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Q&A with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak

Barak: I think that basically it's still time for sanctions. I think it's not a matter of years. It's not many years before we have to see. We believe in effective, doesn't matter how you call the sanctions, whether you call them crippling or paralyzing, or I don't know, lethal. I don't know. It should be effective, it should work. I don't see it working as of now. There were certain price to be paid for the coalition that imposed it...It has to include practically everything and we are not there yet and probably we cannot be there. Probably at a certain point we should realize that sanctions cannot work.

WP: That's what CIA Director Leon Panetta said, that sanctions won't work.

Barak: Panetta is a clever person.

WP: What about the Palestinians?

Barak: We feel that we have to go from this somewhat artificial proximity talks into direct talks but of course once you are in direct talks we have to be able to put on the table the real issue and discuss all core issues.

The Israeli public elected a Knesset by which a government has been creating which is a right-wing government, (I represent the) center, left of center. I strongly believe that we have to establish or to strengthen our deep relationship with the United States within the context of a wider strategy of the free world in this region to face the real threats which are the radical terror, nuclear proliferation and rogue states, especially Iran and to be able to do it in a daring way. I believe, I believe -- it's not the formal position of the government -- that we should be ready to put on the table a plan which contains all the elements, namely realizing that there is a compelling imperative for us to have a two state solution be agreed upon and implemented before it's too late because between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean there live 11 million people if there is only one sovereign called Israel reigning over this region it will become inevitably even non-Jewish or non-democratic because if they cannot vote...if they can vote it's bi-national.

WP: Why are you sitting in a government with people who do not share your point of view on this?

Barak: I think we have to be able to delineate a border inside Eretz Yisroel in a way based on security and demographic considerations, where on inner side there is a solid Jewish majority for generations to come, on the other side demilitarized but viable independent Palestinian state economically, territorially politically, whatever. I think there is still an obstacle in Gaza, because they have about one half of their people and certain piece of ground and only access to the Mediterranean is there. It should be still solved within the Palestinian arena in a certain way. I believe that the Palestinian Authority should somehow resume its authority over Gaza.

WP: How? Should the Palestinian Authority do that?

Barak: I don't want to pretend to become omnipotent. It's important we should help the Palestinians' bottom-up effort and we are doing it to the extent we can't.

Barak: We should be able to concentrate on the settlement blocs, to establish security arrangements that will answer the previously mentioned considerations. We have to be able to bring back the isolated settlements into the settlement blocs or into Israel per se. We should find a way to deal with the Palestinian refugees issues in a way that [they] will be settled in a Palestinian state and to put [a] reasonable solution for Jerusalem that will keep our capital of course and somehow respect the heavily condensed or heavily dense Palestinians neighborhoods. And I think that it is possible. If we find during a direct negotiation that we cannot implement immediately all of it immediately probably we have to settle down for something like the second phase of the road map but it's up to both sides. We cannot impose it on the other side. So I basically believe that that's what we need to do. Now it's not a fully agreed upon policy within our government.

WP: Why is what you say relevant when the other major players in Netanyahu's government oppose what you say on this?

Barak: I think first of all that people are changing. If I compare the situation to Camp David 10 years ago, it's exactly 10 years ago, I was prime minister, at the time people like Ehud Olmert, future prime minister then mayor of Jerusalem, or Tzippi Livni was totally against it. Now they support it. I can tell you there is a drift, a gradual drift toward understanding thatit's urgent to reach a two-state solution among a wide silent majority in Israel.

The fact that [the] right wing won the election doesn't mean that the people doesn't understand what I've just said. It just means that they prefer to give the keys or the steering wheel for the negotiations not to some extreme leftist who seems to some people here to be utopian and probably not always cautious enough about security arrangements. But basically once we are in negotiations, I believe that the majority, great majority of voters for Likud, for Israel Beitenu of [Avigdor] Lieberman, and clearly for Kadima believe as I am, probably not happy to realize it, but understand that's the only solution. So I think the real need is to bring both sides into the room and start negotiations, overcome the Palestinian hesitation and probably overcome our own kind of considerations and moving into it because by waiting another decade or another half a generation will not change it, just will deepen the abnormalities or complicate the solution.

WP: What can Israel do to strengthen Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad? And also, why do you think terror attacks are down so low -- because of improved Israeli counter-terrorism, Palestinians security forces stepping up, or a change in Hamas's tactics?

Barak: It's all together. It's the fence, the wall you call it, security barrier, effectiveness of our security forces and the emerging Palestinian security forces. They are doing a good job. We are trying to help them to the extent we can. I highly appreciate Fayyad. I don't want to praise him too much in order not to damage him some. But they are effective in growing, they are establishing gradually their law-enforcing chain, there is normalcy in their cities and the security situation is good. I met here around this table with the leaders of the settlements when we ordered the freeze.

It was high-volume conversation but they admitted on their initiative that security situation is better than what we had many years.

Basically we believe in this bottom up effort, the Palestinian economy is growing in a Chinese way.

WP: In light of all this, why not take down more checkpoints? Transfer more authority? Maybe dismantle some settlement outposts as Israel pledged to?

Barak: We removed hundreds of road blocks and dozens of checkpoints and we allowed them to go gradually into more and more places, reduced the level of Israeli what they call 'incursions.' Much lower. But we are still bearing the ultimate responsibility for security. That's something that should be changed once there is an agreement they will take care of themselves. It's really promising, what's happened in the Palestinian civil society, especially the contribution of Prime Minister Fayyad and the leadership of Abu Mazen. They are changing the environment here. I hope that they will find a way to resume it in Gaza as well.

Some people here suspect the Palestinians doesn't really want to enter into direct negotiations right now but they want to play for time, somehow to take this period to [wait for] further American steps or UN Security Council steps. I think they should be convinced that it's now, and a year that things should be tackled honestly by both sides.

America cannot impose upon Israel a solution and we cannot afford not showing certain openness to things that this government probably would not think of if we were not part of it because without us it would have remained an extreme right wing party. You cannot expect an extreme right wing government to accept the road map, to accept the idea of two-state solution, to have the prime minister making the Bar Ilan speech or making this freeze on building for 10 months. As I have said the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

We entered the government, Labor, for two reasons, one was having a package deal in the economy and expansion in Keynisan-like budget with employers and unions and governments sitting around round table to solve the issues but the other even more important issue was the peace process.

WP: Do the other Labor ministers support you?

Barak: Yeah, fully. I think many ministers from other parties including Shas, Lieberman and Likud are supporting my position. But time has come for steps and of course we have always to be careful about our security and vital national interests.

WP: You seem to be putting the need for a serious peace push not just in the framework of the demographic need but because you have to in order to get the United States' support to cope with bigger strategic threats?

Barak: We are not, in my judgment, doing a favor [for] the Palestinians, we are making a favor to ourselves because the alternative is to drift into an abnormal situation. The world will not accept it. Half of our public or probably two-thirds of our public will not accept the possibility of reigning over another people for another 43 years. It's abnormal. It's totally incongruent with the zeitgeist and with our real needs.

I remember it from my personal experience 10 years ago. It's never easy to translate it from intellectual understanding to concrete political steps that always include certain steps but we are at the crossing. We reached the T. It's not a fork, it's a T. We have to choose. Are we going the Shamir direction or the Begin and Sharon direction, where people who were right wing extremist ideological but at a certain point they reached the decision, make a gallant u-turn against everything they believed. It's a moment not for politics but for history.

WP: How are you feeling about the Turkish flotilla incident now in the wake of the Eiland report which said there were mistakes made?

Barak: I think of it, we basically cannot afford, you know having seen what is happening in Lebanon and now in Gaza, we cannot afford the free flow of weapons and war materials into the Hamas's hand.

We started to ease somehow the entrance of products even before this flotilla.

I can tell you honestly, you know I once said there are 1.5 million human beings in Gaza. There is one who is under real humanitarian need and deprived of daylight and basic rights of human beings, that's Gilad Shalit. I don't think we can compare the standard of living in Tel Aviv with Gaza. But it's not exactly humanitarian crisis.

WP: You just issued a statement warning Lebanon about the Lebanese aid ship planning to set sail from Tripoli to Gaza this week. How worried are you about this?

Barak: I see that certain deterrence has been created by the results of [the Mavi Marvara]. We did not intend to do this. Basically we insisted on the need to do it. We would have preferred if it had ended without loss of life but basically it's a deliberate provocation. The people came there and risked directly their lives from those people who threw them onto the lower deck, hit them. I was a young commander, a young person, and I remember this need to control yourself, not to pull the trigger when it's not absolutely necessary in situation of hostages. It's not easy.

WP: Indeed, you were known as a master of stealth in Entebbe, Beirut, when you dressed as a woman, when I watched the flotilla, and I watched Dubai, and Gaza and Lebanon war, I thought Israel today seems to still achieve its tactical objectives but triggers widespread international condemnation in the process. Why is this?

Barak: Part of it is underlying change, somehow there is a growing attempt to de-legitimize Israel. Time passed from the, you know, thirty years ago leaders all around the world still remember the suffering of the Jewish people. Israel was the answer for what happened in Europe. Nowadays, practically no leader has personal memory of what happened there but what they see on the screens everyday is the suffering of the Palestinians. Without drawing a moral equivalence or with all due difference, that's what attracts the attention and even there is a change that we have to resist. More and more, you know, 30 years ago all the Arab players used to say no. No for recognition. No for negotiations. The four no's of Khartoum and Israel was always stretching its hand for peace. And now it seems over the surface the Arab leaders are competing which plan will be adopted, which peace plan. We have many reservations for them. They are quite successful in portraying Israel as the one who is hesitating and it's not practically, in Kantian terms it's not true, but that's what is the impression and we have to fight against it and once again we have to make an effort for making some preparations, more attentive to how they are seen not just what happens even if they are full justified.

But at the same time we have to bear in mind that ultimately the real answer for many of our issues is just to move determinedly, in spite of certain risks, towards trying. You know no one can make a full-proof prediction that it will work but being able to move into a negotiation and try to really leave no stone unturned, on the way to try to settle this conflict is our main responsibility and I believe that with very genuine attempt of Israel to keep moving we will mobilize at least many of the honest people and honest leaders in the world.

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