Ehud Barak: Benjamin Netanyahu has ‘lost control of the government’
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Ehud Barak: Benjamin Netanyahu has ‘lost control of the government’

In an exclusive interview with Jewish News, Israel's 10th Prime Minister reflects on his time in office, his hopes and fears for the future of the Jewish state, and having permanent jet-lag

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak’s memoir has a what-it-says-on-the-tin title: “My Country, My Life, Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace”. Israel’s 10th prime minister, from 1999 to 2001, is still, at 76, the joint most highly decorated soldier in Israel’s history, and it is clear that the one-time kibbutznik takes no prisoners — literally or metaphorically.

Barak was the legendary commander of Sayeret Matkal, the hotshot special services unit whose trademark was daring raids on enemy territory. He became chief of staff before segueing into politics and can arguably be described as the last of a generation of stunning leaders for which Israel became famous. 

And now he sits in London in the middle of a round of whirlwind interviews to promote his book — and unlike any other Israeli politician I have ever met outside Israel, the usually low-key Barak is forthright with his criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He calls his book “a wake-up call” to the Israeli public and has had ample opportunity to view Israel objectively during the time of writing it. With a smile, he says he “hopes not to have to return to front-line politics”, but he doesn’t rule it out, either. “Never say never,” he advises.

“..we have a compelling imperative [to pursue the two-state solution], not for the benefit of the Palestinians..”

“You know,” Barak says, stretching his stocky frame, “I have almost permanent jet lag. So at two in the morning I tweet. I call it ‘trumping’”, he grins. 

In these tweets, and obviously more expansively in the book, Barak voices his anxiety for the future of Israel and the direction in which Netanyahu’s right wing government is leading the country. He charges Netanyahu with “creating an existential threat when the truth is that we are the most powerful country in the region”, and worries about attacks on Israel’s democratic institutions “by our own government”.

The ancient Greeks, Barak recalls, “used to say that if you don’t know which direction you are going in, no wind will take you. But this right-wing government knows very well its direction — since 2015 its intention has been to close off any possibility of disengagement with the Palestinians. This is the vision of one state over the whole of the Biblical land. It’s a very tempting, almost seductive vision for any Jew, including myself — but only when my eyes are closed. Then I open them and see the reality”.

If anyone is well placed to criticise Netanyahu, it is Barak, who has known the prime minister since Bibi and his late brother, Yoni (who was killed in the 1976 Entebbe raid) were both members of Sayeret Matkal. He served as defence minister in a Bibi-led government between 2007 and 2013. It’s clear from the book that Barak preferred the more cerebral brother, Yoni, but still he warns not to underestimate Bibi — “he’s no lightweight”, he says.

Benjamin Netanyahu.

But it is precisely because he thinks Netanyahu is a savvy politician that Barak is exasperated with him — and, he says, “he has lost control of the government”, instead allowing hard-liners such as Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, and Ayelet Shaked to drive the agenda.

The dilemma around the West Bank, says Barak, “is painful but simple”. There are two choices, neither of which fulfils the Zionist dream on which he was raised and in which he still believes. Either there will be a non-Jewish demographic in the area, or the Palestinians “will be permanently under Israeli occupation without being able to vote. That’s not a democracy. I feel that we have a compelling imperative [to pursue the two-state solution], not for the benefit of the Palestinians. It’s about our future identity and direction, that is the crucial question”.

Ehud Barak, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011

It’s fair to say that Barak — who says he wrote the book out of a desire to “tell the truth” — is at his most passionate and furious when detailing the attacks he says the current government has mounted on Israel’s democracy. “It’s auto-immune disease where the body attacks itself. The Israeli Supreme Court is under harsh direct attack; civil society, NGOs, human rights groups, you name it, are attacked by the government which tries to define the centre left as traitors; the free media is under direct attack; and even the basic value sets of the IDF, which, together with the Supreme Court, protected Israeli leadership from being taken to the International Court at The Hague — that ethical code is under direct attack from our own government.”

“..The Israeli Supreme Court is under harsh direct attack; civil society, NGOs, human rights groups, you name it, are attacked by the government..”

I ask if he is disappointed with the apparent failure of the left — the ideology in which Barak was brought up and served as a politician —to provide a credible alternative to the current government. Barak sighs. “Here’s the difference between right wing and left wing electors. The right wing operates like fans of a football club. Their guy is always right, even when he’s wrong. And the left wing functions like a debate class at university, always talking about how the world should have looked.” I am left with the distinct impression that Barak would give both sides a good “schmeiss” if he could.

The essence of Zionism, says Barak, “was never to wait for others to define us. We had to take our fate in our hands and not sit idly by.” As long as 15 years ago, he says, he was warning that Israel had to act on its own behalf, not worrying about what the Palestinian leadership was or was not doing. So he is supremely unconcerned about Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s state of health or who will come after him. Israel, he says, has to make choices for its own sake, not for the sake of its putative partners.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Ultra-nationalist, populist governments, warns Barak, “need demons from the outside and traitors from within. So we are seeing our Zionist democracy on the slippery slope of looking for a ‘Hitler of the day’ to justify any action.”

Instead, he says, Israelis should unite around three pillars of principle: security; the unity and integrity of people rather than the land; and lastly, Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence as “our de facto constitution”.

“..we are seeing our Zionist democracy on the slippery slope of looking for a ‘Hitler of the day’ to justify any action..”

And despite all his serious concerns about the direction of the state, Barak remains confident and optimistic. “[Former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir used to say, the sea is the same sea, the Arabs are the same Arabs, we can do nothing. But it’s not true”. And he points to the changes in the Arab world and the two solid peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. “They learned the hard way that because of our achievements they cannot destroy Israel”, 

Bottom line for Barak, the soldiers’ soldier, is “does a step help us, or does it weaken us”. That was his guiding principle in Sayeret Matkal, and it remains so today. Don’t place any bets against Ehud Barak coming to the service of his beloved country once again, soon.

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