On Saturday evening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke to TIME senior writer Lisa Beyer by phone from his private residence in Kochav Yair, north of Tel Aviv.
--Given your commitment to pursuing peace with the Palestinians, it must have been a difficult decision to attack facilities of the Palestinian Authority.
It was not simple. I promised that we would leave no stone unturned to find a partner for peace. And now I should tell you that with the same determination that we looked for a reasonable, honest peace of the brave, we will struggle if Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority will try to impose their own will upon us through the use of violence. We are a tough and small people who want peace, but we are ready to fight if necessary. Arafat initiated and launched this violence, sending innocent, incited citizens, together with policemen and Tanzim people and kids 10 years old, to assault our isolated positions. And since the P.A. is the source of these orders, we had to attack its infrastructure.
--The U.S. has blamed both you and the Palestinians for the bloodshed.
We are acting out of self-defense. We do not initiate. We do not agree with this kind of condemnation, not by the U.N. Security Council and not by the U.S. We are still working to convince open-minded leaders all around the world that in spite of the sensitivity to the Arab positions, to the oil prices, there is a need for leadership that will be able to stand firm.
--The Palestinians say you've declared war.
That's not true. They deliberately tried to shape themselves as the underdog, when in fact they are deliberately launching these attacks in order to draw attention through the pictures, the shocking pictures. We were shocked not just by the pictures of our soldiers lynched by the mob but also by pictures of the young Palestinian who lost his life when he was caught in crossfire. But, as leaders, we should see through the screens and ask ourselves who is responsible for it, how it happened, who initiated it, for what purpose. What the hell kind of purpose could he [Arafat] have in having this kind of violence? It's ridiculous. It is a deliberate choice to turn to conflict.
--What of the peace process now?
I already know quite probably we don't have a partner for peace, unfortunately. We will never lose hope of making peace with our Palestinian neighbors. There is no other alternative. They are here forever, as we are. A leadership could open its eyes; it could reshape its judgment; it could change its mind; it could be replaced. But the peace will ultimately come with the Palestinian people. Maybe not with this present leadership in its present mood.
--You've always said in the past that it was important to make a final peace deal while Arafat was still alive because only he had the credibility among the Palestinians to make the necessary concessions.
I've hoped that this would be the case, but it seems, no, he is not ripe to seize this opportunity. He prefers violence. It's his choice. We cannot deny him the ability to choose violence. But he has to be held responsible for it.
--You've held Syria responsible for Hizballah's kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers.