Hours after President Donald Trump announced that the United States was quitting the Iran nuclear agreement, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was on the stage at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington. He told the audience that the president’s move has no long-term purpose for the United States.
Overall, Barak said, he has “mixed feelings” about Trump’s move: because Barak opposed the agreement in the first place and the withdrawal was more political than strategic.
“When you look at the long-term, I don’t see any reason for this step,” he said. “I think for the president, it’s extremely important to be consistent to show that he’s anything but [former President Barack] Obama.”
Barak, 76, was prime minister from 1999 to 2001. He was interviewed by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The May 8 event coincided with the release of Barak’s book, “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace.” Here are a few takeaways from the discussion.
Iran will fear Trump
Barak said in pulling out and re-imposing sanctions on Iran, Trump could be using fearmongering tactics to deter it from further developing nuclear weapons, and possibly the threat of war.
Barak said he sees the pullout as a decision that will “motivate them to be more cautious.”
Although he is against the agreement, Barak said a U.S. withdrawal does not help, because Europe nations and Iran will still be part of the deal.
There is still time for a two-state solution
Barak was part of unsuccessful peace negotiations with the Palestinians in 2000 facilitated by President Bill Clinton. Asked by Goldberg if he would do anything differently, Barak said no. Even before the summit he didn’t believe an agreement would be reached.
“I never thought we could make it,” he said. “I said we would do our best to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.”
Barak said it is not too late to allocate parts of the West Bank not occupied by Israeli settlements to the Palestinians. He reminded the audience that Israel’s founding and survival once seemed improbable. A Palestinian state, he said, will come “when the time is right” politically.
The right has a hold on the Israeli public
Barak, who as prime minister led the left-leaning Labor party, said he is concerned that the rhetoric from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing government is giving younger Americans a negative image of the Jewish state. Israeli leaders, he said, should adopt rhetoric that is less tribal and does not demonize Arabs.
And while Israel faces few existential threats other than Iran, one of the greatest threats is Israel’s internal divisions, particularly over the settlements.
“The real threat is the vision of a one-state [solution],” he said. “Putting, not security, but settlements ahead of everything else. The priority should be putting the unity of the people over everything else.”
Washington resident Nancy Allinson thought Barak was optimistic and very realistic.”
But Washington resident Israel Piekrash, who moved to the United States from Israel last year, said Barak was playing politics by using the term “mixed feelings” about the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which Barak is opposed to.
“He doesn’t want to take Bibi’s side,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He doesn’t want to say Bibi is right. That’s not the way to do leadership in my opinion.”
Barak is no Jon Stewart
Barak is Israel’s most decorated soldier, a former army chief of staff, and former defense minister. But at Sixth & I, it was clear that when it comes to comedy, he hasn’t taken basic training. He quipped that Trump’s sudden withdrawal from the Iran agreement was akin to one’s “mother-in-law driving a new BMW over the cliff.”
The line got a laugh, but Goldberg, confused, asked Barak to clarify the metaphor.
“You believe [Iran] will genuinely be afraid of Donald Trump?” Goldberg said.
He was never able to find out who the mother-in-law was, why she would want to drive off a cliff, and whether Iran was riding in the BMW with her.