Ehud Barak was prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001 and defense minister from 1999 to 2001 and 2007 to 2013.
During the past two years, a sense of gloom has taken over my country, as pride in Israel’s accomplishments and self-confidence grounded in reality have given way to fear-mongering, victimhood and internal quarrels.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enabled a militant, nationalist minority to carry out a hostile takeover of his party, Likud; to form a majority in his cabinet; and thus to hijack our national agenda in the service of a messianic drive toward, as it’s often put, “a single Jewish state, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” This overarching ambition is bound to culminate in either a single, binational state, which, within a generation, may have a Jewish minority and likely a Bosnia-like civil war, or else an apartheid reality if Palestinian residents are deprived of the right to vote. Both spell doom for the Zionist dream.
Netanyahu’s reckless conduct has also undermined Israel’s security. Israel has reached a new military-aid agreement for the next decade with the United States. The damage produced by Netanyahu’s irresponsible management of the relations with the White House is now fully manifest. Israel will receive $3.8 billion a year — an important contribution to our security but far less than what could have been obtained before the prime minister chose to blatantly interfere with U.S. politics. Moreover, given the more than 20 percent cumulative rise in the cost of arms since the last 10-year agreement entered into force (in 2007), the newly agreed-upon amount represents no greater purchasing power — and even these funds will be conditioned on Israel refraining from requesting additional funding from Congress. Accentuating the degree of mistrust, according to new details reported Wednesday, the administration secured an Israeli written commitment to return any additional money that Congress might provide. In the past, Congress has added — with White House consent — $600 million to $700 million every year for Iron Dome and other defense systems.
Additionally, Israel will have to accept a gradual reduction of more than $750 million a year in funds for our defense industries. Consequently, either vital security projects will be canceled or the same amount will be reduced from important domestic programs.
Expressing our opposition to the Iran nuclear deal was certainly legitimate. But instead of holding a candid dialogue behind closed doors with President Obama, Netanyahu went behind his back to deliver a speech to Congress, shaking the foundations of bipartisan support for Israel and dividing Jewish opinion.
Likewise at home, Netanyahu has consistently nourished fear of existential threats and unleashed ghosts of enemies from within, when domestic realities called for unity and confidence and regional developments required a sober assessment and steady hand.
The Middle East is a tough neighborhood. Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic State and a more potent Iran are not imaginary adversaries. Yet as a former prime minister, defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, I state unequivocally: While never to be taken lightly, none of these forces constitutes an existential threat.
Despite seven wars, two intifadas and a host of military operations, Israel has emerged as the most successful nation-building project of the 20th century: powerful scientifically, economically and militarily, with a vibrant culture. What made this possible is sorely lacking today: a vision that unifies; an action plan that is realistic; and bold, far-sighted leadership that navigates both while holding a compass, not a weather vane. Israel needs a policy that restores credibility to our relations with Washington; prioritizes the unity of the people over the unity of the land; enhances security via cooperation with like-minded nations; and promotes democratic values rather than messianic visions.
Our people need a policy that does not seek shelter in arguing over the availability of a Palestinian partner but rather takes the initiative by implementing the Security First plan recently presented by more than 200 of Israel’s most respected former top commanders. The plan would bolster our security while preserving the two-state option and prospects for regional cooperation.
Under Security First, Israel would withdraw none of its forces and hold overall responsibility for security over the West Bank as a “security deposit” until an agreement with the Palestinians ushered in other security arrangements. It calls for completion of the security fence around the West Bank major settlement blocks; a freeze on Israeli construction activities east of the fence; legislating a voluntary evacuation-compensation law to enable settlers who wish to relocate west of the fence to do so; establishing an administrative council and funding a development plan for the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; securing the status quo in all holy sites; authorizing Palestinian infrastructure, agriculture and housing development in the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under Israeli control; and issuing an unequivocal Israeli statement reiterating its commitment to a negotiated two-state solution and announcing that Israel has no claim to sovereignty over Palestinian areas beyond the security fence.
An alternative policy would also welcome the opportunity for an international conference on Middle East issues with leading moderate Muslim countries and embrace the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiations, subject to certain essential modifications.
We are strong and should be self- confident enough to take the initiative. Failure to alter the current course will exacerbate the challenges to Israel’s security, well-being, international standing and domestic cohesiveness. On the other hand, acting decisively will secure the Israel we fought for and unleash the talent and resourcefulness of our people to attain as-yet-untold achievements.
If the government doesn’t steer away from its dangerous path, it will have to be replaced by a more responsible, attentive and courageous one — headed by whomever the people choose.