A Conversation With Ehud Barak

Newsweek-The Post's Lally Weymouth interviewed Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Davos, Switzerland, this week. Excerpts:

Q. You were critical of the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.

A. Our interpretation is that clearly the Iranians are aiming at nuclear capability. It's probably true that . . . they may have slowed down the weapons group in 2003, because it was the height of American militarism. . . . We think that they are quite advanced, much beyond the level of the Manhattan Project. We suspect they are probably already working on warheads for ground-to-ground missiles . . . [and] that probably they have another clandestine enrichment operation beyond the one in Natanz.

What kind?

The dots that we see . . . cannot be easily connected in a way that does not lead to a nuclear program. . . . The leading intelligence communities should concentrate on finding whether there is . . . a clandestine enrichment operation and a weapons group working on the weapons technology.

Do you think the Americans will fail to take action as a result of the National Intelligence Estimate?

Clearly the NIE reduced the enthusiasm even for tougher sanctions. Basically, in strategic terms, we face a triad of challenges: one, radical Muslim terror; two, nuclear proliferation; and [three] rogue states.

To deal with such threats . . . we need a much deeper and more intimate cooperation between the United States, the E.U., Russia and China. And this needs a paradigm shift in the way we approach China and Russia.

Does Israel have the ability to conduct a military raid on Iran alone?

I am not going to talk about this.

I know the Vinograd report will be issued shortly and you promised to leave the government if the government came out badly.

I remember what I've said. . . . I will read the report and decide what is best for the country. We have . . . to support stability and continuity of government.

Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert and President Bush are now trying to do what you tried to do with [Bill] Clinton during his last year in office. . . . Do you think it's possible to achieve peace in the next year?

Every attempt to reach peace makes sense in Israel. We always have to act if we can have a breakthrough. . . . When I dealt with it, there was [Yasser] Arafat. We doubted whether he was willing, but there was no doubt that he was able. Here we have two [Palestinian leaders] who look moderate -- [President] Abu Mazen and clearly [Salam] Fayyad, who is very good, like an American executive. . . . They are both willing and ready, but there is a great question mark as to whether they are able [to deliver]. They control only half of their people.

. . . There has never been a shortage of goodwill on Israel's side. What we have found is that the Palestinian side is unable to live up to the most basic commitments; stopping indiscriminate terror against our civilians.

So the Palestinian leadership must control both territories, not just the West Bank?

We are not going to give up our operational freedom for anti-terror activity in the West Bank as long as there is a threat of terror.

As long as Hamas is in Gaza?

Yes, as long as Hamas is in Gaza and terror activities are taking place in the West Bank. We are focusing on the nature of a permanent agreement, not about how to fight terror.

Aren't the Americans and the international community pushing you to ease checkpoints?

Yes, they are pushing that. We are doing it from time to time but only with one constraint -- we will not do anything that will [weaken] Israel.

You expected that once Israel had left Gaza, there would be no violence from Gaza aimed at Israel?

Most Israelis expected that once Israel was out of Gaza . . . they would concentrate on building their own economy and their own lives. But Hamas took over and things became worse. There has been continued shelling of our cities, especially . . . Sderot. There is indiscriminate shelling of civilians.

No sovereign government would accept this without responding.

Can you say anything about the raid that Israel waged into Syria, supposedly against a nuclear facility, last September?


Do you think that the Syrian track should be pursued?

I think that we have shown . . . a respect for Syria, its interests and its leaders. We expect from them to do the same regarding Israel. If this basic kind of element will be there, I think a Syrian track is . . . potentially positive.

I thought the U.S. has opposed Israel negotiating with Syria.

I think they realized in recent years that we understand the Syrian issue better.

There is a rumor that Pakistan is helping Saudi Arabia build a nuclear program.

I don't want to . . . I have no information.

It's clear that the real risk with Iran turning nuclear is that it will be the end of the non-proliferation regime because it will open the door on active proliferation. We already had a wake-up call from the case of A.Q. Khan, who was ready to sell to anyone, especially if he was a good Muslim. It's very dangerous that we will end up in 10 to 15 years with a nuclear device in the hands of terrorists.

You think in 10 years?

It's possible.

Lally Weymouth