Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, above, says his country needs to move… (Sebastian Scheiner, Pool…)
Reporting from Jerusalem — Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday that a "daring" peace initiative by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is vital to his country's security and international standing, and that without one, Israel could face increased isolation and mass popular protests.
His comments came as Netanyahu embarks on a diplomatic mission Thursday to the United States, though American and Israeli officials alike have sought to lower expectations that the visit would lead to a breakthrough restarting of U.S.-brokered peace talks.
In an interview with The Times in his office at the Knesset, or parliament, Barak said Netanyahu has made "clear movement" in spelling out his peace vision by stressing Israel's insistence on maintaining settlement blocks as well as a military presence along the Jordan Valley. But Barak said Israel still lacks "a sense of direction."
He added that he hoped the warm reception Netanyahu is expected to receive in Washington would not distract from the hard work yet to be done to block a Palestinian Authority initiative to seek statehood recognition from the United Nations this September. President Obama is expected to indicate in a speech Thursday that the administration will oppose the proposal.
Despite the current stalemate, Barak said he believes a peace deal is closer today than it was when he was prime minister during the Camp David talks in 2000. But he also warned that Israel's desire for increased U.S. military aid could be at risk if no deal is reached.
Below is an edited transcript
Q: By most accounts, Netanyahu will not unveil a new peace initiative during his U.S. trip, as you and others have urged. Is that a mistake?
A: I don't know whether that's a fact. I still hope he will say something clear about our intentions.
Q: So he might surprise everyone?
A: If you listen to his speech in the Knesset [on Monday], there were certain elements that were quite clear movement toward the positions that many of us here think are essential for any sincere Israeli proposal: namely, that we'll make clear those elements that have to do with borders and the need to make major, painful concessions regarding what he called part of our fatherland.
Q: You called for something "daring." Was that daring enough?
A: I don't know how to judge it. It's clear to me that Israel at this junction should act and not be paralyzed by the uncertainties, low visibility, volcanic eruptions and historical earthquake around us. It makes sense that many people say, "Let's not be too enthusiastic about doing something at any price." On the other hand, I personally feel that we should be ready to move. We need to put [something] on the table, whether behind closed doors to the president or in public. We need to be ready to move toward a daring proposal that will include the readiness to deliver an answer to all the core issues.
Q: Should the U.S. try to jump-start the process by putting forward an American proposal that frames some of the core issues?
A: I don't know. It depends on the details. America, with all the question marks that have been raised about its effectiveness or strength in recent months, is still the most effective superpower and the most important player in the region. But neither Netanyahu or Obama or "the quartet" [the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the European Union] can do it alone. It depends on the sides and on many details. There should always be an American readiness to provide whatever services are needed in order to help the two sides move forward.
Q: Some argue that making concessions now will make Israel look weak and "reward" the Palestinian Authority for leaving the negotiating table and, most recently, reconciling with Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel view as a terrorist group.
A: I don't think so. Israel is the strongest country for 1,000 miles around Jerusalem, and we should be self-confident enough not to lose sight of what has to be done. What we need is a sense of direction and a readiness to take decisions. We have to do it.
I can't tell you for sure it will work. It probably won't. But we have a responsibility and a commitment to move. We should make it genuine, that if an agreement cannot be achieved at this juncture, the responsibility is on the other side's shoulders. Probably along the way we will find that while we are trying to find a breakthrough for a fully-fledged agreement, only an interim one can be achieved. So let's find it. We should prepare for all three possibilities: a breakthrough agreement, stalemate or an interim agreement. All three are better than the alternative, which might lead to growing isolation of Israel.
Q: In your assessment, are Palestinians ready to reach an agreement?