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People who spoke with him in the first months after his defeat by Ariel Sharon in February 2001 say he was like a stone. He expressed no feeling, articulated no insight. It was as though he found it difficult to grasp what had happened to him, what he had done to himself. How reality had dared rise up against him in that way. How the Middle East had rejected his wisdom. How it had come about that the magnificent take-off of Ehud Barak into the sun of history ended with such an embarrassing melting of the wings, in such a cruel plunge to the hard earth.

After a time he snapped out of it. The money began to roll in, the deal for the property in the wealthy community of Kfar Shmaryahu, where he would build his new house, moved along. In the wake of 9/11 the world began to beat a path to his door again, showing a renewed interest in the well-known Israeli expert in the war against terrorism. So, little by little, the former prime minister gathered the strength to begin to look at what had happened. To start introducing rational order into the chaos he left behind him and reorganizing the past into appropriate conceptual patterns. To put together the official narrative of Ehud Barak about Ehud Barak - how he was right in everything he did, how he succeeded, how he contributed to Israel's future.

There's no getting around it: in his cognitive ability and in his ability to read his reality, Ehud Barak is a head taller than most Israeli politicians. In the living room of his temporary home in Kochav Ya'ir and in his luxurious ex-prime minister's office in the Millennium Tower building in Tel Aviv, Barak ceaselessly demonstrates what is rich and impressive about him: intelligence, curiosity, vitality and often humor, too.

However, in the course of hours of conversation there is one issue on which he is simply not persuasive. He is unable to convince his interlocutor that he has matured, that he has learned something from his experience, that he has drawn genuine lessons from his failure. What is especially disturbing in the encounter with this smart, courageous Israeli is his tendency to behave as though nothing happened; as though he did not shake up a whole country.

If Barak has the ability to look into himself, he hides it well. He recoils from every attempt to get him to cope on a personal basis. Try to pressure him on questions that are not pure strategy and his face turns sallow, his mouth gapes and he actually roars with dismay. On the other hand, when the conversation deals with painful areas, a thin layer of perspiration covers his face. Even as he vehemently denies and even as he utterly dismisses the importance of emotional matters, his eyes almost film over.

It is not true that he is inhuman. But his humanity is different, unusual, puzzling. It is not true that he is metaphorically autistic. But his contact with human reality is not always understandable. He is very honest in confronting history, less honest in confronting himself. He knows the concept of accountability, but it is doubtful that he really understands it. Self-criticism is something he knows nothing about. He does not have the ability to truly listen.

Nevertheless, with his virtues and his shortcomings, Ehud Barak is one of the most important Israelis of our time, if not the most important of them. He is the person who during the 600 days of his rule redefined our lives.

Ehud Barak, you like to say that we have to look reality squarely in the eye, honestly. Are you capable of looking squarely at reality and saying, "I failed. I failed big-time"?

"If I felt I had failed, then absolutely yes. But that is not the case."

You didn't fail?

"Definitely not. I took it upon myself to carry out certain tasks, which were correct and important. There were some things in which we achieved desirable results and others in which we didn't. But even when the results were not desirable, that does not mean we failed - it means that this is the reality in which we live. I clarified the reality in which we live."

Still, we went through a dizzying, even stupefying event here. There was an unparalleled promise and you won an unprecedented election victory, yet within a short time you went down to an unprecedented defeat. You came, you won, you were defeated, you went.

"I am neither an analyst nor a historian. As a public leader I acted to the best of my awareness and understanding, in accordance with my inner conscience. I did the most painful and most difficult actions without flinching. Whenever I encountered a dilemma between surviving in power or what was best for the State of Israel, I never hesitated. I never had to ask myself. I did what was right."

On the night of your victory, did you imagine that this is how it would end? That the Barak term of office would be so short and so destructive?

"That is not the question. I saw in front of me the following landscape: We are in a narrow window of opportunity that I have been identifying for a decade. We have to try to reach an agreement before we find ourselves in a situation where the Iraqis or the Iranians have nuclear weapons and before we see a new wave of Muslim terrorism washing over the world. If any of those things happen, or if we face a combination of two of them, it will be very difficult to reach a settlement. And because it is far from clear that time is on our side, Israel has a supreme interest, an almost existential interest, in reaching a settlement. The more so because in the meantime we are moving toward an iceberg in the form of a collision with the Palestinians that will cause thousands of deaths on both sides.

"I had seen all these developments coming for years, and when I entered office I understood that if I did nothing, the collision would occur within a short time and we would find ourselves in the midst of a national tragedy. We would end up burying hundreds of young people, find ourselves isolated internationally, with half the nation believing that we were responsible for the bloodshed because we embarked on a road of paralysis. So it was clear to me that I had to act immediately, quickly and in all channels in order to try to bring about a political settlement if that was possible."

What agreement did you reach with President Clinton at Camp David in the summer of 1999? What master plan did the two of you have?

"The talks were fascinating and went on until the middle of the night. We analyzed the overall situation and we spoke about the need to address both the Syrian track and the Palestinian track. Our evaluation was that neither side was sufficiently interested in an agreement, therefore we would have to pad it with a thick layer of American aid. We agreed on projects such as seawater desalination, aid to the refugees and on everything that would be needed to ensure the qualitative superiority of the Israel Defense Forces. In the course of the night we also talked about subjects that are related to Israel's existential-strategic safety net."

Allow me to propose the following thesis: Ehud Barak harbors a comprehensive perception of reality that is quite impressive. But when he comes to put together a plan of action and tries to engineer a comprehensive peace agreement within a short time, he makes a series of optimistic assumptions that are refuted one after the other in 1999-2000. The result is that the master plan that you and Clinton conceived falls apart. Your peace mission fails.

"That thesis is totally without foundation. I am simply a person with no illusions who understands that we do not control the entire situation but who thinks that that fact need not paralyze us. The strategic choice made by [former prime ministers Yitzhak] Shamir and [Benjamin] Netanyahu and by [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in the face of life's uncertainty is to do nothing: to bypass tactical problems and gain time. My choice and that of [Yitzhak] Rabin was to act. To take action. Especially because it was clear to both of us that the processes of fundamentalism, nuclearization and demography show that time is not necessarily on our side. As far back as the early 1990s I foresaw very serious developments that I did not conceal. Nor do I conceal them today. I have seen them all along."

The Syrians: Clinton said `I haven't got him'

Let's begin with the Syrian channel. Until what stage were you optimistic about the Syrian question? When did your encounter with reality in this channel occur?

"There were several important stations along the way. The first station was when I saw the reports about the talks held by Ron Lauder [referring to contacts with the Syrians by the cosmetics tycoon on behalf of prime minister Netanyahu] and they appeared more optimistic than I had expected. I asked Bibi [Netanyahu] and he told me about the developments. I called in Lauder and spoke to him. It turned out that Netanyahu was talking about two miles from the line - in most places far less - whereas the Syrians were talking about the lines that existed on June 4, 1967. But the gaps were so small that the Syrians asked to see a map. That was where things got stuck. Netanyahu was unable to send a map and things got bogged down.

"There was also the visit by Patrick Seale [the journalist and the biographer of the late Syrian president Hafez Assad], which gave us something of a feeling that Assad was not a sealed wall, that there are cracks. It was clear that there was a wish on the other side to try to find a way, but with very extreme demands."

How far did you get in the talks that were held with the Syrians in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January 2000. How close were you to an agreement?

"Contrary to the rumors, the talks at Shepherdstown did not break down because we did not agree to the June 4, 1967 lines. What we did not agree to was the demand for a direct and irrevocable a priori commitment by Israel to the Syrians that we would accept all their essential demands even before negotiations began and as a condition to begin them."

Are you saying that the Syrians' a priori demand was for Israel to undertake in advance to hand over the entire Golan Heights?

"Yes. And that is a demand that no sovereign state can accept. Not because we didn't agree to the 1967 lines and not because of pride, but because if we had agreed to that, there would have been no negotiations. There was no way to guarantee the security arrangements, the deterrence and the demilitarization that are essential for us. I told the Syrians that I was ready to re-deposit the `Rabin guarantee.' On a few issues I even agreed to go beyond that. I said that there is no problem with saying that the basis [of an agreement] will be the June 4, 1967 line, because that line is not marked and that is alright with us if afterward we discuss what will really be. But in fact we never got to a discussion, because what Syria demanded was an up-front capitulation to its dictate."

What do you say to the prevailing version: that the Shepherdstown conference failed because of an argument over a few hundred meters of land on the shore of Lake Kinneret?

"Anyone who describes it in that way does not understand the problem. The problem was that the Syrians effectively wanted a dictate."

What was the most far-reaching territorial proposal that you made to the Syrians - the proposal, if I am not mistaken, that you conveyed via Clinton to Assad when they met at Geneva?

"At Geneva there was a different story. We understood that Assad was dying. We thought it would be irresponsible not to examine how far we could get while he was still alive. Therefore it was clear that there was no time and that Clinton had to be induced to meet with him. For our part, we extended ourselves as far as possible. We said that even though the Kinneret will be under our sovereignty, the Israeli strip around it will be very narrow: a few hundred meters and maybe less. We knew from the Americans that some of them felt the Syrians were ready to accept a few dozen meters, and we thought we would be able to meet them halfway. We also put forward another proposal: that only a few dozen meters would be under our sovereignty, with the hundreds of meters beyond that under their sovereignty but managed together as a peace park. Both sides knew that more flexibility was possible because the waterline had moved over the years and what was the line in 1967 is no longer the line today. We demanded that Israelis be able to travel around the lake but said that Syrian fishermen would be able to fish in the lake, so that they would have access to the water."

Did you also agree to the Syrians pumping water from the Kinneret?

"That is marginal. That is not an international issue. A peace agreement between two nations does not come into being or collapse over three million cubic meters of water for some farm."

What was the Syrian response?

"What Clinton discovered after three minutes of conversation was that Assad was not ready to enter into negotiations. The Syrian president had only one question: Is all my land going to be returned to me? And the moment Clinton told him, Mr. President, I can't say yes, the answer is more complex than that, Assad was no longer interested. Clinton said, Mr. Assad, I have here all the answers that will satisfy you, but Assad did not listen. Clinton called me as soon as he came out of the meeting and said, I haven't got him, I haven't got him."

Tell me about that moment. Where were you when the phone call from Clinton came?

"I was at home, in Jerusalem, sitting with [policy adviser] Danny Yatom, both of us listening to the president, with Danny taking notes. I don't remember his exact words, but I remember the essence. He told me, Ehud, we don't have it. We don't."

What did you feel at that moment? After all, you had been immersed in negotiations with the Syrians for years, your whole peace plan was based on that, and now comes the moment of truth - the real moment of truth, is that right?

"Maybe this is a shortcoming I have, but I am not a person who gets carried away when things succeed and I am not a person who sinks into depression when they don't succeed. We knew that this was a possibility. I knew this was a bad possibility, in some way even a painful possibility. I very much wanted [things to work out]. I admit that I wanted it very much. It was very important to me. I invested long years in it. But I was always realistic. I knew it might not succeed."

Didn't that development disrupt your whole operational plan? Didn't it put an end to the prospect of putting an end to the conflict within 15 months?

"I never supposed that peace is built like you build a tower out of Lego bricks. I always told people that statesmanship is not construction engineering. In construction engineering, a plan exists and if you only mix the materials the proper way and work with precision, the house will look like the plan. That is not the case in statesmanship, which is more like a dynamic cement mixer. It is a kind of implacability with elements that are not under anyone's control."

Camp David: The story of depression in the cabin

Was there a parallel moment of truth in the Palestinian channel? Was there a particular point in time when you understood that this was the end, that there would not be peace?

"The moment of truth at Camp David occurred when Clinton brought his ideas and put them on the table. Overall, Clinton's ideas said that in return for ending the conflict and acquiescing to some Israeli security demands and leaving 80 percent of the settlers in Israeli territory, [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat would get a sovereign Palestinian state, demilitarized and contiguous, in ninety-something percent of the West Bank and a hundred percent of the Gaza Strip. Including exit points to the neighboring countries, a hold in East Jerusalem and the right of return to the Palestinian state but not to Israel. Israel would agree to accept a certain amount of refugees on a humanitarian basis but not a single one on the basis of the right of return.

"For us these ideas are no simple matter. They are far from a simple matter. Especially when you try to go into a bit of detail about Jerusalem. But we held lengthy discussions and in the end we decided, because of considerations of historic responsibility, that we have to accept the plan as a basis for discussion. Arafat twisted and turned with it and effectively said no. Clinton went back to him and pounded on the table and Arafat again did not answer but effectively gave an answer that was no.

"At this stage Clinton has to go to Okinawa, for a meeting of the G-8. So I say to him, Look, until you extract readiness from Arafat to accept your ideas as a basis for negotiations, there is nothing to discuss. It is hard for us, too, we also have reservations, these ideas are very close to the Palestinian position, but we accept them as a basis for discussion. When you get a positive answer out of Arafat, I'm here. You know where my cabin is.

"Clinton goes off to Okinawa, leaving me with the impression that he understands that there can be no discussion. But he leaves a different impression with his staff and with the Palestinians. They understand that in the meantime the discussions can proceed with [secretary of state Madeleine] Albright. When I discover this, I find myself in an impossible position. That is the origin of the story that Barak locked himself in his cabin in a state of depression. But in fact I had no choice. I couldn't undercut Albright but I couldn't continue with the negotiations, either. So I told everyone to leave my cabin and I did some sports and I read the book `Five Days in London' from cover to cover [referring to John Lukacs's 288-page reconstruction of the situation of the British in May 1940]."

Was that the moment of truth? On July 22, 2000, you stood face to face with reality?

"That was the moment of truth when it became clear to me that nothing deep would apparently come out of Camp David. I knew that I was in a complicated situation. I knew that the reality was becoming clear and that it was a harsh reality. Cruel."

Describe that moment for me. It was here, actually, that not only your peace move but the whole course of the peace process arrived at the moment of truth with reality. It suddenly turns out that things are not as we had hoped, not as we had wanted to believe.

"Correct. But it was not a complete surprise. A month before we went to Camp David, I convened a special discussion on what would happen in the event of failure. And nine months before that, the army came to me with situation assessments according to which we could expect violence. I gave [then chief of staff Shaul] Mofaz and Bogey [referring to then deputy chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon] the go-ahead to deploy. So I knew it was liable to happen."

Is there anything to the claim about depression? It's not so terrible to admit that you were sad.

"Sadness is not the right word. What is sadness? Here there was a type of recognition that this is reality. Here is reality. And, after all, I had always grown within a discipline of looking directly at reality. And here it was. It was exposed. And even if you feel like this or like that, it will not shape the reality into something different. It was truly cruel, harsh and cruel. But this is the truth we have to live with. We have to understand that even though we would have liked things here to be like [relations between] America and Canada, apparently it is not going to be like that."

Did you feel cheated? Did you feel that Clinton deceived you?

"I certainly had reason not to be satisfied. I can't say that it passed without incredulity. When Clinton returned from Japan I told him that I hadn't expected to find differences between what I understood from him and what he told others - Palestinians and Americans."

Didn't you suddenly feel that you were some sort of Shi'ite suicide bomber - someone who had assumed an enormous risk and now everything was collapsing on top of him?

"I do not feel like a Shi'ite suicide bomber. I was aware of the political risk every second of the time. After all, the whole Camp David meeting was like walking across a narrow bridge from which the girders are constantly falling as you walk across to the other side, to the end. And I felt that. I was conscious of that. But I knew that that in the final analysis, this is the essence of the prime minister's responsibility. After all, that was the whole thing: I was already an adult when Israeli governments did opposite things - not always deliberately and certainly not out of any bad intention. I don't think that the Golda [Meir] government saw concretely what was coming and went ahead and led [the nation] there. But there was a clear repression of reality there that led to a wall. The lesson of my generation, which fought that war [the 1973 Yom Kippur War], was that we must not let it happen again. We will not go blindly into walls that you can see in front of you.

"Therefore, what I did at Camp David was not some act of jumping off the roof. It was rational behavior by a person who understood that violence was about to erupt and was trying to exhaust every prospect to prevent that. I said the same a few months earlier to Clinton and to Arafat at Oslo: if we do not have the strength to make decisions, there will be a tragedy and we will bury thousands of people."

Still, there is something of the gambler in you.

"There is not an iota of the gambler in me. On the contrary. All the things I did in my life - some of which were really a lot more dangerous than going to Camp David to try to achieve peace - were never gambles. I like to compare it to climbing cliffs. When you watch someone climb a cliff on television, you think it is the most dangerous thing anyone could possibly imagine - a person suspended between mountain and sky on two centimeters of rock. But when you get close you understand how much work and how much thought and how much planning and how much caution and how much risk aversion are invested in the process. You don't put your hand on the cliff where you think there is a protrusion, you put your hand in a place you have previously checked and where you know that there is a protrusion that can hold you. And you don't let go with hand or foot without it being clear to you that the other three have the necessary grip so you don't lose your balance. So I am far from any notion of gambling. I believe in serving a very daring goal by means of judicious, cautious behavior that is connected to reality."

And all that feverish activity? Isn't there something hyperactive about you?

"Not at all. I am not addicted to action. But I am in the sphere of doing. I did not choose a life of contemplation and meditation. And when you are in the sphere of doing and you do nothing, things happen that you don't want to happen. Especially when you are the prime minister of Israel. I used to always tell the Americans that America is like a broad highway with Canada on one side, Mexico on the other, and two oceans. Israel, by contrast, walks a narrow path on a slippery, dangerous cliff thousands of meters high. If you make a mistake of one meter one way or the other, you fall down. So, in the reality of the State of Israel vigilant action is always needed in order to affect reality and not slide into the abyss."

On that day of solitariness in Camp David, did you already foresee your political crash?

"I cannot say that I foresaw that within three-quarters of a year I would no longer be prime minister. That, I did not foresee. But when political figures came to me before Camp David and asked me, What are you doing, Ehud?, and warned me about the risks, I told them, Look, I have already taken far greater risks in my life. I've been in places where you really could take a bullet and be buried. I took those risks on myself because of things that are far less important than this thing. When all is said and done, this is the most important thing there is. And what is a risk? No one will shoot me in the forehead, you know."

Taba: Lying on the fence

Even after the outbreak of violence, at the end of September 2000, you continued to conduct negotiations? You eroded the Israeli position more and more under fire. Wasn't that a mistake?

"If we had stated in the months after Camp David that it was all over, that we tried, discovered that we had no partner and that it was all over, within two days Europe and the United Nations would have said that Israel was to blame. Within two weeks the Americans, too, would have said that it is our right, but the responsibility is ours. I am not talking about something abstract. If Israel loses its moral superiority in the eyes of the world, it loses its ability to struggle. Therefore, we had to continue to the point at which all the world's leaders and Israeli citizens across the whole spectrum understood that we really did do everything that could have been done."

In other words, even though at this stage the process has you in the mire and is wounding you politically, you say that on this issue you will lie on the fence until the end?

"Lying on the fence in the political sense; in the fundamental sense, doing what is good for the country."

What you are telling me, then, is that you wouldn't have done things differently - that despite everything that happened, the course of action you followed was unavoidable?

"In the details there might be a few things I would do differently. But in the big picture, I would do the same thing. Even if you think you have only a 20 percent chance of achieving peace, it is your duty to act; and all the more so when you know with 100 percent certainty that you are about to enter rivers of blood. You have a duty, you have to try to take the moral high ground. To ensure that if we confront violence we will have both internal unity and moral superiority. Without both of those elements, Israel is liable to slide into a disaster."

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