Interview with Mr Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister of Israel

The only option is the
‘two-state’ solution

 The only option is the  ‘two-state’ solution  ING-051
22 December 2023

The “7th of October will be remembered in the history of Israel and Judaism as our people’s most tragic day, since the time of the Shoah: 1,200 Israelis slaughtered — women, children, disabled people and even survivors of the Shoah — and 250 hostages in the hands of Hamas criminals”, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak begins.

Barak was prime minister between 1991 and 2001, after a long military career in which he was at the head of Israeli’s armed forces as chief of staff. As government leader, he participated in the 2000 Camp David Summit promoted by U.S. President Bill Clinton, in which he offered Yasser Arafat a comprehensive peace plan, including the recognition of the Palestinian State, which however was not followed through. Seven years later, as President of the Labour Party, he was appointed Defence Minister in Ehud Olmert’s cabinet. In this role the following year, he led a military operation against Hamas in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead.

Along with Olmert he is the Israeli Prime Minister who came closest to a definitive peace with the Palestinians. In recent years, he founded a new liberal-socialist political party, called Democratic Israel. We met him in his home in the centre of Tel Aviv.

“The 7th of October was certainly a collapse of our entire system: intelligence, armed forces, government. In the 48 hours that followed, we were able to regain control of the situation, but it is useless to deny that the blow that was inflicted was extremely heavy and questions us in many aspects. Mainly, it calls into question the relationship between the State and its citizens, based on their security, a pact that precedes anything else in this country, including personal rights, social solidarity or equal opportunities. The duty of the State therefore is to guarantee the security of all citizens so that they may sleep peacefully and wake up without fear”.

Prime Minister Barak, you also have a prestigious military background. In your opinion, was 7 October a military or also a political failure?

Both. Technically, it was above all a military failure, because there were signs that the attack was being prepared, but they were not properly interpreted. If troops, helicopters and drones had been deployed along the border with Gaza in the last two hours alone, Hamas’ terrorist action would not have had the same tragic outcome. Thus technically, the system for preventive intelligence and immediate reaction did not work. But if we widen the view, it is obvious that the greatest responsibility is political. And it has to do directly with the strategy pursued by Netanyahu in the last four or five years, of using Hamas to marginalize the role of Mahmud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. Think for example of the almost ‘invitational’ doors that were opened to large investments from Qatar to Hamas, around 30 million dollars a month, which in 5 years amounted to 1.5 billion dollars, half of which, according to some estimates were used to finance Hamas’s military. When Netanyahu was criticized for allowing this, he invariably answered that anyone who opposed the existence of “Two States”, had to support this approach in favour of Hamas.

This allowed him to justify to the international community — whether the Pope, the United States or the European Union — that it would be impossible to begin negotiations with Palestinians in the direction of the Two State solution. Can one negotiate the establishment of a State with terrorists? Definitely not. This was his narrative, along with the assessment of Mahmud Abbas’ leadership as excessively weak and unreliable and unable to control Gaza and Hamas. On 7 October Netanyahu’s absurd strategy of “using” Hamas as anti-PLO to avoid true peace negotiations, collapsed miserably. And another view also collapsed, one according to which it was possible to manage the conflict without ever taking a strong and courageous decision. This idea of removing the existence of a “Palestinian problem” has had a fair following in Israeli public opinion which ended up forgetting the permanence of a latent conflict. On 7 October the image of Netanyahu as a reliable “Mr Security”, definitely fell apart for the same reason.

But part of the public opinion, those who had protested every Saturday for 42 weeks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, had already demonstrated against this.

Yes, but this too had a concrete and strong impact on the events of 7 October. The judicial reform proposed by the government surely was a motive for concern for national security. This is what Defence Minister Yoav Gallant had said 10 months ago on the basis of information received from the services, but Netanyhu had refused to debate the issue within the government. It had never happened before. When I was prime minister, if the minister of defence had informed me about a potential danger at 2 am, we would have convened the government at 8am. The minister was thus forced to give the information directly to the public. Netanyahu’s reaction was to fire him with a phone call. A dismissal that later had to be retracted due to the intense protests of the crowds. The same thing happened last July when the new heads of intelligence signalled possible implications in the approval of the judicial reform on national security. And again, they were ignored. It is something that has no precedent in the history of our country. But also, in other countries. Can you imagine the President of the U.S, the most presidential country in the West, ignoring warnings from the armed forces?

Does this involution of the democratic regime that you speak of depend upon the presence of ministers of the religious nationalism in the government?

Look, I think there is some role playing. They think they are manipulating Netanyahu and Netanyahu thinks he is manipulating them. I want it to be clear that my attitude is not one of political hostility or a rivalry with the current prime minister, but it is the expression of a deep concern over the future of democracy in Israel which is in real danger. You do understand that if Netanyahu had duly informed the government and the Knesset about the potential dangerous consequences of the approval of the constitutional law on judicial reforms, it would have been very difficult for it to have been approved? Why then is this law so important as to cause Netanyahu to even place the country’s security in second place? For the simple reason that suppressing the independence of the judicial system, of its dominion and forcing resignations even of the prime minister in cases of confirmed crimes, is suitable to protecting and preserving his personal interests. Nothing at all to do with national security, just a question of personal interests.

Before this justice reform another constitutional law, known as “basic law”, was approved in 2018. It defines the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. What is your opinion regarding that law?

I think that that law was an awful sign of what later took place. Because it was a clumsy attempt to insert some parts of our Declaration of Independence into the Israeli legal code. As you know in Israel we do not have a Constitution and the Declaration of Independence expresses the values on which the Constitution was to be drafted. But this insertion occurred following pressure from the extreme religious right, distorting the meaning of some of these values: first of all that on the equality of all citizens before the law, irrespective of ethnicity or religion. This implies the potential discrimination of anyone who is not Jewish.

However, opposition to this government seems very divided. You, Prime Minister Barak, caused a stir years ago when you agreed to support a Netanyahu government. Do you not think that if the centrist party of Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz had agreed to support Netanyahu in the last elections, they would have kept him from embracing the religious nationalists?

When I decided to join Netanyahu’s government in 2009, it was a completely different story. I had been Defence Minister two years earlier in Olmert’s government and I was particularly involved in the hard debate on Iran’s nuclear program. It was a very delicate and important issue that required continuity of commitment. The situation now is completely different. There have been five general elections in three years, a world record, which did not result in a stable or lasting majority. Netanyahu should perhaps respond to the question you asked me because I am convinced that he has never, not even close to it, considered the hypothesis of a unity government with the centrists. He needed to form this government because only this government could guarantee him and shield him from the accusations of corruption and fraud charged by the criminal court. The problem is all here: we have this government and we are in this serious situation only because one man, our prime minister is trying to evade justice.

Among the possible alternatives to this government at the end of the war, it doesn’t seem that any of the potential leaders – Lapid or Gantz- is directly mentioning the option of two States as the way to be followed?

I think that both favour the “two peoples in two States” solution but you can understand that the emotional spirit of anger and suffering of the recent weeks is certainly not an idea to be stirring now. But I think that we politicians have a duty first and foremost: that of telling the truth to the citizens. And the truth is that we cannot remove the existence of a “Palestinian problem” from our agenda. Certainly the atmosphere that was created both amongst ourselves and amongst Arabs after 7 October, does not help. It is true that in the past negotiations always occurred after moments of crisis. But there were other leaders then. Leaders who were capable of negotiating the necessary compromises, and of reassuring public opinion especially with regards to security. Capable of persuading that the future security of Israelis is protected more by accords than by arms. Now the feeling of anger and revenge prevails in public opinion which makes it almost absurd to speak about peace negotiations or peace agreements. But I am also convinced that once this time passes and the war ends, and the hostages are freed, it will be inevitable to seriously and once and for all, deal with the Palestinian issue. Two people in two States is the only path there is. I think that when we will return to reason, understanding what really happened, even Israeli public opinion will be convinced of this. But in order for this to actually occur, there will be the need for a new leadership with a vision.

How long will the war in Gaza last?

Israel is now in a difficult situation. On the one hand there is the need to conclude the operations to destroy Hamas’s military force, operations that according to the military, could take a few months. On the other hand, there is the international community’s pressure for a ceasefire, which will become insistent in a couple of weeks. If it is not listened to, it could lead to a serious state of isolation for Israel. The time frames therefore do not coincide. I believe that the only feasible optionto emerge from this, is an intervention from an interposing international peace-keeping force that would include the Arab countries that are closest, Jordan, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and in a different way, also Qatar. A force to also oversee the Sinai in protection of Israel. An intervention that is limited to only a few months, and then return Gaza to a renewed Palestinian Authority.

The problem however is that Netanyahu appears to have already excluded this possibility.

He can exclude it but frankly I do not see any other feasible paths, that do not include the involvement of moderate Arab countries and a return to the prospect of Two States. A perspective that is radically different from that currently being pursued by the government. I am confident of the fact that the Israeli people will not allow themselves to sink to the depths in which the racists of religious nationalism are trying to steer them. At the moment there are four issues that I believe are the priority on the Israeli agenda: the liberation of all the hostages, the confrontation with Hezbollah in the north that should be dealt with the necessary prudence to avoid a regionalization of the conflict and the recovery of the credibility and legitimacy of Israel in the international community. And lastly a clear vision on a solution to the Palestinian problem that cannot exclude accepting the Two State perspective.

Roberto Cetera
from Tel Aviv