Israel's most decorated soldier, former PM, publishes tell-all book

In a candid memoir, Ehud Barak looks back on a life that has spanned the history of the State of Israel.

THEN-PRIME MINISTER Ehud Barak gestures as he and US president Bill Clinton depart the White House en route to Camp David in 1999 (photo credit: MARK WILSON/REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Ehud Barak gestures as he and US president Bill Clinton depart the White House en route to Camp David in 1999
(photo credit: MARK WILSON/REUTERS)
In December 1987, an Israeli truck crashed into a minibus, killing four Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Riots and violence soon spread from Gaza to Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“We assumed its ferocity and scale would subside,” Ehud Barak, then the deputy IDF chief of staff, recalls. But it didn’t subside; it turned into the first intifada.
“Now, we were asking teenage recruits to operate as riot police against stone-throwing mobs.” For the veteran soldier, the changing dynamics had a deep impact on questions about Israel’s future and its rule over millions of civilians. As prime minister, he would seek to bring peace. Now, years later, he looks back on those decisions.
In My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace, Barak, one of Israel’s most famous commandos and generals, tells a riveting tale of his life in Israel. He was a central figure from the 1970s in various operations and at key stages in the country’s history. He tries to weigh the lessons learned in his book with the desire to tell the story as it happened.
“This book is only partly the story of my life,” he writes. “It’s also about Israel, the country whose birth I had the privilege of witnessing.”
Barak was born a few years before the State of Israel was established – the son of a kibbutz, a community that didn’t want merely to farm the land but to “be part of transforming what it meant to be a Jew.” His mother was a Zionist activist from Poland; his father was from Lithuania. As a young man, Barak worked in the fields and grew up in the shadow of the 1948 War of Independence and the 1956 Suez Crisis. He yearned to be a soldier and practiced as much he could. Inducted to the army in 1959, he joined the new commando unit Sayeret Matkal in the summer of 1960. Barak deftly handles the need to tell readers about colorful missions across the Golan into Syria, while not bogging down in too many missions and details about each one.
A seeming twist of fate – though perhaps not surprising given the country’s small size – saw Barak and future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu serving in the same unit.
“Bibi was smart, tough and self-confident,” Barak recalls. “He also understood my determination to build the unit into a military strike force.” In telling about the brazen commando operations, he rarely takes a step back to digest or fully contextualize the raids. This means the reader is not distracted from the narrative, but may also be left hungry for some larger discussion.
One exception is the retelling of the famous 1973 raid on Beirut in which Barak dressed as a woman.
“I remember reading in one earlier book, otherwise surprisingly accurate, about our five weeks of intensive training,” he writes. Five weeks? Hardly, he notes. “Two of the women soldiers in the sayeret helped us with our lipstick, blue eyeliner and eye shadow.” He takes issue with the Steven Spielberg portrayal of the raid in his 2005 film Munich , saying its scenes of gun battles on the dockside were pure fantasy.
Barak’s account of the history he participated in up to 1990s is rarely critical of his contemporaries. Even discussing the massacres of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla, he notes, “I can’t honestly say that, in Arik’s [Sharon] or Rafi’s [Eitan] place, I’d have been sufficiently wise not to have let the Phalangists enter the [Palestinian] camps in the first place.” He says his impression of the Phalangists was of “overblown, postadolescent thugs, not murderers.”
The most interesting part of the book deals with Barak’s struggling to come to terms with Israel’s conflict in the 1990s.
“We made the cardinal error of assuming the occupation was sustainable,” he writes. Israel stopped seeing the “human effects” of what constant conflict in the West Bank and Gaza was doing in 1987, Barak said. He also candidly discusses attempts in the 1990s to change the equation in Iraq and Syria, including contemplating assassinating Saddam Hussein, a mission Barak says he agreed with.
The bulk of Barak’s narrative ends at Camp David in 2000, where he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the Palestinians.
“This is not negotiation. This is a manipulative attempt to pull us to a position we will never be able to accept, without the Palestinians moving one inch,” he wrote at the time. He also details Israel’s weighing of alternatives to confront Iran up until 2015. This is particularly relevant and critical information, but it gets only a handful of pages.
In this candid and important account, the former prime minister leaves much of the analysis to the reader, preferring to lay out clearly what he saw at the time. His final message is one of hope, and that is encouraging.
Excerpt from MY COUNTRY, MY LIFE
By Ehud Barak
St. Martin’s Press
480 pages; $29.99
In 1987, for the first time, the thought of a political career crept into Ehud Barak’s mind. He was just informed that he wouldn’t be receiving the job of IDF chief of staff, which instead went to Dan Shomron. The idea of politics suddenly had some appeal – one he discussed with Yitzhak Rabin, then the defense minister.
Out of nowhere, a leading political journalist, Hanan Kristal, had written a story in the newspaper Hadashot in 1986 purporting to predict the successors to Israel’s political old guard: Peres and Rabin in Labor, Begin and Shamir in the Likud. The paper ran side-by-side photos of the ostensible future leaders, doctored to look older, who Hanan predicted would go head-to-head in the election of 1996, a decade away. One was Israel’s ambassador to the UN and a protégé of Moshe Arens: Bibi Netanyahu. The other was me.
Rabin listened with patience but remained firm that I should stay and become Dan’s deputy. In the end, I agreed I’d think things over and that we’d talk in a week’s time. In the meantime, I went to see two veteran generals who had found themselves in a similar situation, mentioned as possible chiefs of staff but never chosen: Arik [Sharon] and Ezer Weizman. I visited Arik on his farm and found him, and his expanding girth, settled on a sofa in the living room. I filled him in on my conversation with Rabin.
“I’m considering leaving,” I said. “It just seems like a long time to wait, even if I do get the job after Dan. There’s a lot else I want to do in life.”
Arik was probably the general most experienced in being denied the chief of staff’s office. On at least two occasions, he might reasonably have been considered. But in a career littered with tense encounters with his superiors, it never happened. “You should stay on,” he said. “You’re not that old. It’ll probably be good for you, and the army, to be deputy and then chief.” The only further advice he gave me was to do all I could formally to commit Yitzhak to making me Dan’s successor after his term ended.
I visited Ezer at his home in the seaside town of Caesarea. We sat on the terrace, with Ezer’s gangly frame stretched out in one of the cane chairs.
“Ehud, if you stay, do you think you have a good chance of being the next ramatkal [chief of staff]?” he asked. I said that while nothing could be certain, I thought there was a good chance. He replied without hesitation: “Then stay.” He had come close to the top job, he told me. On the eve of the Six Day War, when Rabin had collapsed physically from the weeks of tension, Yitzhak had asked him to take over. He’d said no. But he said he’d always believed he could and should have been chief of staff – and that if he hadn’t left to go into politics, he still might have got the job. Then, suddenly, he shouted, “Reuma!” When his wife appeared, he said, “Tell Barak the missing piece in my life, the one I’ve never stopped regretting.” She smiled and said, “It’s the fact you did not become ramatkal.”
I saw Rabin a couple of days later. Though I’d pretty much decided to take the deputy’s job, I was still bothered by the prospect of serving as deputy for the next four years only to find someone else being named chief of staff. I knew that no matter what assurances Yitzhak gave me, there was no way of being sure. He did say he viewed me as the natural next-in-line. But I still felt hesitant.
“I want you to consider two things,” I said. The first was a formal decision that Dan would have only a single deputy during his time as chief of staff. He said yes to that. Yet the second request was going to be even more difficult. Heartening though it was to hear I was Dan’s “natural successor,” I asked him to put it in writing. It was not that I doubted his word. But if the surprise result of the last election was any indication, there was no way of predicting which party would be in power when Dan’s term ended. I wanted him to keep a record for himself of our understanding in his desk and pass it on if someone else was defense minister by that time. Without a moment’s hesitation, he took out a piece of paper and wrote down exactly what he’d told me about the succession. He shook my hand as I left. “You’ve made the right decision,” he said.
And I had, even though Dan and I – and Rabin too – would soon face by far the most difficult challenge in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians since our capture of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war.
It began with an accident. On Tuesday, December 8, 1987, an Israeli tank transporter crashed into a minibus carrying Palestinians from the Jabalya refugee camp near the main crossing from Gaza into Israel. Four passengers were killed.
By the time of the funerals the next day, a rumor had spread, no less incendiary for being absurd, that the crash had been deliberate – retaliation for the fatal stabbing of an Israeli man a few days earlier. Crowds of Palestinians leaving the burials began shouting “Death to Israel!” They hurled rocks and bottles at Israeli security patrols and blocked streets with burning tires. By the following day, the violence started spreading to the West Bank, and then to parts of east Jerusalem. The headline writers moved from the word “disturbances” to “unrest” and finally to the Palestinians’ own name for the most serious outbreak of violence since 1967: the “intifada.” The uprising.
Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.