|Gaza - A realistic idea ?|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
Everything points to the fact that Israel is at the crossroads, that everything has changed, and that everything that was considered absolute truth just three months ago has already been consigned to oblivion. This, for example, is how the Jewish presence in the Gaza Strip has lost its strategic importance in an instant. The well-informed observer moves from one surprise to another, and despite everything has not merely the obligation to retain his balance, but also to explain what is happening. In order to do so, we decided to go right to the source and were received for an exclusive interview by the Minister of Defense of the State of Israel, General SHAUL MOFAZ, previously Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
Could you in just a few words sketch out the new strategic situation in the Middle East since American forces took over Iraq?
There is no doubt that the most important event of 2003 was the American military campaign in Iraq. It has had a global and a local impact that has affected our entire region. A very clear message has been sent to countries with extremist regimes, whose objective is to acquire nuclear weapons and who today finance and provide logistical support for terrorism. But we should certainly not be under any illusions. The fact that Iran, Syria and Libya appear to have put a brake on their activities is only a temporary respite. This situation provides Israel with the possibility of concentrating directly on its priorities, its most serious threats. In this area, the biggest danger is Iran, which does all it can to gain time and become a regional superpower. We must be alert all the time and watch what the Iranians do, since their objective is to obtain enriched uranium and become a nuclear power. Our second priority is to make day-to-day life in Israel safe. To this end we undertake anti-terrorist operations. Abu Alla has not made any efforts to change the situation on the ground, not even to let the “Road Map” have a chance of success. Before considering negotiations, he has set a list of preconditions. These include that we should go back to the cease-fire line of September 2000 and that we should dismantle the security fence. Faced with this, the Prime Minister has decided to take a series of unilateral steps to unfreeze the situation. We can no longer wait for the other side to have the good grace to decide to negotiate with us. Today we have no partner, nor do I see anyone who could be reasonably considered one in the near future, to work with us to implement the “Road Map”. That is why we have taken the unilateral decision to relocate the Jewish inhabitants of Gaza. This disengagement will create a better security situation for Israel, will reduce the tensions between us and the Arab population of the region, will provide a new chance to implement the Road Map, and will give us more freedom of action in the fight against terrorism. If within a year we are able to carry out this disengagement and at the same time convince the other side to effectively implement the first step in the “Road Map”, which is the total dismantling of terrorist infrastructures, we will have taken a step forward towards a peaceful solution.
Do you really believe that by leaving Gaza you will get a partner for negotiations, indeed for peace?
I believe the Arabs understand that if we take the initiative to create a better security situation for Israel, we will be in a position that we can easily hold for many years. At the same time, they will also learn that they have nothing to gain by remaining obstinate in their refusal to negotiate with us. In the meantime, we are hearing their first, clearly hostile reactions to our unilateral disengagement idea, because under no circumstances do they want to find us in a better situation. The big problem is Arafat, who controls everything, in particular the PLO’s security apparatus. He constitutes a real obstacle to any initiative. We cannot wait for the other side to be good enough to take creative initiatives that will let our peoples live together peaceably, even if not as the best of friends. That is why I think our idea of starting with disengagement from Gaza represents a constructive initiative.
When you say “starting with Gaza”, does that mean that you intend dismantling other Jewish centers in Judea and Samaria?
Our security requirements in those areas are quite different from those in and around Gaza. I believe that there are certain blocs that we must strengthen, such as Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Ariel and other areas where we are permanently established. If we are to achieve a coexistence agreement or even peace, it is essential that we be able to establish viable and defensible borders. These are in Judea and Samaria, not in Gaza. That is why I support the disengagement plan, because I think that if we reach an agreement, that will inevitably involve the relocation of the Jewish population currently living in this area.
You support a unilateral retreat from Gaza, yet I recall very well that when the IDF unilaterally left southern Lebanon you were openly opposed to the move. Why today are you in favor of a major, unilateral concession to the Arabs?
The two situations are not comparable. In Lebanon, there was only the army to fight terrorism. There was no Jewish population. I am still of the opinion that in unilaterally leaving southern Lebanon we made a mistake. In the case of Gaza, the IDF will not be leaving the area. There will always be an Israeli military presence in the immediate vicinity of this zone, which will let us fight terrorism when that proves necessary. In addition, we shall retain total control of the air and the sea and of the frontier zone with Egypt. It is quite different in Judea and Samaria, including the Jordan Valley, which is an integral part of our national and security interests. So our presence in these areas is a necessity.
In practical terms, how do you propose to proceed? Are you thinking of evacuating Jews from their homes by force?
We must negotiate with the leadership in these areas in order to reach a relocation agreement. We have started planning, and we do not yet have solutions for all the problems involved…
There is nonetheless a fundamental problem with your initiative. How do you propose balancing the Zionist idea with evacuation of Jews from their homes, obviously with the need to resort to force?
We are a peace loving people whose dearest wish is to live in peace, which underpins all our prayers. Over the last three years we have done everything to find a solution with the other side, but we have not succeeded. As a result, we have to take decisions that may be very expensive at various levels, but which will constitute a secure base for our future. I believe that a majority of Israelis will support our initiative.
It is possible that this plan fulfills a need to protect coming generations. However, you have not explained why this solution was not considered earlier. Many Israeli citizens and soldiers have sacrificed their lives to maintain a Jewish presence in Gaza, which from one day to the next has been rendered superfluous. Can you state clearly what brought about this change?
It is the result of the Oslo process, which failed to achieve its aims. We understood that all the negotiations carried out by Arafat had but a single design: to achieve his political aims through terrorism and violence. These are well-known and can be quickly summarized: the establishment of a Palestinian state, the division of Jerusalem, of which half will be the capital of his state, return to the 1967 frontiers, and above all else the return of Arab refugees who left in 1948. Today, Arafat himself has realized that by proceeding this way, he had no chance of achieving his political objectives. President Bush’s speech on 24 June 2002 was a watershed, when he stated, “the Palestinians must choose a different leadership”. Thus since Oslo we have been party to both a deterioration in relations with the other side, and of their intentions. I believe that our disengagement plan for Gaza will create, as I have already said, a new security situation for us and a new ray of hope for Israelis, while sending a strong message to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. It is the task of leaders to take decisions whose benefits can often not be seen in the short-term, but which in the long-term will prove positive.
Over the last ten years I have worked with five Prime Ministers. Each in his own way wanted peace. Each looked for solutions, and I am convinced that our attitude over the last two years of not negotiating as long as terrorism continued is right. Our disengagement plan will force the other side to take steps that will eventually get us back to the negotiating table.
Yet a large part of the army’s senior command has expressed its opposition to your plan, even going so far as to call it an encouragement for terrorism. What do you say to that?
The Army’s job is to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of our idea, which is what it has done. It cannot take a political decision.
The last time I interviewed you, you were Chief of Staff (see SHALOM Vol. 35), when you ran an organization which, while taking many decisions of its own, definitely carried out government instructions. Now you are on the other side of the table, you are one of the country’s leaders, one of those who tell the army what to do. How do you perceive this change?
It is much more difficult to take decisions in my present position than at the time of our last meeting. The main difference between the two positions is that above all I must make choices taking a larger number of factors and parameters into account. The people expect its leaders to take decisions, but I am very aware that these often affect the future of the country for a long time to come. Taking the right decisions is the hardest part of my job. Our Gaza disengagement plan was not decided upon lightly or easily. In the short-term, the idea of uprooting Israelis is extremely saddening, but I believe that in the long-term our decision will prove not just right but also beneficial for our people.