Interview with Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on Newshour with Jim Lehrer, PBS TV
Interviewer: Ray Suarez
Wednesday, November 1, 2000

MR. SUAREZ: Joining me now is Israel’s acting Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami.

In the last few months, we were told that Israel had made some of its most far-reaching offers for a comprehensive peace to the Palestinian people, and just these few weeks and months later, we’re seeing some of the worst turmoil in this part of the world that we’ve seen in years. How did this happen?

MIN. BEN-AMI: Many of us are at a loss in trying to understand how and why the response to such far-reaching, indeed, proposals should have been countered by such a wave of violence. My understanding is this, that Arafat felt that he was being portrayed by President Clinton — indeed, by international opinion — in the wake of the Camp David summit, as a peace rejectionist. And he saw how Israel was gaining ground, thanks to its peace policy, in the international arena. He felt his international legitimacy was being seriously undermined by Israel’s peace proposals, proposals which he thought he could not accept, for whatever reason.

And in a way, he has used this wave of violence, continues to use it, in order improve his international standing and sort of corner Israel and put Israel under pressure, internationalize the conflict — that is, undermine the centrality of the American role. He doesn’t want to see America leading the process, being the honest broker, and he wants to internationalize it — to bring in the Russians, the Europeans, the U.N. — on the understanding that if such an internationalization is brought about, he will have the kind of deal that he wants, because in such an international forum, Israel will be isolated. This is the strategy of Arafat. He is in fact trading with the blood of his people in order to reach this political objective which I just described.

MR. SUAREZ: The months following Camp David had been tense, but you didn’t see that sudden spasm of violence that you saw after the visit of General Sharon to the Temple Mount. Was this a crystallizing moment? Did the confrontation turn a corner at this time?

MIN. BEN-AMI: Not at that precise time. You may remember that the visit of Ariel Sharon to Temple Mount went peacefully. Nothing happened. During that day nothing at all happened.

I myself was in Washington then in peace talks, incidentally, and I happened to exchange a few words over the telephone with one of the chief security personnel — guys in the Palestinian system, Jabril Rajoub, and he told me, if Ariel Sharon doesn’t go into the mosques, but just visits the surface, nothing will happen.

So that day — that precise day — was of no special significance. What happened was that a day or a couple of days later, groups of people were organized to come on the Temple Mount and stage these outbursts of violence. So I think that the whole thing was prepared in advance.

MR. SUAREZ: In your previous answer, you appeared to question Chairman Arafat’s commitment to peace with Israel. Is he still a partner that you can continue to do business with? Can there be a peace process with Yasser Arafat?

MR. BEN-AMI: The answer needs to be elaborated, not in terms of yes or no.

You see, what happened here is this: In 1993, through the Oslo Agreement, Arafat got a series of advantages. He got a quasi-Palestinian state, personal authority as a quasi-Palestinian state, a government, a parliament, an enormous amount of international aid. He got money from the European Union, from this country, and a military sort of establishment; he has his own kind of military power. And all these were supposed to lead gradually to negotiations on the final status. But negotiations, whose result is not known in advance – because this is an open-ended negotiation.

Now, what we see is that the moment Arafat doesn’t reach the precise result of the negotiations that he wants, he breaks the rules of the game.

He got international aid, he got a dramatic shift in his strategic position, thanks to the Oslo Agreement. Seven years

ago, he could not get a visa to America, now he’s a frequent flyer to the White House — only thanks to Oslo. Now, he breaks the rules of the game just because he did not get the deal he thinks he should get. Which means a diktat — Israel should accept all these terms. And once he doesn’t get it, he breaks the rules of the game.

So, the question of whether of not he’s a partner needs to be answered in terms of whether or not he is ready to accept that this is an open negotiation, leading to a reasonable deal.

Camp David was a reasonable deal. Two days after the visit of Ariel Sharon, two, three days, maybe even a week, we were supposed to come to America once again to discuss an American peace package, which the Palestinians knew was about to be presented, we knew it was about to be presented. So my suspicion is that Arafat orchestrated this wave of violence, rather surfed on it, because he wanted to avoid the American peace package and be exposed by the President once again as a peace rejectionist. And this is why you see him now driving the whole process, the whole situation to internationalization, so that he can get a deal, in his view, better than the deal that he presumed was inherent in the package the Americans were about to put a week after the visit of Sharon.

MR. SUAREZ: Has, in your view, the action on the ground in Israel proper, in the occupied territories, gone so far that now it’s difficult to discuss an ongoing peace process, one that really exists?

MR. BEN-AMI: Well, it is indeed very difficult in such a state of affairs to move immediately and abruptly to peace talks. This is why we went to Sharm el-Sheikh, and President Clinton came there, and the Europeans and the U.N. And we subscribed to a memorandum that those who should know – namely, the Americans, the Egyptians – those who should know, know very well that Arafat has not abided by the understandings of Sharm el-Sheikh. So what we need now is to impress upon Arafat — because he has humiliated all those who were witnesses to the memorandum — the Americans, the Europeans, the U.N, the Egyptians — to impress upon him the necessity to abide by the memorandum, bring an end to violence.

And then, after a short period of healing, we need to understand, where do we stand now, after seven years of peace process? Because to some of us it means the collapse of the work of a lifetime. The peace camp in Israel is shattered to pieces – those who believe in generosity, flexibility, the creation of the Palestinian state – what is due to the Palestinians, because the Arab world, when they occupied these territories, never gave to the Palestinians any rights, let alone self-determination. Israel is ready for the creation of a Palestinian state friendly to Israel, not hostile. And now we see that the work of our life is under question.

So we say, bring an end to violence, abide by the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, and then we can proceed to the resumption of peace talks. Because we Israelis know very well — and I hope this is the case with the Palestinians also — that there is no alternative to the peace process. We do not want to conceive a military solution to the problem because we don’t believe there is a military solution. We believe only in a political solution. At the end of the day, we need to go back to the table of negotiations. It is very, very sad that we should go back to the table of negotiations only after having crossed rivers of blood. It is totally unnecessary.

MR. SUAREZ: Can Israel disengage at this point so that for its part the fighting and the dying can slow down, can stop?

MIN. BEN-AMI: It can stop now, immediately. In an hour. It can stop if Arafat gives to his people clear-cut instructions. And to tell you the truth, I don’t really know if he is unwilling to give instructions, or if he is unable to control the situation. In either case, we have a problem with his partnership in the peace process. What would be the future if we strike a peace deal with him? What guarantees do we have that he can fulfill, meet his commitments if he’s unable to control the situation of armed militias?

By way, the Tanzim, the armed militia of the Tanzim, which is the main military force in the West Bank operating against Israel today – and in the last three, four days they assassinated four, five citizens in the streets of Jerusalem – these people are armed contrary to the agreement of Oslo. According to Oslo, they should have been disarmed and disciplined. In the streets of Israel today, you have Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists running free, and we are today on high alert against possible acts of terrorism, because these people were released from Arafat’s jails, which means that he is violating the Oslo agreement under which he got this quasi-Palestinian state, this military establishment, these strategic relations, or good relations, with America.

So he needs to decide. And America and the world needs to tell him, "Are you a partner in this difficult process, or you want to turn your back to a peaceful solution?" in which case the international community needs to react accordingly.

 Interview with Acting FM Ben-Ami on Newshour with Jim Lehrer- PBS TV-1-Nov-2000
 Interview with Acting FM Ben-Ami on Newshour with Jim Lehrer- PBS TV-1-Nov-2000
Outbreak of Violence in Jerusalem and the Territories – Sept/Oct 2000