Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel need to be pressured from the outside to move forward with a peace deal, former Shin Bet chief MK Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.
Peri is a rare breed, having worked on security issues since joining the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in 1966, but also having played the violin from first grade until the present. But how this violinist who dreamed of a career as a musician fell into the Shin Bet and rose to be its chief and a minister in the 2013-2015 government is a story for another time.
With his party leader, Yair Lapid, leading or tied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the polls for the next election, Peri dived, with the Post
, deep into the details of how Lapid could get a peace deal done where Netanyahu has not.
Peri started by describing the need for parallel regional and bilateral negotiations, saying that “I have no doubt that to start a straight bilateral process between us and the PA will lead to failure, whether because of them or because of us – blame it on whoever you want.
“It has been proven that we need a coalition, an umbrella, including most big moderate Arab countries. We need pressure. Israel wants pressure on the PA, and we need pressure also on us,” he said.
Key regional negotiating partners should include “Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf states, maybe Morocco, elements of the EU, the US and maybe even Russia – though I am more skeptical of Russia,” stated Peri.
He explained that major dynamics have changed recently toward favoring the success of peace talks.
“We now have political and economic backup from the moderate Arabs. The West Bank cannot continue without support from its Arab allies and from the West. They have no industry and no port. Israel also gives money to the PA, and Palestinians working in Israel is a main aspect of the Palestinian economy,” said Peri.
He said this dynamic was more important than some of the specific details of resolving final-status issues, most of which, he said, had solid potential resolutions dating back to the Camp David 2000 Clinton Parameters. He added that there would need to be additional security arrangements in the Jordan Valley because of regional instability since 2000.
Regarding Palestinian statehood, he said, “It is a question mark whether there will be a Palestinian state or some kind of state-plus Gaza. I think maybe we need to think of a different kind of entity in Gaza, because I don’t see Gaza and West Bank Palestinians going back and forth through Israel.”
After all of these elements, he was pressed that the regional peace idea sounded extremely similar to what Netanyahu has propounded and the Palestinians and Arab League have rejected. Where, then, is Lapid different? One possible area was with regard to Jerusalem, where Netanyahu has declared he would never make any compromises. While Lapid has declared that Jerusalem must remain united, Peri said, “there is always a question as to how you define united Jerusalem. When people say they will not divide any of Jerusalem, do they really understand the demographics on the ground? Do we really need 13 [Arab] villages outside of the walls, and do we want them to be part of Jerusalem? “Formally, yes they are. But neither the IDF nor the police go there,” he added.
Peri also appeared open to discussing creative ways of sharing the holy sites in the Old City, and thinks that agreement might be possible if representatives from the wider Muslim and Jewish worlds are included in the negotiations.
“If there is a way, we will find the will,” he said.
But most important, Peri said that Lapid could restore faith between the parties. Between Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, “there is a lack of faith. There is no basic trust between the leaders. I must believe what you say, and you must believe what I say.”
In addition, he said the negotiations should not be artificially rushed by time lines on the way to Lapid’s idea of “a consensual divorce” between the peoples.
Peri said he has a long history of helping prime ministers take tough steps toward peace, dating back to when he ran the Shin Bet for Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and helped convince him to join peace talks with a variety of Arab representatives at Madrid in 1991.
“Shamir didn’t want to hear the words ‘peace talks.’ I had to help convince Shamir to go to Madrid,” as he was dwelling on the risks, he said.
Peri reaffirmed that peace talks and taking risks for peace are a necessity.
Pivoting to the current talks between Israel and the Trump administration, he said, “I heard a little disappointment from the Israeli government with [Trump messenger Jason] Greenblatt. If some people interpreted that the prime minister would get all that he wanted, that the US government would go very easy on us and say ‘You want to build a replacement for Amona? Go ahead,’ it looks like it won’t be so easy.
“All those who thought Trump would do a 180-degree U-turn and agree with everything we wanted in the territories is getting disappointed. We will get support to build in the settlement blocs, but not outside of the blocs.”
The former intelligence chief also discussed a variety of security issues confronting Israel.
Regarding the recent event in which an arrow missile shot down a Syrian surface-to-air missile, Peri praised the decision to fire and pushed back against some critics, such as former defense minister Ehud Barak, who said the Arrow should not have been used, so as to keep secret its capabilities.
Until it was used to shoot down the Syrian SAM, which was fired at an Israeli aircraft that had attacked Syrian weapons transfers to Hezbollah, the Arrow had never been used, and it was officially listed only for use as a defense against rocket attacks on Israel.
Peri explained that the IDF could not have known for sure whether the Syrian SAM would hit nothing or might accidentally land in the Jordan Valley and kill civilians there. He said that the Arrow operators likely had only seconds to decide and needed to weigh the risk of letting through a SAM armed with a 200-kilogram warhead.
Referring to criticism, Peri said, “I suggest to these critics: So it is okay if it fell into an open field, but can you guarantee that it would not have hit a kibbutz and killed people? How can you know?” Also, he asked, “Why do we have this missile defense?... To use when we need it.... Also, it has an impact on Hezbollah,” to deter it from firing rockets and being embarrassed that Israel can shoot down even their advanced rockets. Until now, only Israel’s short-range missile defense, Iron Dome, had been used, but no one knew if Israel’s defense against long-range and advanced rockets would work.
How complete is Israel’s missile defense – with the recent Arrow (Israel’s long-range missile defense) success shooting down a Syrian missile, and David’s Sling, (Israel’s mid-range missile defense) now considered operational (even if untested) – against, say, over 100,000 Hezbollah rockets? Peri said that the main question is “how hermetic can missile defense be? I am among those from the defense and intelligence establishment who say that there is no hermetic defense.”
Pressed to take a side in the debate about how many casualties Israel might expect in a war with Hezbollah (some Israeli officials say the numbers will remain low, in the dozens or less, while others say they will spike into the hundreds), with its full rocket arsenal raining down over Israel, Peri tried to avoid specifics.
“Israel’s capacity for missile defense from rocket attacks on civilians has gotten much better. If there were [rocket] attacks [from Hezbollah] a few years ago [when only Iron Dome was operational], there would have been more dead civilians. Our defense is very advanced and is always getting better. Still, there could be a disaster, but I hope not,” he said.
Moving to the status of the “knife intifada” and to his assessment of current Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman, Peri said: “I don’t know if it is finished, but its intensity is down. The performance of the Shin Bet is impressive. The head of the organization is good and is the spine [of Israeli security] along with the IDF and the Mossad. When there are good people there, with strong abilities, creativity and bravery, it provides a good and optimistic feeling.”
More specifically, he said Argaman has “strong abilities and analyzes well, making his achievements very impressive. When you present to the Knesset that you arrested 402 lone-wolf attackers before they carried out attacks – this is very impressive.
“We have said there was no way to catch lone-wolf terrorists, that we were very limited, and could only punish them afterward because there was no warning or plans to intercept,” he said – meaning that Argaman’s success in arresting so many lone-wolf potential attackers is that much more impressive.
Discussing one of the latest cutting-edge security challenges, Peri expressed skepticism about a new policy of some Western countries to block persons from certain countries from bringing laptops in carry-on luggage.
He said, “I don’t know if there is or isn’t a reason. It seems a little weird. If you are worried about hidden [explosives or weapons] within computers or an iPad, then why will you allow people to put it into the cargo area of the airplane? One hundred grams of explosives in a computer, whether it explodes in the passenger or cargo area, will bring the airplane down.”
“Also, if you can use cyber-hacking from your computer, you can do it remotely and activate a bomb on an airplane without having to board it, by just pushing a button,” he said.
He suggested that the policy is possibly more messaging from the US to the nine countries listed that they must get tougher with their airline security, if they want to be removed from the list.
Overall, while Peri raises many question marks in the diplomatic and security arenas, he remains positive about Israel’s future.