Israeli FM in heated dialogue with Al-Ahram: "The majority of Israelis agree on targets and disputes are just about tactics."

Interview with Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni, "Al Ahram", Cairo, 12 May 2007

Interview by Yihya Ghanem

[Translated from Arabic]

Q:         Yesterday you met the Speaker of the Italian Parliament even though  he saw some Hamas members, while PM Olmert did not see him. Does that mean  there are deep differences between you and the PM or was this planned role-playing?

A:        Not at all, please don’t look for nonexistent differences. As far as relations with the Palestinians are concerned we agreed that any Palestinian cabinet must comply with international demands, so Israel does not differentiate between Hamas and other cabinet members. Our government decided – and I agreed – that visitors who meet Hamas will not be welcome in Israel, but  in this case the Italian speaker addressed the Palestinian parliament  where there were some Hamas members.

Q:       Can one say that arguments about the best way to deal with the Arab peace plan are part of the reasons for the present political crisis in Israel,  and if so what do you think personally is the best way of dealing with the peace plan?

A:      I represent the present government in Israel – and the majority of the country. As for the peace process with the Palestinians, we all share the same target – that of two states living in peace side by side, and we see the need to promote the peace process. As for government policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, we are agreed on aims. Sometimes there are differences as to the best way of reaching those aims, but these are tactical. Most Israelis share the same aspirations for a peace based on two states.

Q:    We understand from recent developments that you are running for prime minister…

A:    I came to this meeting to discuss events in the region ands bilateral ties but I am surprised by questions on matters inside Israel,

Q:     But this is relevant to what goes on in the region.

A:    I came here as Foreign Minister, I like my job, there is much to do as a foreign minister in the cause of peace.

Q:    In your estimation can we expect in the near future an Israeli leadership that, like the Persian King Cyrus who liberated the Jews from Babylonian imprisonment, will move to broach a peace process with the Arabs, armed with a new philosophy of peace?

A:     Most of the Israeli people know that peace is needed and that it can be reached by compromise. In this context I represent the majority view that calls for  two states, one Jewish,  the other Palestinian, meaning that the way to a Palestinian state begins  by abjuring terror – which is in the best interest of Palestinians as well as Israelis. To return to your question, which assumes that such an Israeli leadership does not exist – I object to such an assumption. Israel has made concessions and brave steps such as her withdrawal from the Gaza strip and the removal of all settlements there, thus sending a message to the Palestinians that we mean what we say.

Q: Whatever,…. but Gaza was a burden to Israel…

A: I repeat: The decision to uproot seven thousand settlers from Gaza, many of whom were born there, was brave, painful and hard. But we wanted to send a message to the Palestinians and the world that we were serious. We didn’t want to rule the Palestinians nor get into a battle with terror because that is a burden. Our withdrawal comes out of a conception of peace. If the peace process is delayed it is not because of Israeli unreadiness, but because the moderate Palestinians who want a two-state solution are incapable of overcoming violence. As a representative of the Israeli majority I can assure you that Gaza was not the last step. Setting up a Palestinian state will oblige us to further withdrawals.

Q: From this vantage point in Cairo it seems that the present crisis in Israel began with Israeli aggression against Lebanon. Could that crisis lead to further aggression against Lebanon?

A: Israel supported UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which benefits the interests of Israel and all countries of the region that seek Lebanese stability and sovereignty, but we suspect that Hizbullah actually promotes the interests of Iran. With this in mind we carried out our military operations and supported Resolution 1701 with the aim of seeing Lebanese sovereignty over all its southern  territory, and the dissolution of Hizbullah – which we hope will yet happen.

Q: But if it does not happen could there be renewed aggression against Lebanon?

A: I don’t like hypothetical questions. If matters do not develop [as wished], we will do what is needed to defend Israel.

Q: You have just marked 59 years since the end of British occupation. If occupation per se is an affront to human rights, what do you have to say about your occupation of Arab lands?

A: Following the 1967 war we thought that peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians between the sea and the Jordan River was possible without ruling over them. Today we see the answer lies in partition between two states. This answers the needs of the Jews as well as those of the Arabs of Gaza, the West Bank and the 1948 refugees. But terrorism compels us to remain in those areas.
What we plan now – unlike in Gaza – is to withdraw after negotiating with the Palestinians, plus having security arrangements. As for your reference to British rule, we have no imperialist ambitions but only security needs, and we have to reach agreement.

Q: If the Arabs are offering peace and normal relations while Israel is confiscating West Bank lands, what can Israel offer the Arabs?

A: I object to your assumptions.

Q: But you are in fact confiscating!

A: Let me say that Israel, moderate Palestinians and Arabs are agreed that there must be a two-state solution. The borders between Israel and the Palestine state will be negotiated in future talks. It is not Israeli policy to stall the peace process. The Camp David talks in 2000 broke down in violence. Had they succeeded, the Palestinians would be celebrating their 7th anniversary by now.

Q: But on only 60%of the West Bank…

A: You are talking about the future area of the Palestinian state. I am saying that they could have been celebrating already seven years of independence and liberty. Note that any solution must be based on compromise by all sides. We will not turn history back to before Israel was established. Israel is a fact. We look forward to the day when a Palestinian state will exist based on shared principles and values that include the end of violence.

Q: Constitutions usually define state borders. Does yours? Does it include the Golan Heights?

A: Israeli law applies to the Golan.

Q: Meaning that it is inside your borders?

A: We do not have a constitution. There were the post-1948 lines and then came the 1967 war in which Israel took the territories, which we did not annex. They are the subject of our dispute with the Palestinians. The eventual borders between Israel and the Palestinians will be settled by negotiation.

Q: In 2001-2, Minister Avigdor Liberman made an unprovoked attack on Egypt and said the Aswan Dam should be destroyed. I recall hearing from Ministers Hanegbi and Olmert at that time that the man was an extremist and was forced out of the cabinet and would never be allowed back. So we were surprised when last year PM Olmert brought him back as minister with an even higher rank than before. What then is the nature of the new reshuffle, how do you expect Egyptians to react, and what would you say if an Egyptian cabinet Minister said such things about Israel?

A: What matters is the policy of the Israeli leadership that seeks peace with  the Palestinians and Egypt. In joining the cabinet, Liberman accepted that leadership. Regrettably there are some Egyptian members of parliament who are against Israel. But relations are maintained between governments that follow guidelines and these are binding on coalition members.

Q: There will always be spies, but Egyptians ask: If there is peace between us, why the espionage?

A: Let me then address the Egyptian public and tell them what the Israeli public feels.

We have a peace treaty and we want to live in  real peace with Egypt, whose role in the Arab world and in peace efforts  with the Palestinians is appreciated. Israel is ready for compromises, more so than in the past. I think that old stereotypes about Israel must change. There is a huge gap between imagery and the facts about Israel, and that too is an obstacle to peace. I know that in other places, too, outside Egypt, Israel is sometimes seen as the enemy, as wanting to rule the Palestinians – and that is not true.

As for your question about espionage, it has little to do with facts. The important thing is for us to work together and seek common values.

In a separate interview to the weekly "October Magazine", Foreign Minister Livni added:

Q:  What about the peace process on the Israel-Syrian track?

A: Syria is causing many problems inside Lebanon, through her relations with Hizbullah, Hamas and other terrorist groups. In principle, our aim is to live in peace with our neighbors, but as far as Syria is concerned, Israel sees matters complicated by Syrian ties with Iran, Hizbullah etc.

Q: About Iran, are there plans to bomb her nuclear facilities?

A: Iran is a threat to the entire region. True, Ahmedinijad threatens Israel and uses these threats to serve his interests. But he represents a threat to the entire region – something nobody wants.The world is determined not to allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. This is not just an Israeli interest but a world interest, and Israel is cooperating with the international community to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. This, again, is not just an Israeli interest, but one that pertains also to countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations.