|By Roland S. Süssmann|
In our series on young leaders in Israel, we presented in the last issue Yuval Steinitz, Chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. We have now interviewed GIDEON SA’AR, Knesset member and head of the Likud parliamentary caucus. Mr. Sa’ar currently holds the important but thankless post of coalition coordinator, a position that requires much patience and diplomacy.
37 years old, Gideon Sa’ar is married and father of two children. A lawyer by profession, he holds degrees in Political science and in Law. After completing his studies, Mr. Sa’ar worked in the State Prosecutor’s Office in the years 1995-1197, and then in 1997-1998 as an assistant in the Attorney General’s Office. At the end of 1998, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered him to become his bureau chief, but six months later Mr. Sa’ar found himself unemployed, when Ehud Barak came to power. Together with a friend he opened a law office in Tel-Aviv, dealing with every type of law that exists in Israel. After Ariel Sharon’s first election in 2001, Mr. Sa’ar was appointed Government Secretary, a position he left in November 2002 in order to stand in the Knesset elections. Having been elected number 18 on the Likud list, the Prime Minister gave him two hats to wear: head of the Likud parliamentary caucus, which has 40 seats, and coalition coordinator. It must be understood that on the Israeli political scene, Mr. Sa’ar plays a crucial role: it is he who has to decide if the coalition must vote unanimously, if the parties can retain freedom of choice and if members can vote freely. Mr. Sa’ar sits on seven of the most important Knesset committees.
We are living in a period when coalition discipline is only just being maintained, and when party discipline seems reduced to zero. One gets the impression that each Knesset member is preoccupied by his or her own interests and political future. What measures have you taken to achieve a minimum amount of order in an area where anarchy appears to reign?
The very fact of being in power and charged with a task by the people is extremely serious and must be treated with care, seriousness and responsibility. I believe that everything should be done to maintain political stability. That’s why, when the Prime Minister offered me this position, I told him that I could only accept if certain conditions were met. The first was that the key positions as heads of the various Knesset committees be concentrated in the hands of the Likud and not given to members from other parties. In the past, for example, we had given the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee to another party, which caused us a lot of problems and expenditure of energy, not to talk of major financial losses to the State. I also asked that we set up a stable coalition from which private initiatives would be banished. In previous parliamentary sessions, virtually every Monday we had to face votes of no confidence that placed the government in danger. We passed a law requiring private members’ bills to involve at least a million dollars, and that each reading (three are required to enact a law) have at least fifty votes in favor. This greatly reduced the number of private members’ bills. Thanks to these two things, we were able to exercise our power effectively and to get on with the economic reforms that are starting to meet with success.
According to your explanation, the Likud was in a position of strength, where it was the winner at every level. Yet today it finds itself with a minority coalition and obliged to conduct negotiations to reestablish some degree of respectability. How did you get into this position?
It is true that we had the best, most stable, most cohesive and strongest coalition the country has had in a decade. When the Prime Minister told me about his plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza, I told him that to maintain our stability and to remain in power, it would be better to present a plan that would be acceptable to the entire national camp. Unfortunately, things turned out differently, and while we have not lost power, we are indeed much diminished.
Let’s talk about the withdrawal plan. Do you support the idea that Jews be expelled from their homes by other Jews, and that certain areas of Israel be made Judenrein (emptied of Jews)?
I must first state that I am opposed to the plan. That having been said, I think that this type of initiative is legitimate if it serves the national interest. The question that must be asked, and it is fundamental to the debate, is whether or not this plan is indeed in the national interest. It is currently very difficult to evaluate this point. We find ourselves in a situation that is not very clear. If we consider the various stages, they can be summarized in the following four points: an Israeli promise to the US administration, a government decision, public opinion largely in favor, and a clear rejection in the Likud referendum. I believe that at the end of the day it is public opinion that will make the difference. We saw what happened with Lebanon. At the beginning, everyone was against unilateral withdrawal, but public opinion kept changing, to the point that Ehud Barak made it a major plank of his electoral campaign, which helped him win the elections. In a way, things are developing similarly over the Gaza question. Before the Prime Minister took up this project, everyone was against the idea of unilateral withdrawal. Invested with his own prestige and his historic commitment to settling Jews in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, Ariel Sharon is today doing everything so that the withdrawal takes place, and that the public places its confidence in him and gives him its unconditional support. It is incidentally interesting to note that the only painful concessions that the people have ever accepted were always ones made by a Prime Minister from the Right. But when I look at the entire plan, with for a first stage the liquidation of the Jewish villages in Gaza and some in Judea and Samaria, then secondly the freezing of construction in these areas, and finally the implementation of the “Road Map”, with its objective of creating a Palestinian State in Israel, it’s simply impossible for me to accept it. This does not mean that I am absolutely opposed to any form of evacuation of areas populated by Jews in Judea-Samaria-Gaza. However, I must acknowledge that the unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza will be carried out because of the support from public opinion and because it has been presented to the international community, which has accepted and supported it. This does not exclude that three years down the road we will not consider it to have been a serious mistake, as was the case with the Oslo Accords. Opponents of the plan have an enormous job to change public opinion, however, if they succeed the problem will change entirely.
You say that you are not fundamentally opposed to the evacuation of Jewish villages, but do you think such measures are inevitable?
I am not convinced that each of the 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza fulfills some security need. In addition, there has always been the hint, by all successive Israeli governments, that the Jewish settlements in Gaza had been created to serve as bargaining chips. I believe we have negotiated very badly over the last few years, because we have pushed off the issue of the Jewish towns and villages in the territories to the end of the negotiations. Along the same lines, we have given up empty areas, where no Jews lived.
One of the essential points that condition the future of the Jewish State is the development of immigration. How do you think one should act in order to increase Aliyah?
The first time Ariel Sharon was elected, I was a member of the “First Hundred Days Committee”, which was charged with creating a plan of priorities for the first three months of the Prime Minister’s tenure. One of our tasks was to make a proposal for promoting immigration. At the time, we were talking of France, Argentina, South Africa, and several other countries at risk. I then recommended, and I still thinks so today, that there must be a medium- and long-term strategy for encouraging Aliyah intelligently. This had two aspects. The first concerned the attractiveness of Israel, and the idea that Israel should offer a complete absorption and integration package, adapted to the needs and training of new immigrants. The second issue was the work of our emissaries. Today we send hundreds of representatives around the world looking for Jews in the most obscure spots. What we should be doing is concentrate on those countries where we have the highest chances of finding large numbers of immigrants. I believe that Aliyah constitutes one of our priorities, and it will not happen through natural developments or through a miracle.
How do you view the development of The Arab-Israel conflict?
I do not believe that we will manage a fundamental resolution of this issue in the near future. So above all we must be thinking of how to manage the conflict rather than seeking a solution. If we act intelligently and with discernment, we will have every chance of having a period of relative calm for quite a long time. By this I mean that we should first complete the security fence, because it affords us not just enhanced security, as the experience of the existing stretches has already shown, but also demographic protection. You should know that prior to the construction of the barrier, 100,000 Arabs from Judea-Samaria settled illegally on the western side of the Green Line. It is obviously important that this security barrier not be built along the pre-Six Days War border. On the other hand, on the international scene, we must be very prudent to properly define when we can afford to be flexible and when we have to stand firm.
Still on the question of the conflict, do you believe the establishment of a Palestinian state is a realistic option?
The debate on this issue is entirely artificial. Effectively, on both the left and the right, a certain number of parameters are considered to be facts. No one believes it is necessary to permanently put the army back into Jenin, Tulkarm, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Shechem (Nablus), Jericho or Gaza, which does not rule out the army making security incursions into these places if the situation so requires. At the same time, the two political camps in Israel are in agreement that any Palestinian entity, whatever form it takes, cannot control the water, air, electricity, borders etc. And today, the territory ceded to the Palestinian Authority are no longer under Israeli control, so it just remains to determine what identity this authority should have. I am against the formal establishment of a Palestinian state, because any security or military action on our part would be considered as aggression between States, which would limit our freedom of maneuver for our own protection. Furthermore, as long as Arafat is there, it will prove impossible to open a new chapter in the relations between Israelis and those Arabs living under his authority. We saw what happened to Abu Mazen, whose tenure was just a tiny episode that almost no one remembers.
To end up, I would like to know your position on a question that is at the center of the national debate in Israel, namely the problem of the relation between Jewish identity and Israeli identity. What are your ideas on the subject?
You are touching on a key issue, and I can tell you that I head a committee charged with the final implementation of a constitution for the State of Israel, which, almost sixty years after its founding, is still deprived of one. I believe that between now and the end of this Knesset, if we don’t have early elections, our project will be completed. The question you raise is of course at the heart of our work. There are many currently involved in a debate whose purpose is to maintain the Jewish character of the State, and several immutable axioms have already been established: Hebrew as the national language, the Right of Return for Jews, the national anthem and the flag. Anchoring these points in the constitution will cut out the ground from under the feet of those who want to take away Israel’s Jewish identity. For my part, of everything I am doing, I believe this is the most important. We don’t know what will happen in the future and in coming generations, which is why it is essential that the Jewish character and identity of the State be inscribed once and for ever, unchangeably, in our constitution.