It was during the question-and-answer session following Ehud Barak’s recent remarks in Livingston, N.J., that hot-button issues were raised. The A-word — apartheid — was mentioned and Barak’s answer was revealing.
Asked if Israel is an apartheid state, Barak, former prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001, and head of the Labor Party until 2011, pointedly declined to use the word but said, “The essence of it is true.”
Speaking in his heavily accented English at Livingston’s Crystal Plaza, he warned that the government’s current policies — which he described as “right-wing” — threaten Israel’s democracy and lead to repression.
It’s everything Barak spent his political career working against; he’s an ardent advocate for peace with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.
A “one-state solution is an existential threat to the Zionist project because it leads either to a non-Jewish or non-democratic state,” he said. “It has to be stopped or blocked. I see no more urgent task for our generation.”
Barak’s May 15 appearance was part of the Green Brook Country Club’s book club series. The event, attended by about 400 people, followed an interview format, with veteran broadcast journalist and author Martin Fletcher posing the questions. Fletcher focused primarily on Barak’s book, “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace,” published this month by St. Martin’s Press. It is a memoir intertwined with Barak’s observations of political machinations and his quest for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In his remarks, Barak, a consummate diplomat, never called out the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by name although he didn’t hold back his criticism of the government.
“The leaders of the right wing, they are not stupid,” he said. “They understand that if they try to push toward one state where you have to permanently reign over millions of people against their will, you will need certain legislation, tactics, and practices that cannot pass in a normal healthy democracy.”
Barak said there would be widespread civilian backlash and the courts would not uphold legislation making Israel the permanent ruler of the Palestinian people.
Other harms include a media that will “criminalize and ridicule” the move. “The values of the ethical court of the IDF and the secret service will not allow you to have the practices you have in mind.”
He warned that the right wing has already laid the groundwork and democratic institutions in Israel are “under permanent, continuous attack” by the government.
“This tendency is extremely unhealthy for our future as a Jewish Zionist democracy,” he said.
Other current events brought up in the approximately 15-minute question-and-answer session included the deadly demonstrations at the Gazan border, the U.S. embassy move, and President Donald Trump. Questions were written on index cards and submitted in advance to Fletcher.
He treaded cautiously around a question that asked for his opinion on Trump. “Any people deserve the government they elect,” he said.
Regarding the deadly protests in Gaza, the largest of which occurred the day before his appearance, Barak agreed that if he was in charge, there is little that could have been done differently. He declined to blame Israel but suggested that an alternative strategic approach should have been undertaken years ago to ease the “real crisis” there.
About moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Barak said, “It’s very good. I would have expected it to happen 70 years ago, or at least 25 years ago, but Congress always found a reason not to do it.”
He does not see it foreclosing the possibility of a two-state solution, for which he continues to advocate. “Once the Palestinians are ready to negotiate seriously and get their own state, they will have a capital, probably one that includes certain areas in Jerusalem, and they will call it ‘al-Quds,’” the Arabic phrase meaning holy city.