It was during the question-and-answer session following Ehud Barak’s remarks in Livingston on May 15 that hot-button issues were raised. The A-word — apartheid — was mentioned and Barak’s answer was revealing.
Asked if Israel is an apartheid state, Barak, former prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001, and head of the Labor Party until 2011, pointedly declined to use the word but said, “The essence of it is true.”
Speaking in his heavily accented English at Livingston’s Crystal Plaza, he warned that the government’s current policies — which he described as “right-wing” — threaten Israel’s democracy and lead to repression.
It’s everything Barak spent his political career working against; he’s an ardent advocate for peace with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.
A “one-state solution is an existential threat to the Zionist project because it leads either to a non-Jewish or non-democratic state,” he said. “It has to be stopped or blocked. I see no more urgent task for our generation.”
Barak’s appearance was part of the Green Brook Country Club’s book club series. The event, attended by about 400 people, followed an interview format, with veteran broadcast journalist and author Martin Fletcher posing the questions. Fletcher focused primarily on Barak’s book, “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace,” published this month by St. Martin’s Press. It is a memoir intertwined with Barak’s observations of political machinations and his quest for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his remarks, Barak, a consummate diplomat, never called out the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by name although he didn’t hold back his criticism of the government.
“The leaders of the right wing, they are not stupid,” he said. “They understand that if they try to push toward one state where you have to permanently reign over millions of people against their will, you will need certain legislation, tactics, and practices that cannot pass in a normal healthy democracy.”
Barak said there would be widespread civilian backlash and the courts would not uphold legislation making Israel the permanent ruler of the Palestinian people.
Other harms include a media that will “criminalize and ridicule” the move. “The values of the ethical court of the IDF and the secret service will not allow you to have the practices you have in mind.”
He warned that the right wing has already laid the groundwork and democratic institutions in Israel are “under permanent, continuous attack” by the government.
“This tendency is extremely unhealthy for our future as a Jewish Zionist democracy,” he said.
Other current events brought up in the approximately 15-minute question-and-answer session included the deadly demonstrations at the Gazan border, the U.S. embassy move, and President Donald Trump. Questions were written on index cards and submitted in advance to Fletcher.
He treaded cautiously around a question that asked for his opinion on Trump. “Any people deserve the government they elect,” he said.
He added, “If it’s good, do it again. If it’s bad, replace it.”
One subject not discussed: Barak’s return to politics. Rumors have circulated that Barak might be considering another run for prime minister. Haaretz reported in May 2017 that associates were raising money, possibly for a campaign, and the Jerusalem Post reported in November that if he were approached to run by the Labor Party he would have a difficult time saying no.
If Barak’s return was a question submitted by anyone at the Crystal Plaza, Fletcher did not choose to ask it.
Regarding the deadly protests in Gaza, the largest of which occurred the day before his appearance, Barak agreed that if he was in charge, there is little that could have been done differently. He declined to blame Israel but suggested that an alternative strategic approach should have been undertaken years ago.
“In the last four years Israel could do a lot to change the conditions of life in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “There is a real crisis there. There is no clean water, no supplies in the hospitals, electricity only very few hours a day, and many other kinds of suffering for which we are not responsible but we can help to change.”
He pointed to one plan he believes could have helped, devised by a Likud member, to build an artificial island in front of Gaza for an airport and a seaport that could be internationally monitored and secured. This would have ensured Gaza’s access to the world.
Instead, “we pulled out the last settler, the last soldier, and we took out from Gaza Strip the synagogues,” he said. “But in the eyes of legal experts on international law, Israel is still responsible for what happens in Gaza. If there is a humanitarian crisis where people die in the hospital, the whole world will blame Israel because we close them [in], don’t let them [have] free access in and out.”
On moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem
A question on moving the embassy to Jerusalem was a no-brainer for Barak. His straightforward answer: “It’s very good. I would have expected it to happen 70 years ago, or at least 25 years ago, but Congress always found a reason not to do it.”
He does not see it foreclosing the possibility of a two-state solution, for which he continues to advocate. “Once the Palestinians are ready to negotiate seriously and get their own state, they will have a capital, probably one that includes certain areas in Jerusalem, and they will call it ‘al-Quds,’” the Arabic phrase meaning holy city.
The audience seemed friendly and supportive.
Donna Barbieri of Florham Park appreciated hearing what she called Barak’s “moral and philosophical clarity.” She added that hearing him speak gave her a deeper understanding of some of his leadership decisions, “more than you would pick up in a newspaper [reading about] this event or that event or what happened.”
He also shifted her perspective on Gaza, particularly that Israel could be more proactive, and transform the situation, “if they really said this is our problem to solve — not their problem to solve” and could then apply Israel’s “incredible ingenuity and resources” to the task.
“That was an insight I didn’t have,” she said.
Herb Barrack of Woodland Park said, “I thought he articulated a lot of the issues the State of Israel faced over the years and I thought he came across as knowledgeable, concerned, and honest.”
On the question of Gaza, Barrack appreciated that Barak “recognized that it’s difficult to control thousands of people,” but like Barak, he added, “I am concerned about that kind of loss of life and the image that it creates.”