. As a result, the right understands today that there is no chance of realizing the dream of Greater Israel and the left understands that no angel is going to descend and take them in his arms into a New Middle East. In the final analysis, we all understand that we will have to make do with two states for two nations, as the left has always argued, but that we live in a very rough neighborhood, as the right maintained.

"With the exception of a few solitary fringe elements, the overwhelming majority of the public understands today that the Palestinian demand is not for peace or for justice in return for justice, but for their version of absolute justice. That is a demand not for the margins but for the main thing. For everything. It is painful to grasp that reality. Very painful.

"So a very difficult process is under way of moving from the paradigms of childhood, of `Daddy, I want that,' to the paradigm of adulthood, of accepting the reality principle. True, peace was not achieved at Camp David, but as a result of Camp David almost all of us are today standing with our feet on the ground, able to see the essence of the conflict and the essence of our adversary and understanding the essence of the solution. Therefore we are also more unified and mentally prepared to withstand the challenges that confront us. All this is of paramount historical importance. What we see is a long-term change in our whole mental and cognitive and political structure.

"But the person who delivered this message at this time is not liked. I am not angry at that. It is natural, it is human. I think that with people seeing that instead of talk about peace now there is violence, it would a bit of a childish wish on my part to want people to acknowledge what I did. Before the elections, too, I did not expect that under these conditions people would admire me and like me and want to vote for me."

Emotional intelligence: I am not the nicest guy

Few people doubt your mental capabilities, but there is a feeling that you lack emotional intelligence, that you have a hard time with human relations.

"I think that that is untrue and that anyone who spent a few hours with me in private knows that it is not true. But let's say it is true. What exactly is its relevance? The causal root of the inability to reach an agreement with the Palestinians is not Barak's failure to butter people up. It is not because Barak served Arafat his baklawa wrong side up. And anyway, was Ben-Gurion nice? Was Shamir nice? Was Rabin the height of human warmth? De Gaulle was not nice and neither was Churchill.

"But none of that is important. I understand why the Palestinians make that claim: they have to explain somehow what happened, otherwise the burden will remain on them, and there is an international price to be paid for that. I also understand why some of our friends on the Israeli left raise the issue: like me, they invested a great deal of time and effort in something that does not exist, in a wish that was not realized. And they are facing an ideological disaster, a reality that is completely different from their basic assumptions.

"But I say that we have to be honest. We have to look at reality, cruel as it is, with eyes wide open. Because I say that the left cannot return to lead the country until it stands before the public and looks it in the eyes without blinking and without stuttering and tells the truth. The truth. The truth that every citizen now sees: that Arafat does not recognize our basic rights and that the Palestinian movement in its situation today is trying to undermine the State of Israel and not reach an agreement with it. Anyone who is incapable of seeing that truth and uttering it in a clear voice cannot ask for the authority to lead the nation."

In your worldview you represent something that the great majority of Israelis support. But that support is not realized because there is something in the way you deal with human relations and human management that makes people feel uncomfortable. That remoteness generates a lack of trust.

"I don't think anyone feels a lack of trust toward me. There is a superficial and temporary tendency to criticize Barak's handling of things and to view him as a major causal factor for historic political events. But there is no flesh to that argument. It has no substance. I do not say that there is no kernel of truth in the talk about my relations with people. I am not the nicest guy. I told the Or Commission [the state commission of inquiry, headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, that is examining the riots in Arab communities in Israel in October 2000, in which police shot dead 13 demonstrators] that if there were 27 hours in a day, I would have more time to be nice. But there aren't. There are only 24. The attempt to make the day longer failed."

Still, there is a feeling that things go wrong with you as a result of psychological detachment, as a result of some sort of blindness to emotional matters.

"I don't think that is true. I have feelings like anyone else and I am not blind to anything human. Almost nothing human is foreign to me."

Let me give you an example. Maybe one of the things that went wrong in your encounter with the Middle Eastern reality is that you do not have concepts of respect. You are so focused on the mission and its execution that you do not show enough respect for others - who, as a result, feel humiliated - and on the other hand you do not seek respect for yourself and therefore do not feel how you are being humiliated.

"I have never treated anyone disrespectfully and I never made light of our honor as a state. It may be that I do not treat myself with respect because I do not consider myself to be all that important. But this whole argument is altogether childish. It is superficial to think that essential, historical, gigantic issues are decided by mannerisms. That has no basis in reality. It is all nonsense, all froth on the water."

Why did various people, some of whom worked with you, reach the conclusion that you are a despot?

"There is nothing of the despot in me. I never stepped on a fly if I didn't have to. I never squashed a fly if there wasn't a valuable goal involved."

The departure: I know what poverty is

Maybe what has made people resent you is the fact that at the end of your term in office the country was bleeding and wounded while you went off to live well, build a home in the very upscale Kfar Shmaryahu community and celebrate your wealth. Don't you feel ill at ease about that?

"I was in the service of the state for 42 years. Today, for the first time, I am a private citizen and I am working at a lot of things. I am not working in Israel because I thought it would be proper that there be a cooling-off period, because everything I would touch here would be something I dealt with in my previous positions. But I am working abroad and I can't complain about what I get in return.

"Contrary to this image of some sort of huge hedonism, I am continuing to fly on the same planes I did as prime minister and to stay in the same hotels. Nothing has changed. The only thing that is different is that now I pay for everything out of my own pocket. I do it thanks to my work. I work very hard."

What do you do?

"I am a business consultant to a large company called EDS [Barak was named adviser to the CEO of the Texas-based Electronic Data Systems in September 2001, his job being to advise on international business and policy issues]. I am also a partner in the operation of an American investment fund on the East Coast. In addition, I give lectures and I am a consultant for a few other companies and bodies. Not long ago I was added to the senior staff of an American strategic studies institute, CSIS. [A press release of August 9 by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said Barak had been named a `distinguished statesman' in CSIS and in that capacity `will provide insight on developments in Israel and the Middle East as well as on broader issues involving the world's struggle against terror and security related implications, as well as international diplomacy and leadership.']"

Did you think twice about building the house in Kfar Shmaryahu? Were you aware that your decision had public implications?

"Yes. That was a consideration. There were people who made certain it was brought to my attention. But I feel that as a citizen I can do things with my family and with myself as I please. I believe that I have the right to live according to my judgment as long as it is from my means. I also think that the whole subject is within the realm of my privacy and that it is my right to enjoy this time-out, which may continue for the rest of my life or it may not."

Are you ready to say where the money is from?

"As I told you, I work hard and I can't complain that my labor goes unrewarded. But I really think that this is in my private sphere. Even before this I lived in a seven-room villa in Kochav Ya'ir and I had an apartment in Tel Aviv, and the combination of everything I have makes it possible for me to build this house."

Why does a couple of your age need a house of these proportions?

"The children are no longer at home; we need space. But I really do think this is in my private sphere. All this preoccupation with the number of toilets we have seems to me gossipy, provincial and reflecting the superficial character of the media. If I should return to politics and someone decides not to vote for me because I built a house in Kfar Shmaryahu, that will be his right."

Do you have some sort of craving for wealth and a comfortable life that originates from your early days on the kibbutz?

"I don't think it is related, but I do know what poverty is. The way I lived as a boy would be defined today as abject poverty. My parents lived in a room of four meters by four meters that had no toilet, no running water and no sink. Nothing. There wasn't even a double bed. Every night we had to move the table and pull out one bed from under the other so that father and mother would have somewhere to sleep. So you can't say that I don't know what a hard life is. I know that reality, but now I think I have the right to privacy. I bought a house in Israel and it is being built by workers of the State of Israel and the money is here. We will live in the house like any Israeli private family."

At one time people said that there was a resemblance between you and Benjamin Netanyahu. You denied it. But we have two prime ministers of the same generation whose brief terms of office ended unsuccessfully and shortly afterward are getting rich. One is going to smoke cigars in Caesarea and the other is going to smoke cigars in Kfar Shmaryahu. Isn't there something here that should make us uneasy?

"I do not feel that I am like Netanyahu in any way. But I suppose one can find points of resemblance between any two people, especially when the two people in question had careers that have a certain connection between them."

But that is just the point. Maybe there is something in common in this leadership generation: the extreme instrumental use both of you made of people; the absence of sensitivity in both of you to the question of personal responsibility. Both of you are living like members of the jet set while the country you left behind is hurting badly and grieving.

"Those are superficial stereotypes that reinforce themselves simply by being repeated in writing and in speech. I think that the way I will choose to express my desire to take part in what is happening in the public and to be in contact with the public and to help with things that I think are important and painful, is a private matter. It is something that has to spring from me; it doesn't have to be either guided or dictated by the public."

The enigma: It's just images, just images

Are you a democrat?

"Very much so."

Is is permissible to lie for the sake of peace, to be manipulative?

"On the truly deep side there is no manipulation of reality. There is no such thing, it doesn't work. Without being in harmony with reality, you don't get anywhere. There's a basic truth that I believe in on a long-term basis. But it's true that it's not always possible to describe the whole truth fully to the public."

Didn't you think that from a democratic point of view it was problematic to move toward decisions the way you did after your government had effectively fallen apart and only a quarter of the Knesset supported you?

"I had qualms. But I asked [myself] what the right thing was for Israel and I reached the conclusion that it would be inconceivable for me not to do something that I believed was essential for Israel. After all, if we don't reach an agreement there is no problem; and if there is an agreement it is clear that it will be invalid if it is not approved by the nation.

"I remember private talks I had on this subject with Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, 1994 and 1995. Rabin was very uneasy about the response of the nation. I would tell him, Yitzhak, the nation is ultimately very important, it is the sovereign, but don't ask yourself what the nation thinks at this moment. That makes no difference. What is important at this moment is only what we think. Because if we think that the settlement we are dealing with passes our test and ensures the internal core of Israel's vital interests, then we will accept it and go from door to door and we will have the strength of our inner truth to use in persuading others. But if the settlement does not pass our test, we will not propose it to the nation, and then no question arises. So the real thing we have to concentrate on is what we think, not what the nation thinks."

Isn't there an element of the end justifies the means in your actions? Doesn't your focus on the goal sometimes make you lose all inhibitions?

"What kind of absence of inhibitions? In my opinion, I see the whole picture all the time. And the goal is not a private one. These are urgent, acute questions that will decide the fate of thousands of people and of a whole nation, and they cannot wait. And what does `justifies' mean? After all, I did not do anything that was not legitimate."

There was sometimes the feeling that in moving toward your goal you bent laws, didn't follow proper administrative procedures and trampled norms.

"What was trampled? Who was trampled? What do people want [from me], anyway? The only risk I took was a personal political risk. And I admit that with all the tremendous importance I attach to myself, that is not the most important thing for me."

When the affair of the fundraising associations threatened you, you and your staff behaved in an almost Nixonian way. You put pressure on the attorney general. People collected material on the state comptroller and on the Registrar of Associations, who represent the rule of law.

"What kind of Nixonian way? That is just images, just images. What did my people do? What did they do? Do you think that something was done here that was never seen before in Israeli politics? That there was something here that came into existence in the elections of 1999? A lot of associations supported Barak. Well, what of it? Without the associations, Barak wouldn't have been elected? I am convinced that I was elected in a huge wave of authentic public enthusiasm that didn't need any smart-alecky stunts. So let's say that someone climbed the wrong pole and hung up a sign against the law. What do we do about it?"

Are you aware that there is an ongoing Barak enigma? Do you know that the public is left with a deep puzzle about who you really are?

"That may be. So some people have an enigma [sic] and some don't. And that enigma will either be resolved or it won't. What does it matter at all what I feel or what kind of person I am. All that is secondary. There is a kind of fashion here of engaging in gossip about people, as though by deepening the gossip about someone you catch the true flow of reality in a more precise way. That is not true. Not true. It is the result of television making everything personal, so you see the face and it is smiling or sad. But the truth is that these are all marginal things. I see myself only as a tool in the hands of our history. I make no pretense of being able to control everything, I do not replace the Lord on high."

You come from a world in which trenchant true debriefings are one of the pillars. If we treat your whole term in office as a big peace operation, have you done the true debriefing of that operation?

"I did it and how. And I have no doubt that there is no one who can do a crueler debriefing than I can. I think that on the large issues what I said in the interview is exactly what arose in the debriefing."

Are there also serious findings?

"Definitely. There are all kinds of things that are cruel to me. But I don't think they are worthy of a public discussion."

Doesn't it hurt? Despite all your denials, doesn't it hurt?

"I have no doubts of any kind about what I did. I look back without a drop of bitterness or resentment toward anyone. History will judge the rest."

Will Ehud Barak be prime minister again?

"I do not discuss myself or what I will do in the future. Right now I am on a time-out and in this period it would not be right to deal with that possibility."

The Palestinians as a virusBarak's thoughts on some of the issues on the agenda

- Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon: "I have the highest regard for him, the very highest. He is talented, serious and deep. Impeccable integrity. His diagnoses about the nature of the conflict and the essence of the confrontation and its roots are correct. What he said [in the interview that appeared in last week's Ha'aretz Magazine] is a professional opinion that the army should provide, even if I do not agree with every one of his conclusions. What I don't agree with is the cancer metaphor. Cancer is a terminal illness, and that is not our situation. The Palestinian threat is more like a viral illness, which we can cope with by developing antibodies."

- The settlements: "No settlement should be evacuated now, as that would be to give a prize to terrorism, and also so as not to deepen the internal rift and also because it is not practical. Therefore, as I see it, no settlement is to be evacuated immediately. Not even the most isolated one. But within the framework of a three-year separation plan, dozens of isolated settlements that were established in all kinds of remote corners within Palestinian population concentrations should be evacuated. Sharon played a central role in the settlement project, so it is hard for him to detach himself from it, but the state of Israel needs to preserve only seven settlement blocs: Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev, Gush Etzion-Betar Illit, Kedumim-Ariel, Reihan-Hinanit, Hashmona'im-Alei Zahav, Maon-Carmel. About 35,000 residents in the isolated settlements will have to move into those blocs or return to inside the state of Israel."

- Jerusalem: "There have to be two fences in Jerusalem. One will be a political one that will include Gush Etzion and Ma'aleh Adumim and Givat Ze'ev, and the other will be a security fence inside the city that will separate most of the densely populated Arab neighborhoods from the Israeli city, the Jewish neighborhoods and the 'Sacred Basin' [the Old City and its immediate surroundings]. That fence will have a gate every 400 meters and people will be able to enter with a card or a fingerprint the way they do at the airport. That is not a perfect solution, but it will dramatically reduce the scale of terrorist attacks in the city."

- Separation: "In order to preserve a Jewish, democratic Israel, the separation fence has to be built at an emergency pace, with work going on 24 hours a day. Until the Palestinian leadership is replaced and it becomes possible to return to negotiations, we have to build a fence that will encircle the seven settlement blocs and also maintain a security zone in the Jordan Rift Valley. All told, we will retain control of about 25 percent of the West Bank until the final settlement is achieved. The IDF must maintain full freedom of action everywhere on both sides of the fence."

- Iraq: "It will be many months before a fully deployed American operation is carried out. But if the Americans think they see an opportunity for a surgical strike that will remove Saddam Hussein, they will act earlier. If Saddam feels that he is in danger, he is liable to take action against Israel. We don't know what his capabilities are, though his launch capability has been seriously diminished since the Gulf War. Both Israel and the United States are devoting a great deal of thought to find ways to reduce the risk. A genuine effort is being made to ensure that even if Saddam Hussein orders an attack on Israel with nonconventional weapons, the order will not be carried out and the armament will not reach Israel. The intention is to break the chain of operation at five or six critical points."

- The withdrawal from Lebanon: "Anyone who claims that the withdrawal from Lebanon brought about the intifada doesn't understand history. What led to the intifada is that we are ruling over another nation whose leadership is not ready for a political settlement because it is interested in undermining Israel. Anyone who claims that the withdrawal from Lebanon was a military mistake doesn't understand strategy. If we had been in southern Lebanon when the confrontation with the Palestinians erupted, there would have been a general deterioration in the north long ago. We would have had to mobilize reservists on a huge scale and we would have found ourselves in a confrontation with Lebanon and perhaps also with Syria."

- Method of government: "Israel needs to introduce a method of government that is similar to the one in France or the United States or like that of the mayors in Israel. The structure of the new regime will make it impossible to replace the head of the national establishment while he is in office. In that way, the person who is elected to lead will be truly be able to do what is desirable for the nation and not what a random majority of the nation wants at a given moment."