On Sunday, I interviewed the former Prime Minister and current Defense Minister of Israel, Ehud Barak. We spoke about Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank and the degree to which they may jeopardize future discussions with the Palestinians about the creation of a Palestinian state.
Here's a transcript of our discussion:
Fareed Zakaria: You ordered, this week, the removal of a settler family from Hebron over the prime minister's objections because you believed you had to uphold the law.
But yet, there is a similar situation going on with settlers in the Beit El community, where a court has ordered that the settlements be evacuated and yet the government, the prime minister has told the attorney general to find some other solution. Why would you not uphold the law and a court order in that case, as well?
Ehud Barak: In all cases, first of all, we strongly believe - it's both myself and also Prime Minister Netanyahu - in the rule of law and we clearly, finally follow the decisions of the Supreme Court. It doesn't mean that we cannot argue when the government thinks a different way and some private citizen or a group of citizens demand something. And we can always go, once again, to the Supreme Court and try to put our case and ask for certain changes and modifications. That's OK.
It's clear that when it's come to the end line and there is a decision, we'll basically follow it.
Fareed Zakaria: But if the Supreme Court rules that in the Beit El case, as the lower court has, that these settlements must be uprooted by May 1st, you will order the evacuation of those settlers, as well?
Ehud Barak: I do not tend to answer the speculations or hypothetic situations. Basically, I did it this week in Hebron. I did it several years ago under the previous government. And I did it all along my life. Basically, we expect our citizens to follow the law. And when something has to be done according to the idea that the state has an authority over its citizens, that should be clear.
And we are in a dialogue with our Supreme Court and our court system which is very effective - both kind of highly principled and they know to make decisions.
But it doesn't mean that the government cannot have a policy, cannot have a request, cannot ask the court to reconsider certain issues.
It happens in the United States. I've heard that some major issues in your country that have been decided by the administration are brought to the court to question whether it's constitutional or not. Something similar sort of speak happens from time to time here in Israel, as well.
Fareed Zakaria: The prime minister said, when describing the situation in Hebron, that "The principle that has guided me is to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria," which are the biblical terms used for the West Bank, an area that, of course, under any conceivable two state solution will go to the Palestinians, or 95 percent of it.
Would you characterize your policy as the same, that the principle that guides you is to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria?
Ehud Barak: You know, my feeling about this is slightly different, but it doesn't matter, because we have what we call the joint responsibility of the government. I'm not a majority party in the government, but a minority one. My positions are well known.
But part of the policy of this government, as well as other governments, that those - and I believe in it - that those people who are already living there - and there are some 350,000 people - we deserve, independent of what will happen to them in the final state of negotiations, they deserve getting services and the protection and the opportunity for a normal life and the development - the needs of normal life to be available to them, as well as to other citizens of Israel.
So basically, my position is that we have to reach a two-state solution, that we have to live side by side - Israel on one hand and a Palestinian state. That's basically what Netanyahu said in his Babylon speech. And I think that we should straighten what we call the settlement bloc, namely the highly kind of a densely populated areas of the Judea and Samaria or the West Bank, as you call it, and side by side by it a viable, normally flourishing Palestinian state should be established.
I should tell you, to tell you the truth, that all these 350,000 Israelis are living on a very small part or fraction of the area of the West Bank. Altogether, these are probably 5 percent or 6 percent of the whole area.
So I think that if the whole settlement blocs together will not take more than 10 percent and certain swaps will take less. There is still a room for a solution, where we can live side by side. And I think that those settlements which are going to remain part of Israel, even in the final status agreement, namely the settlement blocs, should be built and developed as any other part of Israel.
Fareed Zakaria: The Palestinians are sending you a letter, though, arguing that if negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis must resume, Israel must stop building settlements, creating facts on the ground that will make it more and more difficult to create a two-state solution.
Is there any prospect of that happening?
Ehud Barak: Fareed, I hope that it will happen. I think that most of the burden for the inability to move in the last three years happens to be on the Palestinians' shoulders, not on ours.
But I can tell you honestly, I was the prime minister 12 years ago. I negotiated a very generous proposals with previous Chairman Arafat, together with President Clinton. It put a far reaching proposals on the table that was rejected by Arafat. And he turned deliberately to terror. And that during that time, we were building four times the pace of construction that Israel executed now. I was the defense minister in Ehud Olmert's government for five years ago when he proposed an extremely generous proposal to Abu Mazen. We were building about twice the pace that we are building now.
So this government of Netanyahu is not the most aggressive in building. We are listening very carefully to the needs of our citizens of, on the one hand, and to the needs of the Palestinian future state, as well as the demands from the world. And we are not going over any hill or valley and establishing new settlements. Not a single new settlement has been built in the last three years since this government is in power.
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