Former PM Barak: Netanyahu Leading Israel to Disaster

Two years after leaving politics, Ehud Barak recalls the wasted time and lost opportunities of the Netanyahu government he served in from 2009 to 2013. He also does not rule out his return.

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Ehud Barak.
Ehud Barak.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

Once every few months during the term of the previous government, the defense minister, Ehud Barak, would arrive at the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at 1 Balfour Street, in Jerusalem, usually at 6 A.M. Already waiting in the sitting area where Netanyahu receives guests was the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

“Sometimes we sat for hours on the patio of the Prime Minister’s Residence,” Barak recalls now, publicly, for the first time. “I did most of the talking, explaining to them why we needed to enter into intensive negotiations with the Palestinians. That would be a critical act in its own right, in my view, and it could also reduce external and domestic opposition at a time when we [Israel] would want to take independent action in Iran.

“Bibi talks. Lieberman’s silent most of the time. And at the end of the conversation, Lieberman turns to Bibi and says, ‘I don’t know how to live with these suggestions of Barak’s.’ There were a few conversations like that, some in the presence of [then-National Security Adviser] Yaakov Amidror and [then-political consultant] Ron Dermer – people from Bibi’s closest circle – and some among just the three of us.

“And in the end,” Barak continues, “you see how the conversation continues, and you can go on smoking your cigar and eating green ice cream – but the conversation itself had actually become hollow. It went on because it wasn’t pleasant to admit that it had really ended.”

This was the period in which Barak enjoyed the status of being Netanyahu’s ultimate confidant. “When Bibi and I look up, we see only the sky above us,” Barak was quoted as saying back in 2012 – referring, no doubt, primarily to the fateful subject that united the two against almost the whole world: the shared desire to attack Iran’s emerging nuclear facilities.

Barak was the premier’s envoy to the Americans, something of a counterbalance to Lieberman in the eyes of the international community.

There were some, including perhaps the defense minister, who dreamed that the alliance with Netanyahu would generate a political big bang and a joint run for power. In practice, the alliance eroded Barak’s already problematic public image, caused in part by his second incarnation as a very wealthy individual living high up in the luxury Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv.

After his Labor’s defeat in the 2009 election, Barak declared that he would remain in the opposition, but finally joined the right-wing government as a self-perceived moderating and balancing figure, and to remove the stains he bore in the eyes of his critics. “In the decision about whether to be [former prime ministers] Yitzhak Shamir or Menachem Begin, Bibi wants to be like Begin,” Barak said at the time, seeking to mitigate the wrath of those who railed against his joining the government. Subsequently, he left the Labor Party and established Atzmaut (Independence), in order to stay with Netanyahu and ensure the continued existence and viability of his government.

In May 2012, he afforded Netanyahu an additional dose of ruling-party oxygen by secretly concocting an alliance between Likud and Kadima, in the latter’s incarnation as a party with a large number of Knesset seats, under Shaul Mofaz. But as the election approached, in the shadow of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, in November 2012 – just when it appeared that Barak would overcome the waves of antagonism that washed over him from every direction, and would get enough votes to enter the Knesset because of the public’s renewed perception of him as “Mr. Security” – Barak decided to leave politics. He left without offering a full explanation, and without puncturing Netanyahu with so much as a pin.

Pushing to attack Iran

What did you talk about during all those hours at the Prime Minister’s Residence? What were the suggestions Lieberman couldn’t live with?

Barak: “When that government entered office, I thought that the desire to create a point in time at which it would be possible to bring about maximum agreement – or minimal opposition – to the possibility of an independent Israeli action in Iran would override every other issue.

“In other words, if an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities really was the most important thing, then the only visible test of leadership was being ready to bend other things to that purpose. It was clear that embarking on that course [of negotiations with the Palestinians] would significantly lower the barriers, change the situation with Europe and completely alter the situation with the United States. It wouldn’t prompt them to applaud or encourage us, but it would blunt the opposition.

“There was resistance to taking action in Iran within our defense establishment, within the government – in the President’s Residence as well – that included public activity aimed at generating tremendous fears, which are groundless, about what would happen here if we were to attack. More than once I said to Netanyahu and Lieberman, ‘Some of the subconscious reasons for the tremendous resistance to our intention to take action in Iran lie in a frustrating awareness that an operation in Iran really frightens people, and not without reason. After all, it’s no simple matter. It could certainly cause at least a war with Iran and with Hezbollah.’

“And when people have to cope with their anxiety about a decision on an operation that is being broached by a leadership that isn’t capable of mustering the mental fortitude to deal with the Palestinian issue – which is the most painful issue, but also the simplest in terms of its structure and clarity – they ask themselves whether that leadership is truly capable of dealing with the big issue.”

You describe Lieberman, who’s now purporting to be a man of the moderate center, as blocking every possibility of serious negotiations with the Palestinians. But did Lieberman serve as Netanyahu’s political constraint, or as his alibi and alter ego?

“Bibi can’t, or doesn’t want to – you can never know completely. His open leadership manifests a very strong element of pessimism, passivity, a preference to refrain from taking action. Many times I said to Bibi and Lieberman: Your rhetoric has a backbone of stainless steel, but what you do in practice is like living proof of the statement that the nation can be taken out of the Diaspora – but it’s far more difficult to take the Diaspora out of the nation.

“In the end, when we reach the critical junctions where decisions have to be made – maybe the most important decisions since the state’s establishment – you behave as though you prefer to be dragged there by a situation that will be forced on you. Two things are happening during your waiting. First, no divine promise or paradise awaits at the end of the road, rather something very grave. And second, a great many people are being killed along the way there.”

How did Lieberman reply when you tried to explain why negotiations with the Palestinians were critical, if only to help realize his desire to attack Iran?

“I want it to be clear: I told them constantly that in my view it was very important to conduct intensive negotiations with the Palestinians even without the threat of the Iranian bomb. Lieberman replied that there was no chance of arriving at an agreement with the Palestinians I tell you that I felt that Bibi – I can’t say I persuaded him – but he arrived at an understanding that rationally, this was operatively the right way to proceed, even if your gut isn’t easy about it.

“His problem isn’t one of understanding. He understands the complexity. In the end, he is a political figure. He is a complex figure. Everyone who’s political, even if he comes from the background of being a more simplistic figure, becomes a complex figure in politics. And in the end he [Bibi] says to me, ‘We are not alone, we can’t make a decision on this thing without Lieberman.’

“There were a few rounds like that. It could be that Lieberman acted as his alter ego for a moment – I can’t say definitively. But when I saw, in the last months of his government, that he didn’t have the ability to link the two things – as a result of which there was far less probability of taking action in Iran – I said to myself that there was no sense to it anymore.”

Passivity vis-a-vis Palestinians

Where do you think Netanyahu’s passivity on the Palestinian issue will lead?

“In the end, passivity and avoidance of taking action lead to something being imposed on you that is far less good than what you could have achieved. And there is always the considerable danger that you will cross, without sensing it, the point of no return, and when you snap out of it and really want the previous situation back, it will simply not be possible, you will slide down a slippery slope. We saw examples of this in the last century in a neighboring continent – in South Africa during the apartheid years. It may have been Mark Twain who once said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’

“We have been ruling another nation for 47 years. We are ignoring the fact that the situation has changed in the international arena. The leaders and the people themselves don’t remember the circumstances and the struggle under which the State of Israel emerged. There are no leaders or publics in the world who remember the Holocaust as a personal experience. What they’ve seen for decades is the reversal of the image that accompanied Israel. It’s not David and his slingshot being threatened by Goliath.

“What registers in the consciousness is the Palestinian youth who is symbolically using David’s weapon against Israelis who are armed to the teeth inside tanks, and with missiles and so forth. That image is becoming embedded in the public consciousness abroad. In the 21st century, there is no chance of maintaining over time a situation that will be accepted by the international community in which Israel continues to rule those millions of people and does not allow them to vote for the Knesset.”

When will the day come when the world will treat us as it treated F.W. de Klerk in South Africa?

“It will come. It will come. It’s a slippery slope, and on that slippery slope we are marching in the direction of one state for two nations. The feeling that’s taking shape internationally is that Israel doesn’t really have the intention – that the critical mass of the Israeli leadership has reached the conclusion that there is no reasonable two-nation solution that can guarantee Israel security, and that it has no alternative but to continue holding on to the entire territory and grant them autonomous rights. And [we think that] because we have no alternative, the world will be compelled to accept that.

“In fact, all these assumptions are groundless, it’s just due to the absence of an assertive discourse. The world won’t buy it. It’s just an illusion. That idea will be repulsed brutally by our best friends. At a certain stage, it might be possible to hide that intention by means of speeches at Tel Hai College, or a speech at the University of Haifa, after your Bar-Ilan University speech. So there will be a couple of more speeches, which will generate ambiguity for a time, but the international community is becoming disillusioned, and it will follow a course we have seen [elsewhere]. I deliberately do not want to mention the name of what happened in another continent.”

The apartheid regime [in South Africa] collapsed under the strain of a world economic boycott. Do you discern the same approach developing in our case?

“Gradual processes of Israel’s delegitimization are occurring below the surface. The BDS movement is developing. Its name is derived from the movement that finally brought about the collapse of South Africa, which was economically and militarily stronger than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa together, but could not keep standing because it could not withstand international isolation. As long as those voices against Israel came from Eritrea or Mauritania, fine; when they start to come from Scandinavia and Britain, it’s a serious problem. Look at Israel’s standing in the community of labor organizations worldwide – it’s a very grim situation. That will continue with consumer organizations, pension funds, the universities.”

Have you yourself encountered this movement?

“I give many talks at American universities, and I can make a comparison with the past, because I also gave talks on campuses 10 years ago, and I was a student in the United States 35 years ago. Then, 35 years ago, the universities were bastions of sympathy for Israel. Today, you come to a university and you’re told in advance whether there will be a demonstration or there won’t be a demonstration of the opposite orientation.

“These groups are quantitatively negligible, but in terms of their essence, they are the future leadership of the United States and of the world. It’s a gradual trend, but it’s sliding toward a tipping point, and at the end of that tipping point awaits a slope or, heaven forbid, an abyss.”

Dangers of self-justification

During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer, Barak’s analysis was that only the advent of a narrow right-wing government – one that would entrench itself deeply in its self-righteousness, clash with the international community and bring about sharp international economic sanctions and the isolation of Israel – would generate popular disillusionment and a change of government. Such a development might also affect his own political fate.

“I reject the Marxist thesis that says, ‘Let’s work for things to be worse before they get better,’” he says now. “But to say it can’t happen? It could happen, even if we don’t want it to. We don’t want a boycott, but there is liable to be a boycott. We don’t want Israel’s isolation, but Israel could find itself in very painful isolation.

“And there is another danger, whose signs are already discernible, that could plunge us to the point of no return: response to external pressure by means of self-justification. ‘The world is against us,’ ‘It’s a lost cause,’ ‘Let’s strengthen ourselves in our righteousness.’ In a closed room or in a bubble you shape a perception of reality that is increasingly distant from the concrete world out there, until the moment comes when all the self-justification is no longer sustainable.

“In the case of de Klerk, that moment arrived via economic pressure – he simply could not withstand the pressure and the sanctions. That’s what brought about their awakening. I saw them close-up – we had deep relations of friendship with the South African leadership. They were people of a very high level, intellectually and otherwise, and they had wonderful explanations. They said, ‘The Americans are preaching morality to us? Well, they committed genocide, all they have left are pangs of conscience.’ Or they said, ‘We gave the blacks everything, the possibility to work, and comparatively they are living better than in their deserts, we gave them opportunities and they developed.’”

Those are the same stories we are telling ourselves about the Arabs.

“I think what I’ve said is clear enough. Especially to those at whom this dialogue is aimed, from my point of view. In the gap between Diaspora-mentality behavior and the rhetoric of a stainless-steel backbone, you immediately encounter – before you can manage to gain control – the discourse of pride, and you can completely miss the point at which the latest decisions had to be made. The default goes like this: We will do nothing and we will wrap ourselves in our self-justification and we will find ourselves on the slippery slope of one state.

“The second possibility is that we will encounter – before one state for two nations becomes the reality – a reaction from the group of states that is our reference point, such as will make it clear to the Israeli on the street and to his government that this is a hopeless path, that the damage to Israel is not worth the wish to hold on [to everything]. Because the right wing is no longer offering ideological or divine reasons for the wish to hold on to the entire territory. It’s not the divine promise and the covenant, it’s a practical rationale: ‘Our security needs make it obligatory. We have just seen ISIS, we cannot allow ISIS in the territories.’

“The worst possibility is that because this state of affairs is unacceptable not only to the international community but also to these millions [of Palestinians], it could, in certain circumstances of resonance with developments in the Middle East, bring about a recurrent wave of violence, but more intense and more problematic. And it could be a combination of these two things together.

“In all the years in which I was in the government with Netanyahu, when the question was asked, ‘What’s the damage?’ – Bibi asked in response: ‘What’s so bad in the meantime? There’s no boycott, there’s no violence, in the meantime we’re succeeding in holding up the ceiling, in holding up the walls, nothing is collapsing, we’re continuing to sail on, the prophecies aren’t coming true and we are terrific.’ But these things are happening.”

During the Netanyahu years, we’ve seen not only stagnation but tough threshold conditions. What do you think, for example, about Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as the Jewish state?

“Since when do you make the whole root of legitimacy conditional on the dialogue with the Palestinian partner, on the question of whether he is ready to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people? Zionism was founded so that we would decide, not look elsewhere for recognition. Did we ask for recognition from the Egyptians? From the Jordanians? From the Syrians? In the end it looks like trickery trying to tug on some sort of emotional heartstring in us.”

When you entered the Knesset in 2009, you said, “Bibi is going to be more like Begin than Shamir.”

“True. And you ask if that happened? No.”

But what happened? He promised you and [Likud MK] Dan Meridor that this time he would make major moves. Netanyahu actually compromised more in his first term: He returned Hebron and signed the Wye agreement.

“Netanyahu learned one lesson from his previous term in office: Do not lose your political base at any price. He understands history deeply, he has a complex, multifaceted conception of reality. But the decisive factor in what he does is, ultimately, survival.

“Time will tell whether he has lost his magic with the voters. We are not seeing any enthusiasm. I have many friends in Likud – the enthusiasm is gone. There’s a feeling of sourness that has continued since Operation Protective Edge, both because of the price and because there was no clearcut victory, and people don’t understand why it took so long.

“It’s not clear that the lengthening [of the operation] humiliates them or vanquishes them – possibly it also strengthens them. It’s not clear that the serious destruction [in Gaza] creates a rift between them and the population, because maybe the population doesn’t feel that it has an alternative or a choice. But it could be that in an indirect circle, via the reaction of the international community to the destruction, that it actually works in their favor. And people still remember that during Protective Edge, Bibi said, for example, ‘When we will do it we will bring Hamas down.’ That creates dissonance. I think the magic has worn off.”

Future government savior?

Ehud Barak has spent most of the last two years in long business-and-pleasure trips to the United States, China, South America, Kazakhstan and Africa. He made occasional brief stopovers in Israel, staying at his spacious rented apartment in Tel Aviv. He also chose to remain silent, declining many requests during this period for interviews in which he could offer his opinion about the performance of the Netanyahu government and explain the reasons for his disappearance.

Two months ago, Barak appeared on a Channel 1 Friday evening newsmagazine to deny the spate of rumors to the effect that his analytical brain was sputtering under the impact of Alzheimer’s. The rumors initially amused him and in some way even flattered him. “I’ve never enjoyed such quantities of empathy,” he replied to a friend who implored him months earlier to go public and squelch the rumors.

Even though he wasn’t here and he remained silent, he kept his finger on the pulse. In his analysis, the option always remains – as happened 57 years ago in the concluding chapter of the career of one of the figures he identifies with, Charles de Gaulle – that he will be called back to the government as a savior.

In the meantime, in a move that stunned even Barak, Netanyahu decided to call an early election, and the left-wing camp is now headed by an individual who until two months ago looked like a lackluster candidate with no charisma and with no real chance of coming to power.

“Aura’s son” was the way Barak often referred to Isaac (“Buji”) Herzog, who was his cabinet secretary when he was prime minister, and who invoked his right to remain silent when he was questioned under caution by the police over the organizations that funded Barak’s 1999 election campaign. Barak says today that Herzog, who served as special adviser during that campaign, was right to remain silent. His view is that the police investigation was born in sin, because he and Herzog received advance authorization from the judicial authorities to set up a system into which unlimited funds flowed, mainly from overseas tycoons.

Do you think Herzog is worthy of being prime minister?

“Buji is a serious and worthy person. He doesn’t possess a fireworks-and-flames exterior, even though I have to say that in the past few weeks this has been emerging in him, in the face of the clarity and sharpness of the challenge. He is intelligent and purposeful, and he’s a hard worker. He is definitely standing on his own legs in this election. He was attacked a great deal over the union with Tzipi [Livni], but I think that was the right thing from his point of view.”

Their rotation agreement, too?

“Definitely. After all, if they lose, it won’t be important. If they win with a majority that allows them to form a government on their own, or almost alone, with a small satellite party – they will execute the rotation to which they committed. In this matter I believe him.”

There’s no chance of that.

“And if it turns out that in order to form a government, rotation with a different partner is necessary, then Moshe Kahlon or Lieberman, or a combination of the two, can demand a rotation, and then there will be no choice and Tzipi will yield.”

Who will you vote for?

“My natural place is to vote for Herzog. Kahlon is also a very good person – I was always impressed by him in the government. He is forthright, real, businesslike, caring and he has a certain openness. Buji is more experienced. There may be young people who can’t bring themselves to vote for Labor, or people who feel that they are too center, then fine, Kahlon is definitely a good possibility.”

Do you really believe, if the right wing comes to power again, entrenches itself in its bubble and advances the catastrophe, that you will be called?

“I am realistic enough to know that a situation could emerge, heaven forbid – that is the appropriate term – in which people will turn to me and I will be compelled to consider it. And because I know what that type of situation would be, I say let’s hope we don’t get there, that something else will happen along the way. Now there’s Buji, we have to give him an opportunity – him and Kahlon. And it’s always still possible to throw Shimon Peres into the arena.”

The rest of the interview, focusing on Barak’s financial situation and lifestyle, is available online at haaretz.com

‘A trail of opponents’

For years there have been rumors that you arrived at this standard of living, with apartments in luxury towers and cigars, by hitting the jackpot in security and defense deals.

“And I tell you that this discourse had its genesis mainly because I left a long trail of opponents in the wake of the stand I took since entering public life: to promote the norms of the rule of law in the country. This was so both in the case of Aryeh Deri, whom I demanded be removed as head of Shas after he was convicted of bribe-taking, as a condition for [that party’s] entering my government, and in the case of Haim Ramon, whose appointment as deputy prime minister I opposed after he was convicted of a sex offense.

“If I say that I’m opposed to the reforms advanced by [then-justice minister Daniel] Friedmann or if I denounce the [Ariel] Sharon family bluntly, or the criminal behavior of the group of [then-chief of staff] Gabi Ashkenazi – that generates opposition. Those people have baggage, and the most effective way to undermine the ability of a rival player – me, in this case – to demand the [maintenance of] existing norms, is to ascribe to the preacher the defect from which criminals suffer, to malign the gatekeeper who asserts: Such behavior will not be tolerated.”

So in your narrative you are actually one of the most vigilant fighters in the political arena against governmental corruption?

“Very true.”

In other words, if we divide the political arena in binary fashion between people of integrity and of less integrity, and on the side of less integrity we place, let’s say, Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon, and on the side of integrity, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Tzipi Livni – then you are an integral member of the second group?

“Absolutely. I will say more than that: I, more than Livni, Meridor and Begin, took active political action against the players I mentioned. No one had any doubt about what Meridor or Begin would say whenever they encountered something that bore the least trace of improper behavior – but they didn’t have the opportunity, because they were not in decision-making places when those issues arose. I happened to be in that particular corner, in which you are obliged to take action – as in the dilemma of Martin Luther with his ‘Here I stand.’ And I could not act otherwise.”

Why do you think no one except you has this perception of you?

“[Because of] an effective campaign. A crude libel that people try to foist time after time so that the trickling down will eventually cause it to be immersed in the consciousness.”

Global door-opener

Were you ever offered a bribe?

“On the contrary: In the Harpaz affair [referring to a forged document that cast aspersions on Defense Minister Barak and sought to prevent him from appointing Yoav Galant as chief of staff after Gabi Ashkenazi] an individual said to me, ‘You would do well to reach an agreement with Ashkenazi, because of the plane and the submarine’ [referring to allegations, purportedly made by Ehud Olmert, that Barak received kickbacks from IDF purchases]. I told this person, who happens to be a jurist: ‘Do you hear the sound of extortion by threats that I hear? Or is it only my musical ear that hears it? He replied, ‘The truth is that I do.’”

Would you be willing to take a polygraph in connection with Olmert’s allegations?

“I have no problem with that. I am not afraid of anything.”

You don’t hold foreign bank accounts, as Olmert alleged?

“There is one account in a bank in Switzerland which I work for as a consultant – and which is reported to the income tax authorities [in Israel]. It contains the payment I receive for the advice I give the bank.”

Barak is referring to the Julius Baer Group, a Swiss private banking group, whose clients include the world’s business elite. In recent years, the bank, which entered the Israeli market, recruited Barak as an adviser on geopolitical affairs.

Is this the essence of his role at the bank and in the capital funds and venture funds to which he provides expensive services? Or does Barak also serve as a glittering addition to the board of directors or as a well-connected door-opener, who puts businessmen in touch with world leaders with whom he forged ties in the years when he worked in the service of the state? How did he actually become so rich?

Let’s start from the beginning. Explain, once and for all, where you got the money to buy five apartments in Tel Aviv and to combine them into one, or to pay such exorbitant rent in a luxury high-rise.

“I was outside [government service] for six years, from 2001, when I left as prime minister, until 2007. In those years I earned more than $1 million a year, every year, from talks and from advising hedge funds, in an attempt to forecast geopolitical developments and world events a little sooner and a little more accurately than the competitors.”

What advantage do you have in regard to advising hedge funds? What do you know about business altogether? Could you forecast the plunge of the ruble a month ago?

“I have a very big advantage in understanding these matters, because I dealt with it for years, as director of Military Intelligence, as chief of staff, as prime minister and defense minister. And I also have a professional background, as I completed a master’s at Stanford in economic and engineering systems. I have a better understanding than some people – I don’t know whether than everyone – and I am not the only one. A venture capital fund that handles $10 billion a year pays $100 million to $200 million just for consultants and for assessments and research.”

Can you give a concrete example of advice you gave that was worth a lot of money?

“No, I can’t: The funds I work for are protected by their right to privacy.”

Maybe you are a kind of lobbyist who makes a living by opening doors? You recently visited the dictator of Kazakhstan and the president of Ghana. You are always received by them immediately.

“True. So far I haven’t earned anything from opening doors, and I hardly do that. But I am not deterred by the possibility that I will open a door. I could potentially open a door, perhaps, for some large Chinese company, for example, to build a dam in Ghana, or open the way for an Israeli company to a republic in Central Asia. What’s the problem?”

It’s exploiting the resource you received from us to begin to promote private purposes the moment you resigned – behavior of dubious morality.

“I see no moral problem. In certain stages of the peace process, when I was prime minister, people – friends and also semi-rivals – asked me: ‘Where do you get the self-confidence, the readiness to take such huge risks?’ But I am not the problem at all. [As prime minister,] I am a servant of the state, I am doing what I think is good for the state. All my life I took far higher, and irreversible, risks, for military missions, for operations.”

So you are now saying to yourself: I risked my life as a soldier and my career as prime minister in the service of the state, so now I have the right to use the knowledge and connections I acquired in my present incarnation as a businessman.

“No. This is the result of a life trajectory. No one did me any favors. The collective did not meet and do me a favor. You only live once. In different circumstances, I would have found myself, like many of my peers, on other tracks: in academia and in business. During the decades that passed before I reached 60, talented people of my age acquired abilities and assets in the tracks they chose to follow. From the public’s point of view, my track was one that contributed more, so it is not logical to tell me that after the natural process of democracy ended I cannot avail myself of the tools I accumulated in order to ensure my future.”

Can you provide a direct and full explanation for your accumulation of capital, and reveal to the public your net worth?

“As I told you, I earned more than $1 million a year, and today I am earning even more. I also profited from the rise in property values. I bought land in Kfar Shmaryahu [an affluent community north of Tel Aviv] after I retired in 2001, and I built and sold the house at a profit of half a million dollars.”

You bought that property shortly after you left politics. Where did you have that kind of money from?

“Half a million dollars from severance pay. And I sold the house I owned in Kokhav Yair.”

Could a lot in Kfar Shmaryahu be had for half a million dollars?

“For a million dollars. You start working immediately and you get the sum. Journalist friends said to me at the time: ‘Are you crazy? Why are you buying in Kfar Shmaryahu? Tzahala [another affluent community] is the place.’ I said, ‘The price is twice as much, so I’m not buying there. I am rational.’ Besides that, I told them: ‘Look, the two places that voted for me the second time around, too, with the highest percentages in the country, were [Barak’s birthplace, Kibbutz] Mishmar Hasharon and Kfar Shmaryahu. So I’m going to people who demonstrated their loyalty.’

“Think for a minute about the wad of money I had in my hands, and afterward I hooked up with Nili [Priel, whom he married in 2007], who also brought [money] with her, and together we bought the apartment in Akirov Towers. I had no problem buying it from a few years’ income. And 10 years later I sold it, according to foreign reports, for almost $7 million, at a profit of $4 million.”

In other words, you made some nice deals in real estate. Are you worth $10-15 million?

“I’m not far from there.”

I would say that the transition from zero to 100 in your living standard is what caused most of the feeling of alienation toward you – the move overnight from the middle class to the jet set.

“What is the jet set? When was I in the jet set?”

Akirov, cigars, luxury watches, first-class flights.

“I always enjoyed drinking whiskey and occasionally smoking a cigar. Here and there I even got cigars from Olmert, though at the time I didn’t know where he got them.”

You turned into Netanyahu.

“I’d seen what distress, poverty and extreme want are. My parents lived in an apartment of 11 square meters without a sink, water or toilet until my bar mitzvah. You won’t find in my peer group, within the highest ranks of the state in the present or the past, people who slept on the floor – on the floor, without anything – longer than I did.”

The Israeli public is forgiving of politicians who failed in its eyes. Sharon, Netanyahu and Yitzhak Rabin, with all the differences between them and you, got a second chance. You haven’t had one so far.

“Rabin used to say that for him to come back was an option not an obsession. He said that because it was an obsession. He was consumed with it. His inner feeling was that he had been deposed after one term in office.

“I don’t even want to talk about Sharon, whose need to come back consumed him after Sabra and Chatila [referring to the 1982 massacre in Lebanon]. He said later, after he’d become prime minister, that if he’d heeded the advice of [his son] Omri, he would have become prime minister 10 years earlier, and today we know what the other side of listening to Omri is.

“The people you mentioned bore a huge amount of bitterness toward some of the players around them, due to the fact that they were maneuvered into that situation. Well, I say that I am not there. I made decisions that hastened the end of my term as prime minister. No one deceived me and no one manipulated me, and I am not bitter and I don’t have that obsession. I am very quiet. I don’t feel any dissonance. People say, ‘You failed, you were dumped.’ All the choices were made by me.”

And history? How do you think history will remember you?

“I don’t conduct personal relations with history in my inner consciousness, and I am not in the least disturbed by history’s judgment of me, because I don’t think it is temporary, specific, connected to what one reads in the newspaper that day.”

And do you really believe that you might return during an awful crisis?

“[David] Ben-Gurion once told Sharon, ‘If you cure yourself of your habit of lying, you will be a great leader.’ Sharon, when he related that conversation, said the quote was incorrect, that Ben-Gurion told him, ‘You will be a great leader during a crisis.’ The evil gossips in Likud say that once Ben-Gurion told him that, Sharon not only waited for the crisis but worked to create it. Do you see?

“I don’t wait for things, I don’t work to make them happen. But I care enough to know that a situation could arise at the serious extreme of the possibilities, in which it will be very hard for me to stand aside. But because I am also honest enough to understand what kind of situation has to emerge here for that to be the case, I also say. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.”

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