Barak in His Own Words: A TIME Exclusive

In an exclusive interview with TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reflects on his decision to withdraw his troops from Lebanon and on prospects for peace with Syria and the Palestinians.

  • TIME: The withdrawal was very much your baby. If it brings quiet, you're a genius. If it doesn't, you're in serious trouble.

    Barak: No. I don't perceive leadership as a kind of gambling. There is a certain element of calculated risk. We are facing a lot of uncertainties, but my job is not to be paralyzed by the uncertainties, to try to play it in a way that will encourage the probability of good results.

    TIME: Isn't it inevitable that someone will test the border?

    Barak: Maybe he will, but even if he will, we are in a better situation than before. I reduced significantly the legitimacy to shoot [at us] once we are within the borders of Israel. And I heightened a lot the freedom of maneuver for Israel to use the right of self-defense if someone dares to do it. Once we are within Israel, defending ourselves from within our borders, the Lebanese government and the Syrian government are responsible to make sure that no one will dare hit Israeli civilians or armed forces within Israel. Any violation of this might become an act of war, and it will be treated accordingly. I don't recommend to anyone to try us once we are inside Israel.

    TIME: What compelled your decision to withdraw?

    Barak: At a certain point the security zone ceased to be an asset militarily. It began to be a liability. We were in a vicious circle. When we had the upper hand, we said, "What's burning? Why leave?" When the Hezbollah had the upper hand, we said, "Oh, no, we will never sway under pressure." So I thought the only way to cut this Gordian knot is to set a target date [for withdrawal]. Once I set it, I said in advance, when it comes to the moment, Hezbollah will try to intensify their attacks in order to prove, so to speak, that they pushed us out. But it is only my commitment [that took Israel out].

    TIME: Still, you came to the decision to get out because you were hurting in south Lebanon. So ultimately, Hezbollah won and Israel lost.

    Barak: No. Look, Lebanon is a tragedy. It's not my definition, it's the definition of one of my predecessors, Menachem Begin, who ordered [the army to enter] Lebanon for 48 hours to push a little bit the Palestinians at that time. And when the death toll accumulated to 600, he said, it's a tragedy, I cannot stand it anymore, and he isolated himself at his home. Since then, we are still there for 15 years and another 500 or 400 people [died]. We have more than a thousand families in Israel that buried their sons there. So it became clear that somewhere it lost its sense. Of course it's clear the Hezbollah is there. They [also] suffered a lot of blows, but somehow it could not end but by a political step of leadership. To fight against terrorism is like fighting mosquitoes. You can chase them one by one, but it's not very cost-effective. The more profound approach is to drain the swamp. So we are draining the swamp. We are in Israel. We are telling them, now we are neighbors and we behave the same way that any normal country would behave. Can you imagine the Germans trying to launch Katyushas at Strasbourg? The French will not respond? Try to imagine what will happen in the U.S. if some enemy would bombard Chevy Chase or Silver Springs.

    TIME: If the quiet continues, it'll be clear that the Israeli leadership's thinking about Lebanon was bankrupt for some time. How will this affect confidence in the leadership in the future?

    Barak: We have a Talmudic saying, truth is self-evident. When you do the right thing, it cannot weaken you. I'm not working for ratings or for the momentary mood. It doesn't matter. If we act to change reality in the right direction, it strengthens us. It doesn't weaken us. Always think of the alternative — to stay there another 15 years? And if the Israel Defense Forces were weak, the real weakness would project itself. But since they are very strong, I'm not afraid. And they'll become stronger. Why? Because they are not running after every mosquito. I didn't see a single armed force that became stronger or a nation that became more self-confident by fighting guerrillas in another country. Leadership must look open-eyed at reality, even if there is some cruelty in that.

    TIME: You were army chief of staff through three and a half years of this tragedy. Why didn't you push for a withdrawal then?

    Barak: Five years ago it was not ripe. The Hezbollah made major mileage since then. We had to invest much more. We ended up with armor against explosive charges of 50 kilograms. It's a monster. When we began, we defended our cars against mines. A mine is maybe 10 pounds of explosives. So they put two mines together. So you make the cars heavier. So they go into highly sophisticated digital processors for the coding. So we came into encoding and EW. Then they began to use anti-tank Tow missiles, very accurate. You find yourself in a quiet, sophisticated, resource-demanding kind of fighting. So basically it became clear that in spite of the fact that our hand is the upper one most of the time, somehow it's a spiraling situation of being dragged deeper and deeper into the mud. And it was the right timing to say, OK, that's it.

    TIME: Where do you go from here with the peace process with the Palestinians?

    Barak: We are very intensively focused on the Palestinian track, trying to achieve a framework agreement within the next maybe two months or so. There is a strategic need and an opportunity. And at least my partner on this track [Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat] says if there is a will there is a way, so maybe there is a will as well.

    TIME: And if there is no agreement and Arafat unilaterally declares a Palestinian state?

    Barak: He might do it in a way that we will have to immediately, the same evening, respond with our unilateral steps since he will not declare it within the borders that we wish or with the kinds of limitations that we would like to have. It wouldn't be an empty declaration. If he declares statehood, he will ask recognition from nations of the world, and most of the world will immediately recognize him.

    TIME: What unilateral steps would you consider?

    Barak: There are certain territories that he will claim and we will claim. Immediately a question will emerge who really is the sovereign there. The same night, if there is a unilateral declaration, we will take steps that might include a decision of annexing blocs of [Jewish] settlements [in the West Bank and Gaza Strip] or areas which are needed for our security or areas around Jerusalem and so on. So unilateral steps are a recipe for conflict and for an eruption of violence. It's a very quick countdown toward confrontation, whereas an agreement, even if it is not 100 percent satisfactory for either side, can become an opening for a very successful neighborhood.

    TIME: How does the Lebanon withdrawal affect prospects for peace with Syria?

    Barak: It's too early to predict. I can hardly say that I predicted the Syrians' responses until now. The door was left by the Syrians slightly open, maybe a small crack. We will not close it. But I'm not very optimistic listening to the voices from Damascus. They are heavily busy now with some internal political issues, so I don't know. For the last three months, since they realized that I do really mean to pull out of Lebanon with or without an agreement with them, they began very actively to work on mobilizing extreme elements among the Palestinians in Lebanon and certain elements among the Hezbollah to carry out attacks against Israel even after we leave. It's quite a surrealistic picture. You see on the same day the official spokesmen for the regime saying that they accept 425 while the generals, and not only the generals, who are responsible for their presence in Lebanon are pushing urgently to prepare the people, to equip them, to brief them, in order to be ready to launch attacks afterwards. They are playing quite a dangerous game there. I believe that the intelligence communities of the leading nations are watching it. So if violence will be initiated against Israel after our pullout, it won't be complicated for us to identify who is behind it. Even if they appear under bizarre names — the Deprived on Earth or the Eagles of the Revolution, it doesn't matter. We will know how to detect it and respond against the power players. The governments of Lebanon and Syria are responsible and both have units, armed forces, inside Lebanon.