BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Events: Newsnight
Front Page 
World 
UK 
UK Politics 
Business 
Sci/Tech 
Health 
Education 
Entertainment 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
AudioVideo 

banner
This transcript has been typed at speed, and therefore may contain mistakes. Newsnight accepts no responsibility for these. However, we will be happy to correct serious errors.

Exclusive interview with Ehud Barak

MARK URBAN:
The Israeli leader was in a tough mood when we met - particularly on this Palestinian demand that their refugees should have the right of return. That's a demand that was backed by Arab leaders today. He was passionate about all sorts of issues as well, including claims from his own public that he's been weak in the face of this violence, and from abroad that he's used excessive force. War or peace - the fate of this country and region hang in the balance. Israel's leader was chosen on a platform of peace. He's a man who listens to Rachmaninov, but who hasn't flinched from unleashing heavy weapons on precisely those he would make peace with. If the polls are to be believed, Ehud Barak is heading for defeat in elections next month.

EHUD BARAK:
PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL
This is a confrontation between the wills of two nations and movements, a struggle over the same piece of ground. And this is the history of the last 10 years, maybe the last 22 years, or 52 years. It's a very long confrontation of these two movements.

URBAN:
Much of what Barak wanted to achieve depended on his partner in peace until a few months ago, Yasser Arafat. Now Barak explains to Newsnight how it's gone wrong and what his strategy is.

BARAK:
I cannot penetrate the soul of Arafat. I cannot know in advance whether, behind all the masks, he's the kind of leader who can reach an agreement or whether he wants to be the Moses of the Palestinians, staying in front of the river and not crossing into the promised land. I cannot penetrate, but I can, without making any tangible compromises, unmask Arafat, and show the reality to my people, and make the whole region look in a more mature, maybe more painful way, but look in a more mature way on the realities and the need to make decisions so as to avoid a tragedy.

URBAN:
Is that what you have achieved since Camp David - unmasking Arafat as someone not interested in peace?

BARAK:
Almost unmasking. Maybe the last veil is still there for the next few days when we are talking, but then we will know.

URBAN:
The problems of Barak the politician began in earnest in July. On the eve of a vital summit, his coalition collapsed. As he left for America he was accused by his own ministers of being ready to sell out to the Palestinians.

BARAK:
I know that we were heading towards an iceberg. I cannot deny or ignore it, so I deliberately set up a government that was quite impossible. It was predictable in advance that they would leave government when we come closer to the target. I deliberately created it in order to put an end to the conflict, to solve the problem and to save all the youngsters and citizens that will be killed in the next war, and we will win it! But it's such a price to us and to others, and with such a clarity that after the next war we will sit down to solve exactly the same issues to the slightest details.

URBAN:
Even if you foresaw that those fair weather friends in your government would leave you, did you foresee that Palestinians would see this as weakness? One of those negotiating there with you told us he was desperate. He said his future was in our hands.

BARAK:
We are strong enough to defend ourselves militarily, in terms of our economy and in the superiority of our technology. But the real source of potential long-term weakness for Israel is the fact that we are somehow ruling over another people for 33 years. It was a kind of blindness of the Israeli Government for about a generation before the first Intifada erupted. To think that you can - as a Zionist, Jewish independent state at the end of the 20th century - rule over another people for generations without having any consequences - it's ridiculous.

URBAN:
With the failure of Camp David, Barak the general re-emerged. The wave of violence engulfed the occupied territories. Having been portrayed by the Israeli right as a wimp, he tried to overawe the Palestinians with displays of military might. When the violence began here in the autumn, do you feel, in retrospect, that it was badly handled? Did you learn lessons in the early weeks as to how you should handle it?

BARAK:
I think that maybe we had to prepare our own public in advance in a more detailed, clear way for the eventuality that violence will quite probably erupt. But if we had done that, some people would say that by saying it we made it a self-fulfilling prophecy - that we somehow caused it, not just responded to it. So it's a delicate balance. But there is no way to by-pass it - when you enter a minefield, you shouldn't be surprised that you are surrounded by certain explosions.

URBAN:
There is a perception in the wider world of excessive force. Did you ever give orders to shoot demonstrators? How is it that so many young Palestinians...

BARAK:
No! It's a manipulation of the Palestinians. The picture is manipulated. People in the world...

URBAN:
But it's not a manipulation that...

BARAK:
It's a manipulation...

URBAN:
...that people under the age of 16... BARAK:
...of what they see on the screen. Look, it's painful for us as well. I do not see any gain for Israel for a single young Palestinian that is murdered. It's ridiculous! But you shouldn't look just at the numbers, but at the deeper question, who benefits from this violence? When you try to ask yourselves honestly who caused it, you should ask yourselves who is practically benefiting from it. It might give you a hint to the answer to the question - who really caused it and who is responsible. For us it's clear, the Palestinians wanted it. They believe that it serves them.

URBAN:
In recent weeks, there have been fewer confrontations on the streets and a change of tactics by Israel. The economic stick is being wielded. So is a policy of using undercover troops to kill Palestinians associated with the violence. This week, Thabet Thabet, for example, was killed near his home near the West Bank. Israeli sources claimed he was masterminding attacks. Have you given orders for what, in effect, is a policy of assassination?

BARAK:
It's not a policy of assassination. It's just a very basic right, almost commitment of armed forces in government, to defend citizens. It's just another expression of the right of self-defence.

URBAN:
So you HAVE given orders for that policy? Obviously you would put it in a slightly different way...

BARAK:
No!

URBAN:
But you understand what I'm saying?

BARAK:
No. There is a clear kind of permanent policy here to hit those who hit you.

URBAN:
When Barak won his mandate a year and a half ago, he was credited with great skills as a political campaigner. But public support has drifted away, at least in part because of the perception he has conceded too much to the Palestinians. Now he's launched an election campaign. To some that looked like political suicide, but he still believes he can confound the opinion polls, possibly with an alternative vision, one that distinguishes him from the right-wing challenger, Ariel Sharon, and just possibly with a last-minute peace deal.

BARAK:
If Arafat will demand the right of return in a permanent agreement - the right of return of Palestinians back into Israel - it means that he doesn't want peace. Insisting on the right of return is putting a question mark on the very raison d'Ítre of Israel. We will never agree to it, no matter who comes to this place. And the other is my saying that I'm not ready to sign a document that conveys the sovereignty of the Temple Mount, the anchor of our identity, to Palestinian sovereignty. But this statement does not fully exclude sensitive, creative formulas that will keep the situation on the ground as it is. No-one really challenges it, but it makes the formal symbolic wedding sensitive to both sides' needs.

URBAN:
You were voted for as a peace candidate. If all the future holds is the promise of conflict, perhaps go for a harder leader?

BARAK:
A nation should be able, at a painful moment, to look open-eyed into the realities, into the fact that there is another side - the Palestinians have their own suffering, their own problems and needs - and we have to solve it. It will be painful but afterwards it will be more healthy and the future will be better. No way to by-pass it. I would not like to stay here, in post, just counting the months and years, denying realities and having to face it like in the case of the surgery that you have to pass to face it. It's a much worse situation as a result of an inability to lead and to tell the people - this is the reality, you have to look at it and we have to cross it together, even if it's painful, but it will make the future of our children different and much better.

URBAN:
Barak's last trip to Washington didn't produce the elusive settlement. He believes his people and even the Palestinians will eventually share his views. If he is indeed ahead of his time, his public has just a few weeks in which to catch up.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
BBC RADIO NEWS
BBC ONE TV NEWS
WORLD NEWS SUMMARY
PROGRAMMES GUIDE

















Links to more Newsnight stories