Ehud Barak served as Israel's Prime Minister and Defense Minister. He is also the most decorated soldier in Israel's history and served as armed forces chief of staff. His love for Israel, his service to Israel, and his knowledge about Israel are unparalleled. That doesn't mean he's right about everything. But it does mean that we cannot lightly dismiss anything he says.
If you want to understand Israel, you should read his memoir, My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel Searching for Peace, which is as much a memoir of Israel as of Barak, as he participated in so many key events: all of the wars, Entebbe, bombing Syria's nuclear reactor, planning to kill Saddam Hussein, peace negotiations with the Palestinians and with Syria, the Iran Deal, and much more.
I can't summarize a 472-page book in 1,000 words, but I'll try to cover key points of particular interest to readers of this newsletter.
Loving Israel does not mean dismissing the Palestinian narrative. Too many right-wing pro-Israel groups act as if the Jewish claim to Israel cannot stand on its own, so they diminish the Palestinian attachment to the land. When asked in 1998 how his life might have turned out if he had been born a Palestinian, Barak replied "At some stage, I would have entered into one of the terror organizations and fought from there."
Barak was clear in that interview that he abhorred terrorism, but he writes in his memoir that he "simply answered as honestly as I could, trying to imagine I'd been one of the Palestinian babies in Wadi Khaweret, yet with the same mind and approach to life that had defined me as an Israeli." That's called empathy.
Barak discusses Moshe Dayan's famous 1956 eulogy for Roi Rotberg, who was murdered by Arab terrorists. Dayan said that "For eight years, [the Palestinians] have been sitting in the refugee camps of Gaza, while before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and villages where their fathers dwelt." Sounds like something you'd expect a naive lefty to say, but this is Moshe Dayan speaking in 1956, quoted by Ehud Barak in 2018. Pro-Israel does not have to mean anti-Palestinian.
Barak has faith in the Israel Defense Forces. Barak is firmly convinced that Israel can cede the West Bank and the Golan Heights without putting Israel's security at undue risk. He also believes that Israel could have ended Iran's nuclear weapons program with military strikes. He writes that many in Israel's military and intelligence communities opposed the strikes not because they doubted Israel's ability to achieve the military objectives, but because they were concerned about the diplomatic and geopolitical repercussions (although chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi felt that preparations had not yet "crossed the threshold of operational capability").
In 2008, President George W. Bush told Barak and Ehud Olmert, "We are totally against any action by you to mount an attack on the nuclear plants." President Obama, too, opposed Israeli military action, arguing that America could and would take military action when and if it became necessary, and that American action would be more effective.
Barak writes that although Obama disagreed with Israel on some issues, including the peace process and how to deal with Iran, "I had dealt face-to face with four U.S. presidents: both of the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and now Obama. In terms of the Israeli security and intelligence concerns, none of them, except for President Clinton, had proved as consistently supportive as Obama."
Zionism means rejecting a galut mentality. "Galut" is the Hebrew word for diaspora (exile). Barak felt that the refusal of Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman to take risks to disentangle Israel from Palestinians on the West Bank was "living proof of the old saying that it's easier to take Jews out of the galut, than take the galut out of the Jews." Barak explains that "the whole Zionist project was based on the idea of taking our fate into our own hands, and actively trying to change the reality around us." Barak writes that
I was especially upset by Bibi's increasing use of Holocaust imagery in describing the threat from Iran. "Just think of what you're saying," I told him. "You're prime minister of the State of Israel, not a rabbi in a shtetl, or a speaker trying to raise funds for Israel abroad. Think of the implications. We're not in Europe in 1937. Or 1947. If it is a 'Holocaust,' what's our response: to fold up and go back to the diaspora? If Iran gets a bomb, it will be bad. Very bad. But we'll still be here. And we will find a way of dealing with the new reality."
Barak opposed the Iran Deal and still thinks it was a bad deal, although he concedes that "as the details of the agreement began to become clear in 2015, its provisions to curb Iran's nuclear program did appear, at least on paper, more comprehensive and better policed than I had expected."
The greatest threat to the Zionist dream is internal. Barak believes that Hizbollah, Hamas, ISIS, and Iran, "are real yet surmountable challenges." Rather, Barak writes,
The main threat comes from inside: from the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded, and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history. It has sought to redefine Zionism as being about one thing only: ensuring eternal control over the whole of biblical Judea and Samaria, or as the outside world knows it, the West Bank, even if doing so leaves us significantly less secure.
Barak explains that as long as the occupation is an interim arrangement with the ultimate goal of a political resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, treating Jewish settlers differently from Palestinians in the West Bank, legally and politically, is defensible. "But under a one-state vision, it will become harder and harder to rebut comparisons made with the old South Africa."
Yet Barak remains optimistic, especially considering that the ultimate aim of Zionism and Zionists was "not to secure every inch of the Land of Israel: it was to redeem, reinvigorate, and rededicate themselves to the People of Israel."
We are free to disagree with any or all of what Barak thinks--some in Israel certainly do. But when we consider what it means to be pro-Israel, let's not be so quick to reject the views of those who do agree with Barak, and let's at least remember that there is a difference between pro-Israel and pro-Bibi. Some pro-Israel groups seem infatuated with an Israel that never was, except perhaps on the pages of books like Exodus. Pro-Israel advocacy is more likely to succeed if it is based on a mature understanding and love for the Israel that really is, wonders and flaws and all.
Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update