|By Roland S. Süssmann|
During the early years of SHALOM, we created a section entitled “Young leaders in Israel”, where we presented young politicians, doctors, researchers, musicians, business people and others. Well-known interviewees have included Benjamin Begin, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu. Today we have decided to revive this section, and our first portrait is of YUVAL STEINITZ, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Born in 1958, Dr Steinitz has degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and from Tel-Aviv University. He held the chair of philosophy at the University of Haifa for two years and has published four books of philosophy, of which “Invitation to Philosophy” has been a tremendous success in Israel, having been reprinted 24 times. Dr. Steinitz has also published many articles in major national and international newspapers, including the New York Times. His favorite subjects are Israel’s strategic position, the Arabs’ strategic considerations, and the relationship in Israel between the media and democracy. A traditional but non-practicing Jew, he is married and has three children.
Today you hold an important position on the Israeli parliamentary scene. How did you come into politics?
I did not take the classic route, because I come from the academic world. Over the past decade I underwent a number of fundamental changes, of which the most important was my passage from left to right. During the 1980’s, I was a very active and important member of the Peace Now movement, and took part in many demonstrations, both for the peace process and for the establishment of a Palestinian state. It was only a year after the signature of the Oslo accords, but before the new wave of terrorism, that I became aware that it was not a matter of a peace process but of a war process. I also realized that the idea of exchanging land for peace was completely wrong, and that for Arafat and the Palestinians this formula effectively meant, “Land in exchange for war, terrorism and incitement to hatred”. It was at the end of 1994 that I started to re-evaluate my convictions and I moved from Peace Now to the Likud, where I decided to lend my support to Benjamin Netanyahu. At that time I was in a pretty difficult situation, it was the period of euphoria, ceremonies with Arafat were taking place one after another, and my friends could not understand me. It was only a year later when the suicide attacks started to occur over and over again, that I started to encounter some understanding. I was the first member of the academic world and peace activist who publicly acknowledged the failure of the Oslo process. In fact, I was the first major supporter of Oslo to have radically and publicly changed his views. The second major change in my life happened in 1999, when I decided to leave the academic world to enter politics. The main reason that made me take this step was that I was deeply concerned about the fate of Israel and by security questions, of which some go far beyond the simple, political debate. I was elected to the Knesset in 1999 and was appointed Chairman of the Defense Planning Sub-Committee, which I lead for three years. At the last elections I won the ninth place on the Likud list and was appointed Chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
So you have undergone a profound change?
More of a pragmatic than an ideological nature. I became aware of the dangers involved in the way Israeli governments of the left were handling the Oslo accords, ignoring every Arab violation in the fields of arms control and incitement to hate among the youth and in the schools. At one point, I realized that simply continuing the Oslo process constituted a serious danger not just to our security, but even to our very existence. By joining the Likud, I decided to help taking corrective action, in order to limit the damage. Accordingly, ever since the Wye Plantation negotiations, we have implemented the principal of reciprocity, which was totally absent from the Oslo lexicon. The accords were never implemented in the end, because the other side did not honor its commitments. By the way, in the famous “Road Map”, about which I have many reservations and which we should never have accepted, the concept of reciprocity is one of the pillars on which it has been built.
What is your opinion of the Prime Minister’s idea for a unilateral Israeli disengagement?
One way or another, it represents an idea of which we must take note. It must not be forgotten that we have no partner. If we wish to maintain the character and the Jewish majority of the State of Israel, we must separate from the Arab population, but we have an absolute requirement for large security zones, in order to be able to protect ourselves. The only way to achieve these two conditions is through unilateral disengagement. If such a step were limited exclusively to Gaza, I would be inclined to support it. Even if the places we evacuated were used by the Arabs to arm themselves, because of the topography of the area we would not be confronted with a major security problem on a national scale. The situation is entirely different in Judea and Samaria, because, if the Arabs took advantage of a unilateral disengagement to bring in Iranian arms or to manufacture weapons, it would be Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv that would be threatened.
How do you see the security situation developing?
I believe that we should be working simultaneously at several levels. Firstly. Arafat must be expelled to Tunis and punished personally, if not for his crimes then at least for having violated international agreements. We should then reinforce our position in Judea and Samaria, while at the same time offering the Palestinians the possibility of setting up a provisional entity in Gaza for a four-year trial period. At the end of this time, if there is a move towards peaceful coexistence, a new negotiations process could be considered. On the other hand, if we are a faced with a recrudescence of terrorism and acts of war, we will fight them in the toughest manner possible. I believe they would understand that we would strengthen our positions and that we would take no further interest in them. I am therefore in favor of unilateral disengagement in Gaza only, that would be underwritten by a message of firmness and force, which would be effectively a sort of punishment for the Palestinian leadership for not having honored its signature. If the idea were to abandon a certain number of places in Judea and Samaria, I would be against that. In addition, disengagement from Gaza need not mean that all the Jewish settlements need to be relocated. Each one has to be considered on its own merits in the light of security requirements. I think that the disengagement process as proposed by the Prime Minister represents a first nail in the coffin of the Geneva “accords”. It should be known that that initiative is extremely dangerous, and if it represents the beginning of a process, it will lead directly to the destruction of the State of Israel. This is in no way a peace initiative, but a plan for launching a new stage in the conflict. There should be no shadow of a doubt that “negotiations” on the number of Arab refugees who would have the right to resettle in Israel would constitute a direct cause of armed confrontation. Moreover, due to a totally edited presentation, this initiative has been presented as a “peace initiative”, whereas in fact it is an incitement to war.
During 2003, certain major changes took place in the Middle East. How do you evaluate the situation?
Today, the situation is still quite confused, and it is much too early to say whether Syria or Iran have actually changed their policies. We do not know if we are facing new, long-term strategic choices or just some tactical movements aimed at relieving American pressure. As far as Libya is concerned, it has already been seen that the leadership has made a choice that represents a radical change in policy and strategy. Declarations were followed by concrete actions, in terms of demilitarization, the fight against terrorism, and the question of compensation for the victims of the attack on Pan Am flight 103. It is therefore thinkable that Libya is serious in its initiative. As far as Syria is concerned, it never refused to negotiate with us on condition that we accepted in advance all its conditions. I believe that for a change of attitude to be credible, Assad should emulate President Sadat and come to the Knesset to announce his acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East. So far, Syria has not closed down a single office of any terrorist organization in Damascus, has not disarmed the Hizbullah in Lebanon, nor has it accepted responsibility for its past and present support of international terrorism. At this time, Iraq does not represent a danger for Israel, which does not mean that in five years, even if that country becomes a pro-Western democracy, that it will not remain hostile to us. It cannot be excluded that by then a new Iraqi air force will be equipped with American combat aircraft and become a threat to Israel, as is the case today of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Do you actually believe that Egypt poses a threat to Israel?
It represents one of our most dangerous threats! Egypt has a massive arsenal of conventional weapons and a deeply anti-Israel policy. Incitement to hatred, both in the government press and through other channels, is extremely virulent and overtly anti-Jewish. The indoctrination of Egyptian army officers is based on a single concept: “Be ready for an armed confrontation with Israel”. Egypt is, by the way, an excellent symbolic example of the question of democratizing the Middle East and of a fundamental change of attitude and of relations with the West in general and with Israel in particular.
You are clearly aware of the dangers; what steps are you taking to protect yourselves?
There are several answers to that question. The first involves the intelligence services and the second touches directly on the issue of armaments. One of the most important issues is how we handle the information we receive from the intelligence services and how these services function. Once, our objective was to collect intelligence on the military capacity of our immediate neighbors, with the particular purpose of avoiding a surprise attack. We did not pay special attention to countries like Libya, Iran or Saudi Arabia, because in the final analysis, in the event of war, such countries could only provide our direct enemies with auxiliary forces. Today, with long-range ballistic missiles armed with non-conventional warheads, needs have changed. Countries in the second or third ring, without direct frontiers with us, could become primary dangers for us. We are therefore obliged to change both the way we work as well as the doctrine of our intelligence services. It boils down to how a small country like Israel, which has only limited means, can obtain the maximum amount of information from a growing number of countries, in more and more different areas.
As far as armaments go, during the 1980’s, when Israel abandoned the Lavi combat aircraft, Israel took the strategic decision to no longer manufacture heavy armaments. From then on, our military industries concentrated on manufacturing sub-systems such as all sorts of tactical missiles (ground-air, air-air, air-ground, sea-sea, sea-land, anti-missile missiles, anti-tank missiles etc), electronic weaponry and others. It had been decided that in these fields that we would not only retain an advantage over hostile neighbors, but that our products would be the best in the world. Today, we are faced with a serious problem, for countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are receiving the same planes, helicopters and tanks as our armed forces. A small country like Israel must always maintain a decisive, qualitative advantage, particularly because of the number of countries that surround it. It must not be forgotten that the current ration is 1 Israeli for 60 Arabs in neighboring countries. The only way of countering this fact is by permanently making sure we retain our technical superiority. That is the reason that the American F-16 combat plane sold to Egypt is no longer the same as soon as it has our electronics installed. Each of our military aircraft is enhanced by the latest electronic technology, which is one to two generations ahead of the latest American equipment that is often sold to Arab countries. The Egyptian and Saudi air forces carry out joint manoeuvers and have a much larger arsenal of planes than we do, yet despite that the Israel Air Force is clearly superior. We made one exception for the Merkava tank, which today is the best in the world and in every respect superior to the best American or German tanks. The Merkava III and IV have remarkable accuracy and firepower, have better protection for the crew, and are equipped with unique electronic systems that are so good that some people compare the Merkava IV to a combat aircraft equipped by us. Having said which, we are seriously thinking of reducing the number of tanks in the army, on the one hand because of the amazing efficiency of the Merkava, and on the other hand because we have other weaponry that will make up for the tanks we will take out of service.
Another very ambitious project in which our military industries are involved is the development of military satellites, in which we are number two in the world, after the United States.
And finally, we intend to implement a new military doctrine about the use of the navy as part of our defense, the idea being to use the Mediterranean to increase our strategic depth. This is a major project that requires a fundamental rethink of our entire concept of national defense.
Dr Yuval Steinitz has decided to dedicate his life to the defense of Israel. We shall be hearing for a long time of this young, 45 year old leader, who without a doubt will be playing a major role in the history of the Jewish state.