TIME’s Interview with Ehud Barak: The Transcript

Benjamin Netanyahu's political and strategic partner talks to TIME about Syria, Iran, the Palestinians and his friend the Prime Minister.

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JACK GUEZ / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak speaks during the annual International Cyber Security Conference at Tel Aviv University on June 6, 2012.

But Bibi was a very capable diplomat, very capable presenter of our cause on American TV, I still remember it.  One day in California I remember he called me in California and said watch PBS tonight  I’m going to fight with a Palestinian about our cause. I asked myself, what the hell is he doing? It was the height of the examination time and a leading Ivy League university buried him under these mathematics, and he had time to go and fight on the TV? He was extremely effective at this, and extremely effect as no. 2 in the embassy and he ended up being really kind of a star, a meteor in Likud politics.   He was the only one who voted for the change in the election system from Likud, and he made it possible. It was a somewhat [garble] law but he was elected, against Peres. I at the time just came out of the armed forces and asked by Labor to be in politics on their side. And I remember I was immediately minister of interior, I was not even member of the Knesset. I took a helicopter to go to see Barcelona against Be’ersheva. It ended 7 to zero but we took Bibi with us; he was a member of the opposition. Along the way we talked,  because we knew each other for a long time.  And he told me, you know, I assess  we won’t compete in 96, it’s too short a time for you to come to power in Labor, so I can share with you some of my lessons from politics.  He says, I don’t know how to tell you, it’s a crazy place, I was brought up in a political theory. I know a little about politics before I entered. It took me probably two years to understand the motivations and the nuances of the tricks behind the maneuvers that political plans are taking.  I took over the party because I was more operational and I’m convinced that you will take over your party because you are operational. You will end up knowing the constitution of the party better than those who are serving for 20 years, because you always ask yourself, okay, what are the rules? What could be done? How to achieve targets?

(MORE: Israel’s New Coalition: Why Netanyahu Has Moved to the Center)

So it really happened this way. I really became, very fast, probably because of the assassination of Rabin I ended up immediately minister of foreign affairs, then elected to the Knesset and won over, when Peres lost after some year and a half, I led opposition, and so found myself head on with Bibi in the next election. And I always said just, given the truth, make sure that the playing ground is level, then we will win, don’t worry.  There was a period where we considered establishing a national unity government, even before I ran against him. It was 98.  And we discussed for ten days probably, evening after evening, in the Mossad headquarters, how to do it, how to do it, how to cooperate, how to do everything…. When he finally started to prepare the coalition it went out. …So finally I became prime minister and we changed the election very tightly, but continued on both the Syrian issue he handled the transition very kind of fairly and accurate and in a proper manner. I appreciated it. He left and spent some time. And then he came back, but he was not the one I was — I had a very short  [term], decided it wasn’t worth sitting in the chair of prime minister if I cannot do what can be done, change reality. Somewhat like Rabin. I felt committed to continue his legacy. Basically I was there because he was assassinated. The middle of the struggle so I felt committee…  So basically we entered into this wedding knowing each other very well for very long, there’s a lot of mutual respect, we can work together. And I believe we are doing what should be done for the country. Basically we see eye to eye some of the major issues and when there are differences we know how to handle them. We made some kind of contact before elections and then we followed, and later on I felt I had to depart from my party, and I established a new party; some people predicted it won’t be more than a few months before it exploded, and then on the eve of a final legislation about a new election we made another kind of maneuver to bring Mofaz in and to enable the government to be quite unprecedentedly [broad], probably with a potential to [last] the last day or the last quarter. And I think that we are in a way old enough and more mature to know that there are many things that on the national agenda that are much more important than…we can kind of moderate sometimes.

In Israel generally speaking politics is much more familiar than any other place. We all know each other. I knew Sharon for decades, I knew Rabin, Peres. We all know each other. It’s a tiny, tiny community and the elites, the upper echelons of all kinds of pyramids, knowing each other, it’s no more than 3,000 or 5,000 people who, for quite a long time know, and you can’t take someone, you can’t  the new crime reporter and make him editor in chief. It takes time. And so the people coming to the top, you usually already know them.

TIME: You described a wedding. Is it almost a marriage?

BARAK: Eeeeh, it’s not a marriage, but you know I believe that bibi knows there’s certain issues that for me are so important that you try to do them you find out doing it without me, and in a way I know certain things are so dearly important to him, if I insist on doing them, it will end up with a  divorce. But sometimes we sit with [Israeli president] Shimon Peres,  we all have been in all positions. Although Bibi was not defense minister, Peres was in all roles, I have been defense minister…I don’t know how to describe it. We are a little bit relieved from the need to prove anything to anyone and we happen to be autonomous. I feel fully autonomous. I don’t do anything to impress anyone, quite successfully I can tell you. I do not impress many people in the streets and the public. I would love to have kind of applause whenever I do something, but I don’t care if I don’t, if I think it’s the right thing and it will be judged so in retrospect.

(MORE: Behind the Israel Protest Turmoil: A Middle East Without a Peace Process)

TIME: On Iran: What is Israel’s current capability in terms of launching a pre-emptive attack, and to what degree is Israel still reserving the possibility or even the right to launch such an attack?

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