Jacksonville Jewish News interviews former Israeli PM Ehud Barak
BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
Former Israeli leader discusses issues ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to Taglit Birthright
In anticipation of Ehud Barak's arrival to Jacksonville in October, where he'll speak to a captivated audience at the Times Union Center for the Performing Arts, the Jacksonville Jewish News interviewed the former Israeli Prime Minister and asked him a number of questions, ranging in topic from the Iran nuclear deal to the importance of Taglit Birthright Israel.
Jacksonville Jewish News: In your opinion, what are the merits or the lack thereof when it pertains to the nuclear deal recently brokered with Iran?
Prime Minister Barak: "I think it’s a bad deal for several reasons. First, it will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state and gives the Iranians the ability to choose the right moment from their point of view on when they'd like to breakout. More profoundly, the United States, Russia, China, Europe, etc., now recognize Iran as a regional, legitimate power. I emphasize the word legitimate because in a way it tells the world and the Iranians that although by now they are part of the problem yet acceding to the deal they can gradually and conditionally handled over a long time they'll become a part of the solution. This agreement was one that was not signed just by the United States. It was led by the United State but the other players and the U.N. Security Council are part of the deal, so it really creates quite a delicate situation for the region. I think that the recognition of it as a bad deal is not just by the Israelis but it is shared by the Gulf States, Cairo, Amman and even Ankara."
JJN: Along those same lines, the issue has created a lot of debate between Americans and Israelis, so how would you describe the current status of U.S./Israeli relations?
PM: “The relationship is very deep and strong. The debate is legitimate and reflects fairly healthy attitudes on both sides. I also see it as a dispute within a family and I think it is quite tough to date as Iran sees the differing positions on both sides of the ocean with regard to it (the nuclear deal). I am confident though that the (Obama) administration really believes that it is a good deal. I ultimately think it is a bad deal, but I do not think it should threaten the relationship between the United States and Israel. I have said this publicly, that our job is to find the way to resume working relationship with the White House, the sooner the better. And to share our reservations behind closed doors at the White House and with leaders in both the Congress and Senate. We have to focus on what follows. We need to make sure we maintain coordination between our states' intelligence services. There is already an unprecedented level of intimacy between us, and I am sure the US will keep Israel’s qualitative military edge over any combination of neighbors. But we need to draw upon enough resources to make sure the United States and Israel will be the first to know if and when Iran violates this agreement."
JJN: Going back to when you were Prime Minister, there was a desirable deal on the table with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) but what followed was a complete rejection of it and the second intifada. 15 years after your administration left office, do you feel there has been any legitimate progress in the region?
PM: "There were several attempts but until now we did not succeed. It does not mean that we should stop looking for a way. When I tried, I did it in terms of what I thought was good for the future and security of Israel. An agreement with the Palestinians can make Israel safer and strengthen us, which is why I think we should keep searching for it. I totally reject the notion that somehow there is a causal relationship between the negotiations that we made and the second intifada. I don't buy that it is the result of our negotiations. I think, however, that we are on a collision course with the Palestinians as a result of the fact that while fighting against terror and for our security, we are at the same time, reigning over another people against their will, which we have done for 48 years now. Whether we like it or not, they don't like it and they will use any way possible to try and put an end to it. Now, we did not initiate this situation, we were brought into it. We wanted to make peace, all Israeli governments - tried. But we should realize that although Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, at the same time Israel is the only democracy that reigns over another people for half a century. Similarly, we are the only state which lives in a neighborhood where the many players around it would really like to see it disappear. We obviously have no intention whatsoever to disappear, so we need to be strong, self confident and to act wisely. Not only maintain our military edge, but make sure that we sustain special relationship with the United States and uphold the moral high ground in the eyes of the world”.
JJN: As you know Israel has been covered quite a bit recently in the local and national news regarding this deal and other matters, but here in Jacksonville we are fairly lucky as the coverage is relatively positive. As you know, that is not always the case, so what advice would you give to Jews here in Northeast Florida and around the U.S., to become advocates for Israel?
PM: "I think that what you are doing by expressing your genuine views is the right thing, and they shouldn't necessarily be in unison. When Israel has an internal debate or dispute between Israel and US, people in America who are supporting Israel take different positions and have varying thoughts. The same happens in Israel. The continuing support of the American-Jewish community to Israel is extremely important to us and is very effective in keeping the Jewish community united within the United States. I am not worried, however, by the fact that even among Jewish leaders in America, you will find more than one voice and more than one educated opinion, that is just natural. I also believe there is huge support in Congress for Israel on both sides of the political isle and that there is a tradition of all the administrations of the last few generations of American political debate, having been extremely supportive of Israel. I led our intelligence community more than 30-years ago when (Ronald) Reagan was in power in the White House and it has remained the same. I was later chief of staff in Israel, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Prime Minister and again a Minister of Defense and I always found great support, but the support that Israel has gotten in the last several years by this administration, led by Obama is in many ways unprecedented. So even when I look at the disputes that we might have with (Sec. of State John) Kerry, President Obama or (Vice President Joe) Biden about this or that detail, I think that they have invested a lot of their time, energy and political capital in trying to help us to have a breakthrough in our relationship with the Palestinians. They deserve thanks and gratitude because of this; not criticism or condemnation. I really do believe that they are a part of the solution, not a part of the problem."
JJN: For some of us here in the States, we can often feel somewhat disconnected from Israel. We can see what's going on over there on the news, but to go to Israel and to see it first hand is a truly unique and oftentimes life-changing experience. How important do you feel it is for American Jews to donate their time, money and resources to make that trip?
PM: "I think that the most important activity carried out by American-Jewish communities are these trips to Israel, which encourages every young Jew and helps them get their Birthright experience or Taglit as it is called in Hebrew. I was the Prime Minister who approved this project by matching the contributions of leading American philanthropists. At the time, they brought 20-million dollars, and I brought in 20-million from the Israeli government and we launched it. I think Taglit and Masa, as there are several variations of these Israeli experiences now, are of utmost significance because it helps young Jewish Americans get direct exposure to the totality of Jewish life here in Israel. They get to see the people and the landscapes, the history and the vibrant spirit of Israel, everything from hi-tech to entertainment, to the devotion of the young Israeli's who defend our country. They get to see that all those things are real, and as you mentioned, I think it is a life changing experience for many youngsters who are the future of our people. So it is extremely important."
The former Israeli prime minister will be speaking Monday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. as part of the Florida Forum speakers series presented by the Women's Board of the Wolfson Children's Hospital.