Ehud Barak doesn’t like the question. No, really. He doesn’t.


Laura Rozen at Politico captures an astonishing moment in the address Friday by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

Barak, in town to assess where the Obama administration is exactly on confronting Iran, delivered a superb state-of-the-region status update to the familiar and friendly WINEP crowd. But he didn’t exactly make news.

So WINEP director, Robert Satloff, asked him, essentially, how the talks went. The response was an eye-opener: Barak said he would prefer taking "several questions at a time," a tactic speakers use to skate over discomfiting questions. No one thought he was serious — the host always has prerogatives at such events — but as the laughter subsided into an uncomfortable silence, it was clear he was. Here’s Rozen:

After his prepared remarks to the friendly Washington audience with lots of familiar faces for him — former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and former Bush-era Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim, among them — the event moderator, the Institute’s executive director Rob Satloff, in the typical format of such events, asked Barak a first question to get the discussion going before turning to the audience for questions.

Noting the slew of recent high level U.S. officials visiting Israel – CIA director Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and NSC Iran strategic Dennis Ross, Deputy Secretaries of State Jim Steinberg and Jack Lew just in the past month, as well as the upcoming visit of Vice President Joseph Biden – Satloff asked Barak about how well he thought the U.S. and Israel were coordinating on the Iran issue. Barak listened to Satloff’s question and then said, "Let’s take a few more questions and I will answer them" in a bunch. And Satloff, the event host and moderator, laughed and said, "Well, answer that opening question and then I can call on members of the audience and take several questions" in a bunch. And Barak smiled, acknowledging the laughter, and then said, again, "Let’s take a few more questions." Until it became quite clear that he did not want to answer Satloff’s question about the state of U.S.-Israel relations on Iran, and this was not based on a cultural misunderstanding of the format procedure.

In the end, Barak did not skate over the question — and made news. There are evidently differences on emphasis and timing between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations, especially when it comes to Iran, although Barak made a point of noting the soundness of the relationship. We briefed it here.

Below the jump, an expanded version of the exchange from the WINEP trasncript, which is here in its entirety in PDF form.


MR. SATLOFF: Minister Barak, thank you very much. That harkened back to your days as head of military intelligence for such an impressive briefing on threats and opportunities. So thank you very much. I’d like to open up by asking you, more specifically, about the U.S.-Israel relationship, concerning the agenda you just outlined.

There is currently a slew of visits of high-level officials in the national security realm, the vice president is going shortly. But I’d like to ask you, more specifically, about the depth of this relationship, especially as concerns the challenge from Iran. The level of coordination, level of cooperation and the meeting of minds – to what extent does that exist on the nature of the problem and on the nature of the solution?

MR. BARAK: Probably, we collect several questions so I can –

MR. SATLOFF: Why don’t – I’ll tell you what –

MR. BARAK: – jump over some questions, you know – (laughter) – more easily.

MR. SATLOFF: Why don’t you take that? And then I’m going to identify some other – (laughter) – that’s the prerogative of the host.

MR. BARAK: You use the prerogative of the head of the institute and –

MR. SATLOFF: That’s right. I pay the rent.

MR. BARAK: – this society’s based on equality – (laughter) – fairness to all. I just write down your question. But you can ask – let someone more.

MR. SATLOFF: You’re wonderful. You’re wonderful. Okay, David Makovsky on my left and then, yes, on my right, rather and then on my left, on my far left here. Could you wait for the microphone to come to you? And identify yourself for all of our viewers around the world.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: David Makovsky, Washington Institute. Mr. Minister, we talked about maximizing the success of institution-building. Can you also say, and as a minister of defense, how important has the security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians been to the tranquility that is existing now on the ground? And also, you mentioned a border demarcation as a compelling imperative for Israel, given that some
issues like Jerusalem and the like are very sensitive with a lot of residents, can you see focusing on borders first as the first item on a final status agenda?

MR. SATLOFF: On the left here, the microphone please?

JOE TABET: Yeah. Minister Barak, this is Joe Tabet with al-Hurra Television. I would like to ask you, what’s the time limit for Israel to rely on diplomacy? And my second question, why Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran?

MR. SATLOFF: Why don’t we take that, Ehud? (Laughter.)

MR. BARAK: He complements yours. (Laughter.) I’m slow in writing in English. Okay. You know, we’re going to, Rob, a question. I feel that our relationship with the United States goes decades backwards. I see here Sam Lewis, one of the founding fathers of this, the intimacy, the depth, the – and they went through ups and downs, but basically the underlying common attribute of democracy. We perceived ourselves as an outpost of the Western way of life, of the ideas of democracy, open society, Western way of life in a region that was troubled and go gradually into more normalcy. I hope it will improve in the future.

And we had the same common basis of values and a lot of support from the United States all in along the years – a kind of bipartisan, both sides of the political aisle, and many issues from qualitative military edge to even economic support when it was needed. And at the moment of truth, the United States knew to stand and make sure that this outpost will not be, kind of, fall prey to animosities of some. And we felt very proud that we never asked Americans to come to fight for us. We basically, once again to paraphrase on Churchill, we told you give us the tools and we will do the job.

We felt that by supporting Israel on very basic terms, the United States relieves itself on the need to contribute directly to something that happens in regard to Israel. I think that this is the basis of it even now. I think that beyond that there is, of course, a certain difference in perspective and difference in judgment, difference in the internal clocks and difference in capabilities. And I don’t think that there is a need to coordinate in this regard. That should be understood; it should be exchange of views – we do not need to coordinate every step. We clearly support the attempt to solve it through diplomacy.

We clearly think that in spite of the fact that from America, when you look at a nuclear Iran, you already have, just besides allies like France and U.K., you have a nuclear Russia, nuclear China, nuclear India, nuclear Pakistan, North Korea is going toward turning nuclear. So probably from this corner of the world, it doesn’t change the scene dramatically.

From a closer distance, in Israel it looks like a tipping point of the whole regional order with a quite assured, quite certain consequences to the wider world, global world order. And we try to convince here, as well as in Europe or even in Beijing we sent Stanley Fischer, out of our people together with Boogie Ya’alon who was here, probably, a year or 2 years ago to Beijing to exchange views with the Chinese as well. So it’s, of course, different. But I think that basically it’s the underlying relationships are strong and they are there and the mutual respect is due.

And we understand that we are not the United States and the United States, I believe the government understands, that they are not in the same situation as we are. And I think that this mutual respect and capacity to listen, to take into account the considerations of the other, even without speaking about them explicitly or publicly, is more important than the other aspects.

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