Brent E. Sasley’s plea in these pages that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retain the services of retiring Defense Minister Ehud Barak as a kind of “responsible adult” is of a piece with the general reaction to Barak’s Sunday announcement that he was retiring from politics. Indeed there has been a veritable orgy of praise in this country for his great contribution to Israel’s security. I would argue that, on the contrary, it is a good thing that Barak is bowing out. In my view he has been a total disaster for Israel and is more to blame than anyone else for the current stalemate in our relations with our Palestinian neighbors.
Today it is difficult to remember that, when Barak was elected Israeli Prime Minister by direct vote in 1999, promising to continue on the peacemaking path of the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, he inherited an extremely promising situation. Seven years after the historic Oslo Agreement, the peace process with the Palestinians was behind schedule but still on track. Israel had withdrawn from Gaza and from parts of the West Bank. A Palestinian Authority had been established. The Israeli economy was flourishing as never before; the Palestinian economy was starting to take off; the stage was set for an era of peace and prosperity.
Despite this, in September 2000, the whole endeavor collapsed with the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada. A time of hope was succeeded by a horrendous explosion of violence and a period of mutual recrimination and suspicion between Israelis and Palestinians. Barak still contends that, in the summer of 2000 at a conference convened at Camp David by President Bill Clinton, he offered the Palestinians the best deal any Israeli leader had ever proposed, and he was answered not just with rejection but with gratuitous violence. An alternative interpretation is that Barak’s proposal was a blatant attempt to bully the Palestinians into accepting a truncated and unsustainable Palestinian state, limited in sovereignty, hemmed in by Jewish settlements, and controlled by an oppressive system of closures and roadblocks.
Once the Palestinian rioting started, the confrontation gathered momentum, escalating in an almost classic progression of violence and counter-violence. The Palestinian riots were ferocious—although they did not initially involve shooting—but the response of Israel’s security forces was clumsy, inept, and exaggerated. True it was Barak’s successor as Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who increased the violence to unprecedented levels, but it was Barak who initiated the policy of responding to the Palestinian uprising with force and more force. Moreover, it was Barak who lost the election to Sharon after heading the shortest administration in Israel’s history. A successful soldier and a man of brilliant intellect, Barak proved singularly inept as a political leader. He offended his colleagues, quarreled with his coalition partners, and rashly staked his future on a make-or-break effort at peace with the Palestinians.
Without going into the painful details of what happened at Camp David in 2000, it is instructive to examine two versions of what Barak claims happened at a follow-up Israeli-Palestinian encounter at Taba in Sinai in January 2001, just before he lost the election to Ariel Sharon.
In an interview with historian Benny Morris in the New York Review of Books dated June 13, 2002, Barak stated that there was still a chance of peace at Taba: “Had the Palestinians, even at that late date, agreed, there would have been a peace settlement.”
However three months later, on September 6, 2002, Barak told Ari Shavit in Haaretz: “It was plain to me that there was no chance of reaching a settlement at Taba. Therefore I said there would be no negotiations and there would be no delegation and there would be no official discussions and no documentation. Nor would Americans be present in the room. The only thing that took place at Taba were non-binding contracts between senior Israelis and senior Palestinians."
Even worse than the deceit illustrated above, Barak succeeded in convincing a majority of Israelis that he had “ripped the mask off the face of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat,” that there was no one to talk to and, consequently, no chance for peace with the Palestinians. Barak’s continuing declarations, when set against the horrific violence and counter-violence of the second Intifada, decimated the Israeli peace camp and reinforced the thesis that the Palestinians and the other Arabs have never accepted a Jewish state in the Middle East and never will.
He thereby destroyed the chance of peace for (at least) a generation. That is Ehud Barak’s true legacy.