Meridor: Thanks to sanctions, Iran is not rushing full speed to the bomb
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Interview

Meridor: Thanks to sanctions, Iran is not rushing full speed to the bomb

There are no guarantees that economic pressure will prevail, but it should be given more time, says deputy prime minister

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).

Dan Meridor (right) with Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Dan Meridor (right) with Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Dan Meridor (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Dan Meridor (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

The son of a founder of the Herut party, Dan Meridor was the cabinet secretary and then a Knesset member in his 30s, has been a senior figure in the Likud, the Center Party and then the Likud again, participated in key peace efforts and summits, and now serves as one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s deputy prime ministers.

That adds up to a lifetime watching Israel develop and meet its challenges, from a series of unique vantage points. But for all the conflicts and crises he’s witnessed through the decades, Meridor, who has just turned 65, readily agrees with the assessment that the threat posed to Israel by Iran’s nuclear program is far graver than “anything that anyone has been discussing here” in recent years.

Still, unlike a series of ex-security chiefs and several prominent and not-so-prominent serving politicians, Meridor says he will not join the “festival” of rhetoric regarding “what we can do, what we cannot, what is the price and what is not the price” of Israeli military intervention in Iran. “I think it’s crazy. I think it’s damaging us. I think it’s a mistake,” he says of the relentless public discussion of the topic by people he thinks should know better. “The [key] notion is out there — that the military option is on the table. Leave it at that.”

It’s not that he doesn’t have access to the relevant information. “Believe me, if there are people who know, I am one of those who know,” says Meridor in his trademark earnest, semi-hoarse tones. “I’m quite involved in the Iranian issue as a whole. I speak on Iran a lot, in all languages, with all people inside and outside the country, but I never say a word about a military attack.”

Meridor (foreground) and Netanyahu. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/PoolFlash90)
Meridor (foreground) and Netanyahu. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/Flash90)

Where Meridor does have plenty to say, by contrast, is on the matter of sanctions. Formally the “minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy” in the Netanyahu government — though he says his is mainly a coordinating role, and real responsibility sits with the prime minister and defense minister — he quite evidently sees the impact of economic pressure rather differently from Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, though he takes pains to avoid leveling any personal criticisms.

The sanctions have not yet persuaded Iran to abandon its nuclear drive, and there are “no guarantees” that they ever will, he allows. But it’s premature, he insists, to give up on economic and diplomatic pressure. Rather, that pressure needs to be “augmented,” he argues. Russia needs to be brought back on board. The stick needs to be bigger.

“What is the bottom line?” Meridor asks rhetorically. “The sanctions are having an effect. One needs to continue with them and increase and accelerate them.” The firm message has to be, “You Iranians, you’re not going to get there, we are determined,” he says. “If this is the message that they read from the world, America and the rest, and if the price they are paying gets higher and higher every month, there is a chance — no guarantee — that it will have the effect that we want. Is it worth trying? Yes. Not staying as we are, but augmenting, getting more and more [sanctions].”

Differing with Netanyahu again, he also rejects the invocation of the Holocaust in the Iranian context. “That was a different story. We are not there,” he says. “We learned a lesson from what happened in Europe and we are a strong nation. We are a well-equipped and a strong nation. I don’t use this rhetoric.”

And while stressing that he doesn’t “play down the danger” posed by Iran, he also says he doesn’t want “to terrify myself” or “to terrify other people.” Israel, he notes, has built up its strength “very remarkably along the decades of our existence. If one compares what we have now and what we had 70 years ago, it’s an ocean of difference.”

Likud veteran: Meridor (closest to camera), with party leaders including prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (sixth from left) and Netanyahu (second from right), at a party meeting in Tel Aviv in 1986. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Likud veteran: Meridor (closest to camera), with party leaders including prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (sixth from left) and Netanyahu (second from right), at a party meeting in Tel Aviv in 1986 (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

This interview, which took place last week in the Prime Minister’s Office, where Meridor is based, also ranged across issues such as settlements and the Palestinians — he urges a most un-Likud-like halt to all building beyond the line of the security barrier and the settlement blocs — and the future of the peace treaty with Egypt.

But it was on Iran that the conversation focused in the main — including the question of the rationality of the regime there, and its current activities. Tellingly, this minister-in-the-know said twice that Iran was not currently moving as quickly as it could toward a nuclear weapons capability. “They don’t go full speed ahead,” he remarked at one point. “The fact is that they don’t rush now [toward the bomb]. They do it cautiously, if at all,” he said at another.

Excerpts:

The Times of Israel: You’re the minister, theoretically, in charge of the intelligence services…?

Dan Meridor: “In charge” is too charged a term. It’s what the prime minister called it when he wanted to lure me into accepting the post. The authority stays with the defense minister regarding military intelligence, and with the prime minister regarding the Mossad and the Shin Bet. I am very much involved. I sit in most of those meetings. I am involved with projects mainly regarding new thinking and coordination — which is a big issue. Saying “in charge” is flattering, but it’s not exactly the case.

You’re in that loop. And we have a crazy situation, it seems: All the people who used to hold these very important positions speaking out. Now, speaking out as concerned citizens — fine. But as concerned citizens who’ve had very atypical access to information, is this an unacceptable breach? Is this the way it should be?

One needs to draw a distinction between expressing your views and disclosing facts. Of course, one should not disclose secrets. A more complex question is whether one says, I know these are not facts, but I’m telling you that this is crazy, this is right, this is wrong and so forth.

Which is the situation we have now?

Generally, I believe people have a right to say what they think, but they should be very cautious in two ways. First of all, if it implies that they know something that they know only from their job, and disclosing it is not right. Even making everybody believe that you know something that they don’t, is quite dramatic.

The other thing that needs to be kept in mind is that people on that level usually have the confidence of the prime minister or the defense minister. He is their minister. They talk in meetings of just two, three or four people. Very sensitive issues. One needs to be quite sure that when one talks, it stays in the room.

I don’t say it happened here, but if ministers can’t count on the people that they have appointed and work with, and can’t be sure that what they say stays in the room, that is going to harm the way they work together.

I will say that on matters of substance, I haven’t heard any of the [ex-security chiefs] saying anything [untoward].

Ex-security chiefs speaking out. Then chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, photographed in 2009. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash 90)
Ex-security chiefs speaking out. Then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, photographed in 2009. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash 90)

Not even as regards the specifics on Iran?

All the talk about military action in Iran is wrong, mistaken and harmful. Unfortunately, not all of it is done by people outside [government]. Some of it is done by some of my friends in government — saying that we are about to attack, saying that we are not about to attack, saying that an attack will be successful or not, speaking of how many people may be killed or wounded and how many houses may be destroyed or damaged or what exactly the time frame is. All this is crazy.

I am one of those, not many, who doesn’t say a word about this. The only thing that needs to be said is this very vague but quite threatening sentence that Obama uses, and that we have used: “All options, including military options, are on the table.”

Adding anything specific about possible military action is a big mistake. And it calls for a rebuttal from others: You say you can; I say you can’t. The whole thing is something that is damaging us and damaging the cause — which is to pressure Iran.

It seems like a strategy: Israel wants the world to think that it is gearing up… 

I agree.

I mean, somebody allowed Channel 10’s military affairs reporter to spend several weeks with the air force and he delivered a report last month, that obviously went through censorship, saying this is how Israel is gearing up to attack Iran. 

David, I’m quite cooperative with the press. But I made a rule. I don’t speak about an attack on Iran.

Believe me, if there are people who know, I am one of those who know. I’m quite involved in the Iranian issue as a whole. I speak on Iran a lot, in all languages, with all people inside and outside the country, but I never say a word about a military attack.

Is it something we are about to do tomorrow? Is it something the Americans are going to do, something we are not going to do at all? What are the options? What is the damage? The whole thing is something that I think should not be discussed in public. You won’t find one journalist, who even off off off record, heard anything from me.

Then let me move a little bit away from that. And again, if it’s something you don’t want to talk about, don’t talk about it. It seems that we have a serving chief of staff sounding a little different from the prime minister’s assessment about whether the leadership in Iran is rational and whether they have decided to go for the bomb.

Rational, not rational, is a question of definition. What is rational? Was Hitler rational? Was Stalin rational? Was Churchill rational?

In a very strict sense, “rational” may be understood as thinking that connects a cause and a result. I do this, this is the result. I don’t do it, another result. It has nothing to do with the values. I may want to do something awful: To kill people. I kill them not by praying to God to do that. I kill by using guns. This is rational. It’s damaging. It’s awful. It’s criminal. But it’s rational.

If that is the definition of rational, then yes [the Iranians are rational]. People think that an attack on Iran, an American attack on Iran, will cause the Iranians to stop the project. [That shows that] people think the Iranians are rational.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: Wikipedia/sajed.ir)
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: Wikipedia/sajed.ir)

There is a basic rationality you attribute to them — you think you are going to sanction them, think you’re going to give them a carrot or a stick, presuming they will act in a certain way. This is rationality in the strict sense.

You can define rationality in a broader sense — rationality including common values, good manners. In that case, they are totally irrational. It’s more a question of definition — not of substance.

On the other issue, of whether the sanctions are having an effect, whether the sanctions may work and can bring results, this is something where you might have heard different shades [of assessment]. My feeling is yes, sanctions have an effect, but we are not yet there. The sanctions haven’t reached the point where they have caused the Iranian leadership to change their goal.

They’ve piled up 5.5 or more tons of low enriched uranium. They’ve piled up by now something like 120 or 130 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium. They haven’t gone beyond that.

What is the goal? There is no doubt in the intelligence community that basically they have a goal to become a military nuclear power. Does this mean that they have decided to do it now — whether they are holding back or whether they are going to accelerate? This is a question. No doubt they don’t continue [at full speed] now; you can read IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano’s report of November of last year, a detailed report — based, he says, on intelligence obtained from 10 countries and his own work. [It shows] they are continuing with enrichment. They’ve piled up 5.5 or more tons of low enriched uranium. They’ve piled up by now something like 120 or 130 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium. They haven’t gone beyond that.

Why don’t they go beyond that? Why not? Because they know that they are quite transparent. The world knows what they’re doing and they don’t want the sanctions or military action or anything of the sort. In retrospect, this is an effect of the sanctions. The fact that they don’t go full speed ahead means there is some effect.

Moreover, the efforts and the energy and the money and the thinking that they put into stopping the sanctions, and into trying to keep countries outside the sanctions regime, show that they don’t want sanctions. They are concerned about the sanctions.

If one looks at the effects on the ground — the effect on the rial, on the currency, which is about 50% lower than a few months ago, on unemployment, on financial transaction difficulty — there is an effect.

Is it enough? We are not yet there. They haven’t yet changed their minds because of sanctions.

What is the bottom line? The sanctions are having an effect. One needs to continue with them and increase and accelerate them, in terms of more sanctions and, more important, in terms of more countries joining the sanctions. If Iran sees resolve, determination, persistence — simply said, “You Iranians, you’re not going to get there, we are determined” — if this is the message that they read from the world, America and the rest, and if the price they are paying gets higher and higher every month, there is a chance — no guarantee — that it will have the effect that we want.

Is it worth trying? Yes. Not staying as we are, but augmenting, getting more and more [sanctions].

I attach a lot of importance to the Russians. Russia was on board with sanctions three years ago. Then they changed their minds. And they put their foot in the door — both on Iran and on Syria.

Putin is going to be sworn in as president on May 17. I believe he will see the president of the United States. If I were to advise the president, I would say talk to the Russians, tell them our number one priority is Iran. There is an array of issues, a variety of issues, missile deployment, all sorts of things. We need you with us on board on the Iranian thing.

If Russia is back on board on sanctions, that represents a meaningful upgrading of the sanctions in the way Iran looks at it. If Russia is in, the UN Security Council is in — that means India is in and so forth.

Take the SWIFT [sanction on Iranian financial transactions]. It was quite effective, but it related to a certain number of banks, not all the banks. If you have more banks being listed as ones that SWIFT will not facilitate, that will further increase the sanctions effect. Think of the oil products and the insurance of oil containers. I don’t want to go into details. There is more that can be done.

Iran is not North Korea. They are not an isolated island. They are part of the world in terms of commerce, culture, people, history – a very proud nation, but they haven’t isolated themselves. This means there’s a lot of leverage

Iran is not North Korea. They are not an isolated island. They are part of the world in terms of commerce, culture, people, history — a very proud nation, but they haven’t isolated themselves. This means there’s a lot of leverage in the hands of the world, to make it clear to them that they are going to pay higher and higher prices if they don’t step down [from their nuclear program].

I add to this something about the [P5+1] talks that have begun in Istanbul and will continue in Baghdad at the end of the month. The Iranians may be playing for time. So far, that may be the case. On the other hand, if the Iranians understand what I want them to understand — that they need to step down from the course they have followed for a good number of years, that they need to find a way to assure all of us that they are not going for a nuclear option — then the talks will be the ladder on which they can step down to a reasonably respectful agreement.

They won’t have to change a policy, because they say they never wanted a nuclear bomb. They don’t have to give up on what they say they didn’t want. We know it not to be true, but it’s what they say.

What will [an acceptable agreement] contain? They don’t need more enrichment. They don’t need the fissile material they have piled up so far. They can give it away to other countries. They need to shut down the Fordow facility, the secret facility near Qom, which was meant to enable them to do things that they think are untouchable by others. They need to have a monitoring system that will make it clear to all those concerned that they are not going to break through to a nuclear bomb. And more and more.

So, if the Iranians come to the understanding that there’s no option to go nuclear, there will be a way to step down. But I don’t think they’re there yet. They still don’t think they need to step down. If there’s more pressure, there may be a prospect for success here. No guarantees.

I understand your semantic argument about rationality. Implied in your answer is that the Iranian regime’s rationale is that it doesn’t want to fall — it doesn’t want economic and other pressures to force it out of power. Is that the source of leverage for the international community — if they don’t heed sanctions and the sanctions are sufficiently crippling, we think they will fall? 

We don’t know enough. Let me say something general. After the Arab Spring took all of us by surprise a year and two months ago, we should be very humble about our predictions.

I can’t tell you what will happen. But I know the Iranian regime [feels it] needs to run Iran. I know there is no love lost in a large part of Iranian society [for the regime]. I know the people care about the economy. And I see the pressure has worked in some cases. The fact is that they don’t rush now [toward the bomb]. They do it cautiously, if at all.

In 2003, Iran suspended enrichment. Why? America and the West demanded that they stop and they stopped. America looked strong enough. It’s not that they became better or changed their goal. This is rational thinking. They understood now was not the time.

Read Ayatollah Khomeini’s statement when they stopped the war in ’88 with Iraq. I found it on the web. It’s a statement explaining why they decided to stop the war after eight years. It’s not a messianic, God-given, God-explained decision. It’s a realpolitik document. Khomeini said, We’re losing the war, we’re paying a heavy price, we have to stop it. This is an example of reality imposing itself on the leadership. Will it happen again? I don’t know.

It won’t be a case of good will. It needs carrots and sticks. The sticks are not yet big enough. The American president Teddy Roosevelt said “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The stick needs to be menacing, threatening. It is beginning to be, I think. I don’t have mathematics here. You need to be clearer about this, stronger about this and stress that you see a process, with a clear end result: No way you will get a nuclear [capacity]. Then, there may be a change of mind.

Might there be a change of government in Iran? I hope it will happen every day, but it may not. Do the people want this? Maybe so. But that was the case, too, in Russia for 70 years. It may be tomorrow. It may be in 10 years. Maybe more. I can’t count on this.

Had we been sure that there’s no way this regime will persist and that we’re going to have a moderate regime in Iran, the whole thing would have looked different. But we’re not sure. That’s why we’re concerned with this nuclear process.

Again, in terms of rationality: In their rationale, is the prize of doing terrible harm, maybe existential harm to Israel, something that they can rationalize when the consequences for them in our rationale might be unthinkable? We would think this would be something they wouldn’t dream of doing because the likely consequence for them would be unthinkable. Maybe their rationale is different?

Nobody can tell you in any certain terms the answer to your question. The whole idea of pressure, even military pressure, assumes that the other side will act rationally, will be afraid, will stop. But I don’t know.

There’s another factor, something dangerous. I’m not sure it’s conclusive and relates to everything: The introduction of religion into politics is something I see happening now in many parts of the world and I don’t like it. Nothing to do with my religious beliefs. If I am observant or not, this is fine — Jewish, Muslim, Christian. It’s not anybody’s business.

But we see here now in recent decades, especially in recent years, some frustration with the old regimes which were based on rationality, and on the era of enlightenment in Europe if you like, on religion being kept for personal thinking and belief or views or behavior. All over the Muslim world, with the collapse of autocratic, not religious regimes, you don’t see their replacement by democratic alternatives, but by religious politics or political religion or political Islam. From the Taliban in Pakistan or Afghanistan, all the way to North Africa, and of course including the Muslim Brotherhoods.

In a way, on the edges, not more, of the Jewish world, you see religious politics. Edges — it’s not the same.

It’s not only politics. You see it too in the attitude towards women. And you see things in more than one denomination. I don’t want to speak about the United States — the evangelists. I don’t see it in Europe. But the return of religion to politics is something one sees.

Politics is usually about compromise: I want something. You want something. We can’t agree. Let’s have a compromise. I’ll have part of it. You’ll have part of it. I’ll have it first. You’ll have it second. Something. When it becomes a religious commandment, there’s no compromise. Gods never compromise

People may be frustrated with the results of what is happening with the world that they knew. They want something different. And so we go back to the old paradigm, which is easier — a warmer womb, so to speak. [Now bringing that to our topic:] What will people do if they think they are required to obey a religious mitzvah, a commandment? I don’t know. What is the price they are going to pay?

Politics is usually about compromise: I want something. You want something. We can’t agree. Let’s have a compromise. I’ll have part of it. You’ll have part of it. I’ll have it first. You’ll have it second. Something.

When it becomes a religious commandment, there’s no compromise. Gods never compromise. Jewish, Christian, Muslim — they don’t. And with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and in other parts of the Muslim world, you see the growth in the religious identity and some decrease in national political identity. If you ask people, what are you, some people say they’re Muslim before they say they are Arab. This was not the case years ago, with the pan-Arab movement, the particular nationalism in certain Arab countries.

This goes back to your question, which I broadened a little. What will people do if they think it’s God’s word [that they strike at Israel]? Do they really believe this? Or is it something that they use for politics? An open question. I don’t know the answer.

But this is clear: a nuclear Iran changes the rules of the game, changes the balance of power. It’s a game changer. Not only for us. For the entire Arab world.

We have a unique coalition — all the Arabs but Syria want Iran to be stopped and they’ve said so. We read it in no uncertain terms in the WikiLeaks: America, do something, including military action.

You have the entire West, all the Arab world, Israel. You have many other countries in the world saying stop. They see the danger of domination of the area by Iran, the domination of the Muslim world by Shiites, the danger of a nuclear arms race. The Saudis say, if they get nuclear, we get nuclear. This is an event that almost everybody says needs to be prevented.

It has never been my view that “There is a nation that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations,” to quote [regarding Israel] from Parashat Balak [ the biblical book of Numbers]. If you have a grand coalition with America and Europe and Russia and other countries, and you have the Arab world, the Muslim world, Turkey, it’s only wise and sensible to try to get this coalition to work.

Am I sure it will have results? No. But I think it deserves the time needed, all other concerns taken into account. And this is where we are now. Is it a day, a week, a month, a year? I don’t want to go into the other option that I said I am not speaking about.

It’s an unprecedented coalition. To have the American president, President Obama, say openly after Netanyahu’s visit to Washington [in March], we will not contain a nuclear Iran, we will prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, that’s important. This is not a private person. It’s the president of the United States, speaking publicly. This means something.

If he says all options, including military options, are on the table and [Defense] Secretary Panetta is more succinct about it, if things are happening there, it’s not to be taken lightly. [US] policy is a [function of its] national interest. There is a national interest of many countries in the world to stop Iran from becoming nuclear. We are in a good position in that we are not alone. This is something that needs to have its day in court, so to speak. And see if it works. Hopefully it will, but I don’t know.

This subject is so grave, so far beyond anything that anyone has been discussing here in recent years…

I agree.

We’re talking about the unthinkable or the almost unthinkable. Yet there’s this strange disconnect, to me, between the discussion of Israel ostensibly living in the shadow of annihilation, and on the other hand, a sort of flippant tone that sometimes comes into prime ministerial speeches about a “nuclear duck.” And then there’s this bizarre situation of all these ex-intelligence chiefs, who clearly know that they’re breaching the norms, and yet they’re speaking out. It’s very, very hard to fathom. And when I asked you about Iran’s rationality — I mean the prime minister has said, my people will not live in the shadow of annihilation. That’s a terrifying statement.

OK, let me put it this way. Israel has built our strength very, very remarkably along the decades of our existence. If one compares what we have now and what we had 70 years ago, it’s an ocean of difference. We are a strong nation, maybe the strongest in our neighborhood and one of the strongest in the world in many senses. We have a very strong economy, a strong army, highly-advanced science and education, international standing — and six million Jews live in this country now. It’s a huge story of success.

I don’t want to terrify myself, to terrify other people. That does not mean that we are blind to the danger. We need to cope with it.

I never use the Holocaust analogy. I don’t want to criticize anybody. I would never use the Holocaust [in the context of Iran]. That was a different story. We are not there. We learned a lesson from what happened in Europe and we are a strong nation. We are a well-equipped and a strong nation. I don’t use this rhetoric.

But I don’t play down the danger — not because I see tomorrow morning a real military, nuclear attack on Israel. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but even if it doesn’t happen, it changes the balance of power in the Middle East. In the sense, for example, that if there is a peace process, starting 30-something years ago, I’ll call it the acceptance of Israel by the Arabs, that has to do with the fact that they think Israel cannot be destroyed because they think Israel has nuclear weapons. Whether they are right or wrong, I am not going to say; we never say. If [Iran] creates a balance [by going nuclear], will it change the course that was very positive?

So it’s more than the issue of a nuclear bomb tomorrow. If Iran becomes dominant in the Arab world, what does it say about the peace process with the Palestinians? This means a very bad blow for the PLO and a boost for Hamas. It is a boost for Hezbollah. It is a boost for all those who don’t want to legitimize Israel, to make peace with Israel. So it has huge consequences, not only if a bomb will be dropped on us or not dropped on us.

We have very strong interest in stopping Iran from becoming nuclear. I don’t want to speak of specific dangers. I don’t think it’s useful. And there’s nothing that I know and hide from you here. It’s not that I know they are going to drop or not drop [a bomb].

You can speculate, but in the end you manage risks. It’s risk management. And for all these reasons we want to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. I think there is a chance of success and it’s done partly overtly, partly covertly; it’s done by economic, diplomatic and other means and we need to succeed here.

We need to do whatever we can and when I say ‘we,’ I don’t mean ‘we’ alone. We have many more partners — some of them much more powerful than we are in the world, America for one. And as long as we have a chance of success, and it’s our interest, I think we should do it this way. I’m not very clear because I don’t want to say [anything too specific].

I can ask you a very clear question and then you’ll dodge it. You seem to be implying that there is no immediate imperative for Israel to think of military action.

I don’t want to speak of military action, of whether there’s an imperative to do it now or tomorrow or ever. I don’t want to go there. If we live long enough and we have time to speak of it sometime in the future when I will be able to speak more freely, I will tell you the history of the whole story

I don’t want to speak of military action, of whether there’s an imperative to do it now or tomorrow or ever. I don’t want to go there. If we live long enough and we have time to speak of it sometime in the future when I will be able to speak more freely, I will tell you the history of the whole story. I can’t do it now and I refuse to join this festival of statements from New York and from Jerusalem and from Tel Aviv, from all sorts of places — what we can do, what we cannot, what is the price and what is not the price. I think it’s crazy. I think it’s damaging us. I think it’s a mistake. The [key] notion is out there — that the military option is on the table. Leave it at that.

In terms of decision-making, is a decision of such dramatic import taken by the octet of senior ministers, by the inner cabinet? How does that work?

It’s the government. We have the Israeli constitution. We know it’s the government, the inner cabinet, not the octet. The octet is not a formal body.

Let me stress again, because we spoke so much: I am not saying I am for or against [military intervention]. I am saying that I am totally against speaking of it. I don’t want it to be interpreted as Dan Meridor is “against” or is “for” or is against with certain conditions. I simply don’t want to say a thing about it.

Let’s change the subject. Let’s turn to the Palestinian issue. In 1999, Israel ousted Netanyahu, among other factors, because there was a sense that opportunities were being missed. And then Barak went to Camp David and negotiated with Arafat, and Israelis broadly speaking feel that it was Arafat who failed that process…

The Americans said the same.

I don’t have the sense that the Israeli public is again thinking that Netanyahu is missing good opportunities here. But one wonders whether in fact the opportunities are better now than they might be in a year or two or three from now, and whether there are chances being missed?

This government came in after Olmert’s government tried very, very seriously to get an agreement. In [former US secretary of state] Condoleezza Rice’s book, she tells the following story, and I’m paraphrasing. It’s February ’08, and Olmert says to her the time has come for an agreement and I think we can get it.

And he calls her for a dinner in his home, and he says to her, this is my proposal. Abu Mazen needs two things. Jerusalem and the refugees are the outstanding issues. On borders, he says 94 plus six (Israel withdraws from 94 percent of the West Bank, with one-for-one land swaps to enable an expansion of sovereignty to encompass major settlements on the other six percent). On security, he says to the Americans: You will help us get an arrangement. It’s not ideological, it’s practical.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris in 2008 (photo credit: Thaer Ganaim/Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert (left) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris in 2008 (photo credit: Thaer Ganaim/Flash90)

On Jerusalem, he offers a Palestinian capital in the Arab neighborhoods, an Israeli capital in the Jewish neighborhoods, and something quite strange to me in the Holy Basin: an international regime of five countries. I don’t know what he meant. I wouldn’t have offered that. He offered something far more forthcoming or backgoing than any Israeli ever offered, because internationalization was never heard of since 1947.

And on the refugees, he said, I’m going to give you a symbolic number: 5,000 refugees to Israel.

Rice said, I didn’t believe my ears. She thought she had an agreement, that she probably had it. Everything the Palestinians wanted, they have now. She talked to the president on the secure line from the hotel. She adds something obviously wrong: I didn’t speak to the president freely because who knows who would listen to me in an Israeli hotel. Totally wrong, but that’s what she writes, I think.

Then she goes to Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] the day after. She explains the Olmert proposal… quite enthusiastic, and his response was, and I quote verbatim: How can I tell four million refugees that only 5,000 go home? End of story.

This is before this government came in to office.

That’s it. And this is Condi Rice writing. Not an Israeli politician. Not Netanyahu or Barak or Olmert or Livni.

Here is where this government got in, and we did not get them back to the table. In my reading, Abu Mazen might have changed the policy after Olmert’s proposal, in three main spheres.

One, there’s no terrorism. It started before this, but that’s the fact. It’s not a mistake. It’s not a coincidence. It’s not the Israeli action alone, though of course it’s our army… But it’s his decision on cooperation with us. Three years, we don’t see terrorism in Judea and Samaria. If there’s some [terrorist act], it’s not by [forces loyal to Abbas]. And the [security] cooperation is quite good.

Second, mainly through [PA Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad, they’ve built up toward a state, bottom up — institutions, law and order, the economy.

Third, which they don’t admit, is what I assess: They were at the end of the road. They had been handed a proposal by Olmert and they didn’t take it. I think they changed their minds, or policy. They’ve changed their objective and the way to get it.

The objective is not any more an agreement with Israel. It is a UN resolution. The means is not negotiation. It’s pressure. International community pressure. And we couldn’t get them back to the table. We offered something nobody ever offered, and we did freeze settlement activity, the moratorium, for 10 months. Nobody ever did this, not even during the most dovish governments. They came to some photo-ops but it never developed into a negotiation.

Is it because they don’t want to take the decision [on a permanent accord] — which means not only two states? Two states is agreed. End of conflict is not agreed. Two states they will accept. Not the end of conflict, because that means no right of return, in real terms. I’m not speaking about symbolic. Or that they are ready to do it, but Hamas doesn’t let them do it? I don’t know why.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they made a mistake and they’re ready to do [an end-of-conflict deal], but so far we haven’t been able to.

Something happened — not only on our side of the equation.

If one is logical and realistic and not politically loaded, there is a problem on the other side. This connects to what happens all over the Muslim-Arab world — the increase of religious power and the decline of national power; the decline of the PLO and the increase of Hamas. And this is bad and I don’t like it at all. Maybe I’m wrong.

What is the problem on our side? I think there is an illusion. The fact that there is no terror now — very important, to both of us. The fact that the economy is not doing very badly — it’s quite good on both sides — this may mislead people to think that this is sustainable in the long term. It’s not. It cannot be perpetuated. It is an anomaly. We need to change it.

Here I say what I think [in my own name], not for the government. I think that there should be coherence between our peace policy — namely Bar-Ilan [a reference to the prime minister’s speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009 in favor of a two-state solution], Netanyahu’s speeches in America and the Knesset — and our settlement policy. In other words, I think we should not settle across the line of the blocs or the fence or whatever you call it. But do settle only there [inside the line].

Don’t freeze settlement. Don’t freeze it in Jerusalem or Ma’aleh Adumim or other places like this. But don’t build all over the place, because this is the most damaging of all the things that we are doing to ourselves in the world

Don’t freeze settlement. Don’t freeze it in Jerusalem or Ma’aleh Adumim or other places like this. But don’t build all over the place, because this is the most damaging of all the things that we are doing to ourselves in the world. Because people think and say this: You offer the Palestinians a state, but if you build there in every place, you don’t really mean it. I think it’s trying to catch too much.

We need to use all our efforts, our energies, our resources, to try to add the blocs to Israel. I think we are at the beginning of being able to do it. Because Obama spoke of swaps, not of [an Israel withdrawn to the lines of[ ’67. Sixty-seven may be the basis but there will be swaps. And Bush spoke of it, of taking into account the demography, the changes. So we already see a basic understanding of the paradigm. The state won’t be along the ’67 lines. No way. It will be different, with some compensation. But if we build all over the place, we lose.

Even if we don’t have an agreement, we need to have a rational policy. I think Netanyahu’s speech in the Knesset last May was very important. He said for the first time what borders he wants. He said he wants the final borders [to encompass] Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. He didn’t even say Jordan Valley. He said in the Jordan Valley we want a military presence, not sovereignty; not forever but in the long term; not Jordan Valley but along the Jordan River. These are his terms. So he meant only the blocs. It’s not very far from, though it’s not identical to, what [ex-minister] Yossi Beilin and [the PLO’s Yasser] Abed-Rabbo said in the Geneva accords, and to what Bush and Obama said when they spoke of swaps and demographic changes. So we may be close there. We should do everything we can to focus everything on these changes and not do the whole thing. This is my statement. It’s not government policy.

The whole world knows what I said about Abu Mazen — that he could have had an agreement and he didn’t take it. So why is the whole world after us? Why does the whole world think we are to blame at least partly or largely? We need to add something to our credibility. It is the settlement policy more than anything else.

We should not stop settling in the areas that would be part of Israel permanently, eventually. There may be a difference about how big the bloc is in Ma’aleh Adumim or Ariel or Gush Etzion, or whatever, I agree. But basically we got the world to understand that ’67 is dead; there should be changes; so try to focus.

Why doesn’t that view prevail in government?

I am always in full agreement with my colleagues in the government on everything except in one case: when they are wrong. I think it’s a mistake.

Other people, very good people, have different views. They think we should not allow a Palestinian state; we should hamper a Palestinian state. I think this is counterproductive and it’s wrong. Even if our policy is to settle, and it is, all governments, Rabin, everybody, it needs to be done smartly and wisely and focus on where we can achieve it. To think that we can have the whole land and maintain a democracy is something that 80 percent of us know we cannot have, in all the polls. This is why the Israeli public went a very long way from where we were 10 or 15 years ago, and 80 percent or 75 percent say in every poll that we accept the two-state solution. This is a historic departure from the idea of Eretz Yisrael Hashlema [Greater Israel]. We are there.

But do we have a partner? I’m not sure. We tried. Barak tried it at Camp David. I was there with him. Olmert tried it less than four years ago. And they didn’t succeed. I don’t give up on the possibility of success. But even if we can’t succeed now in putting an end to the conflict, let’s act in the meantime in a way that does not interfere with explaining why this is the situation and not putting the blame on us.

You say the situation is unsustainable. You’re worldly enough to know how battered we are internationally.

On this.

Settlements is the key issue that so damages our credibility. And yet you’ve been in power for three years, and this government seems to be treading water — to try to keep all balls in the air — not alienating the Americans, not alienating the pro-settlement component of the Israeli demographic. Good tactical political positions but not good for Israel strategically. Isn’t this government ducking critical strategic decisions on the issue of settlement?

Let the Palestinians challenge us, and then we’ll know. If they came and said we accept something like Olmert proposed — though I don’t accept his proposal on Jerusalem — they will have challenged us. If they said we will come back to the table; we accept the Obama paradigm of two states, borders based on ’67 with mutually agreed swaps; we accept the legitimacy and so forth, then we’ll be in the long negotiating process and then we’ll have to make tough decisions.

Abbas would say of course we accept the Obama partial view.

I don’t know. I haven’t heard him directly for some years. I’ve met Fayyad; I’ve met other Palestinians; I haven’t met him directly. I don’t want to be personal, although it’s a leadership decision. There is a point in their and our history where leaders [do matter]. An offer was put on the table four years ago. And they didn’t [accept it]. I’m not playing the blame game here.

It doesn’t square with what you said…

Even if we can’t have an agreement, my policy would have been somewhat different: I would limit my settlement activity to areas that will eventually be part of Israel, and I would say so. I would say it to my people: The whole land is mine historically — I say that because I believe it. The whole land is Jewish historically. It is written in the Bible. I am fully attached to this. There’s no rhetoric. It’s really what I think.

But the reality now is that we can’t get all of it and stay a democratic state or a Jewish state. In terms of numbers and in terms of regime. And this is why we need to cut, and I’m ready to cut. And I think that we’ve been able to convince the world that ’67 is dead; it’s not going to be ’67, the line of ’67; it’s going to be different.

We know what we want — the blocs, not more than this. I don’t want to define what the blocs are, but more or less we know. And I would focus all my policy now on this. It’s hard enough to get the world to accept this — the blocs and how much is in every bloc and the money that needs to be invested there and the policy. But I say it. I mean it: They will have a state. I leave it for them. Let them take it. I don’t settle there. I don’t take out by force Israelis who live there now.

Do you make compensation available for settlers in more remote areas if they want to leave?

I don’t want to go into that now. We’re not yet there. If we can’t solve the problem now because we have no partner — if that’s the case, and I’m leaving it as an “if”  — we need to be in a position where we can handle it for many more years. Unfortunately. And the position is not to blur it and to make one entity from the Jordan to the sea because it’s damaging and it’s dangerous. So I want to create a line on the ground — it’s more or less the fence line or the blocs line — and say this is what I want. The rest I want but I’m not going to get; I’m giving it to you. Take it. If you don’t take it, it’s there for you.

I’ll keep the lives and security of the Jews who live there, of course, as long as there’s no agreement and as long as they don’t move. But it’s one thing to keep them there, and another thing to build more and invest there.

Amr Moussa (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Amr Moussa (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Are you worried on Egypt when you hear Amr Moussa making strange utterances about the Camp David accords?

I know Amr Moussa. I’ve met him in Cairo and other times. If I remember correctly, he said something that was not interpreted correctly. I don’t defend him. He is in an election campaign. He was not ever a member of the Zionist movement.

But he said Camp David is over; the peace treaty is valid. Now, one needs to say: Camp David was signed in 1978, September. It had two parts — one about Egypt and one about the Palestinians. On Egypt, it matured into an agreement that was signed in March of 1979. On the Palestinian track, we started negotiations on autonomy and didn’t get it.

There was no talk of a state then. There is talk of a state now — by the prime minister of Israel.

By the way, some people on the settlement movement will say “We love [what Amr Moussa says]. We don’t like Camp David anyway. So it’s over.” I don’t know who gains and who loses.

As a matter of fact, Amr Moussa says, 34 years after the signature of Camp David in September 1978, what’s written there is not our policy anymore. Is it right? Is it wrong? Should he say it? They promised they would never say it, by the way. Mubarak wrote a letter on the 20th of April, 1982, saying that the policy of Camp David will be the only agreement in the future — because we demanded this of him before the withdrawal [from the Sinai]. I was there with Begin when it happened. I remember it very well.

So we have the commitment. What he said about Camp David, I don’t like it, but he said it. But the other thing [he said] was blurred [and improperly understood] here: He said we keep the agreement! As long as Israel keeps it. Which is something that is positive.

The other thing is negative because Egypt is going through a major change and we don’t know how it will end. They are in the eye of the storm.

 

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