Born in 1942, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak grew up alongside the State of Israel. In his 2018 memoir, My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace, Barak reflects on his life and the Zionist vision that shaped him. The book, which recently won a National Jewish Book Award, recounts his 35 years in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—where he rose from an early recruit of the special-forces unit Sayeret Matkal to chief of staff, Israel’s highest military position—and his years as a political leader. Barak, now 77, traces how he grew to understand the need for a Palestinian state and explains why as prime minister (1999-2001) he considered giving up more than any previous Israeli leader in order to test whether a final-status agreement was possible. It wasn’t then, and it might still be out of reach, but it remains a necessary goal, says Barak, who served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense minister from 2007 until 2013, when he stepped away from political life.
In this interview, Barak speaks not just about Israel’s past but of what lies ahead. He believes that the future envisioned by Netanyahu and his allies is a quantum shift away from the original Zionist vision: the majority-Jewish, democratic state set forth by both David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Barak sees Israel’s April elections, in which Netanyahu—who in July could become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister—is seeking reelection, as potentially the most critical in Israel’s history.
You were a military man. How did your views of the Palestinians evolve as you came to understand the challenges of living side by side with them?
I’ve lived side by side with Palestinians since I was a toddler. I remember the Arab village near our kibbutz. I knew all along that we were rivals because we were living on the same piece of ground. When we announced our intention to establish the state, we became enemies. We had no choice but to win.
[But] I was never taught to hate the Palestinians. We believed in our rights, especially when it became clear that they were trying to destroy us. I thought, even when I was a young man, that we were heading toward a peace not just with the Palestinians, but also with all of our other neighbors.
Do you still think there is hope for a two-state solution?
Yes, of course! I am confident there is. I think there is a majority of Israelis who believe it. You won’t find it in the headlines, but if you closely interrogate people on what they prefer, you will find that even now, probably 50 percent of the public believes in two states. Probably even 70 percent think that if we cannot reach an agreement with the Palestinians, we have to consider unilateral disengagement while keeping our security responsibility for the whole area.
So you disagree with the current government and how it’s handling the regional Arab situation?
Our government has missed opportunities in the last three years to establish a regional alliance with the autocratic Sunni rulers of the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. We have a common interest to struggle against extreme radical Muslim terrorism and to keep Iran and its hegemonic and nuclear intentions at bay, and we have an opportunity to join hands in huge infrastructure projects, which are needed in desalination of water, energy, communications and transportation. We have a lot of work to do together, but we cannot do it, because as the Saudis just mentioned, these autocratic leaders cannot afford to cooperate publicly with Israel as long as Israel is reigning permanently over the Palestinians.
“this government is like an autoimmune disease hacking at our foundations and institutions of democracy.”
What does a one-state solution mean? Is it possible?
A one-state solution in the minds of the extreme right and the extreme left has totally different meanings. On the extreme left, they think of one state where Palestinians and Israelis are living together, all citizens. On the extreme right, they dream of something else, that somehow the Palestinians would be leaving us or would be expelled or living as second-class citizens. So, I’m against a one-state solution. I think that it would be a disaster and that we have a compelling imperative to stop this drift toward one state, which the government helps or backs. One state will inevitably become either un-Jewish or undemocratic, probably both, and we will be deep into a permanent civil war. Because, you know, between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, we have 14 million people, nine million Israelis and five million Palestinians. And even among Israelis, there are 1.5 million Arabs, and they are basically still related to the Palestinians. If this bloc of Palestinians can vote, we will have a bi-national state overnight and a majority of Muslims in a very short time. If they cannot vote, that’s not a democracy. I don’t want to mention the other example from the previous century in a neighboring continent. The government is quite effective in brainwashing people, telling them that it’s okay, nothing will happen. And we in the opposition, we are trying to draw the attention of the public to the inevitable consequences of this trajectory.
How does Hamas’s Gaza fit into the traditional two-state solution? Is there a three-state solution?
I don’t believe there is a three-state solution, and probably even a two-state solution is not practical right now. It should be the long-term objective that we don’t ever lose sight of. Even if the Palestinians are split, we should be clear about our preferences. Hamas is another kind of regime, which crushes its own people. They launch continuous terror and rockets and missiles into Israel. They [Palestinian Authority officials] pay terrorists, but they basically cooperate with us in fighting terrorism. We have a lot of reservations about both, but we should clearly prefer the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah over Hamas. That’s what you might hear from our government as well, but the practice is the opposite. They are yielding to Hamas under fire, and they are paying Hamas protection money by allowing the Qataris to bring in cash. I’m always asking the government: Who the hell do you think will replace the Palestinian Authority when they collapse? It will be Hamas. We cannot have a perfect solution for tomorrow, and the first principle is to make sure that security is in our hands. But having said that, our interest is that the Palestinian Authority will be the stronger Palestinian party.
So someday Israel makes peace with the Palestinian Authority, but then you’ve got Hamas in Gaza. What do you do?
I don’t know. I don’t believe that an independent entity in Gaza is viable, and I strongly believe that, even now, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are not just brothers and cousins but two expressions of the same national movement. One of the reasons that we cannot now make an agreement immediately has to do with the fact that we have to wait until they somehow will have one government with one approach.
What qualities does a prime minister of Israel need now to begin to transcend this impasse? What does Israel need in a leader?
I will tell you not what we have to have but what is absent now. We have now not a government but a holy alliance or unholy alliance of opportunists and people who care about themselves, and a prime minister who is temporarily busy with saving himself from an indictment and trial. But these right-wingers are combining forces with ultra-nationalists, messianic, racist extremists. And these people are trying to have one state from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan. This is probably a great messianic vision, but it has nothing to do with reality.
This government is like an autoimmune disease hacking at our foundations and institutions of democracy. The minister of justice attacks the Supreme Court. The minister of education attacks the universities. The minister of culture attacks the authors and the playwrights. The ministers of the security cabinet attack the chief of staff and the army commanders. Netanyahu attacks everything that moves. This coalition of corrupt people and messianic extremists is a more serious danger than either Hamas or Hezbollah.
Instead of a healthy national identity based on the richness and depth of our traditions, our contributions to the world and to our own identity, Netanyahu and the right wing in Israel have developed an ultra-nationalist way of giving the public a sense of direction and meaning based on identifying demons, Amaleks and Hitlers on the outside, and traitors on the inside. This has been the practice of every authoritarian system over the last 200 years, and we are suffering from this malaise.
You’re saying that the real existential threat to Israel is the government?
Don’t misread me. I spent decades of my life fighting Hamas and Hezbollah. Those external threats are all serious. Don’t underestimate them. We invest a huge part of our budget, and we have our best people in intelligence and in the armed forces to protect us. But Israel is by now the strongest country for a thousand miles around Jerusalem from Teheran to Benghazi. This should have given us the self-confidence to face all the external threats with responsible and cautious preparation for any kind of tests and be ready to defeat them. But none of these threats is an existential threat to Israel. The vision of one state and the behavior of the government, which tries to destroy the very foundations of the Zionist democracy, is a threat to Israel. I don’t want to say existential because we will overcome it. The public of Israel will wake up from the nightmare of this government.
When a new prime minister is elected, whether it’s this April or next year, what advice would you give him or her, based on your experience as prime minister? What lessons did you learn that you would like a new leader to know?
I basically will say, “Look reality in the eye. Don’t delude yourself. Analyze what’s good for the people and do it. And never forget your commitment to the public. Take care of their interests and their lives. Don’t focus on yourself.” We need to pursue a regional agreement with the Sunni autocrats, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. We should make sure that a young couple will be able to afford their own modest apartment. Today, they cannot do it without half a million shekels at the start or a million shekels from their parents. And their parents who built this state are suffering now in every way. This growing part of society has the right to dignity and access to health care when they are 60 or 70. We are still a society under pressure, and we need to unify and fight together. We need to close the gaps, and that’s something the government has to do.
And of course we have to restore the freedom of the media. We have to resume the independence of the Supreme Court. We have to give room to external human rights NGOs and organizations, and we have to straighten out the troubled, suppressed ethical code of the IDF and the overall authority of its commander. That’s a huge, Herculean job to accomplish.
What is Zionism today? How would you define Zionism for young people today?
My vision of Israel is of a strong, secure, self-confident, democratic state, which sets itself at the cutting edge of human society in everything—education, science, technology, culture and ultimately, the quality and standard of living. A state whose achievements make it a source of pride for every Jew in the world. A state that young Jews all around the world will be proud of. To achieve this, it’s not enough to be technically strong. We have a vision of the prophet that Israel should be a light unto the nations. We can start with being a light unto ourselves. So we should always excel; we should develop a nationalist sentiment in Israel that is based on our rich traditions and on the contribution of the Jewish people to the values of the advanced world. The values of modern, liberal, humanistic democracy have to do with the visions of our own prophets. And we have contributed these values all throughout history. I keep saying that if we stick to four principles, we will be able to hold to this vision. Number one is security above any other consideration: This is the element that enables all other things to exist. Number two, the integrity and the unity of the people are more important than the size of the area we control. Number three, the Declaration of Independence is the foundation of our values and of our future constitution. We don’t have a constitution, but the values that are expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence should be the basis for Israel’s constitution. And number four, the achievements of Israel are not the achievements of the government or the prime minister. They are the achievements of the people of Israel and they deserve to harvest the fruits. With those four principles, we can establish a model society.