Israeli defense chief offers warnings on Iran and Lebanon

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks to The Washington Post's Janine Zacharia about his upcoming trip to Washington, Israel's defense needs, negotiations with the Palestinians and sanctions against Iran.
By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 26, 2010

TEL AVIV -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is due to arrive in Washington on Monday bearing two warnings for American policymakers: Sanctions won't thwart Iran's push for nuclear weapons, and Israel will strike directly at Lebanese government institutions if Hezbollah launches rockets at Israeli towns.

In a wide-ranging interview, Barak -- who has become one of Israel's most frequent official guests in Washington -- outlined his vision for arresting Iran's nuclear drive, coping with the Hezbollah threat and forging a deal with the Palestinians.

A decade ago, Barak's failed attempt to reach an agreement with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat led to an outbreak of violence that shattered hopes for Middle East peace. Today, at 68, the Labor Party leader finds himself an outlier in a predominantly right-wing coalition that generally opposes concessions to the Palestinians.

But Barak is also, oddly, perhaps the closest confidant of his former political rival, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, making what he says on matters of peace and war particularly relevant for the Obama administration. While in Washington, Barak is due to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and various intelligence officials.

On Iran, Barak said Israel and the United States share the same "diagnosis" that Iran is "determined to reach nuclear military capability." But he acknowledged "there are differences about what could be done about it, how it should be done, and what [is] the timeframe within which certain steps could be taken."

Among the timing issues are questions of how long to give sanctions the chance to work and the cutoff point after which it would no longer be feasible to neutralize Iran's uranium enrichment program with a military strike. Iranian officials insist that their efforts are geared purely toward peaceful energy development and that they have no intention of building a weapon.

"It's still time for sanctions," Barak said in the interview Friday in his office at Israel's Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, but "probably, at a certain point, we should realize that sanctions cannot work."

The United States and the United Nations have enacted recent rounds of sanctions, with the European Union expected to follow suit as early as Monday.

Israeli officials have carefully parsed President Obama's words, hoping to find evidence that he would be willing to use military force. For Barak, that evidence came in Obama's December speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, when Obama said there will be times when "the use of force" is "not only necessary but morally justified."

Another area where Israel believes force may be necessary is Lebanon. Since a summer war with Hezbollah ended four years ago with the deployment of a beefed-up U.N. contingent, Israel says the Iranian-backed militia has built an arsenal of 40,000 missiles and rockets. Barak warned that the next time violence breaks out, Israel would strike directly at the Lebanese government, which he said is allowing Hezbollah to rearm.

If Hezbollah fires a rocket into Tel Aviv, "we will not run after each Hezbollah terrorist or launcher. . . . We will see it as legitimate to hit any target that belongs to the Lebanese state, not just to Hezbollah."

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has said Israel is "trying to justify a war against Lebanon that it could launch when it wishes" and has complained of Israeli surveillance flights over Lebanese territory.

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have escalated in recent days amid reports that Lebanese activists plan to dispatch aid ships to the Gaza Strip in violation of an Israeli blockade. Barak called the aid ships an "unnecessary provocation."

Hariri has said Israel's actions with regard to the ships are "rejected by all human rights treaties."

The Lebanese effort follows a May 31 melee on a Turkish aid ship that left nine activists dead after Israeli commandos boarded the vessel.

Barak said Israel must put forward a peace plan that delineates the borders of a Palestinian state, ensures a Jewish majority inside Israel, solves the Palestinian refugee problem and offers a "reasonable solution" for the future of Jerusalem.

U.S. Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell has been trying for months to broker a resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu has said he is willing to meet Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas directly; Abbas, skeptical of Netanyahu's sincerity, reportedly told his party's leadership last week that he wants more specific U.S. assurances before agreeing to direct talks.

Asked whether Netanyahu shared Barak's belief in the need for an Israeli peace initiative that addresses the core conflict, Barak said Netanyahu had convinced Obama at their July 6 meeting that he "is there. But, of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We have to prove it in actions, in the negotiations."

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