A cabinet minister with close ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied any Israeli involvement in the uprisings occurring in its neighboring countries, rejecting reports this week that have claimed Jerusalem is lobbying Western governments to continue supporting the Egyptian military despite its bloody crackdown on Islamist protesters.
“Our official policy is not to interfere. And up until today, this policy served us very well. The entire Middle East is turbulent and stormy, and we look like Switzerland,” International Relations and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told The Times of Israel. “Israel looks more or less like Switzerland during World War II, when all of Europe burned and Switzerland stayed neutral. [Except] we’re not Switzerland, [because] there is enmity against us in this Middle East.”
The New York Times on Sunday quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official saying that Jerusalem planned to intensify its effort to lobby the US and European leaders to keep supporting the Egyptian army, since it is the only entity that could put that country “back on track.” On Monday, furthermore, an unnamed senior Israeli official told the Wall Street Journal that if the US did not back the Egyptian military, the prospects of success in ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would be severely undermined.
‘The prime minister’s policy proved itself: a policy that says we’re not interfering unless there is a direct threat to our security’
Netanyahu’s office on Tuesday refused comment on both reports. Steinitz, who spoke to The Times of Israel on Monday, before the Wall Street Journal report appeared, said it was his understanding that the government had denied any involvement in the current turmoil in Egypt, and for that matter in any other region affected by the Arab Spring, and that Netanyahu was maintaining a policy of non-involvement wherever possible.
“The prime minister’s policy proved itself: a policy that says we’re not interfering unless there is a direct threat to our security — if we’re being shot at or if there are attempts to transfer sophisticated and strategically important weapons to terrorist organizations,” he said. This was an apparent reference to reports of Israeli airstrikes in recent months — never confirmed by Israel — that destroyed weapon convoys en route via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. “Beyond that we’re not interfering, and it’s good that way.”
Steinitz, who has been warning for more than a decade about the dangers of Egypt falling into the hands of Islamist extremists, also briefly referred to the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai Peninsula and several incidents of Syrian fire into Israel across the Golan Heights. “Up until now we succeeded in protecting ourselves and to contain all this, staying out of this Arab Spring that is turning into a very stormy fall around us.”
In the interview, held in his office on the eighth floor of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Steinitz expressed profound pessimism regarding the recently resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, saying that Jerusalem only agreed to return to the negotiating table because of American pressure.
“I try to be optimistic but I’m quite skeptical,” Steinitz said. He listed elements of a final-status agreement to which he believes the Palestinian side is unlikely to agree, including a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and an renunciation of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel. “All these issues are mandatory,” said Steinitz, a close Netanyahu ally who is also minister of intelligence but is not a member of the security cabinet.
The fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas controls only the West Bank, while Gaza is ruled by Hamas, is extremely problematic, he said. “If [Abbas] signs [a peace treaty], how much is this piece of paper worth?” he asked. “Peace with Palestinians in the West Bank but war with the Palestinians in Gaza is “not at all a stable situation,” he added.
But perhaps the biggest stumbling block on the way to an agreement is Palestinian incitement against Israel, according to the minister, who is generally considered one of the more moderate members of Netanyahu’s Likud Knesset faction (and along with Tzachi Hanegbi is the only Likud MK to support the prime minister’s endorsement in principle of Palestinian statehood). “We’re talking peace, and hold festivals of peace in the US and the entire world, and at the same time the very same Abu Mazen educates his people to destroy the State of Israel,” he said, using Abbas’s nom de guerre.
The “central direction” of PA education and media is that “sooner or later we need to destroy Israel and wipe out or expel the Jews,” asserted Steinitz, whose Strategic Affairs Ministry is tasked with surveying Palestinian incitement against Israel.
Asked why the Netanyahu government agreed to free Palestinian terrorists to enable the peace talks to restart if they have little chance of succeeding, Steinitz said that “the process is indeed problematic, but I think that overall it is the right thing to do. We couldn’t say no to the Americans in this situation.”
(For their part, the Palestinians would not have returned to the negotiating table were it not for an American letter of assurances guaranteeing their main negotiating preconditions, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said on Tuesday.)
The Palestinians’ commitment to negotiate for nine months, during which they may not turn to the United Nations or take other unilateral steps aimed at advancing statehood, “is very important” to Israel, Steinitz said. Challenged with the assumption that this merely buys Israel some time, because Abbas could resume the process of unilaterally seeking international recognition of a Palestinian state steps as soon as the talks collapse, the minister replied: “I don’t know. But time is money. In this sensitive time it’s the right thing to do.”
The current peace negotiations, which are continuing in the region, come with both opportunities and risks, Steinitz said. If the talks were to break down, an interim agreement of some sort was possible but a resurgence of violence could also not be excluded. Therefore, he said, it was preferable “not to celebrate peace festivals” while the process is ongoing.
“I hope that the festival in Washington, with the statements and the festive dinner, will not happen again, because I don’t think this is beneficial,” he said, referring to a July 30 press conference at which US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of talks. During the press conference, which was preceded by an Iftar dinner attended by senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Kerry said that all sides involved “believe that we could get there” — to an end-of-conflict accord in nine months of talks.
“We shouldn’t raise expectations,” Steinitz said. “We need to sit and see if it’ll be possible to advance.”