Ehud Barak, former commando, chief of staff, prime minister and defense minister, says that Israel is facing its deepest crisis, and it comes from within.
It is “whether the country … can survive as a democracy under the rule of law, true not only to Jewish history and traditions but to the moral code at its core,” he says in My Country, My Life, due out Tuesday.
He blames “the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history,” which has “sought to redefine Zionism as about one thing only: ensuring eternal control over the whole of biblical Judea and Samaria … even if doing so leaves us significantly less secure.”
That likely will delight Israel’s many critics, yet it comes only in an epilogue, after 439 pages of very readable, interesting autobiography that acknowledges both shortcomings and luck, largely avoiding self-glorification (except maybe the 24 pages of photos, the first section’s last one printed in reverse).
He blames Palestinian Arab leaders for rejecting generous offers by him in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008, but fears that failure to separate will undermine Israel’s democratic Jewish majority. His criticism, forceful but not shrill, goes beyond Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, praised earlier for intellect and performance under Barak’s command of Sayeret Matkal, likened to the U.S. Delta Force.
Barak was born in 1942 on kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, “a cluster of wood-and-tarpaper huts,” to parents from Poland and Lithuania. They encouraged his talent at the piano, which he says helps him unwind.
Youthful fascination with locks brought him into Sayeret Matkal, then a tiny, secret intelligence unit needing a lock picker. Commissioned, he led squads into enemy states to map and to tap communications.
Sayeret Matkal became a strike force in 1972, in Barak’s second year as commander, by coincidence: The closest unit to a hijacked airliner parked in Israel, its members entered the aircraft disguised as mechanics.
Commando missions followed, including a Beirut raid with Barak and two others disguised as women. In 1973, army security insisted he change his name to enroll at Stanford. Brog became Barak — Hebrew for lightning. Recalled for the Yom Kippur War, he fought in Sinai, crossing into Egypt.
After the war, Barak became a full colonel and armored brigade commander. He helped plan the 1976 rescue at Entebbe.
When Likud won in 1977, he returned to Stanford for two years, followed by promotion to brigadier general and division commander; major general heading IDF planning, then head of military intelligence involving “political and policy issues beyond the armed forces.” He became chief of staff in 1991 and emphasized mobility and high-tech weaponry.
Barak ended his 36-year army career in 1995, in his early 50s, thinking of joining his brother in business. Yitzhak Rabin persuaded him instead to be interior minister. After Rabin’s assassination, Shimon Peres made Barak foreign minister.
Peres lost the next election, and Barak became Labor party leader in 1996, defeating Netanyahu in 1999 and controversially pulling out of Israel’s costly Lebanon security zone.
Barak provides a detailed description of Israel’s efforts at Camp David 2000, Arafat refusing all proposals and making none of his own. Blamed for the summit’s failure, Barak lost to Ariel Sharon in 2001. After Sharon’s stroke, Olmert made Barak defense minister. He continued under Netanyahu from 2009 to 2013.
My Country includes two errors, one saying “either of the mosques” on the Temple Mount. Atop the mount is only one; the Dome of the Rock is a shrine. The other error is a howler.
As defense minister, Barak sought U.S. bunker-buster bombs and lease of airborne tankers, not mentioning use against Iran. But that didn’t escape President George W. Bush; Barak says that in a meeting with himself and Olmert, Bush said: “I’m a former F-16 pilot. I know how to connect the dots.” No, he wasn’t. Bush was a Texas Air National Guard F-102 air-defense pilot who stopped flying in 1972 and quit in 1973. The F-16 entered service in 1979.
Neither error diminishes a very insightful book.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, 5.4.18)