The Lion in Waiting

Last Friday evening, I was pacing backstage at the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Gindi Auditorium, rehearsing my introduction for Ehud Barak.

Born on a kibbutz, 36 years in the Israel Defense Forces, fought in three wars, architect of the Entebbe raid, disguised as a woman to kill Munich terrorists in Beirut, Israel’s most decorated soldier, elected Prime Minister in 1999…

That’s when I saw him, sitting on a stage box in the shadows: Ehud Barak.

In person Barak is somehow both more and less imposing than he seems from afar.

He is stocky, with a healthy paunch for his 64 years. Glasses give him the professorial air — he received his master’s in engineering from Stanford University. But when he addresses me — How many people are here? What are their politics? What time do we end? — it’s clear I am in the presence of a man used to quick orders and decisive action. He tells an aide to have his driver come to the UJ on Mulholland Drive.

He turns to me: “There’s a David Lynch film about that?”

“Mulholland Falls,” I say. “A strange movie,” he says. “Very strange, but interesting.”

For an instant, I panic — is he going to order me to explain David Lynch?

For three days last week, Barak’s comeback trail to Israeli politics detoured through Southern California. On Monday he spoke to 6,000 people at the UJ lecture series at the Universal Amphitheatre; on Sunday he spoke at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin. And on Friday night he joined 200 guests for a Shabbat dinner at the UJ, followed by an onstage interview with me at Gindi Hall.

To prepare, I’d e-mailed a mutual acquaintance who’d worked closely with Barak at Camp David. I asked him what sort of questions would elicit the most interesting responses. “Barak is a highly educated, well-read person with exceptional (!!!!) analytical ability,” he wrote back. “You will enjoy asking him big picture questions and letting him elaborate.”

Our conversation began on familiar ground — the failed Camp David negotiations between Barak, President Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat — then quickly circled the globe.

It was the collapse of Camp David in 2000, followed by the second intifada that brought Barak’s term as prime minister to a quick, crushing end. For Barak, it was the risk Israel took for peace that laid bare Arafat’s true intentions.

I realized for him it was not about “undoing 1967” — the occupation of lands captured in the Six Day War — but about “undoing 1947” — the year before Israel became a state.

“They should have taken away Arafat’s Nobel Prize and given him an Academy Award, for Best Actor,” he said.

Barak defended his offer to trade parts of Jerusalem and give the Palestinians control over the Temple Mount. His reasons were brusque and pragmatic. Why should Israel control Arab villages that have nothing to do with Jerusalem?, he said. As for the Temple Mount, it has long been in control of the Muslim waqf; he was codifying the status quo.

Right now, Barak doesn’t see a partner for peace among the Palestinians; not Hamas, and he has his doubts about Mahmoud Abbas. And so, where does that leave Israel? For now, he said, Israel can sit tight. When the Palestinians are ready to negotiate, he said, “we will stretch out one hand, and keep a gun in the other.”

In the meantime, Israel faces grave regional problems, the prospect of a nuclear Iran chief among them. He said that within a short time Iran could “cross the nuclear threshold.” He has no doubt their engineers are capable — he studied with some of them at Stanford.

How to thwart them? A multilateral solution that involves the United States, Russia, China and the Europeans is preferable. Would it work? He was pessimistic. And then what?: “I don’t believe in speaking openly, as some in the government do, about our other options.”

I asked Barak if the Iraq War has made Israel safer. The initial military victory, he said, took out an avowed enemy. But the subsequent occupation, the descent into civil war, and the rise of the Shiite influence, has made Israel less safe. (When I asked him if, as former commander-in-chief, he believes 21,000 more troops would solve anything, he took whatever the Israeli equivalent of the Fifth is).

The war in Lebanon — which Barak made clear the current Israeli government mishandled — did not erase the threat from Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon. I asked if he believes the military inexperience of some current Israeli leaders was a factor in the war’s outcome.

He declined to answer directly: “Napoleon said an army is like a noodle. Lead it from the front and it follows straight behind. Try to push it from the rear, and it goes all squiggly.”

The upshot of these events, said Barak, is that Israel faces a Middle East in which radical Shiite power could extend from Teheran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut — “the Shiite banana,” he called it. And make no mistake, the virulently anti-Israel rantings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are but the vocalization of beliefs that even more “moderate” Iranian leaders hold.

Bad as that scenario is, the world would be a safer place, he said, if America would work closely with China and Russia to set and enforce international norms. That means, Barak said, Democrats would have to overcome their revulsion to Russian and Chinese human rights abuses, and Republicans would have to overcome their antipathy to Russia and China. But, Barak said, there is no better way in today’s world to confront the threats of nuclear proliferation, Islamic fundamentalism and terror than for the three most powerful countries to band together.

On a more optimistic note, Barak offered the audience reassurance about Israel’s security.