“The moment Iran tries to become a nuclear military power, if they succeed, they become potentially, in the longer term, an existential threat,” said former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who traveled to speak at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in Washington, DC Friday.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton was originally supposed to speak alongside Barak—but he had to stick around Capitol Hill for the late-night vote on the tax bill. So in Cotton’s absence, Barak discussed the threat of a nuclear Iran, Israeli political culture and his own political future. Here are some highlights from their conversation, moderated by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
The Iran Deal
“Why have you become a supporter of a deal that you told me and others you feared very much?” Goldberg asked the former prime minister. But Barak maintained that he had never changed his mind: “Whenever I’m asked, ‘What’s your feeling about this Iran deal?’ I answer: mixed feelings.” Now that the deal exists, he says that it would be a mistake for the United States to decertify it—or to pull out of it altogether. “It’s a bad deal,” he said, “but it is a done deal.”
He noted that the deal has other signatories—who will not pull out of it, regardless of the Unites States’ actions. Decertification “will not change anything for the Iranians. If it changes anything, it makes them in a better situation. It’s a win-win. They can keep harvesting the benefits of this agreement.” And at the same time, if Iran ever tries to break its end of the bargain, “they will be able to argue that it is somehow legitimized” by the United States’ decision.
Barak also spoke more generally about strategically handling the threat of a nuclear Iran. “I used to scorn American presidents when we dealt with Iran. I told them: ‘You know when we are talking about surgical operations, we have in mind scalpels. When you talk surgical operations, you seem to think of chisel and ten-pound hammer.’” But Barak had a few words of praise for one American president in particular: “I should admit that, in the last four years, America—under Obama and Panetta and the Pentagon—developed extremely fine scalpels.”
Left-Right Political Culture
Barak spoke about a cultural divide between the right and the left—in Israel and around the world. The right, he said, “behaves like football club fans. They’re always enthusiastic. They never lose trust in their team. They don’t replace the team after three repeated losses; they’re always ready to jump on the referee.”
At the same time, he said, the left “behaves like a debate club in an Ivy League university. You sit in an air-conditioned room with top-quality people, and you contemplate normative issues, how the world should have looked like. Not how to go outside and get power and drive the whole thing.”
“We have a certain malaise,” he added. “The passivity of the left is a malaise—and the left should be shaken much more strongly in order to wake up.”
A Return to Politics?
Last month, Barak controversially claimed he is “more mature and better able to lead the State of Israel than any of the other candidates.” On Friday, he told Goldberg he was referring to a poll, which found that “if a direct election in Israel would be held now, and I would run against Bibi in the secular part of the Israeli population, I would win.”
Goldberg, trying to unearth Barak’s intentions, asked: “Are you a businessman, or are you a future political leader in Israel, in your own mind?”
“In my own mind, I’m a worried citizen,” Barak replied. “I’m deeply worried with the direction that Israel is taking.” While most Israelis believe in a two-state solution, Barak doesn’t believe Israel’s current government is on board. “The right-wing government ends up moving in an agenda which I believe is the real existential threat in the long term to Israel—it’s not the Iranians.”
Later, when asked again if he was considering returning to politics, he equivocated. “We learned at an early age in politics never say never,” he said. “I cannot exclude a situation that might drive me to contemplate it.
Watch the whole session here: