Interview with Israel Prime Minister Barak
Excerpts from "ABC News This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts", Sunday, March 26, 2000

MR. DONALDSON: The Pope’s visit to this country is historic. What has it meant to the Israelis and to you, personally?

MR. BARAK: It’s a major step towards a reconciliation between Christianity and the Jewish people. His visit to Yad Vashem, the memorial for Holocaust, especially, became a moving, defining moment for the relationship between the Church and Israel – to see the Pope, who was a personal witness to the Holocaust in Poland, now coming here and hosted by a Prime Minister of a strong, sovereign, free Israel which is the ultimate answer to Auschwitz. It was something very moving to all of us.

MR. DONALDSON: Did you ever think that you would see the primate of Rome come here?

MR. BARAK: I was deeply moved, but I believe beyond anything else he contributed to the message of tolerance, compassion, brotherhood among human beings, peoples, and by this even maybe indirectly contributed to the peace process.

MR. DONALDSON: When you went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, he said he was deeply saddened by the persecution, acts of hatred, anti-Semitism toward Jews on the part of Christians at any time or any place. But many Jews wanted him to go further. Many Jews wanted him to apologize for the Holocaust. Do you think he went far enough?

MR. BARAK: I think he made a major kind of statement and you could even saw him on his face and, you know, in these days with the cameras the mimic sometimes tells more than the words. It was especially moving for me. I lost my grandparents in the Holocaust in Treblinka. He was a youngster that was brought up near Auschwitz. It’s a moving event for all of us here and to see the Pope meeting with old people who were youngsters with him in Vadovica, near Krakow in Poland or to see kind of Holocaust survivors, it was a moving event.

MR. DONALDSON: I’m trying to determine what is the exact sticking point [between Israel and Syria]. You have said that you’re willing to withdraw from the Golan under certain conditions, and I’m trying to determine where the sticking point is.

MR. BARAK: I cannot go into details but it is the water, the control of the source of forty percent of water for Israel. It’s like the oxygen for a human being, or like the water for a human being. We need this control. It’s about early warning. We need early warning. We have only a reserve army and very small nucleus of regular standing army, and we have to have early warning and security arrangements to protect our security. And, of course, we have to have normalization. It’s part of what we need here. And, of course, to solve Lebanon and to put an end to terror.

If the other side is ready for all these elements, there will be peace that will serve the future of both peoples and all the peoples of the Middle East…

MR. DONALDSON: Let’s turn to the Palestinian question, because you’re operating on at least two tracks, three if you count Lebanon here. Chairman Arafat has said quite flatly that this is the year of the Palestinian state and by September, at least, he intends to declare it. Is that all right with you?

MR. BARAK: We are determined to act very forcefully on all tracks – Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese. And as part of it, in the next six or seven months, we will have to have both framework agreement, further deployment and permanent status agreement. We are ready.

MR. DONALDSON: Prime Minister, are the people of Israel ready for a Palestinian state?

MR. BARAK: I don’t want to get into the negotiation in advance, but may I mention that Arik Sharon, the leader of Likud, said two years ago, before I was elected Prime Minister, that practically, de facto, there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and Yitzhak Mordechai, Netanyahu’s Minister of Defense, used to say that de facto it is being created in front of our eyes. It still has to be negotiated and it will be, of course, part of any future negotiation with the Palestinians.

MR. DONALDSON: But today, sir, the spokesman for the Likud says there will be no agreement with Syria. Just says that flatly. They were saying that even if you and President Assad had negotiated something, they would not trust it and they would not agree to it.

MR. BARAK: The Likud is only part of the people, not very big one. It will have to be decided in a national referendum, and I’m fully confident that I will never sign an agreement that will not strengthen the security and the future of Israel. And if I will be ready to sign it, I’m confident there will be a landslide victory. It will be approved in even much wider kind of victory than I had when I was elected Prime Minister.

MR. DONALDSON: Would you ever sign an agreement that would give East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as their capital, as Chairman Arafat wants?

MR. BARAK: Jerusalem united, undivided, is the capital of Israel under our sovereignty forever. This is my position and the only position that I know of any Israeli government, past and future.

MR. DONALDSON: Prime Minister, to some, the Syrian question seems to be insoluble. The Palestinian question with East Jerusalem seems to be insolvable. The Lebanese question seems to be unsolvable. Are you having a good time being Prime Minister of Israel?

MR. BARAK: I cannot say that someone pushed my against my will into this office. I spent many hours with Israeli prime ministers, with the head of our intelligence, as commander-in-chief of our armed forces and as a minister. So I know exactly what I entered in and I’m very optimistic. Basically nothing comes without effort and without certain price and pain, but this is the time to make the historic decisions about putting and end to the conflict of 100 years between us and our neighbors and to push toward a secure, sovereign and free Israel that live in mutual respect with all its neighbors without any illusions.

We are fully award of the fact that the Middle East is not North America, it’s not Western Europe. This is a neighborhood where there is no mercy for the weak and no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves. But we are strong and we will defend ourselves. We’ll defend our way of life as a democratic, open society.

MR. DONALDSON: Exactly, but the weight of your office must be very heavy. Prime Minister Meir almost lost this country. You have this responsibility. It’s not just a question of, well, I can do it or my successor can do it. You could lose the country.

MR. BARAK: I will not lose it. We are a very strong country. The strongest 1,000 miles around Jerusalem. And we will not use the strength in order to dominate the region or to rule over another people, but in order to separate ourselves from the neighbors, make the nature of relationship clear, honest, frank and a sort of relationship of agreements and good neighborliness and mutual respect. I believe that we can cooperate with our neighbors.

The kind of slogan that says, "We cannot speak with the Arabs" – I do not accept it. I have a friend who used to be Speaker of the Knesset, he used to tell me: "Didn’t we talk to the Germans just eight years after the fire in the crematoria was set off? Didn’t we talk to the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Belorussians and Lithuanians, some of whom cooperated with the Nazis — we were ready to talk with them all and we cannot find a way to talk to Arabs? It is inconceivable.

I prefer to end with these words: I am optimistic. It’s up to us. It’s a matter of courage and leadership and we will have it.

MR. DONALDSON: Prime Minister Barak, thanks very much for sitting down with us.