Talia Sasson: We had no state for 2,000 years. Why are we now jeopardizing its Jewish, democratic essence?

The revival of Israel was a miracle. The settlement enterprise risks destroying it, says the legal expert and left-wing activist who wrote a landmark report for Sharon on West Bank outposts

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).

Talia Sasson had worked in the State Attorney’s office for some 25 years when she stepped down early in 2004. She had become, she said, expert in all sorts of West Bank-related issues. “I represented the army in the Supreme Court. I dealt with issues related to the separation barrier, bypass roads, settlement security. I was head of the team that dealt with the application of law on Israelis in the territories.”

She thought she was going to take a break from some of that. But the prime minister of the day, Ariel Sharon, was coming under heavy pressure from the United States to honor previous pledges to dismantle illegal settlement outposts and halt government funding for settlements. Sharon decided, as a first step, that he needed a legal overview of building in the territories. And when he asked then-attorney general Menahem Mazuz to recommend someone who could prepare that legal study for him, Mazuz gave him only one name – that of the recently retired Talia Sasson.

Talia Sasson (photo credit: Flash90)
Talia Sasson (photo credit: Flash90)

Her report, a “Summary of the opinion concerning unauthorized outposts” delivered in early 2005, detailed how successive government departments, without the necessary authorization, had allocated funding and resources to expanding the Jewish presence in the West Bank, notably at dozens of outposts that those same governments acknowledged to be illegal under Israeli law. It was a devastating document – an indictment of a reality in which the settlers were “king” and the institutions of state, emphatically including the army, their subjects.

“State and public authorities took part in breaking the law,” she wrote. “They are the ones who financed construction without a resolution by the political echelon, contrary to government resolutions, with no legal planning status, sometimes not on State owned land, sometimes on private Palestinian property or on survey land… State authorities and public authorities broke the laws, regulations and rules made by the State.”

She prescribed “urgent measures” to reverse the situation – to bring government policy on settlements back within the framework of the rule of law. “I believe you have the power to do so,” she wrote to the prime minister

Seven years later, Sasson recalls that Sharon indicated he was “very satisfied” with her report – an officially endorsed document, approved by the attorney general, that sits to this day in Hebrew on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office and in English summary on the Foreign Ministry site. But she notes too that neither Sharon nor his prime ministerial successor Ehud Olmert – and certainly not, it need hardly be said, incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu — took substantial steps to dismantle those outposts or halt the quiet allocation of government funding for them.

Sharon, at the time, faced a choice between grappling with settlers in the West Bank and those in Gaza, Sasson notes in this interview. And dismantling the entire settlement enterprise in Gaza, however wrenching, she says, evidently seemed far less daunting than tackling settlement in the West Bank. Given time, and had his health not failed him, she goes on, she has no way of knowing what Sharon might have done next. History’s “wry humor,” she ventures, has denied us all that knowledge.

This interview was conducted at Sasson’s home near Jerusalem just as the Netanyahu government was reluctantly evicting settlers from a contested property in Hebron while the prime minister was simultaneously pledging his commitment to expanding the Jewish presence in that city. It took place as the government, furthermore, grapples with the conundrum of respecting a Supreme Court order to dismantle the largest of all the outposts, at Migron, on the one hand, and following Netanyahu’s oft-declared promise to increase Jewish settlement in the West Bank, on the other. The government has just a few months to find a solution for Migron, built on what the State Attorney’s office has determined to be private Palestinian land.

Migron — where the settlers and the government had reached a deal for the gradual transfer of residency to less-contested land nearby over three years, but where the court insisted on evacuation by August — is only the latest hot-potato settlement issue. Somehow, through the decades since the land was captured in 1967, all of Israel’s governments – those that spoke more of the liberation of historic Judea and Samaria, and those that spoke more of the occupation of the West Bank – have contrived not to take overarching decisions about the destiny of that territory, not to formalize and hold to a guiding policy on Jewish residency there.

That failure, in Sasson’s view, is nothing short of catastrophic. In the years since delivering her report, and briefly serving as an adviser to Sharon when there was a prospect of its being implemented, she has been active in left-wing circles – running unsuccessfully for the Knesset with Meretz in 2009, serving on the board of the New Israel Fund, and sitting on the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. She happens to believe, she says, that Israel does have a potential partner for a land-for-peace deal in the Mahmoud Abbas-headed Palestinian Authority. But freezing settlement to the east of the security barrier, and removing the 100,000-120,000 Jews who live there, is not “a favor” Israel might consider doing for the Palestinians or “a bargaining chip” in negotiations, she argues.

No, the imperative to extricate Israelis from the midst of the Palestinian population is critical to the future of the Jewish state. The settlement enterprise is steadily destroying Israel, she wails, and any and every Israeli patriot – any and every Israeli who wants to live in a Jewish and democratic Israel — should be insisting that the government change course.

Broadly speaking first, what has been Israel’s strategic policy on settlements since the 1967 war?

There was never a considered, ordered decision by the state of Israel, by any Israeli government, deciding to do A, B, C, D. A process developed, and changed, over the years.

When Israel captured the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai, different relationships to those territories developed. Sinai was returned to the Egyptians under the peace treaty – every last inch, including Taba. By contrast, Israel extended Israeli law to the Golan in 1981, even though of the 20,000 Golan Druze only 700 agreed to take Israeli citizenship.

As for the West Bank, Israel looked at that territory on two levels. In what it calls East Jerusalem, it applied Israeli law, which amounts to de facto annexation. After that, Basic Law: Jerusalem was legislated, and an effort was made to impose all kinds of seemingly weighty legal constraints that would make it hard for any government to relinquish this territory. But one need not be too troubled by that: Since Israel has no constitution, one Basic Law can be superseded by another Basic Law. You need 61 Knesset members, that’s all.

Where East Jerusalem is concerned, Israel has drawn a distinction between the territory and the residents. The residents, theoretically, have the possibility to become Israeli citizens, although if you look at the law, in practice, you’ll understand that getting citizenship is very difficult – as easy as bringing down the moon. As for the territory of East Jerusalem, Israel regards it as her territory.

On the West Bank, Israel ostensibly did not claim sovereignty – it did not annex it. It accepted, in line with Supreme Court rulings, that international law on occupation and war apply there. Those territories – which we have Hebraized to Judea and Samaria – we treat as being held by a military administration, temporarily, until an agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinian people, with Jordan having made clear that it has no interest in that area.

But over the years, almost from the start of the occupation, (the mindset that held sway was that of) Gush Emunim, with its messianistic vision of building settlements in the West Bank, of taking control of the territory. This in contrast to opposite views, such as those held by David Ben-Gurion, for instance, or Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who argued that this would be a disaster for generations to come. At the time (the territories were captured), a million Palestinians were living there. Today there are 2.4 million Palestinians living there.

We established the state of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. The significance of those words is a Jewish majority in the state of Israel. Otherwise, since this is a democratic state, if there is no majority, it will not have the Jewish characteristics – never mind what those are; I’m not talking about a Halachic state. The significance of a Jewish state, as the Supreme Court defined it, is a Jewish majority in the state of Israel, with the right of all members of the Jewish people to come and live here, and a connection between Israeli Jews and the Diaspora. That’s the Jewish state.

The idea of taking control of the territory was advanced under the cover of all kinds of security arguments – the need to retain the high ground, to widen the narrow hips of the state, to attain greater strategic depth. If there was ever any basis to such claims, it has long since gone.

According to international law, you can seize privately Palestinian-owned land only for security reasons. Well, the Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that the security pretext that lay at the heart of the effort to establish the settlement of Elon Moreh did not exist. You cannot advance the security argument to seize territory privately owned by Palestinians for settlement needs.

Three weeks after the Elon Moreh ruling, the Begin government decided that its policy would permit West Bank settlement only on what was called state land. But what is state land? Which state? The state of Israel? What is its connection to the West Bank? It doesn’t claim to be sovereign there.

No, according to international law, the occupying state is allowed to use the territories it has occupied in order to preserve them for the stage of negotiation, when it will have to relinquish them to those they belong to. And here’s where the skewed interpretation that was approved by the Supreme Court comes in: (The court allowed) that building a house on territory can be considered temporary use. And not just a house, but a whole settlement. And not just one settlement, but many. This, ostensibly, accords with temporary use. And that’s where our history laughs in our face. Is that temporary use?

The Supreme Court, in common with the entire legal establishment and the military establishment, has served as a means for governments and the settlers to take control of the territory. That’s the reality. The Civil Administration, responsible for allocating land, electricity, water and all the facilities of approval in the territories, was established ostensibly for the sake of the “protected” people – the Palestinians, according to international treaties. But it was turned into the central nurturer of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. That’s the truth, whether you want to face up to it or not.

If you want to call that a political statement, so be it. I’m putting the facts on the table. I’m not afraid to say them.

Do you think that governments that did not strongly support the settlement movement tolerated it, nonetheless, because of a sense that settling this historic land was in fact an authentic, Jewish mission?

Many of the settlers certainly saw themselves as Zionists, as new pioneers, widening the borders of the state, returning to the lands of our fathers. And they waved the flag of Israeli security – protectors of the security of Israel.

I am a Zionist. My family came to Israel 100 years ago, from Russia, young, idealistic pioneers. They dreamed of establishing the Jewish national state here in the land of Israel. They established Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim which, during the siege of Jerusalem, kept the city going.

Then 30 years later, in front of their eyes, the state of Israel was established. It was a miracle for them, a miracle that cost a lot of blood, but a miracle. That was the education that I got. So I define myself as a Zionist.

These people who are settling in the West Bank are pulling out the rug from under the state of Israel, in that it won’t be the nation state of the Jewish people

But I think that these people who are settling in the West Bank are pulling out the rug from under the state of Israel, in that it won’t be the nation state of the Jewish people. Put together the Arabs of the West Bank, the Arabs in Israel and the Arabs in Gaza, and that’s five and a half million Palestinians, There are fewer than six million Jews. So (unless we separate,) either we lose our Jewish national state or we lose our democracy or, in my opinion, we lose both of them.

And yet even left wing governments facilitated this process.

You’re 100% right. Take (the case of) Sebastia, next to Kadum (a landmark settlement initiative in 1974), deep in the territories (near Nablus). That was the work of Shimon Peres. And there were other cases. Labor governments and others made their contribution. On the whole, they refrained from entering the most populated Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. But they were also afraid of the settlers and capitulated to them.

Israeli tourists at Sebastia near Nablus. (photo credit: File/Flash90)
Israeli tourists at Sebastia near Nablus. (photo credit: File/Flash90)

In my opinion, they and the Likud are just the same. They are all guilty. And the consequence is that the state of Israel faces the gravest existential threat in the next decade or two decades.

These people and their predecessors who have pulled the government along for 45 years, not one of them can be cleansed of their responsibility. And it’s a heavy responsibility. Building a state is a miracle. It hadn’t happened for 2,000 years. And we remember what happened to the Jewish people not so long ago (in the Holocaust, when there was no state). So retaining the state of Israel, the strength of the state, the democracy of the state, that’s the heart of the matter. I see myself as a soldier in the service of the state. A simple soldier, not the prime minister or a leading politician. That’s the education I got. Each of us must do the most they can to protect the country. That, after my family, is the most important thing.

Has there been a slowing down in the settlement process over the years?

That’s true and not true, but mainly not true. The truth is that after I submitted my report to prime minister Sharon in 2005…

How did that come about?

Sharon in July 2004 was facing a very angry president – George Bush. He had promised that Israel would take down all the outposts it had built since March 2001 and stop investing government funds in the settlements. Sharon had done nothing. Bush wanted to declare that Sharon was a liar, that he had failed to honor obligations. Sharon was very stressed about this.

He said, ‘What am I going to do? My problems are legal problems. I will appoint a legal expert who will make recommendations to the government. He’ll tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’ Thus he created me.

He asked the attorney general to recommend an attorney. He wanted to show the Americans that he meant business, that this wasn’t some politician’s report. And the attorney general, Meni Mazuz, offered only one name: Talia Sasson. Why? I had resigned four months earlier and he didn’t want a serving prosecutor writing the report, because critics would brand it a political appointment. Also because I was the state attorney’s office expert who had responsibility for all sorts of West Bank-related issues. I represented the army in the Supreme Court. I dealt with permissions related to the separation barrier, bypass roads, settlement security. I was head of the team that dealt with the application of law on Israelis in the territories.

So prime minister Sharon turned to me with the approval of the attorney general, and the report that I submitted was approved by the attorney general before I signed off on it. Sharon appointed me because he needed an answer to the Americans as to why he was not evacuating the illegal outposts.

OK, so what’s happened since?

You can’t separate that from the political developments. The Rabin government (from 1992-95) had an agenda which was a consequence of Israel’s declining status in the international arena. Before that you’d had the Madrid Conference (in 1991) where prime minister Shamir was forced to attend because the Americans were threatening to cancel the loan guarantees that were crucial to bringing in a million Russian Jews. He was forced to go there and he was forced, although not in writing, to stop the settlements in the West Bank because they a) were illegal and b) prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories.

There’s another people here. It has rights. The Jewish people has rights, after 2,000 years when it didn’t have a state, and the UN recognizes those rights. So, too, the Palestinian people. It has rights and it wants a state. Who are we to deny them that? Two peoples have demands on the same territory. It has to be shared. What can you do? You can’t have everything in life. You can’t rule all the territories up to the Jordan River. That’s the reality of the state of Israel.

Rabin accepted this thesis. He started to work with the Oslo accords. I was the representative of the attorney general. I sat with him in meetings every two weeks for six months before the murder. He was utterly focused on this. Who would dream that a Jew would assassinate him?

Leaders don’t emerge from nowhere. A leader had emerged. It took Rabin a long time to develop those ideas. If you remember the first intifada, he said, break the bones (of Palestinian protesters). He changed his agenda. He wanted to make peace. He understood what had to be done. And when he understood, a settler arose and killed him.

And after you kill a prime minister, all the successors are scared that the same thing will happen to them. And you know what? I can’t promise that a prime minister who agrees to evacuate settlements won’t die. You can’t promise that, especially in the light of what happened.

It wasn’t a settler who killed Rabin.

No matter. His orientation was that of a settler. The point isn’t where he lived.

And you think subsequent prime ministers have been scared?

Fear is part of it. Not just physical fear. A prime minister knows that if he decides to evacuate settlements, he faces the prospect a) of being killed, and b) of civil war within the state, because there will be settlers who will shoot (at the forces who come to evict them).

Let’s just go back to what’s gone on in the territories over the last few years.

First there was a wide expansion of settlements. The Rabin period was the first time that it stopped. Rabin froze building the settlements. There was a committee that approved some exceptions, but gradually fewer exceptions were approved as the Oslo process progressed. And then in 1995, the phenomenon of the outposts began, mainly after the assassination.

And that was a consequence of?

The state of Israel, because of the international context, could not formally decide to establish new settlements, even though that was what Israeli governments — mainly Netanyahu’s from 1996 — wanted to do. That was Netanyahu’s agenda, his belief. So the government turned a blind eye and government ministries, without a government decision, on their own, decided to establish outposts, which are essentially the beginnings of settlements.

Who funded them? The government of Israel. The Housing Ministry. The settlement division of the Zionist Organization. With the help of the IDF’s civil administration. This is all illegal, because the government hadn’t approved them. The defense minister hadn’t signed off as required on the plans. This is all part of the crumbling of the rule of law in the territories.

(And they were building) on private Palestinian land. Before that, they had at least tried to find land, to allocate land, that wasn’t privately owned – in accordance with the 1979 Begin government decision. People became far more contemptuous. Take Migron. Who started Migron? The Ministry of Construction financed it. The local Binyamin Council hired builders and bulldozers to flatten the area and to set up the infrastructure – electricity, sewage and water. And one night settlers came with caravans and stayed.

Since the 2005 report on the outposts was submitted to the Sharon government, the phenomenon of (new) outposts has greatly lessened; it almost doesn’t exist.

About 100 were built from 1995 to 2005, and since then…?

Much less. But most of the building is within existing outposts and in the settlements – legal and illegal. And now this government, for the first time since the start of the 1990s, has declared that it is prepared to establish a new settlement instead of Migron. Right? Migron 2. This is a new policy. It’s a regression. And you read in the papers that (the government) is taking the whole “bank” of land in the West Bank and trying to take control of it, with all sorts of plans, with a clear aim: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

And that’s our disaster, because that eternalizes Israeli control over 2.4 million Palestinians who live in that territory without rights. There is no border between us. What kind of democracy is that?

What do you make then of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s declared vision of Palestinian statehood?

Those are empty words. If you have a vision of Palestinian statehood, you don’t do these settlements. You don’t take control of the territory in this way. You open negotiations for peace.

He would say he’s more than ready to open negotiations…

You know what, I’m not prepared to relate to his statements. They’re meaningless.

He froze building in the settlements for 10 months and the Palestinians didn’t come for nine…

This is not about doing a favor for the Palestinians. His building in the territories is not for the (benefit of the) state of Israel as I see it. He’s destroying the future of the state. He’s finishing the state, at least in the framework it was established. There’ll be a single state from the Jordan to the sea.

At first, it will continue as it is today: two peoples with two separate legal systems; law that applies to the Palestinians doesn’t apply to the Israelis, and law that applies to the Israelis doesn’t apply to the Palestinians. One people has rights and democracy and laws that protect it and a Supreme Court that protects it, and an army that protects it and a state that protects it. And the other people has nothing – it has no rights, no political rights, no control of the territory in which it lives. The A, B, C of democracy. It doesn’t have it. This big Israel will continue to behave as it is behaving now. Until one day, all those wonderful sanctions that we so encourage against Iran, someone will realize that it’s possible to advance them against Israel. That’s our disaster. Disaster. Disaster.

Doesn’t there have to be someone on the other side who is prepared to legitimize our presence here, and to negotiate…?

No. That’s exactly the mistake. Leave aside the negotiations. I don’t happen to think so, but maybe it’s impossible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Let’s say so. What with Hamas and Fatah, and their intentions. Certainly, it’s not simple. I’m an Israeli patriot.

Even if the Palestinians were Finns, the nicest people on the planet, we wouldn’t intend to give them democracy

Ok, so you’re saying that even if there’s no partner…

Democracy means that all the people living in a certain area must enjoy the same rights. I’m saying that even if the Palestinians were Finns, the nicest people on the planet, we wouldn’t intend to give them democracy. And so we have to relocate the settlements to areas where we will have a Jewish majority, in the state of Israel.

If you continue to build settlements in the West Bank, you are simply placing the destiny of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people in the hands of the Palestinian people – until they choose to negotiate for peace with us, until they’re prepared for us to withdraw from some of the settlements. No thank you. I don’t want to be dependent on them – not on Arafat, not on Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) who I respect, and not on anyone else. My state is not dependent on the Palestinians. It’s the state of Israel of the Jewish people. A democratic state with equal rights for all – you, me, Jewish, Arab.

Our interest, the interest of the Jewish people, is to take all the settlements, certainly all those that are to the east of the separation barrier, and bring them back to Israel. It was a unilateral act to put them there, and unilaterally we should return them. It’s not part of a peace accord with the Palestinian people.

Let’s go back to what happened after you presented your report in 2005.

History laughed. First, Sharon hesitated about how to handle it.

How did he respond to the report? Were your findings news to him?

He knew exactly what was going on. But that report wasn’t for Ariel Sharon. It was for the world. It was for America. It was for the citizens of the state of Israel. To expose the system. To let the genie out of the bottle. Dan Kurtzer, who was the US ambassador to Israel at the time, asked me before I started the report, “How is it that every Ahmad who leaves his house to visit his sister in a refugee camp and travels an hour and a half in either direction, you Israelis know where he is every minute. But when these long trailers enter the territories (with mobile homes for settlers), you know nothing about them? How can that be?”

If you continue to build settlements in the West Bank, you are simply placing the destiny of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people in the hands of the Palestinian people

Ariel Sharon knew exactly what was happening. When he tried to cover it up, he didn’t succeed. He tried to cover it up at some stage before I arrived. I once saw him get very angry over some [settlement] activities. “They don’t understand,” he said. “We’ll lose everything. They don’t know when to stop.”

So what happened after you submitted the report?

He had to choose between implementing the report or the disengagement from Gaza. Implementing the report would have meant stopping the building. That’s essentially what the report signified. Because the report said to him, if you want to build in the territories, you the government, then you must do it legally. But if you can’t do it legally, don’t build. One of the two. Either do nothing or work according to the law. The report is a legal document.

Obviously, he couldn’t decide in the government on building in the territories. So he had to choose between implementing the report, with the evacuation of the outposts and another thousand and one instructions in the territories, and disengagement from Gaza. Disengagement from Gaza seemed to him like an easier price to pay. (Sharon’s bureau chief) Dov Weisglass at the time presented the disengagement from Gaza as the step that would protect the settlements in the West Bank.

I don’t know what Sharon ultimately had in mind. He was very satisfied with my work, even though he had really not liked me before then. He said to me with great friendliness, twice, that “you and me have a great deal more to talk about.”

The report was passed to the ministerial committee for recommendations for its implementation. A few months later came the disengagement. I submitted the report in March. The disengagement was in August, 2005. The report couldn’t be advanced at the time of disengagement and then a few short months later what happened to Sharon happened. I had been thinking about phoning him to see what was going to be done. That’s how it ended.

Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon, at a 2004 cabinet meeting. (photo credit: Sharon Perry/Flash 90/File.
Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon, at a 2004 cabinet meeting. (photo credit: Sharon Perry/Flash 90/File.

Ehud Olmert took over from him…

Yes, Olmert took over from him. He established two ministerial committees for implementing the report, but nothing came of that. Olmert continued to build in the territories. He spoke about peace and continued to build in the territories, in my opinion, in order to keep the settlers quiet. That’s been the policy of all governments.

Ehud Barak was the same.

Barak was the same. Barak’s argument was, what difference does it make? Let them build. After that, we’ll evacuate everything. Obviously that’s nonsense.

Can you imagine a government today that is capable of facing up to the settlers beyond the route of the security barrier? Is it too late? You spoke of 10 or 20 years till disaster. I’m asking if it is already too late.

Lots of people ask me that.

Let me ask the question a little differently. So much depends on context. If there were a real sense that peace was at hand, it seems, the Israeli public would be prepared for very far-reaching territorial concessions and there would only be strong opposition at the extreme. But there is no such feeling…

The Israeli public makes a connection, as it has been educated to do all through the years, between peace and evacuating settlements. I don’t make that connection. I think it works to our disadvantage. (We need) a prime minister who understands that it is in the interest of the state of Israel to evacuate some 100,000 settlers… Incidentally, if you sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians according to the Clinton parameters, or according to the Obama view, you evacuate 100,000-120,000 settlers and all the rest you leave in place, annexing the territory where they live to the state of Israel by agreement. You leave about 85% of the settlers in place, on about 3.5% of the West Bank territory, and in return you give equivalent territory from within the state of Israel to the Palestinians. You leave most of the settlers where they are, and remove 120,000 from most of the territory to the east of the separation barrier. They are distributed over a wide swathe of territory. This is perhaps the more ideological group, the more extreme of the settlers.

Most people have swallowed the notion that it is only worth evacuating settlements for a peace agreement, that the settlements are a bargaining chip. Will there be a prime minister who believes, as I do, that these settlements harm Israel, with no connection to the Palestinians?

I would relocate those 100,000 settlers, east of the security barrier, to Israel without an agreement. Without an agreement with the Palestinians. I don’t see the settlements as a bargaining chip at all. I should stress, I’d leave the army deployed in the field. The army must be responsible for the security of the state until there is an agreement with the Palestinians. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with the settlements. The settlements must be relocated.

Most people have swallowed the notion that it is only worth evacuating settlements for a peace agreement, that the settlements are a bargaining chip. Will there be a prime minister who believes, as I do, that these settlements harm Israel, with no connection to the Palestinians?

By the way, the Palestinians would be very happy (to see those settlements beyond the barrier evacuated). But that’s not why I would evacuate them. I would evacuate them out of our Israeli interests.
Now, your question as to whether this is doable, is very hard to answer. I asked two people very high up in the army who I can’t name to you. They said they didn’t know.

In terms of the army’s capacity to impose discipline…?

From every point of view. Whether the government can really order the chief of staff to do it. Of course, it’s only the army that can (evacuate settlements). It’s a joke to suggest that the police could. Only the army, with the help of the police and every other conceivable security force and in the hope that civil war would not break out.

But I do still believe in the Israeli democracy. I believe the Israeli army is a disciplined army on the whole. There’ll be some undisciplined people here and there. But on the whole, the army will listen to the government’s instructions and will do what it is required to do.

Let me remind you of the evacuation of Gaza. There’s no comparison with the West Bank. It’s not the same territory, not the same population, not the same scale. But nobody believed that inside of a week there’d be nothing left. And that’s what happened.

So, yes, therefore, I believe that it’s still possible. If I no longer believed that it was possible, then for someone like me, the state of Israel is over. Because if it’s not a democratic state… Democracy for me is essential for life. It’s the air that you breathe. I can’t accept that we will rule over another people, do terrible things to them and continue our lives as though nothing is happening. That’s not democracy. It’s also unsustainable. The results will be terrible. There’s no future in a place like that for children like mine.

What’s going on right now in terms of building in the territories?

Everything bad that could be happening is happening. There’s been massive building in the territories throughout the term of this government. They’re making efforts to bring projects to fruition by taking control of land. There’s this committee that this government has set up, headed by former justice Edmund Levy, who was the one dissenting voice against the other 10 Supreme Court justices in opposing disengagement. He asserted that Israeli settlement policy accords with international law and is permissible and that God gave us this land and that we have the right to build there. He now sits at the head of the committee whose job is to show that the outposts, which sit on land of all kinds of statuses are ok – to render them legal. This is somebody from whom, because of his world view, nothing legalistically valid can emerge.

At the same time, there are Knesset members who are seeking to pass legislation to the effect that territory taken in the West Bank from a private individual, even if it was seized by force, if the owner has not raised legal objections to that seizure for four years, he loses his rights to that land and can henceforth only seek compensation. Does that seem to you like a legal law? That the Israeli Knesset would seek to legislate over an area where it doesn’t even enjoy sovereignty? That it is depriving people of their rights because they are from a second people? That’s where Israel stands. That’s what she is doing.

The government of Israel is crawling over hot coals before the settlers. It goes back to the Supreme Court and begs that a verdict necessitating the evacuation of an outpost (Migron), built on private Palestinian land, in an utterly illegal manner, not be implemented. Because the settlers don’t want it.

So how is Migron going to be sorted out?

That’s a good question. The options are diminishing. But if Edmund Levy’s committee decides to tell the government that the territory of Migron can be taken despite the Supreme Court’s decision and they decide to do it, who knows? They can do anything. It’s 11 o’clock in the morning now? They can say it’s 11 at night. What can I tell you? I have no words.

Where is this “massive building” going on?

In the outposts and in the settlements. This is what Peace Now is reporting. Neighborhoods, more houses, more permanent buildings, caravans being exchanged for permanent buildings. This is what has been going on for 45 years. Who’s going to get us out of there? And where is the Israeli public? We’re talking about Israel’s interests here, not those of the Palestinians. Israel’s.

You think Sharon would have pulled out to the line of the security barrier if he had stayed in office?

He was a pragmatist and he could change his mind according to the interests of the state of Israel. I don’t think he believed Israel could control all of the territories or even part of them. Before he became prime minister, he behaved irresponsibly. (As foreign minister in the 1990s), he said, “grab the hilltops.” When he became prime minister, evidently he realized things are much more complicated. You have to be less populistic. You have a country to look after.

I think he showed more responsibility and more restraint – certainly more than Olmert showed in the incompetent Second Lebanon War (of 2006) and the “glorious” Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-9), which in my opinion was unnecessary. And Sharon was also more responsible in terms of building in the territories. He was more pragmatic. You could talk to him. You could tell him, look, we both have the interests of Israel at heart. Let’s think about what’s going to happen here.

But after him, Olmert did come and try to advance the negotiations.

I have a lot of criticism of Olmert for what he did in the territories. But in terms of advancing negotiations, his ideas were in the right direction. But two months after he was elected, he lost his political support because of the Second Lebanon War. He was a lame duck for two years. Then came all the criminal allegations. His support was in single figures. To advance peace negotiations, you have to have a basis of public support. He didn’t have that.

Netanyahu’s no fool. He knows the numbers. He knows the Jewish majority isn’t that great.

No, Netanyahu’s no fool. I don’t claim to know what he thinks. I can only look at what he does. And that’s what scares the hell out of me, because from what he’s doing I see that he wants to enlarge as much as he can – building in the territories indiscriminately. East of the security barrier, inside the settlement blocs, it makes no difference. He has defined the entire West Bank as a national priority zone. He set up the Edmund Levy committee. He talks of two states for two peoples, but apart from that statement, what has he done?

He froze settlement building for 10 months.

If he was doing a favor, it was to us, not the Palestinians.

And where do you see the Americans in all this?

Without America’s massive support in every field, this would not be the country that it is. To a great extent, we are ingrates. They are not the people who have to solve the problems of the state of Israel. There’s a limit to how much you can throw your problems onto another country. I have to solve my problems with my government, which is acting utterly against our interests — the most fundamental interests in our Declaration of Independence and our Basic Laws: the Jewish democratic state of Israel. That’s the country. That’s its essence. That’s what they’re destroying.

I cannot accept that in this same swathe of land, two peoples live, one with rights and the other without. That is not democracy. The same goes for Palestinian citizens inside Israel. They deserve equal rights, in terms of land allocation, employment, whatever. They deserve equality and I won’t accept anything else.

And therefore, even if in the territories it wasn’t 320,000 of us as against 2.4 million of them, if it was the other way around, it wouldn’t make any difference.

I can’t say my people deserves these rights and explain at the same time why they don’t deserve those rights. They deserve a state. And believe me, I am as pro-Israel as they come. We don’t need to bite off more and more.

Why don’t we focus on our state? There’s so much for us to do. It’s a great country. There are wonderful people here – people who built a country from nothing. They invested their lives; their children gave their lives, so we can live here in a democratic state with the democratic values that we came here for. Why shouldn’t we have that? With the brain power and the economy and the hi-tech, with the extraordinary abilities, with the Nobel Prizes. It’s the state of our dreams. Why shouldn’t it exist in reality?

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