In 2002, historian Benny Morris published a lengthy interview with Ehud Barak in the New York Review of Books. 17 years may have passed, but Barak’s remarks there are more relevant than ever, particularly in light of the cosmic event that has come to be known as “the apology,” which facilitated the intergalactic fusion between his new party and Meretz.
In that interview, Barak set out his worldview, including in regard to Arabs in general and Israeli Arabs in particular: “They [the Arabs, perhaps referring here just to the Palestinians and perhaps not] are products of a culture in which to tell a lie ... creates no dissonance. They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category. There is only that which serves your purpose and that which doesn’t.”
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After this psychopathological diagnosis, which simply reflected, then as now, the outlook of many in Israel, Barak commented specifically on Israeli Arabs. He speculated that, in a future solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a few areas in Israel with a high concentration of Arab residents, such as Umm al-Fahm and the Little Triangle of central Israel, could be transferred to the new Palestinian state, together with their inhabitants. “But this could only be done by agreement — and I don’t recommend that government spokesmen speak of it [openly]. But such an exchange makes demographic sense and is not inconceivable,” Barak said.
The problem, let it be said right away, is not the ideological congruence between Barak and Avigdor Lieberman from a generation ago. Barak presumably voiced his true feelings then, as he also warned quite clearly of the possibility that Israeli Arabs could become an irredentist segment of the population if no diplomatic solution was found for the Palestinian issue. If that happened, he explained in the interview, they might adopt the Palestinians’ phased “Ten-point program” in which Israel would first become a binational state and later a state with an Arab majority.
The real problem, despite his brand-new alliance with Meretz MK Esawi Freige, is that we have absolutely no idea what Barak thinks about a diplomatic solution, or if his views about Israeli Arabs have changed at all. Does he think Israel should apologize for Deir Yassin? Should it finally acknowledge its role in the Palestinian Nakba? Should he become a cabinet member, or even just an MK, will he demand the restoration of the status of Arabic to its pre-national-state law status? Did Meretz even insist that Barak present his views before it fell into an official embrace with him?
An apology, no matter how candid and moving, for the unnecessary and irresponsible killing of 12 Israeli citizens in October 2000 (no apology is needed, of course, for the Gazan who was killed, since Gazans don’t vote for the Knesset), doesn’t negate a worldview that sees Arabs as a useful electorate on voting day. Armies and national governments have frequently apologized for mistakenly killing enemy soldiers or civilian noncombatants. It happens. That’s how it is in war. Even Hamas explained that the rocket it fired at Tel Aviv a few months ago was the result of a “technical failure.” Yes, “the apology,” even if it was prompted by political motives, is important because of the understanding that even a Zionist party that affixed democracy like a mezuzah to the doorpost of its house, can no longer build itself on anti-Arab sentiment. That is, it can, but it would risk not meeting the electoral threshold. But the apology alone — nearly two decades after the event — cannot even serve as a fig leaf.
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Israeli Arabs are still far from obtaining the political legitimacy they deserve. They are perceived, also “thanks to” leaders like Barak, as a suspect, threatening group. Their economic integration into Israel as a whole did not remove their “enemy” label. But what do they want: After all, we apologized, didn’t we?