Israeli minister: We have ‘fantastic partners’ in Arab world, if only we’d utilize them
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Interview'When we say peace, we envisage eating hummus in Riyadh or Amman or Cairo. That won't happen. But arrangements are possible'

Israeli minister: We have ‘fantastic partners’ in Arab world, if only we’d utilize them

Israel shares key interests with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan in thwarting Iran and stopping Islamist terror, says Yesh Atid's Yaakov Peri. But it needs 'more pragmatic, braver' leadership

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Yesh Atid's Minister of Science Yaakov Peri (Photo credit: FLASH90)
Yesh Atid's Minister of Science Yaakov Peri (Photo credit: FLASH90)

Yaakov Peri, Israel’s minister of science, entered politics late in life. His primary career was in the Shin Bet — the General Security Service, which he joined after his military service, fresh out of university, in 1966, and which he rose to lead in 1988-94, a period dominated by the first intifada and the start of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians.

Tel Aviv-born Peri, now 70, was arguably the most striking interviewee in the remarkable 2012 documentary “The Gatekeepers,” in which six ex-Shin Bet chiefs defied their lifetimes’ instinct of silence and opened up on the challenges that dominated their periods in office, and particularly their conclusions about Israel’s fight against Palestinian terrorists. Even though you know all the dark truths about some of these enemies, even though you’ve witnessed the horrifying ruthlessness of their murderous crimes, Peri says at one extraordinary juncture in the film, “When you leave the service, you become” (long pause) “a bit of a leftist.”

But after retiring from the Shin Bet and running the Cellcom mobile phone company for eight years, Peri entered politics in last year’s elections with a centrist party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and he has not emerged as a particularly bitter critic of the prime minister. In this interview, conducted last week in his office at the Knesset, Peri certainly stated that “we do need to look for an alternative government.” But for now, his prime focus is on pushing for a regional effort to improve Israel’s relations in the region — to capitalize on what he sees as the common interest shared by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and many of the Gulf states in stopping a nuclear Iran and thwarting Islamist terror. Potentially, he says, Israel has “fantastic partners” that it is thus far sadly failing to utilize.

The only fluent Arabic speaker in the Israeli cabinet also offers unique insights into why peace efforts with Yasser Arafat failed — as he says he told Yitzhak Rabin they would — and into how Israel has self-defeatingly mishandled its relations with Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas, whom he insists — Abbas’s “genocide” accusations notwithstanding — is a “partner” with whom it is possible “to reach a compromise, to reach an agreement, to reach understandings.”

Peri also worries about the widening political rift in Israel’s ties with the United States.

Strikingly, Peri believes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will eventually be willing to pay the price, in the form of a freeze in settlement-building and other steps, to facilitate an effort at negotiations on a regional basis.

Ultimately, though, Peri does think Israel’s needs a leadership “that will be more pragmatic, more elastic, braver.”

And what of Naftali Bennett, the rising star of the Israeli right? “The people of Israel are ultimately fairly sane,” he begins confidently, only to add, after a Gatekeepers’-style pause, “But you know what? You can never know.”

Our interview was conducted in Hebrew. What follows is the lightly edited translation:

David Horovitz: I believe you’re the only member of the cabinet who speaks Arabic, which seems significant given how important language is and the language barrier in this part of the world.

Yaakov Peri: It may be that I am. I started studying Arabic in elementary school, in 6th grade. I loved the language even then. And everything that surrounded the language — the stories and the mentality and the traditions and the heritage. In high school I didn’t study Arabic, and in the army we didn’t use much Arabic. This was before the Six Day War. But then I went to university and I studied the Middle East and I learned Arabic language and literature… and in 1966 I joined the Shin Bet and although I had excellent classical Arabic, reading, writing and speaking, I went to the Shin Bet ulpan (language school). It was the very first intake for that ulpan, at the beginning of 1967, at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel (in Jerusalem).

In the Arabic of the security service, you learn the customs, the heritage, the traditions, and also how to read a note in Arabic, how to understand Arabic news broadcasts, to read an article in the newspaper — the practical aspects. Obviously, how to read messages from your sources. You also learn the spoken language and everything that surrounds it. You get into the mentality. Reading the graffiti in the territories, in Judea and Samaria, in Jerusalem, is highly relevant, for instance. Obviously in the last few years (since leaving the Shin Bet and entering business and then politics), the more I deal with Jews rather than Arabs, there’s a certain decline in my Arabic.

I asked you about this because it seems to me that, in negotiations, it’s important to have people who understand each other’s language and mentality. I worry that the Palestinians don’t understand where the Israeli negotiators are truly coming from, and the Israeli negotiators don’t fully understand the Palestinian mentality either.

You’re making a very important point. If in the negotiations with the Palestinians, and maybe in the future with other Arab states, some of the Israeli team were people who not only speak Arabic, but more importantly understand the mentality, understand the art of building relations of trust, we would get better results. What are we saying now about the crisis with the United States? Everything is personal?

Maybe this wouldn’t make a conclusive difference, but we would be raising the level of trust, which is at the root of any possibility to make progress. To date in talks with the Palestinians, we haven’t been able to create the dynamic where one side believes the other. For our Palestinian brothers, or cousins, or whatever terminology you want to use, the issue of trust is the basis for concessions and possibilities and understandings. And the Palestinians say, ‘The Israelis are sending us English-speaking lawyers.’ That tells you everything. [Prime Minister Netanyahu’s key representative in the collapsed recent peace effort was lawyer Yitzhak Molcho — DH.]

Yitzhak Molcho (left), Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen (center) and Amos Gilad (right), three of the prime minister's envoys to Cairo ceasefire talks (Photo credit: Michal Fattal, Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Yitzhak Molcho (left), Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen (center) and Amos Gilad (right), three of the prime minister’s envoys to Cairo ceasefire talks (Photo credit: Michal Fattal, Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Israeli delegation that went to Cairo after Operation Protective Edge for talks with Hamas, by contrast, included the head of the Shin Bet [Yoram Cohen], who does speak Arabic and understands the mentality very well. That doesn’t mean that the result of those discussions will necessarily be positive, but it can only help. The other side can assess that it is facing people who not only know the language and the mentality and the terminology, but also better understand the difficulties and problems. In any negotiation — in business negotiations, certainly in political negotiations — each side always evaluates who it’s dealing with: who are these people, what is their background, how much do they understand what I’m grappling with? This has immense importance.

There were times when I tried to convince our leaders that people, with all due modesty, like me, could make a contribution. With Yitzhak Rabin and even Yitzhak Shamir, this happened. The very first thing that Yitzhak Shamir, may his memory be blessed, did when he was invited to the Madrid Conference (in 1991) — he didn’t want to go, but once it was clear he was going, he told me, ‘You go there first. Be there for two or three days before I come, and before I leave the hotel for the conference itself I want you to speak to me.’ That was a very smart move. I’ll give you a small example. I told him that when you go into the conference room in Madrid, you’ll see, in the Palestinian delegation, a man named Saeb Erekat, sitting in a red kaffiyeh. And that red kaffiyeh symbolizes that the Palestinans intend to be militant.

By which you meant?

It meant that ‘we intend to stick to our principles.’ And nothing has changed since. The very same Saeb Erekat nowadays sits with Tzipi Livni (as chief Palestinian peace negotiator)…

Saeb Erekat (left), with John Kerry (center), and Tzipi Livni at a July 2013 press conference in Washington, DC, relaunching peace talks. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Saeb Erekat (left), with John Kerry (center), and Tzipi Livni at a July 2013 press conference in Washington, DC, relaunching peace talks. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

Yeah, but he’s wearing a suit these days.

(Laughs). Yes, these days, in Judea and Samaria, they call him “Saeb CNN.” So sure, these days he looks more CNN than the Voice of Palestine. But you get the point. To my sorrow, since Yitzhak Rabin, I don’t think there’s been (that kind of approach). Of course there have been all kinds of delegations to all kinds of negotiations, which included people who have a background similar to mine. And all kinds of working groups. Yisrael Hasson (a former senior Shin Bet official, and now a Kadima MK) took part in the Wye River negotiations (with the Palestinians in 1998). There were people with my kind of background at Camp David in 2000 with Ehud Barak, but not since…

You sit in on security cabinet meetings, but not as a member, correct?

As an observer.

And contribute something?

I hope so. I can actually say to Bibi’s credit, which doesn’t happen all that often these days, that there’s a considerable understanding between us about the kind of contribution I can make, and he makes use of this. He listens to me. If there are areas where he feels my advice can be useful, he’ll speak to me, one on one. I certainly can’t say that in this area, I’m not appreciated. But if I had to put together a team to negotiate with the Palestinians, in the past or maybe in the future, I’d compose it a little differently.

Help us to understand Mahmoud Abbas, to formulate a definitive position. Two years ago he said in a Channel 2 interview that he didn’t feel that he had the right to return to Safed. In the leaked Palestine Papers he tells his own officials that he knows it’s unreasonable to flood Israel with Palestinian refugees, but in the negotiations he didn’t change his demands for a right of return. And now he accuses Israel of genocide in Gaza, terrible crimes in Jerusalem…

David, I’ll start with a story about Yasser Arafat. I told Yitzhak Rabin for years that Arafat would never sign a permanent accord with Israel. And Rabin asked, ‘On what basis do you say that?’ I told him I used to meet with Arafat about once a week. He was in Gaza at the time. I used to meet with him from 1 or 2 a.m. through to the morning. I told him, ‘Yitzhak, Yasser Arafat, apart from the fact that he was the most prominent terrorist, who led the armed revolution, turned the Palestinians into the world’s underdog. He made them the group of humanity that the whole world became persuaded deserved a political entity. He considers himself to be the man who raised the Palestinian flag. He believes that if he picks up the pen and signs on a peace treaty with Israel, he’ll be considered a traitor, both by the Palestinian opposition and by much of the Arab world.’ Yitzhak understood this, although he preferred not to accept it. And that’s the fact.

Maybe Rabin felt he had to try.

Yes, and there were some interim agreements. In Cairo (in 1994, for the so-called Gaza-Jericho agreement), by the way, Mubarak had to kick Arafat. I was in the wings there and I saw Mubarak actually kick Arafat and tell him, ‘You sit down at that table and you sign.’ I saw this with my own eyes. This is not a second-hand story.

Yitzhak Rabin, left, chats with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres after the three received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994 (photo credit: courtesy GPO)
Yitzhak Rabin, left, chats with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres after the three received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994 (photo credit: courtesy GPO)

Why do I begin with Arafat? Because first of all there was a dilemma about who would succeed him. It wasn’t entirely clear that it would be Abu Mazen, because Abu Mazen was seen by the Palestinian leadership for years as too moderate, too pragmatic, too western. There was Farouk Kaddoumi (the former PLO foreign minister) and various other names, of people no less senior than Abu Mazen. Abu Mazen was chosen by the PLO Executive Committee, and of course by Yasser Arafat in the last years of his rule, as a compromise. In terms of his personality, Abu Mazen is a pragmatist. He does think along western lines, relatively speaking, by comparison to other leaders in the Palestinian Authority and in the top echelons of many Arab countries. At the same time, he doesn’t carry too many scars: Like all refugees, he thinks it would be great if it were possible to return to Jaffa, Haifa, Acre and Safed. But he doesn’t carry the trauma of those people who are in refugee camps today in Jenin or Jebalya, who are refugees and live in poverty, in exile, in little homes on narrow alleys.

And with a narrative that blames Israel utterly for their plight.

Absolutely. Secondly, he’s not a particularly strong personality. He continually had to check that his rule was secure, that he wasn’t about to enter minefields. This applies even today, although a little less in the last two or three years. His rule was not absolute. He had an opposition beyond Hamas and the Islamist factions. Within Fatah, within the Executive Committee of Fatah, many people wanted his job. (Former Gaza security chief Mohammad) Dahlan still wants it. He’s enemy number one, living today in Qatar. For a certain time, Jibril Rajoub (the former West Bank security chief) wanted the job. So Abu Mazen had to spend a lot of time solidifying his rule.

Thirdly, Abu Mazen succeeded, with American help and some European help, in imposing law and order on Judea and Samaria, but the Palestinian Authority was booted out of Gaza. And every time he gave approval for the arrest of somebody from Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, or any other Islamist faction, he agonized about it. He didn’t do it out of recognition that it was the right thing to do. He grappled with an internal dilemma: How can I send a Palestinian policeman to arrest one of my own people, or help Israel arrest terror suspects — when it’s my people, the Palestinians, in a legitimate struggle? Eventually he found the courage to come out and say, The path to a solution is not via the armed struggle, but rather via the negotiating table.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon / Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon / Flash90)

And the fourth thing that has to be said about Abu Mazen is that he was not handled with the necessary sensitivity, and I’m putting this gently, by the state of Israel. That’s not to say we should have hailed and praised him, but far from hailing and praising him, we turned him into something of a collaborator with the state of Israel and we dramatically harmed his image in Judea and Samaria in certain periods. On the eve of Operation Protective Edge, for instance, he was perceived as a collaborator with Israel [having condemned the killing by a Hamas cell of three Israeli teens and helped Israel in the hunt for the killers– DH]. Now, when you do this in a western, democratic state, you have freedom of speech and people listen and some people believe you and some people don’t. In Arab society and especially in the PA, it’s a very difficult business. You have to continually justify yourself. You have to continually prove yourself as a proud Palestinian, speaking of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and why you established a unity government with Hamas, and ultimately that leads to certain actions such as going to the UN (for backing for statehood), going to international organizations against Israel, branding Israel a war criminal and so on. We have not been smart in our approach toward him and toward that faction within the PA that supports negotiations with Israel.

‘If there were elections tomorrow in the PA, I can’t promise Hamas wouldn’t win a majority, maybe a big one’

In my opinion, the worst mistake we made was at the end of the nine months of the peace talks (last spring) when we gave him a means to break the nine-month framework. It began with the issue of the fourth phase of Palestinian prisoner releases, including Israeli Arab prisoners. All we had to do was announce to the media that next Wednesday, the prisoner release committee would meet. And then to say there were disputes in the committee. Maybe to release the Palestinian prisoners and not the Israeli prisoners.

And that would have prevented the collapse of the talks?

I think so. Their accusation was that we had said that on the 31st of the month or whenever it was, the committee would meet and there’d be a release and that this was an obligation pledged to the Americans. Bibi says to this day that he never promised Kerry that he would free Israeli Arabs. But we could have begun with the release of the Palestinians. After all, we’d carried out three previous phases of prisoner releases. We could have said, first the Palestinians — Palestinians from the West Bank, Palestinians to Gaza. We could have stressed: releasing Israeli Arabs requires a government decision. Again, to Bibi’s defense, at the very start of the nine months, he said to the cabinet that, If I have to free Arab Israelis, I’ll bring it to the government for a decision.

You’re saying that we pushed Abbas into the recent hardening of his positions and statements?

Not exactly.

It’s much more complicated than that?

Absolutely.

So how much more is the real problem the narrative that Arafat bequeathed to Abbas, to the effect that we Jews simply don’t have the right to sovereignty here? That there was no Temple. And that we’re European colonialists.

No, I don’t think it’s that extreme. But nonetheless, there’s no doubt that in the last year or two Abu Mazen has made a lot of mistakes. We, to no small extent, have pushed him into what we consider extreme steps. But Abu Mazen is a pragmatist and Abu Mazen is a partner. There’s no doubt that he’s a partner.

I want to push you on this. This man, who accused us of genocide and established a unity government based on Hamas support, is a partner.

Yes, he’s a partner. Not a partner for Naftali Bennett.

But a partner with whom we can reach a permanent peace accord?

Yes, with him it is possible to reach a compromise, to reach an agreement, to reach understandings.

A partner who can also lead his people to genuine compromise?

At this point, yes, but time is running out. Our opportunity to reach an agreement which will be reasonable for us from the point of view of borders and settlement blocs, from the point of view of a discussion over Jerusalem, land swaps, those things, time is running out. Not only because of stubbornness on our side, but also because of the strengthening Islamic component in the PA areas — not only in Gaza, but also in Judea and Samaria. In Judea and Samaria today, there are Hamas strongholds, like Hebron, like significant parts of the Nablus area, so that if there were elections tomorrow in the PA, I can’t promise Hamas wouldn’t win a majority, maybe a big one. Nonetheless, Hamas is weak, not only because of Protective Edge. It entered Protective Edge with us as a consequence of its weakness.

We have very good, fantastic partners after Protective Edge. That Israel doesn’t utilize this is a whole different story.

The way Abbas sees it, ‘the more that Israel manages to make itself hated and is more criticized, that means the international community is doing the work for him’

But first, one more thing about Abu Mazen. Abu Mazen is a long way from being a Zionist. Anyone who thinks we have an ally who will declare our right as a Jewish state, as Bibi wishes? That won’t happen. But he’s a pragmatist. He understands that ultimately a diplomatic solution is the right thing for the Palestinians. Yet today, in no small part because of us, he’s transferred a considerable degree of the decision-making to the international community. The way he sees it, it’s doing the work, it can place sanctions on Israel. Israel, for all its strength, is dependent on the international community, on the Americans, the Europeans. And the more that Israel manages to make itself hated and is more criticized, that means the international community is doing the work for me. And so, says Abbas to himself, I have to go to the UN institutions and I have to go to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, with encouragement of boycotts of settlement products — all this does the work for me, for the Palestinian cause. And we need to be patient.

But none of that will give them a state.

Not yet.

But ultimately he feels all that pressure will yield what?

Sanctions, so that Israel will have (to give the Palestinians statehood) under protest. He knows it will take time. He knows that the UN accepting him as an observer, and tomorrow as a member, and the Security Council voting in favor of this or opposing that, will not have immediate impact. But in the long run he understands it’s doing the job for him.

And there’s one more thing I need to say about what’s happened to Abu Mazen and that is, he’s pretty fed up.

Who’s going to succeed him?

That’s a very big problem. There are big divisions in the Palestinian leadership today. And they still use the Arafat system that anyone who makes trouble will get pushed aside and then he becomes a kind of opposition headquarters. So he has Dahlan on the outside. He has Rajoub, who’s not an oppositionist, but is certainly looking at the chair… Then there’s Rami Hamdallah, the prime minister, who is pleasant and moderate. And of course there’s former prime minister Salaam Fayyad, who the Americans would greatly want, but Salaam Fayyad is not that interested, in my opinion.

And then there’s Marwan Barghouti.

Who’s in jail, of course. They don’t really want him. There are lots of Israelis who’ve convinced themselves that you can compare Barghouti to Mandela. Forgive me, but there’s no comparison. He’s a terrorist. He oversaw terrorist operations. He’s serving several life terms…

‘We have to go with the regional approach. The Palestinian issue has to be dealt with within an international conference, based on the framework — not the content — of the Saudi Initiative, and to start talking with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and many of the Gulf States… And not to impose a timetable, to let the dynamic take its course.

So, there’s a problem with the succession. And that makes it harder for Abu Mazen to leave. He feels his responsibility. He’s very pleasant to talk to.  He doesn’t give you the sense that he’s misleading you, unlike many others who you sit with. He’s pretty straight, not 100 percent…

He didn’t leap to accept Ehud Olmert’s peace offer in 2008, a big barometer moment.

A mistake, in my opinion.

But not in your view something that proves that he’s not someone with whom we can reach a deal.

I don’t think so. I think it was a mistake. He could have made achievements with Olmert that would have elevated the whole story to a different level. He missed the opportunity.

And we’re all still paying for it?

And we’ll continue to pay for it.

So, is this effort to resolve the conflict still salvageable?

This can’t be salvaged in direct talks with the Palestinians. We have to go with the regional approach. The Palestinian issue has to be dealt with within an international conference, based on the framework — not the content — of the Saudi Initiative, which became the Arab League Initiative, and to start talking with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, which is a partner, Jordan, and many of the Gulf States, and set the resolution of the Palestinian conflict as a goal. And not to impose a timetable, to let the dynamic take its course.

We share at least two key common interests with the countries I’ve mentioned. The first is the anti-Iranian interest in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They think exactly as Israel does on the Iranian issue. And the second interest, which is the most heated right now, is the threat of radical Islam and ISIS.

If we can find this framework, then within that framework we have to enter the negotiations with the Palestinians. That would make it easier for the Israeli and the Palestinian sides. On the Israeli side, it would be hard for Naftali Bennett to oppose Israel holding talks with the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Gulf states. And on the other side, it will be easier for the Palestinians to sit within that regional framework. Coming back to what I said before about Yasser Arafat [and the potential charge of treason], it would make it easier for them because they would get Arab backing, Arab economic assistance. That’s very important when you talk about the PA. The problem on the Israeli side will be that when those talks enter the bilateral track, the coalition could fall over it.

That sounds too optimistic There’ll be no such Arab regional framework so long as Israel is still building over the Green Line, and Israel does not intend to stop building.

Well, the correct conditions would have to be created. It is possible. There is a readiness by the Egyptians, by the Jordanians, the Saudis and most of the Gulf States. We’ll have to pay a price for the entrance ticket.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Minister of Science Yaakov Peri in the Knesset, July 03, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Minister of Science Yaakov Peri in the Knesset, July 03, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

And you see an Israeli readiness to pay that price?

For a regional process, yes.

You think the prime minister is willing to freeze building?

Yes, I think there is that. Yes, I think so for the regional process… It’s not just a building freeze or obligating himself to the status quo on Temple Mount. There’s a series of conditions. I’m not authorized to speak on Bibi’s behalf, but I can tell you that it’s my sense that he realizes that to start a regional process, what he calls a political horizon, he understands he has to pay a certain price.

Forgive my skepticism, but this is a government that is endangering — a little or a lot, I don’t know what you think — our ties with the United States for the sake of building over the ’67 lines.

That’s true. But I think Netanyahu is convinced that the damage can be fixed.

You mean in two years’ time, after Obama?

No, in the next few months.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Barack Obama at the White House in March 2013. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Barack Obama at the White House in March 2013. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

We’ll live to see, hopefully, how we get out of this and how much of the damage is reversible.

Unlike Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu’s not prepared to bolt the Likud?

You can say almost anything about Bibi, but you can’t say he doesn’t understand politics. He’s a political animal with outstanding political instincts. And on political issues, Bibi is also prepared to take risks. Coalition risks, political risks, and even a certain gamble on his own future. I don’t think there’s an alternative framework he can find… There are fractures within his own party. There is a fracture with Liberman. There’s a certain warming with Livni, but he can’t really build on Livni today. (Ex-Likud minister Moshe) Kahlon is threatening him from the outside. In that swamp, his aim is to build up his power, win the primaries, and be the Likud candidate for the next elections. That’s the goal now.

When will those elections be?

In six months, a year, whenever. And meantime, to survive…

‘It worries me that we are destroying ourselves — our image and how they relate to us in the international community. We have become a hated country. It is very unpleasant to be an Israeli in a significant portion of the world. There are many Israeli tourists who don’t speak Hebrew on vacation, and not only because of security fears’

I think the government is gambling [over ties with US], and it could be a very dangerous gamble. But even I don’t think the damage is necessarily irreversible. The question is how long it will take to repair it. There are some who think it will take a few months. We’ll have to send a lot of lobbyists to the US.

In areas such as security ties, intelligence ties, economic ties, we don’t see any significant damage at this stage. By contrast, in the political relationship, at the UN, with things like this, there could be very serious harm… And we shouldn’t forget, Obama has another two years.

Yes, Obama might be a lame duck that doesn’t have to worry about anyone.

This is something it would be better to avoid. Better to avoid, also, by the way, not only as regards our relationship with the US. Also as regards what is happening in Jerusalem. (Jewish Home’s Housing Minister) Uri Ariel announces he’s considering going to live in Silwan. If things were normal in Jerusalem, I wouldn’t love the idea, but it wouldn’t be, how do you say, breaking news. But on the backdrop of what is happening in Jerusalem…

You know, in gambling, you can be almost totally convinced that you’ll come out on top, but there is not a casino to this day that has been beaten. I hope we won’t wind up big losers.

What worries you specifically?

It worries me that we are destroying ourselves — our image and how they relate to us in the international community. Not only with the US. All of Europe, the Far East, the US, we have become a hated country. It is very unpleasant to be an Israeli in a significant portion of the world. There are many Israeli tourists who don’t speak Hebrew on vacation, and not only because of security fears.

Second, I really don’t see any other future except a political agreement. For the sake of the future of the state, for our kids, for our grandkids, for the future generations. I don’t see another solution. If I saw another solution, perhaps militarily, some other alternative, I might say to myself, ‘Okay, for years we tried for a political arrangement. It’s not working. There are stubborn people. There is opposition.’ But we did have two very successful efforts, with Egypt and Jordan.

‘Nobody has shown me an alternative to arrangements (with Arab neighbors). And the sooner the Israeli leadership understands this, the better’

It’s not warm peace. But I really like what Liberman has been saying recently: There won’t ever be peace with the Arabs, but an arrangement is possible. He distinguishes between peace and a viable arrangement.

When we say peace, we envisage eating hummus in Riyadh or Amman or Cairo. This doesn’t happen. You don’t see Egyptian tourists in Jerusalem; you don’t see Israeli tourists in Aswan. Once there were; today, there aren’t. But arrangements are possible, and we need to strive for them. And the arrangements with Egypt and Jordan have proved themselves over decades. We have quiet, we have understanding, we have arrangements, we are fighting terror together with Egypt in the Sinai. Positive things, very positive things.

On the other hand, in the wake of Protective Edge, and not only in the wake of Protective Edge, our doctrine of war has begun to change. In the coming years, we won’t have wars between countries, it seems. It will be Israel facing terror organizations — Hamas in Gaza, or al-Qaeda in Sinai, or IS in Syria and Lebanon, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Whatever.

The IDF is a very strong army, with tanks, airplanes, super-technology. But it is not suited (for this kind of warfare). Look at what is happening with the Americans and the Europeans, the coalition against IS. They kill 30, 40, 100. It’s not decisive. You cannot say that the western coalition that America has created has succeeded in its attempt to harm, to bring down, to crack, to dramatically weaken, IS or the organizations around it. There are lessons there for Israel…

So, nobody has shown me an alternative to arrangements (with Arab neighbors). And the sooner the Israeli leadership understands this, the better.

And you say the prime minister is prepared to take the steps that would facilitate a regional conference?

Bibi at least accepts (what I’ve just said). I know he understands it.

And what do you see unfolding on the ground in the days and weeks ahead?

I hope we will manage to lower the flames in Jerusalem a little. That’s very important, because otherwise the violence will spread to Judea and Samaria. Then it will be necessary to start talking about an intifada. Today, it’s still at the level of severe disturbances, severe escalation, but not actually an intifada. I truly hope that all the political maneuvers will end, that he’ll finish that story in the Likud. I wish him luck. I don’t wish that Bibi fails. Let him succeed. But ultimately, we do need to look for an alternative government, that will be more pragmatic, more elastic, braver.

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman wave to supporters at the Likud-Beytenu's post-elections party in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, January 22 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman wave to supporters at the Likud-Beytenu’s post-elections party in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, January 22, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The people of Israel will accept any reasonable leader — not an extreme figure, and I don’t want to mention names — if he has abilities that the present leadership doesn’t have, whether it’s in the political realm, or the economic realm, or the social realm. Until there is someone who gets up and says, I will put together a government, then there isn’t really an alternative. But the moment someone emerges, the nation will accept this leadership. We are an obedient nation, and we are a nation that gives a chance.

It seems to me that we are a nation that didn’t go drastically to the right in the elections of 2013, but might do now. And if I see someone who is emerging, it’s Bennett.

I don’t think that the Israeli public will give Bennett a (prime ministerial) mandate. The people of Israel are ultimately fairly sane… There is a trend to the right, but it won’t happen. But you know what? You can never know.

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