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Q&A With Israel’s Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak

A conversation with the Israeli leader on the cusp of an election that he hopes will restore his center-left political coalition to power and once again put him in charge of Israel’s future

David Samuels
September 11, 2019
Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak after a press conference on July 25, 2019, in Tel Aviv.Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images
Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak after a press conference on July 25, 2019, in Tel Aviv.Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Reporters don’t pass judgments on the good and the great. That’s not our job, or so I was taught. Because our vision in the moment is always hopelessly limited and partial, our job is simply to describe what we see in front of us, a task that, despite the pervasive illusions created by hand-held camera phones and social media noise, is often fiendishly difficult. Within the humanistic frame that is common to most forms of Western literature and art, the work of truly knowing even a single person well enough to offer definite judgements about their personal and public choices can take a lifetime.

Two decades later, Ehud Barak’s major decisions as prime minister of the State of Israel remain the focus of hot controversy. His withdrawal from southern Lebanon sparked the rise of Hezbollah and the 2006 Lebanon war. The failure of his attempt to reach a final peace deal with Yasir Arafat at Camp David set off the Second Intifada. One can argue that these decisions, taken separately or together, exhibit the bankruptcy of the strategic concept in which Israel would hand over land to its enemies in exchange for peace—and that Barak is a delusional Napoleonic figure whose snap decisions costs thousands of Israeli and Arab lives. Alternatively, one can argue that Barak’s forceful decisions fortified Israel’s diplomatic position at a critical moment against a deluge of international criticism and denunciation, and that he should be recognized as the far-seeing savior of a state that, two decades later, is strong and prospering, in a region where states like Syria and Libya have gone kaput.

While I have met and interviewed Barak several times at length, the conversation that I have abridged below was the first time I felt that I was actually talking to a fellow human, rather than playing conversational Pong against a highly evolved Turing machine. Maybe that’s because Barak—who also served as the head of the IDF, and as Israel’s defense minister during Operation Outside the Box (Israel’s successful 2007 attack on the Al Kibar nuclear reactor in Syria), Operation Cast Lead (the first Gaza War in 2008-09), and Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultimate decision not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities (in 2012, more on that below)—had just written a book about his life. Or maybe that’s because the conversation was conducted a little over a year ago, before Barak formally returned to the political arena. Or maybe that’s because Ehud Barak, the human difference engine, has upped his conversational game of deflection to superhuman levels, like Rafael Nadal or Deep Blue.

What interests me about Ehud Barak, working in the present tense as a reporter and collector of rare human butterflies, is that he is a composite of characteristics that could only be alloyed in the specific way that they are in a small but technologically advanced Western country whose survival rests on its ability to consistently project crushing military force. Generals, even or especially those with strategic gifts, are seldom found in Western capitals. It’s even rarer to find a Western general or a politician who thinks like a scientist.

In a large, safe country like America, Ehud Barak would either wind up as a career army officer like David Petraeus, or more likely in Silicon Valley, where he would live in a large mansion and listen to data-rich recordings of Evgeny Kissin playing Chopin. In a small country like Israel, it was more or less inevitable that he would wind up in public life, then leave and get rich while maintaining a relationship of agonized contempt toward Bibi Netanyahu, the manipulative brother who hogged the limelight and maintained his iron grip on the family business while his siblings grew old and resentful.

Whether Barak’s public career has been a good thing or a bad thing—for him or for the State of Israel—I have no idea, but I do find him interesting to talk to. He has seen a lot, and played a key role in a continuing series of large events. As our conversation progressed over the course of almost three hours, he was by turns speechifying, pragmatic and playful. I also noted a slight but for him surprising tendency toward introspection and even self-pity, which he presented as a salutary alternative to both messianism and Bibi-ism.

I didn’t ask Barak any questions about his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, his frequent host in New York, because the Epstein scandal hadn’t broken yet, though Barak’s public answer to those questions—“I never met any girls there”—is classic Ehud Barak. While the answer clearly leaves out much more than it contains—like Epstein’s possible relationship with Israeli intelligence services, which would explain why Barak felt so comfortable accepting his occasional hospitality—it is perhaps also believable as a truth-statement, if you have met Barak. I am publishing our interview now because both Barak and the Iranian nuclear program are back in the news. 2020 may be 2012 all over again.

He began our conversation, in his Israeli-accented English, which is less fluent than Bibi’s, by examining the aging Sony digital recorder that I placed between us on a highly polished conference table in his publisher’s office in the Flatiron Building.

Ehud Barak: One of the problems with Sony is that you get the best product for the next six months only. Every six months they find some new tweak. They work like crazy, the labs, the R&D, in audio and cameras. They’ve got the best sensor. And they are going systematically to defeat Canon and Nikon. They’re doing it brilliantly.

David Samuels: I lived in Japan for a few months, which was just enough time to come to deeply admire their maniacal attention to very small details.

They are kind of like the Germans from the East in a way. You know, the Germans also, they are working so frighteningly systematically.

The Holocaust was ultimately the end of the Germans, not the Jews. But Japanese culture somehow survived the atomic bomb. The concentration on one detail for 40 years is the Japanese equivalent of something that we would call spiritual.

I read a lot of science, including biology and genetics. My personal conclusion is that the Enlightenment values, which inculcated the idea that all humans are born equal, is probably not literally true. The Japanese, the Chinese, many of the Eastern peoples, they seem to me half a notch ahead of us. They still can copulate with us, but, maybe after a certain point, mutations will appear. It’s unbelievable when you look at them.

People are now leaving globalization behind and turning back into a Hobbesian landscape of collectives, a Darwinist jungle. I remember Lee Kwan Yew argued years ago that there is no proof the value set of the West is superior, and that the value set of the East includes several other values.

Like what?

The acceptance of, of the world as it is, stratified, unequal, and yet still being able to act collectively in quite a harmonious way.

I see you have a beard.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Last time I saw you, you had no beard. This perhaps suggests that you’re thinking about getting smicha [becoming ordained as a rabbi].

I stopped shaving for three weeks and got this thing.

[Laughs.] That’s not the whole truth, though.

In fact, I started because I was sick, and for 10 days, 11 days I didn’t shave. But I was involved in a startup with three youngsters who were about 25 or whatever, and a woman, and three out of the four had beards. I was the seed investor, and became the chairman of the startup, and so, I identified with them. But some people might see me as getting closer to heaven.


But the most bizarre thing happened to me in Vienna. While looking fast through the passport, they wrote Iran as the place where I come from. So I guess my beard is Iranian.

The beard will help you with national religious voters when you get back into politics.

Yeah. Yeah.

My main thoughts about you from our previous interviews were: “He’s extremely intelligent” and “Who knows what actually goes on inside his head?” One of your main traits is your emotional inaccessibility, which has always seemed very purposeful—a strategic choice.


So what was confusing for me about your book was feeling that you are a sympathetic human being, at least in the first half of the book. So, is this new emotional accessibility part of an evolution that has suddenly happened inside of you?

I cannot honestly judge it. For me, the experience of writing a book was much more demanding than I ever thought, because I tried to tell a true story.

What I found is that things that I held as truths about my youth, my activities as a young commander, and the shaping of our elite special forces unit, maybe weren’t exactly like that. When I really tried to ask myself what really were the motivations of a person in a specific instance—or have you simply told yourself so many times this version of a story for your convenience? It was sometimes hard to say. Sometimes I was wrong. As you know, I have several psychologists in the family, and I realized I was conducting a kind of self-analysis.

I have a good friend here in America named Colin Powell. We worked together as generals, and then at the head of our respective armed forces. And I remember him summarizing his book. He told me he had a ghost writer, and he told me, “I had many quarrels, quite loud quarrels, with him.” He said, “It took me half a year after the book was published to realize that in many cases, he was right, more often than I was.”

And he told me something else that resonates with what I hear from you. He said, immediately there was huge demand to translate his book to many languages. But focusing on the first half of the book, before he became Colin Powell.

I liked the feeling of you as a young man, and also the specific account of the formation of Sayeret Matkal and how it developed. You describe those early operations, including some of the details of those operations, like the operation inside the Sinai, in a very human but very precise way.

I’m happy.

I was actually surprised to read some of those details.

A certain layer of detail should not have been in the copy you read. They will not appear in the printed version. [Barak explains how and why.]

I will keep my copy, then.


Another thing that you deal with in this book is maybe the greatest taboo in modern literature, which is a happy second marriage, as told by a man.

My case is unique because I knew the girl long before her husband knew her, and several years before I knew my first wife. We met only once, in all these 35 years when we were married to other people. It was when someone brought to Israel a special production of a silent movie about Napoleon by Abel Gance.

Oh God.

Six hours with a harmonic orchestra. It’s a great movie, but you cannot perform it in one stretch. So there is a pause in the middle of maybe an hour and half, when people would go to eat and refresh themselves. So I met her there, but I didn’t meet her anymore after that.

But after I separated from my wife, I was invited to the Knesset to be in a gathering of former prime ministers to discuss the governmental system of Israel, which many people were unsatisfied with. And they invited myself, and for some reason [Avigdor] Lieberman was also there …


And, I suddenly saw Nili in the audience. At the end, we came out, and asked her what she was doing there. I didn’t know that she was divorced for probably two years or whatever. But my separation from my wife was announced on the front pages of the newspapers. So she knew about me.

There are still some of the followers who criticize me, and always mention Nava, my first wife. Toward the end, she was more liked than I was.

Politicians have very sensitive ears.

Gossip is the shaper and mover of the fate of nations.

The former prime ministers of Israel is basically a group of three people now—myself, Ehud Olmert, and Bibi. Olmert is already convicted, and Bibi’s probably on his way to being convicted. So I might find myself as the only normal one.

On the subject of you being normal, there was a story that Madeleine Albright once told me about you. She said, “Ehud Barak! Great friend, love him. But you know, he’s a little strange. There are things about him I never figured out.”

I said, “Oh, like what?” And she said, “Well, there was this one time at the height of the Camp David negotiations with Arafat, and things were not going so well, and we decided to split everybody up. And I got Ehud Barak. I took him to my house, where I imagined we would have a more informal discussion, and maybe we could relax.”

At her farm.

Yes. And she said—

Yeah, I focused on her clock [laughs]. A wooden clock that doesn’t work.

She said, “He didn’t talk to me at all, and he spent the whole time taking the clock apart—”


And I said, “Did it work?” [Laughs.] And she said, “Yes, no, no, no, he fixed it, he fixed the clock,” and she says, “But what was he doing?” I said, “He didn’t want to talk to you!” [Laughs.]

No, no, no, that’s not true. I liked her very much.

You had a deliberate strategy to not engage with her, so you fixed her clock instead.

Yeah. No. Yeah. It was only during the actual time in Camp David where [President Bill] Clinton left to Okinawa. And he left Albright there to run the show. And I told Clinton, probably even in front of her, in advance, that when he’s not here, I don’t see any chance that Arafat will move, because the only power that can move him is the pressure or the fear of losing American support. And he promised me to make sure that there would be no attempts to move forward with the discussion.

Sometimes there is a moment of truth, where the ice is broken or whatever. But here we were before the moment of truth, you know? We couldn’t create a moment of truth without Clinton there. I understood that he understood that there would be no continued negotiation in his absence.

And I knew that she expected that it will continue, and I felt uneasy. But the last thing I wanted was to hurt her in any way. I respect her.

It’s also true that from early childhood I have been fond of dealing with small mechanical objects.

In your book, you describe learning how to pick all the locks in your kibbutz.

Yeah. Yeah, I still remember the kibbutz, and picking all the locks there. I remember the first time that, that my father took off his watch, and I asked him: I want to see how it works. And he opened it, and you see inside there these rubies, and they’re something like—


—like a beating heart.


So they’re moving. And this was made by human beings. I was hypnotized by it.

So this fascination goes way back.

I take them apart and try to put them together. So, I was left with the clock, and a small part was left [laughing]—

It was missing?

No, not missing. It remained on the table. The professionals, they have diagrams so you can see the order of steps that you should do. But if you’re not an expert, and working without the diagrams, you just try to put them in order. But there were not 30 or 40, but 300 or 400 pieces. That goes beyond what you can organize. I still remember what I left out. I try to limit myself to relatively simple mechanical clocks now.

Years ago when we talked about Camp David, you told me that you went there with the feeling that you were going out into the unknown. However, it was your strong feeling that, when pushed to a moment of decision, what was going to happen was that it was going to be revealed in a clear and unmistakable way.


That there was no compromise possible with Arafat?

I didn’t even dare to predict it. I approach it as a kind of experiment. I came from the sciences, not from humanities.


There are certain truths, what they call the Kantian Truths. You can usually find it through experiment. And you don’t know the result in advance. So when I came to power, I realized I perceived a situation a certain way, and I don’t say it in retrospect. Someone just found the text of a speech that I gave to a press conference when I was leading the opposition in ’98, a year before I defeated Bibi in the election. I basically said, “I blame you for leading us toward a disaster. There is no way to continue. We are already five years after Oslo. Commitments were made.”

The steam was accumulated, it was clear to me it was going to explode, and I blamed him. I said, “You are all on the upper deck of the Titanic, and I don’t believe you don’t see the iceberg. And you are responsible, because, you have now, your responsibility is to try to avoid it, you know? Try to turn the Titanic from hitting it.”


In the book, I compared it to a cottage of two families, where you see fire starting to go.

And you see a man running toward the fire, and you don’t know if he’s the fireman or the arsonist.

Yeah, with matches and gasoline in his pocket. So, we could not know, but I felt that we were responsible, we would not know if we don’t try. And there’s no way to ensure that we’re successful, but I know the alternative. The alternative was the same explosion that I predicted years before. And that way, when, you know when it erupted, everyone said, “Oh, Barak made this concession. And he appeared to them to be weak, so they seized the opportunity.”

That’s the narrative from the right.


The narrative from the left, which you mention in the book, was the Deborah Sontag article. Robert Malley wrote another article in the New York Review of Books implying that the offer was never real, and if only—

And if I just would serve the baklava from the right side, I wouldn’t have caused this situation.

The alternative is something that people don’t want to confront.

It’s a mechanism of denial. I didn’t even want to try to write and really think of the left wing as a collective. But there’s a certain tendency under pressure, under stress, there is a certain regression to infancy.

“Daddy, I want.”

You won’t start the journey if you don’t feel confident about your capacity to act under the principle of reality. And that’s something that’s been lost once again in politics, both in Israel and here.

There were views among professionals here, like Marshall and others, about the pre-embryonic Israel—that we might fade. There weren’t enough people. The borders weren’t defensible. It was only Ben-Gurion with his farsightedness who understood that you have to take the risk because the alternative is worse. It was that willingness to take those risks that made the State of Israel what it ended up being.

Reading your book, I thought again about the role of the kibbutzim in providing the core for the army, providing the core for the politics of ideological belief, who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the country. Then I thought, who would write a book like this one 30 or 40 years from now? And then I thought to myself, it’s going to be a graduate of one of the national religious academies. He’ll have a beard like you have now.

You’re right.

Those are increasingly the Israelis who sacrifice themselves today, and who become officers.

You’re right. As a young man, I noticed that the second generation of pioneers who were ideological and, you, you didn’t have to have any kind of analytic tools to understand that your parents made a huge sacrifice in order to serve some vague ideas about anything. I used to ask, “Why, why the hell did you, your friends, your mommy, your friends from the school, why’d they have their own house or home? Or their own apartment. A refrigerator. Why do they always eat their hot omelet?”

I never knew a warm omelet [laughs] until I came to the wife of my father’s brother. Black olives. I never saw them before. I never ate a peach. I never entered a bathtub.

The lesson was to sacrifice for the collective.

We were 13 boys and girls. Probably eight boys in our class. All of them went to officer’s school, which is something voluntary in Israel. But otherwise, you can’t show your face. You can’t move naturally through the communal dining room. You don’t find your way. There is something wrong with you. And that’s it.

When I looked at the second generation of the religious, you know, I criticized their judgment, not the patriotism of this movement. It’s an impressive movement. It resonates a lot with the movement of my parents.

What’s it going to mean for the country when those young religious officers actually become the heads of the IDF?

It will change gradually. You know, when I was defense minister, I made visits to many units. So I came to Sayeret Golani, and I met a team of probably 14 youngsters sitting with their helmets. And talking to them I say, “Can you please take off your, your helmet?” So they take it off. Out of that team of 14, nine had the yarmulkes.

And they are good commanders. So they will take over. They have the moral sovereignty and sense of confidence that stands out from their understanding. OK. We’re a minority. We are criticized by many, but we know that we are right.

There’s something moving, inspiring in it, and also the sense of something dangerous. In a way I call it lemming behavior. They are moving all together over the cliff. They are falling, and they are pushed. So it’s a tragedy because they are good people, but the tragedy has to do with the circumstances.

When we established the State of Israel, we climbed up on a cliff. We cannot stay there on the cliff. Either we go to the top or we all fall down. And in a way in ’67 Israel got basically to the top. And we now know Israel reached its maturity in strategic capabilities, and basically sort of became, from an isolated entity under existential threat to—

A regional power whose strength is obvious to everybody.

Yeah. Both the strength and the inability to destroy it. OK. Now it’s time to focus on making sure that we will stay there, we’re not pushed out. With them, I call it hearing the footsteps of the Messiah.

The Talmud had three lessons from the two great destructions [of the Temple, by the Babylonians and then by the Romans]. Don’t try to accelerate the Messiah. He will come in his time. Don’t climb on the wall. That’s a metaphor for don’t go ahead of the biggest powers of that time. Don’t go ahead of them. Avoid family quarrels. These are the three.

So we are caught between these two interpretations. Are you coming from the place where you think we are now in the middle of some messianic moment? Are you believing the vision of one state or believing in separation, two states, whatever?

Yes, at this point probably you cannot do anything, but what we are doing on the ground right now is to decide about the vision. Those who believe that we have to reign over the whole area, they insist on working in every isolated settlement. And we, we want separation and so on, to delineate a line where we will have a Jewish majority for generations to come.

Now I’m going to ask you some political questions so I have some actual news, or at least a footnote or two. The last time I saw you at a dinner you said something very smart to me about Obama, which has stuck with me.


You said, “Obama doesn’t think like normal politicians. He never did. He had a vision of how he was going to be great. His interest was in historical greatness. And he studied that.”

Yeah. That’s right. In being among the six or seven great presidents in American history. But not in a petty way. He really thought of greatness, and he has the potential for greatness. He’s an extremely serious person. And he is still young.

What he decided to do was to take on certain great issues. And that’s what made him so exceptional on one hand and such a target for so much hatred and deliberate attempts to destroy him.

I like Obama, or my idea of Obama, very much. I feel like he is in many ways a kindred person, or a person I would recognize, and feel comfortable with. When I look at the Iran deal, however, one has the sense of a reach for something that was driven by a highly pessimistic sense of certainty, which was perhaps rooted in ego as well as in a set of received ideas.

Yeah. I think that’s true. I couldn’t convince him otherwise. I spent a lot of time trying, directly and through others. [Here continues a conversation about Barak’s interactions with Leon Panetta.]

You have a great account in your book of your final meeting with Obama. It’s a meeting with a person who’d clearly made his mind up before you walked in the door.

Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t write it, but I even talked to him about what was starting to move. I don’t expect you to acknowledge it, but I tell you that we know about certain individuals that used to work here in this house or the other side of the Potomac who are going to the Iranians to propose a set of ideas before the formal negotiation had started.

[Names and dates redacted.]

I told him. Look, you have to understand. When these people come to Iran, I followed the Iranians. I joked with him that I’m older than his late mother. But then I watched for many years Iranians. When they see a person with the CVs that these people come with, with all their understanding of the American system, they don’t believe that they are not your emissaries.

Do you believe that the Iran deal was a mechanism for putting the Iranian nuclear question to the side in order to realign the United States and the Middle East, or was it not that complex, or thought out?

I used to tell the people, they all belong to this group of people, who all expected to be at the White House now. Well I tell them, “Look. How come the best and the brightest of America are sitting in those think-tanks, with no real experience of reality?” And in the last 16 years, whether neoconservatives or ultraliberals, their great ideas always end up to be so clumsy on the ground.

Obama, you might find, is a much more impressive person in that context than people think. One of his edges was that he understood the zeitgeist of the world, the undercurrents of history, in a much more subtle way than almost any American I remember.

He grew up largely in Indonesia, with an American anthropologist mother and an Indonesian stepfather. His father was from Kenya. Then he went to high school in Hawaii. So he had a global perspective, of a specific kind, from which he approached both America and the rest of the world.

He knew that he understood better. He could not convince or teach everyone. But he suffered from one element I probably didn’t mention, but I don’t think that it was the right time to write about it. He was a kind of professor.

What’s the difference between someone who passes formative years in the academy, and in execution and management? Intelligent people identify complexity. They like, even, their capacity to see not two sides of the coin but half a dozen. They enjoy it.

When it comes to effective decisions, you want clarity. People who spend their formative years in execution, even if they’re intelligent enough to understand realities as well as the academics, they get their strength from their experience, that you have to deliberately invest energy in simplifying into almost black and white. Subtleties are not important, because you won’t be able to execute.

Now I will give you an example. The red line, the chemical weapons red line issued by Obama, he did it, in a way, because of us. We proactively conveyed proof that Assad already did it half a dozen times. So he issued this red line to stop it. But probably it’s not the right way for a superpower to issue a red line. It’s a delayed act of war, whether good or bad. So if you’re going to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk. But once it was uttered out of the larynx of the commander-in-chief, it has a certain meaning.

I know why they didn’t follow through on it. The Pentagon was much softer on it than State. They told the president the truth. We don’t have any extra planes that can eliminate his chemical weapons. We can, at most, hit one third of it because one third is deep into the sides of hills, and no conventional weapon can penetrate it. And the rest is deployed in such heavily inhabited areas that we can cause the disaster that we are aiming to avoid or to block. If you bomb chemical weapons near a big city it might cause a huge disaster. So we need—in order to implement it or to do it—we need some 70 or 80,000 pairs of boots on the ground. It might take several months, or a few years. I call it the prohibitive version.

Sure. They come up with a plan that—

They come up with something which is prohibitive. But there was no one in the room to tell the president it doesn’t matter. We’re not dealing with a nuclear power. There is no mutually assured destruction. It can do nothing with the two thirds that you don’t hit. The real objective is to defeat Assad. So why not attack the one-third?

In the middle of the attack you will face the Syrian air force. So you destroy the air force.

When you look now at Iran building bases in Syria and Iraq, with the Russians and their missile systems in there, you see Israel in a strategic position where you need to ask permission from Russia to fly your planes. From a distance, this looks like a big continuing mess.

Yeah. It’s a big mess.

We have real problems with the Iranians and Syria, and elsewhere in the region. One is the proxy that they’re trying to deploy along the border in Syria with drones and so on. But the really most important element is the attempt to deploy and operate rockets and missiles. This is the only element which is a real game changer.

So here is a kind of question. The language and the etiquette of Israeli government and the top defense-establishment people in uniform is that we will do whatever it takes. Now once again, “whatever it takes” is like a red line, which is not something very healthy to announce.

So basically there is a question in Israel now of how far to go with it. And I think that the answer is that we have to, we are the strongest power in the region. We should be self-confident enough to do what has to be done, but then to try to say or at least show to do or whatever. But we have to hope that it all will be balanced and controlled because basically the strategy of Israel is to run high-risk preemptive operations only for one subject, which is an attempt to turn into a nuclear power.

We have to win every single battle. They have to win only one. There will be no other alternative. So if that’s the case, and we’re the stronger party, and we advance, we develop, we flourish, and we get stronger during the periods, during the intervals between wars. Our interest is in making the interval between major conflicts as long as possible.

We don’t have a reason to look for conflict. I suspect that Iranians also do not have a reason right now.

The messaging is that we know where everything is, and we will hit you every time. We know where every piece of machinery is located. Sit quietly while we bomb you, and don’t dream of going too high up the escalation ladder because, if you do—

There’s more than this. Some people, some come to say, “Oh, it’s a deliberate policy. It intends the collapse of the reality in a situation. And we are accelerating the process of collapse. From my experience in life, those schemes are not good.

And there are those who say, “Oh, we are trying it in order to heed to the Americans that they decided to leave too early. We are going to bring them back.” In my experience, it won’t work.

Then there are the people who say, “We want to educate the Russians.” I happen to know Putin from the first day at summer camp [Ed.: a metaphor]. It’s not a good idea, either.

I talked to [former Israeli General and National Security Adviser] Uzi Dayan a few years ago, and I asked him, after the interview was over, “Look, if an Iranian nuclear breakout is really an existential threat, why didn’t you strike when the window was open? You have the capacity. Who cares about the CIA spying on Barak’s apartment. And if you are not actually going to strike, then this is all a big drama whose real product is a high degree of political tension with Israel’s greatest ally.” He looked at me. He said, “Bibi never would. He could never give the order.” He said, “I was his commanding officer. I’ll tell you, in the end this is something he could never do.”

I didn’t feel this way at the time when it started. I was convinced that first of all we would be able to use the fact that this is the highest priority. The Palestinian issue is in fact something relatively small. We know what should be done there, and it can dramatically change our situation, vis-à-vis Iran, in terms of mobilizing political support for a strike, especially in Europe.

That’s what I expected to see. But neither the strike nor an opening to the Palestinians ever happened. That suggests, perhaps, that maybe Bibi himself was never serious, or able, even if the discussions inside the security echelons did grow heated. In a place where there was a clear will, maybe those discussions would have gone a different way.

It was only after I ended my term and left the government that I started to think that probably Bibi never intended to do it. That it was really a kind of grandstanding manipulation that would redirect the attention from the Palestinian issue and fill the gap with something else.

I think that one of the elements Bibi missed is an opportunity to do a lot with Obama. Obama knew that he was making a huge gamble. The only way to hedge against the risk is to make sure that the best ally, the strongest one, is fully aligned with America. It was a great opportunity to raise the aid package by another 7 or 8 billion. It was a great opportunity to get from America the means that might enable Israel to act independently if Iran broke out, and America cannot do anything.

But the idea that you could create a mechanism that would impel the world’s one hyperpower to give up its own freedom of action seven years in the future, in a situation that it can’t see yet, with potentially large consequences, is surely a fantasy. No American president would ever sign that.

Yeah. Yeah. No. No. It’s not about signing. We have a lot of, probably a billion dollars of American munitions in Israel. They know if worse comes to worst, and we ask kindly the guard to move aside, I will not have to—

Pick the lock. [Laughs.]

But nowadays there is a technological possibility of deploying equipment that is unique and can make a huge difference in executing such an operation in a way that the government of Israel cannot do on its own. It would be an inert piece of dead weight.

You’re talking about a specific munition, with a specific kind of control system?

Specific kind of control that could be remote now. And it was not in the past. And where you can show that it will not be used unless both sides agree that it should be used.

But think of what kind of trust would be necessary for that. It would probably be the kind of trust at the height of World War II between Churchill and Roosevelt.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.