Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu errs in his support of a Palestinian state, and that misguided support is badly weakening his position within the Likud, Netanyahu’s own deputy foreign minister and Likud colleague Ze’ev Elkin told The Times of Israel.
In an interview at his office in the Foreign Ministry, where he serves as the deputy to acting foreign minister Netanyahu, Elkin said Netanyahu “is going against the flow of his own party. He’s paying a political price day after day, hour after hour, for his belief in a Palestinian state… It’s very hard for him in his party.”
Asked whether this meant Netanyahu would ultimately lose control of the Likud, Elkin said he didn’t know. Pressed, the deputy foreign minister said Netanyahu is “prepared to pay a political price for something he believes is right. I think he’s wrong. We have a real disagreement. But I respect his capacity to say, ‘This is what I believe is right and I’m prepared to pay a political price. I’m leading in this direction because I believe in it.’… Anyone who understands and sees the price he pays politically in his party and on his control of the party because he’s insistent on this [moving ahead with talks with the Palestinians on a two-state solution], knows that it would be foolish for him to do this if he wasn’t serious about it and if he didn’t really think it was right.”
Elkin, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1990, and moved from academia into politics after leading an effort among Russian immigrants to oppose prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza, entered the Knesset in 2006 with Kadima but moved to the Likud in the 2009 elections. A resident of Kfar Eldad in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem, Elkin, 42, an Orthodox former Bnei Akiva secretary in the FSU, is a staunch opponent of Palestinian statehood and said that opposition to a Palestinian state was overwhelming in the Likud’s Knesset faction. He said a majority of the government and the coalition opposed a Palestinian state as well.
Asked why Netanyahu had placed known Likud opponents of so central a policy in key government positions — including himself as deputy foreign minister and Danny Danon as deputy defense minister — Elkin said Netanyahu really had little choice. Numerous relatively young Likud politicians who oppose Palestinian statehood had fared well in the Likud party primaries before the last elections, and so they had to be given relatively prestigious jobs. By rights, said Elkin, he ought to have been a minister in the government. When it became clear that there was no room for him, he said, he was offered the deputy ministerial post of his choice, and chose foreign.
Elkin, who made plain he would have opposed the release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners that was approved by the cabinet on Sunday, said he saw little prospect of progress in the resuming peace talks, “not that this saddens me. For 20 years the Palestinians haven’t budged a millimeter in their demands. They’ve only enlarged them. They haven’t given in on anything. Not on the ’67 lines, not on Jerusalem, not even on the ‘right of return’ in the negotiating room. The only ones who budged in those 20 years are us. And Netanyahu is not ready for the ’67 lines and nor is his party.”
The Times of Israel: What do you think Israel should do with the territories. Annex it all? Act incrementally? Do you share Netanyahu’s concerns about a binational state?
Ze’ev Elkin: Let’s work by a process of elimination. First of all, a Palestinian state, I oppose it for many reasons. Partly for ideological reasons, a question of rights. These are precisely the areas of the Land of Israel which is the historical basis of the Jewish people. If you dig in Tel Aviv, the likelihood of finding something Jewish is weak. In contrast to the area where I live.
Secondly, in the past 20 years, every withdrawal has brought more Palestinian terrorism. Whether under Oslo I, Oslo II or the disengagement, the result was always the same: a worsening of security. Ask a resident of Ashdod today if he felt more secure before the Oslo Accords or now, the answer is obvious. The conclusion is that this solution doesn’t work. It brings less security and more problems. It doesn’t advance us anywhere.
So, what would you propose?
My answer is complicated. The western approach, which says there has to be a solution right away and that it’s binary — you have to decide now — is often wrong. When you try to build a solid concept on shifting sands, your concept collapses. There are situations when you have to say sometimes, “I don’t see a solution,” like now. I don’t have to say that, since I don’t have a solution, I’ll take the first solution that comes to hand. I have to ask myself whether that solution will make matters worse or better. If I think it will make matters worse, I shouldn’t adopt it. I don’t accept that there’s a [binary] dilemma between a Palestinian state and a single binational state. Nobody can predict how things will pan out. And if I know that a Palestinian state is bad, I don’t have to run to it simply because I don’t have another option on the table. I can seek to manage the conflict, and wait and see. Perhaps another solution will emerge.
But you’re not just waiting.You’re supporting settlements and expansion of settlements.
Absolutely, and I certainly think a Palestinian state is no solution. And if I think a Palestinian state is no solution, that means I do want a Jewish presence here. Which raises the question: What do you do with the Palestinian population? And I don’t think the answer to that question can be found right now. But a Palestinian state is no solution, not for us and I don’t think for them either. I’m in touch with lots of Palestinians, given where I live, and lots of them say that things are much worse now than they were before Arafat. Now, with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], it’s a little bit better.
Do you think of annexing the territories?
The state of Israel, in its handling of the negotiations with the Palestinians, has always made a beginner’s mistake. We ran the negotiations salami-style.The other side consistently raised its territorial ambitions and we always said, “We’ll say how much we need at the end.” The other side isn’t static. Things that the other side wouldn’t have dreamed of demanding at the start of the process, today it demands. Arafat talked about [wanting sovereignty on] the outskirts of Jerusalem so that he’d be able to say that Al Quds is the capital of Palestine. Now, Abbas won’t talk about anything less than the Temple Mount. Over the past 20 years, they’ve made dramatic headway in enlarging their demands, in their understanding in what they can get from Israel.
If you’re going to disengage from Gaza, why do you not simultaneously annex Judea and Samaria?
Today we’re ostensibly arguing with them about 60 percent of Judea and Samaria. They have Gaza and they have 40 percent of Judea and Samaria already, and we’re arguing as though we’re still at the start. What we gave, we gave. It’s no longer on the table. That’s a mistake. It wouldn’t work in a bazaar.
In my opinion we shouldn’t be giving, but if you are giving, if you believe in a Palestinian state, then you have to take as well. If you’re going to disengage from Gaza, why do you not simultaneously annex Judea and Samaria? If we’d at least annexed when we gave, our situation with the Palestinians today would be better. They would come to terms with what was ours and we’d be arguing over the balance. It’s a fatal mistake.
There needs to be gradual annexation in accordance with the Israeli consensus. Where there isn’t a Palestinian populace and there is a consensus in Israel and a degree of international recognition that this will be Israeli, we should have moved forward. Does that mean that I’m saying today, immediately, we should annex? I don’t believe that that would pass. We have gotten the world used to the fact through these years that we’re leaving annexation to the end. The world has gotten used to that.
We have to decide for ourselves and then to explain to the world. It will take time to change the world back. Internally too, this requires a fundamental change. It’s not a political decision. We have to admit where we went wrong and change the Israeli approach.
If we want to keep a democratic, Jewish Israel, that does require separation from the Palestinians. You don’t want to give them a state, so what rights do you want to give them?
They already have a certain amount of self-determination — something that’s less than a state but covers almost all of the Palestinian population. People forget that in the 60% of Judea and Samaria that is Area C we barely rule over any Palestinians there.
But that’s not enough for them, or for the international community.
For at least half of the Palestinian population, the ’67 borders aren’t enough either. So long as you can’t reach a final status agreement, they’ll always be unsatisfied. But I stress, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. There are all sorts of instabilities on the other sides of our borders.
What does it say about the prime minister, and his commitment to a two-state solution, that he put you in this job, and Danny Danon as deputy defense minister, and allows Yariv Levin, his coalition chairman, to head the Land of Israel lobby — when you all oppose Palestinian statehood?
We’re a democratic state and the Likud is a democratic party. There was always a range of opinions in the Likud.
We’re not talking about a party. We’re talking about the government.
The government reflects the public.
The deputy British foreign minister wouldn’t follow a completely different vision from that of his prime minister.
All over Europe there are multi-party coalitions. The notion that a government has to be of a single color is not appropriate for a parliamentary democracy.
But you’re the foreign minister representing the government.
So your question is different. Your question is, How am I supposed to act in the Foreign Ministry? If you count how many people in the Likud today openly support the two-state solution, there are not many (probably just Netanyahu, Yuval Steinitz and Tzachi Hanegbi — DH.) who would say they are certain in support of a Palestinian state. And in the last primaries, a group of young politicians came very high and so they should have been incorporated into the government. The prime minister can’t ignore that.
He didn’t have to put you in this job, of all places, and Danon in that job.
But Danny Danon came fifth in the primaries. He had every reason to expect to be a minister.
But the prime minister still had some options.
You can’t face off against everybody. All the young politicians came high. You had Danon and me and Yariv Levin and Tzipi Hotovely. You could include Miri Regev, and Yuli Edelstein with his views.
Do you constrain yourself when discussing your views in this job?
Talking to you, no. Because I assume you’re interviewing me as a public figure and not only as the deputy foreign minister. But when I hold formal meetings [with international politicians], I don’t lecture them that it’s forbidden to establish a Palestinian state. As deputy foreign minister, I represent the ministry’s policy. There’s a foreign minister and that minister is the prime minister.
If we want to prevail, the right has to be interested in hasbara action abroad no less than it is active in building another new home
If they ask my personal opinion, I don’t hide it. I haven’t changed my opinions. I don’t say, ‘What I see here, I didn’t see from there.’ I haven’t changed my opinions despite the Israeli tradition to do so. But I have a lot now to say to my friends the settlers and my friends on the right, that I had internalized less before.
I’ll give you an example. Not long ago there was a conference about hasbara (propaganda) that the Yesha (Settlers) Council organized. I spoke after Naftali Bennett (the minister of economics and the leader of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party). That was the speech in which he spoke of shrapnel in the rear end. What he said that wasn’t accurate, in my opinion, is that ‘We don’t have a problem. The world isn’t interested in the Palestinian issues. We’re inventing this problem. If we stop scaring ourselves everything will be fine.’ I spoke after him. He got very warm applause. I strongly disagreed with him. I said I wished that he was right. I told him that it was very difficult in Europe even among our friends to find countries that support the settlement enterprise. I think it would be an erroneous stance to say there’s no problem. There is a problem.
But from there I don’t draw the conclusions that Tzipi Livni draws — that the only solution for us is to go with the flow, and to give in to them, and to establish two states, and then the world will calm down and everything will be fine — because I think that will bring us to a lousy place. My solution was that the right needs to think about hasbara and diplomatic activism. The right and the settlement movement for a long time focused only on practical action, and completely abandoned diplomatic activity. Today we’re paying the price, a very heavy price, for not engaging in hasbara and not explaining our position to the world. If we want to prevail, the right has to be interested in hasbara action abroad no less than it is active in building another new home.
That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be in this job. I chose it. By virtue of years in parliament, I ought to have been a minister, but because of the limitations, it didn’t work out. I was the first one to miss out. I could choose: the Defense Ministry, Foreign, Education. And I chose the Foreign Ministry.
It doesn’t hurt the prime minister’s credibility that he tells the Europeans and the world that he supports a Palestinian state while his deputy foreign minister says the opposite?
Quite the contrary. He has no other people. The Israeli public determined the political map. The world might want to see a different public, but these are the politicians who the Israeli public voted into parliament, and from them, a coalition was built, a coalition of people with different views trying to work together.
For 20 years the Palestinians haven’t budged a millimeter in their demands
When they (overseas politicians) hear my views and they know that I’m part of the majority in my party, they can appreciate even more what the prime minister is doing. He is going against the flow of his own party. He’s paying a political price day after day, hour after hour, for his belief in a Palestinian state. In his party. It’s very hard for him in his party.
Does that mean that in two to three years he will lose control of the Likud?
I don’t know.
Is this political suicide?
He’s prepared to pay a political price for something he believes is right. I think he’s wrong. We have a real disagreement. But I respect his capacity to say, ‘This is what I believe is right and I’m prepared to pay a political price. I’m leading in this direction because I believe in it.’ That’s what I expect of a leader — to know when to lead against the flow. In this instance, I disagree with him, but I respect him. Anyone who understands and sees the price he pays politically in his party and on his control of the party because he’s insistent on this, knows that it would be foolish for him to do this if he wasn’t serious about it and if he didn’t really think it was right.
Why would he think that there’s any prospect of success in this process? Why does John Kerry think so?
Excellent question. I don’t think there’s much chance. Not that this saddens me. For 20 years the Palestinians haven’t budged a millimeter in their demands. They’ve only increased them. They haven’t given in on anything. Not on the ’67 lines, not on Jerusalem, not even on the ‘right of return,’ in the negotiating room. The only ones who budged in those 20 years are us. And Netanyahu is not ready for the ’67 lines, and nor is his party.
So if Kerry announces that these talks are on the basis of ’67, Netanyahu gets up and leaves?
For that to serve as the basis of the talks, all sides would have to agree, and Israel does not agree.
What Kerry says or doesn’t say is not the point. The American position is known, to my sorrow. And on the issue of borders, the American position largely matches the Palestinian position. That’s no secret, with certain variations. But that doesn’t bind us. So long as we are saying that, ‘No, we’re not prepared to commit ourselves to the ’67 lines as a basis for negotiation,’ the mediator can say what he wants, but we haven’t agreed to that.
If they want us there on the basis of the ’67 lines, we won’t be there.
By the way, even for those who support a Palestinian state, it would be ridiculous to state now that you’re prepared [to go back to the '67 lines]. Even if you were prepared to end up at that position, it would be really foolish to say so now.
So the president of the United States is being really foolish?
No, because he doesn’t see our interests (as his prime concern). That’s not his job. He sees the traditional American position. This is the president and the secretary of state of the United States, not of Israel.
If an Israeli who supports a Palestinian state says all the time that the ’67 lines are an interest of ours, why would the Palestinians give you anything in your interest? Too many Israeli politicians in recent years dashed all over the world and said that the establishment of a Palestinian state is an Israeli interest — because of the demographic problem and other problems. If that’s what we say, we lose the capacity to go to the Palestinians and ask them for something in return for this. ‘If it’s your interest, do it. What do you want from me?’
So those politicians, however surprising this may sound, are actually pushing an accord away, not bringing it closer. Even an Israeli leader who is prepared for the ’67 lines, wants things in return. He won’t get anything in return if they’re convinced that it’s in our interest. In this way, people on the left, to my pleasure, are pushing off an agreement with the Palestinians.
Would you resign if there’s an agreement on a Palestinian state?
If they are going to establish a Palestinian state, obviously I would fight it. I wouldn’t vote in favor of it. I couldn’t vote for it, and if I couldn’t vote for it in the government, I couldn’t be part of the government. That’s elementary. I’d have to leave, no question. Unless the government were to give you freedom to do so.
But I don’t see it, because the Palestinians are not moving a millimeter and I don’t believe Netanyahu will move completely to the place where the Palestinians are. And the idea of a referendum as a refuge for frightened politicians, that’s not my style.
Does Netanyahu have a majority in the cabinet or the coalition for a Palestinian state?
Certainly not in the government. In the coalition, I think not. He does have a majority in the Knesset. But the argument over a Palestinian state is a theoretical argument among the Jews alone.The only answer that the referendum can give is a yes or a no to the Palestinian position, because they’re not moving — in other words a yes or a no to [a withdrawal to] the ’67 lines and the division of Jerusalem. That’s the real argument. That’s what divides Israeli politics between right and left. And that’s what links me and the prime minister in the same party.
I don’t think there’s another place in the world where someone would think that releasing a murderer helps a peace process
If the Palestinians were one day to change their positions, it could be that the Likud would have a major problem. But I don’t see that happening now.
Do you think there’s a majority in the public for the Palestinian position, for the ’67 lines?
If you ask the question — yes or no for a return to the ’67 lines, that’s the real question. And you divide [Israelis on that basis] between right and left, then the right has a majority.
With land swaps?
With land swaps. As for land swaps, the fact is you only have 3 or 3.5% that you can give. So if it’s one-for-one land swaps, you can only retain 3.5 or maximum 4%. What does that mean? That it’s not settlement blocs, it’s settlement strings. You can’t retain a large contiguous bloc which enables you to widen the borders. You can hold on to Ariel, and a road leading to it. You can retain Maaleh Adumim and a little road leading to it. But you won’t be able to lead a functional life in those settlements, and you’ll be reversing the whole imperative. The idea of the settlement blocs was not in order to solve a problem for the residents of Maaleh Adumim. Rather they were placed there in order to widen the border from Jerusalem. Why did they build Ariel? So that the whole area around Ariel would be retained, to widen the border.
You said there needs to be more diplomatic activism by the right. What are you doing to try and explain your position?
We established that 5% of the Palestinian budget goes on salaries to terrorists in jail. If you’re in jail for longer, you get more money. Those who are most rewarded, therefore, are those who carry out the biggest attacks. You have prisoners being paid 10,000 and 12,000 shekels a month, where members of the Palestinian security forces only get 3,000, so the way to get the best salary in the Palestinian Authority is to become a “successful terrorist.” That’s a terrible educational message for the next generation of Palestinians.
And now they’re going to go free.
What an extraordinary situation. I don’t think there’s another place in the world where someone would think that releasing a murderer helps a peace process.