Monday, June 3, 2002

A Glimpse into the Dark Recesses of the Mind of Ehud Barak

The clash over the analysis of the Camp David talks and their aftermath remains intense for the simple reason that it bears directly on the analysis of the current situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the possibility of a negotiated settlement in the foreseeable future. The official Israeli version of the events of the last six months of the year 2000 is the cornerstone of the current policies of the Israeli government whose center piece is clear and simple: Arafat, and the Palestinians under his leadership, are not a partner for negotiations.

This is the reason that we all have to take the time and the trouble to examine both the Barak – Israeli version of the events and the growing body of “revisionist analysis” on the subject. In this respect, we are quite fortunate to have been presented with an additional exchange on the subject through the good offices of the New York Review of Books (June 13, 2002). The clashing viewpoints are presented by Ehud Barak, with the help of historian Benny Morris and by Robert Malley, who was a member of the Clinton staff together with Hussein Agha. This present exchange is to be followed, by additional replies from Barak/Morris and then Malley/Agha will reply in return.A Peculiar Kind of Interview Before turning to the content of the interview by Benny Morris with Barak it is necessary to say something about its rather extraordinary format. For some reason the interview is not a simple question and answer affair. As a matter of fact it is not an interview at all. Barak spoke, it appears, to Morris who wrote up the conversation. Then he put many of Barak’s words in quotation marks, but usually Morris just used the technique of saying ‘Barak says, Barak claims, Barak implies, Barak believes’. Sometimes instead of quotes we get a colon before Barak’s own statement. Those of us who are trying to follow this affair closely deserve better and it is impossible to escape the feeling that the slipshod form of the interview – which should have been considered rather important by Ehud Barak - is a result of an arrogant attitude.

Just to give an example of how disturbing this form of interview can be, examine with us a critical passage at the very outset of the interview.
Morris starts by telling about a call from Bill Clinton to a vacationing Barak. We are treated to a bit of graphic detail to the effect that Barak was swimming in a cove in Sardinia…But here is the important part. Clinton said according to Barak: “…Arafat refused to accept it as a basis for negotiations, walked out of the room, and deliberately turned to terrorism…” The quote is from Benny Morris quoting Barak, quoting Clinton. According to the text Clinton said to Barak on July 26, 2000 that Arafat “deliberately turned to terrorism.” How could Clinton come to that conclusion, and on what basis? On July 26, 2000 Arafat had barely returned to the Middle East. We do know that Clinton blamed Arafat for the failure of the talks. Moreover, Clinton did not hesitate to violate the ethics of his role as a neutral and independent mediator in order to come out publicly and say so at the end of the talks. However, Clinton resumed contacts with Arafat and the Palestinians and maintained those contacts up to the eve of his departure from the White House. Certainly, Clinton, who had every reason to be disappointed with Arafat, would have given some public expression to his belief that “Arafat deliberately turned to terrorism’ immediately after Camp David, if he felt that way. Is it possible that part of the reported conversation between Clinton and Barak, told to Benny Morris, by Ehud Barak, was misheard or misunderstood by Barak emerging from the sea? At any rate, we do not have any indication from Clinton or anyone close to him that he believed that Arafat had turned to terrorism. Perhaps Barak improved upon the Clinton conversation and updated it a bit (or predated it a bit) so as to fit with the official Israeli line that Arafat’s refusal to accept the Clinton offer was a result of his own previous decision to opt for a terror campaign against Israel.

Vile and Racist Language

For the meanwhile we must delay the discussion of the substantive issues and the real positions of each of the sides, before, during and after Camp David. We are forced to do so in order to digest some of Barak’s remarks (generalizations or stereotypes would be better phrases) regarding the Palestinians. As a matter of fact, though it is a bit embarrassing, the “interview” by Benny Morris demands of us that we look into the deep recesses of the soul of Ehud Barak. And it is a rather unpleasant task. Ehud Barak general views on the Arabs and the Palestinians are a vital factor in understanding his political and diplomatic approach.

Barak links the failure at Camp David to “Palestinian and especially Arafat’s mendacity”: [Here we have Morris talking for Barak].
They are products of a culture in which to tell a lie… creates no dissonance. They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category. There is only that which serves your purpose and that which doesn’t. They see themselves as emissaries of a national movement for whom everything is permissible. There is no such thing as “the truth.”

Barak gives us non-Moslems a sense pride, telling us that we are privileged to be products of the Judeo-Christian culture. If we were not part of that culture, we could not even begin to share Barak’s insight about the nature of “truth.” According to Barak, there is some comfort in sharing a bond to truth common to Jews and Christians. This permits the Jews a sense of spiritual kinship with the Cardinals of the Inquisition, who had our forefathers burned at the stake. This gives us a warm feeling of having something very deep in common with the pogromists, who burned and raped their way through Jewish villages in Eastern Europe. And above all we are comforted by the common cultural ties that existed between the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis operating in the name of Christianity. How comforting that truth is meaningful in the Judeo-Christian culture. In addition to his own experience as a military man who has spent most of his life fighting the Arabs, Barak picked up some convincing collateral evidence regarding Arab ‘mendacity.’ Barak tells Benny Morris: “The deputy director of the FBI once told me there are societies in which lie detector tests don’t work, societies in which lies do not create cognitive dissonance [on which the tests are based].” The FBI must be very lucky to have, in this difficult period for it, a medal pinned on its breast in the form of a commendation by Israel’s former Chief of Staff. Now we can empathize a bit more with the FBI and better understand their difficulty in preventing 9/11. On the other hand, if they knew about the difficulties in analyzing what goes on in the Islamic mind, why didn’t they do something practical about finding other alternative sources of reliable information?

The important thing is that we are au courant and on the basis of Barak’s inspiration, we are ready to do battle with Islam, which has, according to conventional sources of opinion, turned out to be a rather general problem for civilized people. Benny Morris informs us that Ehud Barak is far from dismissive of Arafat. Barak considers him “a great actor, very sharp, very elusive, slippery,” and cautions that Arafat “uses his broken English” to excellent effect. Morris might consider this kind of talk complimentary, but the fact is that Barak finds it appropriate to insult and vilify Arafat, personally. It is simply not sufficient to denounce his disregard for the truth which stems from his national, religious and ethnic identity. I must have heard that description of Arafat by Barak before in a different context: “great actor, very sharp, very elusive, slippery.” Am I imagining things or does this sound like an anti-Semitic stereotype?

Perhaps the most sensational discovery by Barak is the revelation of the existence of a “salmon syndrome” among the Palestinians. After the third generation, salmon, according to Barak stop swimming against the current. Barak explains, in his own way, his theory that holds that after approximately 80 years or three generations, the offspring of revolutionary generations lose their zealotry and dogmatism. The principle of the Palestinian “salmon syndrome” allows Barak to determine, on what he presents as scientific basis, that the Palestinians will be ready to compromise and make peace with Israel, somewhere around the year 2028, three generations after the Nakba or the catastrophe of 1948.

If, God Forbid, the Shoe was on the Other Foot

The Middle East is a very complicated and tense place. If in this rarified atmosphere, Yasser Arafat, would have delivered an interview and made similar comments about the Jewish people, the media in general and the pro-Israeli media in particular would have gone berserk. If Arafat had said that the Jews have a problem with the truth stemming from the Christian-Judaic tradition, if he had said that they have a special psychological and physiological capacity to hide their real intentions, the peace process would be stone dead and every one would ‘know’ that Arafat is responsible.

Our conclusion? It is to be rather suspicious of the credibility of Mr. Barak, himself, and to see in him a rather shaky source for reliable information on any matter linked with the conflict. Barak is, on the basis of his own testimony, a rather limited and narrow-minded individual, whose judgment regarding the other side appears to be tinged by a dash of racism. This conclusion will be strengthened many times over when we get to Barak’s own description of the failure of the peace process. But this will have to wait…