War & Peace in the Middle East: An Exclusive Interview With Prime Minister Barak

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Two days ago Israeli attack helicopters bombed installations of the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for the lynching of two Israeli army reservists who accidentally drove into the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak spoke with TIME senior writer Lisa Beyer by phone about the events and their ramifications. He spoke from his home in Kochav Yair, north of Tel Aviv, Saturday evening local time.

TIME: Given the commitment and political capital you've devoted to pursuing peace with the Palestinians, it must have been a difficult or at least bitter decision to attack facilities of the Palestinian Authority.

Barak: It was somehow frustrating, but I cannot say that it was not part of the possible results. I've said from the very first day in late July last year that within 15 months I believe we will know whether we have or do not have a partner for peace here. I promised that we will leave no stone unturned in order to find a partner, but I emphasized that it takes two to tango. And in a way, I've done exactly this. And now I should tell you that with the same determination that we looked for a partner and for a reasonable, honest peace of the brave, we will struggle if Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority will try to impose their own will upon us through the use of violence. We are a tough and small people that wants peace but is ready to fight if necessary.

TIME: This particular decision to go after Palestinian Authority targets, was it a simple decision for you?

Barak: No, it was not simple, but I ordered it after a lot of deliberations. It takes two to make peace and only one to impose confrontation. Arafat, breaking all the agreements that he signed, initiated and launched this violence, sending innocent, incited citizens together with policemen and Tanzim people and kids 10 years old to assault our isolated positions. He released terrorists of the Hamas that should be according to the agreement behind bars and invited the [Hamas] leadership to his cabinet meeting in Gaza. By this, he gave a green light for violence. If you look a the TV footage from the coverage of preaches at the mosque, it's devastating. It's like living in the fourteeenth century, I don't know, troubled Italy, or during religious wars in western Europe 300 years ago. It's unbelievable. We have to take responsibility for our people. And since the P.A. is the source of these orders and the source of this violence, we had to attack their infrastructure. But let me tell you, Lisa, we deliberately made it in a way that in all the five attacks of Thursday afternoon, we did not kill a single Palestinian. We shot warning shots outside in the backyard or outside the installations so that everyone will be able to go out. We watched by remote control vehicles, drones, the going out of these people. And we didn't shoot to destroy it before it became clear that no one was there. We made this effort in order to emphasize our feeling that Arafat is responsible but that somehow he uses the blood of his own people as lubrication for calling upon the attention and the support of the world. That is cynical, opportunistic behavior that should be condemned by any honest leaders in the world.

TIME: The Americans, though, have blamed both you and the Palestinians. They've called on both sides to stop the bloodshed. On Thursday they called on you specifically to end the army actions. What do you say to that?

Barak: I think that we are acting out of self-defense. We do not initiate. Arafat can put an end to it in 12 hours. We do not agree with this kind of condemnation, not by the U.N. Security Council and not by the United States. We are still working to convince open-minded leaders all around the world that in spite of the sensitivity to the Arab positions, to the oil prices, to the sensitivities of other interests — every country has its interests in the Arab world — there is a need for leadership that will be able to stand firm even against certain challenges. You know, I cannot criticize any other leader, but I know that we are all in the same boat. And if the free world and the community of democracies will not be able to stand firm against the tacit blackmail that is projected at us by different unstable regimes of the Third World where terrorist groups are operating, it will create more pain and more suffering for the free world, not less. There is always a temption not to stand at certain moments in order to save what will come immediately after. But in the long term the readiness to stand firm pays. And we know it from our experience, you know it from your experience and many other leaders in the world know it from their own experience, even in the heart of Europe and in eastern Europe.

TIME: The Palestinians say you've declared war on them.

Barak: That's not true. They deliberately tried to shape themselves as the underdog where in fact they are deliberately launching these attacks in order to draw attention thorugh the pictures, the shocking pictures. We were shocked not just by the pictures of our soldiers lyched by the mob but also by pictures of the young Palestinian who lost his life when he was caught in crossfire. But as leaders we should see through the screens and ask ourselves who is responsible for it. How it happened. Who initiated it. For what purpose. What the hell kind of purpose could he have in having this kind of violence? It's ridiculous. Four years ago in '96, there was the tunnnel events. Well, Arafat could argue, maybe not accurately but he could at least argue convincingly somehow for himself, that the Israeli government initiated the opening of the tunnel and that he doesn't see light at the end of the tunnel, neither literally nor metaphorically. And so he didn't have any choice but to turn to violence. And in this case, 16 Israelis were killed and some 80 Palestinians in a few days. By now it's totally the opposite picture. No one can justify it. There is a set of ideas on the table, raised by President Clinton. We've said in the past that we're ready to contemplate it. Arafat refused to take them as a basis. They are far-reaching, much more than any previous Israeli government was ready to deal with. If he is unable or unripe to take it as a basis for discussion, it is a deliberate choice to turn to conflict. It is his legitimate right, but he has to bear the responsibility. And honest leaders and honest brokers all around the world should be able to tell this truth loud and clear to their own peple and to other governments.

TIME: Is it a disappointment to you that they are not?

Barak: In a way, it is, but maybe, you know, I'm in immediate friction with this phenomenon so I can maybe see it clearer. My senses are more alert to this phenomenon. So I already know quite probably we don't have a partner for peace, unfortunately. And maybe the others will take another day or two. But I don't think that based on the intelligence material that all the leaders have on their tables they cannot make their judgments. It's something that the individual American sitting in the Hard Rock coffee shop cannot know. Or the ordinary man in Paris having his baguette, he cannot know. But the leaders can know easily. We will never lose hope of making peace with our Palestinian neighbors. There is no other alternative. They are here forever, as we are. But we should tell the truth about their leadership. Abba Eban used to say that they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. So maybe they are repeating this pattern once again. A leadership could open its eyes, it could reshape its judgement, it could change its mind, it could be replaced. But the peace will ultimately come with the Palestinian people. Maybe not with this present leadership in its present mood.

TIME: You've always said in the past that it was important to make a final peace deal while Arafat was still alive because only he had the credibility among the Palestinians to make the necessary concessions.

Barak: Yeah.

TIME: What do you say now?

Barak: I've said it. I've hoped that this would be the case, but it seems, no, he is not ripe to seize this opportunity. He prefers violence. It's his choice. We cannot deny him the ability to choose violence. But he has to be held responsible for it. This is the essense of what I'm trying to say. I would expect the public in the rest of the world to avoid making a moral equivalence between the only democracy in the Mideast and the leadership of the Palestinians at the present with their own record that is now put on the table in front of the eyes of the whole world.

TIME: You've said that a leadership can be replaced. But in the past it was your assessment that anyone who comes after Arafat is going to have a very difficult time having the legitimacy to compromise.

Barak: [It] may be. So what? It was my assessment. And I hoped and worked and was ready to take far-reaching political — maybe not just political — risks in order to let it happen. And it didn't, so, you know, I'm a man of action, not an analyst or commentator. So I know to tell the truth even if it's cruel or unpleasant. If this is the truth, let's face it. I'm telling the truth to my people and deployed them united. As a result of our readiness to contemplate all these ideas, we are united. We all understand we are not fighting for the third extension of an isolated settlement called Itamar somewhere on a barn hill in Judea and Samaria, but for the very essence of our right to live here as a free people that came back home after 2,000 years. And we will fight for it if struggle is imposed on us. And all the time we'll know that at the end of all struggles there will be peace with the Palestinian people, but maybe not with the present leadership if it will not become ripe in the near future or sometime in the future.

TIME: Can we talk about the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah?

Barak: We take it as self-evident that the Syrians and the Lebanese government that operates under their influence should give immediate access to the Red Cross or to the U.N. to these three soldiers without any conditions. At the same time, they are responsible for the very violence. It took place over the border, where U.N. Security Council resolution 425 — and it's reconfirmed a few months ago when we pulled out from Lebanon — described the border. It's just a kind of aggression over the borders of a neighbor. It's something that we cannot agree to. And we hold the Syrian government and the forces under its control or the activities in Lebanon that should be under its control, we hold them responsible for it. And we will keep for ourselves the right for response. But we will know when and how to do it.

TIME: If you had it to do over again, would you let Sharon go up to the Temple Mount?

Barak: I don't know. I don't think that this was the reason. I know enough about what happened there to know that this is the excuse. The minister of internal security who happened also to be the foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, coordinated it with one of the Palestinian heads of security and they asked that he will not enter into the mosques, and he accepted it under protest. Basically it's in the middle of the Israeli capital. I cannot say that it was the most brilliant idea of the month but this is not the real reason for it. It was used later as an excuse for Arafat. In fact the round of violence began a day before with an explosive charge that killed a young [Israeli] soldier named David Beiri in the Gaza Strip for no reason. It was just a terrible violation of all the agreements whereas the visit of Sharon is not violating any agreement. It's the right of Israelis.

TIME: What do you expect to come out of the summit?

Barak: If it will end up with an end to violence and certain better assurances that it will not resume, and it will lead to putting back the Hamas terrorists behind bars and controlling the Palestinian police and Tanzim and putting an end to incitement; it will be a good result.

TIME: That's all we can hope for? No more talks?

Barak: Yeah. If it does this, it will have succeeded.