|The Moment of Truth|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
REUVEN RIVLIN (known to all as Ruby), the current Speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, is a colorful personality, known for not mincing his words but liked by all. His family is one of the oldest in Jerusalem, where it settled in 1809, having arrived from Vilna. A well-known lawyer, Reuven Rivlin is above all a pure Jerusalemite: he has been director of the city’s Sports Association, Betar Jerusalem, which has a famous football club of the same name, he has been a city councilor and has sat on the Board of the famous Khan theater. Mr. Rivlin has been Chairman of the Jerusalem section of the Herut party since 1986, and has been a leader of the Likud 1988-1993.
He was elected to Israel’s parliament for the first time on 1st November 1988, to the 12th Knesset, on the Likud list, and since then he has been reelected each time. In the first Sharon government he held the Ministry of Communications portfolio. Today, Reuven Rivlin is one of the opponents of the unilateral disengagement plan proposed by Ariel Sharon and does not conceal his support for the adversaries of this proposal. We were very warmly received by Mr. Rivlin in the Speaker’s office in the Knesset for a discussion on the subject of the moment: unilateral disengagement from Gush Katif, this tiny enclave on the Gaza Strip’s Mediterranean coast, inhabited exclusively by Jews.
You recently made the following statement, “The winter session of the 16th Knesset, which opens on 11th October 2004, must make major decisions. It will determine the direction of the Zionism of tomorrow. In my opinion, these decisions will be as fateful as those taken following the establishment of the State, during the Yom Kippur war and prior to signing the peace accords with Egypt. I think that every member of the Knesset must understand the gravity of the moment and the significance of the responsibility that rests upon him or her”. What you say is clear, but why do you believe Israel is at a crucial juncture in its existence?
When the 16th Knesset was elected, nobody could imagine that it would have to legislate on fundamental questions that we had had always put off by saying, “when the time comes, we’ll take the necessary decisions”. Today, the time has come, and we are being called upon to fix the borders of the State of Israel: are we going to annex Judea and Samaria so that they become an integral part of the Jewish State, will the River Jordan be our frontier, will the Golan Heights remain in our hands, what will happen to Jerusalem, Maale Adumim, Ariel or Gush Etzion? There are many differences of opinion, firstly between left and right, and then within both left and right. There are followers of Yitzhak Rabin who believe that Gush Etzion and Ariel are integral parts of the State of Israel, while others, on the extreme left, talk of a return to the 1967 border with some minor territorial changes resulting from an exchange of land with the Arabs. The right, on the other hand, believes it is wrong to abandon Israeli land.
Why do you believe the time for taking all these decisions has arrived?
This is all due to the fact that Ariel Sharon, who has always expressed himself very clearly about Israel’s security requirements, has suddenly decided to change strategy by declaring that he wants to withdraw from Gaza. Now I would remind you that in the Oslo Accords, our first withdrawal took place in Gaza. It should be recalled that Ariel Sharon was always clearly in favor of Israel keeping the Jordan Valley and the Jewish land in the Gaza Strip so long as the Arabs have not relinquished their own version of “the right of return”. This new idea of giving back Gush Katif is motivated by the wish to separate Israel from the Palestinian Authority, as if such a separation was reasonably possible. Let’s not forget that Israelis and the Arab inhabitants of the territories are “made” for living together, or “condemned” to live together. If as an example I take the microcosm of Jerusalem, which today has 800,000 inhabitants, the fact is that one third of the population is Arab; and if I look at Greater Jerusalem, from Ramallah in the north to Gush Etzion and Bethlehem in the south, it has about 1.2 million inhabitants, half of whom are Israeli and half Arabs. This mix cannot simply be separated. Of course you can always talk of “separation” and “unilateral disengagement”, but the facts show that we must learn to live together. In addition, it is the Prime Minister who has always said that is for the “other side” to take a decisive step and announce, “We accept the existence of the State of Israel and we wish to live in peace with its inhabitants”. He has also always said that thanks to our presence in Gaza we were better able to master the most serious threats and forms of intimidation against Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip. But now our Prime Minister has changed his mind, and as a result the entire political scene has been transformed. You should know that in the Likud, for some members of the Herut faction, it is entirely unacceptable that Israelis abandon their right to settle anywhere in Israel; on the other hand, other members of the party would be prepared to give up some land and to make significant compromises if they believed it useful that a Palestinian state be created. On this particular point I can only say. “May the Lord protect us”. It must be understood that if the elections of 2001 and 2003 provided Ariel Sharon with big successes (70% of the vote), it was not because he received unconditional support from the people, but because he benefited from a voter backlash against the Oslo Accords. I believe that today about a third of our people directly support our Prime Minister, which by the way is clearly reflected in the Likud’s representation, with 40 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
So why are you so opposed to the unilateral disengagement plan?
By evacuating just one Jewish village in Judea-Samaria-Gaza, we will be telling the whole world and the Arabs in particular that we are prepared to act in this way, which is very dangerous. It should be borne in mind that when we left Sinai and gave up Yamit, we were not leaving Jewish territory, and most importantly, we did not withdraw unilaterally, but as part of a peace agreement contracted between two sovereign states. If we are prepared to evacuate Jewish land it means that the future frontiers of our State have not been defined, and we are exposing ourselves to serious consequences. The entire world will think that Israel is prepared to transfer territory without anything in return, which means that for a peace agreement the Jewish State will also be prepared to return, in the first instance, to the 1967 frontiers. I say in the first instance because, heaven forefend, if such a withdrawal takes place, we shall very quickly be faced by new demands that will force us to go back, always in the name of peace, to the frontiers of 1947 or 1948. It would be endless.
Do you really think Ariel Sharon is prepared to abandon Ariel, Kedumim, Gush Etzion or Jerusalem?
Absolutely not! However, his initiative will open up the way for those coming after him to say, “The Likud under Ariel Sharon made unilateral concessions, and it is obvious that to live in peace Israel must continue to make new, painful efforts”. I am very well acquainted with our Prime Minister’s thinking. He sincerely believes that by going for unilateral disengagement he will be able to control the situation. He would then be able to tell the world that Israel has done enough for peace in the region and that now the ball is in the other side’s court. He also thinks he will obtain some understanding for Israel defending its vital interests without being exposed to the criticism and pressure from the rest of the world. This is a serious delusion, of which I have recently had a most instructive experience. I was invited to Paris by the Speakers of the National Assembly and the Senate. In our discussions, during which each of my opposite numbers told me how much they appreciated Israel’s liberal democracy, I was asked to comment on the current situation. I explained to them what I have just told you, and they then asked me, “How can it be that someone like you, one of Ariel Sharon’s best friends, is opposed to the unilateral withdrawal plan?” I replied, “I actually have a question to put to you on this subject. When the Prime Minister of Israel tries to convince me of the rightness of his approach, he always states that if we implement the plan, France and other European countries will no longer insist that we evacuate the other territories in Judea and Samaria, because they will understand that we have done our utmost to advance the cause of peace. He believes that we would then benefit from a “period of quiet” of at least fifteen years. In your opinion, is he right? Because if that is so, I would have to change my point of view and my ideological convictions about the 3,500 year old rights of the Jews to this land – for over 3,500 years to come”. In response, they burst out laughing and told me, “We understand why you are not supporting your Prime Minister”. A few glasses, polite exchanges and jokes later, I put the question to them again, whether or not they would grant us a period of grace of fifteen months, fifteen weeks, fifteen days or fifteen minutes, and the laughing at the beginning just became indulgent smiles. In the end they confirmed what I had suspected: the entire world absolutely wants us to go back to the 1967 frontiers. Yet it was exactly because of those borders that Israel suffered so much, so many threats and so many wars.
The hour of major decisions has arrived.In practice, what will happen?
Indeed, we are about to take a historic decision. It is true that for reasons related to the make-up of the new coalition, the government decided defer the vote to December or next March, but Ariel Sharon has frequently repeated that he really wants that by the end of 2005 there would no longer be any Jewish inhabitants in the Gaza Strip. The Zionist political movement is in its hundredth year, but there have been Jews, like my own family, who returned to Jerusalem two hundred years ago, for religious reasons. So our presence here is not an act of colonialism, but the actual fulfillment of Jews’ rights in this land. The decision we must take can be summarized in the following questions: “Are we or are we not prepared to officially renounce the right to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel? Is our generation of Zionist Jews prepared to abandon a part of its rights to Jerusalem, the very heart of the Jewish people and of the Jewish State, if the Arabs ever drop their demands for what they call their right of return?” Today there are many new and young members of the Knesset, and it is on their shoulders that this enormous responsibility rests that will determine Israel’s requirements to defend its vital interests; in a nutshell, it is they who will have to decide what path the Jewish State takes, which will directly put at stake the future of their descendants.
Do you really think there is a risk that the Knesset would vote a law that would legitimize the expulsion of Jews from their homes in Israel at bayonet point by the Israeli army?
Unfortunately, at the moment all the indications are that there is a majority in the Knesset in favor of such ideas. A quick count shows that we already have 71 votes in favor: half the Likud (20 seats), Labor (22 seats), Shinui (15), the Arab members (8), Meretz and Yahad (6). And that’s just the beginning. Obviously, if early elections are held, that might change the entire political map. We are a democracy and there is just one rule that counts, what the majority wants goes. Even if a difficult decision, which seems to us morally wrong, is passed by just one vote, we have no choice but to carry it out. To achieve that, all the resources, including the army, must be employed. If I personally cannot accept that decision, I always have the choice to resign from my position, to resign from the Likud and to leave political life, yet that will not actually change anything and I would have to resign myself to accepting it. This does not mean there is nothing to be done. Right up to the last minute when the vote takes place, we must explain, negotiate, talk, convince, preach and act democratically to persuade as many people as possible that this is a bad idea that is dangerous for us.
You say that you know Ariel Sharon’s thinking. Do you not think that his disengagement plan has been drawn up to avoid Israel ending up totally politically isolated, for which the economic and political consequences would be disastrous?
Until that fateful date of 11th September 2001, everyone, Americans and Europeans alike, thought there was only one way to achieve peace in the Middle East, which was by forcing Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders and to recognize all the “rights and needs of the Palestinians”, totally ignoring their acts of terrorism. Since 9/11, the entire world has understood that terror represents a strategy that must be combated. The reasons why Israel must fight terrorism ruthlessly and cannot give in to the pressures it creates are now acknowledged b the international community. Little remains of those continual demands on Israel to make many gestures and concessions and demanding again and again that we go back to the 1967 borders. It is true that immediately following the Oslo Accords, we enjoyed a better economic situation, and that politically our relations with the entire world improved considerably, in particular with the Europeans. Everyone said, “Israel has shown that it is prepared to make compromises, so we should encourage her”. But very quickly we were again faced by Arab violence, the Intifada launched by Arafat, who announced on every occasion, “We have obtained what we wanted, now on to the next stage”. This “next stage” is nothing other than the implementation of the PLO’s policy of incremental steps, using terrorism to achieve political ends. Today we find ourselves in almost the same position as before Oslo. If we decide to give in and make unilateral concessions, we temporarily win the world’s sympathy and will be entitled to be praised when we prove our weakness. But very quickly the PLO, Arafat and his successors will restart formulating new demands that will be unacceptable to us, and a fresh period of violence, suffering and death will start. At that point the world will again start to apply pressure, telling us, “You ought to make just another small effort to relieve the suffering of the Palestinians”. If we give in again, very soon we will be faced by the question whether or not we accept the idea of a “Palestinian right of return”, which would be totally inadmissible. No country on earth, by the way, would entertain such an idea. Now more than ever we should remember that during the 20th century we got a lot of “good advice” from the international community. We know where that has brought us, particularly in Europe, we have learned the lesson and have forgotten nothing. However, I fear that the Israeli people will not be prepared to make large sacrifices to live in peace. It is prepared to close its eyes to the lessons of the last decade and to forget that we armed Arafat so that he would protect us from terrorism, but he turned those arms against us and cooperated with the terrorist organizations. According to the latest opinion polls, 70% of Israelis accept the idea of unilateral disengagement, even if it involves a large risk and a necessary evil, and over 70% believe negotiations should be restarted with the PLO. For my part, I do not believe that in the long term unilateral concessions will benefit Israel.
What is your opinion of the part played by Israeli Arabs in all this?
I respect every Arab member of the Knesset who, as an Israeli, unreservedly supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State, of which they are an integral part. I have no problem living peaceably with any Arab who realizes that for us there is only one Jewish state, which is Israel, where they live as equal citizens and entirely separately. No nation on earth would accept that the Jewish country be anywhere else. To sum up, I would say that I am prepared to fight so that the rights of every Arab living in Israel are honored both in the letter and the spirit, on condition that they do not question the existence of the Jewish State in Israel and the rights of Jews on this land. It is certainly this idea that we are continuing to fight for the success of our State and facing up to the dangers before us. We have the strength and determination.
It is the destiny of the 16th Knesset to take crucial decisions. Within the framework of a democratic debate in which all the trends and currents in the Zionist movement can express themselves freely, it will be obliged to choose between the good and the bad. It must do everything so that the next generation can live in peace and to ensure that safeguarding the vital interests of Israel and the Jewish people remain solely in our hands. This is the spirit with which I carry out my duties as Speaker of the Knesset, even if, for the time being, I am opposed to the government’s ideas. I do not forget that in the final analysis, it is the majority selected by the people that has the last word.