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Ehud Barak

Interview: Ehud Barak
Former Prime Minister of Israel

May 4, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

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You were born on a kibbutz. Tell us something about life growing up on a kibbutz in Israel.

Ehud Barak: It was kind of a communal farm, where some 60 families were living together, supposedly according to a principle that everyone should give according to his skills and get according to his needs, but with a very modest interpretation of human needs.

In present terms it would be called poverty but we never felt this way. You know, my parents had a residence which was a room of 12 by nine foot, no running water, no toilets. The whole commune was dining collectively in one big room that was called the dining room. And even the bath where you could take a shower was some collective installation. Two of them, of course, for males and females, but that was the only kind of differentiation. And the -- you might say long hard working week, from early dawn to sunset. We, the kids, were raised from age of zero in kind of collective dormitories apart from our parents, but still I recall it as a kind of -- I must say happy--kind of happy warm childhood. We felt that -- I at least, was kind of lucky to get a lot of warm care, kind of --not just nurturing but in a way coaching by my parents in the four or five hours a day, high quality time, the five or -- four or five hours that we spent together every day. And, you know, I was there for 18 years and a few years into my adult life but I still remember it very warm. It was remote, far isolated, small, tough conditions, but somehow we felt a part of the emerging nation of Israel, part of the Jewish world, part of the world as a whole. We had a small radio. We listened to everything that happened around the world as kids, as young kids, and somehow our parents gave us the feeling of being both well taken care of young individuals and part of something wider than we as individuals are.

Did you also live with a feeling of danger?

Ehud Barak: Not at the time of my childhood.

I was born in the middle of World War II. Rommel divisions were at the gate of Egypt and there was for some times a real feel that he will take over the Middle East from the British. This was about the time that the parents of my mother were taken to Treblinka, not that we knew it at the time. The parents of my father were murdered in a pogrom before the first World War when he was two-and-a-half years old so I never knew my grandparents.

In retrospect I should have grown up in an unconfident kind of environment, but this was not the case.

I was eight years-and-a-half when the State of Israel was established and I still remember the evening, the counting of votes at Lake Success, and the eruption of kind of emotions immediately afterwards from all around the kibbutz. All the kibbutz practically went around a campfire and danced to the morning, and by the morning we were at war. And at a certain point we could hear the motors of the Iraqi unit that came and almost cut Israel into two. We were three or four miles from the seashore at the very narrowest part of Israel. And we at one morning could hear the mortars but I didn't recall a sense of fear all along these years. We became aware of the price where one member of the kibbutz was fallen during the war and later on when I was a youngster and elderly youngsters in the kibbutz joined the army and one of them was killed, but basically I don't remember fear. Maybe the close climate around us kind of isolated us and maybe my parents or our parents deliberately isolated us from the fears of life at this early stage.

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I remember it as something very warm, kind of supportive and encouraging. I remember my father taught me everything, how to play chess, how to climb a tree. Always, whenever I looked, I knew that his hand somehow was behind me, to make sure that I would not fall, or at least not fall from too high a part of the ladder.

What kind of student were you as a young man?

Ehud Barak: I was shy, small sized, almost tiny, always behind the wave of coming to maturity. I joined the school at the age of five plus a few months. I was a shy, introverted boy, totally not in tune with the rest of the group. We were a very small group as a result of the size of the commune, but out of 13 or 14 boys and girls in the class, I was a little bit strange when I look at it in hindsight.

I never played basketball. In fact, until the age of 12, I couldn't throw the ball so it will reach the basket. The girls in my class, most of them, were running the 60-yard track faster than me. I tried once to play soccer but ended up in the defense kicking the knees of the other side rather than the ball, not deliberately but -- So I concentrated on reading. I read a lot. I played the piano.

I found my own way. I picked locks. I was highly interested in mechanics, in fine mechanics, understanding how things work. I was very clumsy in the big motoric movements and very accurate in the delicate ones. Nothing to predict a future decorated soldier or general or leader.

Were there any books that were important to you when you were young?

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Ehud Barak: At the beginning, I read what my father gave me. He was focused on science, and opening the world of science, culture and music to me. I read a lot. I read a lot of adventure books. I still remember Jack London, the experience of the crew of a vessel in a storm kind of haunted me. I was reading a lot of Karl May, a German writer who described a Wild West that he had never visited. And Jules Verne of course, I read a lot.

When I was a little bit older, of course, I read Tolstoy's War and Peace. To this day I believe that I disappointed my father by being unable to complete Jean Christophe. About some books he said, "You are not a real human being before you read them." I believe I still didn't read some of them fully.

But they encouraged me in more than one way to be curious, to learn. I was maybe 14 years old when he brought me a book by Gamow about the birth and the death of our sun, which was a kind of popularized version of how the sun is burning out, and about the origins of the universe. I believe he was interested in pushing me gradually toward science, or influencing me indirectly to become a scientist.

I just heard Steve Rosenberg talking about the Nobel Prize address of Isadore Rabi, and it put shivers in my spine.

I remember my own father, which is now 91 years old, repeating to me once and again this point from Isadore Rabi's story about how he became a scientist. He said the most influential moment was that his mother repeatedly when he used to come back from school at a very early age of eight or nine asking him, "Isadore, have you asked kind of a good question today?" Not "What you have learned?" not "What you have observed?" but "Have you raised a good question today?"

It seems that in spite of differences -- Steve Rosenberg is a leading scientist and surgeon -- we are about the same age, and in different corners of the world our parents used to tell us similar stories. I disappointed my father, since in the end I was partially a dropout from high school. I was totally undisciplined.

I was highly interested in mathematics. It seemed to me to be a form of art, something very beautiful, geometry, mathematics, and the systematic way how it's built and so on. But I was somewhat bored by most of other issues that were taught at school and I became at the age -- from 13 maybe to 17, I was totally undisciplined and could not take any kind of discipline. So gradually I became a burden of the school. They asked me to go do something more productive maybe. I was -- I don't know, not hyperactive, I was a very shy introvert -- but to do something useful to work in the field, rather than spend my time in interrupting others that want to study. So I was expelled from high school in the last year. I was allowed to come to listen to the math hours and I spent the rest of the day working until I joined the army at a very early age.

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How unusual was that on a kibbutz, to be a problem like that and get kicked out of high school?

Ehud Barak: It was a great disappointment to my father. He was one of a few adults in the kibbutz that had a university background. He highly appreciated the value of good education and he tried to convince me to take this course. I kept telling him, "Dad, when I'm right for it, I will do it. I cannot do something that I don't really feel, or identify with, and I cannot lie to myself." And he told me, "You are fleeing from yourself. There is no way that you will not learn ultimately, so why waste these precious years?" I told him, "I'm not there yet. I don't know how to explain it." It was a major disappointment that he carried with him for a very long time. It was not very usual, but not very unusual at the same time.

You know, we didn't have a school system at the time that would prepare the students for college. No matriculation. No formal systematic coverage of a certain syllabus or curriculum that will enable you to enter. It was kind of a rural, remote school system, very caring, very open, very encouraging kind of "do it your way," which is very modern today, but without kind of sets of standards that should be achieved and practically began to learn systematically only when I was adult, about 23 or 24 when I made my matriculation when I was already an operational officer in the armed forces.

So you went from the kibbutz to the army?

Ehud Barak: I joined the army at the age of 17 and a half, which was quite unusual. My mother finally agreed that I go before I was of age. I still looked like a child, like a youngster of 15 years old. At boot camp I could not even jump over the wall in the obstacles. Decades later I saw a movie with Goldie Hawn -- Private Benjamin -- how she jumped, and it reminded me of myself. I couldn't jump over the wall. I was physically kind of immature. You're carrying all the ammunition, all the equipment, it created a very tough, physically demanding experience for me. But then, during these six months of boot camp came a defining moment for me.

It was early in 1960, some night, Israeli intelligence got a hint from the CIA that two Egyptian divisions are already deployed deep into the Sinai desert very close to the Israeli border. No one knew about it, of course, and it created an immediate emergency for the whole army. Israel had a very small regular standing army and it had to deploy immediately along the border to avoid a surprise attack, which is a kind of trauma that accompanies Israel defense kind of thinking all along.

We were youngsters in the boot camp and...

There was in the unit an emergency need to spread convoys of ammunition to maybe a dozen different points along the border, some of them 50 miles away from the boot camp. And as a result of the need to prepare at the same time all the units, there was a shortage of officers or NCOs that could lead an ammunition convoy to some desert place. The boot camp trainees were asked whether someone of us know how to read a map and can lead convoy a dark night to a certain position 50 miles from here. No one responded, and it seemed to be a kind of real emergency and I thought I can. So I raised my hand and I said simply, "I can do it." I had some experience in reading a map from summer camps and summer treks where I made the point of always knowing exactly where I was. So I get acquainted to looking at the map and it seemed to me that I understand it. I can read it. I still to this day remember the eyes of the battalion commander when he released me into the darkness kind of contemplating what will happen. If I cross the border with the convoy or something else, who will be responsible? But in a way he didn't have an alternative at the moment and he sent me.

I had my own moments of doubts of course, but finally I did it. We reached the point. I learned my own lesson from it, but this experience led me to the leading commando unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, kind of equivalent of the Delta Forces here, long before the Delta Forces were established, or the British Special Air Service, after whom we adopted their slogan, "Who Dares, Wins."

Not in terms of your military career, but as an individual, how important was that moment in your life?

Ehud Barak: I believe that I already came from my childhood with the kind of feeling somehow that the fact that I'm slightly different doesn't mean that I'm worse. Or somehow -- it doesn't create -- should not kind of deter me from trying to do things. It's just a matter of fact. I cannot throw the ball through the basket so I cannot become a basketball player. But it somehow did not deter me. Somehow I came out of childhood with kind of a self-confident -- or not self-confidence in things that I cannot do, but kind of calibrated assessment of what I can do, and with a basic sense of direction of what I can do, a sense of judgment.

Maybe I felt supported by the warmth that I absorbed. When I think about it in retrospect, it was the most imprinting kind of warmth, the kind of adult care -- but not over-care -- that gradually nurtures self-confidence in a youngster. So in a way I owe it to my parents, who are now 91 and 87 respectively. Maybe without being aware of it, they gave me my basic self-confidence.

This was a defining movement in retrospect, kind of a juncture of luck. I would not be able to experience what I experienced later on without this moment, but at the moment it was an expression of seriousness. I felt in the air that something very serious was happening. I could see the stress in the eyes of our commanders when they looked among the youngsters who had just joined the army for someone who can read the map and take such a convoy.

This was not an order. You volunteered.

Ehud Barak: Yes, I volunteered.

I've volunteered many times but it seemed to me that I tried to ask myself whether I can do it. I thought, "Yeah, I think I can do it. Yeah, it might not be easy but I can do it." And at the moment that I answered I didn't realize how complicated it could be in the dark. You can see nothing. It's a plain. There is not even roads and you have to use -- to try to assess the direction -- the compass, and there is no settlement and so on, and you should count the mileage before you cross the border into Egypt! Maybe there is nothing on the border that will tell you that you are crossing the border. But it somehow reassured me. But I don't remember it as something dramatic personally. And it happened to me once and again all my life after.

Events that became major achievements, I was always kind of feeling that I can judge myself in a calibrated way without drifting into too much enthusiasm.

Your military career is virtually a history of Israel's struggle to survive: the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the rescue of the Sabena airliner, the hostage rescue at Entebbe. Some of these were extraordinary acts of courage. Did you think about that at the time?

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Ehud Barak: Some of it was luck, and some was the result of hyperactivity. We were young people. We looked for action. The tiny dimensions of the Israeli military organization, and of the country, enables you to at least try to be where the action really is, if you are active enough. I remember, for example...

In the Six Day War, I commanded a small reconnaissance unit, and it took us just four days to reach the Canal and immediately I asked myself, okay, nothing is going to happen here anymore so we jumped a few hundred miles to the other side. Maybe something will happen in the Golan Heights, and it happened that we came at the last hours of preparation for climbing on the Golan Heights, so we joined the Golan Heights battle as well, beginning at the northern edge and ending at Quneitra . But, you know, I'm smiling kind of recalling it now, but I should admit the first battles were quite a devastating -- kind of revealing -- experience.

My first real battle experience was in the Six Days War. A few operations before then, but on a small scale. And the real experience, the memories of tough, demanding psychological environment where most people are tending to lose their sense of direction and cohesion of action. The vehicles exploding around you, people killed, the bitter, sweet smell of human burned bodies all around, the feeling of being not in full control.

You are not in full control but at the same time you have what I call the advantage of being a commander.

I always used to tell young officers -- since I entered battle as an officer, I never experienced it as a soldier -- I told them, "You are lucky to become officers in operations since officers have to care about what happens with their unit. They have a commitment to lead. So you will be always under the burden of identifying what happens, deciding what should be done, issuing orders, and looking around at someone following them -- that something happens and then it changes the situation. And the other side also is acting and everything is flowing around you and you have to continuously keep it running. What is your situation? What is happening? What should be done about it? How to spread the orders and how to watch they are fulfilled?"

And under battle, under exercises, it's unbelievably -- the simplest operations become unbelievably tough. It's like burden on all the people. People become paralyzed. Some of them that were so kind of easy going and kind of hyper before battle become totally paralyzed. They don't hear well. They tend -- everyone tends to stay behind cover. To move a unit to assault is infinitely complicated. You know, it's -- first of all, personally you are paralyzed by the shooting. You are confident that once you raise your head over you will get a bullet at your head. It's only the eyes of your own soldiers that you know that they know that you are committed to lead them. They expect you to do something. You cannot avoid it. You cannot leave there and leave them kind of paralyzed.

They will sink into it. They need this commitment that has been shaped into you, during the training, to do something. All of the group knows what you have committed yourself to do. It wakes you up and moves you to lead the assault.

I believe something Tito said -- the late dictator of Yugoslavia who was head of a great partisan movement during the war.

Tito said that a good military unit is a social cell where shame -- the fear of being kind of shamed by the rest of the group -- is stronger than the fear of death. And there is something true about it, that works among youngsters well-trained and somehow understanding that they are serving a cause which is somehow more important than their own. No one really bothers you in battle with this kind of overstructure of ideology and devotion and so on. And we know, unfortunately, from world experience, that you can lead people to highly devoted and professional military activities under terrible kind of regimes with terrible ideologies. But somehow, with youngsters, it works. If they have got young leaders and they are trained together, they create this kind of self-reliance of the unit, so that they are not dependent on what happens in other parts of the battlefield, but they rely upon each other. It works, and they can reach kind of activities that are against, may I say, the individual instincts of anyone in the group.

I felt it in that initial event, going into the desert in the dark to find a certain spot, and later on in long range desert navigation exercises.

I really felt that somehow when many others lose their sense of directions, or the skyline, or the contours of all the hills around look the same, that I feel that I know where to go. And something similar happened to me many times during the height of a battle. I feel that somehow I can look at it not just out of my own body as an individual that cares about himself, but I can look at it from the outside in a certain -- in a way to -- during the battle at certain aspects it was less kind of hurting you from your stomach than before. When before you are idle, when you have nothing to do but to contemplate what could happen, you become more kind of irritated than once it begins. You have a role. You have something to do. It is dependent upon you. You have to keep yourself detached a little bit looking at all the pictures, giving orders, otherwise your people will be lost and your unit will be lost, and you will lose. And somehow this kind of feeling that I can see -- I can see what happens, I do not lose sight of what happens all around, what should be done, and I do not get panicked -- is what kind of encourages me to keep doing it.

What's it like to make a decision under those circumstances? Is it instinct? Imagination? Is it a cold, hard calculation?

Ehud Barak: In battlefield situation it's a combination of responses that have been imprinted upon us. We commanders imprint them upon ourselves, but the soldiers feel it too, certain automatic responses that make everyone feel better. And then it's a swift decision. Some things happen in a split second and are not the result of huge analytical work.

On the battlefield itself, no one will move if you are not moving. I used to tell my company commanders "If I, the battalion commander, will not go to a fire position, open fire and then give commands, no one will move. And if you company commanders will not be the first one to climb to fire position, every other tank crew will find some excuse not to climb, and we have to do it the first time." You don't have time. You somehow -- I believe that many good commanders in the field just somehow can make their overall judgment very quickly. I can compare it to something in which I'm very weak but I watch it. The way that tennis players are responding. They're not calculating. If you were to write the Newtonian equations of the moving of the tennis ball, what you should have done, or not to mention the Schrödinger equations of it, you will never end it. You've got to do what should be done and you don't assess whether you should do it this way or this way, just do what should be done.

It's only on the higher level, when you command a division or a corps, that you have enough time to contemplate. But then you face the other end of the spectrum; you think you have control, but if you are honest with yourself you know that you don't have full control. It is really decided by the fighting spirit and the performance and the determination of the young company commanders, and at most, the battalion commanders in the direct line of fire.

What are you thinking when you put on a pair of overalls to make an assault on terrorists?

Ehud Barak: First of all, I had a lot of experiences where I had to change dress.

I still remember an operation where we had some of our pilots taken by the Egyptians during the war of attrition. They intercepted some of those with SAM missiles and we decided that the only way to convince the Egyptians to release them is by taking some Egyptian pilots and bring them to Israel and then suggest that we will kind of exchange them. And the only way that we found was to stop at a road leading to an Egyptian Air Force (base), back deep in the Nile Valley, by appearing as an Egyptian military police to move them from the road and to take over some pilots. I initiated such a raid and I was one of the two policemen with the motorcycles, fully dressed as an Egyptian MP with someone who talked Baladic -- kind of a street Egyptian -- much better than I could, in a much more convincing way, and we really made it. And we established a kind of check post on the road to an Egyptian Air Force base and we began to take vehicles at midnight. There was not a lot of transportation. We ended up with 40 people in some six or eight trucks and vehicles, and not a single man in uniform.

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They were all Egyptian civilians. One had a small pistol. Years later, when I was already prime minister, I told (Egyptian President) Mubarak this story . He joked -- he was himself a commander of the Egyptian Air Force -- and he told me that Egyptian pilots are more disciplined, they are not out in the streets after midnight. They're asleep at the air force base. But he was furious even in retrospect by the kind of chutzpah that we had, to take Egyptian uniforms and motorcycles and so on.

I looked at the dressing in (airplane mechanic) overalls as just a means to heighten the surprise. We were trying to storm a jet, a Sabena airliner with some 107 hostages in it. They were being held by a group of terrorists -- two gunmen and two females with hand grenades, some ammunition, some pistols and some explosives. We realized that unless we can surprise them, so they're defending themselves a split second after they realize we're attacking them, they will have enough time to connect and activate the explosive or to throw some hand grenades at the passengers and explode the whole thing.

First I thought of taking it over at night. I used to do almost everything at night. You can come closer. But there were a lot of hesitations in the upper echelon. Moshe Dayan and the chief of staff, and even Golda Meier in the Jerusalem office all hesitated. "Maybe we can negotiate with them. Maybe they will weaken and give up." So we found ourselves having to do it in the day time. In the day time you cannot come close.

One of the generals said, "Why don't we go closer to the airplane, kind of disguise ourselves or cover ourselves as mechanics while preparing it for taking off?" And we brought -- we even took some hundred young soldiers and some adults, gave them prison kind of suits to represent the Arab relieved terrorists that are coming from the prison, so they will see that everything is okay. And we took ourselves in a kind of trolley that small car that are working in airports. We created a train and we went there with overalls and nothing but small pistols underneath and some ladders to climb it. And we trained ourselves for about half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, how to storm the airplane, and how to open the emergency door from the outside, and how to climb from the nose wheel gear into the cockpit directly. And we went to do it and I felt -- what really worried me is the possibility that we will do everything okay but in the few seconds since the beginning of the assault and the actual facing of these terrorists, they can explode the whole thing together with us, and there was no solution for it. We just had to do it in an effective way.

Were you ever afraid during any of these operations?

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Ehud Barak: Fear is very normal. You have to overcome it. I remember it more as an experience of pre-battle, before the operation, than something that really strikes you during it. It comes to your awareness only when you sit idle, where some circumstances impose a lack of action upon you and you can't do anything. Then it works on you. It works on every human being, including experienced commanders. But when you see the people around you, you think there's a kind of luck that joins us, not just that led me into this unit or someone else to another place, but also during battle.

I've seen some of my best friends, who could have become prime ministers or professors and leaders of Israeli society in every field of life -- just out of something that no one could control -- they got series of bullets in the chest or head or neck. I still remember a lieutenant colonel, at the height of the Yom Kippur war -- a brilliant officer and brilliant scientist. In fact, in his youth he was a commander in the parachutists, and then a commander in the leading high tech confidential unit of that time. When he heard there was a battle, he came like a horse that smells it, and he joined us as a fifth member of the group.

We were at the height of the battle shooting at the Egyptian tanks from some thousand meters, and Egyptian soldiers just under our feet, and the Egyptian missiles from the flank, from some two-and-a-half kilometers. And he was shot at from maybe ten yards from someone that we have seen before. We have tried to crush him with the -- how you call it -- the chains of the tank. But when we rolled back to crush someone else, it came out that he comes out of his fox hole and raised his Kalashnikov once again and shot my friend here. And I still remember, you know, how he kind of-- he just turned to me and said something that is kind of -- maybe a foot and a half kind of stream of blood from his neck. And I tried to stop it, and he was heavy enough to slip into the turret, and he lost his life a few minutes later. I lost my best friends in the battlefield, especially in the Yom Kippur War.

The war caught me at Stanford University. I was a graduate student maybe some six weeks. You know, I came to this --'73 year and just began, you know. And I was called from Yom Kippur in California, Yom Kippur was already -- you know, coming ten hours later than in Israel so we were just after the Yom Kippur ceremony in the kind of Hillel auditorium of Stanford University, when... I woke up in the morning and was told that there is a war in Israel. I called the attaché in the embassy and said, "I'm a lieutenant colonel. I'm moving immediately." So the general told me, "Oh, I don't think we are missing a major war." I told him "What is--" I asked him, "What is we? You are here on official loan. I'm still a commander. I cannot afford being out of the country even if in a not very serious kind of war. I'm going there. I will call you from New York." And I went immediately to the airport, San Francisco airport. I kissed my wife. My eldest daughter was maybe two years old.
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She is a corporate lawyer in Manhattan now, but she was only two years old then. I went back, and I couldn't call my wife for three weeks. She was left in the hands of the Palo Alto Jewish community and some students that stayed there.

I commanded a tank battalion in some of the most bitter battles I ever participated in. And I still remember when I called from her from Suez after we kind of encircled the Third Army at the end of the war, and I began to read to her the names of our friends that were lost, most of them company commanders and battalion commanders that lost their lives since they were the first to climb to a fire position. And I remember her crying in the telephone. She was watching the CBS, something that was inconceivable for us, Egyptian infantry crossing the Canal. Israeli soldiers and officers prisoners at the hands of Egyptians, and she couldn't hear from me.

It took me four or five months to come back to Stanford to get her. I could not continue my studies. But the memory was there, how good it was, and I came there five years later to complete my graduate studies as a colonel.

This young man, who at 17 was kicked out of high school, wasn't very physical, goes into the army and becomes the highest ranking officer in the Israeli Army, the most decorated war hero in Israel. What do you think your superior officers saw in you that allowed you that opportunity?

Ehud Barak: First of all, I should admit that I was lucky, but in retrospect, maybe it means that some inner sense of direction and self-control is more important, even in the military profession. At least in modern life, maybe it is more important than many physical qualities. Of course, along the years I gained some three inches in height and some 30 pounds in weight and muscles during my service. I didn't shave until deep into the third year in service, but later on I became a physically well-shaped youngster. It was just that I came in so early.

But what made your superiors look at you and say, "Here's a leader?"

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Ehud Barak: I don't know. I believe that it emerged gradually, maybe when I was a young lieutenant. I had a commander, he was my colonel, and he trusted me somehow. He sensed something that I sensed in myself, that under uncertain and somewhat disturbing and threatening situations I didn't lose my judgment of the overall situation, and the sense of details that makes the difference. The sense of action, that you should not just observe the situation, you should do something about it. Then I got another mentor that escorted me for many years. It was Yitzhak Rabin. As a result of the tiny size of the Israeli Army, before sensitive operations even a young lieutenant like me was taken to the Chief of Staff, the commander of the armed forces, to be briefed and debriefed before an operation. So I was exposed to the supreme commander.

In fact, I was exposed to Rabin earlier in a circumstance which meant a lot for me but not for him. I excelled at officer's school, so Rabin gave the second lieutenant insignia to the first five or six students personally. We had our picture taken together, but he, of course, could not even recall it. Some two years later, I was in a unit that was lucky enough to be sent to solve the most delicate and demanding operational problems of the state of Israel. Some of them the public still doesn't know about, even after 40 years. They were very delicate missions that could drive Israel into big trouble if they became complicated during operation. We got something which is not typical of armed forces. Mainly they are very bureaucratic, very hierarchical. I feel as if I spent the first 15 years of my military career out of the armed forces. We used to wear civilian clothes. We were allowed to contemplate whatever we needed in order to approach the problem. We had full freedom of imagination for creative solutions. Once again, the Isadore Rabi story: Knowing how to raise the right question helps you to shape the right answers.

So unlike what you typically relate to military service, I felt that I'm growing up and developing in a kind of environment of the freedom of the spirit, and the freedom of imagination, the freedom to dare whatever you think. It puts a lot of burden of responsibility not to take too much of a risky approach, but it makes you responsible. We used to say, "You are the commander in the field, you are responsible to it. No one can help you from somewhere in some command post in the rear." And it shapes young people, you know, in a unique way if they're ambitious in a way, if they're predisposed for leadership.

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It might not be an accident that this small unit, which never consists of more than 50 or 60 fighters, raised many of the commanders of the IDF, many future ranking generals. Once again, at the top ranks, ranking generals need something we were educated to acquire at a very early age: thinking of the overall picture, what should be the solution, feeling the lack of limitations in our approach.

On the wing of this hijacked Sabena airliner, we had a future head of the Mossad, future Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, future Chief of Staff, two future prime ministers -- Netanyahu was on the other wing together with me. Where is the egg and where is the chicken here? The rumors about such a unit attract some of the best and most motivated youngsters, and the environment gives these youngsters an opportunity to express themselves, to fulfill themselves, to thrive and grow with the responsibility.

Do these same qualities of leadership apply to civilian life, to your life in politics in Israel?

Ehud Barak: Maybe certain elements. Nothing is similar and everything changes. The ancient Greeks used to say, "Everything is change." But when I left the Armed Forces -- after 36 years in uniform -- as the Commander in Chief of the Israeli Defense Forces, I planned to go to civilian life.

All my life I was stimulated by business activity. It looked to me something -- the closest thing to war. You don't kill the other guy but, you know, there's an active attempt of one to defeat most of the others and a certain partial kind of cooperation, and the fact that you cannot act effectively unless you understand the whole picture and at the same time give attention to details. And sometimes your defeat can come from someone that you don't even see at first. It became clear after two months that (Yitzhak) Rabin wants me to come to join government. The last few years I was deeply involved in his effort to have the agreement with the Palestinians. As the top military authority I have to express my views about what it means, what are the calculated risks that we can afford. And his effort to reach an agreement with the Jordanians, which ended up with a peace agreement with King Hussein. And I had a very close and warm relationship with King Hussein that began years earlier during the Gulf War and even before. And then I was sent by Rabin to meet the Syrian Chief of Staff here at the Blair House where, you know, I was just a civil servant. The Syrian Chief of Staff is number two in the Syrian politics. He is a political figure and the closest friend at the time of President Assad. So I was somehow exposed to these kind of political kind of experiences in this field of security and foreign affairs.

Rabin, I had many hours with him. You know, he somehow transformed from being my mentor as a kind of military officer to my mentor in preparing me for kind of public life. And he called -- I was here in the United States working with a think tank at the Center for Strategic International Studies, became an associate kind of member of this think tank, and I enjoyed it very much and I planned to go into business. And he called me and told me, "Ehud, I want you to join my government as the Minister of Interior." I told him, "Yitzhak, look, I just ended my service of 36 years. What difference it makes if I come after 38 years or something?" So he reminded me something that he said to the audience when I left my office as Chief of Staff. He was just after a visit to Korea. And he told the whole audience when he "farewelled" me that he was just coming from Korea and the new president of Korea told him -- it was in '95 -- that he's the first Korean president, head of state, that did not come from the rank of the general. So Rabin said, "And I told him that I am the first Israeli prime minister -- head of state -- that came from the ranks of general. But Ehud, maybe I'm not the last one." And so he hinted that he wanted me coming to political life.

He (Rabin) called upon me and he told me, "Ehud, look, I cannot explain it, and I cannot prove it. It's not mathematics that you like so much, but in political life timing is everything. You can never, never predict what will follow. I need you now." And so I left it and after a legal kind of cooling off period of some 100 days, I came into his government. And no one of us even kind of contemplated or weighed in mind what really happened, that five months later Rabin was assassinated. I found myself immediately shocked but not out of balance and entering Peres's government as his foreign minister and a few months later Peres was defeated in the general elections, and Netanyahu took over and within another few months I became the leader of the Labor Party. And so it happened that I came somewhat like a storm through political life. It never happened in the political history of Israel that someone who was totally out of political life became a prime minister within four years, and a half or so.

Ehud Barak Interview Photo
I was a minister with two different portfolios before then. It took Shamir some seven or eight years, it took Netanyahu eight years. It took me four years, and I found myself prime minister. I could hardly have enough time to think about it. But I felt that certain qualities are needed which are common to leaders in every aspect of life: the need for some kind of inner sense of direction, an inner compass, a predisposition to lead. It will not necessarily occur to you, but there should be some predisposition in your own genes and the overall imprint of your life experiences that makes you predisposed to lead.

You should be ready to take certain risks, to be able to make decisions in spite of uncertainties, and then to act informed of uncertainties. You should be able to -- somehow to be able to see the overall picture and not lose contact with the details and their crucial kind of importance in what will happen. You should have a certain understanding of either human nature or the material that you are dealing with, but in my case it's human nature. And you should be able to -- I say to think out of the box. Otherwise? You cannot just lead by kind of following the conventions and the two ends.

It's not the same in every area of life. It didn't take me more than one summer at the Weizmann Institute as a freshman in the physics department of the Hebrew University to realize that I will not be feeling self-fulfillment if I become a scientist as my father was dreaming.

When I went through the work of Heisenberg and Schrödinger, not to mention Einstein, it didn't take me long to realize that I would never be able to make this intellectual jump that people like Debye or Max Planck or Heisenberg or Schrödinger made. You could follow it. This is exact. You can know all the work they knew before they made this quantum leap in human knowledge. And you see that clearly it's beyond you. It would never come to my mind in physics, but in other fields of life it could come to my mind.

I knew very early in my life that I will not become a professional pianist. The fingers might not be adequate for this. But I didn't feel deterred by it, I just felt that naturally there are things that I can do, there are things that I cannot do, and if I screen well enough I will find something where I can express myself. I found it in a territory that I could not conceive of in the beginning.

What is most important to you, and why?

Ehud Barak: The dominating question of my youth, before I found the role of super navigator, was not a question of achievement but the question of meaning. "What is the meaning of this journey?" I remember when I first read the saying of John Maynard Keynes, "In the long run we are all dead." This is something that I felt from the very beginning. In the long run we are all dead, so we have to find a meaning. The real motivation of human beings has to do with the meaning of what we are doing.

I believe that I found from early youth that meaning could be found only in something that goes beyond your own kind of frame of skin and bones, and even self-interest. If something is serving you, if you can get the ultimate kind of domestic or self-indulgent situation, it will not satisfy you, I believe -- most human beings, I know for sure about myself -- for very long. It is only through something that seems to be important, meaningful, has to do with a wider group of human beings, and leave some imprint beyond your body, and in a way, beyond your time. That makes life meaningful. And that somehow -- I was born in a kind of mobilized society as I see it in retrospect, you know, it was a society shaping. A very strong feeling, unspoken feeling, that we are facing history, that we are fulfilling the dreams of generations of Jews, especially immediately after the Holocaust in my formative years when the remnants of the Holocaust were still coming.

I still remember going with my father from the collective dining room that I mentioned in the beginning and asking -- pointing to one of these Holocaust (survivors), a young woman, that came alone from Auschwitz or Majdanek -- I do not remember -- and she was taking a loaf of bread under her hand every evening from the dining room. And I asked my father why -- Anka was her name -- why Anka is taking this loaf of bread? There will be breakfast tomorrow. There will be bread on the table. He told me what hunger passed in her life will make her to her last day on earth taking this bread. She will never -- could be convinced that tomorrow there will be bread on the table. And so we -- you know, it is to a young kid of five years old or four years and a half, it kind of haunted me since then, and later on through all these wars I realized that we --that Israel is -- that we were born about the middle of last century, slightly before. Our generation did not learn the Alamo stories of his nation in the history books. We experienced them personally. It's a formative, personal, individual experience, a formative collective experience of the Israeli society. The bringing about of a Jewish sovereign entity that can defend itself, stepping back on the stage of real history. Not as a spiritual kind of heritage but as a real way of life for a people that suffered so much. So it became the kind of mobilizing factor of my life, and it gave a certain kind of meaning that you could not think of it when you are -- have to be alert to touch the trigger a split second before someone shoots at you. You don't think about history and so on. But somehow it was a kind of shaping for the whole generation that I was a part of.

Ehud Barak Interview Photo
When I became older I told young commanders, "Right now, as young leaders, it's more complicated than in our time. We could assume that all our soldiers are the product of a society that is mobilized. We didn't even give it a thought. So we could take many aspects of their behavior, including behavior under fire, as self-evident. Now you should invest a lot of energy in convincing people that they should identify, that they give an account of themselves as a group." In a way, our society is maturing, but in our time decisions were simpler.

I believe that at a very profound level, something very similar happens in every society in every generation. The real essence of it is not about achievement. Achievement is a means for certain people -- that have this predisposition to become leaders in whatever arena -- to reach something more profound, which is meaningful. The need for meaning is something that connects them with the people they lead, and with every other human being that searches for the meaning of life, or in life. I don't know how to put it in English.

I think you just did. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Thank you.

This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 14:42 EST