CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, HOST: This week, is Iran daring the world to strike its nuclear facilities? The famed commando who is now Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak joins us for an exclusive interview. Hello and welcome to our program. I’m Christiane Amanpour.
Israel’s most decorated soldier, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in New York and Washington, this week, talking to just about everyone at the top of the U.S. government about how to handle Iran. Iran, Middle East peace and the assassination of that Hamas official in Dubai, there is much to talk about with our exclusive guest, Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister.
Thank you so much for joining us.
ISRAEL DEFENSE MINISTER EHUD BARAK: Thank you, Christiane.
AMANPOUR: Let’s start with Iran, because I know there’s a whole host of issues. But, you, from what I gather have really been focusing on that with all of your meetings here. What do you make of the latest reports in the "New York Times" that Iran has moved some 4,300 pounds of enriched uranium out of underground storage and into an above ground facility, where it wants to further enrich it for its medical facility?
BARAK: Yes. Of course. I did read this report. We are living in an open world. There is freedom of speech and clearly freedom of speculation. I can hardly speculate about the meaning of some developments in Israel or here. I would not dare to speculate on the meaning of something that’s happened in Iran. You probably understand Iran better than I.
AMANPOUR: Well, you know what? You spent a lot of time thinking about it, though. It’s been the focus of your trip here. I’m going to play something that you said at a speech here about Iran’s capability and its intentions.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARAK: I don’t think that the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, they’re going to drop it immediately on some neighbor. They fully understand what might follow. They’re radical, but not total mishuggenehs. They have quite sophisticated decision making process and they understand realities.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, you said they’re radical but not meshuggeneh. That means, crazy, right?
AMANPOUR: So you don’t think even if they did have a weapon, that they would drop it on Israel.
BARAK: You took one sentence from a much longer – probably too long to be repeated here –
BARAK: Iran is clearly heading toward nuclear missile capability. They’re trying to deceive and defy the whole world. They’re hoping to deter the whole world from responding to this. They have two examples in mind. One is Pakistan, which they feel is somewhat similar. And the other is North Korea. And in those two cases they were successful against sanctions and whatever.
So basically [Yukiya] Amano, the new head of the IAEA, made a quite important, courageous step by finally calling a spade a spade and told the world that people who are preparing neutron sources and implosion experiments with heavy metals, they are producing warheads for nuclear weapons, for ground-to-ground missiles that could reach the whole region, not just Israel. So we think that it’s a major challenge for the whole world.
AMANPOUR: But you just did there they they’re not crazy enough to drop it on Israel.
BARAK: No. That doesn’t mean it’s not damaging to the whole world. I can hardly think of any conceivable world order if Iran turns nuclear. It will end any kind of non-proliferation regime. Saudi Arabia will turn nuclear in a few months.
AMANPOUR: But would it also be a problem for Israel, because you clearly have a far superior conventional capability in that region. If, as you say, you fear Iran develops a nuclear weapon, does that mean that you will lose your conventional deterrence?
BARAK: I don’t think we will lose it. We are the strongest country a thousand miles around. But I think that there will be an intensive nuclear wave in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, probably Turkey, probably Egypt will join. The countdown toward Graham Allison of Harvard’s vision of a crude nuclear device finding its way into the hands of terrorist group will start even if it takes half a generation. We are going to live in a place where hegemonic Iran will intimidate neighbors on the other side of the Gulf and (inaudible) to al Qaeda, to the Islamic Jihad, or whatever.
AMANPOUR: Well this is a very apocalyptic vision that you’re making right now.
BARAK: No it’s not apocalyptic. It’s something that we should take steps to avoid.
AMANPOUR: So how? Obviously there’s been much, much speculation because Israel never puts this to sleep, that you’re going to go and bomb its facilities at some point. Are you going to do that?
BARAK: I think that the time is still a time for sanctions, for diplomacy and sanctions. Sanctions should be effective. It is not about our definition, whether targeting or crippling or paralyzing or deadly. It should be effective and bring them to a point where they decide not to continue with their nuclear effort. I believe and hope that this will be the case. I think that the administration should deserve a credit, President Obama, for with all the other issues on his agenda, the heavy burden, both domestically, but mainly strategically, in the world – they find the energy, the attention to move. That is important now.
AMANPOUR: OK. Let’s just quickly play something that President Obama did say about the possibility of sanctions.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They have made their choice so far, although the door is still open, and what we are going to be working on over the next several weeks is developing a significant regime of sanctions that will indicate to them how isolated they are from the international community as a whole. We are confident, right now, that the international community is unified around Iran’s misbehavior in this area. How China operates at the Security Council, as we pursue sanctions is something that we’re going to have to see.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, you have just said that you believe sanctions and the pursuit of that is the correct thing right now. But you also have said that you think the American chances of enlisting the Chinese is not great?
BARAK: It is a kind of a matter of fact observation. Sanctions will not be really effective without having the Russians, Chinese, probably the Indians –
AMANPOUR: So, how will they be effective if you don’t think they are going to get the Chinese on board?
BARAK: First of all, I think that a lot of effort is being made by the administration to make them understand it. We also, Israel, is a tiny place, but we sent two of our leading experts, Stanley Fischer, the central bank governor, and former chief of staff, who is now a minister, Moshe ("Boogie") Ya’alon, to try to present to them the facts regarding to the issue. So, probably we will help them to –
AMANPOUR: Do you and the United States agree on the types of sanctions to be put on Iran?
BARAK: I think that we both agree they should be effective.
AMANPOUR: Yes, but what does that mean? The type – they are talking about the Revolutionary Guard –
BARAK: There are many, many, types. It should start with financial transactions, with certain insurance issues, with certain limitations on how they can deal with their light distillates and so on. We feel that we should not stop until it becomes effective. And we will see it, you know, it won’t take years to see whether it works or not. I believe and hope that it can work, but we should be open enough.
AMANPOUR: Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for an energy embargo on Iran.
BARAK: Yes, you know, I don’t think that it is worth having an open dialogue about it in front of this camera, thus giving the Iranians early warning. It is clear it should be effective, limited in time, and we think, we recommend to all players not to remove any option from the table. And we live by what we recommend to others.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Today the most important issue in the world is the issue of Palestine. If there is a conflict going on in Iraq, we believe that the conflict has been instigated by the Zionists. If there is a conflict in Afghanistan, the war has been provoked by the Zionists.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: You just heard the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, basically blaming everything on you, on Israel. But let me ask you this: The U.S. National Security Advisor Jim Jones has said that the increased pressure on Iran is likely to lead to an attack on Israel. Do you agree with that? Not necessarily by Iran?
BARAK: I understand the idea. I don’t think that we are yet there. Yes, he probably intended, probably Hizbullah, or someone else, will attack us. In fact, Ahmadinejad was in Damascus two days ago, probably negotiating what should follow. He talked about a new Middle East, with no Zionists and no colonialists, meaning Israel and you as well.
And this guy, you know, happened to develop not a new Avatar – like long bows, or Agincourt-like long bows, but a nuclear weapon. So, we somehow have to take this situation seriously. I’m not sure whether we are going to face a pre-emptive attack by the Hizbullah, but anyhow, we are not interested in conflict in the north or in the east. But if it imposed upon us, we know how to respond.
AMANPOUR: Well you say that, but then, of course, there is the Goldstone effect. In other words, would you do what you did to Hizbullah in 2006 – all out attacks – or are you limited now?
BARAK: Probably even more intensive, because in 2006, we limited ourselves from hitting Lebanese structures. In Lebanon, we see something totally abnormal. You know, a member state of the UN has a militia, the militia has members in parliament, even veto power within the cabinet, and it still works under orders from Iran, equipped from Syria and Iran. That’s crazy.
AMANPOUR: You would do that again?
BARAK: It is a brutal violation of Security Council Resolution 1701. We say loud and clear: We are not interested in conflict, we will not initiate one. But if we will be attacked, namely our civilian population – because this militia happen to have more than 40,000 rockets that cover all of Israel. We will not run or chase after every individual Hizbullah fighter. We will hit Lebanon and whatever is under the responsibility of the Lebanese government.
The Lebanese government has to make sure – and I believe the international community has to make sure – that 1701 is followed.
AMANPOUR: That’s the U.N. Security Council resolution.
BARAK: – and that Lebanon places handcuffs on the hands of Hizbullah or dismantles them.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you again about Iran and the constantly raised military options. You all say every option is still on the table. Your former chief of the IDF, General Halutz, has said that Israel lacks the military means for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, that Israel should not be the flag bearer for the entire Western world. He said, I’m not just some passer-bye. I’ve had positions that give me levels of information that the general public doesn’t have. In other words, he’s saying you can’t do it alone.
BARAK: I respect General Halutz very much. And I clearly said that at this stage, we believe it is still the time for sanctions. But I repeat my recommendation to others, as well as to everyone else, not to remove any options from the table. I hope that sanctions and any other means will work, but we have to wait and see.
AMANPOUR: But again, I’ve heard that the Iranian facilities are hardened. They’re dispersed. The United States has certainly, up until know, that they will not necessarily help you, at the very least, and you wouldn’t probably be able to fly over Iran. Israel cannot do it on its own, can it?
BARAK: I don’t think that it makes sense, under the situation we’re facing, to discuss it in the open and to try to really go into details of this. I keep saying what I’ve told you. I think the time is still for diplomacy and tough sanctions might change it. We have to focus on what is on the table, not on speculating on further steps that might be taken.
AMANPOUR: OK, you said tough sanctions should be put in place for a period of time. How long?
BARAK: I cannot put a certain date ti ut, but I can say it’s a matter of we should see whether it works or not within a month, probably more, a few months, but not years.
AMANPOUR: Next, we’ll ask Ehud Barak why on earth Israel took a provocative step over religious sites on the West Bank this week. Doesn’t it just make peace less likely?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES BAKER, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: That was nearly 20 years ago, and the settlement issue continues to cast a long shadow over Arab-Israeli peace talks. Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak joins me again. This issue is still a major, major issue. And some very, very respected people, Sari Nusseibeh, for instance, Palestinian, has said that the two state solution may no longer be possible. And that is because of the increasing number of settlements, and the inability of the Israeli government to withdraw them, let alone halt them.
BARAK: I don’t think that is correct. We made recently the probably unprecedented step by freezing for ten months any new settlement building. And it’s clear the two state solution is the only solution. It’s not just a favor we’re doing to the Palestinians, but a compelling imperative for Israel as well.
But, having said that, the issue of settlements is used also as an excuse, because if we cross this corridor and solve the whole issue, it will be only part of implementation. Abu Mazen negotiated with Olmert when the pace of building was twice the present one. Arafat, his predecessor, negotiated with me as the prime minister when the pace of settlement building was four times. It’s not the real reason.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about this; as you know, President Obama started out by saying total freeze on settlements before talks. Now they’ve amended that position.
BARAK: They modified it for good reason because it’s impractical. You know, we are an open society. If a private contractor strikes a contract with someone, an individual, and if they want to build and we try to stop them, we will be ordered by the Supreme Court to —
AMANPOUR: As you know, it is a requirement of all the peace maps, the roadmap and all the rest. But I want to ask you about a comment that you made recently at a conference in, I believe it was Herzliya. And this is what you said:
"As long as in this territory, west of the Jordan River, there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."
That’s what you said.
BARAK: I said the obvious, basically. It’s not about the word "apartheid". Basically what I said is, there is a compelling imperative for us to disengage from the Palestinians. As I said, there are probably 11 million people there – if the bloc of millions vote, it is a non-Jewish state by definition. If they do not vote, it’s a non-democratic state.
AMANPOUR: And you used the word "apartheid state." Do you stand by that?
BARAK: I said it. It’s not a secret. I said it in public. In fact I’ve been saying it in different words now for 20 years since the time I was –
AMANPOUR: But if it’s such a huge challenge, why don’t you enact bolder steps?
BARAK: Let me tell you, I’m not afraid of any bolder steps. I said it in order to warn ourselves that we might enter into a slippery slope toward either a non-Jewish or a non-democratic state. Neither is the Zionist dream. So we have to take steps to change it. That’s why I am in this government. This government, in spite of being heavily biased to the right, agreed to the two state solution, agreed to accept all previous agreements signed by Israeli governments, agreed to accept the idea of the roadmap, and basically we have Netanyahu talking about a Palestinian viable state with a national flag living side by side with Israel. This is our vision.
AMANPOUR: But right now, it is your vision. It’s many other peoples’ vision. It’s not happening. It’s stalled, still. The Palestinian leader Abu Mazen says that he won’t come back to talks unless there is a halt to settlement.
Now, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for an immediate resumption of the talks. Is it going to happen?
BARAK: I hope it will be resumed – probably at the beginning, proximity talks. I think that all players should stop thinking in terms of speculation. I heard a lot of speculation in Israel that Abu Mazen cannot deliver, that he’s too weak or whatever. And I’ve heard a lot of speculation here that Netanyahu is not there, he’s not believing. I say the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
BARAK: Stop speculating. Bring them together to one room and start negotiations, either directly or through authorized representatives.
AMANPOUR: You’ve been saying this for a long time. I want to play something that I asked you nearly 10 years ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Do you really think there is room to restart the peace negotiations?
BARAK: Yes. There will always be room. We will never lose hope of peace. The Palestinian people is going to be our neighbor forever. We will make peace with them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: That was 10 years ago and nothing has happened. I mean, words have changed, there have been different ideas put out there but –
BARAK: No living person in Israel was ready to go further than I did and risk his whole political career as premier in orde and it was rejected by Arafat. But I keep saying, if it takes five months, five years or fifteen years, when an agreement will be reached it will be the result of leaders taking a decision, and a magnifying glass will be needed to see the difference from what we put on the table at Camp David.
AMANPOUR: You are on a major public relations offensive, after the Goldstone report, … because people are saying, hang on, what is Israel doing in these circumstances?
BARAK: I would like to say something about Goldstone. I think that after seven years of suffering thousands of rockets, terrorizing our civilian population around the Gaza Strip, Israel had the right and the duty to respond. And Goldstone’s report is biased, distorted, totally unexplainable in my judgment, and it even encourages somehow terror because it –
AMANPOUR: His report encourages that?
BARAK: Yes, of course. He drew a moral equivalent between the perpetrators of terror and its victims. Hamas and Hizbullah as well, are deliberately using civilian populations as human shields while we were being attacked. You know, I remember President Obama still as a candidate coming and showing so much empathy to the citizens in Sderot. We just found ourselves in a situation where we have to act and I can tell you, if it would have happened, if San Diego would have been bombarded one month from Tijuana this way, you would be already in Tijuana. And please look what will happen in Marjah and in the Helmand desert in the next few months.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JUDGE RICHARD GOLDSTONE, HUMAN RIGHTS JURIST: The report didn’t question the right of Israel to take action, to stop the firing of rockets as we hold serious war crimes, but what Netanyahu ignores completely and what Israel has ignored are our criticisms of the way they fought the war. We didn’t second guess generals. We didn’t question the difficulty of fighting a war in a heavily built up civilian area. What we did was question the degree to which innocent civilians were targeted.
(END VIDEO CLIP
AMANPOUR: So that is Richard Goldstone, basically addressing the core issue of the report and answering a little bit of what you talked about just before, they’re not questioning your rights to self defense. They’re questioning the number of civilians who were caught in this and not taking enough care to avoid civilians. What I want to ask you is this, the central theme of the report is for your government, for you, to conduct an independent inquiry. Why won’t you do it?
BARAK: We have our own processes. We know for sure that we did not order such an event. I can tell you more than this, that Goldstone was ready to accept a nomination – not to check whether crimes were done – but to check, or investigate the war crimes done by Israel. We don’t accept such terms of reference –
AMANPOUR: No, he just said in that byte, Mr. Barak, he said in that interview that they held also that the targeting of Israel civilians by Hamas were war crimes. But the question is, why no independent inquiries?
BARAK: What’s not independent? We are running the most independent processes of any leading free world state. We provided to the U.N. recently – you know, there were two sides to it.
AMANPOUR: The U.N. has just given you another five months to come up with the inquiries.
BARAK: I challenge you to compare the report that we brought to the ridiculous document that the Palestinians gave.
AMANPOUR: But how can the ministry investigate itself?
BARAK: No, it’s not investigating itself.
AMANPOUR: But that’s what happens.
BARAK: No, that’s not what happens. We have a system where – first of all, all the cases mentioned by Goldstone and many others are systematically investigated. It’s investigated under the attorney general of the armed forces. He’s not under the chief commander of the armed forces. He is nominated by us. He is under continued control of the Attorney General of the state and the legal advisor to the government. It’s totally independent. We compared it with the standard of what’s going on here in America, in Great Britain, in the European countries. We are much ahead of them with the independence of investigations.
AMANPOUR: Would you agree that the Goldstone report makes you think twice about how you will conduct a future war?
BARAK: I don’t think so.
AMANPOUR: Will you do nothing different?
BARAK: We always try to improve ourselves but we don’t need the Goldstone report for this. We started investigation into the details of what happened long before Goldstone wrote his report. We opened it, we asked both NGOs, the U.N., even Palestinian individuals. We gave them an address they could call and complain. We came to the gates of Gaza to question them about possible violations of law by our soldiers.
We get soldiers or commanders who were found responsible of something, which was improper, into legal processes within the armed forces and that’s what any other leading country in the west would have done.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, because again, they’re still requiring you to do more than you’re telling me you’re doing. The notion of war crimes, as you know, there have been potential warrants out. People have called you a potential war criminal. They’ve potentially threatened to arrest former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, had she gone to London. We asked her about that and this is what she said about the threat of arrest.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Are you worried that if you leave Israel and come to London, or other such places in Europe, that you could be arrested?
TZIPI LIVNI, FORMER ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER: It’s not my worry on a personal basis. In a way I’d like this to have been, in a way, maybe even a test case because I’m willing to speak about the military operation in Gaza Strip, to explain that Israel left Gaza Strip, we dismantled all the settlements, we took our forces out. Israel was targeted, we showed restraint. And in the end of the day we needed to act against terror and I’m willing to say so, including any court in London, or elsewhere.
AMANPOUR: So you’re saying you’re willing to be arrested –
LIVNI: But for me this in not the question. I mean, yes, the answer is yes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BARAK: So you surprisingly found one point where I agree with Tzipi Livni. She’s the head of a position in our country and on this issue I agree with her.
AMANPOUR: That you also would agree to be arrested?
BARAK: Yes. I was in London when they announced that there is an inquiry and they are going to issue a kind of arrest order. I didn’t change an iota in my schedule in those two days.
AMANPOUR: And yet, let’s be frank. Your government knows that there is a credibility problem right now. It’s launched a massive, intense, unprecedented P.R. campaign by the Diaspora.
BARAK: I don’t want to mention some of the member states by name of this body called the Human Rights of the Council of the U.N. and to suggest to you to check the human rights conduct that they tell you they’re following: There is a need to have an academic and then legal discussion of the way to fight effectively terrorists who are using a civilian population as human shields, especially when they attack another civilian population.
AMANPOUR: I understand that.
BARAK: I think there all of us are facing it in the battle against terror and there is a need for modification of the rules of the game. And not letting all of us – paralyzing our capacity to fight against terror due to reports, like the Goldstone report, and the initiative of those members of the agency.
AMANPOUR: And now we have a final couple of questions for our guest, Ehud Barak. This idea of the heritage sites on the West Bank, where the prime minister has said that these are our heritage sites and it sparked days and days of clashes. Why do that now?
BARAK: It went out of proportion. The government decided to announce 400 heritage sites in Israel without any financial backing or anything else. These caves of the patriarchs are really part of our heritage, and there’s no intention to change the slightest, not one iota in the arrangements there. Everything should be agreed with the Waqf, and we basically —
AMANPOUR: That’s the Palestinian Authority —
BARAK: Never in the history, in millennia, has there been such a freedom of worship as it is now under the Israeli control of this place. So I don’t think that we have any intention to change anything there, but it’s part of our heritage. That’s kind of self-evident.
AMANPOUR: And the Palestinian leader said it could spark war, a religious war.
BARAK: I don’t think so. I hope that Prime Minister Fayyad and the security forces on both sides will try to lower the flames. I hope it will not, and it should not develop into anything. Just went totally out of proportion.
AMANPOUR: And on that note, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, thank you so much indeed for joining us.