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Israel has only weeks to defeat Hamas as global opinion sours, former PM Ehud Barak says

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TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be digging in for a “long and difficult war” but former leader Ehud Barak fears Israel has only weeks left to eliminate Hamas, as public opinion — most significantly in the U.S. — rapidly swings against its attacks on Gaza.

In an exclusive interview with POLITICO, the former prime minister and chief of the Israel Defense Forces also suggested a multinational Arab force could have to take control of Gaza after the military campaign, to help usher in a return of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority to take over from Hamas. Even with that change of the political order in Gaza, however, Barak stressed the return to diplomacy aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state was a very remote prospect.

Barak, who led Israel between 1999 and 2001, observed the rhetoric of U.S. officials had shifted in recent days with a mounting chorus of calls for a humanitarian pause in the fighting. The sympathy generated toward Israel in the immediate wake of October 7, when Hamas launched the deadliest terrorist attack on Israel in the Jewish state’s 75-year history, was now diminishing, he worried.

“You can see the window is closing. It’s clear we are heading towards friction with the Americans about the offensive. America cannot dictate to Israel what to do. But we cannot ignore them,” he said, in reference to Washington’s role as the main guarantor of Israel’s security. “We will have to come to terms with the American demands within the next two or three weeks, probably less.”

As he was speaking, Israeli military officials told reporters the ground campaign was reaching a new dangerous phase with troops penetrating deep inside Gaza City, further than in previous operations in 2009 and 2014.

Barak spoke with POLITICO in his book-lined office in a high-rise apartment building in downtown Tel Aviv.

On the walls are photographs recording different stages of his storied career as a special forces soldier and statesman. One was snapped in May 1972 when he led an elite commando unit, which included Netanyahu, to rescue passengers from Sabena Flight 571, which was hijacked by Black September gunmen.

Under the photograph, there’s a piano. A trained classical pianist, Barak says he has recently been playing Chopin Ballade No. 1. A performance of that piece is central to the plot of the 2002 film The Pianist, which moves a German Nazi officer to hide Władysław Szpilman.

Barak added it would take months or even a year to extirpate the Islamist militant group Hamas — the main war aim set by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his war cabinet – but noted Western support was weakening because of the civilian death toll in Gaza and fears of Israel’s campaign sparking a much broader and even more catastrophic war in the region.

Western nations are also anxious about their nationals among the 242 hostages Hamas is holding captive in Gaza, he continued.

“Listen to the public tone — and behind doors it is a little bit more explicit. We are losing public opinion in Europe and in a week or two we’ll start to lose governments in Europe. And after another week the friction with the Americans will emerge to the surface,” Barak said.

Handing over Gaza for a period to a multinational Arab force to police has been mooted before | Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

Last week, President Joe Biden raised the need for a “humanitarian pause” in the campaign.

And this week on his fourth trip to Israel, and his third to the region since October 7, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed the case with Netanyahu and the Israeli war cabinet telling them they should now prioritize the protection of civilians in Gaza and minimize civilian casualties.

Blinken’s efforts so far have been spurned by Netanyahu but Barak didn’t think the Israeli war cabinet would be able to fend off the Biden administration and Europeans for much longer.

Political and military veteran

Barak has plenty of experience of dealing with Israel’s allies and adversaries alike.

As prime minister he negotiated with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David, in a 2000 summit hosted by President Bill Clinton, where they came close to striking a deal. A former defense minister and chief of staff, Barak was an elite commando and one of the key planners of Operation Thunderbolt, the rescue from Entebbe, Uganda, of the passengers and crew of an Air France jet hijacked by terrorists.

Barak said Israel rightly set the bar high in its Gaza war aim. “The shock of the attack was huge. This was an unprecedented event in our history, and it was immediately clear that there had to be a tough response. Not in order to take revenge, but to make sure that it cannot happen ever again.”

And even if the military campaign falls short of its maximum goal of the full eradication of Hamas, severe damage will have been inflicted on the Iran-backed Palestinian group, he explained. It will then be important to constrain Hamas from pulling off a resurgence, he continued.

Barak poses with members of the LGBTQ+ community in Tel Aviv in 2019 | Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

To change the political landscape, he believed a multinational Arab force could take over Gaza after the Israeli military campaign.

“It is far from being inconceivable that backed by the Arab League and United Nations Security Council, a multinational Arab force could be mustered, with some symbolic units from non-Arab countries included. They could stay there for three to six months to help the Palestinian Authority to take over properly,” he said.

Handing over Gaza for a period to a multinational Arab force to police has been mooted before.

Back in 2008-2009, when Israel and Hamas fought a three week-war, Barak, then Israeli defense minister, discussed with the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak the possibility of Egypt and other Arab nations stepping in to administer the Gaza Strip. “I remember his gesture,” says Barak. “He displayed his hands and said, ‘I will never ever put my hands back in the Gaza.’”

Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was equally dismissive.

Abbas told Barak he could never return to Gaza supported by Israeli bayonets. “I didn’t like the answer. But you can understand his logic. Fifteen years ago, it was impossible because there was no one who would do it but a lot has changed since then,” Barak said.

Displaced Palestinians wait at a food distribution at a U.N.-run center | Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

Hamas battled the PLO-affiliated Fatah party for control of Gaza in 2007 in a clash that effectively split Palestinian political structures in two, with Hamas controling Gaza and Fatah predominating in the West Bank.

Barak noted Israel, Egypt and Jordan had deepened their anti-terrorism cooperation and Israel had signed “normalization” accords with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, a process that he thought Arab states would not want to row back from.

“Arab leaders also need to be able to tell their own peoples that something is changing, and a new chapter is opening, one where there is a sincere effort on all sides to calm down conflict. But they need to hear that Israel is capable of thinking in terms of changing the direction it has been on in recent years,” he adds.

That doesn’t mean Israel should or can rush into revived negotiations over a two-state solution, he cautioned. Getting back to the era of when he was negotiating with Arafat might not be possible, for a very long time.

“History does not repeat itself. So I do not think that something exactly like that can be repeated. But as Mark Twain used to say, history can rhyme.”

He added: “It won’t happen quickly, and it will take time. Trust on all sides has gone – the distrust has only deepened.”

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