Peace, Politics, and Patek Philippe: An Interview With Ehud Barak

He's the least popular politician in Israel today, but Ehud Barak isn't panicking. In a wide-ranging interview, the defense minister strikes back at his opponents, saying his one - and perhaps only - big mistake was not inviting Sharon to join a unity government with him a decade ago.

Ehud Barak recently read a new translation of "Faust" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. There are those among his critics who will recognize parallels between him and Doctor Faust, who engages in a lethal dance with the devil in order to achieve eternal youth. But the defense minister and former prime minister has another interpretation.

"Goethe has Faust say the following," Barak quotes: "'Ay! what 'mong men as knowledge doth obtain! / Who on the child its true name dares bestow? / The few who somewhat of these things have known, / Who their full hearts unguardedly reveal'd, / Nor thoughts, nor feelings, from the mob conceal'd, / Have died on crosses, or in flames been thrown!'"

Yanai Yehiel

Don't you ask yourself sometimes, "How did this happen to me? How did I become the least popular politician in Israel?"

Barak: "I have acquired - some would say deservedly - quite a few rivals, former Israeli politicians, some of whom at their height were stars beloved by large parts of the public. But today they aren't in politics, and when they sit alone in their room, they say to themselves that Barak is the one who showed them out the door. Ehud Olmert, Aryeh Deri, Daniel Friedmann and Haim Ramon - a convicted sex offender, who tried, after he was already shoved out, to climb up ... to an even more senior post in the government - and I stopped it with the political clout I had. It's been very difficult since then to get a nice word out of him. It was difficult beforehand, too."

Did you make a series of mistakes that brought this public tsunami upon you?

"I got into politics 15 years ago and who were all the stars back then? Who were the promising figures? Ramon and [Avraham] Burg, [Yossi] Beilin, Amir Peretz, the whole famous octet. They're all gone, and I'm still here. Olmert, Amnon Shahak, Itzik Mordechai, Roni Milo, and even Beiga [Avraham Shochat], on the one hand, and Jumas [Haim Oron], on the other, are gone. They're not in politics. And Yossi Sarid. And I'm still here. I'm such a failed politician that all of my rivals have disappeared, on both sides."

In 1999, Barak was elected prime minister by a landslide vote. "I won by the largest majority in history," he points out more than once during our conversations. Less than two years after he promised the dawn of a new day, however, he was defeated by the most controversial public figure in the country, Ariel Sharon, after a hyperactive term in office that ended with the withdrawal from Lebanon, clouds of smoke over the territories, and the shattering of the peace process.

In 2007, after he divorced his first wife, Nava, married his childhood sweetheart, Nili Priel, became rich and took up residence in the exclusive Akirov Towers, Barak returned to the role of defense minister, carried on high waves of public support. For two years, he was the most popular minister in Olmert's government. In the last election, though, the party he headed eked out a pathetic number of seats. Still, the sentiment was that in the Netanyahu government, at least there was someone who understood defense.

But then came the conflict with the Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the problematic and failed appointment of Yoav Galant, Barak's surprising departure from the Labor Party, and the reports about his extravagant lifestyle.

What soul-searching have you done? What mistakes have you made?

"The left is angry at me because of two things. One is that I didn't succeed in bringing peace in 2000. I say that there is something immature about this anger because honestly, you think that if I had served the baklava the right way, or exchanged more caresses with [Yasser] Arafat, there would have been an agreement? The second thing, which is more serious, is the statement: 'You shouldn't have lost the government. It took us half a generation to return to power after '92, and then [Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated. You came to power again, you shouldn't have let this thing slip through our hands so quickly.' How [should I have acted]? 'Never mind how. You manage hold on some more. We need to be in power.' I wasn't really able to persuade that same left to do the right things to stay in power. And now it's clear to me that there was a cardinal mistake on my part 10 years ago, when I didn't form a national unity government with Arik Sharon, after I returned from Camp David."

The anger and disappointment have grown since your return to the arena. You are perceived as someone who tricked the voter with "I'll quit the Olmert government" - and then you stayed; with "I'm headed for the opposition" - and then you rushed into the government; with "I won't leave Labor" - and then you left.

"I know that I am absolutely reliable. Absolutely. Some young researcher sent me some study about Shimon Peres with articles from 30 years ago. He describes there how Peres shifted from place to place. Look, there are people who will say this today and that tomorrow, they'll also say nonsense along the way and also things that contradict each other, and won't pay the price. Around me there are very high expectations, a culture has formed, among other things, because they noticed that I'm very precise. I'm being observed under a magnifying glass. There isn't another politician in the country who is viewed under such a magnifying glass."

Not the only wealthy one

About two years ago, it was reported that you would be selling the apartment in Akirov Towers. Why didn't you?

"What do you mean why didn't I sell it? I'll sell it only when there's a buyer willing to pay the price. Are you willing to pay for it?"

You entered politics 15 years ago: an ex-kibbutznik with a house in Kochav Yair who wore simple shirts and slept at the shabby Astor Hotel on Hayarkon Street. You return in your second incarnation with a fancy apartment, flashy watches, cigars and suits. How did all of this happen?

"I can tell you I also smoked cigars 10 years before, and the watch, which is a Patek Philippe - it was my former wife who bought it for me as a gift when I completed my military service. What is all of this about anyway? I'm no wealthier than Bibi Netanyahu or Arik Sharon. I don't feel that I'm more hedonistic than Ehud Olmert, or Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres."

Are you a millionaire?

"What's a millionaire? In shekels, sure. In dollars, too. What's a millionaire? I'm not a tycoon or anything like that. Does my property amount to several million dollars? Of course it does. This apartment alone [does]. And I'm not ashamed of it. For five-six years, I wasn't a public figure. So there are people who will say, 'We don't accept it. A citizen who does not live like Lova Eliav isn't acceptable to us. He can't be a leader.' Let's put this to the test: Look at Israel's presidents in the past generation and find me one who wasn't a hedonist and didn't travel on private planes and didn't drink good cognac. You won't find one. There are none. None."

But how did you become rich?

"I finished [my term as premier] at around the same time as Clinton [Bill, former president of the United States] and Blair [Tony, former prime minister of Britain] and Schroeder [Gerhard, former chancellor of Germany] - all of them from left-wing parties. All of them became within a few years very wealthy people, after periods of service that were much shorter than mine. I delivered lectures, and I was also a consultant for international companies in finance, both private equity and big venture capital funds.

In the reality of 2000, with all of the complications - remember, there was the Iraq War in the background and September 11 - it was a changing world. And the heads of these companies didn't feel that they understood the world sufficiently. Institutions like these, that manage, say, $10 billion, they've got about $200 million a year that they spend on consultancy, on research and they don't have anyone who really understands what's going on. Now, I understand economic systems. I honestly studied at the best university in the world. Everything I did, I did straight, simple. On the table, without tricks and without shticks. Nothing. So I'm not ashamed of anything. I will not lower my eyes before anyone. No one is going to teach me or lecture me, including all those legislative reformers."

Are you an opportunist?

"No. I don't feel opportunistic ever, in anything."

Why did you leave the Labor Party?

"I left Labor because it deteriorated into a way of existence that is not comradely and not purposeful. A sort of terminal state of dispute. It didn't happen in my time, that's all just an illusion. Look, I left, so now is there great harmony there? Wait for the end of the membership count and the election for chairman. They've developed a political culture there where they derive more pleasure from fighting than from going to the street and persuading people to support them. And this culture is connected to the corrupting element of the primaries."

What's corrupt about it? It's a system that paved your way and Netanyahu's way to the head of the cabinet.

"I think the primaries are a system that corrupts. I don't understand how this council for democracy that [former] Justice [Meir] Shamgar heads reached the conclusion that we ought perhaps to strengthen the parties that hold primaries. We need to go back to the days of the organizing committees.

Shouldn't a person who voted for the Labor Party in the last elections feel cheated after you quit?

"No. Certainly not when I did. But back when Amir Peretz quit, the voter could have felt cheated. When Peres quit, he could have felt cheated. He can't feel cheated with me. I think that I have remained loyal to the party's path - the members who stayed there have not. I don't see any moral problem here. I didn't leave on my own."

What are your sins?

"I have no sins. Some politicians think that the most effective way to operate when you're fighting them in a particular area is to try to taint you in that very area. So there's one newspaper [Yedioth Ahronoth - G.W.] that is dying to get me onto the list of people who have the shadow of criminal suspicions hanging over their heads. There is no basis for this. There is no politician in Israel who acted and took personal risks as I did, to ensure the supremacy of law and justice in the country, and paid the price - in moving out Deri, Ramon, Olmert.

"Shlomo Ben-Ami and I appointed Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Moshe Mizrahi to head the police investigations division. I said in 2000 that [Avigdor] Lieberman was meeting with Palestinian leaders and telling them: 'Don't close a deal with Barak. Wait for us. With us it will be possible to do business.' I said: 'The sticklers will say business in more ways than one.' I criticized the Sharon family and I paid a very heavy price for that. To what are you comparing all this? There are people who write, who fight with friends in the trendy bar of the media people, but otherwise they haven't done a thing! They never took any risks! All the fighters from the various organizations for quality government, public players or journalists - they don't put themselves at risk, and they don't pay a price. I've done more than the Elad Shragas and Moshe Negbis, and I never asked for any credit."

The Filipina who worked in your house - that's not a sin?

"It's a mistake, and my wife also said, 'I take responsibility for this. I am prepared to pay a fine.'"

And a decision was made to bring charges against her.

"If you look at it honestly, if her name hadn't been Priel-Barak, she would have paid a double fine long ago. I tell you, there are 2,000 cases a year like this, 93 percent of which end with an automatic fine on the spot."

'Inner peace'

A lot of people who have worked with you, from your most intimate circle, left with harsh things to say about you and about the way you conduct yourself. Beiga Shochat, your former admirer, says: "Barak is not worthy of being defense minister"; the respected Haim "Jumas" Oron says: "Barak is the most dangerous man in the country."

"Fine, so there is such a discourse and in my opinion it has no grounds in reality. I asked Jumas: 'What did you see that made you say that?' So he says that Beiga and someone else told him. Forget it, some of this is also echoes from other disagreements. So Beiga, from the heights of the boards of directors spread across the globe, finds it important to convey another warning, and Jumas, on the eve of his retirement, with the whole great story of his life, felt it was appropriate to warn the people against the dangerous minister of defense. Fine."

And you're indifferent to them?

"I'm not indifferent and not oblivious. I am simply a person with inner peace. I hold the measuring stick within. There is a prerequisite for an Israeli politician: It is the ability to externalize - or as I call it, 'to tweet sacrificial tweets and groan groans of taking offense.' I am incapable of this. Not in this incarnation."

But the attitude toward you is not a product of your refusal to "sacrificialize." Rabin didn't do this and they loved him anyway.

"I don't want to argue with the public memory lapse. Rabin was not as he is depicted. He was not some man of peace, and he loathed Arafat. Didn't they say about Rabin that he's a drunkard? That he's a pleasure-seeker? That he's dishonest? Everything, whatever you like. Everything. They wrote and wrote. It all passed, things were cleansed and took on some other dimension of hindsight in view of the circumstances of his murder."

Have you no need to be loved?

"There have been prime ministers who had an unquenchable thirst for the public's love [Shimon Peres - G.W.]. There have been prime ministers with absolute cynicism, who understood it all, saw it all and use human weaknesses when the opportunity arose to go on working to achieve their goals [Ariel Sharon - G.W.]; there are prime ministers who come from a deep ideological place, who ultimately want to survive to implement their ideology [Yitzhak Shamir - G.W.]; and there are prime ministers - here I'm more comfortable naming names - Rabin was one, and, in my humble opinion, so was I - who were in the job to change reality for the better, even if it ran counter to what they had to say in the election, and even if it meant risking the rest of their term in office. Rabin was the only one who paid a heavier price than I did. And when it comes to needing the public's love, I'm a bit like Shamir."

Our meetings were postponed or cut short several times because of appointments or telephone calls from Benjamin Netanyahu. They speak several times a day. Frequently, on weekends, Barak and the prime minister sit together for hours at Netanyahu's house in Caesarea or at his official residence.

You left Labor to stay in the government but your influence is limited: There's no diplomatic initiative with the Palestinians, the negotiations with Syria were not resumed, there's no complete freeze on settlements.

"If I hadn't joined the cabinet, then I'd be stuck with my party somewhere between Kadima, from which I don't hear a thing on any issue in the country, and Meretz, from which I don't hear a thing on any issue in the country. I think that if it weren't for me, there would be a narrow right-wing government. A narrow right-wing government would endure, but there wouldn't be a single Bar-Ilan speech in a narrow right-wing government. No way. There wouldn't be this freeze for 10 months in a narrow right-wing government. No way. A government in which I wasn't present would not maintain restraint."

But during his first term in office, as head of a right-wing government, Netanyahu made more moves toward peace than in those two years - returning Hebron, signing the Wye accord.

"True. He took a step and fell afterward. He's more careful today. What did he see at Wye? That when you take partial steps, which can be interpreted by the political opposition as too little, too late - this also carries a political price."

Get the U.S. on board

Two weeks from now Netanyahu will fly to Washington to address Congress for the first time. The planned declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations will be overshadowing the visit. If it were up to Barak, Netanyahu would present President Barack Obama with "a bold plan." Barak believes that the declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN, without it being preceded by an Israeli diplomatic initiative, will drag Israel into the place South Africa occupied in its apartheid years.

"There are some pretty powerful elements in the world that are active in the matter - within countries, including friendly countries, in various organizations of workers, academics, consumers, green parties," he says. "And this drive boils down to a large movement called BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], which is what they did with South Africa. It won't happen at once. It will begin, like an iceberg, to advance on us from all corners.

"In the Council of Europe, there are institutions that deal with import and export, and they can, without any government decision, cause no small damage to the Israeli economy. We will see this thing happening in academia, we will see it happening in dockworkers' organizations, in consumer organizations, and it will seep into governments. It's not wise. It's an uncontrollable process that seems to me more dangerous than the public realizes at the moment. We have been ruling over another people for 43 years already; that is unprecedented. Perhaps China can afford to rule over some small populations in various corners of its empire, or Russia. We can't. There is no way the world is going to accept this.

"The extreme right exposes Israel to unnecessary and dangerous isolation. In the Likud, it's this group of [Yariv] Levin, [Tzipi] Hotovely and so forth. They have weight. There are cabinet members who hold these sort of views: Bogey [Moshe Yaalon], Benny Begin and Lieberman sometimes."

So what should Netanyahu do?

"We need to close the door behind us with Obama and tell him: 'We talk only to you. Here are our positions on the matter of the six core issues.' The chances for a permanent agreement aren't great under current international conditions. The other option is an interim agreement in which the Palestinians know what the permanent agreement looks like. This, too, should be a bold proposal.

"Obama has to tell the Palestinians four or five things: that they will have an area similar to what they had in '67, that the security arrangements will be such as to not disrupt life in their state, that the issue of the refugees will be largely resolved by the Palestinians internally, that they will receive sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and that in other places in the city there will be special arrangements. It is vital to reach an agreement in coordination with the United States, not against it, and to the best of my knowledge, this is possible. In the end [Israel] also needs money to finance the multi-layered missile interception system that will cover the entire country; it's all related."

You say that it is complicated today to successfully negotiate a permanent agreement and maybe even an interim agreement. If that doesn't happen, are you in favor of the unilateral option?

"If both these things fail, there will be an election in Israel, great disagreement, and I think that ultimately, the right thing for us to do is to take unilateral action; because ultimately, the threat to us comes from both extreme scenarios - Bosnia and Belfast, on the one hand, where you have two communities bleeding inside each other for generations, and the old South Africa. We'd be better off with a unilateral action that would also include evacuating settlements."

Olmert initiated serious negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen ). He says that he was closer to reaching peace than any other prime minister before him.

"That wasn't real negotiations. Olmert, at the last minute, before he went home, tried to get Abu Mazen to sign some map in a smoke-filled room. That's how they do business in Emek Sara in Be'er Sheva [a commercial center once ruled by racketeers]. That's not how you conduct negotiations between two countries."

Did Israel know about the agreement in the making between the PLO and Hamas? What is its significance in your eyes?

"Nobody predicted that they would sign now. In the end, at rock bottom, despite their differences over the approach to Israel, and even over the character of the Palestinian state destined to arise - these are two branches of the same national movement. And in their moments of truth, they automatically recognize this. The sophisticated element in this whole move is that in the run-up to September, one of the serious complaints against Abu Mazen is, 'What are you coming to us for? On behalf of what are you coming to request recognition?'

"Abu Mazen thinks: 'We'll domesticate them.' He says: 'If we maneuver correctly, and the stars are aligned in our favor, then at election time, we will change our standing.' There isn't any objective good and bad here. If the world clearly demands from them, from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, an advance commitment to the Quartet - 'renounce terror, recognize Israel, accept all previous signed agreements' - and if this is translated into practice, then it can be a good thing. In my opinion, it is too early to tell whether this will happen."

Then there's no need to panic?

"We shouldn't be in a panic over anything."

Unriled by the bomb

Do you think that if Iran gets a bomb they won't drop it?

"Not on us and not on another neighbor. But I don't think that anyone can say responsibly that these ayatollahs, if they have nuclear weapons, are something you can rely on, like the Politburo and the Pentagon. It's not the same thing. I don't think they will do anything so long as they are in complete control of their senses, but to say that somebody really knows and understands what will happen with such leadership sitting in a bunker in Tehran and thinking that it's going to fall in a few days and is capable of doing it. I don't know what it would do. I don't think in terms of panic. What about Pakistan? Some political meltdown happens there and four bombs wind up in Iran. So what? So you head for the airport? You close down the country? Just because they got a shortcut? No. We are still the most powerful in the Middle East."

Iran seems to have eluded the wave of revolutions in the Arab world.

"In the short run, the Iranians are celebrating. In the long run, they know it can reach them, too. I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of the dictatorships in the Arab world, including the Iranian one. The beginning of the end, and there it will take another 10 years, say, or five years, or half a year, nobody knows. The 'Arab Spring of Nations' is an exciting and positive process in the long run. I don't think that the peace treaty with Egypt is in immediate danger or that we can expect another experience with them like in '73. That is very far away. I don't know what will happen in Syria. I think that Syria is in danger of the regime there losing control. One thing is certain: the Arab world won't give rise to any Vaclav Havel. No American Jeffersonian democracy is going to arise there."

Why not? Look at what happened in Europe after years of rule by far more murderous dictatorships.

"The Arab countries are far from maturity. Maybe a tolerant regime can be created. There are elements like that in Islam. In the Koran, too. The Arab tradition in a great many countries is not a murderous tradition; it is a tradition of balance, of culture, of restrictions on government, even though these are not written in the form of checks and balances. Always, those Arabs with the harshest attitude toward us would say to me, 'Tell me, where did they kill a third of your people? With the Ukrainians, you already have peace? With the Lithuanians, do you have peace?"

A few weeks ago, at a meeting of the Likud Knesset faction, Netanyahu turned to his party MKs and said: "There is public pressure to release Gilad Shalit even in exchange for 450 prisoners, 100 of whom are designated serious risks, and I insist on their being sent overseas, because we know there are prisoners who know how to run operations from prison, so just imagine what could happen if they were freed."

Barak takes a different position: "Some of the people who passionately claim that the freed [prisoners] will murder people truly believe this. I cannot tell you with confidence that no one will murder. I say that in practice, the fact is that we are currently in the quietest period in some time even though the prisoners released in the previous deals are in the West Bank. It's always a matter of context."

If context is the main thing, then why don't they return Gilad Shalit even at the price of hundreds of freed prisoners in the West Bank?

"I think Gilad could have been freed three years ago."

Did Olmert err in not making the deal with Hamas?

"Never mind that. Olmert erred even in the way he structured the deal. I monitored previous deals as head of Military Intelligence. We never consented to let the other side determine names. We always built the whole deal. Even when it was a deal that was pro forma from our standpoint, it's our humanitarian move, and so we will determine the names. It's not that they didn't bring names, but we didn't open negotiations with names and we didn't determine the number in advance. The moment that Olmert said about 1,000 people, 450 that you'll choose, he placed all sorts of limitations on it.

You draw grave conclusions from the current situation, you say that we might be in the dark corner South Africa was in, but yet, you continue to sit in this government. You could become a partner to the very disaster you are warning against.

"I am constantly working to alter the situation, and I also can't shake off two examples I have stuck in my head - those are the examples of Meir Amit and Amram Mitzna. Meir Amit, two weeks before [Menachem] Begin's announcement that he would go to Camp David, said: 'There's nothing to do there. It's a bunch of blabbermouths,' got up and left. Mitzna didn't join the Sharon government because Sharon said: 'The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv.' Both of them misread reality."

Do you intend to run in the next election?

"Yes. On the Atzmaut Party ticket."

Will you join the Likud?

"No. Why on earth would I join?"

You and Netanyahu didn't agree to run in the election together?

"That is baseless."

You read history - aren't you afraid that despite great promise your political career will be remembered as an unsuccessful footnote?

"I'm not afraid, nor does it preoccupy me that much. It reminds me of the joke about the doctor who was at a cemetery. Suddenly he hears this faint cry coming from one of the graves: 'Doctor, have you got something for worms?'"