Ehud Barak apologized on Tuesday for the deaths of 13 Arab demonstrators in clashes with police at the start of the Second Intifada, when he served as prime minister.
“I express my regret and apologize to the families and to the [Arab] community,” Barak told the Kan public broadcaster.
The former premier and Israel Democratic Party leader had been asked to respond to an article by Meretz MK Issawi Frej in the Haaretz newspaper urging him to apologize to Arab Israelis for his conduct during the deadly riots.
“I really bear responsibility for everything that took place during my tenure as prime minister, including the events of October ,” Barak said. “There should be no situation in which demonstrators are killed by the fire of the security forces of their own country. I have apologized in the past.”
“It is forbidden for such things to happen — not then, and not today. I do not absolve myself of responsibility and I can be the one to bring about a solution.”
In 2000, as the second Palestinian Second Intifada gained momentum in the West Bank, Arab Israelis took to the streets to protest the visit of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount — a move that angered Palestinian and Israeli Muslims and sparked the violence.
Thirteen protesters were killed in clashes with police officers, who used live fire and rubber bullets to scatter the demonstrators. An official government commission inquiry established a month later concluded that there had been no justification for the live fire, though no Israeli officer went on to be charged for the deaths.
Frej responded to Barak’s statement, telling Kan that the Israel Democratic Party leader’s apology was “the opening of a door.”
The apology came as Barak sought to merge his left-wing party with Meretz ahead of the September 17 selections.
“At the start of this process I saw a merger with Barak as a mistake, but [Labor leader] Amir Peretz closed the door and Ehud Barak has opened it,” Frej said, referring to Labor leader Peretz’s declaration that he would not unite with another party after his merger last week with Gesher chairwoman Orly Levy-Abekasis.
The Labor-Gesher union has placed additional pressure on the two remaining independent, left-wing parties — Meretz and the Israel Democratic Party — to merge. Barak and Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz have held negotiations in recent weeks, though a breakthrough has yet to be achieved.
Both parties are polling at between 4 and 6 seats of the 120-member Knesset.