Israel’s Black Knight of Hope, former commando, prime minister Ehud Barak on terrorism
“We need to understand that the terrorist war cannot be won in a few months. It is a war of generations.” — Ehud Barak
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned of the new world order like an Old Testament prophet, but one with a sense of humor when he addressed Distinguished Speaker subscribers last month at the Redondo Performing Arts Center.
“We are experiencing a political quake unprecedented since the end of World War 1, 100 years ago,” he began. “We’ve seen the Arab Spring turn into the Islamic Winter. Nation states are disintegrating. Centuries old conflicts have come back to life. We’ve gone from a two-polar to a one-polar to a no-pole at all geo political system. Even the most powerful players — the U.S., Russia, China — can’t tackle major issues on their own.
“In one word, everything’s good. In two words, not good.”
By the end of his nearly two hour talk, despite terrifying observations about terrorism, the U.S.’s decline, Russia’s rise and Western missteps in the Middle East, Barak, if not the audience, still retained both hope and a sense of humor.
During the Q and A, he described his feelings about the Iran nuclear agreement as “mixed. It’s like when your mother-in-law drives your new BMW over a cliff.”
Political correctness was not one of his concerns. Barak is Israel’s most highly decorated soldier and a classically trained pianist. He served as Israel’s Minister of Defense, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1999, he defeated Benjamin Netanyahu to become Prime Minister. When Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, Barak was named Deputy Prime Minister.
He holds a degree in physics from the University of Jerusalem and a masters in engineering from Stanford.
Nor, for a person rumored to have ambitions of re-entering political life, was he reluctant to name names.
“When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said Putin reminded her of Hitler. I’ve known Putin since his first day in the Kremlin and he never reminded me of Hitler. He’s more of a Bismarck. He understands politics. He has two feet on the ground. He’s ready to act to make Russia once again a great power in the world arena,” Burak said.
Though he generally spoke favorably about Obama, he also said of the president’s position on Syria, “I don’t recommend big powers drawing ‘red lines,’ but once you draw them, particularly in the Middle East, you stand behind it.”
“The United States is still the world’s mightiest military, economic and diplomatic power. It is a moral beacon, where the rest of the world is supposed to go, in terms of human rights.
“But there is a strong perception that America is weak and getting weaker. It is a subjective, not objective perception. But that doesn’t matter. These days perception works as reality.”
Speaking of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Barak said, “He has developed a mindset that is pessimistic, passive and anxious. The nature of pessimism is it gives birth to prophecies that are self-fulfilling.”
The criticism of his country’s leader wasn’t personal, he made clear.
“I know from experience, Netanyahu’s not a chickenshit. He was a young lieutenant of mine in 1972 when I lead the raid on the hijacked Sabena airline. It landed at Lod Airport with 100 passengers and explosive detonators deployed all over the cabin. The terrorists were demanding that 300 prisoners be released. I was disguised as a maintenance man in white overalls when we stormed the plane. Within 90 seconds, the shooting was over. We killed the hijackers, just one passenger died and just one of our officers was wounded — shot by us. That was Lt. Benjamin Netanyahu.”
“He was lucky we only wounded him,” Barak quipped. Similar the black humor punctuated his talk.
He added, “Terrorists never landed another hijacked airline in Israel. But terrorism didn’t stop. A few months later 11 Israeli athletes were massacred at the Munich Olympics.”
Barak traced his world view to when he was a 22-year-old Sayeret Matkal commando leading his first raid against terrorists.
“If you told me then that 50 years later terrorism would still be a challenge for the whole world, I would not have believed it. But we need to face the reality. Either we defeat terrorism or we don’t. There is no inbetween. We must understand that and be ready for the challenge.”
“Terrorism has a unique attribute. It’s a common challenge for all. The U.S. learned that on 9/11. Russians learned it in Moscow.
“I had a conversation with Putin after Chechen Islamics terrorists took 850 hostages in the Dubrovka Theater in 2002. Putin’s response resembled our responses. He sent in 100 Russian special forces.
“I visited southwest Kunming China a year ago. Just a few weeks previous, 28 civilians were massacred at the railway station by knife wielding, extremist Muslims who came from a Chinese desert province 1,500 miles away.”
“In the past two weeks in Jerusalem, a new wave of terrorists, using kitchen knives and screwdrivers, have killed nine and wounded dozens of Israelis. It’s a tough situation that no one would accept. A primary contract of government is to provide safety in the streets. I can tell you bluntly, Israel will never capitulate to terrorism, period.”
That declaration elicited loud, spontaneous audience applause.
“Compared to other world issues — reefs in the South China Seas, Crimea and Ukraine — radical Muslim terrorism should be the highest priority.
“Though it’s not easy to achieve, we need strong leadership and cooperation among nations, at the highest level.
“At the operational level, we need to be open minded and free of dogma and conventional wisdom. We need to focus on what could happen and respond within seconds to threats.”
Following the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Bck September Palestinians at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered that the terrorists be hunted down and executed, Barak recalled
“Meir was raised in Milwaukee. I think it was the Milwaukee weather that made her so tough,” Barak said.
“I found myself in 1973, heading up a squad assigned to kill Black September leaders holed up in a luxury apartment in Beirut. We arrived looking like a few boys and girls, laughing. I sent my squad into the building and I waited on the street outside with a stocky blond. I was a brunette. A bodyguard in a car across the street suspected something was up. He opened his car door, pulled out a pistol and began to walk toward us. I still remember the shock in his eyes when he saw two young ladies open their jackets and pull out Uzis. He jumped back in his car and we hit his horn and woke up the whole street.
“We killed three PLO leaders and nine or 10 of their bodyguards who showed up in two Land Rovers. Within 30 minutes, we were swimming out in front of our hotel to our small dinghies.
“But terrorism didn’t stop.”
Barak described the terrorists as a loosely connected, poorly equipped organization with strong, ideologically motivation.
“They have half a dozen forces in Syria, the Houthi in Yemen, Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQIM in Algeria, Hamas and Al Qaeda. They are a resilient, tough opponent.
“Isis is only 30,000, mostly former Iranian soldiers riding around in Toyota pick-ups. They don’t have a single jet fighter squadron, attack helicopter or artillery battalion. They flourish because no one fights them head on.
“In Kobani, Syria, on the Turkish border, Isis was stopped by 17-year-old Pashtun boys and girls with World War II machine guns. However, they failed to receive strong assistance from any international organization.
“This fight with Isis should be ended with intensive, overwhelming force. Every week they remain on their feet they create a huge attraction for other Muslims.
“We need to understand that the terrorist war cannot be won in a few months. It is a war of generations. It will be a long struggle with hopeful and painful moments.
“Many innocent civilians will lose their lives. But we will win this war.
“Am I an optimist or a pessimist? I like what Winston Churchill said. The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is a pessimist sees difficulty in opportunity and an optimist sees opportunity in difficulty.”
Barak ended his talk by paraphrasing Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“The greatest risk in fighting terrorism is the unwillingness to take risks.” ER
Barak on the Iraqi nuclear agreement
The agreement reminds me of what they say about second marriages. It’s a triumph of hope over experience. Precedents don’t support hope and we have had six precedents involving nuclear weapons facilities in the past 35 years.
Two were successfully resolved — South Africa and Libya.
Two were blocked by surgical attacks — Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.
Two defied the world, despite nuclear inspection agreements — Korea and Pakistan.
I remember 30 years ago meeting every quarter with CIA chief Bill Casey in Langley, Virginia. He mumbled in an accent I couldn’t understand. I suspect it was deliberate. So I have no memory of the conversations. But the subject was always the same. How many centrifuges does Korea have? How much enriched uranium? What are their motivations for wanting to be a nuclear power?
Years later, with the Clinton administration I looked at satellite photos of North Korea and then the question was, What will happen if we bomb them? What happens to the plutonium and the 100,000 people living downstream of the reactor?
In Pakistan, to cut a long story short, Reagan was not soft. But the way his administration tried to convince Pakistan to give up its nuclear program was to give Pakistan 75 F-16 Falcon Jets, because they were afraid of India. Now those F-16s carry nuclear weapons. And Pakistan is trying to develop small, battlefield nukes.
The agreements with North Korea and Pakistan looked good, but the outcomes were not what was planned.
That’s why we are worried about Iran. I have a strong feeling, not in the first few years, but down the line, they might decided to break the agreement.
And if they do, any second rate dictator may decide, if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, so should we.
We need to define what is an agreement violation, what establishes the need to bring the military back to the table.
I think, at this junction, that the U.S. administration understands that America should equip Israel with the tools to carry out an independent operation against Iran if, down the street, both governments agree Iran is trying to move toward nuclear weapons.
Barak on Israel today and tomorrow
Israel is a microcosm of the world. We’re at the meeting point of a clash of civilizations. We’re in the eye of the storm, with the Muslim world spinning around us.
Israel is like a villa in the jungle. Inside is comfortable. Once you step outside your door the law of the jungle prevails.
Isis, however dangerous it is, is not the real threat to Israel’s safety. The real threat is the Arabs waiting to take out their knives against us. Do you believe the Syrians and Iranians hate us any less than the Palestinians. They probably hate us more because at least the Palestinians know us.
I used to joke with American presidents, We wanted so deeply to have Canadians as our neighbor, but you got them instead. When Moses was being led out of Egypt he told God he wanted to go to Canada, but God though he said Canaan. Some claim Moses said California.
The good news is that Israel is the most powerful country from Benghazi to Tehran. And we will remain the strongest for the foreseeable future, militarily and economically. If we keep up good relations with the U.S.
By no means should Israel be pessimistic or anxious. This is not 1938 or 1947. Zionism is the most successful nation project of the 20th century.
We have two lakes and one is dead. The other, the Sea of Galilee, is where young Jews learn to swim and one of them learned to walk on water and became very famous. They are connected by the River Jordan, which is really just a creek. And so we had to develop one of the most advanced agricultural system in the world. We produce all we need with two percent of our workforce.
We had enemies from day one. In the 67 years since the establishment of Israel, we have had seven wars and two intifadas. So we had to develop fighters. We were under an arms embargo by the U.S. in the 1950s and by France until the mid 1960s. So we produced what others wouldn’t sell us. That became the seeds of Israel becoming a ‘start-up nation.’ We have more start-ups per capita than any corner of the earth except Silicon Valley.
The Shekel is one of the world’s strongest currencies.
We’ve taken in one million Russian immigrants. They represent 15 percent of our population and have change Israel forever. They enter the sciences at a higher rate than the rest of our population. We now have more philharmonics, more chess grand masters and more ballet teachers than anywhere else in the world. One in four soldiers is named Vladimir.
I said to Putin, Let us take another million. I’ll find a babushka for each one.
We are at the turning point of a second industrial revolution, based on robotics, nano technologies and life sciences. These are the engines that will change productivity, the keys to our future goals. These keys are held by the U.S., Israel and Western Europe and not by China or Russia. That is the reason for my long term optimism.
But we must be cautious and not fall into the trap of hubris, not sit on our laurels, not become complacent.
Barak on one state or two?
The idea of a one state solution, of two people living together is utopian. We must put a wedge on the slippery slope toward a one state solution, which has a high probability of leading to another Belfast or Bosnia. Between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, an area the size of New Jersey, there are eight million Israelis and five million Palestinians.
In the one state solution, if Muslims can’t vote we won’t have a democracy and if they can vote we won’t have a Zionist state when Muslims become the majority.
The two state solution is imperative for Israel’s identify, not just for justice.
We should draw a line so there is a solid Jewish majority for generations to come and leave the opportunity on the other side of the line for the Palestinians to develop their own state.
We would not be doing it for them. We would be acting in our own best interests.
It will not be easy. The Palestinians are not easy to work with.
But let me tell you a story.
In 1978, Prime Minister Begin went to Camp David to meet with President Carter and Egyptian President Sadat. Three weeks before the meeting, 70 percent of the Israeli public was against giving up the Sinai Peninsula for peace. After the meeting 70 percent were in favor of it.
The public is like play dough. If there is leadership, the public can be moved.
I’m confident Israel can be moved, despite the recent shift to the right. I think there is a dormant majority who would vote for an agreement that makes the delineation I described, if they see a partner on the other side.
Even on the Palestinian side, something similar could happen.
But the diplomacy is not easy. Each side worries that the media will find out what’s happening and they will lose their power base before an agreement can be reached.
Diplomacy needs to operate on two levels — public diplomacy and underneath the surface.
Successful negotiations have always been this way. Meetings with Sadat aides began before Begin came to power. Despite Moshe Dyan swearing he never spoke to (Egyptian General Mohamed Ahmed Fareed) Al-Tuhami, he convinced Sadat to fly to Jerusalem. There were many meetings with King Hussein before peace with Jordan was announced. The Oslo agreement started in the woods of Scandinavia, long before Rabin and Arafat met in Paris.
We must find a way to negotiate beneath the surface and then push a Palestinian agreement to the surface at the right moment, with the support of the U.S or the U.N.
If that does not work, I would take unilateral steps to block the one state solution.
Why the Middle East matters
I’ve heard it from Hillary Clinton. America should pivot to the east as the U.S. becomes more energy independent.
What you will see when you turn to the east won’t be a physical clash. The U.S. and China have a symbiotic relationship in their currencies. But the Chinese will keep cutting into your vital interests.
When your allies sit behind closed doors and ask, Can the Americans be relied on, they will turn to the last region the Americans played a role in, the Middle East.
That’s why what happens in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria are important.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a sense of elation. Strategists wrote about the end of history. Two major systems clashed, capitalism and socialism. One won, the other was defeated. Everyone will see the light and join capitalism and history will end.
We’ve learned that’s not the case.
We’ve learned we need to be respective of others’ points of view. Some are not as demonic as Americans tend to believe. Think of Singapore, South Korea, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Hungary — nations led by autocrats, far from our systems, but still successful in moving their nations forward, driven by national pride.
As long as they are effective in improving their people’s opportunities and standard of living they will enjoy favorable support.
We need to learn there is more than one way. ER