Tzachi Hanegbi is particularly well placed to gauge where Israel might be heading in the two key areas of its security and diplomatic policy.
As a former minister for nuclear affairs, ex-head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and still a member of that most powerful of Knesset panels, Hanegbi is privy to the best Israeli intelligence assessments of Iran’s progress and strategies, and knows, too, what there is to be known about Israel’s capacity to counter the Islamic Republic’s goals.
And as a Likud MK turned Kadima MK, now returned to the Likud, he’s also well versed in Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians, and thoroughly familiar with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategies and tactics as well.
In fact, since he’s the Likud MK arguably closer to Netanyahu than any other, speaking to Hanegbi is about the closest you can get to hearing what Netanyahu might say himself if he could afford to be a little more candid publicly.
To that end, The Times of Israel spoke for well over an hour with Hanegbi in his Knesset office last week, and learned a great deal about high-powered Israeli thinking on Iran and the Palestinians.
Specifically, Hanegbi made crystal clear that Netanyahu sees stopping Iran as the key, defining mission of his prime ministership. He elaborated on the agonizing dilemmas over whether and when to resort to military force. He voiced acute concerns about the credibility of the US’s much-mentioned military option. And he had no reservations whatsoever about Israel’s capacity — and its willingness if it felt the moment of truth had come — to delay Iran’s drive for the bomb… and delay it over and over again, if necessary.
On the Palestinian front, Hanegbi was personally frank and self-critical, acknowledging his “paranoid” opposition to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt more than 30 years ago, and detailing how the passage of time, and a deeper understanding of the political flux of the region, had changed him. A former Likud hardliner, he was upbeat about the willingness to compromise with certain Palestinian leaders with whom he has met, but far from certain that a middle ground can be found to enable an end-of-conflict accord.
He was also intermittently revelatory, as when he vouchsafed that Netanyahu was prepared to share power with Livni after the 2009 elections — when Netanyahu’s Likud won 27 seats, and Livni’s Kadima 28. “Netanyahu was willing to agree to serve as prime minister for 3 years, and then Livni would serve for 1.5 years,” he said. “It drew little attention at the time, but it’s a fact. I can testify to that, because I represented Kadima” in the negotiations.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
With the US desperate to avoid resorting to force on Iran, it would seem there could well be a deal under which Iran will retain the capacity to enrich uranium and, should it choose, break out to the bomb. If so, Israel would have failed in seeing its terms adopted. Where would that leave Israel? Should Israel already have resorted to the use of force? What is the prime minister going to do?
I can only give you my position. I have no idea what the prime minister will do. I can assess what he would like to happen, but I can’t predict the future actions of the government or the prime minister. They are a function of developments.
We haven’t failed and we didn’t succeed. Our function is as a lobbyist. We weren’t among the decision makers on the Iranian issue. The US, the UN, the P5+1, like-minded states — all these players had a certain amount of authority. Israel had no such authority. So Israel has tried to lobby the players that were prepared to listen to us over the years, out of a desire to influence the decisions by those authorized to take them. There were successes and failures. But we don’t have the authority to determine decisively.
Let’s forgo 15 years of history and talk about what’s happening now. In the terminology of the westerns, things are leading to a gunfight at high noon between the world and Iran. We’re close to that showdown because the world, finally, after years of complacency, irresponsibility, negligence and laziness, did the right thing under the leadership of President Obama and imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iran.
If they had done so 7, 8, 9 years ago — when Israel, then too, was warning that this was the only necessary and effective step — we, as in the Western world that doesn’t want an Iranian bomb, might not have had to get to this showdown. Over the last two years there have been sanctions, fashioned by the United States, on a different order — outside the framework of the UN Security Council, bypassing the reservations of China and Russia, with contributions from more states than in the past. Iran began to pay a price. As a consequence of that price, the Iranian public’s distress was seen in the [summer’s Iranian presidential] election results. A man who reflected the desire for a sort of conciliation with the world was elected, apparently not with the support of the supreme leader, but [Ayatollah Khamenei] managed to live with it and maneuvered effectively.
You don’t regard Hassan Rouhani’s election as a masterstroke planned by Khamenei?
Absolutely not. Khamenei let him run, but assumed that one of the candidates closer to his approach would be elected.
But nonetheless, he let Rouhani win.
Yes, because then they recognized that there was constructive potential, so long as Rouhani was loyal to the central positions.
You’re sure this wasn’t pre-planned?
Absolutely. I am not basing this on intelligence information. I don’t know Khamenei’s thought processes, but it’s clear that candidates who were considered too dangerous, like [former president] Rafsanjani, were barred, and they left those who they could live with. They estimated it was unlikely [Rouhani] would be elected. They didn’t intervene. They know how to intervene if they want to. Evidently they decided the price of intervention was not worth paying; that things would work out. Although the original plan didn’t work out, they recognized that this was also a positive result and they allowed [Rouhani] to lead what we call his charm offensive. They see it’s effective, so they are certainly happy.
You saw the interview Rouhani gave on Iranian state television just before the elections, when he angrily rebuffed the suggestion that he had been weak and soft in leading nuclear negotiations with the West from 2003 to 2005?
Absolutely. That was a mistake by him. There, and in his book, which he wrote when he evidently didn’t expect to become president, he exposed what he had done.
So, what is he really up to now?
He’s working according to the traditional Iranian approach from which [his presidential predecessor Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad strayed in his eight years. The traditional Iranian approach is cautious, pragmatic progress on the tactical front toward the strategic goal. In this case, the strategic goal is the nuclear weapons program.
A nuclear arsenal?
Indeed, to be a nuclear power.
And to use that weaponry against us?
I can’t know whether, under certain circumstances, the United States, France, Britain, Russia or China will use nuclear weapons. There’s a reason they spend billions upon billions to keep those weapons valid. Why, then, are we calm as regards those weapons and not calm as regards the Iranians? Because there’s a different culture of thought.
The democratic regimes would only use nuclear weapons in order to survive, as a last resort. These are democratic peoples that do not wish to be destroyed. And the use of nuclear weapons means there is a chance of sustaining a second strike by your enemy. You wouldn’t use nuclear weapons against, say, the Congo or Micronesia. Nuclear weapons are for when the sword is truly at your throat; that is, you’ve been attacked by a force as powerful if not more powerful than you are. Nobody is attacked by forces weaker than they are.
If a fanatical regime of this kind has the ultimate weapon of destruction, then the designated victim — which is us — cannot treat this indifferently
By contrast, with the Iranians, it may be that there is a different approach. Rafsanjani, thought to be one of the more moderate of the conservatives, once said that we, Iran, are a country of 70 million — maybe it was fewer at the time — and Israel is a country of a few million, and therefore we can absorb a significant nuclear attack and Israel cannot. That’s a way of speaking of the destruction of Israel. That thought process is not unique to that single man.
There is certainly in the Islamic law, the Shiite law, a form of martyrdom — not only on the personal level, not only as regards the suicide bombers’ martyrdom, but collective martyrdom. And that’s the danger. When you see a leader like Ahmadinejad — he often reflected that culture by making decisions based on fear, the unknown Imam, who appears in his dreams and directs him. This type of thought, what the West would consider irrationalism, is something that can, from [the Iranians’] perspective and under certain circumstances, be translated into operative action. And if a fanatical regime of this kind has the ultimate weapon of destruction, then the designated victim — which is us — cannot treat this indifferently.
Therefore, Israel’s security policy has always striven to contribute to preventing countries of this kind from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Right now Rouhani is trying to undo the damage that Ahmadinejad did over the past 8 years, and to create a type of openness. All this has a purpose, one that he has stated — to remove the sanctions while the centrifuges continue to spin. This is what he announced publicly, right after he was elected.
Israel does not have the ability to prevent Iran from reaching those goals [at the negotiating table]; it’s just trying to make it clear that these goals are unacceptable to us. That’s where we stand now and we continue to be lobbyists in regard to something that we consider to be the correct policy.
Iran is in distress, the sanctions have led it to change its policies, but we claim that the change is tactical. If you, the world, believe that you can get to proven strategic change, we recommend that you not lift the sanctions, because you will not be able to reach your objectives without very firmly grasping this spinning sword that is threatening the economy in Iran. The moment the threat is lifted, and the sword is returned to its sheath, the moment the chokehold on Iran is loosened, you’ll lose your ability to effectively influence Iran’s judgment.
Is there a danger of a willful blindness from the US, because it wants a compromise, wants to avoid a resort to force, wants some sort of deal that will push this issue to the side, even if it’s only for a few years? Do you see the risk of some kind of agreement that will allow Iran to continue operating the centrifuges as the Iranians say they want to…
Israel constantly tries, almost childishly, to plead with the world, particularly with the Americans, to make clear that the military option does exist
It’s still too early to determine how the current dialogue will end. All sane regimes, including Israel, are obviously interested in and always prefer a peaceful solution to a problem over military confrontation. But as our sources say, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” It’s very banal wisdom. If you do not prove that you are willing to confront the enemy, the enemy will be encouraged to confront you.
That’s why Israel constantly, almost childishly, pleads with the world, particularly with the Americans, to make clear that the military option does exist. So that was quite pathetic, because we’re forcing them to say things only because they have no choice. It’s not real, and it doesn’t give the impression of being genuine, so it doesn’t have the desired effect. Perhaps even the reverse. It may even convey a certain degree of weakness. You’re so obviously focused on the diplomatic efforts, with just a small note on the side to remind you to mention that the military option is on the table as well. When you say it like that, it sounds hesitant, mumbled and ridiculous.
But we believe, from our experience, that [a credible military threat] is the only thing that may have an impact. It won’t definitely have an impact, but it is clear that without this approach, there is no chance of making an impact.
So now we have reached the point of a dialogue. The dialogue is ultimately an American one. It’s not Germany or France or the UK. Certainly not China or Russia; they have no interest or motivation to confront the Iranians. And I’m sure that the Americans greatly want to achieve what they call a “good deal.” That is of course their ultimate goal, but that is not the problem that we face. Our problem is what happens when the other side insists on negotiating a “good deal” from its perspective. Where is the middle line drawn? Where is the balance point? And when the balance point is defined, we have to consider how it relates to Israel’s interests.
That’s why the sanctions are so important. We believe that the sanctions must remain in place. We would even prefer to strengthen the sanctions, which is difficult for the Americans to accept at this point despite the fact that the American Congress spoke about it.
And this is the first test: If the Americans hold firm [on the sanctions], and they say that they will, they will demand proof that the Iranians are truly giving up their military program. When they do not receive that proof, because the Iranians will not abandon their military program, the sanctions should remain intact.
That’s one test, and the second test, the ultimate test of course, is the end result. I can’t guess that; there’s lot of psychology involved. Each side has to guess what the other side considers unacceptable. There will be crises.
There is the risk of the Americans wanting to avoid too deep of a crisis, because a very deep crisis, combined with the time that elapses and approaching the point where a decision has to be made, can place them in the last place that they want to be — which is facing the dilemma of confrontation or withdrawal; military action or acceptance of the Iranian nuclear program, similar to that of North Korea.
Despite their good intentions and the fact that in my opinion, Obama understands that this is part of his legacy — to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear — I do not believe that I can predict the degree of decisiveness that the Americans will display during the negotiations.
We saw what happened with Syria, which ought to serve as a positive example. The Americans, despite the problems in Congress and the problematic story with American public opinion, managed to reach what I consider an impressive achievement. Syria is being stripped of its chemical weapons, without a single Tomahawk 1 missile being launched. This is the perfect outcome. Things like this rarely occur in the history of international relations and confrontations.
So how did this come to be? Along with Assad’s desire for survival and to receive legitimization, and the Russian role, the deciding factor was the Syrians’ absolute understanding that Obama had no other alternative [but to strike if necessary]. Even if the Senate had voted against military action, as was expected, even if the House of Representatives had voted against, as was expected, and even if the American opinion surveys had remained unchanged, as was expected, Obama could not surrender because that’s not something that an American president can live with. To give in. Therefore [the Syrians] realized that they would sustain a powerful blow and they wanted to prevent it.
This is perfectly equivalent to the sanctions imposed on Iran. If it is clear that Obama cannot lift the sanctions because there is no justification for doing so if the nuclear program proceeds under some sort of guise of a “good deal,” and if it is clear that the only alternative will be eventually being drawn into what Obama prefers to avoid — just as he wanted to avoid confrontation with the Syrians — which is a military confrontation with Iran, then there is a reasonable possibility that Iranian willingness to reach a compromise that we consider a positive one will grow. That’s why I refuse to admit defeat.
The person who calls the shots sits in the White House.
And what about the person who sits in the Prime Minister’s office? How does his speech to the UN, warning that Israel will confront Iran alone if necessary, play in?
The prime minister said what he said and I believe that he meant what he said. If we stand alone, we will stand alone.
Please elaborate. You described the American threat as “pathetic” and US mention of the military option on the table as something that just has to be said, a kind of lip-service. And here we have a prime minister who has been threatening for years…
Let’s not make mistakes, I don’t think that it’s pathetic. I said that there is a risk of this being perceived as being pathetic. I know that the Americans have military systems that are prepared and deployed…
But the US military threat is not considered especially credible?
True, you don’t see the energy. When Bibi talks about it — and some people belittled what he said or ridiculed it, saying that we don’t have the power or the capability — you believe him when he says that this is what he would want to do if he could. He is not making empty threats. He believes that if there is no other choice, this is a legitimate option. People may not necessarily believe him – here in Israel or even the Iranians. But he’s passionate about it because he understands that there is no chance of influencing the Iranians if you don’t make it clear that you are willing to confront them.
When the speaker is [Secretary of State] Kerry or the White House spokesperson, or even the president and other people, you see that they’re just paying lip service. There are plenty of reasons why the diplomatic approach is so central to American policies.
The Iranians do not believe that Israel has the power, the courage or the ability to confront them
Going back to what you said before, Netanyahu always made this point clear, but his speech in the UN was the first time that he gave it such powerful public expression. His brief sentence was actually addressed to the Iranians. But it was also for the Americans and the rest of the world to hear. He said gentlemen, I know what you are doing and I understand that you’ve been taken hostage by the Iranian façade. Okay. There’s nothing I can do to prevent that but I can try to convince you why it is foolishness. And it will not change my obligation as a leader of the Jewish people at this historic moment to do what has to be done. That’s what he said.
Can you assess the Iranian reaction to these words?
I think that the Iranians generally believe that America is their problem, not Israel. That’s what they understand. They are convinced that Israel is nothing, they belittle Israel and do not believe that Israel has the power, the courage or the ability to confront Iran. That’s their approach.
And what do you think about all of those questions? Does Israel have the power, the courage and the capability to confront Iran?
If I agreed with [the Iranian assessment], I would head straight for the nearest Iranian embassy and apply for Iranian citizenship.
If you agreed with the Iranians, ok, but as someone who has the information, does Israel have the genuine option of using military force, and the willingness to do so?
I don’t know anyone who doubts Israel’s ability [to impact the Iranian nuclear program militarily]
These are two different issues. Willingness to use military force is a political issue. It depends who the leader is at the time of the decision and everything else that surrounds a political question – circumstances, a combination of perspective and philosophy, ideology and historical perspective, courage, the capacity to obtain the necessary majority and the readiness to pay the potential price. These are not things that we can really analyze. We really can’t…
What about the current leader? He has these qualities?
The current leader does have all of these qualities, but some of the circumstances that I just described are circumstances that we cannot predict. [Take the question of] what the current leader considers to be the price [of a resort to force against Iran]. The price has to be quantified compared to the results that will be achieved, and that’s something which we are unable to specify at this point. We don’t know what the implications will be.
But the first question is much simpler and the answer is yes. I don’t think that anyone doubts that Israel has the capability [to impact the Iranian nuclear program militarily].
There are people who believe that it’s too late, that we don’t have the necessary bunker busters, that we’re too far away…
If there are people who believe this, their opinions do not reflect a professional approach. It might be an ideological approach…
I’m talking about the technical perspective. You’re saying that there is no doubt?
I don’t think that there is any doubt. I don’t know anyone who doubts Israel’s ability. People have doubts about the outcome, how long it will last and what the Iranian response will be; what Hezbollah will do; what the Syrians will do; how the Americans will react. There are many variables and unknowns that I cannot foresee either. I’m not really interested in these unknowns. [Or rather,] it’s not that I’m not interested; it’s that none of these considerations is powerful enough for me to be willing to live under the threat of a nuclear Iran. These considerations are very important, but the weight of all of these considerations combined, of all of the possible negative developments, does not even come close to [the cost of] accepting Iran as a nuclear power.
But we have not yet reached the point of accepting the necessity of Israel taking action?
I don’t understand the question.
I believe that you were quoted in Maariv as claiming that we will have to attack, that we must attack, or something like that.
Maariv made a headline out of it and a headline always constrains the analysis, which is precisely the problem we have with you, in the media. You can’t write an entire article in a headline.
What I believe, first of all, is that the most effective way of avoiding military confrontation is to be very firm about the issue of sanctions and about the deal that is required. You know the four things that Israel’s official policy requires as the minimum – the four combined of course. [Netanyahu has specified that Iran must be stripped of all enrichment capacity, must ship out already enriched uranium, must close its facilities at Qom and Natanz, and shut down its Arak heavy water facility.] The issues cannot be separated.
And if this does not happen, I have said and I will say again that Israel has the ability to stand alone and realize its right to protect itself. We’ve never announced that we will attack Iran or declare war on Iran because that’s not true. But we do consider nuclear weapons in the hands of an enemy of this kind to be a threat to our existence, and in the case of an existential threat, we are willing to protect ourselves and we have the ability to do so.
Regarding the question of whether we will have to activate this right, in my opinion we will have to activate this right if it becomes apparent that nothing else is removing this threat to our existence – be it the sanctions, the negotiations, or anything else, including US military action.
The problem with thwarting is that it’s always temporary, but acceptance [of a nuclear Iran] is eternal… We don’t know for how long the threat could be thwarted, but the advantage is that you can always act to thwart. You can take action to thwart [the nuclear threat] one time. If five years later, they advance a program again, you can thwart it once again. Meaning that you can invoke your right to protect yourself endless times and invest endless efforts.
But we have not yet reached the moment of truth, in your opinion? The other non-military options have not been exhausted?
There are some things that I am saving for my autobiography, which is approaching quickly so you won’t have to wait for long. I cannot answer that question at this time.
So does that mean you believe that the time has come to attack?
I cannot discuss this question because I think that there are things that one can think but not say aloud.
Israel must not act alone as long as there is the possibility that the outcome that can be obtained as a result of one-sided action on our part, can be achieved in other ways as well.
Plainly, it would be much easier for the Americans to intervene…
I still can’t tell you if the results can be obtained using other methods. It’s an unknown. When faced with an equation with several unknown variables, you have to make a decision. Because if you say that you’ll wait until all of the variables become known, it might be too late.
That’s what [former defense minister] Barak stated when he was in office – that there must be an understanding as to what is the zone of Iranian immunity. This is true on the intellectual level, but you don’t always have the intelligence to determine when the enemy has entered its immunity zone. You may think that the enemy has not reached the point of immunity when it already has. When you believe that the enemy is approaching that point and you choose to respond, the operation proves to be ineffective because the enemy is already in the zone of immunity. Therefore your question is one that I cannot answer. If I knew for certain that we had another five years to wait…
I want to make certain that I understand what you’re saying. You’re not sure that Israel shouldn’t have acted already? Or you’re not prepared to say that we shouldn’t have acted already?
Because I don’t know. There are things that we don’t know.
Someone has to decide.
I’m lucky, because I don’t make the decision. If I were the one making the decision, I would have a hard time making a decision because I don’t think that those who do decide know more than I do. They’re not supposed to know more than I do; I supervise their decisions. I know everything that they know, by virtue of being a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and my history of following up on the data and information.
It’s possible that when we look back in several months or years from now, we’ll realize that Israel missed the opportunity?
Or the contrary.
Israel should have taken action, or we’re lucky not to have taken action because it turned out that…?
I don’t know. It’s not that I know, but don’t want to tell you. I have no way of knowing, and therefore don’t want to give you a definite answer.
But that means that a leader who must make a decision — and each day is a decision because doing nothing is a decision as well — must decide based on his gut feelings, his instincts. You’re saying that the decision-maker does not have all of the information necessary to be convinced that he’s making the correct decision…?
He has no way of knowing that the decision that he makes every day is the right one?
Yes, but that’s true for most decisions. In regard to most decisions, there is a great deal that is unknown about the implications of the decision.
Take Syria for example. Israel decided not to take a defensive position, including distribution of gas masks and the issue of military deployment, because it assessed that Syria had no interest in responding to an American attack [at the height of the summer’s chemical weapons crisis] with an action that would include firing chemical weapons at Israel. This was an assessment. There is no solid information that could underpin such an assessment. There is no way of knowing just how desperate Assad would be, or what the implications of an American attack would be. So the prime minister made a decision under unclear circumstances.
The decisions to attack convoys of Hezbollah weapons, that Israel has denied doing in most cases, but in one case acknowledged involvement — the circumstances there were uncertain as well. Complete uncertainty. There was no way of predicting Hezbollah’s or Syria’s response. And the Iranian issue is the same – also characterized by a great deal of uncertainty.
But the implications of the Iranian dilemma are of a whole different order.
And where that immense dilemma is concerned, the prime minister operates each day knowing that he does not have the necessary tools to make a decision?
The prime minister always has the tools to make a decision. I’m just saying that these tools are not rooted in absolute certainty. He has vast amounts of information, and knowledge that he has accumulated over the years based on previous decisions that he made and on experience, but there are things that…
What should we make of reports that indicate that the prime minister did want to take military action a year ago or a year and a half ago against Iran but the chief of staff at the time was opposed, or that the Mossad objected or the Americans were unsupportive? It seems that at a certain point, he reached the conclusion that something had to be done but other powers and authorities prevented him from taking action.
I have no information about that because as far as I can gauge from those reports, I wasn’t in the Knesset at the time; I wasn’t the head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. But in principle, my view is that decisions such as these are not ones that the military echelon can make. They cannot decide how to resolve the dilemma. It is only the political echelon that can make the final decision.
The security officials – head of the Mossad, head of the Shin Bet, head of Military Intelligence, the IDF Chief of Staff, head of the National Security Council — they must provide the information necessary to make a decision. They have the right, it’s not crucial but they certainly have the right, to present the decision-makers with their analysis of the implications of every possible scenario. The prime minister can decide how much credibility to attribute to each of their analyses.
But the final decision is made by the leader, who has entirely different means for making the decision than the tools that the military echelons employ. The prime minister employs his own philosophy, willingness to take risks, analysis of the historical significance of his actions, political understanding, willingness to be the person who tells the people that they will pay with their blood, sweat and tears but to stand strong before Nazi Germany because these are our values as a nation that is fighting for its life.
When Menachem Begin made the decision to destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, he saved not only Israel but possibly the entire world, considering the later confrontations with Saddam Hussein
Therefore, the reports of what the outgoing director of the Mossad Meir Dagan said, what [ex-Shin Bet chief] Yuval Diskin said, and others, and their involvement in the deliberations, as if this was an issue of professional viewpoints, are completely unfounded. The best historical example of this is Menachem Begin. When Begin made his decision to destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981, he consulted with the professionals in different fields. Director of the Mossad Yitzhak Hofi was vehemently opposed because he feared certain scenarios. Director of Military Intelligence Yehoshua Saguy was opposed and argued that Israel could wait a while for various factual reasons. There were political challenges from other figures. But the prime minister implemented the mandate that he had received from the people. Fortunately for us, Begin did not accept the position that certain experts presented. And I think that by acting, he saved not only Israel but possibly the entire world, considering the later confrontations with Saddam Hussein.
He could have been completely wrong. There is no guarantee of success. I’m just talking about the mechanisms of decision-making. This is a decision that has to be made by a [political] leader and not by a professional [security chief]. Because with all due respect to professionals all over the world, they do not have the perspective that a leader has, and they were not elected by anyone to prevent a military operation in Iran or to order such an operation. They lack the moral mandate to do so.
I know Netanyahu. And nothing will prevent Netanyahu from doing what he believes is right. And he considers this to be the greatest historical mission that he has been given — this whole period in the history of the Jewish people — to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. I believe that if he had thought that military action was crucial at the time, he would have acted. He most likely decided not to because there are great advantages to waiting until Israel comes as close as possible to the limits of its tolerance. Because when that point is reached, we can use all of the previous restraint as a very powerful tool for strengthening the legitimacy of our actions.
That’s what former prime minister Sharon did as well in his battle against terrorism. When he said that “restraint is power,” people thought that this statement was ridiculous, but he knew what power was – it was restraint. The capacity to avoid taking action against terrorism, to absorb an increasing number of victims, this created incredible political power as well as powerful security capabilities because when he finally went to battle after the [terrorist] attack at the Park Hotel [in Netanya, in which 30 people were killed on Seder night] in March 2002, the impact was much stronger. His restraint built legitimacy.
The question is whether, on Iran, Israel has missed the moment. Today, it is a bit more difficult than it was under Ahmadinejad six months ago to portray the Iranian threat.
There were never ideal circumstances for taking military action. And I don’t think that there will be a convenient time in the future either
I agree with you and that’s one of the reasons for the natural frustration that Israel feels. No one knows what kind of deal will be reached. If it’s a deal that the world is enthusiastic about and portrays as a dramatic diplomatic achievement, while we believe that it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on, that it’s a trick, a continuation of Iran’s fraudulent political tactics, we will find ourselves in a complicated situation.
Is it possible that six months ago the time would have been right to act on our threats?
There were always problems – such as the elections in the US, the elections in Israel. To date, there were never ideal circumstances for taking military action. And I don’t think that there will be a convenient time in the future either.
What an extraordinary responsibility, to be prime minister of Israel. Take the prime minister of Great Britain – a nice, respectable role. Even if you’re really terrible at it, and make a series of bad decisions, your country’s existence will not be at risk. It won’t disappear. The same is true for the US. But here, a prime minister who makes the wrong decisions can be putting the state’s very existence at risk. Yet people still want to be prime minister. You wanted to be prime minister, no?
I had two dreams that I unfortunately wasn’t able to realize and probably never will at this point. One was to be a world karate champion and the second was to be the Israeli national soccer team’s goalkeeper. The third dream is not likely to be realized either, but everyone has to have a goal in life.
Does everyone who enters politics hope to achieve that goal one day?
I am not one of those people who are obsessed with the idea of becoming prime minister because I worked alongside four different prime ministers and I know exactly what it entails. I managed prime minister Shamir’s office, and I was a minister in the Netanyahu, Olmert and Sharon governments. I think that a person who becomes prime minister has it harder than someone who wants to be prime minister but fails to do so. Those not selected can say that they worked as hard as they could to realize their dream without paying the price of actually making the decisions.
The problems begin when you do succeed [in becoming prime minister] and you find yourself in a situation in which each day is harder than the previous one. I saw this particularly when Shamir was prime minister. Not a single day passes without problems arising. Some you can resolve but there are always problems that you can’t solve. And then the next day brings new problems, and the pile is constantly growing. Some problems are just disturbing, but not simple to resolve, and others are significant national and existential issues.
But the fact is that there are people who want the responsibility. These are people with a sense of ideology and purpose who believe that they have the ambition and the capabilities.
It’s a combination of arrogance and expertise?
People without the capabilities are not likely to be elected; at least that has occurred only very rarely in Israel. I’m not sure that arrogance is the right word. I think that it’s really a sense of purpose combined with a large degree of self-confidence. There are prime ministers that are arrogant and others that are less so. It is not a required quality in a prime minister.
Let’s connect this to the Palestinian issue. It can be claimed that there may be some kind of connection with Iran, and if Israel had been able to make more progress on the Palestinian front, Israel would have succeeded in marginalizing the extremists a bit. It seems that Israel makes it easy for those who want to portray it as extremist by continuing to build beyond the lines that Israel itself thinks it will hold on to.
The Palestinians made us lose four years for no reason. I expressed my anger over this to the Palestinians at various opportunities, in different meetings with them over those years – especially when I was a member of the Kadima party. They simply did not understand that what they wanted, which was a way of bypassing negotiations, was impossible. They didn’t believe that Netanyahu was willing to make the concessions that Olmert and Barak proposed, and that they considered unacceptable. So obviously with Netanyahu, they thought [there would be no terms acceptable to them]. So to begin with, they said that it was pointless [trying to negotiate with him]. But they should have at least tried because when Netanyahu was first elected, he took two significant steps that were supposed to signal to them to give him a chance.
In 2009, Netanyahu was willing to agree to serve as prime minister for 3 years, and then Livni would serve for 1.5 years. It drew little attention at the time, but it’s a fact.
One was his speech at Bar Ilan University [in 2009, conditionally endorsing a two-state solution] and the second was the building freeze in the settlements. Both were very difficult. I am very close to Netanyahu and I saw how difficult it was for him. There were negotiations between the Kadima and Likud parties about forming a joint government. Netanyahu won the elections in 2009. Tzipi Livni appointed me to negotiate on behalf of Kadima and Netanyahu appointed Gideon Sa’ar [from the Likud party]. We were able to reach some form of agreement on nearly every issue that arose, including even the subject of rotation.
Netanyahu was willing to agree to serve as prime minister for 3 years, and then Livni would serve for 1.5 years. It drew little attention at the time, but it’s a fact. I can testify to that because I represented Kadima there.
We failed in only one area and that was the diplomatic issue. Tzipi insisted that the government would continue [in talks with the Palestinians] from the point where the previous negotiations, in Annapolis [in 2007], left off. The basis for negotiations would be the roadmap and President Bush’s 2005 vision of the two-state solution, which Sharon and Olmert accepted.
This is what Bibi refused to agree to. He was not willing to accept any compromise formula. But Tzipi Livni was not very upset about the fact that Netanyahu was not willing to compromise, because she was also not really interested in forming a government with him.
Very nice, so instead of being an almost equal partner in 2009, four years later she becomes a marginal, insignificant part of a coalition…
She learned her lesson. She learned from experience that she had made a mistake.
But it was clear at the time as well. Did you try to convince her?
I tried. All of the years that I was in Kadima, I said that we must form a unity government because that is the only way of having a significant impact.
In any case, this is why the negotiations failed, in my opinion. And then Barak managed to recover in the Labor party and completed the process and joined the government without making any political demands. He became the defense minister and the rest is history.
Netanyahu gave the Bar Ilan speech in June. The prime minister realized he had to “restart” Israel’s relations with the US, understanding that the price was accepting the approach that he presented at Bar Ilan. This whole story proves just how revolutionary this was for him. To say nothing of the moratorium [on building in the settlements from November 2009 to September 2010], something that he would hear nothing about for years. He always said, “Why should we stop building? Have they stopped building in Nablus or any other Arab city? They haven’t stopped and neither will we. There will be no pre-conditions.” But he eventually agreed, saying that this was his way of building confidence. He addressed his actions more to the Americans, to show the Americans that he was serious. But it was supposed to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. To give the Americans an efficient way of telling the Palestinians that they’re making a mistake: accept this gesture; the time is right to negotiate with Netanyahu.
But the Palestinians instead took the issue [of statehood] to the UN, erroneously believing that they would be able to force it using their automatic majority and predicting that Obama would not veto the UN ruling in the Security Council, misunderstanding his unwillingness to confront Israel. As it turned out, they didn’t get the 9 votes they needed in the Security Council. But even if they’d had 9 votes, the US would have vetoed. So then they took the second route [to a non-binding vote in General Assembly] which was less relevant.
And even if they had managed to obtain a Security Council ruling, it wouldn’t have changed the reality. Israel wouldn’t have withdrawn, saying that, “Yes folks, we understand, the UN is persistent so we’ll withdraw to the 1967 lines and hope for the best.”
But four years were wasted and therefore I agree that if we were at some stage of reconciliation, the Iranian issue might be simpler. We would come across as being less aggressive in one area [the Palestinians] and stubborn on another [the Iranians]. But it’s not me, it’s Netanyahu and he’s definitely done his bit; he’s gone above and beyond.
At the time of Bar Ilan and the moratorium. I wasn’t in the Likud, I was in Kadima. And people would ask me what I think, as a member of the opposition, and I would say that first of all, as a member of the opposition, I must say that I am amazed by Netanyahu’s willingness to pay a price within his own party and his own coalition. It didn’t matter that I was a member of a different party at the time; I was a member of Likud my entire life. These are the people that I spent my entire life with. I was in touch with them and I knew how they responded. They were angry. Not just angry – they said they would take revenge. And they did.
Many of the votes that went to the Jewish Home party in the last elections were those of religious people who traditionally voted Likud. They had viewed Netanyahu as someone who dragged Israel out of the catastrophe that Arik Sharon brought upon us with the disengagement [from Gaza in 2005]. But they left him, mainly over the settlement moratorium. But he was willing to pay the price and the Palestinians didn’t take the opportunity.
They’re smarter now, which is why they agreed to negotiate without any preconditions. Bibi was unwilling to accept any of their demands. He made the gesture of releasing prisoners, which is of negligible political significance. It has no political impact. It strengthens Abu Mazen to some degree, particularly in the eyes of Hamas after Gilad Shalit, but has no political value. It doesn’t have a negative or positive effect on the negotiations. And I hope that this time they’ll be more realistic regarding what they can achieve in the negotiations.
Is there reason to believe that they will?
Yes, there is reason. It’s not simple and it won’t end [with a deal] in six months from now. I don’t know what’s going on there. I have no idea and I don’t ask because I know that they won’t tell me anything. What must happen is that when the nine months allocated have passed and we look back, both the Israelis and the Palestinians must be able to say that the time was not wasted. That these nine months didn’t leave us in the same place as before. That we’ve made progress – maybe not X% but at least Y%. That it’s worth carrying on. That’s the goal.
Is there willingness on the Palestinian side to compromise with Israel and internalize that there is a historical Israeli narrative. Arafat’s narrative was that there was never a temple in Jerusalem and that there is no justification for Israel’s sovereign claims. I don’t think that Abbas believes that, but he hasn’t fought to contest that narrative among his people, either.
The question that you raise is really the biggest one.
How am I different from the right-wing members of the Likud party? Their unequivocal answer to your question is “no.” That’s what they genuinely believe. I was in that place 10, 15 and 20 years ago and I never invented any fictitious objections. I really believed that there was no one to talk to on the other side.
I am much less opinionated on these issues because from my own experience I learned that things that I believed in the past did change over time. Especially regarding Egypt. I was at the memorial monument in 1982 and struggled there [against the withdrawal from the Sinai], not for personal or political gain – I was not a Knesset candidate at the time and I was not very involved in politics either. I was a university student, head of the Student Council, but I was in a panic over the issue. I thought that Begin had made a decision that endangered our very existence and that Egypt was now being given the capacity to deploy its forces on the border of Ashkelon and Beersheba and southern Israel and that we were returning to a situation in which we would not be able to defend ourselves. But over time I realized that my hypothesis was truly a paranoid one. It was not justified. There was no indication that we were being deceived or anything like that.
So now I’m more cautious, much more cautious; and the Palestinians that I meet could be partners. There are people that I had very open, honest discussions with over the years, especially when I was in Kadima and it was easier. I saw that they’re not the despicable, murderous terrorists; they’re normal people – I’m talking about the people that I’ve met with of course, not Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, not the Tanzim or Fatah extremists. But I think that they are representative of the leadership, the pragmatic leadership of Fatah. They are willing to compromise.
Is their compromise one that we can live with, does it correlate with our own red lines? If not, it’s all over. Really, that will be a serious problem. But if so, do they have the power to say to their people that this is the best we can achieve? Not only to announce that is this the best that we can hope to achieve but also to declare an end to the conflict, that there are no more mutual demands? To say to their people, if you’re willing to back us, we’ll go for it, painful though it will be? Just as I think that Israel’s leaders did ever since 1977. The first person to say so straight out – first to himself and then to his party and the public — was Menachem Begin.
In 1977, Begin declared that he would grant autonomy in Judea and Samaria as part of the Etzel roadmap, but not mere autonomy that will eventually fade out. He also said that when we reach the point of discussing sovereignty five years from then, each side will have the right to veto the other side’s demands. What he was actually saying was that he was willing to waive sovereignty, because he gave the other side the right to veto and they would never accept our demand for sovereignty. This was said by a leader for whom Judea and Samaria were very different from Sinai. It’s not Gaza. It’s an inseparable part of the Land of Israel. The Jewish nation was born there.
The Palestinians say that the very fact that we allow the Jews to live in Palestine is our historical concession. There’s something to that, because the fact is that they did not make that concession until Oslo. But it’s not enough.
The same is true for each prime minister since then, each with his own style: They shared in this willingness for historic compromise: That we say to ourselves that this is our land and our right to the land is undisputed. Our priests and Levites were here, as were our kings and warriors. Not in Rishon Lezion and not in Gedera. But there are 1.5 million Palestinians there. We’re not going to kill them or expel them; we’re not going to convert them or impose ourselves upon them. So let’s compromise with them, or we will have to fight them forever. We don’t want to fight them forever, but we have to reach a compromise that we are sure does not put us in danger.
This is the historic compromise that a significant portion of the Jewish nation is prepared for, compromising on “Greater Israel.” The Palestinians have not yet made such a concession.
But what do they say? They say that they did compromise. They say that the very fact that we allow the Jews to live in Palestine is our historical concession. There’s something to that, because the fact is that they did not make that concession until Oslo. But it’s not enough.
We have to insist on concessions that not only give us the right to live here for a limited period of time, but forever. We need a secure border along the Jordan Valley. We need a completely demilitarized Palestinian state, without any trace of an army that can explode in our faces. The refugee issue must be resolved within the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian state, and not inside our own borders. We need a creative solution for Jerusalem that does not divide the city but does constitute a solution for the national aspirations of the Palestinians. We have to resolve the issue of settlements, in the context of the land swap. There are solutions to each of these issues.
But I can’t answer the question of whether the moderate Palestinians under Abu Mazen’s leadership are prepared to live with these compromises. I can’t answer because in my meetings with Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad, these are the questions that I raised, most especially with regard to the refugee issue which I think is the most profound issue, and I received answers that were very partial, evasive. I didn’t get the answers that I would hope to get. I couldn’t make a public fuss because they didn’t have to give me these answers. These answers have to be given at the very end of the negotiations, when they realize that Israel has conceded to them significantly. That Israel has made significant concessions and that now it’s their turn to compromise. They don’t have to make these concessions to a Knesset member or a minister who is irrelevant.
But the dilemma remains in place, and I assume that it’s being discussed behind closed doors right now.
Can you estimate how much support Abbas has from his people. Is there a force encouraging him to make compromises of this kind? The fact that Arafat told Clinton on 2000 that if he agreed to Barak’s terms, he’d be killed by his own people — that was true, but he had created that situation. And Abbas does not seem to have built a new reality.
That’s true. But the fact is that [Egypt’s president] Sadat and [Jordan’s] King Hussein both felt powerful enough to go for an agreement that included concessions.
Against the will of their people?
I’m not sure that it was against the will of their people, but they certainly had not prepared their people in any significant way for these developments. Why did they do so? Beyond their political interests, it was also a powerful statement to the people — that we got what we wanted to get – especially Egypt. Because Hussein didn’t really receive anything from us. He gave up on championing the issue of Judea and Samaria. He received water and some interests in the Arava. But he didn’t request or receive anything dramatic. But the Palestinians can address their people and say that, “For the first time in Palestinian history, we have independence, freedom. This is something that thousands have given their lives for.”
We will be making peace with people who hate us, hoping that as the years go by, that hatred will wane. There are people among us who hate them too.
Is Israel capable of doing a deal? Is there a majority within Israel for the necessary compromises?
I think that the Israeli people, the majority of the people, can live with the basic idea — preferring an agreement with the Palestinians that involves painful concessions over the alternatives. None of the alternatives is any better. This compromise is relevant only if it is the best option. And if it doesn’t put our security at risk.
I want to make it clear that I am not in favor of a Palestinian state. I don’t think that Netanyahu is in favor of a Palestinian state or any of us are in favor. We are willing to accept a Palestinian state under very specific, clear-cut conditions
So when Bibi emphasizes the issues of the Jordan Valley as a security border and the complete demilitarization of the Palestinian state, he’s saying that he’s not willing to compromise on our security, realizing that a future agreement depends entirely on this issue. On other issues there is some room to maneuver – a percent more, a percent less, things like that. These are not the basics…
The prime minister is in a very unique situation right now because only you and him, and perhaps Yuval Steinitz, of the Likud Knesset members actually support a Palestinian state even rhetorically.
First of all I want to make it clear that I am not in favor of a Palestinian state. I don’t think that Netanyahu is in favor of a Palestinian state or any of us are in favor. We are willing to accept a Palestinian state under very specific, clear-cut conditions. We talk about a “two-state solution,” but it’s only a solution if it solves the problem. Otherwise it’s not a “two-state solution,” but rather a “two-state nightmare.”
Netanyahu’s approach, which I support, is to attempt the most comprehensive, thorough dialogue with the Palestinians, being willing to establish a Palestinian state at the end of the road, if the Palestinians agree to accept the conditions — actually, I don’t like using the word “conditions” because we do not demand any preconditions — if they are willing to accept our red lines, those of our principles that are non-debatable from our perspective as I have defined during this interview. I predict that if Netanyahu reaches the conclusion that the Palestinians accept his principles to a sufficient degree, a clear majority of Likud Knesset members and Likud ministers, Likud party members and Likud voters, and the majority of the Israeli population, will support the agreement.
I have no doubt about that because I know that Netanyahu will never concede on any of these issues. He will not make concessions that he cannot justify to himself. Netanyahu, perhaps unlike other leaders and politicians within our party and any party, is very ideological; his point of reference is very historical. He’s not only the son of a historian, he is a historian himself. He reads history; he understands history. He views himself as a link in the chain of Jewish leaders throughout history that made decisions that impacted the future of the Jewish people, not only of Israeli citizens. He is not willing to make any mistakes.
All of the arguments within Likud are over the minor details. Netanyahu does not need anyone to educate him. With all due respect to our MKs, none of them has even 30% of the knowledge and understanding or the commitment that Netanyahu has. It’s true that leaders tend to be more pragmatic than others. They say that leaders have a different perspective, and that’s natural, but I don’t think that this will be expressed in the fundamental issues. It can be expressed in the background issues. He may be willing to release terrorists that he wouldn’t have released beforehand; he agreed to freeze construction in the settlements that he never dreamed of doing before. But it’s all on the level of the confidence building measures.
In the final [agreement], he’ll fight over every word and letter. But if he reaches the conclusion that the Palestinians have undergone a metamorphosis, and are truly willing to accept the basic logic of the issues that he’s fighting for, including recognition of a Jewish state, he will reach an agreement. If that happens. We’re all a bit skeptical but the difference between myself and Feiglin and others is that despite my skepticism, I think that what Netanyahu is doing is a win-win situation.
If it doesn’t work out, at least we made a genuine effort and we gain the understanding of the world and those in Israel who believe that this is what the prime minister should do. They don’t want to send their children to battle without Israel’s leaders attempting to prevent the battle.
And if it succeeds, we obviously gain.
From the more radical ideological perspective, it’s a lose-lose situation. If an agreement is reached, God forbid, Israel will have to withdraw from parts of its homeland which is very painful. And if it fails — and, again, I can understand their fears because that’s how I felt for years — we end up compromising without achieving anything, but the next round of negotiations picks up where this failed round left off. There is certain logic to this argument. I can’t say that it’s completely irrational. But in my opinion, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, which is why I completely support Netanyahu on this issue.
I’ll tell you the truth: Life here in Israel isn’t always easy. But it's full of beauty and meaning.
I'm proud to work at The Times of Israel alongside colleagues who pour their hearts into their work day in, day out, to capture the complexity of this extraordinary place.
I believe our reporting sets an important tone of honesty and decency that's essential to understand what's really happening in Israel. It takes a lot of time, commitment and hard work from our team to get this right.
Your support, through membership in The Times of Israel Community, enables us to continue our work. Would you join our Community today?
Sarah Tuttle Singer, New Media Editor
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.