Ehud Barak is like a character in a spy thriller by Israeli novelist Daniel Silva — except that Barak is real and realistic about the State of Israel, which he served as prime minister from 1999-2001.
Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier, addressed an audience of more than 2,000 people Nov. 1 at Powell Symphony Hall, a presentation of the St. Louis Speakers Series that was sponsored by the Jewish Light.
Barak has much in common with his recently deceased predecessor, Shimon Peres. Both Peres and Barak grasped the harsh realities of the “bad neighborhood” of the Middle East and made sure that the Jewish State could withstand repeated wars and cycles of terrorism. And both men devoted tremendous energy toward achieving peace among Israel and its neighbors.
In his remarks, Barak recalled his involvement in the negotiations and implementation of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.
“It is remarkable that both the peace treaty with Egypt of 1979 and with Jordan of 1994 have continued to be honored,” Barak said.
Barak praised the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for his courage in negotiating with the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Jimmy Carter, which resulted in the historic treaty.
“Sadat paid with his life for his courage, but he was willing to take that risk, and a similar fate awaited Yitzhak Rabin,” Barak said.
He said Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, “was a loyal ally for over 30 years until he was ousted from power after street demonstrations in Cairo. It is not certain when the U.S. decided to stop supporting Mubarak, but he was forced from power after that.”
Barak himself is perhaps best remembered during his tenure as prime minister for meeting at Camp David in 2000 with President Bill Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as they tirelessly negotiated to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty based on the long-sought goal of a two-state solution.
“We were unable in those talks to reach an agreement, but that does not mean that a two-state solution can never be achieved,” Barak said. “We must never say never in seeking ways to achieve peace.”
The Israeli leader, whose serious remarks were often punctuated by sudden bursts of humor, stressed that Israel “cannot continue as both Jewish and democratic if there is a single-state approach. If the Arab population of Israel and the territories equals or exceeds that of the Jewish population, we would either have to cease being a democracy by taking away the right to vote by the 2 million Israeli Arabs, or else develop a form of the apartheid that divided the populations in South Africa.”
Barak emphasized that there is “a lot of talk, talk, talk in Israel” — by Israeli as well as Palestinian leaders — but a lack of courage to act. There are actions that Israel can take on its own to disengage with the Palestinians to allow them to evolve into a possible demilitarized state.
“Sometimes the greatest risk is refusing to take a risk,” he said. “At this point in its history, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Israel is very strong and none of its neighbors are in a position to destroy us.”
Barak said that 98 percent of the 2 million Israeli Arabs are “solid and loyal citizens of Israel, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of Palestinian leaders, many of whom are extremists and very anti-Israel.”
Barak did not hesitate to offer his opinion on other timely topics, but he refused to take sides in the U.S. presidential election.
“Even in this enclosed space (at Powell Hall), it would not be appropriate for me to intervene in American politics,” he said. “I have known one of the two candidates for over 20 years and do not really know the other major candidate. But I believe that the U.S.-Israel relationship will continue to be positive as it has through all of the seven presidential administrations I have worked with.”
Barak had particular praise for a past president whose term in the White House was from 1945-1953.
“It is a great honor to be in the home state of President Harry S Truman, who recognized the State of Israel immediately after it was proclaimed despite the opposition of his secretary of state, George C. Marshall.
Truman was a man of action, Barak said, and we need leaders who talk less and act more.
BY ROBERT A. COHN , Editor-in-Chief Emeritus