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.

TIME: But why shouldn’t they use the standing they have in the international community to get UN state status and have access to the International Criminal Court?

BARAK: I think that it’s unilateral and it touches sensitivities in Israel in an improper manner. It cannot help them a lot.  There are many people around Abu Mazen telling him, okay you cannot t hit it withthis government, let’s go to the GA [General Assembly] and try to threaten these things.  I don’t think it can work – well, technically it can work. They can go to the GA.  But I don’t think that it’s good for the Palestinians to the extent we can give them advice, we think there’s an alternative that is better, they can deal with us. Anything that could be achieved through negotiation could be better, more productive than this approach that leads more and more toward confrontation. And I think that the establishment of a new government here creates certain opportunity. We cannot afford –with such a wide government, 94 members of Knesset—the government itself doesn’t feel any dissonance when it starts to come close to the painful decisions that comes with a process. I do not want to be over optimistic. That by jumping into it everything is waiting there, that peace with the Palestinians will parachute from heaven.  It’s a lot of work, a lot of decisions to be made. Probably we’ll end up with an interim agreement, with mutual idea how to move, what’s the process, what are the first steps. Probably not fully inclusive steps but partial. But I think that we have to do it seriously. All alternatives are much worse than talking and trying to translate it into action.

(PHOTOS: The Stone Throwers of Palestine)

TIME: Are you an Arab Spring optimist? Do you think that however long it takes these countries to get governments that are up and running and functioning, do you think that ultimately we will have a more stable Middle East with more democratic and prosperous nations that will be better partners and collaborators with Israel, or are you an Arab Spring pessimist?

BARAK:  It depends on the time frame. We used to joke here that in the middle east that a pessimist is an optimist with experience.  If you look in the very short term, you don’t need assessments: You see developments bode ill for the stability, the harmony of the region.  In the very long term, probably it is something positive. Probably.  To see people standing on their feet, trying to take their destiny in their own hands. But it’s too early to predict and probably it reflects more our wishful thinking in a Western frame of mind than reality.  In the mid-term, I’m not optimistic because it tends to be a green kind of Arab spring. Not in terms of the colors of nature, but in religious terms. There are more and more Islamists, some of them quite radical. Somehow—I don’t want to sound patronizing somehow: it takes time, it takes patience to see change. You cannot expect an Arab Vaclev Havel to take over one of these societies.  It takes time. So you can find, if you look very closely, you find interesting phenomena, but when see the end results in the short term, it’s not extremely encouraging. But we do not pretend to control it. It’s not our choice, it’s the choice of the people. It’s dynamics that are beyond our capacity to intervene with, a dramatic event that did not happen here since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Dramatic events. And we do not see the end of it . you know, no end in Egypt; not clear. No end in Syria yet. When Assad falls it will be  amajor blow to the radical axis, to Iran, to Hizballah.  It’s not clear what will happen to the Iranian nuclear. Americans are leaving Iraq.  They might leave  Afghanistan. The situation in Pakistan is not extremely promising in terms of world balance, regional balance. So we have to be realistic, open-eyed.

It’s a tough neighborhood, extremely tough neighborhood. It’s not North America, it’s not western Europe. It’s a place where there’s really no mercy for the weak, and no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves. And I spent all my life in action, not talking or interpreting. I fought against Palestinians, I saw them. Arafat used to ask, oh, while Ehud Barak is talking about blood on the hands of the terrorists, doesn’t he have blood on his hands, of Palestinians?  I say, yes, we have a lot of blood but we were always sent by a government, elected governments to kill terrorists, we never tried to kill anyone; we cannot say no one has been hurt as a result of our operation, but it was always an operation aimed at terrorists or sources of terrorism, never in this indiscriminate manner against citizens, against innocent Palestinians. We don’t hate Palestinians as such. I don’t hate people. I just accept missions.  And I did spend decades doing this. I had black hair. Since I turned to dealing with Israelis I got gray hair. But I spent a lot of time, both leading operations, orderingoperations, but also trying to make peace. I tried very sincerely to make an end to the conflict to the Palestinians.  Proposed, together with Clinton, probably the furthest kind of far-reaching offer, which Arafat rejected and turned deliberately into terror. So we fight terror effectively. I tried to do the same with the father of this Assad, but he was too eager to, probably, passing the torch with his son rather than solving the issue of Golan Heights. And I ordered the pullout from Lebanon, after the tragedy. Some people raise question marks about how we did it but I’m still extremely proud of being able to order it. So I was educated, brought up in action and violence. Sometimes you have to talk a little bit about what you mean, but it cannot replace action, there should be open-mindedness and readiness to act when other alternatives are exhausted.

TIME: Thank you.

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