Interview with Ehud Barak (former Prime Minister of Israel) and Steve Zunes’ response
Editor’s note: this interview took place before the killings of over 100 Palestinians and the wounding of several thousand at the fence separating Israel from Gaza in late April and May ( sorry that it took this long to get it transcribed and edited) so this interview focused on the book by Ehud Barak which was about to be released in the US in May with its representative presentation of how many in the Labor Party in Israel continue to think. I did not press Barak on many points because I had been told by many who know how he operates (as a former Commander in Chief of the IDF used to giving orders and not being challenged) that doing so would likely have ended the interview at that point and in any event would not have convinced him of the Tikkun perspective.
I had been led to believe that Barak had become more moderate in his political worldview since the time he held power, so I was deeply disappointed to hear him saying nothing more than the hasbara (Israeli government and its allies propaganda) without any acknowledgment of Israel’s part in creating the conflict and keeping it going. At first I thought to just forget about posting this but since Barak is on a book tour to promote his new book, I thought you might want to have this and share it with others.
I’ve inivted Professor Stephen Zunes to respond to this interview (you’ll find his response below the interview with Barak). PLEASE READ IT. Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, and a contributing editor of Tikkun. His essay on BDS will appear in the Fall 2018 edition of Tikkun Magazine. –Rabbi Michael Lerner firstname.lastname@example.org
M below stands for me, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine, and E for Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister of Israel.
M : Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with Tikkun.
You were Prime Minister of Israel and its chief negotiator when President Bill Clinton convened a meeting between you and Yasir Arafat between July 11 and 25 in the year 2000. Before Camp David, when you were seeking a final status agreement, the Palestinians, reflecting on that event, say that they indicated to you and to Clinton that they were not ready for these negotiations and wanted some advance discussion to see if an agreement would be possible. The supposition of many American political observers was that President Clinton thought that he needed a major accomplishment in the waning year of his presidency and less than 4 months before the US presidential election to deflect attention from his affair with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office which for many was at that time defining his presidency. That may explain his sense of urgency, but why did you not agree to the Palestinian desire to have more groundwork done, or did you ever hear of their request for more discussion?
E: I should remind people that when I came to power in 1999, it was 6 years after Oslo started and 3 years after both sides committed themselves to permanent stateus negotiations. It was very close to the end of the second term of Clinton. It was clear to me that if you wait, you can always find excuses not to put things to the test, and delay it. Clinton ‘s presidency would be finished in half a year and a new president might take year or a year and a half to shape his own policies and attitude. I was confident and described in public speeches that we were headed toward a disaster in our relationship with the Palestinians. There is no way that the situation would remain quiet, so many years after Oslo and more than 10 years after the first Intifada. If nothing changes, I felt myself, there would be new clashes that could be more violent than the first Intifada, and we’ll never know whether we could have had an agreement with the Palestinians under those circumstances. You’ll never know if you never try. Now, it’s not exactly true that the Palestinians weren’t ready to negotiate. They also signed on the same agreement that said we were already two years behind schedule for permanent state negotiation. The only thing I can think of is that they felt that once we started negotiations, they wanted to only have heard a proposal from us but at a certain point, they would have to produce counter proposals to express their position. Now as I told Arafat, a year before Camp David, when we gathered in Oslo to celebrate the event, that we were still determined to move forward.
I told Arafat, you know, the problems are here; the toughest answer you will have won’t be to me, won’t be facing me, it will be facing your own people, and the toughest choices I have to make will be facing my own people. Conflict won’t be solved in heaven, it should be solved here on the ground by human beings. We are the people who have to do it
So I don’t buy this idea that they needed more time. More time for what? Even as the Chief of Staff Commander of the Armed Forces, I was deeply involved from the beginning, deeply involved in the implementation of Oslo and the negotiation for peace with Jordan. And ever since I became Prime Minister a year before Camp David, we had hundreds of hours of meetings with Palestinian representatives on four different continents. We have thousands of pages of records of discussions, and it was a fake argument. There was nothing that they had to prepare.
M: Let me move on to the next issue then. There are many conflicting accounts of what happened at Camp David. According to the Palestinian…
E: Right in my new book My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace you will find the accurate one.
M. There are many conflicting accounts of what happened at Camp David. According to the Palestinians, Israel never put in writing the details of the plan that you were suggesting, and then give it to them to study. Was that false? If you did put it in writing, is there any way historians can see what that writing said?
E: It is irrelevant in a way. We discussed every issue many times. They have many separate pieces of paper where they could recall exactly what we proposed. The whole effort of Camp David was to find whether there was any proposal at all that they were ready to consider as a basis for negotiations. I did not try to dictate to Arafat or to tell him to take it or leave our proposals. We told him basically you can have reservations to perform this or that element in our proposal. You can even have reservations from all elements in the proposal. The only thing we want from you is to take this proposal as a basis for negotiation. Arafat was obsessively writing every word that I told him…They never said even verbally, they never expressed any readiness to make any gestures of concession. And usually, what happened is that in any conversation they took any kind of a shadow of concession we were ready to show or go with, and make it the beginning of the next conversation. I was criticized for the fact that they started the negotiation by showing a map with probably 70% of the area kept by us or taken by them and only 30%, and later it grew and became 80 or 90%, so they argued we couldn’t know what you really meant, but even when we basically proposed to them metaphorically 90-plus % of what they could ever think of, we never had any readiness from the Palestinian side to do any step forward to tell us their plan.
M: Ok, let me ask here, one account says that you and Arafat never physically sat together in the same room, the two of you, to talk about terms with each other, that the only time you were together in Camp David was at a dinner at which you were seated next to each other. Is that true?
E: It’s not true. First of all, once again, it’s not really relevant. I met with Arafat many times, more than any previous Prime Minister in Israel. Arafat visited my private residence at a certain point with his people. I met with him many, many times.
M: But at Camp David, did you meet with him?
E: At a certain point, one of our guys passed away. He said that probably the fact was that if I didn’t come to visit him in his hut, it might be interpreted as if I’m patronizing. So I went with him, and we spent two hours in Arafat’s hut with good tea, coffee, and baklava.
M: At Camp David? This happened at Camp David?
E: At Camp David, everyone had these huts. I had a hut that was used by Sadat during Camp David. And he had another hut, so under the offer of Yasar, he said that they might view it as an insult that I do not sit with him directly, so I went to his hut and we spent two hours. But it couldn’t be a real sincere negotiation.
In all our meetings, Arafat never proposed something. He was not the kind of character with whom you can run a detailed negotiation. He didn’t talk in details, he talked in parables. He told stories, and you find yourself always afterwards trying to interpret what he meant by those stories. You heard some story and now you have to understand what they’re trying to tell you. He wouldn’t actually try to negotiate. And he was obsessively, as I mentioned, writing every word that was said. I didn’t try to record him without his knowledge. So you’re always exposed to the fact, for example, he used to tell us that it had been promised to him this or that.
M: Ok, let me move on. According to Palestinians, the way the Oslo accord had been sold to them was that they were told that they would get control of the 18% of the pre-1948 Palestine that had not been conquered by Israel in the 1948 and then 1967 wars. So their narrative goes, that when you were talking about percentages, you were talking about percentages of that 18% of land that was the West Bank, and they were shocked and felt betrayed since they thought they were going to Camp David to implement the Oslo Accord and that the Oslo Accord had been sold to them on the notion that they would have control over the entire West Bank. So did you or someone in your office have that conversation with Palestinians before Camp David to alert them to what would certainly appear to be a change in Israel’s position? Because the position was that in exchange for peace they would get back 100% of the West Bank, not some percentage of the West Bank.
E: Our Palestinian neighbors, especially those who negotiate, were so creative in post factum rewriting of what really happens. The respect for accuracy and for facts is sometimes limited when they felt that it serves them in the kind of post factum debate and discussions about what really happened. What really happened is very clear, you know in the American records and it was not a coincidence that Clinton who originally promised Arafat that even if he failed, he would not blame him. He found it compelling to put the responsibility on Arafat’s shoulders explicitly.
M: Clinton has zero credibility. Clinton is the guy who lied to the American people about “that woman who was falsely accusing me of having sex with her,” et cetera, so we’re not going to he’s not a high level credibility person. We know him to be a public liar.
E: Well I can tell you that with me he showed an extremely high level of credibility, all along the way. I met him several years before I became Prime Minister as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He never lied to me, every word that he said, he committed himself to.
M: Ehud, what I’m asking you is, do you know that people at Oslo gave to the Palestinians the sense, or the impression, or explicitly said, “Hey, the negotiations will be about how to disengage from the West Bank; we’re going to give you back the West Bank in exchange for peace.” And so when they heard at Camp David that it was some percentage of the West Bank, they felt betrayed. Now I’m asking you, is that plausible in any way or is that totally crazy?
E: I don’t want to use the word crazy, but it’s totally disconnected from reality. The negotiation with the Palestinians at Camp David were some 7 years old. Along these 7 years from the 1st year, then the 2nd year, 3rd year, for years, they heard different Israeli positions but always one common denominator. They were told over and over again that there was a part of what we call Yehuda ve Samaria and they call the West Bank that Israel had settled after the 1967 war that were vital for Israeli security and Israel did not and never would consider giving them up, even in exchange for a permanent peace. They were never lied to or misled about it. There was of course a debate. They demanded that the compensation that they will get for these areas that might cover 5, 10, or 15% of the West Bank, the compensation they demanded will bring it to a point where they got the equivalent of 100% of the area and we thought that it should be a lower number. So there was a debate about how much, but there was never an illusion or any promise that they will get 100% of the West Bank as owned by the Hashemite kingdom before 1967 without any change. Never.
M: I think it was always clear to them that they would not get all of Jerusalem, that Jerusalem would not be totally under the control of Israel, though they did hope that the parts of Jerusalem that had a majority of Palestinians would become part of the new Palestinian state and that the Old City would have an international status of some sort in which sovereignty was either shared or some other arrangement would be made such that Israel could not cut off access to the Temple Mount whenever it perceived there to be a security threat.
The next objection that Palestinians put forward is that you were insisting that the deal that you were offering would be the final settlement agreement and that there would be no more remaining issues, and that deal did not include any particular way for any of the Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. Palestinians now say that they told you, “we could sign an agreement, but it can’t be the final agreement without dealing in some way with the Palestinian refugees,” and they claim that the answer from you or from the people who you were sending to talk to them at Camp David was “no, if we have an agreement, it must be the final agreement and it does not include in anything any relationship to the Palestinian refugees.” Is this a misrepresentation on their part?
E: Rabbi, can you introduce me to the Palestinians that you talk to and tell me they are either lunatics or suffer from major problems of memory. Because it’s not true. After every detailed negotiation, you can come and if you do not tell the real story, you can create whatever kind of argument. We were going to give up the main assets that we have in negotiation which is territory. We cannot give the territory before we know what we get in exchange. What are the answers for our security needs, what are the answers for Jerusalem, what will be agreed on refugees— we are ready of course to talk about refugees, what will be agreed about borders, and more important than anything else, what will be agreed about what we call the end of conflict? It doesn’t make sense to make painful compromises, probably from both sides, but for sure from our side, without being able to end the conflict and to make clear that this agreement is as it was signed, reflects the claims of both sides, and once it is signed, it’s the end of conflict— no more mutual claims. They were not ready to discuss seriously those issues.
So we basically made it clear all along the way that refugees might be able to go into the Palestinian state to be established. We already deployed or put forward to the Americans a very right claim to settle those refugees who won’t be interested in going into the Palestinian state, settle them in countries from Canada to Australia to America. We would approach many countries to establish a huge fund of tens of millions of dollars to compensate those Palestinians who choose not to come settle in the Palestinian state. And we even said that on a humanitarian base, and of course Israel’s right to decide to which individually to implement, especially in regards to family unification. We will be ready to see even if several thousands of Palestinians coming back to Israel. If an old Palestinian was born in Israel and has a family in Israel, wants to spend time there 2000, they were all at least 60 years old, so they want to come to Israel, we would consider it. If he’s not a terrorist, we might give permission. This was a practice that was carried out also during the governments of Begin and Shamir, but Israel always brought hundreds, probably a few thousands of Palestinians at least out of humanitarian considerations, family unification.
But, we’ll keep resisting if the idea that Israel might have to accept even a single Palestinian refugee based on “the right of return,” because as I told Clinton and Arafat when we met, we met more than once on this, the three of us in Camp David, a few aides- I told him we will never take moral responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. The refugees happened when Clinton was not yet born, but I was a young kid and Arafat was a teenager when it happened, I remember it well.
The United Nations Assembly voted in 1947 for the partition of the land and creation of a Jewish state and Arab state, the Jewish state was a small fraction of what Israel became, with 3 parts barely connected, without Jerusalem, without even a corridor to Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion on behalf of the Jewish people accepted it. While the Palestinians, with the encouragement of the neighboring Arab states, rejected it, opened a war trying to kill the baby Israel before it could stand on its feet. So as a result of this war, and it’s a human pain, 600,000 Palestinians left what became Israel. But we’ve seen the same happen in many wars around the world, population exchanges, and within 2 years afterwards, 650,000 Jews came from all over the Arab world to Israel. We called them brothers and their offspring are now the majority of Israel.
But when you say that Israel would never take any part of responsibility for that, it runs counter to what several Israeli historians documented once the archives were open— that Jewish terrorist groups led by people who would later become Prime Ministers of Israel, Begin and Shamir, engaged in violent terrorsit activities that scared many Palestinians to run away because there was violence that was directed directly at them, particularly at Palestinian villages that sought friendship with the Jews and were not involved in resisting the creation of the State of Israel, because the Jewish terrorists wanted to convey the message to ALL THE ARAB RESIDENTS OF ISRAEL THAT THEY WOULD NOT BE SAFE AND SO MUST LEAVE. SO when you say no part of the responsibility, that does seem like an extreme statement in light of Israeli—
E: No, probably the actions of Israel were the cause of some of these leaving, but I said we were not ready under whatever situation to take moral responsibility. Before every Monday there is Sunday, so don’t ask yourself in a moment of your choice, ask yourself why the hell there was violence at all. Why the hell Ben-Gurion on behalf of Israel was ready to accept the General Assembly decision of partition of the land of Israel despite that it was very painful for the Jewish dream, but he accepted it, he was ready to implement it. The Palestinians rejected it, the Palestinians called for open violence immediately, I remember it as a young kid, and they called upon five other armies to invade Israel, once the British forces left. So they tried to kill baby Israel. And we survived. We are not going to be apologetic about having survived this event, and war that the Palestinians imposed upon us has its consequences. War is unlike going to the mikveh, it’s something more violent.
M: Right now, the main argument against accepting Palestinians who lived in Israel back then, and their families that grew up in refugee camps around the Arab world, is that it might upset the demographic balance between Jews and non-Jews in Israel, and that Israel is determined to be the one state in the world with a Jewish majority and a Jewish army to protect Jews should we ever again face what we faced during the Holocaust. If you were Prime Minister now, and Palestinians came to you and said, “We want you to accept back 20,000 Palestinians each year,” at that rate for the next 30 years, you will not in any way change the demographic balance because there are many more Israelis born than 20,000, and it would be a symbolic way of Israel saying, “We want to do rectification,” even if you don’t take moral responsibility in the way that you just said, we want to do something that will show the Palestinian people that we don’t want them to live as refugees all their lives. What would you do?
E: I would answer that the whole conflict should be talked about or discussed as a gestalt, not as a set of separate issues, and we and the Palestinians have to sit down and negotiate, not Arafat-like, but more mature, more open, and discuss all the issues on the table. When we discuss all issues— borders and security and refugees and Jerusalem and finality of all mutual claims and so on, we would like to give answers to the kinds of questions you are raising, Rabbi Lerner. There is no need to give an answer to each request independently. If it were on its own, it would be totally different. First of all, I believe that we currently accept 1500 Palestinians on the average per year under a humanitarian program. We are not ready to accept any single one based on the right of return. Only on the basis of humanitarian concerns, and based on the Israeli decision of which individuals to accept and who not to.
M: You’re a private citizen now so I’m asking you as a person not as a representative of the State of Israel, would you wish that the Israeli government could apologize to Palestinians for the Israeli part of responsibility for the suffering Palestinians have faced living under Occupation, blockade or in refugee camps?
E: I think you know that in my government, in Rabin’s government, many governments of Israel in the last 17 years have made efforts to end the conflict. In that regard, we do not have to apologize. We are not the reason for the problem. We are in a way the victims of the dispute. Fortunately, we are strong enough to defend ourselves against any attempts to violate our security. We have a commitment to the personal defense of our citizens, and we are committed to fulfill the old dream of having once and for all a nation for ourselves. Of course it should respect the rights of minorities, and we have a quite sizable minority, probably almost 20% of the population. We usually say that they enjoy much more civil rights than any other neighboring country. They get the ability to have full expression of themselves in society, in politics, in the Knesset. Yes, there are certain kinds of gaps in standards of living and many other aspects but those are closing more each year. It is closed by steps taken by our government, not by the Palestinian rejection of any peace proposal.
M: When Camp David was over, you and Clinton both seemed to be saying— Clinton explicitly but I ask whether you also were saying this— that Camp David’s failure proved that there is no partner for peace.
E: No, it’s not what we’ve said, neither Clinton nor myself. I know that that’s another legend adopted not only by the Palestinians, but also by most of the Left wing of Israel.
M: That’s why we’re having this conversation so you can clarify what is true.
E: I will tell you directly; I was brought up as a man of action, and I’m not a philosopher. I’m a practitioner, and I tried to describe realities in accurate terms. What I said was the following:
We Israelis do not have a partner in Arafat for the present time. That’s all. I didn’t say that there is no potential partner, I didn’t say that there will be no partner. I didn’t even say that Mahmoud [Abbas] would not be a partner or Arafat would not be a partner. I said accurately, we do not have a partner in Arafat in the present. It was accurate because you cannot describe it more clearly than to say that, and there was reason why I said that— because my positus trying to achieve our objectives of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. So I proposed to our people: look, we do not have a partner in Arafat for the time being but we have a strong interest in disengaging ourselves from the Palestinians. So I told our people: let’s delineate a line within the holy land which will include the settlement block [the part of the West Bank that most Israeli peace movements have agreed would become part of Israel in any final agreement, including Gush Etziyon and several of the settlements very near Jerusalem] and include whatever we need for the security of Israel, a line which will probably include six or eight or ten percent of the area of the West Bank but within which we will have a solely Jewish majority for generations to come, and heavy majority of the future, beyond which there will be a place for a viable Palestinian state once their leadership will be ready for serious negotiations,. In fact there is something more that I should have mentioned earlier. When I came to power, I looked at the situation as a fire that is about to erupt in a cottage that was held by two families, one is the Israelis and the other is Arafat. So the household heads, myself and Arafat, are running from both sides with fire extinguishers, trying to put down the fire.
One of us, Arafat, holding on his chest a medal of world excellence, the Nobel Peace prize. But you’re not sure whether he has the gasoline and matches in his pocket. Probably he is the pyramid of this. The only way was to put it to the test. So my attitude was different than what people read
I was confident that only if real leadership on both sides were ready to take painful decisions and make deep compromises could we achieve an agreement. I was ready to break a lot of taboos within the Israeli society to reach such an agreement. I didn’t hear a single hint of readiness from Arafat to take any such decision on behalf of the Palestinians.
ML: Let me move to another question about this. After those statements, after those negotiations had failed there, the Israeli negotiators, presumably with your knowledge and in fact, approval met with Palestinians in Tabbah and continued to negotiated and reported back to you that they were within a few days of coming to an agreement they thought both Palestinians and Israelis could accept. According to at least some of those who were involved in that negotiation, you then decided to call it off those negotiations because it was close to the election and possibly might not work out so well for Labor in the election. Is there any truth in this?
EB: I am now seriously proposing to you to read a chapter in my book and commend for your readers to do the same.
It’s totally another urban legend produced by people on both sides to justify their position. They say “Okay, unfortunately we couldn’t find Arafat/Barak to get them to agree to the compromises each side was ready to make so that’s why the negotiations didn’t take the final steps of coming to a resolution of all issues.” It was hard for some Leftists to take in the reality. I put on the table more far reaching proposals than any other Israeli leader had ever been willing to put on the table. So it was hard for Israeli leftists to face the reality that Arafat doesn’t want even to take it as a basis for negotiation and deliberately turned to terror. Some of the Left-wing leaders in Israel, people who invested their political careers in trying to find ways to have a breakthrough with Palestinians, couldn’t believe it could not be done. I told them, you know, that I thought that initially. I told them, you know if you want to meet with Palestinians at Tabbah, meet with them and exchange views and you’ll hear from them. But I did not agree to have any further negotiation. If you have further negotiation with Arafat, you enter into a vicious circle. You make a proposal because that’s part of the negotiation, one that goes beyond what has been on the table before, they always accept it, take it as the starting point for the next round. They never say anything or make any counter proposal. So it’s an illusion for people to even call it negotiations. And to tell you the truth, when Yossi Sarid (a leading peace advocate in the Knesset) came back, he told me “I thought they want a dooma (a few acres) but I found that they want the land around Tel Aviv.” He came to the same conclusion that I had; that there is something very profound in the rejection of any kind of agreement by the Palestinians. I never lost hope, that at a certain point they would change their mind. It happened in other places around the world. I don’t think that we should lose hope and should always make sure our operations do not pull the plug on the option for separation.
ML: So do you think the failure of Camp David was contributed to the defeat that you faced in the election? And if not, what else caused it?
EB: Of course it contributed, but my defeat was mainly a response of the Center and Right wing to the events of the second Intifada and the violence that followed. For the Left wing, it was the disappointment from the fact that their dream didn’t come true. But I never regret what I’ve done. I still believe the real role of the leader is not just to stay there, is not just to stage an infinite repetition of events or photo ops…I believe I was elected to be prime minister of Israel to proactively try to change reality for the better. People used to ask me why I was sticking my neck out during these daily attempts to put the end to conflict with Arafat, to put an end to conflict with Syria and so on. And I told them all along my life, I’ve taken much higher risks much more than once for much lesser causes. Whether the cause justifies taking risk and I’ll try to achieve it. I tell you honestly I was ready to take quite high risks to try to have a breakthrough with the Palestinians or Syrians, as well as to pull out from Lebanon. The difference was that with pulling out from Lebanon was that it was a unilateral state decision. . So in spite of resistance from Israel and the public, even from the generals in uniform, I just ordered it and we executed it. I faced some kind of criticism at the time. But looking back today, no one in Israel wants to go back to Lebanon. It ended the tragedy of many years. A unilateral decision I could order on my own initiative. But a peace agreement is like a tango, it takes two. We failed only when we found the other side unready; listen carefully: not unready to get our dictates. Unready to take the most far reaching proposal ever put on the table as a basis for negotiation. Basically this is the compelling and dominant fact on the story, the rest is mainly gossip.
ML: Well we know that in negotiation, sometimes what seems generous from one side, the other side doesn’t feel it’s so generous.
EB: It was more generous that anything that anyone has ever put on the table.
ML: Let me ask you another question that’s not exactly about Palestine. But right after that failed, I thought I recalled, that at one point you hinted that you might be willing to create a government with Likud to eliminate the special privileges that religious Jews had in Israel. Where I’m coming from as a religious Jew, I believe that Israel’s imposition of Judaism on the Israeli population is one of the things that contributed to so many Israelis coming to hate Judaism because of the coercion element. So I would have been very much a fan if you had gone through with that move. Once the negotiations with Palestinian failed, why didn’t you take that step of trying to create a unity government to eliminate the religious coercion in Israel?
EB: No, no the reason for unity government was to give the answer to erupting violence. The opportunity to change the role of the religious bureaucracy was a by product of such proposed unity government. The unity government negotiation between Ariel Sharon and myself failed when it became clear that Sharon insisted on the prerequisite or demand that it should be a powerful new government which woukd announce formally that the peace process with Palestinian had failed and was dead. I thought that to announce it dead would be irresponsible. Israel couldn’t reach an agreement, a breakthrough, but that fact hadn’t provided a reason to pronounce it dead.
We Israelis got advantage even from the failure of the Camp David attempt because it was clear to all leaders in the world including the Arab leaders that this was because of the Palestinians, not the Israelis. I visited some of the Arab leaders, and there was a common recognition of the fact that responsibility for the violence which erupted was fully on the shoulders of Arafat. In a way, our readiness to go that far in proving that we are very serious about achieving peace with Palestinians helped us during these violent events in the 3 or 4 years that followed to keep much of the world supporting us. I believe we could not have been effective in the second Intifada, without having this understanding by the rest of the world.
Now, to tell you the truth, the issue with all of the religious bureaucracy in public life in Israel is painful question. It cannot be solved unless it is done through a unity government. The real issue is not to separate state and synagogue. I think the relationship between the synagogue and being an Israeli is deeper than the relationship between being Catholic and French or even Italian. The Jewish legacy is an inseparable part of our identity and shows so much of the energy and devotion and readiness to sacrifice that was embedded into this project of bringing half of the Jewish people from the diaspora into Israel. But having said that, I don’t believe that there’s only one way to be a Jew. The Talmud is full of disputes, and we all remember you better than I am, when two disputants put their dispute to God to decide, and the response came out of heaven saying “both of these are the word of the living God.”
I would expect the fate of Israel when representing the Jewish people in a way, and the dreams of the Jewish people, should not be taking a formal provision on the question how an individual should exercise his being a Jew. I used to tell my wife whenever we would sit down on a Friday night with, a Reform Jewish family, not even Conservative, I feel that they are more Jewish than I am, I don’t know the text, I don’t know the law or anything, and I feel as Jewish as any orthodox. I had huge respect to Jewish tradition, Jewish legacy, and our identity. You know, but what you hinted, I heard from one of the former chief rabbis of Israel, he said if religious politics were not so deeply involved in the daily life of Israelis, then he would have much more respect from all of you secular. I think that is right in a way. In this regard, our government, which is a legitimate freely elected government, but I think they’re extremely wrong on this issue. What happened along the Kotel [preventing women from having their own services and reading from the Torah] a few months ago is a shame. Do you belong to conservative or orthodox?
M: Okay, let me ask you this: if you could now direct Israel in a different direction than Netanyahu, what would you do right now as prime minister?
E: You know, I believe in three pillars around which we should unite, rather than listening to the divisive messages coming from our government. First pillar: security, above and ahead all other considerations. Of course security is only a means, but it’s a means for an end. The end is a strong, self-confident, flourishing Israel. A place where our sons will choose to live and every young Jew will be proud of the association.
Number two, the solidarity, the integrity and unity of the people comes ahead of the integrity of the full control of all the land promised to Jews according to the Biblical storyNot because we don’t have the right, but because whether to implement this right or not faces other consideration. The unity of the people is more important.
Number three, declaration of independence is the de facto constitutional reason. You know we don’t have a constitution. It’s the equivalent, it’s the value foundation.
I think those three principles, security, unity, and declaration of the independence as de facto constitution, we can unite over 80% of the people. We take action. Zionism was not about pessimism, passivity, or doomsday prophecies. In fact when you’re very pessimistic, anxious, passive, or self-victimizing all the time, you are putting in place a self fulfilling prophecy which is pessimistic.
I think we should go back to the basic tenets of Zionism, which were taking our faith in our hands actively, taking steps to make sure that those two principles will enable us move forward. For example, I would look for/to have regional agreements with the moderates or Arab and Muslim regimes in the region.
We usually argue that with the Palestinians that we can only give them something, we cannot get anything. Which is not exactly true but it’s a common description. With the Arab world we have a lot to gain. For at least three years, the reason there is on the table an offer by the Arab moderates for Israel to join hands with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc or more players out our common interests, for example to fight radical Muslim terror, to put a hold on hegemonic and nuclear plans, and to join hands in a huge infrastructure project in energy, waterways, communication, or transportation. This great vision of a Middle East which accepts Israel cannot fly without Israel making sincere steps to try to move forward with the Palestinians.
M: We at Tikkun have proposed that in the meantime while this isn’t happening, why not give the Palestinians a vote for Knesset? I’m sure you know that the principle of democracy means that people who are de facto being controlled by a government should have the right to participate in shaping that government. So why not adopt the democratic principle of “one person/one vote” and let those living under Occupation for what is now 51 have some say in the government?
E: That will destroy it. Israel was established in order to create a safe haven for Jews and express the natural right to the Jewish people to have the state of Israel for its own. So to take the Palestinians who happen to be under our control and give them a right of voting, it’s cutting the trunk of this project; I think they deserve a state of their own. I never hide it. Then once they have a state of their own, this will be a much more natural expression of their identity. There are some prophets that say “Okay once we have a state, maybe we can think of configuration of Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian state so it’s a win win for all.”
M: So you say you want a Palestinian state, but in the meantime, Israel is building more and more settlements or extending existing settlements, building separate roads for the settlers, giving them access to land that they are forcibly grabbing with the help of the IDF, and water rights to settlers while denying enough water to the Palestinians living there. This has been going on for the past 51 years already; when will the Occupation be too long? When will it be time to say okay, we’re not getting a Palestinian state so we ought to give the Palestinians democratic rights in Israel?
E: You know in my vision, if the Palestinians will be ready to develop their own state, they will be ready to go into conversation. One of the Palestinian leaders told me a year after Camp David “we needed a Ben-Gurion, and we’ve got an Arafat.” It didn’t mean that Ben-Gurion the Zionist, it meant a leader capable making a great compromise in order to get what is now and here is achievable. And somehow Arafat was not capable of making this transformation. You know it was tough on Ben-Gurion as well but he made a decision against the majority of the members of his cabinet.
M: That guy who could do that is in an Israeli prison right now, Marwan Barghouti. Let him out so he can become the next leader of the Palestinian Authority.
E: [Apparently not hearing this last remark] I don’t know. Time will tell.
Ehud Barak, in his interview with Rabbi Lerner, was unfortunately not forthcoming regarding the role of Israel and the United States in the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2000-2001. Barak, a highly-decorated general came from the right-wing of Israel’s Labour Alignment, served as Prime Minister between 1999 and 2001, leaving the left-of-center bloc to form a new right-of-center party in 2009 to govern in coalition with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-led coalition and serve as Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Throughout his career, he never demonstrated a sincere recognition of a viable two-state solution or recognize that Palestinians Arabs had equal rights to Israeli Jews regarding self-determination, security, and sovereignty.
From the beginning of the talks subsequent to the Principles of Understanding negotiated in Oslo between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and signed in Washington in September 1993, both sides saw the process very differently. The Palestinians saw it as a means to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By contrast, the United States and Israel saw it as a way of maintaining an Israeli occupation of major sections of these territories with the Palestinian Authority in charge of administrating most major Palestinian population centers and cooperating in the protection of Israel and its settlements in the occupied territories.
Throughout the peace process, the Clinton administration seemed to coordinate the pace and agenda of the talks closely with Israel, ignoring Palestinian concerns. Palestinians wanted to address the issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and the status of Jerusalem some years earlier, but these were repeatedly postponed by the United States and Israel. In a similar vein, the United States and Israel long treated Israeli security as the primary focus of the negotiations. A top Israeli negotiator admitted that Israel and the United States worked closely with each other on their respective proposals; for all intents and purposes, these were largely joint efforts.
The Camp David summit between Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat hosted in July 2000 by President Bill Clinton failed in large part because neither side was ready for a final agreement. Clinton naively thought he could pressure Arafat to accept Israeli terms even though negotiations up to that time indicated the two sides were still far apart on some key issues.
In the spring of 2000, a series of missteps by both the Israelis and Palestinians, but by President Clinton as well, appear to have doomed the summit. For example, the New York Times reported how Clinton relayed to Arafat that Barak would transfer three occupied Palestinian villages on the outskirts of Jerusalem to Palestinian control, which Arafat then announced to the Palestinian public. Barak, however, reneged on the promise, and Clinton refused to push the Israeli prime minister to honor his pledge.
This was part of a growing distrust Palestinians were feeling about the United States and Israel in the peace process. Barak also refused to withdraw from certain Palestinian lands as part of a third phase previously agreed upon by his rightist predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, nor did he open the four safe passages between Palestinian areas, as promised. Barak also moved forward with the construction of illegal Jewish settlements faster even than his predecessor. Indeed, during his eighteen months in office, the number of settlers grew by an astounding 12 percent.The Clinton administration did not challenge these policies, nor the closures, expropriation of land or the incarceration of Palestinian prisoners. Barak, throughout his tenure, was also extremely reluctant even to meet with Arafat.
The insistence to then jump to final-status negotiations without prior confidence-building measures, such as a freeze on new settlements or the fulfillment of previous pledges to withdraw, led the Palestinians to question the sincerity of both Israel and the United States. Arafat and other Palestinian officials repeatedly warned both Israeli and U.S. officials of the growing resentment among ordinary Palestinians. Furthermore, they argued that the previously agreed-upon withdrawals needed to take place before the more difficult issues of the rights of refugees and the status of Jerusalem were addressed. However, as the Washington Post reported, both the United States and Israel insisted on moving directly to a summit on final-status issues, even though they had only begun to be addressed in earnest during the previous eight weeks of what had been a more than seven-year process.4
A series of meetings in Sweden and in Jerusalem that spring produced some substantial progress, but news leaks in mid-May about compromises made by the two sides created political problems for both Barak and Arafat. The talks stalled. Had they continued, there might have been enough groundwork for Camp David to have been successful. However, despite strong Palestinian objections, the United States insisted that the two parties come to Maryland anyway to try to hammer out a final agreement. Arafat pleaded that they needed more time, but Clinton pushed Arafat to come and try anyway, promising, “If it fails, I will not blame you.”
Clinton lied. Not only did he put enormous pressure on Arafat to accept the Israeli proposals, he did blame Arafat and the Palestinians for the collapse of the talks when Barak’s peace proposals fell way short of Israel’s legal obligations and minimal Palestinians demands.
Despite Barak’s claims in his book and in this interview, repeated to this day by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, that he made an extremely generous offer to the Palestinians at Camp David, an actual examination of the proposal reveals otherwise:
First of all, the Israeli government steadfastly refused to withdraw from all of the occupied Palestinian territory, totaling just 22 percent of historic Palestine. In the 1993 Oslo agreement, the Palestinians essentially recognized Israeli control over 78 percent of Palestine; this was a major concession from the longstanding demand for all of Palestine and even the 46 percent of Palestine provided the Palestinians in the 1947 U.N. partition plan. The negotiations since 1993 have been on the fate of this remaining 22 percent, which the Palestinians assumed — rightly, by virtually every international legal standard — should go to them. However, the United States and Israel have steadfastly insisted that the Palestinian demand for that 22 percent was too much and that the Palestinians should give up even more. This is difficult for even Palestinian moderates to accept, since Palestinian Arabs were the majority throughout all of Palestine as recently as 1948 and, counting refugees, today outnumber the Israelis by a three to two ratio.
More fundamentally, Israel took over this remaining 22 percent of Palestine by military force in 1967. The United Nations — in the preamble to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, long considered the basis for Arab-Israeli peace — underscored a principle of international law reiterated in the U.N. Charter: “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” It also required Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Palestinian demands for implementation of UNSCR 242 and international law were dismissed by the United States, which instead argued that the talks be based on what it termed “creative ideas,” namely a U.S. position paper designed to undercut these longstanding legal principles.
Robert Malley, special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs and director of Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council who was present during the Camp David talks, acknowledged in March 2001 that Israel stuck to positions clearly unacceptable to the Palestinians in the full knowledge of U.S. support. He charges there was a clear bias towards the Israeli negotiating position. The U.S. position substantially departed from 242 and 338, which the Palestinians were promised would be the bases of the negotiations. Malley further charged that instead of judging the Israeli proposals on these terms, the Israelis were instead rewarded for taking extreme positions initially and then tactically backing off from them in part. Because Barak had inched away from the hard line of his predecessors on some issues, Clinton gave these so-called “concessions” undue significance. Progress was based on relative movement from previously held positions, not on substance or legal requirements or simple notions of reason, equity or justice.
Initial reports, encouraged by U.S. officials and repeated in the media, indicated that Barak was willing to hand over a full 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Yet Israel presented no maps to validate this claim. Since then, it has been learned that this percentage did not include greater East Jerusalem, which the Israelis consider part of Israel proper, though the United Nations and virtually the entire international community recognize it as part of the occupied territories. Nor did this include much of the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea coast or parts of the Judean Desert, which Barak insisted on keeping under Israeli control for a supposedly temporary but indefinite period of time, allegedly for “security reasons.” Taking these additional areas into account, this totaled only about 77 percent of the West Bank.
Claims that Barak had offered the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem was disingenuous. What the plan entailed was that Israel would initially annex the Palestinian town of Abu Dis, just southeast of occupied East Jerusalem, into the city and then return it to the Palestinians to build their capital there.
Barak also insisted on holding on to 69 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where 85 percent of the settlers live. Barak, therefore, offered to evacuate only 15 percent of the settlers, when — according to U.N. Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471, based on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits a country from transferring its civilian population into territory seized by military force — Israel is required to evacuate from all the settlements. These settlement blocs divided up Palestinian territory in such a way that a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank would be impossible. Under Barak’s U.S.-backed plan, the West Bank would be split up by a series of settlement blocs, bypass roads and Israeli roadblocks. In some cases, Palestinians would be forced to travel 50 miles between towns only five miles apart. The Palestinians would therefore have been forced to relinquish land needed for development and for the absorption of refugees.
In addition, Israel would have supervision of border crossings between a Palestinian state and neighboring states. Israel would control Palestinian airspace, their seacoast and their aquifers. And, not surprisingly, the Israelis also rejected the right of Palestinian refugees expelled from what is now Israel in the 1948 war to return.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Arafat would reject such an offer. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any national leader accepting it. Even if Clinton had been successful in forcing Arafat to agree to Israeli terms, there simply would not have been enough support among the Palestinian population to make it viable. The claim by Clinton’s team of negotiators that the parties were “so close” failed to acknowledge the substantial gap between them. And seemed designed to discredit the Palestinian side rather than to reflect what had actually transpired, which Barak appears to be doing in this interview.
Indeed, President Clinton decried Arafat’s lack of flexibility while praising Barak. Clinton’s reaction made the ramifications of this failed summit far worse than it otherwise might have been. According to Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath, “I personally pleaded with President Clinton: ‘Please do not put on a sad face and tell the world it failed. Please say we broke down taboos, dealt with the heart of the matter and will continue.’ But then the president started the blame game, and he backed Arafat into a corner.” Similarly, Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami noted, “At the end of Camp David, we had the feeling that the package as such contained ingredients and needed to go on. But Clinton left us to our own devices after he started the blame game.”
While Barak’s offers did go further than any previous Israeli government’s, they fell well short of what Israel was required to do under basic international standards and a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions. This is significant, since the Palestinian refusal to give in to these demands was therefore completely within their prerogative. Even if Israel had agreed to withdraw from occupied parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including East Jerusalem, and recognized the right of return of Palestinian refugees, it could not be fairly presented as a great act of generosity or even an enormous concession, since Israel is required to do so.
The argument that the breakdown of the Camp David talks was solely the Palestinians’ responsibility is buttressed by the equally inaccurate assumption this meant the end of substantive negotiations or the Palestinians’ desire for a negotiated settlement. In fact, negotiations continued, with more than fifty meetings in Jerusalem in August and September, where significant headway was made.
When Arafat learned that right-wing leader Ariel Sharon was planning a deliberately provocative visit to what Muslims refer to as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary, which Jews call the Temple Mount), he pleaded with Barak to block Sharon’s plans. Even though this was in East Jerusalem, which is Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, Barak insisted it was an internal Israeli matter. To support Sharon’s move, Barak brought in hundreds of Israeli troops to accompany him, resulting in violent demonstrations by Palestinians, which were brutally suppressed by Israeli occupation forces, using U.S.-supplied tanks, attack helicopters and heavy weapons, with no public objection by the U.S. government. (To this day, despite subsequent investigations reporting to the contrary, leading members of Congress in both parties insist that these spontaneous demonstrations were actually pre-planned by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders to destroy the peace process. This accusation is particularly absurd since the demonstrators were primarily Islamists and young people, the two groups most alienated from Arafat’s leadership and least likely to obey his requests.)
Still, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators pressed on. President Clinton issued a proposed settlement in late December, though the details were too vague to be of much use, particularly with the limited time before Clinton’s departure from office and the upcoming Israeli elections. Both sides made concessions in response to the proposal, however, and they appeared to be much closer than they had been at Camp David. Hopes that the United States would convene a summit, however, did not materialize. Still, the two sides resumed talks in Taba, Egypt and the adjacent Israeli town of Eilat in January with Israel presenting new proposals and the Palestinians responding quite favorably. Despite Barak’s claims after Camp David that he could go no further, his proposals six months later were a distinct improvement. Barak significantly modified longstanding territorial-based security demands and the settlement-related requirements, effectively separating Israeli security issues from the territorial and settlements issues. For example, the Israelis would restrict their security outposts in the Jordan Valley to more discrete and limited ones that no longer required control of large stretches of Palestinian territory.
The Palestinians made a number of concessions, agreeing to allow for Israel to annex large settlement blocs in return for some Israeli territory in the Negev Desert south of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians further agreed to Israeli sovereignty over eleven Jewish settlements in and around greater East Jerusalem and surrounding historically Arab-populated areas, including the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. This was the first time the Palestinians presented a map that acceded to Israeli annexation of West Bank territories. The Palestinians also agreed to a solution to the refugee issue that would not “threaten the Jewish majority in Israel”: Israel would recognize the right of return, but provide financial incentives to entice most of the refugees to settle in the new Palestinian state.
Barak’s proposal was abruptly withdrawn, however, as the Israeli election got close and hopes for a follow-up summit in Stockholm in which a final peace agreement could be signed never materialized. So, peace did come tantalizingly close, not at Camp David in July, but in Taba in January, without a strong American presence and nearly five months after the Palestinian uprising began. Indeed, top U.S. officials apparently had never seen the Taba maps, which — despite some remaining obstacles — had the two sides within striking distance of a final agreement.
Despite Palestinian participation in negotiations and some major concessions on their part, and despite the Israeli failure to follow through on the dramatic breakthroughs at Taba, Barak and other Israeli leaders, along with leaders of both major U.S. political parties and much of the mainstream media, continue to press the myth that the failure of the talks during Barak’s period as Israeli leader were exclusively the fault of the Palestinians.
It should be acknowledged that the Palestinians did bear some responsibility for the talk’s failure. There was no effective communication between Arafat and some of his negotiators, which led to some confusion during the peace talks. Arafat was a poor negotiator, often rambling and contradictory. Arafat’s corrupt, inept and authoritarian rule alienated broad swaths of Palestinian public opinion, making it difficult for him to control much of his population.
A careful examination of events, however, appears to indicate that—despite claims by Barak and others in Israel and the United States— the primary fault for both the failure of the peace process and the subsequent violence lies squarely with Israel and its patron, the United States.
[In case you missed his bio at the top of this posting, Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Polcy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, and a contributing editor of Tikkun. His essay on BDS will appear in the Fall 2018 edition of Tikkun Magazine.