(Interview by Ari Shavit, "Ha’aretz", Weekend Supp., Nov 22, 1996, pp. 18-24, 54)
WHEN BENJAMIN NETANYAHU ASSUMED OFFICE, HE DISCOVERED A "CONCEPTUAL ERROR" ON THE PART OF THE PREVIOUS GOVERNMENT: IT HAD ASSUMED THAT PEACE ALONE WOULD PROVIDE SECURITY, AND THEREFORE TOOK A NUMBER OF "POLITICAL AND MILITARY RISKS." NETANYAHU INTENDS TO CHANGE THIS SITUATION, THOUGH HE ALSO HOPES THAT "POSITIVE INTERNAL CHANGES" WILL TAKE PLACE IN THE ARAB WORLD. IN A SERIES OF CONVERSATIONS WITH ARI SHAVIT, BENJAMIN NETANYAHU ASSESSES THE PROSPECTS FOR PEACE, EXPLAINS THE SIMILARITY BETWEEN JUDEA AND SAMARIA TO THE SUDETENLAND, DECRIES THE NIHILISM OF SHENKIN STREET, AND REVEALS HOW HE INTENDS TO MEND THE WAYS OF ACADEMIA.
Within the confines of his office, Netanyahu is a pleasant man. At first he is very tense, and tries to ascertain that this is not some kind of trap, and that the interviewer is not out to get him. After a few minutes, however, he is convinced that although the person sitting opposite him disagrees with him, he is not trying to trap him. The tough, synthetic front we know so well from the television screen melts away. The expression in his eyes changes, as does the tone of his voice. The glib self-confidence disappears.
Quietly and in a down-to-earth tone, Benjamin Netanyahu tries to explain his world-view, translating from the other, unique language which he uses for interpreting reality.
Two meters to his right, an aerial photograph of the city of Gamla hangs on the wall. Apart from photographs of Yair, Avner and Sarah, this is the only photograph in the prime minister’s office. He explains to me that Gamla is a very special place. "Unlike Massada, there was an entire city there, an entire world. Note that the synagogue there does not face towards Jerusalem. Do you know why? Because it was destroyed in 67 CE -=C4 three years before the destruction of Jerusalem."
Netanyahu is obsessed with archeology. When he flies over Israel in a helicopter and sees an archeological site that has not yet been excavated, he asks the pilot to hover over it. His vision of the future, his shining city on the hill, is also a strange blend of hi-tech and archeology, science and heritage, free market and deep national sentiments.
It was only in our third meeting, when Netanyahu had already removed his jacket and spoken freely of his mentors Nordau, Jabotinsky and Zangwill, that he felt sufficiently at ease to open the drawer in his desk and pull out a cigar and a cigar clipper. Clipping the end of the cigar with expertise, he began to smoke. For a fleeting moment, one might have thought that he had let the cat out of the bag. Maybe Netanyahu was declaring himself the natural prodigy of Ronny Lauder and Sheldon Adelson, a man of the Grand Old Party fresh from the ski clubs and golf courses of Aspen and Dallas. But that is not the case.
In Netanyahu’s view at least, his cigar is not even American, but rather Churchillian the cigar of someone who is convinced that he can clearly see historical processes which others fail to discern. The cigar of someone who feels that for many years he has had to fight almost single- handedly against the stupidity of the ruling elites, before finally managing to win the day. The cigar of someone who believes that he faces an heroic task: to save his people and homeland from nihilism and degeneration, from a weak will and blindness, from the fateful dangers of appeasement.
Q: The basic historical model of your predecessors in this office was the Algerian model. They equated Israel with France, and the territories with Algeria. Yitzhak Rabin was the Israeli De Gaulle trying to end the occupation and the colonization of 1967. By undertaking to implement the Oslo accords, were you tacitly adopting this historical model?
A: No, not at all. I think that the very fact that Israelis make this analogy is evidence of the dangerous process of alienation from our existential roots. This is not a foreign land for us. It is not Denmark or Holland. It is not a matter of coincidence that we are here. For thousands of years, Jews struggled to return to Israel. For thousands of years, they shed oceans of blood and tears because of their desire to return. Now we see a generation emerging in Israel who, with a wave of their hand, seek to break this bond. I see the Algerian analogy as a grave symptom of a profound loss of identity. It is difficult to believe. When I walk among the hills of Beit El or Judea, or in the environs of Jerusalem, am I treading on foreign soil?
Judea and Samaria are not Algeria. This is a misleading analogy. In historical terms, our entire existence here is inextricably linked to these parts of the country. In geographic and security terms, there is no sea separating us from these regions. They are not some overseas colony, some far-flung settlement in Cyprus or southern Turkey. They are here. This is why both in national and strategic terms, the comparison is absurd. However, it does reveal the heart of the problem. The fact is that we cannot simply pack up and leave this place. Where would we go? When will we see the end of the demand to retreat? At what point will the land stop being foreign?
If the supposed foreignness of these areas is the product of the obvious and well-known fact that a large Arab population lives in Judea and Samaria, then what about the Galilee and much of the Negev? There, too, there is a large Arab population. The idea that we are strangers in those parts of the country which are settled mainly by Arabs inevitably leads to a gradual return to the partition agreement, and from there to an abandonment of our basic right to any part of the country. Those who dream of closing ourselves off in a gilded seaside fortress, in some kind of luxury suburb on the Tel Aviv shore, are dreaming an impossible dream. This dream is reminiscent of the illusions prevalent among the Christians in Lebanon, who gave up most of the country to others in the hope that they would be left with something. In the end, they were left with nothing.
Q: In the past, you developed your own historical model, claiming that Israel is like Czechoslovakia. Judea and Samaria are like the Sudetenland in the 1930s. The Palestinians are like the German minority there.
A:No historical analogy is perfect. But the attempt to portray us as cruel occupiers in a foreign land is reminiscent of the German propaganda against the Czechs which sought to force them to vacate the Sudetenland.
Q: In your book A Place Among the Nations, there is a rather emotional section in which you recall yourself as a soldier stopping by Shilo and Betar during an army training hike and feeling a sense of return, on behalf of all the generations. You quote Moshe Dayan: "We have returned to the mountain, to the cradle of our nation, to the inheritance of our ancestors … we have returned to Hebron and Nablus, to Bethlehem and Anatot." Is it possible that the irony of history will mean that despite this, you will be the one to lead us to cut ourselves off once and for all from these places, from Hebron, Nablus, Bethlehem and Anatot?
A: We are not cutting ourselves off from Hebron. We are redeploying there. What I have been working hard to achieve over the past few weeks is precisely to ensure that we protect the lives of the Jews in Hebron and maintain our holy sites in the city.
Nevertheless, the arrangement in Hebron is extremely difficult for me since I have a deep bond to these places. They speak to me. Every stone, every terrace, every tree and every hill raises memories, connects me to a very real historical experience of which I feel an inseparable part. I cannot understand why we tend to have great respect for the Arabs’ bond to the land, which is relatively recent, while at the same time disparaging our own bond to the land, which goes back thousands of years.
As I returned today from the memorial service for David Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker, I asked the pilot to take a detour and fly over Hebron so that I could gain an impression of the city not just in the physical sense but also the overall impression in the metaphysical sense. This is the oldest settlement in Jewish history. This is where our matriarchs and patriarchs are buried.
This is why I feel such a great burden of responsibility and am doing everything I can to secure our historical assets, without jeopardizing all the other aspects and national interests that it is my responsibility as prime minister to protect.
Q: You entered the international scene in 1983 with a long article in the Wall Street Journal in which you claimed that the Palestinian problem is not the heart of the dispute in the Middle East. Do you still feel that way?
A: In my opinion, the main cause of the dispute is the clash between ourselves and the Arab world, which saw us, and to some extent still sees us, as an alien entity with no right to exist in this region. The Palestinian problem is the result of this conflict, not its principal cause. Many Israelis accept the view that if we can solve the Palestinian problem, we will have solved the Israeli-Arab conflict. I wish that were the case, but I cannot accept that assumption.
Even if we reach a stable agreement with the Palestinians, as I hope and believe, we will not have solved the Israeli-Arab conflict in its entirety. This conflict will only end when the entire Arab world, as well as non-Arab Iran, accepts that Israel is here to stay, or when the countries around us undergo democratic reform.
Q: In your book, you make a distinction between Kantian peace, which is a harmonious kind of peace that can exist only between democratic countries, and peace-through-deterrence, which could also be maintained in the Middle East as it currently is. Do you think we need to lower our expectations and adopt a much more modest concept of peace?
A: One of our problems is that we tend to nurse unrealistic expectations. Expectations and hope are important without them you cannot continue to live, and in this respect the life of a nation resembles the life of an individual. However, when people detach themselves from reality, floating around in the clouds and losing contact with the ground, they will eventually crash on the rocky realities of the true Middle East.
In this regard we tend to move in a kind of cycle, with periods of wonderful expectations followed by moments of despair. Instead of this, I think we should take a much more balanced view of our surroundings and realize that there is still a very broad base of hostility toward Israel. That is why our ability to make peace with our neighbors depends above all on our deterrent capability, since Israel is perceived by many in the Arab world as a major power. If this perception is broken, all the political progress we have made so far will also be broken.
Q: Do you completely reject the idea of the New Middle East?
A: This idea is typical of people who have lived under siege for a long time, and want to change what is going on beyond the walls simply by imagining a different reality. I am not willing to accept this siege mentality. I look objectively at what is going on out there, and know that for the foreseeable future the willingness of the Arabs to accept Israel and live at peace with it according to some form of political agreement still depends on our ability to make it clear to them that we are not a passing phenomenon.
People talk a lot about normalization. It is certainly true that normalization, psychological changes and economic ties are very important and must be fostered. But it is worth looking, for example, at what has happened in our relations with Egypt after twenty years. How solid is their perception of peace with Israel as an irreversible reality? We should examine to what extent the Egyptian elite has really internalized Sadat’s call: "No more war, no more bloodshed."
Unfortunately, the answer is that there has not been a sufficiently profound process of internalization. I remember the late Yitzhak Rabin talking to me sharply and even bitterly about Egypt’s attitude towards Israel. He noted that there were ups and downs, and that the attitude of the ruling elites towards Israel was unstable. We have to add to this the fact that there are currently signs of neo-Nasserist tendencies among important segments of the Egyptian population.
What is it then that maintains the peace with Egypt? Three factors are involved. Firstly, there has been a limited internalization of the peace with Israel among some of the Egyptian leadership. Secondly, there has been a partial a very partial degree of normalization. Thirdly, there is our deterrent capability and effective security arrangements. Of these three factors, deterrence and security arrangements are a vital condition without which there can be no internalization. Despite all this, I must stress that there have also been many positive developments in our relations with Egypt, which we must encourage by all possible means. I do see President Mubarak as a partner in promoting these developments. But it should be clear to us that it is very doubtful whether a weak Israel would be able to maintain peaceful relations with Egypt.
Q: So we have to continue the "iron wall" policy?
A: Until further notice, we are living in the Middle East in an era of iron walls. What iron walls do is buy us time. Our hope is that with time there will be positive internal changes in the Arab world that will enable us to lower the protective walls, and perhaps eventually even dismantle them. This process is indeed occurring gradually, but in order for it to be completed, we must create among the Arab world the irreversible understanding that the idea that we will disappear from here is a mirage. Contrary to what some of the Arab elites believe, Israel is not some kind of neo-Crusader state doomed to wither away and eventually evaporate. …/5 In this respect, I must say that one of the problems I discovered when I came to office was that in recent years there has been a constant erosion of our deterrent capability. The previous government made a conceptual mistake in believing that peace alone would provide security. Consequently, it permitted itself not to develop our military might. This inevitably led to a clear erosion in the level of motivation of Israelis to serve in the IDF, as well as to an erosion of our national strength. As a result, a very dangerous process developed by which we were taking both military and political risks at the same time a measure of military erosion at the same time as we were making territorial concessions. I intend to change this trend, and I have already begun to do so. I believe that if Israel is perceived as weak during the difficult negotiations on the permanent settlement, it will always be possible to find a pretext for attacking us. We must understand that while peace agreements enhance security, they are not a replacement for security. The reverse is true: military might is a condition for peace. Only a very strong deterrent profile can preserve and stabilize peace.
Q: Are you saying that there was a security failure here? Was the previous government’s security policy irresponsible?
A: To use an understatement, I would say that there was considerable neglect here. Some of the things that happened are difficult to understand. People who were supposed to preserve national security failed to take vital steps, despite the fact that various security figures of differing political persuasions warned that this process would erode some of our capabilities. The simple, basic truths of our existence were pushed aside because of some vision of a new Middle East that had no foundation in reality. An additional factor must also be understood: the assessment that we can afford to reduce the army’s strength came not only at a time when we are taking political risks, but also when there is an unprecedented strengthening of the military capacity of the Arab armies. The Arabs are producing missiles that threaten the center of Israel and create new challenges for our forces.
I believe that there are good answers to all these threats. The IDF is still the strongest army in the region, and it can repel any attack against us. However, we must halt the negative trend before it is too late. It is not enough simply to argue that peace is the answer, that peace will solve our problems. I find that answer unacceptable and irresponsible. Peace can only exist when our security is guaranteed.
Q: How do you assess the strategic situation? What is the real nature of the reality that surrounds us?
A: At present in the Middle East there is competition between two processes over which Israel has almost no influence: the process of extremism and the process of moderation. Unfortunately, the extremists are currently stronger than the moderates, and at a certain point they may be able to turn the moderates into extremists. With this in mind, I find the idea of a new Middle East highly amusing. The truth is that since 1979 we really have been living in a new Middle East. We are facing pan- Islamic trends now the likes of which have not been seen for a thousand years.
On the other hand, there is certainly an opposite trend toward moderation and pro-Western positions in various countries, and even in Syria. This trend is the Arab reaction to the state of affairs that has emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there is only one dominant power the United States. However, the Americans will not enjoy this hegemony forever. As early as the beginning of the 21st century, there will already be at least five powers: the United States, Europe, China, Japan and India, each of which will attempt to be active in our region. The first signs of this phenomenon can already be seen. Within a relatively short period of time, we will have to learn how to maneuver in a new, multi-polar world.
The significance of all this is that contrary to what we were promised over the past few years, Israel is not about to reach safe ground. The struggles in the Middle East will not end, and needless to say we are not on the verge of the end of history. Even if we manage to establish contractual peace with all our neighbors and I certainly believe that this is possible, perhaps even during the present government’s term of office these treaties will not guarantee that our security problems will be over and that we will all live together in blissful harmony. We have to realize that in the complex world we are entering, and in the region where we live a region that has not yet undergone democratic reform, and where there is a powerful Islamic movement even apparently stable frameworks and peace agreements will always be fragile. We must accept that the Middle East is a region of shifting sands. We must also realize that if and when Iran manages to acquire nuclear weapons, all the power equations in the region will change dramatically. All the peace agreements we have signed or will sign will face tremendous pressure.
The left’s response to this threat is to make as many concessions as possible as quickly as possible, so that the agreements signed will serve as a dam blocking the impending flood. In my opinion, this approach is unrealistic; it tries to impose our fantasy wishes on a harsh reality. I believe that we should not delude ourselves into believing that hurried and incomplete solutions in this part of the world will solve the existential problems we must face.
Q: Since you entered office, a difficult situation has emerged in the Middle East. The clashes with the Palestinians, the cooling of relations with Jordan, the harsh rhetoric coming from Egypt and the tensions with Syria.
A: It is hardly surprising that as long as you rush back to the 1967 borders and hand over national assets with nothing in return, everyone pats you on the shoulder and cheers you on. I can assure you that if I were to hand over half of Jerusalem, I would also get endless prizes and praise for my contribution to peace. But the real test of statesmanship is not how much passing support you can win by subordinating your own interests to those of the other side. The test is to protect your own interests by setting a policy that defines the limits of demands and the parameters of the game.
It should come as no surprise that when you move from a policy of "give and give" to one of give and take, the other side is unhappy. The Arabs are going through a period of readjustment now, and it is only natural that they are trying to press us as much as possible. They would rather go back to a situation where the government was acquiescing rather than negotiating. This is why the Arab League summit in Casablanca the week after the government was formed set a clear policy of attacking me. Not just on the basis of their analysis; I can tell you for certain that their attack was based on two assumptions.
Firstly, they assumed that any Arab step would now win Western support, since Israel would be blamed. Secondly, the Arabs believe that they can now split Israeli society and make half the people join in the attacks on the government. It was because of these assumptions that Arafat was able to conjure up the red herring of our supposedly damaging the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the hope that there would be automatic condemnation at home and abroad. And the same assumptions led Syria to believe that it could threaten war and lay the blame on Israel.
Q: Is there a real possibility that things might actually deteriorate to a situation of military conflict? In recent months, we have learned that IDF intelligence believes that the prospect of war with Syria is no longer improbable. A senior government minister who is a personal friend of yours has said that we should prepare the nation for war.
A: We must distinguish between our preparations for various eventualities and the likelihood that these will actually transpire. We must be prepared for a situation in which the leadership in Damascus loses its sense of reason and decides to launch a sudden attack, based on the assumption that it will manage to gain some sort of political advantage. But if you ask me about the probability of this happening, the answer is no. I believe that the Syrians are too rational to do that.
Despite this, we have recently taken action to try and reduce this danger or eliminate it completely. Firstly, we have taken action on the international level, where messages have been exchanged that make it unequivocally clear to Syria that if it attacks Israel it will remain alone, both on the battlefield and in the political sphere. This message is very important, since one of the assumptions behind a sudden attack is that it would be possible to limit the Israeli counter-attack by means of international pressure. I believe that the steps we have taken have given Damascus a more realistic understanding of the position.
The second step has been to convince Syria that there is no chance of strategic surprise, since we know its intentions and operative plans, and are following its movements carefully. The only possibility that remains, therefore, is a limited tactical operation. We are prepared for this possibility, too, and will know how to respond. I therefore believe that we have managed to significantly reduce the risk of conflict with Syria, and that we are moving towards a resumption of the peace negotiations. However, it would be wrong to say that the danger has completely disappeared. It is always possible that someone will act irrationally.
Q: There is a clear contradiction between the ideological world you come from and the political reality you have inherited. Do your decisions to withdraw from Hebron, to maintain contacts with Arafat and to follow the course set by Oslo imply that reality has won the day? Are you gradually abandoning your ideological positions?
A: No, not at all. If you look carefully at what I have done since I assumed office, you will see that I am doing exactly what I promised the voters. I said before the elections that despite my criticism of the Oslo accords, I would not refrain from implementing them, subject to our policies and basic guidelines. That is exactly what I am doing.
You have to understand something else, too. Oslo is a very badly planned framework, particularly in terms of its security aspects. It is a negligent and careless agreement with endless holes, that was formulated without proper staff work and without the input of security and intelligence bodies.
Although it does not dictate what the permanent arrangement will be, it suggests a very undesirable direction. The truth is that Oslo was based on the clear assumption that both sides wish to establish a Palestinian state, and that they therefore want to establish a framework that will not be too frightening for the Israeli public, while gradually preparing it for this outcome.
As a result, there was no insistence on reciprocity in the implementation of the various stages of the Oslo accords, since the Israeli side was interested mainly in giving. There emerged a norm of the Israelis giving and the Palestinians taking. This is a very dangerous norm if at some point in the future you intend to stop making concessions. Anyone with any understanding of the life of a country must realize that if we had continued with a process based on automatically complying with every demand of the other side, we would have ended up dismantling the State of Israel.
Q: In your book, you relate to the emergence of a separate Palestinian national identity as a Pan-Arabist ploy. In many instances, you place the words Palestinian people in question marks. Do you now recognize the existence and right to exist of the Palestinian people? Do you recognize that it has legitimate rights west of the Jordan?
A: The Palestinian national movement did indeed begin as an instrument of Pan-Arabism; it was originally a tool wielded by Nasser. However, as it developed it gained a life of its own, and I certainly think we must recognize that this distinct aspiration exists. I am not trying to negate the existence of this phenomenon on the contrary, I am trying to define it in precise terms.
My point is that Palestinian nationalism is not confined to Judea, Samaria and Gaza. On the one hand, it also appears in the Palestinian communities in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere; on the other hand, it is very rapidly beginning to develop among the Israeli Arabs. Those who try to claim that there is some distinct identity in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, which is confined to these areas alone, are mistaken. This is why the problem is so complicated.
We are faced with Palestinian nationalism, which is one branch of the large tree of Arab nationalism in general. This phenomenon includes a strong irredentist desire to apply the Palestinian Covenant which has not yet been nullified to the remainder of the State of Israel. To "Palestine" in its entirety. The assumption made by Meretz is that if we give this movement what it wants in the first stage i.e., a state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and half of Jerusalem these national desires will be contained to the area up to the Green Line. In my opinion, this assumption is completely unrealistic. Anyone with eyes in his head can see that if we simply accept automatically and without conditions or consideration every facet of the Palestinian position, based on the principle that the Palestinian national minority in Judea and Samaria is entitled to self-determination, then this principle will inevitably move to the national minority inside the State of Israel proper. There will be no end to it. This principle will cut into Jerusalem, Akko and Haifa; it will even cut into us inside Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
Q: Does this mean that you see the Palestinians solely as a national minority? Would you argue that as a national minority they have no right to self-determination?
A: This is the crux of the matter. Your question is extremely problematic. In a way, this century has been one long struggle between the supranational idea expounded by Lenin and the national idea expounded by Wilson. Wilson has won the day.
Towards the end of the century, however, we are seeing an extreme distortion of the Wilsonian idea of self-determination. Nowadays, the common view is that any national minority that demands independence must receive it merely because it wants it. The mere act of demanding independence has come to be seen as an essential and sufficient condition for granting self-determination. This approach is a sure recipe for the fragmentation of the international system and for the emergence of dozens of states. If accepted, it will cause profound instability in Eastern and Central Europe, and even in Western Europe and parts of North America.
In our case, the problem is particularly acute. The highly fragile harmony that has prevailed between ourselves and the Israeli Arabs, allowing them to be integrated in the state as completely equal citizens, is based on accepting the idea that the state is strong enough that there is no chance that it will itself wrench apart those regions in which Israeli Arabs live. This is why I believe that even those Israelis who do not share the same deep attachment to the heart of the Land of Israel which I feel, must realize that apart from the security risks inherent in handing over parts of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza to a foreign state with foreign sovereignty, there is a no less serious danger in accepting the notion that any group that demands self-determination should be given it.
Q: Does that mean that you believe that a completely independent Palestinian state in most of Judea, Samaria and Gaza would pose a threat to the very existence of the State of Israel?
A: I can see concrete dangers to the State of Israel that might result from such a state. In fact, I think that the current argument within the Israeli public between those who supposedly support a Palestinian state and those who are opposed to it is an artificial argument that does not address the root of the broad national agreement encompassing the two camps. When I ask people who supposedly support the establishment of a Palestinian state what they believe, they answer that they do support a Palestinian state, but that it must not have its own planes or missiles. They support a Palestinian state, but it must not control its own air space. They support a Palestinian state, but it must not be allowed to make military pacts with Iraq or Iran. They support a Palestinian state, but without the right to drill into the ground and tap our water. They support a Palestinian state, but it must not be allowed to bring two or three million refugees and settle them along Wadi Ara, or close to the suburbs of Tel Aviv or close to Jerusalem. These kinds of restrictions on sovereignty do not exist anywhere in the world. There is not a single state in the world that is completely demilitarized. Every state has the right to defend and arm itself, the right to control its borders and to sign military pacts.
Therefore when the vast majority of Israelis want to impose all these restrictions on the Palestinian Authority, they actually oppose the idea of Palestinian sovereignty. They raise demands that are incompatible with the idea of sovereignty as it is currently understood in the world. In this respect, the difference between myself and those who speak in an unbearably reckless manner about a Palestinian state, about giving them a state and being rid of the problem, is that I am more aware of the implications of the concept of a state.
I am aware that the momentum for sovereignty will always outweigh arrangements that seek to chain or restrict it. I am aware that throughout the twentieth century, whenever there was competition between political sovereignty and disarmament arrangements, political sovereignty always won, with a heavy and bloody price including the Jewish people.
This is why I believe that in the final analysis, the disagreements amongst us will prove to be less profound than we tend to think. I am convinced that it will be possible to reach broad-based national agreement on a solution that will allow the Palestinians a considerable measure of independence, while leaving the overall authority, particularly in the field of security, in our hands. On this basis, it is possible to reach a stable agreement during the present government’s term of office.
Q: In the case of the Golan Heights, where the alternative is war, are you not willing to consider a withdrawal to the international border?
A: First of all, I am not prepared to negotiate under threats. When we do begin negotiations, we will do so with demands that are identical to those of the Syrians. If they demand the entire Golan Heights, we will do the same. I see no reason why we should restrict our demands. Just as I do not try to tell Assad what to demand at the beginning of the negotiations, neither do I expect him to try to tell me what to demand.
The problem in the case of the Golan Heights is essentially one of security. While we do have strong links to the Golan as you can see, I have here an aerial photograph of Gamla and despite the warm emotional ties that exist, that is not the main point. The main point is the security question. People say to me, look you gave all of Sinai to the Egyptians. This is true, of course. But along the Egyptian border we have strategic depth of 200 kilometers. I imagine that if we had strategic depth of 200 kilometers on the Golan Heights, we could easily reach a similar arrangement with the Syrians. In reality, though, we do not. Here the strategic value is not in depth, but in height height which we will lose if we abandon the Golan Heights and the crest of Mt. Hermon.
People tell me that in the modern world there are missiles, so territory is no longer important. Missiles are certainly a problem, but so are tanks, particularly tanks moving down towards you from higher ground. In some respects, territory has actually become more important in the age of missiles, since the other side’s ground forces now also enjoy the support of surface-to-surface missiles which can disrupt our reserve system and make it harder to defend our borders. So it should be clear that ground defense requirements do not disappear in an age of missiles, but actually become even more important. And for intelligence purposes, high ground assumes an especial importance. All this goes to explain why the problem on the Golan is mainly one of security.
It is not enough to talk about normalization with Syria, which will be cool at best, or to talk about internalization and psychological changes, which at best will be highly limited. We must maintain the element of deterrence, and this requires adequate security arrangements. This is the problem we face, and we will have to address it around the conference table.
Q: Since the elections, many Israelis have had a profound sense of unease. There are those who talk of internal destruction and division, of cultural crises and a problem of values. Some people feel that the very concept of "Israeliness" is collapsing, as we lose the common denominator that holds together this society.
A: I am aware that some people believe that Israeli society is collapsing, that our nation is divided and polarized. Some believe that two people have emerged here – the Shenkinites and the others. When I hear these descriptions, I recall similar comments I heard in the USA in the 1970s. There, too, we were told that society was fragmented between blacks and whites, right-wing and left-wing, and that American culture was in a state of profound decline. Then came the 1980s, and it turned out that American society actually has a strong sense of shared values. Reagan was a clear exponent of this common ground, and the Clinton of today is not all that different from Reagan. We should realize, therefore, that the rock is firmer than we sometimes think. Clouds of dust come and go, obscuring the rock, but the foundations remain firm.
I think the same is true of Israel. Just as I believe that there is considerable agreement in the political sphere over the kind of solution we need, the same applies in the broader sphere of values. I think that the vast majority of Israelis are united around some basic aspirations, including a desire to preserve Jewish identity and an awareness that Judaism has a religious dimension as well as a national one. Many left- wing people whom I meet, when they ask themselves how we are to educate our children come back to some basic sense of values, some need for some integration of the national and religious elements that define this people.
Nevertheless, I do believe that the phenomena of alienation, polarization, and nihilism are dangerous. Our economic prosperity, our military strength and our political status are premised on one basic thing: our ability to consolidate around those values that create the real strength of a nation. These are the values that tell each one of us why we are here rather than somewhere else. This is what gives meaning to our existence here.
Here, too, I think we have much to learn from the founders of Zionism. They saw things the right way. People are quick to say that they made mistakes, but the truth is that they made very few. Usually they saw things more clearly than we do, with a penetrating vision spanning the generations. The founders of Zionism said that we must avoid isolationism. We must be open to the West, to be part of the greater world, while at the same time preserving our unique identity an identity forged here under the prophets and great spiritual teachers who gave us a moral code that is both universal and particularistic.
When I see the tendency to adopt anything that is foreign or non-Jewish or non-Israeli, I am alarmed. This is more of a real danger to our existence than missiles, tanks, and other military threats.
Q: Are you not concerned that your political alliance with the ultra- Orthodox camp will cause Israel to change its character? Has Israel ceased to be an enlightened liberal democracy?
A: The problem of the relations between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews will not easily be resolved. There is no simple formula that will resolve the demands of the ultra-Orthodox community to live according to Halakhic law and the refusal of the secular majority to do so. If the secular population tries to use its majority to enforce secular ways, this will lead to a cultural war and worse still perhaps even to violence. The same will happen if the ultra-Orthodox community tries to impose its ways on the secular Jews.
The only way to deal with this problem then, is to reach a series of ad hoc compromises. This is what all Israeli governments have done. It is difficult for me to understand how we can find a way to talk to the Palestinians, who waged a bloody war against us, but cannot talk to our own fellow countrymen. I intend to encourage this kind of dialogue. I intend to bring together writers and rabbis from both sides to try to define what we have in common and what unites us.
Q: On several occasions, you have commented that Zionism currently faces unprecedented dangers and unprecedented opportunities.
A: As I told you, we are approaching the twenty-first century, when the world will be complex and unstable, with numerous political powers. Our main task will be to learn to maneuver in this new world, where we will face two threats: the internal threat of Palestinian irredentism, and the external threat of pan-Islamic tendencies. The answer to the first problem is for the Palestinians to make a brave decision to abandon their irredentist vision. There are already some Palestinians who have abandoned this destructive dream, although the opposite tendency can also be seen. There should be no doubts about this. Every day we hear calls to liberate all of Palestine and continue the Jihad and fight for the right of return. These are not empty words; they feed the dream, and influence the way people think and act. This is why the entire mainstream of the Palestinian leadership must made a clear, determined, and brave decision to abandon the idea of irredentism.
As for the second, pan-Islamic threat, I do not believe there are any easy solutions. The existing solution in my estimation is far from home. Those who believe that regional economic development alone will solve the problem are mistaken; this is a pseudo-Marxist perspective. The problem is not only economic. Islam is spreading among large sections of the population not only the poor because it offers a solution for those looking for an identity and for meaning in life, as did the Soviet Union and pure Communism. These are ideas that meet the deepest desires and needs of many throughout the Middle East, fanned by a mother-country which is actively promoting these developments. Islamicism is certainly a danger.
At the same time I am optimistic. I believe that even in the short term Israel can achieve impressive strength. In the post-industrial world which we are entering, Israel will become a powerful and important agent, since we are better prepared than any other country for the information economy. The number of scientists relative to the total population in Israel is the highest in the world, and the security forces produce thousands of young people each year with unique experience in the fields of information systems, computerization, transportation, and robotics. Since there has never been either true capitalism or communism here, we are not faced with heavy and old-fashioned industrial dinosaurs that must be overcome.
In my opinion, if we free the economy from excessive government intervention and we will do so we will be able to realize our human potential and create dramatic and rapid growth in the Israeli economy. Even today, before we have undergone our Thatcherite revolution, our GNP per capita is almost the same as Britain’s $16,000. So we should be able to double it within 15 years after we have gone through that revolution. This process will also involve the doubling of the population, so that the Israeli economy should grow by a factor of three or four within 15 years.
This will make us one of the wealthiest nations in the world in absolute – – not relative terms. When this happens, the whole pattern of our existence in the Middle East and within the international community will change. We will become a genuine and equal partner, an international player of the first order.
Q: The privatization revolution means increasing social gaps.
A: Certainly. But to prevent this happening, I intend to take some of the money gained from privatization and create a fund which will be dedicated to reducing social gaps. If we do not act decisively on this matter, an appalling gap will emerge in Israel between the poorer and richer sections of the population; this could eventually threaten Israel’s internal stability. Even now, the Lawrence Curve (which maps the gap between different deciles) in Israel is the most distorted in the Western world. This is incredible. In recent years, the gap between rich and poor in Israel has reached alarming proportions. I am committed to action to make our society more egalitarian, particularly regarding equal opportunities. More than anything else, this means investing in education. Just as Menachem Begin tried to reduce social gaps through the physical renewal of the neighborhoods, so I intend to reduce these gaps by investing in education, particularly among the poorer sections of the population. I think that the common saying that you should give someone a fishing rod rather than a fish is basically correct. In this case, the fishing rod is educational training. This is the only way to gradually narrow social gaps.
Q: You have been in power for five months, and the battle between yourself and the media continues to rage. Do you feel that the media elite has imposed a siege on you?
A: Unfortunately, Israel does not enjoy the same distinction that exists in America between reporting and personal opinions. In Israel, we have what in Europe is called "advocacy journalism." In other words, most journalists have an objective. Beyond their day-to-day work, they feel that they represent a greater truth. They are committed to promoting some noble idea, and in our case, this idea is that of peace an idea which I supposedly oppose.
As a result, the opposition of large sections of the media to the government I head is so automatic and Pavlovian that it no longer has any effect on me. Through a process of "absurdization," the media has made itself irrelevant to me. I know that whatever I do or don’t do, I will still meet opposition, so I simply do what I think I should do. Paradoxically, I find that I am free from the rod of press criticism. I skim through the daily ‘produce’ every morning and then move on.
Q: There is something strange about this situation. You are the first Israeli prime minister to enjoy such broad powers, yet you almost feel as if you were still in the opposition, still being persecuted for your beliefs.
A: The opposition I encounter reminds me of the way the nomenklatura of the old regime used to behave. There is certainly an attempt being made to deny the legitimacy of the new administration, discredit the government and delegitimize me. This attempt is not organized, and it does not have to be. Those who are doing this work do so out of an inner belief, some combination of different areas of responsibility.
What really bothers me in this respect are the attacks on my family. I am a political figure I stood for election and I was elected prime minister. If someone has problems with me, let them deal with me. But what do they want from my wife and children? There are limits, after all, even when you go beyond the limits.
The problem is not a personal one, however, and it is not confined solely to the media. The problem is that the intellectual structure of Israeli society is unbalanced. We face a situation of ideological monolithism, perhaps even ideological tyranny. When that is the case, when everything is biased in one direction, when there is no intellectual pluralism, when there is no mutual enrichment of two opposing poles, then there is no possibility of achieving the synthesis which will provide the best solutions. Instead, we have conformity and the pack mentality an endless monologue by a single sect which writes the law, interprets the law, and expects everyone to obey the law.
Some people argue that the reason for this situation is that there are no right-wing intellectuals in Israel. This claim seems strange to me, since it is directed at the group which produced von Weisel, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Yevin and many others. It is also a strange claim in view of the fact that the intellectual dynamism of the past two decades throughout the West has come from the right-wing. I think that the Israeli situation reveals something completely different. We have academic institutions and media which are committed to the ‘unthinking’ uniformity of the dominant line, and they simply replicate these positions. More and more generations of young people thinking the same monochrome thoughts are being churned out.
I intend to change this situation. I intend to help establish a fund in Israel along the lines of the Adenauer Fund in order to set up a number of research centers which will not be controlled by the government, but will create genuine ideological competition in Israel. These centers will certainly not be exclusively right wing, but they will pose a challenge to the accepted shallow thinking, and go some way towards correcting the current monolithic state of Israeli culture.
Q: There seems to be some discrepancy between your inner calm some would say glib self-confidence and what is going on around us. This leads some people to conclude that you are insensitive to events, that there is something "autistic" about your administration.
A: What do you want me to say to that? If I act coolly, people say I am smug. If I show a bit of anxiety, they say I am hysterical and nervous. The fact is that I am neither. I am trying to act rationally, rather than make decisions in the heat of the moment. Contrary to what they say about me, and unlike other leaders, I do not lack direction nor do I behave like a weather-vane. I know where I am going, and those who know where they are going have a compass and know how to navigate. You plan in advance for margins of error so that if you encounter difficulties, you can take a bypass, sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left, while continuing to move towards the objective you set beforehand.
Anyone who has ever dealt with navigational problems in real life should be able to understand this. When you know where you are going, everything is much simpler. That’s how things are with me, despite what the papers say.