Israel can afford to wait on Iran, not on peace, says former defense minister

Israel can afford to wait on Iran, not on peace, says former defense minister

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Amir Peretz warns of the perils of diplomatic stagnation and urges Netanyahu to meet Abbas’s pre-conditions for talks

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Amir Peretz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Amir Peretz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Amir Peretz says Israel is running out of time. And the veteran politician — who was elected mayor of Sderot at age 31, then headed the Histadrut (Israel’s organization of trade unions), led the Labor Party, and served as defense minister (under prime minister Ehud Olmert) — is emphatically not talking about a military strike on Iran.

He’s talking about negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians. “In two years, we will not be able to do what we can do today,” he told the Times of Israel in an extensive interview this week.

The Arab League endorsement of a two-state solution and even the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have presented Israel with unique opportunities, Peretz says, opportunities which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the process of squandering.

While refusing to comment on whether Israel is capable of attacking Iran on its own, Peretz does say Israel still has enough time to allow international sanctions and diplomacy to run their course. The American pledge to keep Iran from going nuclear should be taken seriously by Israel, he says. Even if a military strike on Iran becomes inevitable, it must be done in coordination with the United States, with which Israel will have to cooperate ‘the day after’.

Peretz asserts that Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood regime has the ability, and indeed the interest, to force Hamas to accept a peace agreement signed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile, Peretz continues to regularly meet with Palestinian leaders, including — the Times of Israel has learned — jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in an Israeli security prison for involvement in terror attacks that killed five Israelis and injured dozens.

Amir Peretz stands next to Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovitch, November 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Amir Peretz stands next to Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovitch, November 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel should accept two of the preconditions set by Abbas for restarting peace negotiations, preconditions the Netanyahu government has refused to discuss: recognizing a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 armistice lines (with land swaps, he stresses) and freezing construction in the settlements, he says. To that end, Peretz established the “two-state solution” lobby in the Knesset, which he now heads.

Still living in Sderot, which has borne the brunt of Gaza’s Kassam rocket fire in recent years, Peretz is proud of Iron Dome, the missile defense system which as defense minister he pushed forward against the wishes of chief of staff Dan Halutz and Defense Ministry director general Gabi Ashkenazi. He sees Iron Dome as a political tool: Removing the threat of missile attacks provides the government with the political climate to resume peace talks with the Palestinians.

“I developed Iron Dome out of a deep conviction that we should not invest only in offensive means, but also in defensive ones.”

On Iran, should Israel attack now or wait?

Israel should allow the United States and the international community to exhaust all possibilities on sanctions. Sanctions should be expanded to finances, not limited to energy. We must do everything so that the United States leads the solution to the conflict, even if it is eventually a military action. I think the fact that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Martin Dempsey] and Secretary of Defense [Leon Panetta] stood in front of the camera and said ‘we pledge that Iran will not go nuclear’ is a statement that should not be taken lightly.

Those who say the conflict is unsolvable should tell us where we’re going. If you really believe there is no two state solution, you must annex Judea and Samaria

The policy of the prime minister and Defense Minister [Ehud Barak], creating an international dynamic that brought about that American press conference, [earlier this month] is certainly a success. They pulled the rope in such a way that the international community could not ignore the situation. However, the rope should not be pulled so taut that it tears. I think we still have enough time – without going into details – to exhaust the diplomatic moves and create cooperation with the US on any contingency.

Do you think Israel can launch such an attack alone, in principle?

Israel should avoid such an action alone. We need the backing of the free world ‘the day after’ as well. Once this operation is undertaken with partners, the subsequent backing is obvious. The question, therefore, is not only about our ability to act, but also what influence it has on the international arena and to what extent can we keep the international community on our side on the day after.

Why is there a need for a lobby to advocate the idea of a two-state solution in the Knesset?

Unfortunately, there’s a large gap between support for the idea of two states for two nations – which most of the Israeli public supports — and the implementation of that idea as policy. As a slogan, it is used today by people on the right as well. The question is not who wants peace, but who is willing to pay the price for peace. Everyone wants peace as long as they don’t have to pay anything for it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used that phrase in his Bar-Ilan University speech [of June 2009] but did not fill it with content. The fact that Netanyahu has shaped the debate on the political process as one over whether Israel does or does not have a peace partner is one of the most tragic, historic mistakes, during the most critical time in Israel’s history.

No one can say he supports a two-state solution without adding the sentence ‘on the basis of the 1967 borders’, of course with the principle of land swaps … For the Palestinians land swap is a compromise.

Even if the Palestinians establish a confederation, it will be their issue to deal with. I believe we may soon see a move by the Egyptians, who play an important role

Why am I so terrified? A regional political earthquake is taking place around us.

Egypt has changed. Today, Egypt is ruled by Islamists, who act very responsibly, who play by the rules. It is an Islamic country which tries to bolster its position as a leading state in the Arab world. I believe that the ability to create a positive dynamic with this regime in particular depends on us as well. I don’t see only the negative side of the Egyptian regime. If there is a force that can bring all Palestinians to the negotiating table [it is the Muslim Brotherhood]. They are the only ones who can force Hamas to the negotiating table and tell them that any political decision will be binding on them as well.

No doubt, the Egyptians also know that they can bolster their standing in the eyes of the international community and the United States by reviving negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Is the Muslim Brotherhood interested in such a dialogue with Israel?

Start negotiating with Abu Mazen [Abbas]! That will take out the bite from the Egyptian street. That will cause the Egyptian president to say: “Mahmoud Abbas, it’s legitimate to conduct negotiations.” There’s no need today to meet with Hamas. All you need to do is create the groundwork to bring Abu Mazen back to the negotiating table.

Peretz regularly meets Palestinian leaders, including — the Times of Israel has learned — jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti

I am also quite terrified by the dynamic within the Arab League. Until now, the official position of the Arab League is to support a two-state solution, on the basis of the 1967 borders. This was a major achievement for Israel. A majority of the moderate Muslim world agreed to back Abu Mazen in his dealings with Israel. That should not be taken for granted. We could wake up tomorrow to a harsh reality for Israel, where the Arab League adopts a decision preventing any territorial compromise in ‘Palestine’. From a situation where the Arab League was the wind in Abbas’s sails, we could find ourselves in a situation where it would be the shackles tying his hands. Therefore, the current timing is crucial.

A responsible prime minister would now announce a freeze in settlement construction. I say: even from the standpoint of the right wing, freeze the building for one year. You can always resume it later. Look how much is at stake, for a government move that is neither dramatic nor irreversible.

Even from the standpoint of the right wing, freeze the building for one year. You can always resume it later. Look how much is at stake, for a government move that is neither dramatic nor irreversible

I oppose building in the West Bank in principle, but even if I were a right-winger I would consider what Israel needs to do amid an [international] atmosphere which is increasingly isolating Israel and preventing it from initiating moves.

During the last year or two, our prime minister has switched phases. Instead of trying to solve the conflict, he is trying to manage it. To reduce violence, defuse pressure, deal with taxes, encourage investments.

Do you believe the conflict can be solved? Perhaps the prime minister believes it can’t be. 

Of course it can! Those who believe in doing nothing and placing facts on the ground lead us to a reality of one state for two peoples. Is there one right winger in this country who wants one state for two peoples? In 10 years the Palestinians may demand full civil rights and the entire world will support them. From Israel’s point of view, this would be the worst tragedy. We all understand that adding three to four million Palestinians as citizens with full rights would end Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It will be something entirely different. It will be ruled by other elements, through the ballots.

Those who say the conflict is unsolvable should tell us where we’re going. If you really believe there is no two-state solution, you must annex Judea and Samaria. You, the most right wing government in Israel’s history, why don’t you annex? Reality cannot dictate policy; policy must change reality.

We’ve spoken a lot about the prime minister, but to be fair, your party leader Shelly Yachimovich has done little to challenge his vision on the peace track.

As party leader, Shelly Yachimovich has the right to set her own priorities. This doesn’t prevent other MKs from investing in the issue of peace. I see both issues [the economic and the diplomatic] as two issues that go hand in hand. I don’t see any way to separate them. The social issue serves peace, and peace serves the social issue. The two are not mutually exclusive. But I respect Shelly Yachimovich, who announced explicitly that she supports two states for two peoples.

Would you be willing to personally meet Abu Mazen?

I meet Palestinians all the time, at all levels. I meet Palestinians beyond the Green Line, inside the Green Line, and Palestinians who are in prison. I think meetings are important, and ties should be maintained with Palestinian leaders.

We are at a critical moment for Israel. The things we can do today, we will not be able to do in two years.

Some would say that ‘the window of opportunity’ has already closed. Hamas has established a mini-state in Gaza. Maybe the two-state solution is already gone.

Even if the Palestinians establish a confederation, it will be their own issue to deal with. We may soon see a dramatic move by the Egyptians, who play an important role. The PA needs to go to elections soon, and we know that it’s Hamas which has been preventing them.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Egypt — which believes in elections and democracy, as was demonstrated in the past year – would cause these elections to take place.


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