If proximity to the boss means access, and access means influence, then Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz – despite his ministry’s lack of any real heft – has genuine influence on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
His office in Jerusalem is in the same building as Netanyahu’s, and he walks in and out of the aquarium – that small complex of offices on the first floor of the building where Netanyahu sits – more than most ministers.
In the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv – where Netanyahu works every Thursday and with greater frequency during times of crisis – he is even closer, sitting on the same floor, just a few doors down.
Steinitz may not be a member of the seven-person security cabinet, but Netanyahu respects his opinion and includes him in most of his meetings with foreign leaders.
In other words, he is very much in Netanyahu’s small “loop” and punches above the weight of the relatively toothless ministries he heads: Intelligence Services, Strategic Affairs, and International Relations.
Steinitz sat down with The Jerusalem Post late last week for nearly two hours for an interview in which he surveyed the region.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may try some unilateral “trust-building moves” aimed at fooling the West, Steinitz said. The minister has great doubts about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and said Egypt seemed headed toward a bit more stability.
But one thing he was not willing to discuss – at least not on the record – was Syria.
Steinitz internalized in spades Netanyahu’s directives to his ministers not to talk about the developments there, what Israel wants, or what it thinks about US President Barack Obama’s tactics.
“Our policy is not to interfere in the Middle East turmoil, and not take part in the brutal civil war in Syria unless we are under direct attack,” Steinitz said, reciting the government’s talking points. “Although we believe it is quite improbable that somebody will decide to attack us, we are [at] high readiness, and will respond decisively and powerfully to any attack.”
And that was all he was willing to say regarding Syria. About the other burning regional issues, however, he was much more forthcoming. What follows are excerpts from the interview that took place in his Tel Aviv office:
How has the Arab Spring altered Israel’s strategic situation?
It is tough to say, because we are still in the middle; things are complex. On the one hand, the extreme instability in the Middle East is certainly not something desirable for us. The more instability, the more likelihood of a conflagration. The more instability, the more the terrorist and jihadist organizations can operate close to our borders. Look at what is happening in Sinai.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that these events – principally the Syrian civil war – weakened Syria militarily, and Syria is one of our main enemies and [one of the] principal threats to us. Its weakening improves to a certain degree Israel’s strategic situation.
The fact is that over the last decade, the two central Arab armies which traditionally joined wars against Israel have been neutralized. I’m talking about the Syrian army, whose fighting effectiveness is half or a quarter of what it was three years ago, and the Iraqi army, which does not exist anymore as an army since the war in 2003.
But at the same time, there has been a rise in the threat from Iran – its attempts to go nuclear, Iranian missiles that can be fired on us. Things are complex: Some threats are getting stronger, others are in retreat.
The situation in Syria has knocked Egypt off the radar screen. What is happening today in Egypt?
There are real efforts by the Egyptian army to bring order back to Sinai, and this is worthy of our appreciation.... The situation there seems like it is moving toward stability.
Are you worried about the US or Europeans cutting off aid to Egypt?
It seems to me that both Europe and the US understand more and more that the best thing now is to let Egypt stabilize, in the hope that this will bring about a better economic situation, and also political stability and maybe new elections at some point.
Are we yet seeing any ramifications of what happened in Egypt for Hamas in Gaza?
Hamas is currently very careful, and justifiably so. It is feeling a lack of confidence. In the final analysis, Hamas sees itself, even in its charter, as an integral part of the Muslim Brotherhood....
The premise in the Arab world was that when the Islamic forces get into power, it is like in Iran – it is over. They get into power, and there is no turning back, at least not for dozens of years.
But now there is evidence that Islamic rule, the Islamists taking over, is reversible. That is a big shock from their perspective.
Their feeling was that when they took over Gaza, it would be in their hands forever. And now it turns out that even an Islamic government is not forever. It is possible to protest against it, to bring it down.
Are we already seeing any influence of this on the ground? It is tough for me to see, but we see a lot of suspicion and nervousness.
A year and a half ago, after the release of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, it looked like the balance had shifted from the West Bank to Gaza. Has it now shifted back?
Yes, and maybe that is one of the reasons Abu Mazen [Abbas] decided to renew the diplomatic dialogue.
You are saying that what happened in Egypt influenced his return to the table?
Yes, indirectly. What happened in the Arab world influenced him.
Abu Mazen did not run enthusiastically back to restart the negotiations. He was very reluctant.
He behaved, to our surprise, as if someone was forcing him back. This surprised us, because it was contradictory. On the one hand, he very much wanted to promote a Palestinian state, but on the other hand did not go to negotiations for four-and-a-half years. He pushed it off.
In my mind, what motivated him at the end to restart the negotiations was the US pressure, the pressure from [Secretary of State John] Kerry. But that alone was not enough.
The US pressured him for a number of months, but he continued to refuse. His decision to renew talks with us without preconditions – beyond the gesture of a limited prisoner release – did not come about until the Arab League announcement that requested he restart the negotiations.
Why did the Arab league suddenly tell Abu Mazen to stop being stubborn about preconditions and sit down with Israel? Because the Arab League saw that it was in its own interest to quiet down the Palestinian-Israeli front, as they were standing themselves before much larger problems and threats: what is happening in Iran and Syria.
The Arab world today, surprisingly and paradoxically, feels threatened by Iran, and [by] Iran’s efforts to create a Shi’ite axis from Iran, Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, together with Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons that will give them hegemony in the Persian Gulf and the Arab world.
The Arab world feels no less threatened than Israel.
The Arab world suddenly says, wait a minute; we have a big threat, even bigger than the Israeli “occupation” in Judea and Samaria. One hundred thousand killed in Syria, a few million expelled from their homes, an attempt to turn Syria into a Shi’ite Iranian state.
This can have a huge impact on Lebanon, there is also a similar struggle in Iraq, and if all that succeeds, then the Persian Gulf and Jordan will be half encircled by an Iranian Shi’ite axis. So they banged on the table and said to Abu Mazen: Stop the nonsense, stop your games about the preconditions and talk to the Israelis.
And then, after the statement from the Arab League, he broke and agreed to enter the talks.
Did Abu Mazen want the Arab League to say “yes”?
I have no idea. I hope I am wrong, but I am suspicious of Abu Mazen’s intentions. I see how long it took, and how much it was necessary to press him until he agreed to negotiations.
And the second thing that raises heavy suspicions in the eyes of every reasonable and rational Israeli is that even as we are talking about the negotiations, and as [Tzipi] Livni and [Saeb] Erekat are at a dinner event in the White House speaking nice words about peace in English, in Arabic the incitement against Israel – its citizens and the Jews – is getting worse. The anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement is getting worse, not in Gaza and the Hamas-run schools, but in the West Bank, in Abu Mazen’s schools and media.
We follow Palestinian incitement in this ministry and publish a report about every half a year.
Last week I saw a review of what will be published in the biannual report. You read that and you want to throw everything away and say, how are we holding peace negotiations and talking about coexistence? The trend, the basic subtext of the Palestinian education of Abu Mazen, is that sooner or later Israel needs to disappear, and that sooner or later the Palestinians will return not only to an independent state, but to Haifa, Jaffa, Beersheba, Tiberias, Safed, Nazareth, Eilat, Beit She’an and Ashdod.
We are talking, but at the same time they are educating the young generation toward the destruction of Israel, toward the idea that at the end of the day, the Jews need to be distanced from Palestine and the Middle East or destroyed. That is the subtext. And sometimes that is even the text.
When this is brought up with others – say, European diplomats – they say that there are also comments in Israel about Greater Israel belonging to the Jews, and also racist comments from some rabbis.
That response makes me boil. I heard that from a foreign minister who I will not name a few weeks ago. My response was very sharp. This is deception, lies and falsification of reality. I am not saying that you cannot find a few examples in Israel, a few extremists with extreme statements against Arabs. But in our government education system, you will not find in textbooks or on websites calls for the destruction of Arabs or Palestinians. This is a cardinal difference.
If that is the trend, as you say, then is there any reason to think talks now might work?
That is a very good question.
The prime minister justifiably emphasizes with his visitors from abroad that it is necessary to understand what the core of the conflict is. The source of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict is not the settlements, or the question of borders, or the question of occupation, because the conflict started 100 years before then, when there were no settlements in the West Bank.
He always mentions the fact that in the 1930s, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the dominant Palestinian leader, openly supported the Nazis, displayed the swastika in Jerusalem and traveled to Berlin to meet Hitler.
From the Nuremberg trials, we learn that they talked about the destruction of the Jews during the meeting, [that] the mufti encouraged Hitler on that issue.
The lack of recognition of the Jewish people’s basic rights, the murderous anti-Semitism... started way before the “occupation” of 1967. The Palestinians refused to accept our existence even after the 1947 UN Partition Plan, and until 1967 there were many terrorist acts.
Therefore the question is whether there really is a true willingness by Abu Mazen and the Palestinian people for a historic compromise where they recognize not only Israel, but also Israel’s right to exist. You cannot recognize Israelis’ right to exist without recognizing the existence of the Jewish people, and its right to a country of its own.
At present, Abu Mazen does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. He only recognizes that it exists, like the Iranians do. Even those who want to destroy you have to recognize that you exist, because you cannot destroy what is not [there].
Do they recognize a Jewish people? No, Abu Mazen generally does not like to say the word “Jew” or “Jewish people,” and if you press him really hard in English, he will say there is a Jewish religion, or people who practice the Jewish religion. [For] if he recognizes there is a Jewish people, then perhaps that people should have the same rights as the Palestinian people. Where is the homeland of that people if there is a Jewish people?
Do you think this is going to change in the nine months of the current talks?
I don’t know. I think this should have happened at the beginning of the negotiations, or before them. We did not want to set preconditions, but I think mutual recognition is a precondition to any genuine dialogue. First you recognize each other, and then you discuss solutions.
We are in a situation where we have recognized the Palestinian people, that they have basic rights, including national rights, and they have not recognized the Jewish people and their basic rights.
Then why are we negotiating? For what?
I think it is the right thing do from a geostrategic perspective.
And even with all our suspicions, we still have hope that one day there will be true peace agreements that will include the recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
What are the geostrategic considerations?
First of all, the Americans are very interested in it. We worry about our strategic needs and security, but we are attentive to what our friends the Americans say. That is not something to be ashamed of.
I think it [restarting the talks] was the right thing to do from our own perspective in light of the turmoil in the Middle East, to insert an element of stability, or progress, between us and the Palestinians. Inshallah, as they say.
Is there anything that gives you any thread of hope that this time it might be different?
No, but we must try.
I will tell you something that was very encouraging in my eyes, and may in the future help: the things US President Obama said during his visit here. And he said them not only in Israel, but also in Ramallah.
He said very clearly that Israel is the Jewish state. He called on the Palestinians to stop ignoring Israel being a Jewish state. And perhaps, more importantly, to stop ignoring and to recognize the special historic connection of more than 3,000 years between the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael.
He said that in Ramallah. His subtext was: Stop falsifying history, and facts. There is a Jewish people. This is its homeland, here and nowhere else. They have a historic connection to this place that is more ancient than most peoples’. Those are the facts, stop ignoring them.
You bring up Obama. We haven’t been reading any more stories about the dysfunctional relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. What happened?
A couple of things happened.
First, before the elections, there was a campaign in the media to inflate allegedly negative things.... They took all kinds of disagreements here and there between Israel and the US and turned it into a horrible crisis between Netanyahu and Obama and Israel and the US.
The elections ended here and in the US, Obama came here for his first visit as president, and it was extraordinarily friendly. That just shows you that sometimes the media inflates things without significant justification.
But there was undeniable tension during the first term.
A little tension here and there is not the end of the world.
Obama came here with the clear intention of, among other things, saying, “I am Netanyahu’s friend, I am a true friend of the Jewish people and Israel, I am committed to Israel, and nothing – including disagreements and arguments – will divide us.”
Let’s turn to Iran. Is Israel in favor of the P5+1 talks with Iran?
In the last six weeks, I have visited Berlin, Paris and London, and met a number of times with the foreign ministers of the three European countries that are members of the P5+1. I came with a clear message. Even though we all recognize that the Iranian nuclear threat is the biggest threat in the world, we have to understand the magnitude. Iran is 30 times more dangerous than North Korea.
Why? Because of the size of its nuclear industry, and the size of its ambitions.
North Korea has created five atomic bombs over the last five years. That is its capability – one or two a year. Iran has the enriched uranium, and heavy water to produce plutonium, that could provide them, when they cross the red line, with the ability to produce five to seven bombs in the first year. And then after a few years, they could produce 20 or so bombs every year.
Within a decade, Iran, as opposed to North Korea, could have 100 bombs or more.
At the same time, it is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
All the Middle East, including Israel, and part of Europe, is already covered by Iranian missiles.
The second thing is the different ambitions. Nobody in North Korea is talking about changing the global balance of power in the world, or exporting the North Korean revolution to China, Japan or the US. What they are interested in is the survivability of the regime, and perhaps to extort some money.
The Iranians for the last 30 years have been talking about the historical goal, and the historic need to once and for all change the global balance of power between Islam and the Western world. They are talking about the need to change the world. They are developing greater nuclear power than North Korea, with much greater global ambitions than the North Koreans. It is a different story altogether.
Do the Europeans understand this?
Yes, they are beginning to understand it a great deal. There is a lot of understanding that if Iran turns into a nuclear power in the next two or three years, they will have to spend billions on missile defense on their central cities, just as is happening today not only in South Korea, but also in Japan as a result of what is happening in North Korea. The biggest danger now is that [the Iranians] will try to maneuver in such a way as to get all kinds of partial agreements or declare confidence-building measures.
[Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani presented himself in the elections as a master of diplomacy, a master of rhetoric. He was very critical of [former president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. His message was, “Ahmadinejad was stupid enough to be a wolf in wolf’s clothing, to expose his teeth and nails and alert the West. I can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have all the diplomatic and rhetoric skills to do so.”
That is his legacy. He wrote in his book that when he was appointed as the negotiator with the West, he was able to deceive them – he gave some compromises, but nothing dramatic that harmed the Iranian nuclear program.
And in return, the danger of economic sanctions, or even a military attack on Iran, was lifted – that is what he wrote in his book.
That is the danger with the man. He is putting up a different front, much less threatening. I said once in an interview that he is cunning, charming, and he will smile all the way to the bomb.
How should Israel deal with that?
We need to understand it, and understand that we will face an Iranian attempt to find space to maneuver, including in the international media. I read with concern an editorial two days ago in The New York Times that called for hugging Rouhani with both hands and [said] that we are talking about a new tune in Iran – that worries me a great deal, because that was the Iranian decision after the elections, to use Rouhani to influence the West.
First of all, we need to judge Iran by its actions, not rhetoric.
Secondly, and most importantly, it is possible to talk to Iran but not have rounds of negotiations.
We already wasted four years.
Another year or two of negotiations will be good for them.
There is a need to talk to them, but at one shot, one event. We need to say, “Enough is enough, you need to make the tough decisions. You are [standing] before a difficult dilemma. If you want to save the Iranian economy, give up the nuclear project; comply with the UN security resolutions.
But if you decide to proceed with your nuclear project, you will destroy the Iranian economy, which is already in very bad shape, and you will expose yourself to a humiliating military attack on your nuclear industry.
“It is a hard decision, no place or room to maneuver. You have to choose, make the right choice. You have to choose between two ways, and there is no third way, no middle way, nothing in between.”
And why do I stress that? Because one of the biggest dangers is that Rouhani, perhaps even in his upcoming speech at the UN, will offer gestures – and not only rhetorical ones. He will perhaps say that he decided – or convinced the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] to decide – to freeze enrichment at Qom for four months, or allow inspectors into [the] Parchin [military complex].
He will say that he is doing it unilaterally, to build trust. “Give me something in return,” he will say, “there should be reciprocity here.”
That is the biggest danger, because Iran’s intention is to dilute the sanctions.
What is the problem? He can freeze for three or four months enrichment in one site and at the same time install other upgraded centrifuges at another site, or after three or four months of freezing enrichment, he can restart it.
But the minute the international community starts to ease up on sanctions, it is very hard to put them in place again. You will need the Chinese, and the Russians.
It will take time; there are economic interests. That is the most dangerous situation possible – confidence-building measures can pave the way for Iran to a bomb.
What are the chances the world will step up the pressure?
The Iranian economy is in a very difficult situation. According to assessments here, the sanctions started to become effective at the beginning of 2012, and up until now the damage is $100 billion. That is a great deal of damage for an economy whose GDP is $450b.
In other words, they cannot continue like this for more than another year or two. That is also clear to them; they are already in a difficult situation.
If you want to add to the chance of a solution, you need to add to that a credible military threat. The greater [the] pressure, the greater [the] chances [of success].
What is a credible military threat? What do you want the US to say? They have already said all options are on the table.
That is not enough. A credible military threat is some kind of deadline or ultimatum.
You want Obama to say that if by the end of the year they do not do “x,” then “y” will happen?
Yes, “Don’t be surprised if ‘x’ happens to you,” or “There is a good chance ‘x’ will happen to you.”
Realistically, you see Obama doing this?
As opposed to many people in Europe and Israel, I think Obama understands very well that from an international security and strategic point of view, his main goal, and the goal of the West, is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
I think Obama is serious on this, and understands that this is the top priority.
What will he do? When will he do it? Will it be on time? I can’t tell you. But I do think that on precisely this issue, the Iranian nuclear danger, Obama is aware of the strategic, security and historic significance of Iranian nuclearization, and that it is his obligation as leader of the Western world to prevent it from happening.
It is an obligation almost similar in scope – not the same thing, there are many differences – to the obligation of the West to prevent the armament of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. And they didn’t do it. I think Obama understands the magnitude – that Iran is not North Korea or Pakistan, that it is another story altogether.
Stay on top of the news - get the Jerusalem Post headlines direct to your inbox!