A day before PM Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke, he was interviewed by Nikkei in his office in Jerusalem.

Exclusive interview conducted by The Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei) with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his office in Jerusalem on Jan 3, 2006
By Hiroaki Kanazawa, Ken Moriyasu and Eli Gershowitz

Q: Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Junichiro Koizumi has been passionate about inviting you to Japan. Mr. Koizumi is expected to visit the Middle East including Israel. What do you expect from the bilateral meeting with him?

A: If you don’t mind I will speak in Hebrew. How’s your Hebrew by now? Is it hard? Japanese is easier? I welcome the visit of the Japanese PM, first visit in over a decade, this is the second visit of a Japanese PM to Israel. No question that this upcoming visit is a reflection of the close ties developing in the last few years. Particularly, under the leadership of this PM, Israel views great importance and significance in expanding relations between the two countries, and it’s important these ties develop. We also see great importance in Japan’s role in the Middle East. Japan can certainly help by assisting the Palestinian Authority (PA) in their attempts to undertake reform. Since the Oslo accords Japan has already contributed 800 million dollars to the PA. Unfortunately I could not go to Japan although I very much wanted to. But I do intend to fulfill my commitment and visit Japan after the elections, when I will visit Japan as Israel’s Prime Minister.

My last visit to Japan was in 1969. Most certainly there has been an overwhelming change in the last four decades. I hope my upcoming visit will strengthen ties between our two countries.

We’re interested in promoting bilateral ties in a number of fields. We’d like to establish a business council that will cover various aspects of trade and research. In the area of tourism, it is very important for us that the Japanese people feel no restrictions or limitations in the ability to come to Israel directly.

In 2004, there were only 6,200 visitors from Japan. In a country that has 120 million inhabitants a greater number of people should visit us.

The next area we would like to cooperate with Japan is the war on terror. Israel proposes the establishment of teams, work groups that will coordinate the efforts to promote this cause. In the area of security, Israel welcomes the opportunity to deepen the security ties between the two countries. I was born on a farm. The area of agriculture is an area we want to see Israel and Japan working together. To develop agricultural technology, Israel has great experience and knowledge in this field and is always happy to share with other countries.

With Egypt we have the three-way agriculture project which is very successful. We are looking forward to expanding this "three country model" to other countries. We have an organization that belongs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Agriculture. Because of my long service over many governments I served as foreign minister and agriculture minister.

We started in the ’50s. We even worked in countries we didn’t have diplomatic relations with. Being involved in food production, enhancing education and so on. We trained 150,000 experts in many many countries. It’s very very positive. No war.

You could have seen Israel working in the driest deserts in the world. I remember bringing Indians in Peru to the driest desert in the world between Peru and Chile. We have the kind of people that are prepared to go to the poorest areas of the world. The problem we have is that we don’t have the financial means. Therefore we are looking for partners to work with us. I talked about this issue several times with the Secretary General of the UN. Even last time I was there.

Q: Could this lead to better ties with neighboring countries?

A: Yes. As a matter of fact my first function as a minister in the Israeli government in 1977 I started to do that with Egypt. It can be done in Arab countries and in poor countries in Africa. I will be glad to work with Japan. This will be one of the issues I will discuss with the PM.

Q: Mr. Koizumi has invited you and PA President Mahmoud Abbas to hold a 3-way summit in Japan.

A: I will be very glad to visit Japan. About coming together with Abu Mazen (Abbas), our position is we have to negotiate mutually between ourselves and the Palestinians, and this idea came in the past but that was our position. We are not interfering with Abbas’ visit but it’s about mutual negotiations.

Another thing we are interested in is cultural ties. Israel proposes to Japanese universities centers of Jewish culture to teach more about Judaism. Today this does not exist in any Japanese university, a program of Jewish studies.

We are an old nation. It’s hard to compete with Japan because civilization has existed in Japan since 10,000 years ago; Jewish people have been around for 4,000 years. Jerusalem has been the capital of Jewish people for 3,009 years since King David made Jerusalem the capital. King David was based in Hebron for 7 years and 6 months then made Jerusalem the capital. The city is the united and undivided capital of Israel forever and ever, or eternity. Jews never stopped living in this country. Under the Romans, most Jews were deported from here but still there were Jewish communities that never left here. At least a hundred years before Muslims arrived here, there were 400,000 Jews here.

Q: Is it possible for the Palestinians to share the capital?

A: One can say, but I would like to tell you our position. Our position is that Jerusalem is not negotiable. We are not going to negotiate on Jerusalem. Jerusalem will forever be the united and undivided capital of Israel. And of course thousands of years being the capital of Jews, it will be forever the capital of Jews.

Q: Do you think Ramallah should be the capital of the Palestinian state?

A: It is not for us to decide the Palestinian capital. Jerusalem will be forever the capital of Israel and the Jewish people.

Q: Do you think it will go down in history that the Palestinians missed an opportunity at Camp David when it declined former Israeli PM Ehud Barak’s proposal to divide Jerusalem?

A: No, I don’t think that practically they could have done that. I don’t think the Jewish people are ready to divide Jerusalem and I believe the Palestinians made many mistakes but mainly as a result of terror and murder and bloodshed. I took a hard and painful step in the disengagement but after we left Gaza, terror did not stop. I saw that after disengagement terror didn’t stop.

Q: Ten Kassams missiles were fired from Gaza into Israel yesterday (January 2) . How will Israel respond?

A: The first responsibility is on the PA to stop terror. The problem is they are not taking any steps whatsoever. They know and understand that to move forward we are committed to the Road Map. The road map says very clearly that to move forward there should be full cessation of terror, hostilities and incitement.

I was ready to make painful compromises for a durable real peace. I made painful compromises. But I made it very clear that when it comes to security issues, Israel will not make any compromises, not now, not in the future. Israel is a tiny country. A country with many talents and courageous people. That is the only place in the world where Jews have power to protect itself. I am a Jew and that is the most important thing for me. I know it’s not only our right and we have the power, but this is our duty. Therefore when it comes to security Israel will not make any compromises. It is our role to decide what is needed for the security of this nation. I have said to heads of states that the Palestinians have to take steps. They should stop terror completely, dismantle terrorist organizations, collect weapons and should implement reforms, all these things they have to do. If that is what they will do, I believe there is a real possibility to move forward along the Road Map which with God’s help peace.

Q: You said terrorism did not stop even after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. Do you have any vision of a unilateral disengagement in the West Bank similar to what you have in the Gaza Strip?

A: No, no, the answer is no. In Samaria and Judea (West Bank) there is a plan that is the Road Map. We are not going to face now also not in the future any unilateral disengagement. The answer is no. Maybe when you hear this, you know there is an election campaign (in Israel), but I can tell you this is not going to happen. There is not going to be another one (unilateral disengagement). About the Palestinian state, I would like very much to solve this problem and establish really different relations between us and Palestinians. But Israel has been facing Arab terror for over 120 years. We are not ready to accept and I don’t see any other countries in the world that would have been ready to face terror, mostly against civilian population, babies and women and children.

Q: You say you can’t trust a paper agreement and you have to see results. But are you still committed to a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, rather than building separation barriers and removing settlers in the West Bank and making your own boundaries?

A: Look, I think that I initiated it. Yes, of course. But there are certain terms. But if somebody thinks that Israel will negotiate under terror, that is wrong. We have one thing that we will never give up, security.

Q: What happens if Hamas wins the Palestinian election this month?

A: I think that it is very, very important that Hamas is a terror organization with a covenant that speaks about elimination of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. They are not partners for negotiations. And if, for instance, Hamas’ weapons had been collected and if (portions of) Hamas’ terrible covenant had been banned, then, it would be a different situation. I don’t see any steps whatsoever by Mahmud Abbas to try and reach such a position. About Hamas and elections, all together we do not interfere in elections of PA. We don’t interfere. As about Hamas terrorist. we will deal with them the way we deal with them now. For instance, if a Hamas terrorist or a wanted will be stopped on the road, they will be arrested exactly as it is now. We of course are not going to be there. But if for instance there will be a terrorist who will be stopped on the road, that is what there is the situation now.

Q: If Hamas changes its covenant and accepts the existence of Israel, then would Hamas be a negotiating partner?

A: Look, reality is not what they say. Reality is what happens. Their weapons should be taken from them, collected from them. The (portions of) Hamas’ covenant should of course be banned.

Q: What about Iran, which is also a threat?

A: You have to know that they are working. They are working. Iran is a huge country.

Q: What do you think of the Iranian nuclear program?

A: The elected Iranian president is showing a willingness to clash with the West and take upon himself many risks than those of his predecessors. He continues to develop and advance his nuclear program while in violation of the Paris Agreement, and continues with on-going efforts to enrich uranium. His constant remarks and recent statements with regard to Israel as well as his actions point out the dangers that Israel faces from such a radical Iranian regime determined to pursue his goal of becoming a nuclear military power. The Iranians are working on 2 parallel tracks — an open public track and a secret one. With regard to its secret track, Iran continues with her policy of advancing and overcoming its technical shortcomings and they are trying to overcome the missing existing gaps between their public track and their secret track. As far as Israel is concerned, the question or critical issue is not whether or not Iran is successful in acquiring nuclear bombs — this could still take a few years — but when they will have technological ability to acquire nuclear bombs.

Our assessment is that they will be able to overcome this technical shortcoming within one year. In any event time is not working in favor to those who are concerned about Iran reaching or preventing it from reaching its nuclear goals. I wanted to state that Israel is not the spearhead in the struggle of the international campaign to achieve these nuclear capabilities.

We are operating behind the scenes as the U.S. and Europe is carrying most of the burden in this effort. We are working together when it comes to gathering intelligence and evaluating the situation together with the United States and European countries. I think the diplomatic effort has reached the maximum and the moment of truth will come this month or next month. Should there not be a significant breakthrough in the near future then we can expect to see this matter be brought to the UN Security Council in March, with the aim of creating a united and broad coalition in the Security Council to handle this matter in an efficient manner. Japan is now chairing the IAEA and I think it very important that Japan joins this effort and plays an active role in leading this campaign. This of course is very important. I know that Iran is a very important source of oil for Japan — if I’m not mistaken up to 10 % of Iran’s oil production is consumed by Japan. But I think there is a great danger with this regime and I believe the world will be a different world if Iran is able to possess nuclear weapons.

Q: In 1981, then Israeli PM Menachem Begin launched air strikes against Iraq in order to prevent Iraqi nuclear development. Facing an imminent nuclear threat from Iran, will you act like Mr. Begin did in 1981 if we reach the critical point and the diplomatic solution is not working?

A: I was then a member of that cabinet when the decision was taken and I had an important role in making this decision then in 1981. First I believe there were different circumstances then. I believe we are still in the phase of diplomatic efforts, Iran should be brought to the Security Council and I believe we are in a phase where sanctions can be taken and we can still stop it.

Q: Do you see a point within this year that you might not be able to stop it with diplomatic efforts?

A: I still believe that it is not a lost case and believe sanctions should be taken and pressure should of course be put on Iran in order to prevent this great danger.

Q: In September 2005, a container vessel carrying the Israeli flag overturned a fishing boat off the coast of Nemuro, Hokkaido. Do you have any message to the families of the crew?

A: Israel is very sorry about the tragic event. It raised great grief among the people of Israel. We are a people that don’t leave wounded people behind. We will take all the necessary steps. It caused great sorrow here. I would like to express my personal regrets and grief and send condolences to the families.

Q: How do you see the situation in Syria?

A: First you have to know that Syria together with Iran is backing the Hizbollah terrorist organization. Syria hosts the terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, there are about maybe 10 or 11 terrorist Palestinian organizations — the most radical of them are headquartered in Damascus. Terrorists are trained in Syria and weapons come from Iran and Syria and I believe that’s something that should be stopped.

Q: Do you think the Golan Heights will stay under Israeli sovereignty forever?

A: I don’t see any situation where Israel will not be sitting on the Golan Heights. For 19 years the northern part of Israel was under heavy war of attrition. We are not going to return to this situation, although Israel will never attack Syria.

Q: We’ve been talking to you for more than an hour. You look confident and strong. How do you feel about going back to hospital in two days?

A: I feel well. I have to stay another day, or several hours.

Q: President Bush advised you to exercise more. Are you listening to his advice?

A: Ha, ha…

Q: Japanese companies and tourists hesitate coming here because of the security situation. Do you think 2006 will be better? Will it be a historic year for peace?

A: I hope we will be moving forward, and it can be quiet. In any case we will take all the necessary steps to make it quiet. If life will be normal here, we will be able to move forward. I decided to make an effort to bring peace to Israel. No doubt I will make an effort to achieve this.

Q: Thank you, sir.

A: Thank you for coming.