|Strengh and Determination|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
Ever since Barack Hussein Obama’s arrival in power, the question of construction in Judea and Samaria has become the central point of US-Israel relations. Because of this, the key problems that face the region have lost their priority status. These include: creating a necessary dialogue so that the Arab world and Israel can normalize their relations, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, eliminating Islamic terrorism, and developing a solution to end the conflict. The situation on the ground both at the strategic and political levels is thus highly complex and difficult to comprehend. To help us understand, we met with MOSHE YA’ALON, Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Affairs, better known by the nickname Bogie. In an exclusive interview of over one hour with the Editor in Chief of SHALOM, the Vice Prime Minister provided an in-depth analysis of the situation, of which the main points are summarized here.
During the Second Lebanon War we saw that with a barrage of rockets practically one third of the population of Israel was confined to shelters and had to live underground for a long period. So one of the reasons justifying the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, beyond religious and historical considerations, is a strategic one. Is this approach still justified in the age of rockets and missiles?
The question of Judea and Samaria is not just a tactical one, but a strategic one that we have to assess in the light of the lessons learned in the last sixteen years, since the Oslo process started. What I learned during my career as Head of Military Intelligence, Commander of Judea-Samaria and the Jordan Valley, Deputy Chief of Staff, Chief of Staff and in my current position, is that on the Palestinian Arab side there is no leadership that wants to put an end to the conflict solely on the basis of returning Israel to its borders on 4 June 1967. What they consider an occupation goes back in fact to 1948. From my point it is clear that if on the other side there had been a leader who had recognized the rights of the Jewish People to set up a state, even if only on part of the territory, there would have been peace a long time ago. However, since the birth of Zionism this has simply never been the case. It is absolutely clear that the Palestinian Arabs have not the slightest interest in setting up their state to the east of the pre-1967 borders. And by the way, the Gaza experience has shown us what happens when we respond positively to the Arabs’ territorial demands and believe that in that way we could gain a bit of peace and quiet in the south, emanating from Gaza. We made a bad mistake, because exactly the opposite took place. The result of our withdrawal was the immediate establishment of “Hamastan” (an area completely dominated by Hamas). In other words, for those who still believe that the debate is about the size of the State of Israel or the location of the borders, the time has come to understand that what is at stake is the very right of the Jewish state to exist. It is with that in mind, the lessons of Oslo and the years that followed, that we must approach the strategic issue of Judea and Samaria. That is what will let us understand that a withdrawal from these territories or the establishment of a Palestinian state according to the pre-1967 frontiers will not settle the conflict and will certainly not put an end to the demands of the Arabs.
Another aspect of the problem is the security and military question. Here too we should draw conclusions from past experience. As part of the Oslo Accords we transferred total responsibility for security and civil matters to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for all the Arab towns of Judea and Samaria, Jenin, Shechem, Ramallah, Hebron, Jericho, Bethlehem, Kalkilya and Gaza. That is what is commonly called Zone A. But what happened? All these areas that came under the overall responsibility of the PA were transformed into one large terrorist base. We thought we were exchanging these territories for peace, but what we got was an exchanger of territories for terrorism, and into the bargain over one thousand people killed. This all started before 2000, but from 2000 terrorism in general and the suicide attacks carried out by terrorists coming from the towns we had left increased in a terrifying manner. The cycle of terror was only broken when we returned to these towns as part of Operation Defensive Shield, which we launched in 2002 following the attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya on the night of Pesach. We then moved over from the defensive to the offensive, and gradually we reduced the number of terrorist attacks almost to zero. You have to recall that in March 2002 there were 17 attacks that killed 137 and injured hundreds. We went through the same experience with Gaza, where in exchange for territory we got rockets. Under such conditions, how can we contemplate abandoning the territories in Judea and Samaria, even if popular wisdom says that the SOLUTION to the conflict lies in a unilateral withdrawal on our part from these territories or at least that we stop all military activity, even though this lets us act preventively to avoid attacks inside Israel. What’s more, it is clear that if we leave, the West Bank will be turned in a flash into Hamastan. We in fact know that where we do not control the security situation, on account of internal divisions within Palestinian society Hamas will immediately seize power.
Why in fact does it disturb you that the Arabs living in Judea and Samaria are ruled by Hamas?
The installation of Hamas in these territories means quite simply that we will be attacked by snipers lying in ambush and by rockets in Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Kfar Saba and by missiles in Tel-Aviv, Afula, Beit Shean and at Ben-Gurion airport. We need to remember what happened after the Six-Days War. We said that we had no wish to rule over the lives of this population, nor did we wish to integrate them, so that they did not obtain the right to vote for the Knesset, but that there was no question of returning to the 1967 frontiers or of establishing a Palestinian state in these areas. At that time, Hamas had not taken power in Gaza. Even those who held these territories to be exchanged for a real peace never considered that a total retreat on our part could be considered. In this connection, I will remind you of a speech by the late Yitzhak Rabin made to the Knesset some time after Oslo, on 5 October 1995,in which he clearly defined the type of final agreement he intended entering into with the PA. As part of it, the Arabs would be able to set up on their side an entity, quite obviously demilitarized, which would not have the status of a state. Jerusalem would remain united. Yitzhak Rabin never considered the possibility of dividing the capital. In order to prevent territorial continuity between Judea-Samaria and Jordan (in the event of a regime change there), the Jordan Valley would remain, in the widest sense of the term, in our hands. A return to the 4 June 1967 frontiers thus in no way comes into consideration, because those were simply indefensible lines. For all these reasons, which are basically of a security and military nature, the idea of having a Hamastan set up on the doorsteps of our cities is inconceivable.
For those who think that the conflict started in 1967, that it is the result of our “occupation” of Judea and Samaria, and that the only way to end it is to abandon these territories, I want to remind them of the following. Apart from the fact that we should draw the lessons of post-Oslo, some points of history should be taken into consideration. The rejection of the right of existence of the Jewish state in this part of the world does not date from 1993. The PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, was founded on 1 January 1964; the opposition of all Arab countries to the establishment of the State of Israel dates from the creation of the State; pogroms and massacres of Jews took place in 1920 and in Hebron in 1936 and 1939. I would also remind you of the terrorist attacks on Jewish villages that took place immediately following the Partition vote at the UN on 29 November 1947, not to mention that a large number of Jews were killed by Arabs before 1967. All this is to say that the idea of a withdrawal by us from Judea, Samaria and Gaza (from which we have already withdrawn) will lead us to a totally false and illusory peace and calm. What’s more, the fact is that on the other side there has never been a leader or political leadership that has stated that if we withdraw from Judea and Samaria that will put an end to the conflict. Never. The Palestinian Arabs have also not stated that in a quid pro quo for such a withdrawal that they would renounce the famous “right of return” of the refugees of 1948, and as I said, they have never acknowledged that Israel is the state of the Jewish people.
According to certain information, the army is about to leave the Arab towns in Judea and Samaria. What is the truth of the matter?
Since 2002 the army has had total freedom of action in these areas, wherever it deems it necessary. However, it is not permanently installed in the Arab towns and does not have any bases there. Having said which, if we know that there is a terrorist or an attack being prepared, we enter and arrest the people. This freedom of action is extremely important because without it we would still be victims of terrorism. What’s more, by acting like this, we prevent the Palestinian Authority from being overthrown by Hamas. Both the security roadblocks and actions within the towns are determined by the circumstances. At one time there was a great deal of terrorist activity in Shechem. We had no choice but to blockade the town with roadblocks and to impose a curfew. It was quickly raised. On the other hand, there is also the presence of the PA police, which is responsible for maintaining law and order. At this time it is very busy fighting Hamas, not because the latter are attacking us and killing Jews, but because there is open war with Fatah. When we see that the security situation has stabilized, we get rid of the roadblocks and ease the life of the inhabitants. You can well believe that putting up roadblocks is hardly our favorite pastime and that we only do it when the situation renders it necessary.
After all you have explained to us, can you tell us whether peopling Judea and Samaria with Jews is a true security need or if a simple military presence would suffice?
Our experience has taught us that a military presence without a population is not viable. The presence of a Jewish population in Judea and Samaria facilitates the army being there where there are Jewish towns and villages and close to where they may have to act. For example, we are not in Shechem but in the surrounding Jewish villages. There can be no doubt that a Jewish population in Judea and Samaria increases the level of security in the area and in Israel as a whole.
Looking at the broader picture, the strategic situation in the Middle East, America has announced a gradual withdrawal from Iraq. What will the direct consequences for Israel be?
That depends enormously on when and how this withdrawal is carried out. At first sight it is only a partial withdrawal scheduled for 2012, at which time there will still be thousands of US soldiers in Iraq. The question is to know what is going to happen in the country itself. What government will there be, will it be able to maintain order, will there be internal wars or will the country be destabilized by terrorism? You should know that Iraq will not just be faced with internal problems, because the stakes are enormous and already today Syria is regularly sending in terrorists to destabilize the government. These tactics pay, because the new US administration is not only prepared to talk directly to Syria, which was not the case under Bush, but also to offer major rewards for it to stop its harmful activity in Iraq.
All the questions about the American withdrawal are still open. It is a bit early to say what the implications will be for Israel, even though we have considered various scenarios and planned how we would react if it ever came to that.
The big question of the day, the subject everyone is talking about, is Iran What is your assessment of the role played by that country in the Middle East and in the world?
Today Iran is the most important player in the region, the key to sorting out practically all the problems. Its influence is omnipresent, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon (Hizbullah), in the territories under the Palestinian Authority (Hamas, Islamic Jihad), and more. Iran finances and arms militias and terrorist organizations to act against Israel as well as against America in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the activity extends to other countries in the region. A year ago Egypt arrested members of Hizbullah sent by the Iranian intelligence services to set off riots in the country. There are also Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that are working on behalf of Iran to undermine the existing regimes. The development of the general situation in the region depends a great deal on to what extent Iran can use its influence and promote its misdeeds. The center of gravity today is in Tehran, in the hands of the powers that be. It is promoting the Islamic revolution, financing it, training and arming every sort of militia that is operating against western interests. If in the near future the Iranian regime is weakened or falls because of economic or other sanctions, there could be a fundamental change, because there would be a great deal of difficulties to continue promoting the Islamic revolution. We have just witnessed two major events: the first took place in Lebanon, where in the elections the pragmatic elements were strengthened against the Jihadists; the second was in Iran itself, where the young, women and the people in general demonstrated their discontent with the way the elections were held. They did not flinch from confronting the billy sticks of the henchmen of those in power. Those are two strong signals in the direction of the West. So the question that must be put today is what should the free world do about it. Should it enter into a dialogue with the Iranian regime, whose legitimacy is more than dubious, or isolate it and ratchet up sanctions with a view to weakening it and possibly facilitating those who believe they won the elections to play a larger role. In the final analysis, these questions are for the US government, which – I hope – will be capable of taking the right decisions. If we want to stop Iran and strengthen or solidify Afghanistan, Lebanon and even the PA, we have deal correctly with the Tehran regime because, I repeat, that is what is behind the forces of Hamas in Gaza, those of Hizbullah in Lebanon, the armed militias in Iraq and some of the forces that are active in Afghanistan.
Where do things stand with Egypt?
Observing the region you can note a number of divisions. There can be no doubt that the main conflict today is that which pits Jihadist Islam against the West. However, the second antagonism in scale in our days is that between Sunni and Shiites. From this point of view, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the Gulf States and the countries of North Africa are Sunni. These countries are extremely concerned about the advance of Shiite Iranian hegemony. They view very seriously the support Iran provides the armed militias I mentioned in Gaza and Lebanon, and especially the Syria-Iran axis. In the Sunni world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the dominant states. So it transpires that in the conflict of Sunni against Shiite, Israel has common interests with the Sunni. What’s more, when you ask one or other of these Arab leaders privately what is their biggest concern, all respond that it is the Iranian question. In front of the cameras they say it is the Palestinian issue. For us this represents an opportunity to be grasped, to cooperate with these states. I have good reason to believe that in several areas some sort of cooperation between Israel and its Sunni neighbors has a chance of succeeding.
However, despite everything, in international organizations it is Egypt that is leading the political fight against Israel. Do you believe that on the Arab side there is an awareness of the “opportunity for cooperation and shared interests” of which you have spoken? If yes, have you noted a change of attitude among Sunni governments?
I think the Arab countries would be very happy if the State of Israel did not exist. Every possibility they have to weaken it are welcomed and used. However, Israel is a vibrant, flourishing fact. On several occasions, Egyptian President Mubarak has repeated that a war against Israel is not one of the conceivable options. The peace between our two countries is stable and this is certainly not due to the fact that we are loved, but only because we are strong. Without wishing to develop this particular point, I can tell you that our power also involves several advantages for our Arab neighbors. None of that would prevent Israel from vanishing off the face of the earth, which would not upset the Arab world, including those countries that have peace treaties with us.
What you are telling us makes us think that we are on the threshold of a Middle East that will be tougher, harder to live in and to manage, especially on account of the weakness of what the Obama administration is saying and perhaps also of its policies. Do you think that some countries such as the Gulf States are going to gradually leave the western fold, reckoning that it is in their interest to improve relations with Iran?
The key issue in the coming years lies with American policy in the Middle East and especially towards Iran, its government and its nuclear program. As I have told you, the biggest conflict of our age is that between Jihadist Islam and the West. This brand of Islam has its roots in the Iranian revolution, which is doing everything to promote it and to gain a foothold wherever possible. One of its first targets is to transform Lebanon into a Shiite Islamic republic, where despite everything it has already had some success. It has succeeded in worming its way into the Sunni Jihadist world, such as in Gaza where Hamas is gradually imposing Islamic law. In this regard, we talk of “Hamastan”, but in fact there is the world’s second Islamic Jihadist republic. The first is in Iran, the second in Gaza, and they want to set up the third in Lebanon. On the other hand, we are seeing a differing trend that is starting to see the light of day. It is a sort of third way that is gradually gaining momentum in the Islamic Arab world, and which positions itself between the Jihadists and the pragmatists. We saw it at work following the elections both in Iran and in Lebanon. In that country there is today a coalition that emerged from the elections made up on the one side of pragmatists, nationalists and the secular, while on the other side of the Jihadist Shiites of Hizbullah and the Jihadist Sunni of Fatah. This type of internal, political cooperation is certainly in the minority for the time being, but despite all has gained a foothold in Algeria, within the Palestinian Authority itself where some kind of entente also exists between Hamas and Fatah, as well as in Jordan and Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has found common ground with the ruling governments. Some similar formation might also emerge in Iraq. In this context, America’s policy in the Middle East will determine the future and thus has a colossal importance. President Obama’s speech in Cairo certainly contained a number of not insignificant items that encourage and strengthen the pragmatists in our region. Yet at the same time he did not balance his policy or brandish a big stick towards the Jihadists. Within my contacts with Arabs in the region, I have heard very clearly that this political approach has been perceived by radical Islamists and in certain other circles in the Middle East as an acknowledgement of weakness. Now a weak America is completely against the interests of the Sunni Arab world, which finds itself alone against Iran and does not know how to oppose it. Obviously, an America that gives off signs of weakness is also bad for Israel. However, we are strong enough to face up to the challenges before us. However, in the Middle East it would be better if the West was perceived as strong and powerful. Following this line of thinking, if the US does not implement a policy of force and determination towards Iran by making it clearly understand that it has no advantage in developing nuclear weapons, that it must end its support for international terrorism and act responsibly towards its own citizens, that will make a great difference in the Middle East. In fact, a policy of weakness like that will encourage Sunni Arab states to be tempted to cozy up to Iran. Already today, Qatar, having determined that America is getting weaker while Iran is becoming stronger, is trying to have its cake and eat it by permitting an American military presence on its territory while gradually getting closer to Iran. This type of development risks taking on an unstoppable, knock-on effect in the Middle East, because all those countries not strong enough to resist the might of Iran that has been strengthened in this way will definitively choose to ally themselves with the Islamic republic. I hope we do not reach that point and that America, supported by Europe, especially the UK, France, Germany and Italy who all understand very well what is at stake, will end up by demonstrating firmness towards Tehran, on both the political and military fronts. I would remind you that when faced with a policy of firmness by the Bush administration, Libya renounced its nuclear program. I have good reason to believe that the Iranian regime, which considers itself “messianic, apocalyptic and non-conventional”, when it sees that its vital interests are at stake, will be able to take the right, rational decisions, in a word, that will be more beneficial to it. The West has the means to stop Iran, which will definitely only have two choices, to abandon its military nuclear program or to keep it going and accept the consequences.
So the big question is, what will Israel do?
Either the West will do what it has to do, or… and here I will just quote the famous saying of the Talmudic Sage, Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be?” (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)
Do you believe that a new revolution, this time democratic or at least pragmatic, is actually taking place in Iran?
A few days before the elections, I was in Washington where I was asked my opinion about the outcome of the elections in Iran. I replied that the Supreme Leader Khamenei absolutely wanted Ahmadinejad to be in power, irrespective of the results of the election. It was exactly the same in 2005, when the people’s choice was definitely not taken into account. However, at the time, the turnout at the ballot was very low. This time the people voted en masse, and saw in Mousavi and his wife a real chance to carry out reforms. From the time I was Head of Military Intelligence I have known that almost 70% of the Iranian population is opposed to the regime of the Ayatollahs. In fact, over the last 30 years it could only keep itself in power through repression. What we saw after the elections was the release of a popular movement coming from within, without a clearly established and organized political leadership. Despite the fact that this movement was bloodied and reduced to silence, there can now be no doubt that it will arise from the ashes. The question is when? And this is where the West has a key role to play. If it grants legitimacy to the regime and negotiates with it after all the violent acts it has just committed, the new revolution, which is inevitable in the medium- or long-term, will take time to occur. If the West applies the economic sanctions that are required, there is every chance that the regime will fall. Everything points to the popular movement that emerged following the last elections has already reached the point of no return.
Everybody is talking about Iran’s nuclear activities. At the same time, since the fall of Musharraf in Pakistan, which is a nuclear state, there is a high likelihood that the military nuclear facilities will fall into the hands of the Taliban, who are acquiring more and more power in that country. Do you think that at this level there could be cooperation between Iran and Pakistan? What are the direct consequences of the current situation for Israel?
In the doctrine of the various Talibans, Al-Qaida and World Jihad, Israel is the “Little Satan” and America is the “Great Satan”. When Al-Qaeda decided to strike the West, it did not attack Israel but the United States. Which is why I think that if military nuclear equipment falls into the hands of World Jihad, which is not yet the case, it will be a nightmare for the entire free world, but especially for Washington. As far as Israel goes, we are on the alert, on our guard and ready to face up to it. However, for the time being, world terrorism is not our first concern.
In the light of all the problems that have just been raised, how do you explain that the issue of the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria has assumed central importance in American Middle East policy?
You should ask the White House directly. As far as we are concerned, it is clear that the Jewish population in these areas has never represented an obstacle to peace. Never. Incidentally, when Menachem Begin signed the peace treaty with Egypt, he dismantled a town like Yamit, and when Ariel Sharon thought he could achieve quiet, at least in the south, he evacuated Gush Katif.
Does this mean that you believe that in exchange for a peace treaty we will have to expel the Jews from their homes in Judea and Samaria?
Absolutely not. The question is, why do the Arabs have complete freedom of choice where to live throughout Israel and in the West Bank, while it is fully accepted by popular wisdom that “Judenrein” zones can exist within Israel, in the heart of the Jewish state, where it will be forbidden for Jews to live. This prohibition would even apply if these areas were placed under a government other than ours. Why should a Jew not have the right to live in Ramallah or Bethlehem, and even less in Beit-El or Elon Moreh? How can the free, liberal and oh so enlightened world accept the idea that there would be a transfer of Jews? This only confirms the suspicion that we are not dealing with a partner who wants Jews and Arabs to live in peace together on this land, but wants Israel to disappear step by step. This is the “sliced salami” approach – yesterday we managed to expel you from Gaza, tomorrow from Judea and Samaria, and the day after from Tel-Aviv and Jaffa! That is the doctrine of the Palestinian Authority.
Do you believe that sixteen years after Oslo following the handshake and the signing of the Oslo Accords that this attitude is still viable?
The great weakness of the Oslo Accords was that they did not require the end of the conflict, or the end of Arab claims, and they did not even involve the recognition of the State of Israel as the Jewish state. The whole story that putting a Jewish population into the West Bank is an obstacle to peace is in fact counterproductive, because it lends support to the “sliced salami” policy of the Palestinian Arabs. By the way, both Hamas and Fatah are saying the same thing. Hamas says openly it is prepared to negotiate a truce, but that its objective is to make Israel disappear. For all these reasons we can only regret that issue of Jews living in Judea and Samaria has been put in the middle of the political process. The truth is that we do not have a partner who sees in the establishment of a Palestinian state to the east of the 4 June 1967 borders the end of the conflict or of demands. That is where the problem lies.
In his well-publicized speech on 14 June 2009 at Bar Ilan University, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly spoke of a demilitarized Palestinian state. Was this an expression of the wishes of his electorate or simply a gesture dictated by realpolitik?
As I have told you, I do not see a Palestinian leadership that is ready to accept a state limited to the frontiers of 4 June 1967. At the same time, I also cannot see how Abu Mazen can rule in Gaza. So what are we now talking about? A Palestinian authority in Judea and Samaria, over which we do not wish to reign, but which we also do want to threaten or attack us. That is what the Prime Minister said, “If this political leadership recognizes Israel as a Jewish state; if it is demilitarized; if it accepts that the question of refugees is solved outside of the borders of Israel, and if lastly it accepts that the agreement signed represents the end of the conflict and of claims, then it can give this territorial entity any name it wishes, including that of “State”.
But that is not what the world heard. For it, the nationalist government of Israel, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has accepted the creation of a Palestinian state. What is the truth of the matter?
The world can understand whatever it wants, but we shall act according to what we have stated and not otherwise. Had the Palestinian Arabs truly wanted a state, Arafat would have obtained it at Oslo or at Camp David, and Abu Mazen could have got it at Annapolis. But they don’t want it. What they want is to fight us and to promote the image of “resistance” against the “occupier”. What Benjamin Netanyahu did in his speech was simply to put the ball in the other camp, with a challenge. Historically, the ones who have always refused the division of this land have been the Arabs. They rejected the recommendations of the Peel Commission in 1937, the UN Partition Plan of 29 November 1947, the offer of sharing by Ehud Barak in 2000 and finally Ehud Olmert’s offer at Annapolis. You need to understand that offer included an Israeli withdrawal from 97% of Judea and Samaria (after the exit from Gaza), the division of Jerusalem and the settling in Israel itself, for humanitarian reasons, of some Arab families who have been kept in refugee camps. Asked by the Washington Post about this and his refusal to sign such an agreement, Abu Mazen just replied, “Our positions were too far apart”.
How do you see the future?
I believe that time works in favor of those who know how to manage it. I look at what shape the Jewish people was in 70 years ago and our situation today. At the same time I hold that at the beginning of the 1990s there had been a chance to conclude a peace with the Palestinian Arabs. In 2000 they launched a war against us. All you have to do is look where we are at the end of that conflict and what their situation is. In every field we have developed fabulously, be it in agriculture, technology, science, medicine and even the economy. We are getting stronger every day, including militarily. If we will continue to manage and use our time well, Israel’s future is very promising. However, over the last few years, the ideology and the internal strength have left something to be desired. I heard an important member of the previous government say in public that, “the objective is create a state in which it is great to live.” Our aim is much higher. One of the challenges of our time is to re-motivate the youth. But that starts by abandoning the illusions on which we have been fed for sixteen years, saying that an agreement is within reach and all we need to do is get rid of “the occupied territories” for peace and quiet to be established for ever. The time has come to put an end to the talk of those who seek to delegitimize the State of Israel (Arabs, antisemites, anti-Zionist Jews and others). We need to explain to the youth that the State of Israel cannot be taken for granted, why we returned here after two thousand years of Diaspora, and that we are here to stay because our cause is just. That is the only means we have to prepare the future of a State of Israel that is powerful, solid and crowned with success.