Ausgabe 15/2008

SPIEGEL Interview with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak 'Nobody Can Push Me'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, 66, discusses the peace process with the Palestinians, tensions between Israel and Syria and his ambition to become prime minister.

Ehud Barak: "We live in a tough neighborhood with no mercy for the weak ..."
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Ehud Barak: "We live in a tough neighborhood with no mercy for the weak ..."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Barak, as head of the Israeli Labor Party, people expect you to lead the Israeli peace camp. But the Palestinians perceive you as the biggest stumbling block to the peace process. Are your party colleagues ashamed of you?

Barak: I am the head of the peace camp and I support the peace process. But that does not mean I position myself deep on the Israeli left and forget Israel’s strategic needs. We live in a tough neighborhood with no mercy for the weak and no second opportunities for those who cannot protect themselves. Only a strong and self-confident Israel can reach an agreement with its neighbors.

SPIEGEL: The United States has also complained about your stubbornness. It was only under intense pressure from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that you agreed last week to a few concessions.

Barak: Nobody can push me. I am responsible for the security of the Israeli civilians and I take it very seriously. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled the last settler and the last soldier out of the Gaza Strip. We gave the Palestinians the opportunity to run their own life. But instead of tranquillity we ended up with rockets. The only factor that constrains concessions from our side, is the security of our citizens.

SPIEGEL: What does the expansion of settlements on Palestinian land have to do with security? It just weakens your negotiating partner, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Barak: That is right, but we always said that we will build in Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs.

SPIEGEL: You expect Abbas to fulfill his commitment under the international road map. So why doesn't Israel comply with the road map's demand to freeze all settlement activities?

Barak: We are not building new settlements. We do not expropriate land and we do not want to embarrass our Palestinian friends. But they and the rest of the world have to understand that we build the settlement blocs within the security fence that we erected. President George W. Bush made it clear in his letter to Sharon in 2004 that the Americans understand the realities of these blocs.

SPIEGEL: What about the more than 100 so-called settlement outposts on the other side of the fence? They are illegal even according to Israeli law.

Barak: We are gradually trying to dismantle those 26 outposts established after March 2001 to which we committed ourselves under phase one of the road map. It takes time. We prefer to do it through understanding in order to avoid unnecessary friction.

SPIEGEL: Why are you so patient with people who occupy land illegally?

Barak: We are not very patient. We expect these people to obey the law. But I do not want to evacuate children by force.

SPIEGEL: If you don’t quickly demonstrate to the Palestinians in the West Bank that talking to Israel improves their living conditions, you run the risk of losing them to Hamas.

Barak: I am aware of that necessity. We are doing a lot. We are taking risks. We allowed them to deploy their police forces in Nablus and we are ready to do the same in Jenin. We lifted over 100 roadblocks, we dismantled three out of 18 checkpoints. We are now giving out 5,000 permissions for Palestinian workers in addition of the 18,000 who already work inside Israel. We are trying to smooth the movement through the checkpoints by building parallel lanes and by giving out magnetic cards to businessman so that they will be able to pass faster.

SPIEGEL: Still, even the camp of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laments that you are not cooperating.

Jewish settlers in the West Bank: "We expect these people to obey the law."
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Jewish settlers in the West Bank: "We expect these people to obey the law."

Barak: I think I do not have to prove my readiness to lead peace efforts by action rather than by words. When I was prime minister, I proposed, together with President Bill Clinton, to the Palestinians to put an end to the conflict and to establish a Palestinian state on 100 percent of the Gaza Strip and over 90 percent of the West Bank.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps that is exactly the reason why you are taking a hard-line stance today: Because most Israelis think that Barak offered Arafat too much at Camp David in 2000?

Barak: That is pop psychology. I am not 16 years old, I am closer to 70. I have been in every role in this country. I am very proud of what I did at Camp David. I felt like a fireman who came to put out the fire before it engulfed the home of two families. I saw the other fireman with his beard and the black and white Kafiya on his head, not knowing whether he might be hiding a bottle of gasoline and matches in his pockets. It would have been easy, politically, to avoid this step. But out of national responsibility I thought it was the right attempt at the right time.

SPIEGEL: The proposal was probably right, but your negotiation tactics were wrong. Clinton wrote in his autobiography that you made the mistake of expecting Arafat to accept your offer right away. Clinton also criticized you for not investing enough time in building up a personal relationship with Arafat.

Barak: I don’t think that this summarizes Clinton’s judgement. He put the main blame on Arafat. You cannot bribe someone like Arafat by serving him Arabic coffee or sweets or hugging him in the right way. Unlike in war you cannot impose peace on someone. It takes two, like in a tango.

SPIEGEL: The biggest problem at the moment is Hamas. Are you leaving it up to Abbas and his troops to deal with the radicals?

Barak: We are facing today the opposite situation to the one we faced with Arafat. Arafat was not ready for peace but he would have clearly been capable of executing an agreement. Abbas seems to be ready but it is doubtful whether he can deliver. The Palestinian Authority lost control over half of their people. All the ammunitions and weapons that we allowed to go to the police forces in the Gaza Strip are now in the hands of Hamas and being used against us.

SPIEGEL: Will you launch a broad military operation in Gaza?

Barak: We do not have a struggle with the Palestinian people. We have a struggle with terror and we make Hamas accountable for the attacks coming out of the Gaza Strip. It is the Palestinians’ choice. I do not see a readiness over there to put an end to it. Probably it could happen only under our military pressure. If the situation demands this from us, we will not be able to avoid it. But if the terror from Gaza Strip stops and the smuggling of weapons stops, the door will be open for a different kind of relationship.

SPIEGEL: Why do you rely on collective punishment like cutting deliveries of fuel and electricity supplies into the Gaza Strip? It only makes Hamas stronger.

Barak: We do not think of it in terms of collective punishment.

SPIEGEL: But the average Palestinian perceives it as such.

Barak: We are taking care that no humanitarian crisis emerges. When you saw the people with candles in the dark streets of Gaza City, that was staged by Hamas. At that time, the incoming electricity level was at 78 or 82 percent. The bizarre situation is that the Hamas continues firing rockets at the power station in Israel which provides the electricity for the Gaza Strip.

SPIEGEL: Is there a risk of Hamas taking over the West Bank?

Barak: There is a clear risk that this will happen. Not necessarily by bullets, though -- it could possibly be by the ballot.

SPIEGEL: Would you cease negotiating with Abbas, if he and Hamas were to reconciliate?

Barak: I do not pretend to control their events. We are against Hamas. But I am in no position to say whether it is better for them to have a unity government or whether Abbas should try to re-conquer the Gaza Strip. To those of my Israeli cabinet colleagues who think we can easily destroy Hamas, I am saying: You cannot dictate this to another person. It didn’t work in Afghanistan and not in Iraq. It doesn’t work in the Middle East.


© DER SPIEGEL 15/2008
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