September 19, 2018

Ehud Barak: Like the Country He Lives In

During his West Coast book tour last month, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak kept getting interrupted. At the JCC in San Francisco, a group of pro-Palestinian protesters shouted “war criminal” and “free Palestine” as he attempted to discuss his recently published memoir, “My Country, My Life.” 

The protesters didn’t seem to know — or care — that the Israeli leader they were denigrating made a significant attempt to play peacemaker, offering the Palestinians a state of their own nearly two decades ago, which Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected. 

To them, Barak was indistinguishable from any other Israeli leader, synonymous with their would-be enemies in Israel’s current government who oppose a two-state solution altogether. Barak was merely a surrogate for Israel, a nation seen more as symbol than sovereign country.

Unfazed by the assault, Barak endured the disruption and then carried on as if nothing had happened. He is, after all, like the country he lives in.

The following day, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, Barak was again interrupted when an audience member fainted in the aisle. As medical professionals tended to the person, Barak seemed to squirm in his seat. “Is there something we can do?” he asked over the microphone. Widely considered the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, he appeared unaccustomed to the position of helplessness. So when his interlocutor, Jewish Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch, offered to resume the conversation, Barak said, “Ask the doctor first.” When things were finally under control, Barak relieved the tension with a dose of Yiddish humor: “We used to say, ‘Troubles will not be in short supply, so don’t worry.’”

“We should have no illusions. Terror will continue. It’s a generational war.”
— Ehud Barak

In his more than five-decade career, Barak has seen Israel grow from a scrappy socialist project to a powerful startup nation, and yet, troubles are still not in short supply. Even so, he has retained an air of idealism: He told the Wilshire Boulevard crowd of nearly 500 that he still believes in a two-state solution; encouraged American Jewry to “raise its voice” against Israeli policies that compromise the country’s “moral height”; and said that Israel should allow Gaza to build an island in the Mediterranean to serve as a seaport and airport, thus mitigating Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. 

Considering these are the words of a two-time former defense minister and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Barak can hardly be blamed for naiveté. Though his political legacy is controversial (he was Israel’s shortest-serving prime minister), his military career is revered: Barak served in the Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War and in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal, through which he led several successful covert operations. He famously dressed as a woman to kill PLO terrorists in Lebanon who had orchestrated the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes, and he served as the architect for the raid on Entebbe, in which more than 100 Israeli hostages were rescued from a terrorist hijacking. 

Asked if Israel’s success in those operations discouraged subsequent “spectacular acts of terrorism,” Barak was unequivocal. “We should have no illusions,” he said. “Terror will continue. It’s a generational war.”  

When evaluating his legacy, journalists have long described Barak as something of an avatar; he seems to inhabit the mood of the day despite a long and storied career that could easily predispose him to ideology. In Los Angeles, he offered a blistering critique of  Israel’s religious nationalists, whom he described as “totally detached from reality” in their bid for a one-state solution that encompasses all of biblical Israel. “[They] are good patriots. They really believe in what they argue for,” he said. “But when you push them to the border and tell them that this will end in either a not Jewish or not democratic situation, they ultimately look to heaven waiting for some divine intervention.” 

Barak also addressed Israel’s secular-Orthodox divide. “I think that what’s happening [in Israel] right now in regard to Jewish identity is, in a way, a shame,” he said, referencing the internecine conflict over access to the Kotel. “I don’t see anyone who can dictate to a Jewish person what it means to be a Jew. I always liked the answer that Golda Meir used to give at the height of the debate in Israel over ‘who is a Jew?’ Her answer was, ‘Whoever wants to be one, deserves it.’ ”

Perhaps because his past political flip-flopping made him the subject of derision in Israel, Barak made the case for big tent Judaism and encouraged American Jews to critique Israeli policy. “Part of the partnership [between Israel and American Jewry] is the readiness to criticize, to raise your voice, to make clear what you think about what happens in Israel,” he said. “I think it will help Israel … and [it] will help you to convince your own young generation that Israel is still on the right track.”

At 76, Barak said he would not again seek political office, though that has not stopped him from criticizing current Israeli Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he once commanded in Sayeret Matkal. Rather than re-engage the system, Barak is content to serve as a kind of reflective mirror, both for the vicissitudes of Israel’s complicated politics and the psychic reality of its citizens. It has even been suggested that part of the reason his political legacy is so reviled is because his failed peace offer to the Palestinians in 2000 disabused many Israelis of the notion peace is even possible.

As his appearances in California showed, Barak seems to mirror two different sides of Israel. In the face of protesters, he channeled the hardened, defensive Israel, which must contend with the consequences of its choices. And in L.A., he became the humane Israel, who does not turn away from suffering or hope but says, “Is there something we can do?