Following a first day that generally provided the expected story lines pertaining to the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s security, outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s speech on Sunday evening at AIPAC’s annual policy conference proposed a dramatic shift in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.
“We must build a regional security framework” with the primary objective of defeating Iran’s race for the bomb, said Barak. The arrangement would also be aimed at achieving common goals pertaining to the “joint challenges of radical Islamist terror [and] border security.”
The defense minister’s proposal was framed in the context of Israel at a “decisive moment in [its] history,” requiring the Jewish state to muster “the character and courage as a nation to make those tough decisions to preserve the peace and security […] for generations to come.”
Barak called Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons “the greatest challenge facing Israel.” And though Iran is a common enemy to Israel and a number of other states in the region, the question remains just how a regional security framework could be mustered, given the lack of diplomatic relations between Israel and the vast majority of its Middle Eastern counterparts.
He suggested that any regional security alliance would require the United States as its midwife.
Among Barak’s other policy proposals for the next Israeli government was a “daring peace initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians,” consisting of serious attempts at reaching a “reasonable, fair, interim agreement.” In the absence of such an agreement, Barak argued that Israel “should consider unilateral steps” in order to prevent the “dangerous” eventuality of a bi-national state.
Barak reiterated the familiar refrain that “the two-state solution is the only viable long-term solution.” “It is a compelling imperative for us,” Barak implored, “not a favor to the Palestinians.”
With just weeks remaining in his tenure, Barak was speaking from a position of greater political flexibility. In offering his prescriptions concerning both the regional security network and reaching an interim agreement with the Palestinians, Barak openly admitted that he spoke on behalf of no one other than himself, introducing the recommendations as “my positions.”
Barak also reaffirmed, in glowing terms, his appreciation of the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel’s security, giving special reference to the president and former defense secretary Leon Panetta for their “resolute support” for Israel. “History will surely record your immeasurable contribution to the strength of Israel and the maintenance of the truly special relationship between our two peoples.”
Notably, Barak also had some kind words for the president’s newest cabinet member, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who garnered headlines during his confirmation battle for previously expressed views that some perceived as anti-Israel. To muted applause — but no boos, as per AIPAC’s requested protocol — Barak wished Hagel “the best in his new role,” adding, perhaps with as much a note of diplomacy as with expectation, that Hagel will “no doubt serve his country with the same pride and honor as he served on both the battlefield and in Congress.”
Yet Barak remained at his most politically persuasive when he spoke on the topic of Iran. The section of his speech that focused on prevention expertly weaved together both Israeli and American national security narratives. He reiterated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position that tough sanctions, while unprecedented, would not “lead to a moment of truth,” and he echoed President Obama’s oft-expressed line that “a nuclear Iran will be the end of any conceivable non-proliferation regime.”