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Ehud Barak: Iran nuclear deal is bad, but Trump’s withdrawal not ‘optimal’

President Donald Trump made good on his campaign promise Tuesday with the announcement that the U.S. would leave the Iran nuclear agreement. But America’s exit does not cancel the deal altogether, Ehud Barak, the former Israeli defense minister and prime minister, told PBS NewsHour correspondent William Brangham.

Barak said he thought the 2015 agreement, known as theJoint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was “ a bad deal when it was made” — something Trump also said as he signed a memorandum terminating U.S. participation in the Iran agreement.

“But once it was signed it became a matter of fact,” Barak said, adding that he wasn’t sure Trump’s decision was the best way to make changes to the agreement, and that he believed the deal’s six other signatories would stay in the pact.

Here are some other highlights from the interview, tied to the release of Barak’s 2018 memoir, “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace.”

  • On peace with Palestine: “I’m quite confident that it will happen,” Barak said. But he said he has a “deep dispute” with how the government is currently approaching conflict with Israel’s neighbors, describing it as extremely pessimistic, self-victimizing and passive. That’s “very bad for statesmanship,” he said. “We have to take our fate in our hands. I’m not caring about the Palestinians, I’m caring about our own identity, future and security.”
  • Will Israel and Iran engage in more serious conflict in Syria? Barak called recent developments — including a recent dispute over an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base — “disturbing.” Still, he said, “we don’t have any interest in accelerating” what’s happening in Syria, though he added that “we have to make sure we win [a war] if it’s imposed upon us.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • William Brangham:

    Now for another voice on the fraught process of trying to avoid new wars in the Middle East.

    Ehud Barak was prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001, and has served in many other senior positions in Israel's government, most recently as defense minister. His political career followed three decades of service in Israel's military, first as a special forces commando, and rising to become the military's senior-most officer.

    He's chronicled his life and the birth of his nation in a new autobiography. It's called "My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace."

    I spoke with Ehud Barak earlier today.

    Mr. Prime Minister, welcome.

    We will get to the book in a moment, but, first, let's just talk a little bit about today's news.

    Can you just tell me your reaction to President Trump deciding to pull out of the nuclear deal?

  • Ehud Barak:

    The speech was good and coherent.

    And it's always good to hear a determined leader say the Iranians will never get a nuclear weapon. But the question remains, to what extent that was the optimal way to achieve it.

    You know, the fact that America pulls out doesn't cancel the deal. It's there. The Europeans will stay. Everyone will stay. And probably some multinationals will feel more constrained in making deals, but, you know, some of them might find companies in the Far East or somewhere who can…

  • William Brangham:

    Work around it.

  • Ehud Barak:

    Yes, go around it.

    So, basically, the question is, what is the best way? The Iranians, they are bad guys. They develop missiles, which my view, but that's out of the agreement. They spread terror around the region, including in the Golan Heights.

    That's not part of the agreement. They even make insurgencies in certain place. That's not part of the agreement. So, probably, the better way would have been to approach the allies, those who are willing, and establish a new forum to come and convince Iran to do more.

    I don't see how…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    You mean to renegotiate some aspect of the deal?

  • Ehud Barak:

    No, not of the deal, because the deal is there. I thought it's a bad deal when it was made.

    And — but once it was signed, it became a matter of fact. In a way, we don't have to spend too much words about the situation before the announcement, because once the American president announced that America is out of the deal, so that's a new fact.

    So, the most we can say is that we hope now that he might be able to convince the other participants of the deal, other parties to the deal, to move together with him. I doubt it.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's shift a little bit to your country's dealings with Iran in Syria.

    As you well know, Iran has been building up a military presence in Syria. Israel has been pushing back on that. This keeps escalating. Do you have a sense that Israel and Iran are going to come to a more overt conflict in Syria?

  • Ehud Barak:

    I hope not. And I'm convinced it's not needed.

    Israel is a stronger power around. We should be self-confident enough to, first of all, hit, whenever it's needed, any Iranian deployment in Syria. In this regard, I would say, if you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk, like Wallach said in the famous movie.

    But, having said that, the developments are disturbing, especially the effort to upgrade the accuracy of the 140,000 rockets and missiles which the Hezbollah has in Lebanon, and many of them cover most of Israel.

    So, basically, it's a real challenge. And we will keep acting against it. I don't think that we have to talk so much. I feel that there's more deterrence in keeping some aspect of our operations as a sort of kind of mystery.

    So, basically, it seems that the public aspect of it says more than the domestic needs of this or other nature, not the real sense. But Israel has been good, and its founder formulated so clearly, we have to win any war, each and every war we have. Our enemies have to win only once.

    So, that's an asymmetry. Israel developed, advanced, and became stronger during the interval between war. We don't have any interest in accelerating the duration toward the war, but we have the make sure that we win one if it is imposed upon us.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's talk a little bit about your wonderful autobiography.

    You tell the story of your own life, and you tell the story of your country. And you obviously were born before Israel was born. You grew up. You were there at the creation of so many pivotal moments in Israel's history.

    And I'm just curious, at the time, were you aware of the sense of mission? Because now, as you look back on your life, it certainly seems that you are — you feel that sense of Israel's purpose. But, at the time, did it feel that way to you?

  • Ehud Barak:

    I felt very clearly, even at the age of 6, that we are part of a huge drama.

    The war of independence was something that didn't hurt the small kibbutz that I was in. But I was already reading a newspaper. It was clear that something dramatic that never happened is happening in front of our eyes.

    Later on, I also witnessed many of the events. And whenever there was a drama, I felt this. I remember fighting in Sinai during '67, exactly 50 years ago, and the news reached us that we took over the Temple Mount.

    That's — you cannot, being a Jew, totally…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • William Brangham:

    Enormous moment.

  • Ehud Barak:

    I never put feeling. I never went to a synagogue, did even bar mitzvah, but I was deeply moved.

    So I was aware at the time of the importance, the historical importance of the events. I wasn't aware usually of the importance of myself in it.

  • William Brangham:

    The other thing that really comes through in your book is that Israel continues and must find some resolution to how it deals with the Palestinians.

    As you well know, the government in Israel has very much right now a fortress Israel position. Do you have any sense of hope that the resolution with the Palestinians will come?

  • Ehud Barak:

    Yes, of course. I have not just hope. I'm quite confident it will happen.

    The government of Israel, it's a freely elected government. It's my government as well. But I did dispute with them about what is good for the country, especially in the last three years, with Bibi more and more deeply diving into this mind-set of extreme pessimism, passivity, anxiety and self-victimizing mood, which is a quite good recipe for practical domestic politics, but very poor one for statesmanship.

    I think that we are heading — beyond these daily events, we are heading into a direction which is clearly wrong. The intention of this government, led and directed by extreme right, is to torpedo any possibility of separation or disengagement between us and the Palestinians.

    This leads us basically into one state named Israel covering or reigning over the whole area from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan. But that means, because we are 13 million people there, 6.5 million Jews and 6.5 million Arabs.

  • William Brangham:

    Yes, the demographics are not in your favor.

  • Ehud Barak:

    It means — yes, it means that it will end inevitably either non-Jewish or non-democratic. Neither is (INAUDIBLE).

    And based on our successes, we — you know, founding of the state of Israel is the most successful national project of the 20th century. We have a huge amount of achievements.

    But, based on these achievements, we are the strongest country, and we can take our fate in our hands. I am not caring about the Palestinians. I am caring about our own identity, future, and security.

    And our interests demand that we will disengage from the Palestinians, delineate a line within which we will have all our security interests, most of the settlers, and a solid Jewish majority for generations to come.

    I always follow — I used to quote Robert Frost saying good fences make good neighbors. And we need it in the Middle East. Never lose the focus on the objective and on understanding. Whether it takes time, more or less time, we will ultimately reach a normal situation in the Middle East.

  • William Brangham:

    The book is "My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace."

    Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, thank you very much.

  • Ehud Barak:

    Thank you.

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