Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party chief and former Israeli Prime Minister serving in Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing government, came through New York and Washington this past week with a wish list for Congressional earmarks for Israeli military equipment acquisitions as well as an agenda to push Israel’s closest ally to ramp up an effective sanctions campaign on Iran.
After meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in New York Wednesday on the Iran sanctions issue, Barak held meetings in Washington with Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department and Vice President Joseph Biden at the White House Friday.
But the most interest moment of Barak's visit came in a talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Friday morning, where he gave an overview of regional threats and opportunities for Israel over the next year, covering the Middle East peace process, Syria, Lebanon, Hamas, Hezbollah, and chiefly the threat posed by Iran.
After his prepared remarks to the friendly Washington audience with lots of familiar faces for him -- former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and former Bush-era Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim, among them -- the event moderator, the Institute’s executive director Rob Satloff, in the typical format of such events, asked Barak a first question to get the discussion going before turning to the audience for questions.
Noting the slew of recent high level U.S. officials visiting Israel – CIA director Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and NSC Iran strategic Dennis Ross, Deputy Secretaries of State Jim Steinberg and Jack Lew just in the past month, as well as the upcoming visit of Vice President Joseph Biden – Satloff asked Barak about how well he thought the U.S. and Israel were coordinating on the Iran issue.
Barak listened to Satloff’s question and then said, "Let’s take a few more questions and I will answer them" in a bunch. And Satloff, the event host and moderator, laughed and said, "Well, answer that opening question and then I can call on members of the audience and take several questions" in a bunch. And Barak smiled, acknowledging the laughter, and then said, again, "Let’s take a few more questions." Until it became quite clear that he did not want to answer Satloff’s question about the state of U.S.-Israel relations on Iran, and this was not based on a cultural misunderstanding of the format procedure.
So, checked, Satloff took questions from a few more members of the audience, including from the Institute’s David Makovsky, a co-author with the NSC’s Ross on a recent book on Mideast peace making, before Barak began to answer several questions.
Asked by a Middle Eastern correspondent, why Israel couldn’t live with a nuclear Iran, Barak said Israel welcomed U.S. leadership in seeking international sanctions on Iran. But he added, that with all the instability the U.S. is currently managing including a nuclear Pakistan and North Korea, Afghanistan, draw down in Iraq, etc., as well as an overloaded domestic agenda, it was his impression that Washington believes that while it’s highly undesirable, at the end of the day the U.S. could live with a nuclear Iran. While for Israel, Barak said, it would be a “tipping point” in the strategic equation in the region. It would lead to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries seeking nuclear weapons, Barak said, the effective end of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, and the threat that a nuclear weapon could get into terrorists’ hands and the possibility that a nuclear terrorist attack from an unclear address would be more likely.
“I feel our relations with the U.S., they went through ups and downs, but the underlying common attributes" of the two countries are the same, Barak said (according to notes taken on a Blackberry, so not an exact transcript). “Israel sees itself as an outpost of the Western way of life in the region." ...The two countries have the same common values. And that is true under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Barak said.
“In the moment of truth, the U.S. makes sure,” that Israel can defend itself, Barak said. “We felt very proud never to have asked America to fight for us. ‘Give us the tools, we do the job,’” he described Israel’s view on U.S.-Israeli security cooperation. “By supporting Israel, the U.S. relieves the need to do it itself."
“Beyond that, there’s a difference in perspective and judgement, in our internal clocks,” Barak said, regarding Iran’s nuclear program. “We do not need to coordinate” on each detail, he said.
“We strongly supported the attempt to solve through diplomacy the problem of a nuclear Iran,” Barak said. But some in the U.S. see a world with a “nuclear Pakistan, India, North Korea….From this corner of the world (Washington), [perhaps] it doesn’t change the equation” if Iran goes nuclear.
“For Israel," Barak said, it does change the equation. "It would be a tipping point.”
Also worth noting, Barak also said he thought Iranian leaders' decisionmaking is "quite sophisticated," and he did not think they would use a nuclear weapon against Israel. And he said he thought that neither a nuclear Iran, nor anything else, poses a threat to the continuity of Israel's existence.
Barak was also notably tough in his comments about Lebanon, saying that Israel would hold the (pro-Western) Lebanese government responsible for actions by (pro-Iranian) Hezbollah.
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