Thoughts of a 'hawkish dove'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am

Few Israelis know Lebanon like former prime minister Ehud Barak. A soldier for 36 years before turning to politics, he at one time disguised himself as a woman during a commando assassination operation against Palestinian militants in Beirut; 27 years later, as his country's leader, he made the landmark decision to withdraw troops after two decades of occupation of south Lebanon.

As rockets fired by Hezbollah guerillas again rain down on Israel and troops from the Jewish state pour into Lebanon, Mr Barak is far removed from the action, retired from the military and no longer in politics. That does not mean, though, that he does not have a strategy to counter the latest threat or bring about peace with his nation's adversaries.

This is, after all, the man who played a pivotal role in planning what has become known as the most perfectly executed special forces operation in history - the rescue of hostages from a hijacked plane at Uganda's Entebbe airport in 1976. Such people are rare, so his words could be deemed to be ones of wisdom, especially when on matters close to his - also read Israel's - heart.

There was no need for his renowned bravery as he faced this reporter's questioning and a photographer's constant camera flashes last Tuesday evening at a Hong Kong hotel while on a stopover to Singapore. Nonetheless, he was cool under fire, offering grapes from a bowl on the table, perhaps as a gesture of peace, maybe to test whether he was dealing with a friend or foe.

Satisfied that he was among allies, Mr Barak, 64, launched into his theory that the latest conflict with Hezbollah - prompted by the group's firing of rockets from bases in south Lebanon and kidnapping of two soldiers - had long been planned. But although the Hezbollah Israel was now fighting was the same group that declared a truce in 2000, circumstances had changed substantially.

He said that since the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, the militia had become part of a wider fabric of intertwined global challenges -terrorism, nuclear proliferation and rogue states.

'All these elements are combined - it is not a co-incidence that North Korea is helping Iran in many ways, that Iran is helping Syrians and that both are helping Hezbollah,' he said. 'There are certain kinds of resonating incentives and causes with [al-Qaeda terrorist group leader] Osama bin Laden and others'

The timing of North Korea's launching last month of seven missiles had not been coincidental, he claimed. The incident had neatly overshadowed planned discussions at the United nations Security Council on Iran's nuclear enrichment programme. Similarly, Hezbollah's attacks had sidelined plans by the Group of Eight richest nations at their St Petersburg summit to also put Iran at the top of their agenda. The assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in February last year - widely believed to have been the handiwork of Syria - had come just months after Security Council resolution 1559, which called on Hezbollah to disarm and Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

'Of these three elements, the weakest link is the weak government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the even weaker one of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad,' Mr Barak explained. 'If the world community cannot join hands and impose execution of UN Security Council resolutions in the case of Siniora and Bashar, no way on Earth can it effectively tackle Kim Jong-il and the leaders of other rogue states, nuclear proliferation and terror entwined.'

This was sage advice to the world from someone with bittersweet memories about negotiations. His term as prime minister from May 1999 to March 2001 was controversial, including not only Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, but also talks with Syria, a failed US-brokered peace deal with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the eruption of the second Palestinian Intifada.

His rush for peace despite his illustrious military record as Israel's most decorated soldier - the Distinguished Service Medal and four additional citations for outstanding courage and valour - earned him the title of the 'hawkish dove'. With the new Palestinian uprising, that did not sit well with voters at a special election in early 2001. They swept him from power in favour of the ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon. Rejecting the post of defence minister, he opted out of politics in favour of a job as an investment consultant, returning briefly to test the waters for elections last year, but deciding not to run. He is again doing investment work, although remains a member of the Labour Party, part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's governing coalition - and not ruling out the possibility of one day returning to politics.

Whether in or out of government, though, he still gets the ear of important people on the world stage. In Singapore last week, he met Asian elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew. Last month at an investment summit in Russia, he exchanged views with President Vladamir Putin and later in Beijing, senior Chinese officials.

Mr Barak was convinced China and Russia were crucial players in brokering global peace, although the US and other powers were not yet trying to improve ties so that such a role could be properly utilised. 'The right way to tackle the combined challenge of world terror, nuclear proliferation and rogue states is through Beijing,' he said. 'They cannot be solved from Washington or Brussels alone. There is a need for a paradigm shift with regards this struggle ... To win this battle that might take a generation, China and Russia must be major partners, not arch-rivals.'

Only China could bring a deal with North Korea, while Russia was instrumental in influencing Iran. But he suggested a team effort was necessary, as individually, no nation could succeed.

Peace in the Middle East was more elusive, though. With Hezbollah, like the party heading the Palestinian government, Hamas, refusing to recognise Israel's right to exist and both dedicated to destruction of the Jewish nation, there was no option but to fight.

This is what Mr Barak did for much of the time from joining the Israel Defence Forces at the age of 17 in 1959 until entering politics in 1995. His superiors noted his coolness under fire while leading a commando unit during the six-day war in 1967 and while commanding a tank battalion on the Sinai front during the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

He led the elite anti-terrorist unit for many years, in 1972 being disguised as an aircraft mechanic to help successfully storm a hijacked plane in Tel Aviv and the following year, dressed as a woman, leading a raid against the Palestinian organisation that murdered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games.

The pinnacle of his achievements at that time came in 1976 when he was the chief architect of the Entebbe rescue mission, winning the release of 103 hostages on an Air France Airbus that had been hijacked during a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. Three hostages, six hijackers and one Israeli soldier were killed, and the mission was later made famous by a Hollywood movie.

During the 1980s, Mr Barak served as the head of Israeli intelligence and Central Command and in 1991 became his country's top military leader when he was appointed army chief of staff.

Mr Barak retired from the military on January 1, 1995, and seven months later was made interior minister by then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and later served as foreign affairs minister. His political star rose quickly, being elected to parliament the following year and Labour Party chairman in 1997. Within two years, he was prime minister.

He is disillusioned with the Palestinian leadership after offering a 'generous' framework peace deal to Arafat that comprised a Palestinian state giving all of the Gaza Strip, more than 90 per cent of the West Bank and the Arab part of Jerusalem as a capital.

'We were ready to go very far, but Arafat was never really there,' Mr Barak lamented. 'Arafat was not about correcting the occupation of 1967; he was about correcting 1947 - namely the very establishment of a democratic Jewish state in Israel.' Since Arafat's death, the chances for peace are little changed. Hamas is no better and although Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is 'a well-intentioned, balanced, human being', he still holds strong positions.

As long as peace remained elusive and Israel was threatened, Mr Barak would not rule out a return to power.

'I will be happy if those in power will accomplish everything and have a peaceful environment that will enable all of us to live in harmony,' he said. 'But if the need arises, I will be ready to jump back into politics.'