UPDATED, 4/17 to include arrests of protesters
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak worries about the Iranian nuclear threat. He worries about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
But what worries him most about Israel’s long-term survival? The rightward direction of the current Israeli government.
Speaking May 16 to a near sellout crowd at the JCC of San Francisco, Barak said the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies are “embarrassing,” and that they have “locked the door on the two-state solution, which is the only viable and sustainable one.”
In town as part of a book tour in support of his newly published memoir “My Country, My Life,” Barak was scheduled to speak the next day at the Commonwealth Club. At the JCC, he said many things that would please progressive observers of Middle East politics, such as harshly criticizing Netanyahu’s support of Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank.
Not progressive enough for more than a dozen anti-Zionist protesters in attendance, part of a larger group protesting outside. They noisily interrupted Barak three separate times, chanting slogans, such as “Palestine will be free,” and calling Barak — a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces — a war criminal.
Each time, other audience members clapped loudly to drown out the protests, as SFPD and JCC security teams escorted protesters out of the building. Eighteen were arrested, cited for trespassing and released.
Barak was on the stage in conversation with Janine Zacharia, a former Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post and now a lecturer in Communication at Stanford University. He was unflappable through the disruptions, almost as if he expected them. After the first, he told the audience members they were lucky to live in a country where people feel comfortable to express their views.
Then he went back to addressing the issues.
Born in 1942 and raised on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon, Barak was an eyewitness to and key player in the major events of Israel’s history. He served as a commando and officer in the IDF for 35 years, and was part of several key covert antiterrorist operations. He fought in the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War, rising through the ranks of the military and, later, the Labor Party.
As Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001, he worked closely with President Bill Clinton, coming close to a peace deal with the late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat at a Camp David summit in 2000. It was not to be.
“By now, the Palestinians would be celebrating the 15th anniversary of a Palestinian state,” he said wistfully.
While knocking Palestinian leadership for “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity” (using Israeli U.N. ambassador Abba Eban’s famous expression), he saved his harshest criticism for Netanyahu and the Israeli right.
“When you talk to the right wing,” he said, “and ask how can you avoid this tragic dead-end of the Zionist project, they look to heaven. They basically wait for divine intervention. [Netanyahu] drifted into a mindset that is extremely pessimistic and victimizing.”
On two of the hottest of current topics — Donald Trump’s abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal and the lethal violence at the Gaza-Israel border — Barak had plenty to say.
Iran’s potential nuclear threat has him “deeply worried. We have to make sure we are prepared. However I never could understand the rhetoric about [comparisons to] Europe in 1938. We do what it takes to make sure they don’t get nuclear weapons, but I don’t like apocalyptic thinking.”
As for Gaza, Barak said Israel has no conflict with the two million Palestinians who live there, only with the Hamas leadership, to whom he assigned most of the blame for the current crisis.
He defended the IDF’s use of live fire against the protesters, given the Gazans’ stated purpose of breaking through the border fence and entering Israel.
“We can hardly afford a breach,” he added. “I can hardly see a different option [to live fire].”
Many audience questions related to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria. Barak claimed up to 80 percent of settlers lived in areas close to the Green Line and the Jerusalem suburbs, and would be absorbed into Israel under mutually agreed-upon land swaps. But the other 20 percent, deeper in the West Bank, remain a problem.
“The government insists on being active in 100 settlements with 100,000 isolated settlers all over Judea and Samaria. By their very presence they eliminate any possibility of a formal agreement. They are a burden on the security of Israel,” he said.
Barak wrapped up his remarks brushing aside critics who have said the Arabs will never change. He cited the attitudes of Arab League following the 1967 Six-Day War, when the members adopted the “Three No’s,” vowing no peace, no recognition, no negotiations with the Jewish state.
He pointed to decades of peace with Egypt and Jordan as proof things can change.
Said Barak: “Conflicts of centuries, once solved, you look back and wonder why the hell we waited so long.”