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Ehud Barak on War & Peace
The former Israeli prime minister talks the invasion, legitimacy, and a two-state solution
Ehud Barak knows a thing or two about peace: Because he failed at it.
Prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001, Barak dislodged Benjamin Netanyahu from from power, withdrew Israel from southern Lebanon, and led Israel into the triparte Camp David negotiations.
There was good reason to think, no matter how dour things seemed at the dawn of the millennium, that Barak might be the man to bring peace to the Middle East.
As we know, that didn’t happen. The Camp David summit ended without a deal. The Second Intifada began months later. Hizbollah killed three Israeli soldiers amid the chaos, and held their bodies captive. Barak was roundly defeated in subsequent elections and Israel hasn’t had a left-of-center prime minister since.
Even if Barak’s successor, Ariel Sharon, made serious and substantial steps towards peace, it’s fair to say that the dream of a two-state solution began slipping away after that summer of 2000.
But in that moment, with the three leaders at the presidential retreat in Maryland, Barak’s failure was only temporary. It’s just that nobody knew it.
“As they looked back at the retreat from the windows of their cars, the Palestinian negotiators heaved a deep sigh of relief,” Akram Hanieh, a negotiator and advisor to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, wrote in his paper al-Ayyam. “They had stated a clear ‘No’ to the United States on U.S. territory. There was no bravado. It was a ‘No’ that was politically, nationally, and historically correct and necessary to put the peace process on the right track.” In other words, it was a no now so that it may be a yes later.
The Israelis fumed, of course. They had come up with a sweeping package, in conjunction with the Americans, that included the right to return, land swaps, and a division of Jerusalem, limited though it was. And the Palestinians metaphorically threw the pagers in the air.
Mad as they were, the Israelis knew that Palestinians weren’t ready to make a deal. But the negotiations seemed to inch the PLO closer. “Camp David was a momentous achievement for Israel, since it set the blueprint for any future agreement between us and the Palestinians,” Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s chief negotiator, recalled in an interview.
The Israeli and Palestinian public couldn’t appreciate just how close they were in the moment, however. All they knew is that they failed. That failure looked permanent. And that failure provoked anger and grief. We can point to the Second Intifada as the moment when Hamas, who opposed the Camp David talks, became a popular organization. In the 1996 elections, which Hamas boycotted, they polled around 10%. In the 2006 elections, the last to be held in Palestine, Hamas garnered nearly 45%.
On Saturday morning, in conversation at the Halifax International Security Forum, Barak offered a look both at the micro and the macro — the war Israel is currently fighting, and the war for peace that it is currently losing.
This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, we listen to the man whose failure could still be an opportunity for peace.
There will be plenty more Bug-eyed and Shameless coming soon. Don’t miss a dispatch:
As this war — Israel-Gaza, Israel-Palestine, Israel-Hamas, however you want to label it — continues, I think it’s really critical to understand how Israel thinks. Because, put simply: I don’t think we are doing a good job of that right now.
It is really easy to conflate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the rest of the country: But that’s a mistake. Netanyahu and his party are deeply, deeply unpopular. It is also really easy to look at the opposition to Netanyahu and assume the Israelis are clamouring for an end to the war and an immediate peace. That isn’t quite true either.
I won’t suggest that Ehud Barak represents the majority, by any stretch, but I think his perspective is useful — to see where he breaks from Netanyahu, and where the two agree, if begrudgingly.
As I sat in the room, listening to Barak, I noted some of his observations that, I think, are particularly useful for those of us trying to make sense of this conflict. So I include them here — heavily edited for clarity and length — with some thoughts of my own. [Edit: The video of Barak’s full remarks are available on Youtube here.]
On the challenges of the war:
Ehud Barak: The objectives are the most justifiable — after what you've seen on October 7. Today, there's no way to avoid taking those steps to eliminate the military capabilities of Hamas, and their capacity to govern the Gaza Strip. And it cannot be executed just from the air. It needs many thousands of pairs of boots on the ground in order to complete it, it takes time. But the whole operation is taking place under full constraints, each one of them can derail it and block it from reaching its objective. Number one is the 240 hostages. The second one is the need to minimize the risk that it will split into a full regional war with the Hizbollah, in the north, and others. The third one is the the commitment to follow international law, which constrains our operation and creates a kind of gradual, quite steep, gradient of losing the legitimacy in the world. And the last one is: Even if we assume that we achieve all these objectives, let's say within several months or more than several months, to whom do we hand over the Gaza Strip? Because we do not intend to stay there for decades. People ask: So what should be done? But it's all intertwined. The right answer always depends upon the details, the facts, the dynamics — not what we wish, but what happens on the ground. So it still I'm convinced that we will win this war. But how exactly it's it's not yet clear.
So we have to complete it. It's a compelling imperative. The Israel government cannot survive, cannot live up to its very basic commitment to its citizens, if Hamas can control Gaza or come back as a military power.
As readers of the newsletter know, I’m deeply skeptical of Israel’s military operation. I think they can win this battle but it will cost them the war. (Dispatch #77) Yes, of course, they can flatten much of Gaza City and kill Hamas commanders through the territory, but I think the destruction and death threatens to continue radicalizing young Palestinians against the Israeli state, pushing peace further away and generating a new generation of terrorists and militants.
But even us critics have to acknowledge some realities. And Barak forces us to confront those here. First and foremost: Not responding was, as Barak explains, not an option. And while I deeply believe that we need to help come up with alternative responses, we must also face the fact that a military response was the most direct, effective, and obvious.
First is that, despite the staggering death toll, Israel does generally abide by the laws of armed conflict — although there is also evidence of some significant violations. The second, and I’ll come to this later in the dispatch, is that there is simply no better option for Israel right now. Not responding was, as Barak explains, not an option. We, the international community, need to figure out how to give Israel an off-ramp that allows it to fulfil its commitment to its citizens while protecting Palestinian lives.
The second is a question of international law. it has become popular to say that Israel is guilty of war crimes in its invasion of Gaza — and the accusations are not necessarily wrong, but it is also undeniable that Israel does conduct operations in consideration of the law of armed conflict.
Following the letter of international law, of course, does not make the actions moral or just. Nor does following the law mean there will be no civilian deaths. The NATO bombing campaign of Yugoslavia, which was intended to be a surgical operation to degrade Slobodan Milošević’s ability to murder, killed around 500 civilians. The airstrikes supporting the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, meanwhile, killed as many as 1,300 in just a matter of months.
But there is evidence that Israel goes well beyond those examples.
Consider the 2009 United Nations conducted a fact-finding mission into Operation Cast Lead, a significant Israel Defense Force operation in Gaza. While it did recognize some of Israel’s main defenses — that it tries to reduce civilian deaths, that it provides forewarning of airstrikes — it still found a number of violations of the Geneva Convention and other international laws. The mission slammed Israel’s blockade of Gaza, its targeting of civilian infrastructure, its indifference to civilian casualties, its use of chemical weapons, and more. Another mission, looking at the 2014 conflict, came to similar findings.
At the same time, the missions also found overwhelming evidence of war crimes and even crimes against humanity of Palestinian militant groups. They also conducted summary executions of Palestinians.
One cannot excuse the other, and Barak tries to do exactly that — as does the Israeli government. Their claims that they exceed the requirements of international law are consistently contradicted by these investigations. But it is still unavoidable that, in this conflict, one power does try to avoid civilian deaths and the other deliberately inflicts them.
But Hamas does not require international legitimacy. Israel does. And Barak is exactly correct: Israel had an enormous amount of international sympathy and solidarity after October 7, but the devastation in Gaza is quickly turning that support into shock, horror, anger, and disgust.
Netanyahu may continue riding the belief, held by many, that action must be taken, no matter the cost. He is buoyed by his staunchest defenders, for whom support must be unconditional. That is all, of course, wrong on both a moral and a practical level. How to untangle that, as I’ve written, is difficult but not impossible. (Dispatch #78)
Of course, Hamas has expertly built this invitation to quagmire. From the atrocities committed on October 7 to its continued efforts to draw Israel into quagmire, this is exactly how the terror group seeks to delegitimize Israel. (Dispatch #77)
This is all to say that we can remain clear-eyed about the violations committed by Israel while also acknowledging what they’re up against.
On fighting Hamas, and civilian casualties
Barak: Hamas deliberately deploys itself among the civilian population, even deliberately used them. We knew for years that their main command post was underneath the Shifa Hospital — the bunkers were built by Israeli architects, when we built hospitals there. But it has been used for years by Hamas. The same applies to another dozen or more hospitals in the whole area. Basically, those 1.5 million displaced people moved because we asked them to move. And we asked for it because there is no way to hit Hamas if we want those people to live. And in a way, Hamas is at the top of the causal chain of people killed on both sides — including the massacre, the barbarian slaughtering of 1,200 people.
One of the troubles of following this conflict in the West is that you often end up with two incompatible points of view — one via the IDF, one via Hamas. Splitting the difference is not possible, so you’re forced to either make a choice or throw your hands up in despair.
The two are not moral equals, of course. The IDF, for its many faults, is still the military arm of the government of Israel. It is accountable to a democratic system. It has legal advisors that, as Barak recalled, would often cancel operations or airstrikes out of fear of killing civilians. When accused of committing war crimes, it responds. Hamas is a terror organization that uses the murder of civilians to advance its own political agenda. That’s the point.
But, to flip that around, the IDF is a professional military force with a well-resources and substantial public affairs team and has been caught repeatedly lying to the public.
So we should believe Israel, for example, that Hamas runs an extensive tunnel network underneath Gaza. (Hamas doesn’t really deny this.) But we should be skeptical that Gaza’s hospitals are integral parts of this underground network.
The images and video released and recorded in recent days seem to clearly prove that the IDF was telling the truth: The al-Shifa hospital was being used by Hamas, and is connected to the tunnel network.
But I hadn’t realized the degree to which al-Shifa’s infrastructure wasn’t build by Hamas, but by Israel. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Israel helped rebuild and expand the hospital, even adding a basement that would provide it with much-needed security.
It underscores just how impossible of an operation this is. It’s easier, sure, to just reject everything the IDF says, and to ignore the problem posed by these tunnels and bunkers. But they’re there, they’re well-built, they’re under hospitals, and they pose a real threat.
On what happens after the war
Barak: The word ‘occupation’ can carry several meanings in English — at least from my limited control of this language. We do not plan to reoccupy the Gaza strip and stay there. No. But our government, the present government, really made a major mistake. Netanyahu has been prime minister for most of the last 15 years. The policy of the last five years, stated by our government, as one of our ministers said: Hamas is an asset, and the Palestinian Authority is a liability, rather than the other way around. And it was Netanyahu’s formal position, for the wrong reasons, for years.
And no one thinks we can have peace negotiations with Hamas. But it's not too late, even now, with a weakened Palestinian Authority, with the backing of the Arab, moderate countries, to get a deal before the United Nations Security Council. And — backed by the Americans, Saudi money, Qatari money — to establish this authority that will take over the Gaza Strip for a limited period of time, three to six months, during which they will bring back the Palestinian Authority, which is the original, internationally-recognized, owner of the place. They were removed by coup de violent coup d'état, and should be brought back. That's my proposal.
Certainly, Barak doesn’t speak for this government. But, in listening to some Western officials who have spoken recently to their Israeli counterparts, I think his analysis of a post-war Gaza is about right. There will be no long-term occupation. They are also, this official said, realistic that they will be unable to completely destroy Hamas. And they do anticipate elections in the Gaza Strip in the near future.
These are the goals and expectations that were laid out in an op-ed written by President Joe Biden on Saturday. In fact, he goes a step further: "There must be no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade, and no reduction in territory," he wrote.
The fact that there is a crystallization in opinion that we cannot go back to the pre-October 7 order is a good thing. (Before you say that Hamas’ tactics must be effective, consider what concessions Gaza could have won if it held new elections and endorsed the Abraham Accords.) But this laudable objectives, of course, crash head-long into the second part of Barak’s remarks: Netanyahu’s government has consciously worked to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority, and make peace implausible. Even if Netanyahu is being realistic, in acknowledging that an occupation can’t happen, there’s no good reason to think his engagement with Palestine will suddenly become earnest and constructive.
Intellectually, we know the way out of this: Marginalize and degrade Hamas as much as possible — recognizing there is disagreement on how to do that — and then proceed to help Gaza rebuild. Push for elections as soon as the Palestinian Authority can reasonably hold them, and empower that incoming government to sit down with Israel to make a deal.
That is easier said than done, of course. But what Barak makes clear is that it’s not the Palestinian Authority that is a chaotic variable in this hypothetical path to resolution.
On Netanyahu and his government
Barak: Now, some of the audience doesn’t know the politics behind this. The real idea of this right-wing government is that whoever wants to block the road towards a two state solution should prefer keeping Hamas alive and kicking. Whenever the Americans the world or anyone outside Israel approaches us with the demand — why the hell do you don't negotiate with the Palestinians? — we can easily say: How can we? Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, does not control half of his people in Gaza. And when you look into Gaza, they're controlled by terror organization, even according to you. So it was a deliberate effort to block it, which I think was a major, grave mistake. We should do the other way around. Even now, it’s not the right time to talk with them. Because the blood is still boiling, and many people are looking for revenge. But when the time comes, that's the only solution is a two state solution.
This government was elected freely by the public on a very, very narrow margin. And they put forward these judicial reforms, this judicial coup d'état. And in order to release Netanyahu from his court case, they built a coalition based on extreme right wing, messianic racists. I compare them to these two guys of the Proud Boys who are sent to prison for 20 and 15 years, respectively. Think of an American president nominating one of those Proud Boys to be Secretary of Treasury, or to be Homeland Security secretary. So we are in a quite a crazy situation on our own, even without the Palestinians.
I am often amazed by Westerners, including some major Jewish groups, who like to put very rigid constraints on how we criticize the Israeli government. I’m amazed because the criticism of Israel from within Israel is often significantly more pointed and blunt. Barak calling two of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers — he’s almost certainly referring to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — messianic-minded racists akin to the Proud Boys is wild, and pretty spot-on.
He points to another example of how Netanyahu lays traps for proponents of a two-state solution:
Barak: We never asked the Egyptians, never, to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. We do not ask the Egyptians, we never asked the Jordanians — we never raised this idea that we need the recognition of King Abdullah. We are defining our rights to exist as a Jewish state. We didn't ask the Lebanese. We never raise it to in Syria — Netanyahu went to make a peace with Assad before I tried, and he never mentioned it. So the only reason that we made it a special demand from the Palestinian has to do with political motivation. It was one more trick to create a counter response that will make it appear as if there is no way to make peace with them. I do not believe in this idea of putting something to them that in no way will ever be accepted — to demand, as a precondition from our rivals, to accept our self-evident perception.
It’s these comments that really made me want to write about Barak’s talk. Because they lay bare a stark reality: Netanyahu has to go.
Israel is a sovereign nation and a democracy (albeit a flawed one.) Its people get to decide who their leaders are. But the Israeli people also do not want Netanyahu to be their prime minister. He remains in power thanks to his impressive stubbornness. But he was a barrier to peace before October 7, and he continues to be one now.
It will fall on the United States to help the Israeli people ensure his exit. How it does so will be a tricky and difficult bit of geopolitical maneuvering, but it will pave the way for a representative government that wants security and peace. And that government needs to have representation from Arab Israelis.
Barak: I great believer in the old saying that: If you do not know which port you want to reach, no wind will take you there. So the long term vision should be a two state solution. And the reason is simple and painful: Between the river and the sea, as the pro-Palestinian slogan goes, there lives some 15 million people. Give or take, half of them Jews half are not Jews. If that block of millions can vote, this is a binational state overnight. And within a very short period, historically speaking, it's a binational state with a Muslim majority. That's not the Zionist dream.
The Palestinians have been unable to vote, temporarily, for 56 years now. If they cannot vote, permanently, it's not a democracy. So we have a compelling imperative. That's what I find so hard to explain. It's not because of justice for the Palestinians, which is worthwhile on its own, but that's not our highest priority. We have a compelling imperative to disengage from the Palestinians, to delineate the land within the promised land — which will include probably 80% of the settlements, all our strategic interest and cover only single digit percentage of the area of the West Bank — and have this recognized border, and live, flourishing, side-by-side with a demilitarized, independent, Palestinian state, which covers the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And that should be the vision. But I have to tell you the sad reality: More than half, a little bit more than half, of the Israeli public believes the opposite: That there should be a one state solution and they believe that it's realistic.
Again, I find this clear-eyed analysis of the situation, informed by one of the most experienced voices in Israel, to be incredibly useful.
Two doors are before Israel: One is marked “one state solution,” and envisions Israel governing, as Barak joking mentions, from the river to the sea. The other is “two state solution," of that harmonious neighbourly relationship. But it’s a false choice: Behind that first door is a brick wall. There is no one state solution, as Barak explains, without apartheid. But that illusion of a choice means making the right call is more difficult.
Calls for a ceasefire are mounting, as they must. Even if Israel does not acquiesce, their prosecution of this war will be informed by mounting international outrage. And we should be outraged.
But we should also be clear-eyed that there is a tremendous amount of work to do, and it will fall on a huge coalition of countries around the world to get Israel on track, to chorale the forces of the Arab world to rally their support, and to help the Palestinian Authority reassert itself as the best option for the Palestinian people.
The hard part hasn’t even begun. But, this time, we will have to make good on Ehud Barak’s failure.
That’s it’s for this remedial dispatch.
As you may have noticed, I’ve fallen a bit behind on my regular publishing schedule.
Expect some more observations from the Halifax International Security Forum in the near future, as well as my previously-teased dispatch on some new trends in extremist/conspiracy organizing.
So stay tuned!