Barak: Peace deal hard but ‘within reach’

 <span class="cutline_leadin">AMONG FRIENDS:</span> Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak speaks to American Friends of Magen David Adom at a dinner in Palm Beach.
AMONG FRIENDS: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak speaks to American Friends of Magen David Adom at a dinner in Palm Beach.
Friends of Magen David Adom

You wrote last year that the region's outlook for 2014 appears gloomy. Do you still feel that way?

Yes. Within three years, the Arab Spring turned into the Muslim winter. And from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Lebanon to Iran. It looks gloomy. We learned two lessons. One, be modest with predictions in the Middle East with regard to the future. In Egypt, [former President Hosni] Mubarak had probably half a million people deployed in internal security services. He could not predict what happened in Tahrir Square. How can we? If he couldn’t do it, who can? The second lesson is whenever people tell us, “oh, don’t worry. Israel is so paranoiac. If something really dramatic happens, unacceptable happens, the world will step forward and do something about it.” I beg to differ. Look at Syria.

Do you think that a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians is within reach?

I always feel and believe that should be the objective and that on principle it is within reach. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

Secretary of State John Kerry appears to be having some success.

Yes. I see that Kerry has great energy and has found a way to keep it far from the public’s eyes until it’s clear whether something could be achieved. I assume what they have in mind is not an interim agreement but a kind of paper that will be accepted by both sides in a kind of “yes, but” response. And even this will be a great achievement because it will pave the way for another year of negotiations.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbaas said recently that he believes a deal will be reached this year. Do you agree?

I hope.

What would be the reaction in Israel?

The people in Israel want peace and will not agree to any compromising of our security interests. I didn’t give up any security interests. Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] will not give up any security interests. The people will support once there is a proposal. I believe it will be strong support in Israel. The plan should be fair, honest and genuine.

Is security the biggest sticking point in any plan?

It’s never 100 percent full-proof. It [the plan] should give an answer to our genuine worries about security. I do not underestimate any kind of security worry for Israel but I think we have to find a way to move forward with the best that we can achieve. That’s one obstacle. There’s one challenge that nobody talks about but is there: Abu Mazan [Abbas] doesn’t control the Gaza Strip.

Abbas said he has been talking to Hamas about those issues.

That should be solved in order for an agreement to emerge. I think that basically what is needed is a tough, painful decisions on both sides that will be accepted and put to a referendum and that will put an end to the conflict and finality of mutual claims. It will not necessarily become the kind of relationship you have with Canada. I always used to joke with the American presidents that I envy them for having the Canadians as their neighbor. The Middle East is a tough neighborhood.

What do you see as the advantages of peace?

Peace not just with the Palestians but the Arab world can create huge economic advantage for all. There’s a lot of room for regional economic projects, from transportation to transfer of oil to investments in food production and in desalination of water. I think the potential is great. We have commitment to do it even when we cannot be assured that it’ll be successful.

On Iran, what’s your perception of what has come out of the recently negotiated interim agreement on its nuclear program?

We have some criticism of the agreement. We thought that probably more could have been done. However, it likely blocked them. We feel we should have been able to push them backward in order to deprive them from turning into a nuclear power. I’m not optimistic about the possibility to achieve a final agreement because the Iranians will prefer a modified interim agreement. They would prefer to drag this kind of modified interim agreement in order not to make the real decision to dismantle their military and nuclear infrastructure.

Many people now believe that Iran has changed, particularly after President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the U.N. last year. Have you seen any change?

They yielded to the pressures. They felt the sanctions. What is needed is actual physical dismantling of it’s nuclear and militarily capacity. Period. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll have to face the consequences of it. When we say all options should remain on the table, we mean it.

There’s been a lot of concern in the U.S. about Iran’s interest in Latin America, although some of that concern appears to have diminished under Rouhani. Should there still be of concerns about Iran’s intentions?

We have to be concerned. They have shadow kinds of organizations beneath the surface where they sponsor terrorism all around the world. They have some dormant cells in Latin America and special relationships with countries like Venezuela. That’s worrying. I see that the Latin Americans understand it. The governments understand it.

On Syria, will the forces fighting President Bashar Assad succeed?

I think they had major successes in the first two years. They weakened dramatically by events in the last few months or probably about a year now. They were short of weapons and equipment and they suffered from the agreement with Assad following the chemical weapons attack. They suffered also from extremists, bizarre Islamic extremists [who] came to the country and tainted the legitimacy of the rebel movement from both sides. It’s a tragedy, a huge tragedy for the Syrian people and the order of the Middle East. I think insisting that he be pushed out of power should remain the objective of the world community.

But the world community seems to be sending mixed signals.

I don’t envy those that have to make these decisions. I don’t think that the chemical arsenal was a single objective. That was just the start.

You came to South Florida to support American friends of Magen David Adom. It’s played a critical role in emergencies around the world, especially in Haiti. What makes it so effective?

We made it a kind of rule that when tragedy happens somewhere in the world, we send immediately without even waiting for the approval. We arrange hospital. We did it in Haiti, China, Turkey, Japan wherever in the world it happens. It was a successful mission to Haiti.

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