Interview with Prime Minister Ehud Barak on CNN Late Edition

July 18, 1999
Host: Wolf Blitzer

BLITZER: Meanwhile, there are developments in the search for peace in the Middle East. Israel’s new Prime Minister Ehud Barak is in the middle of a six day trip to the United States, his first since taking office earlier this month. Mr. Barak has made it clear he plans to try to get Middle East peace talks moving once again. Last night I spoke with the prime minister.


BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you so much for joining us on your visit to the United States, and being on LATE EDITION. It’s a great honor to interview you here during your visit — your first visit as prime minister.


BLITZER: It just so happens that you come at a very sad moment in the United States, with the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane, his wife, her sister. What goes through your mind, as the leader of a country that has itself gone through many tragedies over these years?

BARAK: We always feel empathy when we see tragedies occur and few families on earth have lived through so many tragedies, like the Kennedy family. I extend on behalf of myself and the people of Israel our thoughts and prayers to the Kennedy and Bessette families.

BLITZER: Thank you. Let’s move on now to the reason why you’ve come to the United States. You’ve been prime minister for a couple of weeks. You’re trying to advance the peace process. There’s talk now that you’ve sort of set an informal deadline of about 15 months to see if you can achieve peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese. Do you think you can?

BARAK: We will wait and see. But I feel that it is kind of imperative upon us to make whatever we can, to leave no stone unturned on the road to peace. And I’m determined to do it. This is the essence of the mandate I got from the Israeli people to strengthen Israel, to strengthen our security, and to make a real effort to put an end to this one hundred year conflict.

BLITZER: There seems to be some confusion, at least here in the United States, as to what role you want the United States, the Clinton administration to play on the Palestinian front and on the Syrian front. Do you want the United States to be involved in both tracks, or be more of a bystander?

BARAK: I believe that the major responsibility to achieve a solution lies on the shoulders of regional leaders and we have to solve it between ourselves. The United States could facilitate the whole possibility of the process, and it can help us by providing both the political umbrella and somehow the security and financial safety net.

BLITZER: Do you believe that the Syrian President Hafez al-Assad is ready to make peace with Israel?

BARAK: I hope and I pray that the answer is positive, but only God knows. I cannot predict it in a foolproof way. It is my judgment that the time is right, there is an urgent need, it is a strategic need for Israel and Syria as well. We are ready. If they will be a partner, we will move forward towards peace.

BLITZER: Have you received some encouraging reports that President al-As sad is ready to negotiate — to revive negotiations with Israel?

BARAK: Well, we’ve got a few such signals, we assess President Assad as a highly capable leader. He was a big and tough rival in the battlefield, he won’t be an easy partner for negotiations, but it is an imperative, as I’ve said, upon us to do whatever we can. Those of us who have seen wars know, maybe better than others, what it means to be ultimately at peace in our region.

BLITZER: What are the prospects that he will agree to meet with you?

BARAK: I don’t know, we will see during the next few months.

BLITZER: But do you think those prospects are realistic?

BARAK: Looking into the past, I’ve just spent a night at Camp David, we walked together with President Clinton to see the place where President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin and President Carter made the decisive breakthrough in the Camp David agreement with the Egyptians 21 years ago. And I believe that the same way that Sadat at a certain point reached the conclusion that there is no other way but to move forward towards peace, something like this, I hope, will happen at a certain point to President Assad.

BLITZER: The price that Israel paid for the peace with Egypt is a complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula back to the pre-1967 lines. Are you prepared to pay the same price on the Golan Heights to make peace with Syria, to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines from the Golan Heights?

BARAK: Wolf, if you will check very carefully, you will find out that Sadat did not go back to the fall of June ’67 border. It did not go back to Gaza Strip, but just to the mandatory border between Egypt and mandatory Palestine.

And even then, there was certain kind of international company that took five years to establish the ultimate border. But I’m focused on the security of Israel, I’m not ready to risk it. I fought for it all my life. I was not afraid to fight, Wolf, I’m not afraid to make peace, but we have to solve all the problems from the table — Lebanon, terror, water, open borders, embassies, security arrangements, early warnings, even certain kind of economic cooperation.

When all these are clear, we will have to consider the depth of territorial compromise, and I believe the time is right and this is the time to make peace.

BLITZER: And you’ve been quoted as saying you’re ready for a painful compromise over the Golan Heights. What does that mean?

BARAK: I am realistic. I know that you cannot achieve an agreement based on equilibrium between the needs of demands of both sides without making compromises and since we love very much our people and the landscapes of the Golan Heights, and we risked our lives there, I fought there as a young captain in ’67. And for us it is very painful to give any part of the Golan Heights and any part of Judea-Samaria. But we are living in the real world, we have to make such decisions, the moment of truth has come. I’m going to strengthen the security of our country through finding the way to ultimately put an end to this conflict.

BLITZER: Can Israel live in security along side a Palestinian state?

BARAK: We are not living in western Europe or North America. This is quite troubled and much tougher neighborhood. The whole question of what kind of political entity will be created by the permanent status agreements will be clarified through the permanent status negotiations. We have our, for instance, we have our demands. If you put them into the problems of refugees, problems of borders, problem of settlement, we solve the problem of how to keep Jerusalem united and sovereign under our control. We will be ready to think about the nature of Palestinian entity.

BLITZER: And so you’re not completely ruling out that that entity could emerge as a state?

BARAK: I’m not in the point right now to deal with it. It’s not the appropriate place to have the negotiations, on CNN on camera. The right place is in the negotiating room with the Palestinians.

BLITZER: You’ve said that you want Israeli forces to withdrawal from South Lebanon within a year. Will you go ahead with that withdrawal even if there’s no movement on the peace process with the Lebanese or with the Syrians?

BARAK: I’m not dealing with speculation. I would like to accomplish it through an agreement. So that there would be a direct that will take responsibility on the other side of the border, to avoid terrorist attacks against our northern citizen villages. I believe that this is achievable and I’m determined to put an end to this tragedy that already stretched over 17 years. It’s time to put an end to it through the firm tending of our civilians in the north and through the devotion of our soldiers along the border. We will be able to solve it and take care, also, of those Lebanese civilians and people in uniform who helped us all along these years.

BLITZER: Tell us about your talks, your meetings, at Camp David with President Clinton. Mrs. Clinton was there, your wife was there. Take us behind the scenes and tell us how you were impressed by President Clinton’s commitment to do what he can to help you achieve peace.

BARAK: I found the president highly informed about it in details. He gathered a lot of experience in regard to Middle East affairs in the seven years of personal, hands-on involvement in these issues. I felt that he’s highly committed to the common goal for all of us in the Middle East, to find a way to change the realities of this region that has suffered so much in the last few generations.

BLITZER: And you know, Mrs. Clinton had caused some controversy, first last year by her statement supporting a Palestinian state, more recently, by her statement urging the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You had a chance to talk to her as well. What were your impressions about her attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

BARAK: I found her an impressive personality. I believe that she wants, as all of us, to see the problems being solved in a direct negotiation between the real parties, Israelis, Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese. The whole thing is going to happen, not here along the Hudson or the Potomac. It happens over there, the other side of the globe in the Middle East. And we bear the responsibility to put an end to it, to solve it, and we highly appreciate the role and contribution of this administration and the previous ones to help us push this process forward.

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, you know there are very high expectations now. You’ve raised these expectations. Are you concerned that these expectations are too high right now that there are going to be some important breakthroughs in the peace process?

BARAK: When there’s a depression, I’m trying to raise the spirits of our people, when there’s an over expectation, I try to reduce it a little bit, but basically I’m determined to really to do it; to put an end to it. It’s too important to our children, our future generations, and the time has come to put an end to this conflict and I’m determined to do whatever I can to do this.

BLITZER: We only have a few seconds left. Your predecessor, when he used to come here, including during the Wye River agreements, always raised the question of Jonathan J. Pollard, the convicted American spy who spied for Israel. Are you taking his approach in dealing with this question?

BARAK: I want to see Jonathan Pollard released and back in Israel, but I don’t think that public dealing with this issue is the appropriate way to deal with it.

BLITZER: So, You’re not going to speak publicly about it?


BLITZER: One final question. I’m curious, how do you like being prime minister? You’ve been prime minister for two weeks. You were a military officer most of your adult life. How do you like being prime minister of Israel?

BARAK: I like it. But more than just liking it, I feel the heavy responsibility that stems out of the expectations and the stoic responsibility and opportunity that we are facing now in the Middle East.

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, it was a great honor to be with you and to interview you. And congratulations on the recent election and welcome to the United States.

BARAK: Thank you, Wolf, and thank all the viewers at home.

BLITZER: Thank you.