He has no spokesman, not much staff or budget and only a small office in the Prime Minister’s Office that few ministers would be satisfied with. Yet despite the clear lack of ministerial trappings, Deputy Premier Dan Meridor, in charge of intelligence and atomic affairs, is not without influence inside the government.
Meridor – who like so many other Likudniks (Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Tzahi Hanegbi) has over the last four decades travelled the long distance from Greater Israel advocate to two-state vision proponent – is one of the seven ministers, known as the septet, who shape the country’s diplomatic and security policy.
Meridor and Defense Minister Ehud Barak make up the “left wing” of that forum, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Minister without Portfolio Bennie Begin make up the “right wing,” and Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sit somewhere in the middle.
As such, if Meridor says – as he did in this interview with The Jerusalem Post – that the US-mediated proximity talks with the Palestinians will lead nowhere, then one can fairly conclude that no one in the highest echelons of the country’s decision making apparatus has any faith that those indirect talks launched this week – sort of – will produce substantive progress.
And yet, despite the low expectations, Meridor stresses that it is vital to push the diplomatic ball forward because the status quo is unsustainable over the long term. Meridor, during an interview conducted in his office in English, made mention a number of times to Menachem Begin, his mentor and a man who cast, and obviously continues to cast, a huge influence over his thinking.
Begin, Meridor said, had the courage to make “tough decisions” that went against the expectations of his people. Both Israelis and Palestinians, he added, need leaders now who will do the same.
What follows are excerpts from the interview.
How problematic is the connection the Americans are making between Iran and a desire for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and their sense that Israel is not being as helpful as it should be on this front.
Israel and the West have an interest in keeping Iran from going nuclear. This is clear. I will tell you something that sounds not very clear, but to me is very clear: Israel has a very keen interest in moving the peace process ahead. Not for the Americans, not for the Arabs, but for us.
Some people have the illusion, I hope not many, that what we have now is sustainable indefinitely. It is not. It is a relatively good situation now, with no terror: Some of this is because of deterrence – after [Operation Cast Lead in] Gaza. Some of it is because of our military and intelligence action. But it is also because of very good cooperation with the Palestinians in the West Bank, with their security [apparatus]. And there is economic development that is quite promising in the Palestinian territories.
But it is all temporary. Our policy is to go for a Palestinian state, with our taking care of our interests by [saying it should be] demilitarized and so forth. We are doing this not because someone [outside] demands it, but because of the alternative. Because if there are not two states here, there will be one state.
If this one state is to be what we know to be a democratic state, there is a danger to the whole Zionist project. Because you can’t have a South Africa here. Nobody wants it, nobody has that in mind.
I remember Menachem Begin, the big dreamer and believer in the greater land of Israel, in the Knesset in December 1977, when he offered autonomy, Israeli security control. He was asked, “What about citizenship for these people?” He said, “Of course, every Arab who wants to be Israeli will have to be Israeli, we are not Rhodesia, not apartheid.” Well the numbers show that if we go there, we will have a very problematic situation, to put it in a very British understatement. And we don’t want to be there.
It is in our interest to try to move ahead, even if we can’t solve everything. To move ahead toward Palestinian statehood in part of the land. [There is] a big problem about the dimensions, the borders, Jerusalem, refugees – many issues are problematic.
I don’t see a contradiction between moving forward the peace process, taking risks for trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – temporarily, permanently – and moving ahead on Iran.
It is a mistake to think that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not exist tomorrow, America will be loved by all the Muslims and they won’t have a problem in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq. Some Americans might think it, but it is an illusion, I don’t think the administration thinks it. Some people may think that everything stems from this, that everything is built on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is wrong.
We spoke recently with Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon. He didn’t talk about the urgency of separation for the sake of a Jewish Israel. He has a very different view.
There may be different views and different approaches. But if we start negotiating now, which I hope we will, not this proximity mechanism that will not lead – I am afraid – to an agreement, but direct talks with all that entails, I think we should take concurrently two avenues, not one.
One [avenue] is what they want, a top down approach. All the final status issues – Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security, all the rest – hoping for an agreement. Do I think it is highly probable to get an agreement in a short period? I am quite skeptical.
I am not saying no, maybe I’m wrong, but I haven’t seen the Palestinian leadership and resolve needed to take the tough decisions, which means end of conflict, that there is a State of Israel for the Jewish people, with Arabs living in it, along side an Arab state. [Ehud] Olmert has offered this, [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen didn’t respond. [Ehud] Barak offered something like this exactly 10 years ago on July 2010 at Camp David, and [Yasser] Arafat said no.
So, is Abu Mazen now ready to take this step, is he able to take it with Hamas controlling part of [the Palestinian territories]? I don’t say no, I say there is a big question mark. [But] the collapse of the negotiations, the collapse of the hope, may also collapse good [Israeli-PA] security cooperation, and the economic growth [in the West Bank] and the lack of terror.
So I think alongside final status negotiations – the top down approach – we should go the bottom up approach, that is to say building the Palestinian state that we are committed to by Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan [University] speech [in favor of two states last year], from the bottom up, which is very similar to what Ya’alon might have told you. He speaks of that. We haven’t discussed the details of what exactly bottom up means – more institution building for a state, more economy, more authority, more law and order.
[PA Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad said he has [David] Ben-Gurion as his model, I’m not sure it is exactly comparable, but to build a state from the bottom up is a road we can walk on together to a certain extent.
There is a lot of ground we can cover together, although we may not agree and do not agree on a final agreement. So I think that if we take the two approaches together, and take the two avenues seriously with the risks involved – there is nothing risk free here – then there is a chance that things can move ahead.
How are the indirect talks supposed to work?
I am afraid that indirect talks may signal something more serious and negative. There may have developed a new thinking in the Palestinian camp regarding the means of getting the results. Not negotiations, but an imposition, or an outside plan that will be advised firmly and decidedly and persistently to the parties – an offer they cannot refuse, to take Mario Puzo’s term from The Godfather. This will never work, it is a mistake.
Whoever – the UN, America, Europe, somebody – cannot decide for us that French Hill is Palestine, or Ma’aleh Adumim is Palestine. They cannot do that. We need to come to an agreement.
An agreement entails a decision by both parties. Now there are two types of decisions for leaders: easy and tough.
What are the easy decisions? I will say something that might sound paradoxical: To go to war is easy. I think it is awful, but everyone supports you – the whole nation supports you, in the first days, then of course they change their mind when things don’t work.
The second easy decision [is to say] “I have the might, I have the right, I am the greatest, everything belongs to me.” That is easy. What are the tough decisions? The ones you take against the expectations of your own people.
Begin at Camp David – that was a tough decision. Sadat before Camp David – that was a tough decision.
Had Menachem Begin asked the Israeli public, or the Likud people, “Should I give all of Sinai away?,” I don’t think the answer would have been positive. He decided – it was tough decision, it was against what people expected.
Oslo. I think Oslo was a big mistake. I voted against it. I think I was right. It was a tough decision because it was against the will of many people in our own camp.
Netanyahu speaking at Bar-Ilan is an example of a tough decision, not an easy one where all your supporters hail and say how great you are.
I haven’t seen the Palestinian leaders taking tough decisions – this is the bottom line. Saying they want a Palestinian state is easy. But saying they accept no return of refugees to Israel – this is tough, this is crossing the river. I haven’t heard it yet. That they accept that alongside their right for a state, we have a right for a state, as the UN decided in 1947.
The tough decisions need leadership. What I’m afraid we may be seeing, is that they are saying, “We can’t make decisions, let somebody decide for us.” Somebody there might think, “We don’t have the courage to make the tough decisions, so let’s let somebody – the UN, America – do it for us.” This won’t work. And I think the Americans tell this to the Palestinians. I think the corridor we go through, the entrance we go through to the [direct] talks – indirect talks, proximity talks – will not yield results. I hope yes, but think not. Everyone will want to pull America to their own side, and they won’t get closer, [rather] they will get farther apart... I think we need to go quickly to direct talks, in which we’ll have to make tough decisions, and they will have to make tough decisions.
The Americans say Israel has a strategic interest in an accommodation, but they ask: What do we want? What is the Netanyahu government prepared to give? They say they are trying to help us safeguard our future, but we’re not telling them how they can help us do so.
The question we should ask ourselves, and this has nothing to do with the Americans, or the Palestinians, is “where to?” I think we should ask ourselves this: Not how we want to do it, but where we want to go. And there may be differences here. Some people say this, some people say that.
What do you say?
I think we need a Palestinian state alongside Israel, not for them, but for us. Because I want to maintain the Zionist dream of a Jewish state, a democratic state, equal for all its citizens. Because I am Jewish, I want to treat the minorities with equality and humanity, and not the other way around. I think the numbers of the two communities in this land – it is all ours historically, I agree – but the numbers, and the fear and the hatred that grew over the 40 something years and more than that, do not allow for one land. I think one state is dangerous for our dream. As an imperative of our reality, we need to strive for a separation, for a division, partition.
I didn’t think that when I was young. I believed it would be better, that the numbers would favor us, that we would be able to maintain the whole land, and never thought about not having equality. I never thought about liberating the land and not liberating the people.
I helped [settle] Hebron in the beginning. I was with [Gush Emunim leader Moshe] Levinger in Pessah in 1968, after the [Six Day] War. I even guarded the Park Hotel. I never thought that in 40 years Levinger would vote, and Arabs around him would not vote, in the same government if we have one state. I don’t accept that it is possible to have a state without equality, I don’t accept it.
Did Olmert go too far in his offer to Abbas?
I don’t know all the details, but I think the Jerusalem offer is something I would not have offered. I don’t know all the details about refugees, I hope nothing was offered there. I don’t know all the details, I know they went very, very far.
Did he go too far in offering to relinquish the West Bank with one-to-one land swap.
I don’t think one-for-one is a given anywhere. Israel never accepted this, and America didn’t demand it. UN Security Council Resolution 242 speaks of withdrawal from territories, not from the territories. How much [territory to withdraw from] needs to be negotiated.
And on Jerusalem?
I don’t have a solution that satisfies the present Arab demand. I can’t see the Old City as foreign land. I can’t see that. I go to the Western Wall, the Jaffa Gate – this is my city. This is where I live. I can’t see this not as part of my homeland and Israel. I know this is tough, but this is my position.
Moving on to the nuclear issue, John Bolton said Israel should be quite worried about the notion of America negotiating with Egypt about proposals for a nuclear free Middle East. Are you quite worried?
The understanding we have with the US on the issue of the Nonproliferation Treaty has worked well for many years, and it should work well now. I want to believe that the Americans take it as seriously as we do, and I hope that the understanding that we have will continue to be effective here.
What are the understandings we have with the Americans about the NPT?
I don’t want to go into it. Over the years Egypt has been quite aggressive in its attempt to use this topic against us in international forum, and we have had conferences where this was raised.
Do you see a change in the American position?
I hope not.
There is a lot of “hope” that things are going to work out. Iran is moving serenely toward nuclear capability, while we “hope” the international community imposes sanctions, and we “hope” they toughen up. Is it reasonable to continue to hope, isn’t there more we should be doing?
It would be dangerous if all we do is hope. But maybe all that we should say is hope. I think that what happens with Iran is now much more clearly a concern – a grave concern – to many more countries. Indeed the world.
America is leading that. If at the end of this standoff between the US and Iran over nuclearization, Iran goes nuclear, in spite of the American demands, this is a paradigm change in the world, at least in three spheres.
One, the NPT. This may really signal the collapse of the NPT. It is quite clear that if Iran goes nuclear, other countries will go nuclear. We hear about Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and there may be more. And the world where there are more, not less countries with nuclear weapons is a different world. It is a different ball game altogether.
The second sphere where there may be a significant and difficult impact is the alliance that has been established and maintained for the free flow of oil for decades.
But now the threat of Iran, with its policy of exporting the revolution, with its involvement in terror, with its direct contact with God, for whom they work and on whose behalf they work, in order to change the regime of the Gulf states and the Arab states, is a major threat. If they see Iran go nuclear, and get hegemonic, alongside some who will go nuclear, others will go with Iran. And this, again from the West and the American point of view, is a major shift with grievous consequences.
The third sphere, somewhat connected to this one, is the Muslim world. From Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east, toward North Africa in the west, there are 1.3 billion Muslims, most of whom lead decent lives, and want stable life, and stability is a key word here. And in all those societies, in all those countries, there are small groups – fanatics, fundamentalists, radicals – who want to correct the ways of the regime, destabilize this world. They may be called Taliban, or al-Qaida, or Hamas, or Jihad, or Hizbullah, Shi’a and Sunni as well, and they all look up to Iran as the leader of this revolutionary movement. The victory for Iran here spells real trouble all over the Muslim world.
I think this is much better understood now in America, and I say in America because there is a yearning for leadership by America in the Arab countries.
Europe speaks very tough; the European rhetoric is tougher than the American.
This will decide not only the role of Iran in the world, and their ability to shape a different Middle East. It will, to a large extent, have a very heavy impact on the role of America in the world. Do we see a different America that cannot have its will listened to and taken into account on such critical issues?
Using economic and political means in the struggle against the nuclearization of Iran – I’m not speaking of military means here – is the only game in town.
If they meet an iron wall saying “you are not going to be nuclear,” I think they would probably take it into account.
But is the world going to build that iron wall?
This is the big question. I think you see more signs that [it will], although this is a tough campaign, a tough project.
I understand the need or the wish to have UN Security Council sanctions. It will help if more countries join the sanctions regime, and there may be a price to be pay to accommodate the Chinese regime, the Chinese ruler. I think that if there is no agreement among the five permanent members of the Security Council, the Americans should go it alone. Not alone... they would have a very large coalition of countries willing to take part in it for their own interests.
Would that be enough?
I think this is a beginning of very heavy pressure. Iran, unlike North Korea, is a country very connected to the world. It is a proud nation, a very intelligent nation and historically very significant, with high culture and science and what not. It is a nation of merchants, with exports and imports. They need the world, they are part of the world, and I think the world has a lot [of leverage] to use if they want to have an influence on the Iranian decision-making process.
There are a variety of things that can be used here. And if Iran sees
that this is serious and persistent [it will make a difference]. I
don’t think in the end there will be a total surrender, there may be an
agreement. The agreement should satisfy not only us, but also the
Saudis and other Arab countries that Iran doesn’t go nuclear, or else
the danger is that those countries will go nuclear.
Do I have a guarantee? Nobody has a guarantee. No doubt it is worth a
try. The time is now because the clock is ticking and the more time
passes without an action, the more difficult the choices will be.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has said the only thing that will impact Iran
would be to go after the Iranian energy sector. From your recent talks
in DC, do you sense America is willing to do that?
I can’t tell you. I don’t know what they are willing to do. It is not
only American will, it is also America’s ability to get others to join.