Politics: No stranger to foreign policy

Waiting in the wings for the position of foreign minister, Yuval Steinitz discusses how Israel will stop Iran and create two states for two peoples in spite of it all.

April 18, 2013 23:05
Yuval Steinitz

Yuval Steinitz 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Former finance minister Yuval Steinitz has no shortage of fancy titles. He replaced Moshe Ya’alon as strategic affairs minister, Dan Meridor as intelligence services minister, and while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in London this week, he was acting prime minister.

But the main title Steinitz is using these days is minister of international relations, a designation bearing a message to the world: If you want to understand Netanyahu’s foreign policy, he is the man to meet with.

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Steinitz will be a featured speaker at The Jerusalem Post’s second annual conference in New York on April 28.

The Post reported exclusively the day after the government’s March 18 formation that Netanyahu had promised Steinitz that if Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman is convicted, he would become foreign minister.

Currently, Netanyahu is holding the Foreign Affairs portfolio for Liberman, hoping he will be cleared of corruption charges. A verdict in the Liberman case is expected between July and October.

While Netanyahu holds that portfolio, Steinitz has been meeting most visiting dignitaries.

If Liberman is convicted, multiple Likud ministers will seek the Foreign Ministry, and Liberman even received an empty promise from Netanyahu that the job would go to a minister from Yisrael Beytenu. But Likud sources said Netanyahu’s mind was made up, and he made clear to Steinitz that the job would be his.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his office conducted in nearly flawless English, Steinitz presents his worldview – and Netanyahu’s – in a way that world leaders will be happy to hear. He explains how to prevent Iran’s nuclearization without a military approach, gives a glowing recommendation for two states for two peoples, and reveals how his stubbornness helped maximize Israel’s profits from the natural gas that recently started flowing.

Where do efforts to prevent Iran’s nuclearization currently stand?

We believe Iran must be stopped by any means.

Those who heard US President Barack Obama in Jerusalem know that come what may, he will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. We believe it’s high time to stop them, before they get close to military nuclear capacity in the enrichment phase. Netanyahu clearly defined his red line in his United Nations speech in September.

Fissile material is not enough for a nuclear bomb.

You need a mechanism. If you don’t have the mechanism, you need time to develop it. Some might think though that even after they have enough fissile material or plutonium, you can still stop them before the mechanism is ready. But it’s not true, because the hardest phase of nuclear production is enriching uranium.

It’s easier to detect and supervise a nuclear program during the enrichment phase, which requires large facilities. Once they have enough uranium, the final phase of mechanizing can be done in a tiny room and it’s difficult to detect. The jump from 20 percent to 80% enrichment goes very fast. That’s why the red line must be earlier.

We have to stop the Iranians now, because they are getting closer to completing the mission of enrichment and they can then go into an immunity zone, which would make it difficult to detect their mechanizing the bomb from an intelligence point of view. Netanyahu was clever when he made it crystal clear to the international community where the red line should be.

Can sanctions stop Iran’s nuclearization?

I was glad to see that even The Washington Post admitted in an editorial that Netanyahu did the right thing [by setting a red line for Iran] and that his UN speech was meaningful and significant. We think the sanctions are very important to show the Iranians the price of their misbehavior. But the sanctions are not sufficient.

Currently the Iranians are paying a severe price: Until now, $80 billion in lost revenues. The Carnegie Institute said it was $100b. There is real unrest in Iran due to the sanctions. But the Iranians believe that although they are paying a significant price, they will get something important in return: nuclear weapons.

The next necessary step short of a military campaign is to convince them that they are paying something for nothing. If they realize that come what may, they won’t have the bomb, then they might come to a new understanding. If they realize that they are suffering for nothing, it could change their state of mind and persuade them to make significant compromises.

It is high time to give them a credible military threat or clear timetable – one or two months or even a few weeks. The world should tell them: You have used the talks to advance your enrichment program. We gave you a reasonable offer, but enough is enough. If you don’t accept it, you might suffer the consequences, including military consequences. This is what I want the world to do.

Has the deadline Netanyahu gave Iran of this coming summer been extended by the recent Iranian diversion of uranium away from their military program?

What matters is not a particular date but the level and quantity of enrichment. They have been playing with the world for a long time and making significant progress. Sometimes they go three steps ahead and one step back. The world is happy about the step back, but the general picture is that while diplomatic talks with Iran were going on, Iran made significant progress.

Can Iranian elections lead to an uprising there or put enough pressure on the ayatollahs to freeze their nuclear program?

I wouldn’t put my trust in that. That would be dangerous. The Iranians are very careful. They have gotten more brutal in putting down potential riots by terrorizing students and potential rioters.

We have to learn a serious lesson from the North Korean case. This small and poor country achieved nuclear capacity two or three years ago. Already hundreds of millions of people in South Korea and Japan and maybe even Alaska are under a very serious nuclear threat. The Japanese have deployed missile batteries to defend themselves from North Korea.

We believe Iran can produce a larger and more dangerous nuclear threat than North Korea. Their nuclear facilities are much larger than North Korea’s. They have more resources and they have global ambition to create Islamic hegemony. They can develop larger missiles with longer range. Those who thought that a fanatical regime would behave responsibly after getting nuclear weapons got an answer from North Korea.

This is a clear lesson about the ramifications of allowing a nuclear Iran.

Can Israelis sleep soundly, trusting Obama to prevent Iran’s nuclearization?

Here in the Middle East, we don’t always understand an understatement. It would be better for Iran if the timetable is clear. I’m not confident that Iran always understands the Western style.

We in Israel are used to threats in our 65- year history. Obama’s visit was very good. He made clear statements on a variety of issues, including two key statements on Iran. He reiterated the US commitment not to let Iran get nuclear weapons and that all the options are on the table.

But he added an important new element: He said he would use all necessary means to prevent the nuclearization of Iran. That means that not only are all the options on the table, but if necessary, all options will be used.

New US Secretary of State John Kerry said he gave Israel and the Palestinians homework. What is being done?

The meetings with Kerry were very good.

He came with positive goodwill. We are eager to resume direct negotiations with our Palestinians neighbors in an attempt to reach a final-status peace agreement and we hope this will succeed.

But we have to be clear that for a real, genuine, enduring peace, there must be true recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. As Obama said, no one can deny the bond of the Jewish people to this land for thousands of years. When Abbas says he recognizes Israel’s existence, this is trivial. They have to recognize the right of the Jewish people to have and preserve their own tiny national homeland. This is true recognition and a true endorsement of a real partition.

Do you support the creation of a Palestinian state?

I am in favor of Netanyahu’s idea of two states for two peoples. This should lead to an end of the right of return. One state would be a homeland for the Jewish people in which all Jews are warmly invited. The purpose of establishing a Palestinian state is for it to be a homeland for the Palestinian people. Why are they saying that after a Palestinian state would be created they would still want to be allowed to go to a different state? The second fundamental issue is security: We can make sacrifices for peace. But we cannot compromise on Israel’s security. We have had bad experiences with security arrangements that relied on international forces. In Lebanon, there was a UN resolution and international forces were deployed south of the Litani River. European ships patrolled the coast. But none of that stopped the remilitarization of southern Lebanon, which has tens of thousands of missiles.

European forces have never dismantled one rocket or entered any Hezbollah military garrisons.

The same thing happened after Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally. We pulled out.

It was very painful and costly. We had to pay compensation. The Palestinian Authority said once the Israelis pull out from Gaza, we are in charge. They said there would be no rocket fire from Gaza. They said publicly they would deploy 30,000 police. Since then, about 12,000 missiles and rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel. This does not include terrorist operations like the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit and killing his friends or mortar fire on kibbutzim. We cannot put our head in the hands of the PA.

As chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, I was against leaving the Philadelphi Corridor.

We signed an agreement with Egypt. We allowed Egypt to have 1,000 soldiers to prevent the smuggling of arms and missiles into Gaza. At the Rafah crossing, Europeans were deployed to prevent smuggling. What happened? Many missiles, including bigger and longer-range missiles were smuggled into Gaza. The European inspectors evacuated their post seven hours after terrorists came and shot at the ceiling. The Egyptians promised to prevent the smuggling of arms into Gaza, but nothing helped.

Clearly we can never allow what happened in Lebanon or Gaza to repeat itself in Judea and Samaria, which is in direct proximity to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the coastal plain and the airport. Security arrangements should allow us to keep the forthcoming Palestinian state demilitarized. We can’t trust anyone to do it for us. We will have to have accurate intelligence to have some confidence that you can prevent the rearmament of the West Bank or infiltration of terrorists or anti-aircraft missiles.

Is Obama pushing Israel too much on the Palestinian issue?

What Obama said here was positive. So far the relations with him in his second term are good. He made important statements urging the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and come to the negotiating table.

Now that Israeli gas is flowing, how will this improve Israelis’ lives?

 The discovery of natural gas is very important because it will already accelerate the economy by 1% this year and another percentage point in 2014. It will enable us to reduce electricity prices by 2015 for the private and business sectors.

There are many other advantages. Not only is the gas flowing, so will government revenues. Two years ago as finance minister I appointed the Sheshinski Committee to examine how we handle gas revenues. I noticed that Israel had the lowest revenue from gas taxes of 200 countries in the world.

I decided to change that. It was a bitter struggle against the lobby of energy companies.

They put ads in the papers attacking me saying that the gas would remain in the ground and the energy companies would leave Israel. Even the Finance Ministry staff were against it, because they thought I would fail.

To cut a long struggle short, the end result is very positive. I almost tripled gas revenues.

We will gain an additional NIS 450b. We will gain less than NIS 1b. in royalties this year but by 2020, it will be between NIS 10b. and NIS 20b. annually.

Half of the money will go to a special sovereign fund that will invest outside Israel.

The revenues from this will be spent on education.

That money will begin to accumulate in 2019. When that accumulates, you can use the interest and profit. The other will go to the government’s tax authorities. This will help us increase expenditures on education and other issues. The fund will serve as an insurance policy for Israel in case of an economic crisis or earthquake.

It was important also from a democratic point of view to show that even the strongest lobby and companies cannot dictate what shall be.

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