In the collective Jewish consciousness, Yom Kippur carries a profound significance, but for the members of that particular generation, the one that was there in 1973, this day is marred by a heavy shadow — the shadow of the Yom Kippur War. This week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, currently visiting the U.S., recalls those days, and confesses that "in the end, everything starts from the personal things."
Barak was attending Stanford University in California when he heard about the outbreak of war. He immediately flew back to Israel and commanded an impromptu armored corps battalion, assembled specifically for the war. In this capacity, Barak commanded over many additional soldiers who had returned from abroad, as he did.
After several days of bitter battles — at the Chinese Farm and the Suez Canal — he recalls that he arrived at the night camp where the tanks were parked, and suddenly realized that one of the armored vehicles was missing. It was the vehicle commanded by Yehuda Hadad, today the president of the Shamoon College of Engineering in Beersheba.
Barak, who had served as the commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), and who would later become the Israel Defense Forces chief of general staff, gathered several soldiers and marched 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) into the area where the Egyptian tank division was stationed and rescued the Israeli soldiers from enemy territory. He recalls the chill that went down his spine when he found out that one of his soldiers was Yosef Weiler, whose two brothers had already been killed, and immediately discharged him from the battalion.
Barak recounts the painful experiences that stay with him and explains that sometimes there are tough decisions that have to be made "here and now."
He leaves it up to us to interpret that remark as we see fit: regarding the Iranian issue or the negotiations with the Palestinians or the coalition that will be assembled after the next elections.
Barak begins with the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "For Israel's sake," he says, "we have to make a decision on Judea and Samaria."
"And if there is no partner," he adds, "we must converge into the settlement blocs, relocate dozens of settlements to the settlement blocs and permit citizens who do not wish to be evacuated to consider remaining there as residents of the Palestinian Authority."
Barak explains that "right now there is calm in the territories and constant friction in Gaza. In the long run, this calm in Judea and Samaria will expire. It would be enormously beneficial for us to pursue the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and push hard for a two-state solution."
"I am a realist and I understand the situation. I know that there is no guarantee that a permanent agreement is even possible, and perhaps even an interim agreement cannot be reached. That is why I want to reiterate: If no permanent deal is struck, and if during the course of the negotiations it becomes clear that an interim agreement is also untenable, we will have to consider unilateral action. Such measures would serve as a barrier on this slippery slope that we have been sliding down for years, heading toward the possibility of this country no longer being Jewish or democratic."
"My standpoint is painful, but simple: There are about 11 million people currently living between the Jordan [River] and the sea — 7.5 million Israelis and 4.5 million Palestinians. If only one government were to rule over the entire territory, the state could not possibly be both Jewish and democratic. If the Palestinians were afforded the right to vote for the Knesset, eventually we would turn into a binational state. We won't let that happen under any circumstances. But if they are here and not afforded the right to vote, then this is no longer a democratic state."
"I don't think we should lose sight of security concerns. I am certain that the settlement blocs — Maaleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel — must remain under our authority. I am certain that strategic facilities must remain under our authority. I am certain that an [Israeli] military presence must be maintained for a very long time along the Jordan River."
"It would be best to do this under an agreement with the Palestinians, but if that doesn't work out, practical measures must be taken to initiate the separation. We need to draw a boundary within Israel, like the West Bank barrier fence but including the settlement blocs. It is only in this way that we can ensure the establishment of Palestinian state on the other side. It would be in Israel's best interest, we're not doing anyone any favors."
Q: How many communities would have to be evacuated under the terms of this new plan?
"I envision some 320,000 settlers remaining in the settlement blocs. This accounts for about 80 or 90 percent of the settlers. A few tens of thousands will have to be brought home from the secluded communities during the course of several years."
"In the initial stage we will have to offer them compensation. We can't repeat the mistakes made in the (2005) withdrawal from Gaza: We have to first erect new communities within the settlement blocs. A new community will take about three years to build. After that, communities that will wish to relocate collectively into the blocs or into Israel would be able to do so. Anyone who wants to take monetary compensation and relocate on their own, should do so. Those who still want to stay on land that will gradually shift to Palestinian control will have the opportunity to consider remaining there, with a several-year trial period, after which they will be able to decide whether to stay or return to Israel."
"The time has come to look Israeli society straight in the eye and say 'we succeeded in keeping some 80% to 90% of the Jewish population inside Israel, after they went there for years with the encouragement of the Israeli government.' That is a huge accomplishment, if we manage to bring them inside Israel's permanent borders. True, there would be secluded settlements that would have to be evacuated and brought home, or allowed to try living under Palestinian authority."
"I don't pretend to have all the details figured out and I'm not saying that the plan can be implemented tomorrow morning. It is not at all simple. But we have to cultivate the desire to move forward. It would help us not only with the Palestinians, but will all the region's countries that have all been waiting for something like this, and it would help with the Europeans and with the American administration."
"I believe that ultimately, it would also result in stronger unity amongst ourselves, as long as the process is founded on responsible dialog with the settlers of Judea and Samaria. It is not an easy decision, but Yom Kippur is a day of soul-searching and it is a good opportunity to look decades into the past and decades into the future and say 'we are no longer a young country. We are 64 years old. We haven't been in Judea and Samaria for a year or two, but for 45 years. It is time to make decisions not just based on ideology and gut feelings, but on an accurate reading of reality."
Steps toward a separation
"We have to embrace the settlers," says Barak. "Most of them arrived with a sense that they were on a mission on behalf of the various governments, or at least with the government's approval. As defense minister, I can't ignore their vast presence in the front lines of every IDF combat unit. They are a very important part of Israeli society."
And still, Barak stresses that "I am consistent." He reminds us how, after Camp David where he sat there with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and made concession after concession, he finally walked out and said "Arafat is not a partner for now, and that is why we have no choice but to take steps to separate from the Palestinians. Two states for two peoples. Us here and them there. That is what I said 12 years ago, and ever since then I've reiterated these sentiments consistently. When I served as defense minister under [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert, and when I joined [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's coalition. I was glad that Netanyahu gave his Bar-Ilan speech. I was very pleased to hear his courageous words in the Knesset and later in the U.S."
Q: With this approach, are you convinced that your place is with the current government?
"Our governing system is parliamentary. The government is made up of a coalition of parties, and each party has its own preferences and its own issues. I believe that one of the reasons for the existence of the Independence Party that I chair, and its continued presence within the coalition, is to ensure that the current government is not exclusively right wing but also has a clear voice representing the center. I am aware of the fact that we are not a majority in this coalition, and I respect the majority. It was no coincidence that I cited the prime minister's speeches at Bar-Ilan and in the U.S."
Q: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has declared that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner. Is Abbas no longer relevant?
"Abbas is the Palestinian Authority's elected leader. He was elected far more democratically than [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, not to mention countless others. We have to take him into account. He is a serious man, a Palestinian leader. He is not a member of the Zionist movement, he does not belong to Peace Now and he is certainly not from the Beitar movement. He is our partner for dialog right now, and he is definitely a partner."
"I am being completely realistic on this issue. I don't harbor any delusions. I don't think that it would be enough for us to just want peace a little more. In this respect I believe that the government is right. The onus is on the Palestinian side."
"A lot of mistakes have been made by the Americans and the Europeans. I have said this more than once: In the Middle East, the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that a pessimist is an optimist with experience. However, we can't operate on the notion that all the bleakest forecasts will necessarily materialize."
"That is why I tell anyone who criticizes Abbas: Is there anyone else who can take his place? You think that we should help oust him? Which one of you can guarantee that he won't be replaced by Hamas? Some people reply to this by saying that it will happen anyway. That is not true. Who knows what will happen in the future? There is still a chance that we can achieve a better outcome."
"Abbas and [Palestinian prime minister] Salam Fayyad are building up the Palestinian institutions and the Palestinian law enforcement system there. They are not perfect, and we aren't always pleased with the things they do, certainly not with their conduct in the U.N. But they have security forces that help maintain public order and rule of law among Palestinians. They combat terror for their own reasons and they do things that positively impact Israel. I suggest that we don't shut our eyes and ignore that.
Q: Are you concerned over the possibility that Abbas will step down?
"We must be careful to avoid prophesying, because our prophecies could become assessments that guide our actions. At the end of the day, we are living under normalized conditions. There is no missile threat from Nablus and Ramallah. Obviously we can't fall asleep at our posts, and the IDF is deployed and ready, but the direction of bolstering the Palestinian Authority is the right one."
When we get to the bridge
It appears that, at least in this interview, Barak is leaning toward the Left. He refers us to the archives to prove that this is not the case. But Barak is trying to differentiate himself and label himself as the responsible adult. He says that whatever happens, his Independence Party will run in the next elections and he believes the party will get enough votes to be represented in the Knesset (though many experts believe it won't).
Barak explains that "no one knows when the elections will be held. I can't say whether we will be able to overcome the obstacle posed by the  budget, and the elections will be held on time, in over a year, or if we will find ourselves already there in the beginning of 2013. I am not discussing partnerships and connections. Independence, like its name suggests, is an independent party."
A cut to the defense budget, he says, would be unacceptable. "You really have to be blind to look at the Middle East and arrive at the conclusion that now is the time to cut the defense budget. The IDF is not asking for a budget increase."
"It is essential to build a multi-year long term plan for the IDF that will touch on planning for precise weaponry, multi-layer interception and entry into cyberwarfare. There is a wide arc connecting this weekend's incident at Mount Harif [in the Sinai] and the need to focus on long-range threats," the defense minister said, referring to the infiltration of three Sinai terrorists on Friday which resulted in the deaths of the terrorists as well as an IDF soldier.
"This is not a game. The defense establishment is a large body and there is always room to streamline. Streamlining is always done with the aim of getting stronger. Despite the changes surrounding us, the defense budget is consistently decreasing in terms of the percentage of gross domestic product. The current government's priorities are diverting funds from defense to other areas."
"That is why all these financial acrobatics, intended to fool the public into thinking that the defense budget is actually increasing, is a false argument. The defense budget is growing at a slower pace than the education budget and the health budget and slower than the social services budgets and ever slower than the infrastructure budget."
Barak compares Israel's economy to a horse carrying heavy weights, with more weights being piled on all the time. "The government cannot add any more weights. Of the defense budget, 15 billion shekels (nearly $4 billion) are spent on purchases inside Israel. It is a major tool to combat recession, and the direct livelihood of 15,000 Israeli families. Half a million workers rely on the exports that come out of the defense budget."
"The defense establishment is the true source, and widest springboard, for innovation in advanced technologies. There, in the incubators of the intelligence corps and the Air Force and others, that is where people who later found high-tech companies are groomed. The value of the defense budget to the economy is immense. Anyone who really understands micro-economics at a time of recession and economic slowdown understands that in this type of situation, the economic fabric must be protected, and the defense budget is a part of that."
The defense minister is not ruling out a future appointment as finance minister. He declares that "this situation needs to be addressed responsibly, not by cutting the defense establishment's multi-year resources. I'm not saying that it is impossible to halt payments during one year, if they say, we're having a difficult year and we need to transfer a little less, but we are committed to making up the sum next year. That way we can work out deals with some of the suppliers and put off payment from year A to year B. But you can't possibly think that we can dramatically decrease our investment in defense when dramatic events are transpiring all around us."
The defense minister offers a host of options for procuring the defense budget funds. He explains that there is plenty to be done on the macro-economic level. Barak argues that there are potentially 38 billion shekels (nearly $10 billion) available, if the government revokes exemptions currently granted to high-tech and other types of companies. "I'm talking about companies based in Herzliya, not in Hatzor Haglilit (population 8,700). They pay ridiculously low taxes. There are another 140 billion shekels ($36 billion) in taxes being evaded by workers who don't report income — the gray economy. You could also go into the pension market and offer government bonds linked to major projects and offer benefits, and there will be demand."
"Things don't always have to end in war between IDF generals and treasury officials," he says.
We cannot delegate responsibility
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, in an interview with Israel Hayom, the prime minister asked "what if the U.S. fails to take action against Iran?" The defense minister insists that on this issue he is united with the prime minister. He stresses that Israel cannot entirely rely on the world, or on the U.S. in particular, to stop Iran's nuclear aspirations, even if it is clear to all that action is required.
"I hope the world voices opposition and refuses to allow Iran to gain nuclear capability under any circumstances. Can we count on it 100 percent? I say we can't."
"We always say that when it comes down to it, the responsibility for decisions pertaining to the future and security of the State of Israel, like decisions on Iran's nuclear program, are ours alone. We cannot delegate responsibility, not even to our closest and most trusted allies, and the U.S. is our closest and most trusted ally."
"This issue is the Israeli leadership's top priority national responsibility. I know that the Americans recognize that this is our position, and they respect it."
"Important people in the country have been telling me 'ye of little faith, why don't you count on this person or that person or the other person? If anything happens with Iran that necessitates action, they will obviously take action!' To this I say 'nothing is obvious.'"
Q: The Americans believe in sanctions. Are there any more sanctions that could possibly prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons?
"Clearly we would like to see tougher sanctions, which are already at an unprecedented level. The sanctions do have an effect, to a certain degree, but I don't see them bending the will of Iran's leadership. There is room to make them harsher. It is vastly important to ensure that the sanctions are enforced. The Russians and the Chinese need to be brought on board, so that they do not remain where they are now. Will all this succeed in swaying Iran? I personally don't believe it will be enough."
Q: Ultimately, will a military strike be unavoidable?
"I am usually careful not make statements of this kind. We would be very pleased to wake up one morning and see that the Iranians have finally gotten it and abandoned their nuclear program. But clearly that is not a realistic scenario."
"I won't be sad if the Americans decide that they need to take action due to their own considerations and enacting their own responsibility. We won't stop them, obviously. When we say that all the options are on the table and that we expect everyone concerned to prepare for it - we mean it. I think that says it all. I also think that the Americans have extraordinary capability in this field. But we rely first and foremost on ourselves."
Barak praised the U.S. Senate's recent approval of more serious action against Iran, saying that this was "an important, encouraging step" and that it would shape the policy of this president, should he be reelected, or another president if he gets elected. He says that the U.S.'s responsibility is to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability, as it has explicitly stated, and to use all the available means to achieve that end, even if it involves use of force.
Differences are being externalized
This week, Barak visited New York and met with senior U.S. officials, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly chief of staff and still a close friend to U.S. President Barack Obama. Barak told them that Netanyahu has no designs on influencing the fierce presidential race currently underway in the U.S., and that his stance on Iran is real and reflects Israel's position. Barak remarked that the tensions between Israel and the Americans as they are portrayed in the media are greatly exaggerated. "There are certain differences of opinion between us and the U.S. that have been externalized somewhat. That's okay. We are working toward reaching understandings with the Americans."
Regarding the rumored spat between Barak and Netanyahu, he says that "the prime minister and I see eye to eye on the Iranian issue. As the Americans say, there is no daylight between us.
Q: To what degree is Washington angry with us, did you find?
"I don't think that the media representation of disputes, as they exist between us and the Americans or as they exist between us and ourselves, reflects reality. Closed door conversations with the Americans are practical and purposeful."
"We maintain regular contact with the most senior echelons in the U.S. — both in the White House and in the Pentagon. As Yom Kippur approaches, we must raise our gaze and look a year into the past and a year into the future. We need to see that when it comes to intelligence, we are in complete agreement. The same is true about our general intentions. We subscribe to the same rhetoric. We and the Americans are saying the same thing: A nuclear Iran is unacceptable.
"We are determined to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear. All the options are on the table, except for the option of containment. We agree on the end goal. What do we disagree on? On the methods of achieving this goal there are certain gaps. In my opinion, these gaps are smaller than they appear from the outside, but they are not insignificant, and that is the topic of our conversations."
"So we are talking to the Americans, about timetables too. We adhere to a different clock than the U.S. because, though we agree that the Iranians are determined to develop nuclear weapons, no order has been given yet to actually build a bomb. But we think that the reason no such order has been given is that this order, or its reflection in Iran's nuclear program, will become known to us, to the Americans and to others and they are afraid that it will elicit action. Action will push them backwards."
"That is why they are first striving to get to a point where they are convincingly protected, in their opinion, from a surgical Israeli attack, and possibly even an American attack. Once that is achieved, they will consider how to proceed."
"The clock is ticking differently because the options we have for actions are more limited than those of the Americans. Israel doesn't have some of the resources that the U.S. has. Therefore, from our standpoint, when the Iranians dig even deeper and build even more fortified facilities and amass more centrifuges, they are posing more immediate obstacles for us than for the U.S. That is the whole story."
"We know from the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report that the Iranians are still enriching uranium to 20%. It is true that they are using some of that enriched material in the research facility, but they are continuing to progress. It's all there in the IAEA report."
Q: And what if the Americans don't take action in the end?
"The questions are — what scenario will prompt them to consider action? What scenarios will prompt us to consider action? What are the differences between the scenarios? What is the significance? I wish to reiterate: It is best if these discussions are held behind closed doors. That is where they are in fact held. I, too, hold these types of meetings on behalf of the prime minister, and I am not the only one."
Q: Up until several weeks ago the general sense was that we were on the brink of war. It seems that things have calmed down somewhat. Has anything happened that we should know about? Even your own public remarks have become more moderate.
"Nothing has changed about my public remarks. Not a thing. The prime minister and I have been saying the same things, and we cling to our argument: It won't be a matter of weeks, but it will also not be a matter of years. It is important that the Iranians know these things.
Q: Has your relationship with Netanyahu deteriorated? You have recently made divergent statements on Iran, the U.S., the budget and other issues.
"The Prime Minister and I see eye to eye on the Iranian issue. We are not alone in this, either. There are also Lieberman and other friends. When necessary, the prime ministers involves even more cabinet ministers. On other issues, my opinions differ from most of the cabinet members' and possibly from the prime minister's as well, like on the urgency of the peace process with the Palestinians and on economic issues."
"But make no mistake: Netanyahu is the prime minister and I am familiar with the responsibility he shoulders as such. I was prime minister myself in the past, and there were many ministers who felt differently and came out and said it on multiple occasions.
Q: Can you identify any efforts to meddle in U.S. politics in Netanyahu's conduct?
"I communicated a very clear message during my meetings in Washington this week: The prime minister means what he says about Iran. He is voicing the official stance of the State of Israel, not his own personal opinion. There is no ulterior motive behind these statements. No effort to intervene in any U.S. election process. The support from both sides of the House, and especially from the American people, is an asset to Israel, because the U.S. is our most important ally. There is extraordinary intelligence cooperation and defense commitment between us. We should maintain it and preserve it.
Being worthy of the sacrifice
Q: Again, to conclude, on Yom Kippur eve, what lessons did you learn from that war that changed the face of the region?
"The commitment to never let it happen again and to ensure that the State of Israel really is worthy of the sacrifice made by those who died. I was the head of Military Intelligence and our entire generation has the need to prevent surprise attacks and to create deterrence. Today I look at the long way the intelligence branch has come since then, at the inefficiency of the sheer firepower of then versus the precision of today, and I see the most important lesson: We must not fall into diplomatic blindness. We can't fall into a specific notion about our military capability or our intelligence."
"There has to be honest and direct communications between the different branches, and we must always be open and attentive to the details of what is happening around us. Never put our heads in the sand. Never ignore threats, but also never operate on the assumption that the worst could happen — this could paralyze the entire nation."
Q: What are the odds that we will be caught off guard?
"History does not repeat itself, so the possibility that we will be caught off guard with a surprise attack of 1.5 million soldiers charging at us from two fronts simultaneously, is slim. But when you look at the events in the Middle East over the last two years you realize that other things could happen. They could really happen."
"I have learned three main lessons from the developments of the last two years. First of all, we have to be humble when it comes to our abilities to predict the future. Look at Egypt, for example. The second lesson, which only becomes more poignant when you examine the world's reaction to what is happening in Syria, is that there is a gap between 'said' and 'did'. No intelligence gathering is necessary to verify the atrocities taking place there. You can see on television how the bulldozers dig long ditches and bodies of women and children are buried in mass graves. Helicopters attack civilians. Everyone says 'this cannot be allowed to happen' but no action is taken."
"The third lesson is that not everything that happens in the Middle East is a direct product of our conflict with the Palestinians. There are historical events that are bigger than us, and we need to conduct ourselves within them to ensure our future. It is mainly in our own hands."