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U.S. doing ‘a lot of work’ behind the scenes on Israeli-Palestinian relations, says Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak, former Israeli prime minister, says Israel is still waiting for the Trump administration to offer its plan on how to move forward with the Palestinians. Barak joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the deadline for changing the location of the U.S. embassy, why he doesn’t think pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal would be helpful and the threat for Israel of a post-war Syria.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over his lengthy public career, Ehud Barak has served as prime minister of Israel, as its defense minister, foreign minister and military chief of the general staff.

    He is a longstanding supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and of the two-state solution. He is in New York tonight to speak to American supporters of those efforts.

    When I spoke with him earlier this evening, I began by asking how he sizes up relations between the Trump White House and Israel.

  • Ehud Barak:

    I think it's close relationship.

    But Israel is still waiting for the Trump program or plan for the regional kind of negotiation and for the — how to move forward with the Palestinians.

    Basically, the president made an impact in the Middle East when he basically said, leave aside for the time being nurturing democracy or dealing with human rights. Let's focus on fighting terror and countering the Iranian hegemonic nuclear intention. That was his basic message to the Sunnite moderate countries and to Israel.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's take some of these issues one by one.

    I mean, the president, the administration faces a deadline this weekend in saying whether it does or doesn't want to see the U.S. Embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What do you expect them to do and what do you think they should do?

  • Ehud Barak:

    OK, this deadline comes every half-a-year or probably every year.

    We, as Israelis, want to see not just the American Embassy, but all embassies in our capital, in Jerusalem. And we would love to hear the president announce that that what is going to do. But, for some reason, American presidents in the last 30 years always announce the good relation with Israel, but never made the step. Let's wait and see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are seeing some early reporting in the Associated Press that what this administration may do is simply say they recognize Jerusalem is the capital, but not yet move the embassy.

  • Ehud Barak:

    We know that it is the capital of Israel, and it's always good to hear it from other nations, especially from America, which is the leading power on Earth.

    But the real test is ultimately in action. And we wait for the right time. And we hope it will be early that the embassy will move to Jerusalem. I think it's proper.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned a moment ago relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. President Trump has said it's a priority of his. He's asked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to oversee this. Do you see any progress at all? Is it even doable?

  • Ehud Barak:

    I cannot know.

    There is a lot of work done underneath the surface. Jason Greenblatt visited the area many times. Jared Kushner visited our neighbors.

    And every Israeli and Palestinian and every neighboring leader has been addressed. The question is at what stage they will provide a plan which has a chance to win the support or at least to be a starting point for negotiations by both sides.

    That is still a question. As I understand for anyone who talked to the Americans, they are serious about proposing such a plan, but let's wait and see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another issue, of course, is the Iran nuclear deal.

    This has been an ongoing issue for this administration. You have urged President Trump not to decertify this deal. And yet you yourself has long been a harsh critic of Iran. How do you explain that? Why should he not decertify?

  • Ehud Barak:

    I was very hawkish about Iran at the time, probably more hawkish than Bibi or anyone else in our government.

    It is a bad deal, no doubt about it. But once the deal had been signed, it is a done deal. Even if America decertifies it or pulls out for it, the rest of the signatories are there.

    Iran might enjoy both benefits and both the legitimization to break out when they decide to based on the fact that America pulled out of it. So, I don't think that it's helpful technically. I think that Iranians are bad guys and their plans are very bad, and a way should be found to tackle the Iranian challenge.

    But that's probably not the way, especially now, when there's a need, I believe, to drag North Korea into a certain kind of compliance, probably backed by China, Russia and the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Ehud Barak:

    So, it will be quite questionable. Once America pulls out or questions the Iran deal, how can you convince the North Koreans to enter a new one?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Syria. General Barak, now that the war there is winding down, with President Assad still very much in power, influential roles being played by Russia and by Iran, how threatened should Israel be by a postwar Syria?

  • Ehud Barak:

    We are worried by the Iranian possible deployment very close to our border in the Golan Heights and by their effort to establish a plan to produce highly accurate missiles for Hezbollah in Syria.

    We will do whatever it takes to stop them from developing the kind of advanced weaponry plant in Syria for the Hezbollah or move advance technologies into the hands of Hezbollah, as well as we keep the rights to respond whenever anything happens on the Golan Heights initiated by the Iranians.

    We hope that the Russians, being basically a stabilizing power now in Syria and in the region, to take responsibility and to make sure that that won't happen. But only time will tell.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just very quickly, Israel is more threatened by this Syria today than it was by Syria before the war?

  • Ehud Barak:

    I don't think so.

    I think, before the war, the combination of the Syrian army, probably about 10 heavy divisions, thousands of artillery pieces, many thousands of tanks, probably thousands of advanced jets, and especially earlier, some 15 years ago, with Iraq with some 30 or 40 divisions, this was a real threat.

    Nowadays, we are facing a different threat. It's mainly the missiles and rockets of the Hezbollah, probably, in the future, the missiles and rockets from Syria as well, and the activity along the border, which is kind of a low-level terror, but something that can deteriorate very easily, as we saw in the past.

    So, it's a different threat. We will — never can underestimate any threat. We cannot afford to ignore any one of them. But in terms of military threat, the heavy divisions were probably a heavier threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, thank you very much.

  • Ehud Barak:

    Thank you, Judy.

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