THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER
INTERVIEW WITH FOREIGN MINISTER EHUD BARAK

JANUARY 23, 1996

Q: What do you see as possible stumbling blocks in the Israel-Syria talks resuming tomorrow at the Wye Plantation in Maryland?

FM BARAK: I see obstacles on any given aspect of it, but I think that most important are the security arrangements, especially the kind of arrangements against surprise attack. We need surprise attack to become practically impossible. I think the problem with water is of high importance, also terror, Lebanon, and of course the depth of normalization and the ability to bring in not only Syria but ultimately the Gulf states and the Mahgreb states.

Q: In terms of security, do you believe that Israel can live without the Golan?

FM BARAK: I believe that we should stick to the formula negotiated by the late Prime Minister Rabin. It said the depth of withdrawal will be commensurate with the depth of peace. Namely, if we can get full normalization, full open peace with open trade, open transportation, free flow of goods and people over the border, and if we get compliance, namely including Lebanon and other states, if we get into regional economic projects and if attention will be given to our security needs, then we would be able to consider what is the depth of withdrawal that we can afford.

Q: You know President Assad well. Do you have a sense that his perception of what is needed and the Israeli perception is anywhere close?

FM BARAK: No, it is not close at the present, but we are advancing gradually in a quite stable, even if not very fast way. It is the for the first time in this Wye Plantation dialogue that all the subjects are put on the table without preconditions and the positions are compared to each other and we exchange notes and maybe identify the domain of flexibility. I sat for two days 15 months ago, with the number two in the decision hierarchy, Chief of Staff Shihabi, at Blair House here, and we could not at that time reach that level of openness that now is coming so easily.

Q: Why is it coming so easily?

FM BARAK: I don’t know the reason. Maybe the Syrians realized after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin that the resistance to the peace process inside Israel is very serious, that the whole peace process is very fragile. Secondly, maybe they realized that after we reach agreement with the Palestinians on Gaza plus Jericho and then the interim agreement that we are running right now and the [Palestinian] elections. Within a few months we will enter the permanent status negotiations and they will find themselves left at the station, that the train already left. Maybe there are some other reasons. Maybe they noted the elections in Israel and the United States and they might be worried that a change of administration or a change of government might throw them back to square one.

Q: Do you believe at this point that President Assad is ready for a contractual deal with Israel?

FM BARAK: Yes. He is of course ready for the kind of contract we had with Egypt some 17 years ago, namely full withdrawal to the last square meter, full dismantling of all the settlements, no limitation on his armed forces, even supporting him financially, and then normalizing along a very long period. But it might not be enough for us. We need the kind of peace that is implemented at the very early stages and that is much warmer at a much earlier stage and with much heavier security arrangements, since we don’t have the desert of 150 miles that we have with Egypt.

Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, let me turn briefly to the Palestinian elections over the weekend. What do you think was achieved by those?

FM BARAK: First of all, a landslide victory by the chairman that no American president or Israeli prime minister could expect. It legitimizes and consolidates his control of his people, strengthened him in the Arab arena, and even vis-a-vis Israel. But at the same time it makes him a more appropriate address to demand from him to live up fully to his commitments in the agreements signed between us. Central to them is the commitment to fight effectively against terrorism. The second one is to write off the Palestinian covenant within 60 days after the establishment of the council.

Q: The covenant that calls for Israel to be driven into the sea.

FM BARAK: Yes, the covenant that called for the destruction of Israel.

Q: You’ve met with President Clinton, secretary of state, members of Congress and others. What role do you see the United States playing now in the peace process?

FM BARAK: I believe that the United States plays a major role in providing the atmosphere, the overall direction, facilitating the negotiation and trying to communicate between the leaders themselves. Peres until now has not met with President Assad. It’s still impossible to meet. I believe that the Americans will have a role if and when the whole thing more ripe for full- ledged negotiations, to come with either ideas or even kind of helping to muster the political energies of the rest of the world to keep the whole thing together.

Q: But have you asked for resources, for example in the security are, or in any other?

FM BARAK: Not at this stage. We are taking quite high risks and we are strongly relying upon our qualitative edge in defending our country. We never asked anyone to come to our help. We asked you in the past to give us the tools and we’ll do the job and we really meant it. But we are very sensitive to the atmosphere here and the need to bear in mind that anything that we provide or suggest or request would not burden too much the American budget.

Q: The developments with the Palestinian elections, the Syrian talks, how are they going to affect the call for an early election, if at all?

FM BARAK: My judgment is that government should govern until the last day of its mandate. I think that we do not fully control the negotiation with the Syrians. It takes two to tango and so 50 percent is in Syrian hands. We do not control fully the timing of elections in Israel. We won’t like to be tricky.

Q: What would determine whether or not there would be early elections?

FM BARAK: I believe that we should not create any linkage between the Syrian track and the election in Israel. If we will try to create it, we will find ourselves facing a deadline and might be manipulated by the Syrians when the deadline comes closer. Moreover, I don’t think that politically it will help us.

Q: But if there is an early election, wouldn’t that kill the talks? Wouldn’t that kill the peace talks, because of the preoccupation with things inside Israel?

FM BARAK: If a breakthrough is not achieved, we will stop for a while to run the election. We will turn back just after the election, back to the business of going ahead with the Syrian track and with the Palestinian permanent status negotiations.

Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, how is Israel dealing with the death of Prime Minister Rabin, the assassination?

FM BARAK: I believe there is a certain permanent imprint upon the collective memory of the Israeli nation. We have observed two interesting phenomena. One is the youth becoming much more committed to political activity, and the whole nation, I believe, both left and right, will be more united in its intention to crack down on the extreme right elements that do not accept the authority of the state and the law and would like to take weapons in order to decide the future of the State of Israel.

Q: What about politicians like the leader of the Likud opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Mrs. Rabin at the time accused, among others, of rhetoric contributing to the atmosphere that led to the assassination? Has that all cooled down a bit and the political rhetoric has changed any?

FM BARAK: I believe that on the political level the most important subject in the next election will be the peace process with Syria and the continuation of the peace process with the Palestinians. I don’t think that the Likud leaders are directly connected to the assassination of Rabin, but they contributed clearly to the deterioration of the style of political debate in Israel, having demonstrations with posters calling Rabin a traitor, Rabin murder. That is something we cannot afford and would not repeat.

Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you for joining us.

FM BARAK: Thank you.