Ehud Barak opens up about a possible major strategic blunder and whether Oslo was a trick

Israel’s former prime minister and army chief Ehud Barak speaks to Al Majalla in an exclusive interview

Ehud Barak opens up about a possible major strategic blunder and whether Oslo was a trick

In 1973, Ehud Barak might have made one of Israel’s major strategic blunders since its founding. He greenlit and took part in the assassination of Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) figures whose peers are today internationally and regionally accepted as political actors and peacemakers in the difficult pursuit of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma.

Disguised as a brunette, the then-commander of an Israeli special forces unit went to Beirut with other commandoes— some of them were disguised as women as well—to carry out the daring operation dubbed by Israelis as the ‘Spring of Youth’; Arabs refer to as the Verdun operation, named after the street it took place in Beirut where PLO operations chief, Kamal Adwan, resided. The PLO is the same entity that signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993, which were hoped to be the harbinger of a new era of peace.

“You are right in your observation, but I don’t regret it,” he said. “A war between two states or sometimes a state and a national movement becomes complicated—especially when it turns to terror. Some tough decisions must be taken and thought over carefully. The operation was aimed at blocking the possibility that the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes (at the Summer Olympics in 1972) will repeat itself.”

“I never look backwards. We have a responsibility to protect and defend our people. So, the major consideration should be to what extent the target is what we call a ticking time bomb, meaning that if you leave it, it could possibly cause much more damage,” the former chief of staff of the Israeli army said.

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In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, former Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was succeeded by Barak to lead the Labour Party when he entered politics and defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1999 elections.

In 2000, Prime Minister Barak tried to make peace with Arafat, building on the Oslo process. He failed. However, Israelis and Palestinians spin the failure very differently. The Israelis say that Barak gave a ‘generous’ offer to the Palestinians—chiefly a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and more than 90% of the West Bank and shared oversight of Al Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount in East Jerusalem. For their part, Palestinians said they rejected the offer because it gave Israeli control over their land, economy, security, settlements and East Jerusalem.

Ostensibly intended to close the gap between Israelis and Palestinians and the Israelis and facilitate reconciliation, the 1993 Oslo Accords did launch a peace process, but since then, co-existence seems increasingly unlikely. A Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, which the Palestinians attributed to growing frustration with the Israeli occupation and the provocative visit of Ariel Sharon, the then-leader of the Likud party, to the Al Aqsa Mosque.

I never look backwards. We have a responsibility to protect and defend our people. So, the major consideration should be to what extent the target is what we call a ticking time bomb.

Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister

Today, there's neither peace nor a process in place to reach it. For some Palestinians, the accords also led to the establishment of what they perceive as a corrupt and repressive political system both in the Occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 

After a vicious circle of conflicts/battles with Palestinian factions and in response to the 7 October attacks, Israel continues to wage its devastating war on Gaza, which has greatly undermined its international standing and brought accusations of ethnic cleansing and plausible genocide by the International Court of Justice.

The unprecedented Israeli response—including the assassination of top Iranian generals in Damascus —has made the outbreak of a wider war in the region a real possibility.

Hamas's 7 October attack on Israel is the worst since its inception as a Jewish state in 1948—a year commemorated by the Palestinians as the Nakba or disaster. Barak says Israel won't hesitate to "do whatever it takes" to defend its people. The response to Hamas is a strong message intended to reestablish its deterrence.

"We are here to stay and will stay there for a long time. We'll ensure we are strong enough that no one can push us out of here. Israel should make it very clear, beyond any doubt, that Hamas cannot reign over the Gaza Strip anymore," he says.

A trick on the Palestinians? 

The Oslo Accords were envisaged to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state that would independently run the lives of the Palestinians. This hasn't materialised so far. On the contrary, Palestinian socio-economic life has come under the strict control of Israel and within shrinking land and boundaries compared to the pre-1967 lines in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Additionally, Israeli settlements have grown at an unprecedented rate since Oslo. In December, I was in Ramallah reporting from outside the gated religious Zionist settlement of Beit El— an area that's supposedly under the full control of the Palestinian Authority according to the Oslo Accord II signed in 1995.

Read moreEhud Olmert to Al Majalla: Netanyahu-led government wants Armageddon and endless occupation

Under the 1993 accords, The PLO agreed to recognise the state of Israel; Israel made no such recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders in accordance with international law.

Was Oslo intended to really transition Palestinians toward statehood, or was it a trick to buy time and establish facts on the ground that would make such a state a geographic and demographic impossibility? I asked Barak.

"In the eye of the beholder, there is no objective measurement. Because of this observation, the people who were in the Oslo process from both sides were well aware of the need to shape it in phases that each phase makes the situation somewhat acceptable to all parties and enables both sides to realise the advantages. And the disadvantages could have disappeared if it had been executed properly," he said.

But the settlement project has been accepted and normalised among many Israelis over the years, though it's seen by the Palestinians and the international community in general as a colonial conquest to seize Palestinian land.

So, what should happen to the ideological and non-ideological settlements in the occupied West Bank today, which have become one of the faces of the Israeli occupation? Land politics factors in greatly in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"We should retain the major settlements, and the future border of Israel should be delineated in a way that meets the strategic security needs of Israel and most of the settlers," said Barak.

In the eye of the beholder, there is no objective measurement.

Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister

"In previous discussions, there were disputes whether the Palestinian land should be 70 % of the West Bank, or more than 90%, because there are those, even in Israel, who argue that even a small percentage of land in the West Bank can accommodate around 80% of the settlers."

As far as the Gaza Strip is concerned, Barak says there will likely be an Israeli buffer zone after the end of the war, which in practical terms, I argued, would mean the redrawing of the occupied territory's future political borders should the warring sides reach a peace deal. But he is open to any other solution that guarantees security for Israel, including a multi-national Arab force in coordination with the Palestinian Authority.

Read more: Netanyahu vs Sinwar: Egocentrism personified in Gaza war

"Israel is determined to ensure that our civilians can go to sleep in their beds at night without the risk of being killed by a terrorist. The real threat to Hamas today is not another military operation in Rafah or elsewhere; the real threat to Hamas is that Israel will hand over the Gaza Strip to some other force or power that will take over the territory," he said.

Barak sees the extremist ministers in the incumbent government as very dangerous and a real threat to any peace with the Palestinians and Arabs. His predecessor Rabin was assassinated in 1995 in Tel Aviv by an Israeli Jewish extremist for his endorsement of peace with the Palestinians, revealing the yawning gap in Israel between the Zionist right and left. "This conflict won't be solved in heaven; it has to be solved on the ground," says Barak.

And he still has an optimistic forecast. "You need to take the hardest, toughest decision to make peace. The time will come to make peace and disengage from the Palestinians. And I used to say that we always have the left hand trying to open the door to peace and have the right hand ready and close to the trigger to pull it as we are in the middle. It's a tough neighbourhood."

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