Getting rid of Hamas is a necessary condition for any wider diplomatic breakthrough, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Tuesday.
“In order to make a diplomatic process possible, we have to get rid of Hamas,” he said. “As long as Hamas is strong on the ground, controls Gaza, and is popular in Judea and Samaria, a diplomatic process is simply impossible.”
Liberman’s comments came following skeletal diplomatic plans presented recently by two of his colleagues on the eight-person security cabinet: Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Each of those plans leaned heavily on the Palestinian Authority, with Livni calling for a renewal of negotiations with the PLO (of which the PA is an organ), and Lapid calling for an international conference.
The foreign minister, during the interview conducted in his Jerusalem office, said it would be a mistake to build any process right now based on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Abu Mazen’s [Abbas’s] legitimacy does not exist,” he said. “After we get rid of Hamas, the next stage is elections... We have to sign an international agreement with somebody with whom there is no doubt whether he has the authority to sign an agreement with us.”
Abbas does not have that legitimacy or authority, because there has not been an election in the PA since 2006, Liberman said.
“First topple Hamas, then elections, then a diplomatic process,” he said.
But the diplomatic process Liberman envisions is not a return to Oslo-style separate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Rather he envisions something much larger, which he termed a “regional comprehensive solution.”
“It is important to emphasize that our conflict is not a conflict with the Palestinians. Therefore, all the attempts to solve the conflict with the Palestinians failed,” he said.
The failure on the Palestinian track time after time was because of a faulty diagnosis, he stressed.
Israel’s conflict is not with the Palestinians, but rather with the Arab world, and has three dimensions: the Arab countries, the Palestinians, and the “split identity” of the Israeli Arabs, Liberman said. What was needed was one package that would solve – or as he said, “arrange” – Israel’s “relations with all three dimensions at one time.”
“This is the only way it will work,” he said. “The Palestinians alone do not have the critical mass to finish a deal with Israel that will demand many difficult decisions. If they do not feel that the Arab world is with them, they will not do it.”
Liberman, in a departure from his position in the past, said the 2002 Saudi initiative could form a “basis” for arranging Israel’s relations with the Arab world, as long as it does not include any reference to a Palestinian right of refugee return.
“I think the Saudi initiative is much more relevant today than it was previously,” he said, adding that the central idea behind the initiative was not only an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but also an arrangement with the entire Arab world.
Asked what has changed to make him more amenable to the Saudi initiative, the foreign minister said there was a greater commonality of interests than there was a decade ago between Israel and the moderate Arab world.
Liberman pointed out that at the summit in Riyadh in March between US President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch – according to media reports – raised three issues: Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the spillover effect of the conflict in Syria on the region.
“These are exactly the three problems bothering us,” he said. “So, where there is a commonality of interests that is clear to everyone, there is an opportunity.”
While a separate agreement with the Palestinians would only be a “headache” for Israel, since there would be constant demands and friction over issues such as border crossings and taxes, there would be benefits in a wider arrangement that includes ties with Saudi Arabia and the moderate states in the Persian Gulf, Liberman said. “I think they understand now that no one from the outside will solve the problems of the Middle East,” he said.
He stressed that such an arrangement would have to include arrangements regarding the Israeli Arabs, and that he would insist on redrawing borders to transfer land and populations.
“When talking about [land] swaps, the [Arab] Triangle [east of Kfar Saba] needs to be part of a future Palestinian state,” he said, restating a position he has long advocated.
Liberman said he could not countenance a situation whereby Israeli citizens hold a sympathy strike with Hamas in Gaza during a time of war, while Israelis – both Jews and Muslims – were being killed by Hamas.
“From my perspective, those who identify with Hamas during a time of war should not be Israeli citizens,” he said, adding that the “dividing line” was not whether one was Jewish, Christian or Muslim, but rather whether one was loyal to the state, its symbols and values.
Studies were under way to check the feasibility of his ideas, Liberman said. An international conference would be the last stage of this “regional comprehensive solution,” and numerous understandings would have to be drawn up beforehand, he said.
Liberman said the commonality of interests he spoke of was not only recognized by governments, but was trickling down to the people as well.
“In order to understand what is happening in the Arab world, to see the difference in the Arab world, turn on Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya to see how things are broadcast,” he said. “ It is like night and day.
While he characterized the Qatar-backed Al Jazeera as a “brainwashing tool” for global terrorists movements, he said the Saudi-supported Al-Arabiya “understands that the central problem is the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the suffering in Gaza is not because of Israel, but because of Hamas.”
While extremely critical of the role Qatar is playing by funding terrorist groups not only in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia and even Europe, he did not exaggerate the leverage the country has over Hamas.
Qatar was hosting Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Doha, and funding them handsomely, to ensure they only operate outside Qatar, the foreign minister said. He characterized this as Qatar paying “protection money” to the terrorist organization.
“It is paying protection money in order to ensure security and quiet and calm inside Qatar, so they would work only outside,” he said. “I don’t know how much they are able to influence Hamas. I think Hamas has more influence on Qatar than Qatar does on Hamas.”
Liberman was not optimistic about the outcome of the ceasefire talks being held in Cairo, saying Hamas’s minimum demands were much more than Israel could give – in both the short and long terms.
In the short term, he said, Hamas will stymie Israel’s demands for disarmament of Gaza, and also the introduction of any effective supervisory mechanism to ensure that money and construction materials pouring into the Strip after the conflict will not be diverted for Hamas’s use.
Furthermore, certain longterm goals of Hamas – such as a sea port – are things that Israel could never agree to.
“Hamas’s ultimate demand for a sea port is designed to bypass all the supervisory mechanisms we want to set up,” Liberman noted. “It is clear that the whole idea of a sea port is to smuggle in weapons, construction materials, terrorists and advisers from Iran and other places.”
Regarding the composition of the UN Human Rights Council commission named to investigate the Gaza operation, Liberman would not say whether Israel would cooperate with the probe, saying, “We don’t have to say what we are going to do.”
He did, however, blast the appointment to the panel of Canadian professor William Schabas, whom he said not only thinks that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – but also former president Shimon Peres – needed to face charges at the International Criminal Court.
Considering Schabas’s record, Liberman said, he was surprised the UNHRC did not appoint Hamas head Khaled Mashaal to lead the inquiry, since their ideas about Israel are “more or less the same.”
On another issue, Liberman – when asked what he meant recently when he said Israel would respond to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-Semitic comments if they continued after Sunday’s presidential elections – said that while Israel was not looking for any conflict or friction with anyone, “we cannot accept a situation where we are someone’s punching bag.”
“We are trying to preserve correct ties with Turkey,” Liberman said. “We have no interest in creating a conflict.”
He pointed out that trade with Turkey has increased over the past few years, and that the Foreign Ministry approved recent requests from Ankara requests to send drugs and humanitarian aid to Gaza, as well as to fly injured Palestinians to Turkey for medical treatment.