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Q&A with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak

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Barak: I think, you know, following the impact and the reports from his last visit to Washington, I think that he convinced the president 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 and as I mentioned we should never lose sight of the need for a regional security architecture for the whole region through multilateral arrangements, agreements, how to fight radical terror, how to protect security and assure stability and how to face external threats from players like Iran.

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WP: Can Syria be weaned from Iran and if so what should the United States be doing to try to accomplish this?

Barak: I think that a breakthrough in the peace process with Syria achieving what I couldn't achieve with Bashar al Assad's father, with Hafez al Assad, could be a game-changer in the region. I think that it's strategically important. If, through making peace with us, Syria can normalize its relationship with the free world and open the way for economic recovery for securing civil society and development and taking them somehow at a certain point out of the radical axis that could be a game changer.

I think that it contributes to moderate Arab interests, to the interests of America in the region and of course to Israel. We know all what is at stake. I think that both sides understand what kind of decisions they will have to make in order to move forward. And I think that the right time -- I can't tell you when it will happen -- but the right time hopefully not too late -- we'll be able to tackle this issue as well.

We expect that a byproduct of any breakthrough with Syria will be also opportunity to make peace with Lebanon and putting an end to this abnormality of the Hezbollah militia, kind of state within a state, it's a militia that has members in parliament, and ministers in the government, they have veto power in the government and they have their own independent or probably Iranian proxy, or Iranian-inspired independent policies towards Israel and an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets.

WP: You have said Israel will hold the government of Lebanon responsible for any Hezbollah provocation. What does that mean?

Barak: It means that unlike what happened in 2006 where under request from the administration, [Secretary of State] Condoleezza [Rice] called at the time [Prime Minister] Olmert and asked him not to touch the precious government of Siniora, and we didn't. I think that they're responsible for what happens and if it happens that Hezbollah will shoot into Tel Aviv, we will not run after each Hezbollah terrorist or launcher of some rocket in all Lebanon. We'll see the government of Lebanon responsible for what happens, and for what happens within its government, its body politic, and its arsenal of munitions. And we will see it as a legitimate to hit any target that belongs to the Lebanese state, not just to the Hezbollah. And somehow, we are not looking for it. I am not threatening. We are not interested in such a deterioration. But being surrounded by so many proxies that operate not just under immediate threat under them, but probably activated by other players for external reasons, we cannot accept this abnormality and I believe that no other sovereign would have accepted it.

WP: Is it a mistake, in your view, for the United States to support the Lebanese Armed Forces?

Barak: We are warning our American friends that the walls between the Lebanese armed forces and Hezbollah, it's quite porous. And whatever you give the Lebanese armed forces might end up in the hands of Hezbollah, be it technology or weapons or whatever. And we seeing that basically it's a failing kind of attempt of the international community to impose behavior upon the Lebanese and to the extent the Syrians and the Iranians. There is 1559, UN Security Council resolution, as well as 1701, and both are violated bluntly by the Hezbollah by the Syrian support to the Hezbollah and the Iranian support.

WP: Maybe the United States needs to find a new policy towards Syria?

Barak: I do not pretend to be able to shape American policy. It's up to the American administration. I don't envy the present administration for all they have to watch on this wider Middle East map. You're really carrying a heavy burden of trying to make the world a somewhat safer place. But I think with regard to Syria, I used to joke with President Clinton that Hafez al Assad wants to make peace with him, not with me, but we orchestrated it in a way that in order to reach Washington he has to go through Jerusalem because basically they are interested in the continuity of the regime in protecting the future of their economy, declining resources, especially oil exports.

They need a lot of things from the free world. From us they need the Golan Heights and we need security and early warning and peace relationship and in fact the very kind of stopping of the process of radical terror which has its headquarters in daylight in Damascus, all these from Hamas in Gaza, they are operating freely.


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