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The General Who Wasn’t There

Happy birthday, Ehud Barak!

Orian Morris
February 12, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

“So,” he said, as he was walking me into his new study, “you’re the journalist?”

His tone was so unimpressed, that I didn’t even bother to challenge him. Actually, this was not my first awkward engagement, in this flat turned into an office. I found myself in a tight spot several minutes before, as his wife, Nilly, escorted me in and casually asked if I had read the whole book. Truth is, I got really close. I read 408 out of 458 pages of Ehud Barak’s autobiography. But I lied, and said, of course I had, as she looked at me with incredulous eyes.

Thing is, I planned my time very carefully before this meeting. I planned it so well that I fell ill and did not get out of bed for three whole days, before a meeting that in some ways I was anticipating, and waiting for, for much of my adult life. A meeting with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The man to get the army out of Lebanon, after an agonizing 20 years of skirmishing and conflict. The man who got closer than anyone to reaching a final peace accord with the Palestinians, but eventually failed, reaping only bloodshed and the shortest and most tumultuous premiership in Israeli history.

I must plead that it wasn’t entirely my fault that I was yet to be done with his book. His people had called me the night before and suggested that we push our scheduled meeting forward so that we have more time for the talk. In that way, I lost some precious hours of reading. Yet, I rationalized, what could have I really missed out on? There could be no surprise ending to this plot. We all know he did his final stint in government, as a minister of defense in the Bibi regime, got out just before it turned really embarrassing, and bought five flats in a lucrative project in the heart of Tel Aviv. Shortly after he made this eccentric and very costly purchase, a caricature in the daily Haaretz newspaper had him looking out five different balconies at the same time. Who else would buy five, not necessarily adjacent flats, in one high-rise building?

His people also asked me another peculiar question: whether he is expected to read anything prior to our meeting. I said no, of course not. It will be his life we’ll be discussing. He is familiar with the subject matter, I added laughing.

But after I hung up, I realized there was more to the question than my reply. For I have written extensively about this person. I wrote a couple of book reviews on prior attempts at his biography. I wrote an anecdotal piece that I published in a column, and at least a couple of opinion pieces. Finally, I wrote a short story about him, under the title “The Man Who Shot the Minister of Defense,” which I published in a collection of mine. If that weren’t enough, I also spent a couple of years manning the security post right outside his door. So, one could argue there was some background material to cover here, but I thought it better to keep quiet about it.

As far as familiarity with the final 50 pages, there wasn’t so much I could have missed out on. Plus, I was practically there nearly half the time, waiting outside his door, and seeing him walk in and out, and often witnessing some parts of the events he describes, from my own particular eyewitness perspective.

But I am jumping ahead of myself. After half a lifetime of contemplation on this very odd figure, he was now letting me in to his office, which was a lot like his old study from a couple of flats back, in the old lucrative high-rise where I used to sit outside his door. It was not furnished in good taste, to put it mildly. It was furnished in bad taste, of the kind that is affordable only for the superrich. For instance, there was a huge antique desk in the center of the space. On its front there was a heavy cast-iron molding engraved with his name, in English, in capital letters: EHUD BARAK.

I was in shock and in awe as we sat down, both of us in front of the heavy desk, sitting across from one another, with a small serving table, standing bare and empty, delineating the space. I was not offered anything, from coffee to candies, not even a glass of water, throughout our talk. When I told him I was recording the conversation, he replied that he’ll do so as well, except he didn’t bother.

“I trust you,” he finally said, meaning that he hoped that I would quote him correctly.

To which I retorted, “of course,” jokingly adding “you needn’t worry about it, I am the son of a historian,” which is an inside joke amongst Israelis, because it is how Bibi defined himself as he was stepping down from his ministerial job in the Sharon premiership, before his final and everlasting ascent back into the prime minister’s office. He got the joke, but wasn’t much amused, and added that he knew Bibi’s father quite well. He had met him after the loss of Yoni Netanyahu, Bibi’s elder brother, who was killed in Israel’s most glorious commando and rescue operation, Operation Yonatan (formally known as Entebbe, after the name of the Ugandan airport where the aircraft was held along with its many Jewish hostages). Barak played a crucial role in the early planning of this operation. More importantly, Barak is probably the key figure in introducing the commando methods and techniques, the modeling and meticulous preparation, that enabled the force to achieve its ambitious goal. His study was also a little overheated, which brought the best out of my pneumonia. He was wearing an unusual dark sports suit that people sometimes use over here as winter pajamas.

He continued: “We had some very fascinating conversations about Spain, and the rise of the nationalistic movements in the 19th century, the rise of Zionism as well.” He was still going on about the times he had with Netanyahu senior when I started worrying about our time, and cut him short.

“What I wanted to do is try and approach your character from some other perspectives, aspects of your personality that actually are not present in the book,” I began. Then he cut me short. “But has anyone read it?” he asked. “I think people haven’t read it at all.”

“Of course they haven’t,” I replied. “It just came out.”

“How many do you think have read it,” he asked. “Out of your 250,000 subscribers, are there 2,500 who have read it? I don’t think so.”

The conversation was taking an odd turn. It wasn’t that he was bitter or anything. He was just trying to quantify, realistically, his investment in this talk; figuring out aloud whether it was worth his time. I pushed on.

“Who would you expect to read this book?” I asked, but at this point I forgot to ask him something of importance: “Why did you have it published in English first, and not in Hebrew, your native language?” I was struggling for initiative with a general, a commando unit chief, one of the best and most renowned in the world, and though we just got started, he was already pushing me around.

So, he suggested: “Maybe we should discuss what’s in the book.”

“Certainly, most certainly,” I replied, obviously meaning the exact opposite. Thing is, I wanted the man. I didn’t believe in the depiction of the man of action I found in the book—an officer and a gentleman—while my knowledge of him suggested otherwise. You don’t get to be chief of staff in the Israeli army by being a gentleman. It’s not that it couldn’t be achieved, it was just very hard, and it wasn’t like him. Moreover, there is no way in hell you can become prime minister in Israel with these qualities. So I didn’t trust his self-depiction in the book, and I had the man in front of me. I wanted to catch him for real and figure out who could be hiding behind the stellar camouflage. But I was way out of my depth, as our so-called interview would prove.

“Sure, sure. It’s a supplement to the book, this talk,” I said. For a rare moment, in this conversation, he fell utterly silent during the next few seconds, assessing what might come next. For most of our conversation he was sidetracking me, railroading me, or lecturing and mansplaining at me, offhandedly, using only the remotest fraction of his brain—but during this short-lived silence, I really think he was all there.

I started, quite bluntly: “There are a few things in the book that left me with the sensation that I did not get the full account. It’s mostly things on a personal level. You seem to be a very gentlemanly figure in the book and I must admit that is very far removed from the image you have in the public eye, because you are also known to have participated in quite intensive power struggles during your seven-year term in the ministry of defense. For instance, today, almost 10 years later, do you not regret what happened to Gabi Ashkenazi?”

This daring thrust on my part requires some background: Ashkenazi was Israel’s army chief of staff at the time Barak served as minister of defense. It is common for the chief of staff to get along with his minister, because they usually share the same background, in the sense that Israeli ministers of defense are usually veteran generals. Ashkenazi was appreciated and loved by the public as an ex-general back in uniform after the Second Lebanon War. He enjoyed a kind of masculine ease, which Barak never had. This relationship soon proved volatile. But Ashkenazi was outclassed: He had found the wrong guy to mess with, and though everyone was counting on him to challenge Netanyahu, once out of the army, none of that came into being. He was wiped entirely off the political map. No one has heard of him since. That is what I was insinuating, with some hope Barak would shed some light into this affair.

And though it plagued the country for a few years, and also had some bearing on the possibility of an attack against Iran, this entire affair is nowhere to be found in the book. Ashkenazi, along with most heavy brass and intelligence chiefs, did not buy into what they considered to be a megalomaniacal plan to do what the United States was unwilling to take upon itself. Barak actually surprised me with quite a lengthy address on the subject, though some of it he suggested must be off the record, to which I conceded, of course.

“Look,” he said, “the basic traits of my character are exactly those that you would find in my book. I like to say that I have a selective memory: I remember only the good things. People I work with try and remind me, ‘Don’t you remember what this guy said or did?’ and I have no recollection of any of it. Though it seems to have worked out all right for me until now,” he added sardonically. Afterward, he narrated fully his version of the events in great detail, and concluded that it ended not only in bad conduct on the part of Ashkenazi, but something that borders on a felony.

I must admit that I was not familiar with this narrative, yet it seemed utterly convincing and authoritative coming from him. It also matched the end result, of Barak still being in the game, to some extent, and Ashkenazi being out. It also coincides with another distraught relationship and that is with former premier Olmert, who, again, was ushered out of the political arena, and into Israeli prison facilities, with the help of his defense minister, Ehud Barak, who said about Olmert that he was not fit to send soldiers into battle.

So, Barak had turned out to be a champion of just conduct in the civil service. That is also the case he is pleading in the public eye now, claiming that it is infected with systematic corruption, which might even accumulate to a case of treason, on the part of Bibi. Barak is now Bibi’s harshest rival in Israeli public life. He is the most outspoken, well-informed, and authoritative opposition that still persists. He is unrelenting, and though he does not enjoy the sympathy needed to win the vote, nor the political platform, he does seem to have enough energy to tumble this colossus of deceit.

There was only one moment in this interview when I came close to bringing this big fish out of the water, for him to genuinely acknowledge that there was another person in the room. By that I don’t mean myself alone, but any person; i.e., a being in Barak, as well. There is a lovely letter, in which Dostoyevsky explains to a friend what it is he writes about, and so he says: “I do not write about the workings of man, I am writing of the being within the man, the man within the man.” That’s what I was chasing after, confronted with this millionaire, eccentric, brilliant and courageous, devastatingly stonewalling general.

Although it took Barak less than 10 years to move from the position of army chief of staff to assume ascendancy over the political system, it was the most short-lived premiership in Israeli history. In only 18 months, Barak managed to implement policies, push forward ideas that had been repressed for years, decades even. Yet politically it was a debacle. So I tried to address this, to ask how he felt about it. The most gifted man of his generation (next to Amos Oz), could not hold on to the job. Could it be that he failed at something?

This is the tender assault I was preparing for him, some 15 minutes into our talk. But by this time, he was talking on the phone—receiving calls while engaging in an ongoing diatribe that circumvented my every approach. He was talking about everything from the constitution of the Philippines (no kidding! turns out they have the exact same one as the United States; “yet how different the performance,” he said, “culture matters, you see”) to the strategic thought of von Schelling, and Weber’s idea of Judeo-Protestant ethics, while all I wanted out of this man was a glimpse of the man within the man. But the former wouldn’t relent.

So I went for the kill: “You had a premiership that was wrought with pain …”

Him: “Premiership as what, what premiership …”

Me: “Premiership as prime minister …”

Him: “In what way, wrought with pain?”

Me: “A collapse. The collapse of the peace accords, the eruption of Palestinian violence …

Him: “Did you read the book?”

Me (8/9th true): “Of course I did.”

Him: “The main thesis of this book is that there was nothing painful about that. True, the results did not meet our expectations but there was nothing painful about it.”

Me, trying to figure something out: “—”

Him: “To my eyes there was never a moment of defeat to the idea that led me that way, there was an unsuccessful attempt at trying to save the nation from the wrongdoings of my predecessors …”

Me: “You don’t have to defend your premiership!”

Now both of us were talking at the same time.

Him, more than slightly raising his voice: “I’ll let you read a speech I gave, that is here only mentioned by name, you can read the full text, it dates back to ’98 before my time as prime minister, in which I am warning Bibi of this certain outbreak of violence, like the surety of crashing into an iceberg: ‘The blood will be on your hands,’ I said. ‘It can’t be that you don’t see it, you are leading us toward that end with utter surety.’ I saw my premiership as an attempt to save the nation from that course I warned against, and it would have amounted to national irresponsibility had I not tried.”

Me: “No doubt, no doubt. You have accomplished historical feats in this very short time, and have given future governments a line of international credit that granted the Sharon administration its legitimacy … and yet, as a military man, to have to come down from power while the Palestinians are on the onslaught, attacking, terrorizing. You are counting 50 dead on your shift, and 500 on the next …”

Him: “39 dead …”

Me: “But the actual count isn’t that important. The land was shaking, and you as well. I remember it vividly. I’m not that young, you know. I’m 42. I remember you seemed to weaken …”

Him: “You mean weaken in the public’s eye …”

Me: “No, no. I don’t mean that. There was a sense of being at a loss. And you are a man known to be capable of controlling grand designs. There was a sense of something going out of control, and also to a certain degree from within your personality, there was a sense of weakening …”

Him: “Political weakening, for sure … that is factual.”

Me: “Forget politics now, a sense of the situation getting out of hand, the ground shaking …”

Him: “Nu, nu …,” which would mean: “So, get on with it, your point being …”

Me: “That is something that must be taken into account … that is a premiership … for a man who has succeeded tremendously in all his capacities, phenomenal successes, and it seems like you are amongst the leading, the two towering Israeli figures of your generation, next to Amos Oz, as constructors of the most impressive designs, and that is why I stress this, a premiership wrought with pain.”

Him: “OK.”

I should have let him go there. But instead, I posed a question, one that was a bit unfair, and again he was off lecturing about culture and ethics, and back we were in the Philippines.

I lost. He won. I didn’t even get to tell him about “The Man Who Shot the Minister of Defense,” my short story about a young security guard suffering from PTSD due to experiences in the Lebanon campaigns. After hearing about his best pal’s suicide, the security guard decides to wreak his revenge on the military boss he is guarding. But the assassination plot fails miserably. When confronted with the strongman, he fires away, managing only to hit his bulletproof vest, thus hurting his own person while the political figure only gains power after surviving the incident. In many ways, that was also the story of our meeting.

Should I have informed him of this story beforehand? Should he have known I was a security guard outside his door, looking at him the whole time, wondering, Is there anyone in there?

It is true that I am being unjust. I truly am an “ungrateful bastard,” as someone wrote to me not very long ago. Here is this leader, this great man giving me his time, and I’m only asking him questions about internal security gossip. It is also true that he offered me the most brilliant analysis of the current state of affairs, phrased in the most elegant and compact of equations possible. Ehud Barak is truly our champion, the best of the best, and it is not fair that we begrudge him for not being our intimate friend, for not being present in any way.

Even the book is not bad at all. The part dealing with the early commando days is at times almost exhilarating. For instance, the story of the taking over of the Sabena plane (Pages 108-119), that was hijacked by terrorists—learning that as he was giving the countdown on the wing of the aircraft, Bibi, who served under him, waved to call off the assault—someone had to take a shit, and everything was stopped cold for a full minute. Don’t worry, they got the job done, with very few losses in lives. Bibi got scathed by a bullet, spinning off his arm. Barak became famous then, I think, for the first time.

The rest is history, and Barak is an intrinsic part of it. His story in My Country, My Life reads like a long lesson in recent Israeli military and political history. This enigmatic man, an inverted Forrest Gump (inverted for being more the genius than the simpleton), is all over the place, doing something, not relenting even when he is paying the direct personal price for his actions for his country. I would even go so far as to say that I trust (almost) everything depicted in this historical narrative. But I would not trust Barak in telling his own story. I’m quite sure he is not familiar with it.


Read Orian Morris’ other writing for Tablet magazine here.

Orian Morris is the author of Le-ragel ‘avur makhom acher (With My Little Eye).