The hobby of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is clockwork—rebuilding the delicate works and fine balance wheels of antique clocks. That’s one reason I am confident his Gaza operation will be carefully calibrated, its aims precisely designed and executed. A perhaps more convincing reason is that Barak is also the former Israeli Prime Minister who tried harder, went further, and was willing to give up more land for peace than even his martyred, peace-seeking predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin.
As a strategist for Barak’s Labor Party, I was in Tel Aviv on election night of 1999, when 300,000 Israelis spontaneously gathered in Rabin Square to celebrate Barak’s landslide victory over the hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu. The country was hopeful, inspired by the possibility of peace. Late the next night, before pollster Stan Greenberg and I left on a 2:00 A.M. flight to New York, Barak’s urgency about the peace process was palpable at our farewell meeting in his hotel suite.
As the most decorated soldier in the history of Israel, the planner of the Entebbe raid, a leader in tracking down the Munich Olympic terrorists, and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, he worried that the window of opportunity was closing; that in a decade or so, the power balance in the region could shift decisively against Israel. At the same time, however, he felt it was in the Palestinians’ interest to accept a deal for much, if not all, of what they claimed to want. (As he spoke that night, I never suspected Barak would go so far as to offer the Palestinians control over a large part of the old city of Jerusalem.) He would find out, he said, if the Palestinians were truly ready to make peace. The unspoken alternative was clear: if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shunned peace, Israel would do whatever was necessary to fight for its security—and survival.
In office, Barak showed something rare in a leader: he risked his power to pursue a goal he deemed both just and essential. He offered to return the Golan Heights to Syria with only a small buffer zone, but the Syrians insisted on every last yard. With President Bill Clinton, Barak put forward the once unthinkable proposition of a Palestinian state occupying as much as 98 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem divided and the Palestinians controlling the summit of the Temple Mount. But Arafat said no—in part because he wouldn’t yield on the so-called “right of return” for millions of Palestinians who had fled Israel.
I was told by a knowledgeable, worried Israeli that Arafat believed that—like his father, the former president—Bush 43 would be more pro-Arab than Clinton. The Bush staff sent no signal to disabuse Arafat of that notion or to encourage him to sign the deal. To the contrary, Bush offered the curious public critique that the United States was too involved in the peace process and should step back. Whether this was an early sign of Bush’s colossal incompetence or merely an effort to deny Clinton credit for what would have been an historic achievement, I don’t know. In any case, Arafat walked away from the deal. The Palestinian leader called Clinton just before the president left office and told him he was a great man. “I am not a great man,” Clinton replied. “I am a failure, and you have made me one.”
A few days later, the Israelis reversed the 1999 election result, pitching Barak out as Prime Minister in a landslide. He resigned as Labor Party leader and went into political exile, only returning from the wilderness after Israel’s botched invasion of Lebanon in 2006.
Now, Israel is being pressed by critics in the U.S. and Europe to accept an asymmetrical ceasefire that would allow Hamas to regroup and restock its weapons facilities, which are intentionally located in mosques and heavily populated areas. The reflexive anti-Israel chorus that scorns the Gaza operation is generally silent on Hamas’s use of the territory to rain down rockets on Israeli towns and civilians, or on its use of Palestinian civilians as human shields. What would the U.S. do if missiles were being fired on Florida from Cuba? How would France, an instant opponent of the Gaza operation, respond if Marseilles were struck by rockets from Corsica? The questions are rhetorical because the answers are self-evident.
If Israel’s Gaza gamble succeeds, it may do more than shut down terrorist missiles—or even decimate or discredit Hamas. Maybe—just maybe—it will prod the Palestinians to try settling with an enemy they cannot defeat.
The outcome in Gaza may present an historic opportunity for another leader named Barack, as well. The new president and his secretary of state may be able to pick up the cause that Bill Clinton brilliantly advanced and George W. Bush so cavalierly dropped. The Israeli Barak knows that the Palestinians should have a state of their own. And if a genuine peace process resumes after Gaza, it will be in part because he is a man who hungers for peace—even if he and Israel have to fight for it.