With a full-blown war unfolding between Israel and Hamas, it’s hard to imagine a new dawn of peace. The body count in Gaza is rising daily, a month after Hamas stormed southern Israel, killing 1,400 people and taking hundreds more hostage. It’s a cycle of violence that threatens to paralyze the moral and political imaginations of Israelis and Palestinians alike, deepening the impression that an accommodation will remain forever out of reach.
But to hear one of Israel’s elder statesmen tell it, now is precisely the moment to resurrect the goal of a renewed peace process.
“I think there is a need in Israel, under the heaviest, most difficult conditions, never to lose sight of the objective,” former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tells TIME. “The right way is to look to the two-state solution, not because of justice to the Palestinians, which is not the uppermost on my priorities, but because we have a compelling imperative to disengage from the Palestinians to protect our own security, our own future, our own identity.”
Put another way: As Israel embarks on what many suspect will be its longest, most devastating war, it should be preparing to make painful concessions once it’s over. Otherwise, Barak warns, Israel will lose legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. It won’t be able to corral the Arab countries that could help reconstruct Gaza. And it will remain haunted by an existential crisis that threatens the nation’s character as a Jewish democracy.
For Barak, who was Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001 and Defense Minister from 2007 to 2013, it’s personal. In Israel’s 75-year history, no Israeli leader came closer to securing a peace deal with the Palestinians. Through a series of negotiations in 2000, brokered by President Bill Clinton, Barak made Israel’s first ever offer to establish a Palestinian state. The proposal included roughly 97 percent of the West Bank; all of Gaza, where Israel still had settlers; and a capital in East Jerusalem. “It was historic,” Clinton wrote in his memoirs. “The ball was in Arafat’s court.”
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Unfortunately, that’s where the ball stayed. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spurned the proposal and ignited a strategic onslaught of suicide bombings against Israel that became known as the Second Intifada. The four-and-a-half year ordeal entailed Palestinian guerilla fighters killing more than 1,000 Israelis, Israeli military forces killing more than 3,000 Palestinians in retaliatory strikes, and a psychic wound that devastated Israel’s peace movement.
But now, in the face of another seismic conflict, Israel’s most decorated soldier says the country can’t revert to the status quo of a one-state reality. A full-on embrace of two states is the only path out of the abyss. In a wide-ranging interview conducted over Zoom from Barak’s Tel Aviv home, we also discussed the possible endgames for Gaza after the war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future, and how the Oct. 7 massacre has transformed the Israeli psyche.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your first reaction when you learned of the attack?
It was immediately clear that it's the most severe blow that we suffered since the establishment of the State of Israel. Israel was established to create one place on earth where Jews can live and go to sleep in their own quiet. Babies burned, opening the tummy of a pregnant woman, shooting parents in front of their young children. Shooting a whole family just hugging each other and burning them. That's a picture that we've never seen.
For my generation, our formative experience in life was the 1973 war. It's clear to me that for people who are about the age I was in 1973, and even younger, this will be the formative experience of their life. It will define what they think about Israel and the Zionist project.
Why do you think Hamas did this now?
They could have done it a month ago or two months later. Probably, it has to do with their intention to block the trilateral deal with the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Netanyahu made it a point to show that this agreement might be the final proof of his thesis that Israel can reach peace with a leading Arab nation like Saudi Arabia without dealing with the Palestinian issue.
Why was Israel so unprepared?
It was a major failure of our intelligence. Our intelligence was supposed to give us a strategic early warning. Let’s say, several months ago, because Hamas prepared it for more than a year, and there should have been tactical early warning within 12 hours before the attack. We cannot clarify it fully right now. It will be clarified only when there’s a full investigation. But I’m confident it’s a failure. A failure on every level.
How much responsibility does Netanyahu bear?
When people point to Netanyahu for responsibility, they don't think of the failure of the intelligence to warn us. That's a failure of intelligence. No one said Netanyahu had to know the tactical details if it had not been reported.
There are two other sources. For five years, he had a policy that Hamas was an asset and the Palestinian Authority was a liability. Netanyahu used to say that anyone who is against a two-state solution should support his attitude toward Hamas, which was basically to let them be alive and kicking. He basically backed them by allowing the Qataris to send some $1.5 billion over five years into the Gaza Strip; about half of it was used by Hamas to build its military capabilities. It is this element that disturbs the Israeli people. Everyone remembers that he strengthened Hamas and tried to suppress the Palestinian Authority.
What’s the reason for this? If you have the vision of one state and your main political objective is to block any potential two-state solution, keeping Hamas alive and kicking serves you. If the Americans or the Europeans approach you and ask, Why the hell you don't negotiate with the Palestinians? You can always tell them: How can we negotiate with them? Abu Mazen [the nickname, or kunya, for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t control half of his people in Gaza. And no one is ready to negotiate with Hamas in Gaza because they are a terrorist organization. So this situation served Netanyahu, it served his vision, it served his long-term strategy.
Israel is facing a lot of international condemnation over the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza. Of course, Hamas is known to embed its vast network of tunnels and military installations within densely populated urban neighborhoods, making it very complicated. But can Israel conduct this military operation without causing so many civilian casualties?
We cannot and will not pretend to be able to do it without any collateral damage and civilians being killed. We are committed to make all possible efforts to minimize it. We warn in advance. We use everything from radio and pamphlets. We even took over the Gaza Strip TV network for a short time to broadcast it directly to all of them.
We want some 1.1 million people to leave the northern Gaza Strip. Some 800,000 have already moved. Hamas is threatening them and telling the civilians to stay and to even concentrate among certain places where they know that we know they have command posts or other installations or infrastructure. It’s a tragedy, but we cannot give Hamas impunity because they are using their coercive power over the citizens.
What do you think is the political outcome of this war?
It cannot be predicted. This operation has to be executed under four different constraints. Number one is the hostage issue. It's a very delicate problem. The other constraint is that this will spread into the north with Hezbollah. There are probably some dormant cells of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the West Bank, probably even a Shiite militia backed by Iran deployed in western Iraq or in Syria beyond the Golan Heights. That’s a very severe constraint. We do not have any interest in opening a second front, but it may be beyond our control.
The third constraint is international law. We are committed to international law. But we know from experience that, in spite of the almost universal support we enjoy now, it will erode very quickly. There are numbers of casualties among civilians in the Gaza Strip. I believe the Americans will stand with us longer, but not for infinity. We have to take this into account as well. The last one is: to whom do we pass the torch? We do not intend to stay there for the next 20 years, and it's not easy to find someone to whom to pass it.
That’s the big question: What comes next? Some Israeli and American officials have floated the idea of creating an Arab-led international peace-keeping force to run Gaza until the Palestinian Authority can take back control. Do you think that’s possible?
Fifteen years ago, I was Defense Minister around one of these clashes with Hamas, which usually ended with an understanding mediated through the Egyptians that provided calmness for two years. Even then, the question was: Why not fully crush Hamas?
So I approached [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and asked him: Next time that we clash with Hamas, we can crush them fully if we have someone to which we can pass control of Gaza. My proposal was that, after the next round, you will demand that we withdraw with no conditions. We will insist on crushing Hamas and then, once we complete the mission, we will withdraw about two months later under one condition: someone responsible take it from us. Then you, backed by a UN Security Council resolution, can lead a multi-national Arab force made of the Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans, etc. to run the Strip for a limited three-to-six-months period. After which you will gradually pass it on to the Palestinian Authority, the original internationally recognized owner of the place. He said to me, “Oh, no, no, Barak, you conquered Gaza in ‘67. It's now yours. I will never ever put my hands back into Gaza.”
Then I thought, why don’t I approach Abu Mazen? He basically said, “Barak, I cannot afford coming back to power in the Gaza Strip sitting on Israeli bayonets.” I didn't like that answer. But I could understand the pressing logic behind it.
What do you think is the extent of Iran's involvement in the attack?
It seems that they are a source of inspiration, a source of certain financial backing, of certain training, some equipment and devices, some improvised weapons or means for this military operation. I don't believe that Hamas really asked for permission from Iran. In fact, I think they suspect that the Iranian system is more deeply penetrated by both the American intelligence and Israel intelligence that by updating the Iranians on a concrete operation, they might lose the surprise that they were so successfully trying to create and execute against Israel.
Can Netanyahu survive this?
He lost the trust of the people. In normal countries, he would have resigned on his own immediately. But it’s not unprecedented that when a government in Israel refuses to resign, the public will impose it upon them.
In 1973, Golda Meir was removed by pressure from the public. In 1982, Menachem Begin, who made peace with Egypt, opened war in Lebanon and less than a year afterwards announced that he could not hold his government anymore. There were demonstrations every night outside his residence with the number of soldiers who were buried. He was pushed out of government. The same thing happened to Ehud Olmert.
Netanyahu understands history very well. He knows that nobody survives a major war, especially something like this, which started with a huge debacle that, in the minds of most of the Israeli public, falls under his responsibility.
But he’s just formed a wartime unity cabinet. Does that mean he has until the war is over?
Polls tell you that 80% of the public, including the majority of his own voters, see the Prime Minister carrying the main responsibility for the whole event. About 70% of the public say that he has to resign. Half of them think he should resign immediately, half think he should resign only after the war.
But remember, in Israel, when you talk about war, people think in the short term. The Six Day War was less than a week. The 1973 War took two and a half weeks. The second Lebanese War took 34 days. The longest conflict with Hamas, five years ago, was 52 days. People are saying, “Okay, let's bite our lips and give them two or three months.” But when it becomes clearer that it might take many months, or a few years—it cannot be predicted accurately—that changes the whole equation.
So the key for Netanyahu might be a sustained war because the Israeli public won’t want to destabilize the government while the war effort is ongoing?
I hope it is just subconscious, because to think that this would be done consciously would be so deeply unacceptable. I try not to believe it. I think that he will have to leave long before this war ends, but it's up to the public.
You have been one of your country’s most ardent champions of a two-state solution. Do you think that two states as a goal can be revived after this massacre?
I think there is a need in Israel, under the heaviest, most difficult conditions, never to lose sight of the objective. The right way is to look to the two-state solution, not because of justice to the Palestinians, which is not the uppermost on my priorities, but because we have a compelling imperative to disengage from the Palestinians to protect our own security, our own future, our own identity.
If there is only one political entity reigning over this whole area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, it will inevitably become either non-Jewish or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians can vote, Israel will become overnight a binational state, and within a short time, historically speaking, a binational state with a Muslim majority. That's not the Zionist dream. If they cannot vote, permanently, this is not a democracy. But the present government, and probably a little bit more than the majority of the Israeli people, believes in a one-state solution, which I think is a very bad solution.
How do you convince both a right-wing coalition and an Israeli public that has been moving right-ward for years and has just been traumatized and likely hardened by Oct. 7?
When we are discussing with the Egyptians or the Jordanians or the Emiratis the future possibility that I mentioned of a multi-national Arab force to take over for Hamas, you won't be able to complete the discussion with them if you don't give them assurances and conviction that a two-state solution is your vision rather than full annexation of the West Bank. Because of their own streets, they cannot afford to support that. First, we have to focus on the war. Even after the war, it will take time. But the vision and the readiness to act upon it, once the time is right, should always be there.
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