Ehud Barak’s life has traced the arc of Israel’s existence. Born in 1942 on a kibbutz in what was then Mandatory Palestine, Barak became one of the country’s most decorated soldiers. He served in reconnaissance during the Six-Day War, led a tank battalion in the Yom Kippur War, and was a special-forces commando who headed several high-profile operations, including a deadly raid on the Palestinian Liberation Organization after a faction of the group kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was chief of the general staff, the Israeli Defense Force’s top post, from 1991 to 1995, before parlaying his military accomplishments into a political career.
Barak became the leader of the Labor Party in 1997, in the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, and was elected the 11th prime minister of Israel in 1999, defeating the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu. During his tenure, he withdrew troops from southern Lebanon and presided over failed peace talks with Yasser Arafat at Camp David, which led to the Second Intifada, before losing office to Ariel Sharon in 2001. He later served as minister of defense under Ehud Olmert and then again under Netanyahu in the Likud leader’s second term.
Barak has since become a prominent critic of Netanyahu, whom he has accused of acting like a dictator and helping create the conditions for Hamas’s attack on October 7. But his disdain for Israel’s right wing hardly makes him a pacifist. In the aftermath of Hamas’s massacre, Barak supports a full-bore invasion of Gaza. And he defends Israel’s bombing campaign of the territory, which has already killed thousands, as well as its siege tactics in Gaza, which have drawn strong international criticism as residents face increasingly dire conditions. I spoke to Barak about what he thinks a coming invasion will look like, when he expects a reckoning for Israel’s government, and whether he still has any hope for peace.
President Biden has reportedly urged Israel to postpone its ground invasion of Gaza to allow more time for hostage negotiations, to better prepare itself militarily, and to allow more aid to get to Palestinian civilians. According to reports this week, Israel is taking that advice, and it seems the invasion had already been put off a couple of times before this latest delay. Do you think there’s a chance that it never happens at all?
I don’t believe so, bearing in mind the atrocities — the barbaric attacks, the slaughtering of many hundreds or thousands of civilians — elderly people, babies and their parents. These atrocities are the most severe blow that Israel has suffered since its establishment, and Jews associated it with something from the Nazi period. Nothing like this has ever happened. It has shaken Israel to its very foundation — the raison d’être of this state that was established in order to make sure that certain people, Jews, can live safely. Safely doesn’t mean that you won’t have to fight with your enemies, but it means that a pregnant woman won’t be cut open and her fetus is thrown out and she’s burned. That’s crazy. We cannot afford it. No one on earth can afford that to happen. So we have to destroy the military capabilities of Hamas and make sure that it cannot raise its head once again over our borders. That, unfortunately, cannot be completed by an air campaign.
You believe that’s impossible?
Impossible, because you have to get rid of the rockets and the weapons and the depots and the training sites and even the very political control of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. So there is no way to execute it without deploying tens of thousands of pairs of boots on the ground. It might not be very short, like the Six-Day War. It won’t take three weeks like the ’73 war or even two months like the last long operation in Gaza. But we can do it, and we have to do it.
Of course, we highly respect President Biden’s request. His remarks are taken very seriously, and he and his team have backed Israel, suppressed Hezbollah’s intentions, probably sent a signal to Iran, and blocked a long-range drone from Yemen. We were deeply moved by his speech and his behavior when he visited Israel and even before. It’s highly appreciated and very seriously taken into account, but it cannot deter or block Israel from launching ground-force operations, more or less in the near future, to destroy Hamas.
You have a very long and distinguished military record, and you led one ground invasion against Hamas in 2008 when you were secretary of defense. Obviously, this is a different sort of scenario and one that’s about as challenging as a military operation gets. Is it realistic that Israel could actually destroy Hamas with this kind of operation? Is there a precedent where something like it actually worked? Mosul?
Yeah, the United States and the U.K. deployed forces half a world away in order to destroy Daesh, or ISIS, as you call it. I’m confident that we can do it technically, militaristically. It doesn’t mean that it will be easy or it won’t cost us probably a lot of loss of life of soldiers. But compared to the massacre that already happened with those helpless civilians, it will be smaller, probably much smaller.
Smaller on the Israeli side.
Smaller than the death toll of the last event, which might end up being 1,700 or 1,800 rather than 1,400. So technically, it is possible. But it’s a very delicate operation and there are several constraints.
Constraint No. 1 is the hostages. A second one is a risk of spreading it into a much wider clash with Hezbollah, or some dormant cells of terrorists in the West Bank, or even some Shiite militias backed by Iran that are operating in western Iraq or on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Even if all of them join the war, I don’t believe it becomes an existential threat to Israel. We’re strong enough to deal with all of it, but that will stretch it over a longer time and more toil and sweat and tears and blood before it’s over.
We will win it but at a very heavy price. We don’t have any interest in this spreading. I would not recommend it to Hezbollah — they will pay a high price. Lebanon will pay a high price. But it’s beyond our control. It could be they might be prodded by the Iranians to do it or they might want it themselves. They might not even be interested, but the kinds of exchanges that have happened in the last few days could deteriorate very fast into a full clash with Hezbollah. So that’s the second constraint.
The third one is international law. We are committed to international law, and we are doing our best to limit, to minimize, collateral damage, namely people killed — innocent people, civilians in Gaza. But it’s not easy to do it because we already asked 1.1 million people to move to the southern part of the strip. Probably 700,000 did it, 300,000 didn’t, and, basically, they’re coerced by Hamas to become human shields for them. And once again, we cannot afford impunity for Hamas just because they can coerce their own people. So at a certain point — we’re trying to avoid it, we’re trying to minimize it — but there cannot be full impunity for Hamas.
And then assuming that in three months or five months — doesn’t matter — we complete our decimation of Hamas’s military capability in Gaza, we still have the question, To whom do we pass the torch there? We do not intend to stay there for the next ten or 15 years. That doesn’t make sense. So we have to find a way to pass it to someone else.
So all four of these constraints are intertwined, interconnected, and they develop dynamically in real time. Only the cabinet and the top command of our soldiers and the top echelons of American decision-making — only those who follow daily the developments and nuances of the situation — can decide how it will develop. Any attempt to define a trajectory, where it goes from A to B to C to D, will fail or will become irrelevant by realities.
I want to follow up on the last two points you mentioned. One, international law. The fact that Israel has cut off water and electricity and fuel to Gaza has sparked a lot of outrage, both in the Arab world and elsewhere. I was watching a CNN interview you did where you said these shutoffs weren’t the “utmost important element” of Israel’s military strategy. Why is the government taking steps that it knows will inflame people if it’s not even essential to its plans?
No, it’s part of the steps — it’s part of the pressure that has to be felt by Hamas. It won’t be a problem in southern Gaza because we allow convoys to enter. Israel would not, under any circumstance, block movement of equipment for hospitals or milk for Palestinian babies. But there is a need to keep up the pressure, especially once the civilian population has evacuated from the northern part of Gaza. Altogether, there are probably 30,000 or 35,000 Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters. Some of them, including probably the leadership, might be hiding in the southern part in order to be immune temporarily as we deal with Gaza City and the north.
For [dealing with] them, it would be justified to close everything — we would not hesitate. But the problem is that they coerce tens of thousands of locals to stay with them and to protect themselves. So we’ll have to consider that along the way. It’s not true that as of now there is a major humanitarian crisis there.
A lot of people disagree with you. And I certainly hear from American Jews that what Israel is doing is unnecessary.
This is not the cornerstone of our operation, but it naturally includes many things. Some of them are short or perfect or not 100 percent effective, but they are still parts of the menu that together create the cumulative pressure that should be exacted upon the Hamas in order to reduce their effectiveness in fighting when the actual invasion takes place.
On the point about what comes after in Gaza, I recently spoke with Michael Milshtein, a former Israeli intelligence officer. He theorized that Prime Minister Netanyahu actually didn’t want to destroy Hamas entirely — that this was just rhetoric and that the government is worried about the vacuum that would be created if Hamas was eliminated. He thought Israel would want to degrade Hamas but keep them in charge of the Gaza Strip. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
I’ll first tell you a kind of anecdote. Fifteen years ago, I was the minister of defense in the Olmert government. Every two years, we had a round of clashes with Hamas that usually ended with certain understandings, we called them, mediated by Egypt, that kept things quiet for the next 18 months or so. Even then, there was the question of “Why not crush them totally?” — which would have been easier then than it is now. The same question even then was to whom we would pass the torch. I tried to approach [the late president of Egypt] Hosni Mubarak with this issue. I said, “When the next round comes, we’ll crush them fully, and you’ll demand from day one that we resolve things without conditions.
“After six weeks, we will agree to resolve things but with one condition: That someone will take the responsibility for keeping Gaza quiet from us. You can arrange for a multinational Arab force backed by the Arab League or by the U.N. Security Council — some Egyptians, some Moroccans, some Jordanians, some Emiratis, some Omanis, whatever — and take the Gaza Strip from us for a limited time — three months, probably six months, during which time you will gradually bring back the original internationally recognized owner of the place, which is the Palestinian Authority.” Your readers probably cannot remember, but originally, after the Oslo agreement, Gaza was given to the Palestinian Authority. But Hamas took it through a violent coup.
Yeah, in 2007.
Mubarak told me, “No, no, Barak. You conquered it in ’67, and now it’s yours. I would never put my hands back into this strip.” So I went to Abu Mazen. [Ed.’s note: An alternate name for Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.] To cut a long story short, he basically told me he could not afford to come back to power in the Gaza Strip sitting on Israeli violence. I did not like the answer, but I couldn’t but admit there is a certain logic to it. But that was the situation 15 years ago. It’s probably possible now with Qatari and Saudi money to back a big plan to develop Gaza afterward and with the Arab League backing the Palestinian Authority. The U.N. would probably back this, too. I do not exclude it as a possibility. That might be the solution.
It seems unrealistic to me because these Arab states seem to care less about the Palestinians than they did then. The issue was on the back burner, which is one reason a U.S.-Saudi deal was gaining traction.
We cannot know, but I’m not sure it’s impossible.
I can tell you that some Israeli journalists said three weeks ago, before the attack, that it is an irony of history that just as the time became right to normalize relations even with Saudi Arabia, we don’t have a normal government in Israel. If you had to summarize Netanyahu’s policies over the last five years in one sentence — I’ll quote one of the ministers in his government: “Everyone sees that Hamas is an asset, and that the Palestinian Authority is a liability.” Netanyahu worked systematically in the last five years to strengthen Hamas, to keep it alive and kicking, under certain limitations. There were even payments — I called it “protection money” — through the Qataris in order to keep it strong and active. And at the same time, he worked to weaken the Palestinian Authority. Common sense says that it should be the opposite — you strengthen the Palestinian Authority and weaken Hamas until they’re gone there. What is the logic behind this?
Netanyahu doesn’t want a two-state solution.
He doesn’t want two states. It’s ideology. He doesn’t want the Americans, or the Europeans, or the U.N. to come to Israel and ask, “Why the hell aren’t you trying to negotiate with the Palestinians?” An active Hamas and a very weak Palestinian Authority makes that explainable. You can tell everyone we cannot negotiate, that Abu Mazen doesn’t control even half of his own people. And with Hamas — no one asked us to negotiate with the terrorist organization. I don’t want to go into what really motivates Netanyahu, but in order to protect this ideology of one state and to block the trajectory toward the possibility of two states, he ended up strengthening Hamas. Now, we are like Steinbeck with the grapes. What’s the name of his book? Grapes …
The Grapes of Wrath.
Yeah. So in a very frustrating way, we are now harvesting the fruit.
You reap what you sow, in other words. I was watching remarks you gave before the attack about lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War. And you said people always blame the intelligence services for their failures but that it was actually a failure for all layers of government. Given your harsh criticism of Netanyahu, I assume you think the same holds true in this situation. Why isn’t there more of a call for him to resign now? I know it’s the heat of war and he brought in a coalition government, but he failed at the one thing he was supposed to do, which is keep the country safe.
First of all, in any normal country — think of the U.K, or Belgium. In the U.K., Prime Minister Sunak would resign.
I don’t think Donald Trump would resign.
Yeah, because in the U.S. it is chosen personally by the people directly to be commander-in-chief. But in Britain, like in Israel, the prime minister is not elected personally. There were elections, and in Israel there are coalitions. Parliament gave him a mandate, and he’s first among equals within a collective.
If a British prime minister didn’t resign, the members of his party would convince him to resign. But Netanyahu won’t do it. And the mood in Israel now is too close to the event itself. People have not yet processed it. The stories are still shocking — both the heroic stories and the stories of helplessness. There are still hundreds of bodies that have not been identified after two weeks. So the mood now is not of accountability. But it’s like a volcano — it’s simmering underneath the surface, and it’ll erupt in a very short time with this demand.
This clearly was not just a political failure; it was a painful failure of intelligence and a painful failure on the operational side of the response, despite the heroic behavior of individuals who fought against those killers. But it caused a total loss of trust by the people. The people do not have a drop of trust in Netanyahu. Polls taken in the last few days in Israel show that 70 percent of the public want to see him resign. Half of them want to see him resign immediately and another half want to see him resign after the war. But wars in Israel — people think of the Six-Day War. The most severe one was three weeks long. Six-day war, one week. The second Lebanese war was a month. The longest one in the last 50 years was a clash with Hamas five years ago that took almost two months. So people think, “Okay, let’s delay. Don’t deal with it. The war will be over in two months, so we’ll throw him out then. Why deal with it when we have to unite to fight?” But when you realize that it might take a year, probably two years, and never have a concrete end, especially if we end up fighting with Lebanon, too — they will realize that this is not an option, that they will have to decide much earlier. So I think that it’s about to erupt. Many people tell me he is finished, not to invest any energy in removing him because he’s finished. I’m not sure.
I’m not sure either.
Not to mention the fact that subconsciously he might have an incentive to let the war go on.
Yes, I was thinking that too.
I think that we’ll see it in the coming weeks, probably. An eruption of popular rage and rejection that technically cannot remove him because the end step should be a political step that follows protocol. But this lava of popular rage that’s traveling through every part of the society, including his voters, will probably convince some of his partners in government or some of his followers within Likud to activate one of the procedures that leads either to another government in the Knesset or general elections.
Do you sense a complete unity of purpose among Israeli citizens right now about this ground invasion, about prosecuting this war?
Yes. Some people believe that it’s better to try to solve the hostages issue even if it takes several weeks. But we do not control how long it takes. If it’s clear to Hamas that we are going to eradicate it from power and from military capabilities immediately after the hostage challenge is solved, it might incentivize them not to let it be solved. And there are those who thought that probably we have to start with Hezbollah, but it doesn’t make sense. If you start with Hezbollah, you are immediately on two fronts.
So there are disputes, but basically there is a sense of unity, readiness to fight, readiness to sacrifice, to do whatever it takes to put this behind us with no way to repeat it. And because they’ve lost trust in Netanyahu himself, many are very happy that two former generals from the opposition joined the war cabinet. Two of them were chiefs of staff, commanders of the armed forces, and one of them was even defense minister until a bit more than a year ago. They’re trusted to be sober, independent, balanced personalities.
You came among the closest of anyone to achieving a real peace deal back in 2000. Looking back, do you have any regrets about the way you handled this issue? And is there anything that could have been done differently on the Israeli side to avoid getting to where we are now? Or was it inevitable that it would come to this?
I don’t believe in inevitability in life. Nothing is inevitable. I think that most of the responsibility for the fact we don’t have a better situation with the neighbors is basically on the Palestinian organization like Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, but also a heavy burden on the Palestinian Authority. But it wouldn’t be an accurate description to say that we were perfect. Another Israeli government, as I mentioned earlier, probably would’ve tried in the last 15 years to reduce tensions, to promote normalization, even if full peace wasn’t yet available. And to actively strengthen the Palestinian Authority and weaken Hamas. Not the opposite way. That makes a difference. I cannot promise you that if the other path had been taken, we’d already have peace. We definitely wouldn’t have North American peace, or Scandinavian peace, but we might be in a better place.
What about blockading Gaza the last 16 years? Was that the right move?
There were many concrete proposals. There is a security-affairs group in Israel that includes the top echelon of the Israel Defense Forces, Israeli Mossad, Israel Secret Service, even Israel police. And they wrote long papers to the government about how to develop the Gaza Strip. There was even a proposal from a minister in Likud to build an artificial island in front of the Gaza Strip — to let them have a well-controlled port, a seaport, and probably an airport. Let them develop some small gas fields to have energy independence and desalination of water, probably providing cables and pipes to the West Bank. There were many ideas that were never discussed because Netanyahu had a different policy — to block it, not to promote it.
Going back to go 23 years ago, I have no regrets. There’s an urban legend that me and Bill Clinton tried to dictate certain positions to Arafat, that we told him “Take it or leave it” or something. There’s nothing to it. It was very close, but I keep telling people that when you have to measure the volume of a gap, you have to multiply the width by the depth. So sometimes it seems close, but it’s very deep. The essence of it was, toward the end of Camp David, we put on the table a proposal that was 90-plus percent of what he could dream of. We told him, “You can have your reservations about any paragraph, or all of them. Write them down. We just expect you to accept this document as a basis for further negotiations” — nothing more. The fact that he rejected it and turned deliberately to terror made it his responsibility. You cannot avoid it.
I always compare Camp David to the case of two families’ cottages. A fire is about to start, and the two householders want to put it out. One of them has a medal of world excellence in firefighting and the Nobel Peace Prize, but you don’t realize he’s got fuel and matches in his pocket. And that’s what happened. Arafat got a Nobel Peace Prize, but I thought that he deserved an Oscar. I couldn’t penetrate his soul. Probably he perceived himself as a heroic leader. One of the Palestinian leaders told me after Camp David that we needed a Ben-Gurion but we got Arafat. He didn’t mean the Ben-Gurion the Zionist, he meant the Ben-Gurion who in November of ’47 was ready to get whatever he could from the General Assembly regarding making Palestine under the British mandate into two states, Jewish and Arab, in spite of the fact that the Jewish state was almost nonviable, three territories hardly connected. He accepted it.
How do you feel about the distant prospect of peace now?
It’s not a time to discuss what will happen in the long term. For the immediate term, I put any ideas of pacifying the conflict, solving it, on the shelf. Now we have to destroy Hamas’s capabilities and its presence as the ruler of the Gaza Strip. But I never lose sight of the right vision for Israel with two states. Not because of justice for the Palestinian, which is not my utmost priority, but because of our own future and identity and security. I’m confident that this is the right way and we should never lose eye contact with it and wait for the right timing and opportunity to move and execute it.
But it’s not a secret that there is another view, a quite popular one, held by the present government, which is totally different. But with this government, it’s all leading to one state, which I think in the long run is a disastrous alternative. But that should be decided within the Israeli body of politics and people once the war is ended. About the war, we are all united. A shocking event like this one should never be possible again. It’s another case of “Never Again” for all the right reasons.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.