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Exclusive interview with Ehud Barak
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.
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
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.
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.
Is that what you have achieved
since Camp David - unmasking Arafat
as someone not interested in peace?
Almost unmasking. Maybe the last
veil is still there for the next
few days when we are talking, but
then we will know.
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.
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
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
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.
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 -
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
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?
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.
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...
No! It's a manipulation of the Palestinians.
The picture is manipulated. People in the world...
But it's not a manipulation that...
It's a manipulation...
...that people under the age of 16...
...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.
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?
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.
So you HAVE given orders for that policy?
Obviously you would put it in a
slightly different way...
But you understand what I'm saying?
No. There is a clear kind of permanent
policy here to hit those who hit you.
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.
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.
You were voted for as a peace candidate.
If all the future holds is the promise
of conflict, perhaps go for a harder leader?
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.
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.