Ehud Barak carries the title of Israel’s defense minister, but his ambit extends a good deal further; no one is quite sure how far. His chemistry with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is such that, on matters such as Iran’s nuclear program, they are regarded as very nearly the same person. When it comes to Washington, he functions as Israel’s foreign minister, though another cabinet member carries the title. At the same time Barak is so unpopular as a politician that polls showed he might well not have been elected to the Knesset had Netanyahu gone ahead with announced elections. In an interview with TIME, Barak, 70, spoke at length of his political “marriage” with Netanyahu, who served under him in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal; the dangers of Iran and Syria; the conflict wit the Palestinians he tried to resolve in one fell swoop at Camp David asprime minister; and his equanimity with his status as perhaps Israel’s least popular politician. Barak spoke in his Knesset office on June 20 with TIME International editor Jim Frederick, Jerusalem Bureau Chief Karl Vick and Israel reporter Aaron J. Klein as Israeli forces answered rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
TIME: What’s going on with Hamas? They’re quiet for all these months. Is it the Egyptian election?
BARAK: In Gaza? I cannot penetrate souls, but probably it is some connection. We’ve seen – and it’s not all by Hamas — we’ve seen rocket launches into the Negev. I don’t know who did it. A day after there was an attack on a group of subcontractors for the building of the fence, we are building a fence along the Egyptian border, a multi-purpose kind of fence – against terror, smuggling, labor force, whatever. They attacked, killed one of the workers, we killed one of the terrorists. I believe it was some kind of World Jihad. Later on there were attempts from within the Gaza Strip. Most hit near the Gaza Strip, but two at an air force base near Be’ersheva. Basically all hit outside the area, the choices the interception system Iron Dome makes. If it sees something come toward the populated area, it intercepts. According to the extrapolation of the trajectory, if it’s into an open area, it leaves it alone. And still it’s not clear whether it’s the end. Right now we hit, probably killed another one– I apologize, I was a little bit late. We hit two people on a motorcycle. Missed, a little bit, probably only one of them was killed. But it had to do with the last operation in the Sinai, from the Sinai attack, and we had some reason to suspect it’s not the end.…. Our air force hit some military sites from Hamas, some from Islamic jihad, a launching site from what we believe a long range rocket.
TIME: Long range?
BARAK: It’s not long range. I mean something longer than the short range that are usually operating from Gaza. Only 40 or more than 40 kilometers we call it long in regard to Gaza. It’s still short range in regard to Lebanon. There’s never a dull moment. We are cursed by the old Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times.’ Always interesting here. But I hope it will not resonate with developments in Egypt and expectations that the kind of grip they have now in Sinai will allow more operations, more terrorist attacks. We hope once it will become known who will run Egypt, they will resume title, hold on the security of Sinai.
(MORE: 10 Questions for Ehud Barak)
TIME: What was the significance of the tank [photographed being unloaded on Egyptian border after the attack]?
BARAK: I don’ t think it was…There are always several tanks around Gaza. We didn’t reinforce the tank force. In fact Gilad Shalit was taken out of a tank. Quite a painful terrorist attack. It’s a good picture, it means the photographer was at the right place at the right time, made it news.
TIME: Talk a little about your relationship with the prime minister.
TIME: Your personal relationship.
BARAK: Very good. I believe that we respect each other, we know each other for a long time, about 40 years. Or more, more than 40. We met at 28, probably he was 20, he was a non-commissioned officer in an elite unit. A very good officer. His older brother was my deputy. We had to make sure when we established the unit — like the American Delta Force but long before that came into existence, and a much tighter, compact unit. All the other officers were a group about the size of what we have here [a room of six] so we knew each other very intimately. It was always a problem how to make sure that both Netanyahus didn’t come into a single sensitive operation together. Separate them. There was a certain competition. If Bibi was chosen for one operation, then Yonni would say, take me. They always discriminated against the younger one. Just a sergeant, an NCO. We after Yonni’s death kept in contact, got to know the family much better, but some other members of the family, we had some contact when we both started at American universities. He [Bibi] was at MIT, I was at Stanford. Later on I remember he was deputy, no. 2 at the embassy, while I was J-5 for our headquarters. I believe it was probably in ‘86 that some newspaper here wrote that oh in ten years time the term of giants, Peres or Shamir will be behind us, and Netanyahu and Barak will compete. It turned out to be a prophetic article.