The protests in Syria and Iran, and intensified sanctions against the latter, will succeed in bringing down the regimes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at his Knesset office on Thursday.
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Shalom, who was born in Tunisia, where the protests throughout the Muslim world began, is also regional cooperation minister.
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That title has mainly allowed him to oversee economic overtures to the Palestinian Authority. But he expressed hope that there would soon be democracies in the region that would not elect extremists and with which Israel could cooperate.
“I believe that all the corrupt regimes will eventually collapse,” Shalom said when asked whether he saw protests taking root in Syria and Iran. “The young generation is connected to the 21st century while the regimes are in the 19th century. They have found out what life is like outside and that they can ask for more.”
Shalom said there were signs that international sanctions on Iran were working. He noted that there were 13 minority groups in Iran and predicted that the sanctions could cause the regime to crumble, especially if they were intensified by the US, Europe and likeminded nations.
In reference to the new diplomatic initiative Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is drafting, Shalom called upon the prime minister to reveal it to his cabinet before presenting it in Washington.
“I think it would look strange if the congressmen will hear the details of the plan before the ministers,” Shalom said. “We need to look for paths to peace, but it has to be thought-out, not done with haste but with brains. It has to fit the Likud’s agenda on which the voters gave us our mandate. And we shouldn’t give up our assets before negotiations.”
But Shalom, who is considered one of the Likud’s top future candidates for prime minister, stopped short of announcing any intention to lead any protest against Netanyahu’s unannounced diplomatic initiatives.Among the many titles you hold is regional cooperation minister. Is there any reason for optimism on the region becoming more friendly to Israel?
We are facing an earthquake in the Middle East these days, while most of the Arab world is facing turmoil. The people of the region are asking for freedom, democracy and the rule of law, and we are very much in favor.
We think it’s important to not be the only democracy in the Middle East.
We want them to join us. The question is what regimes they will have after they have their elections. We are not satisfied with results of the elections in the Palestinian Authority and Algeria, where extremists took power.
The turmoil has two main consequences for us:
1) It proved the mistake of those trying to convince us for years that instability in the world was caused by us not ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The turmoil in the region has no connection to the the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
2) It proves that every agreement needs to be based on security, security and security, because after 30 years if Egyptians are questioning our peace treaty, their leaders changing could bring about a different situation.Are we on the side of the people who were on the streets of Cairo?
We are in favor of those asking for a better life, freedom, and democracy. But the Americans and Western world were in favor of the process that took place, and Iran was in favor as well, so one of them must be wrong. I hope we [in the West] are not those who are wrong.Do we fear a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt?
They are very smart. They will try to take the leadership in stages, as they have elsewhere in the Arab world. We are facing a battle between the Western world and Iran over who will take control of the Middle East. Iran is trying to change moderate regimes by bringing their collaborators to power. They did it in Lebanon and in Gaza. Now they will try in Egypt.
Whoever controls the Middle East controls oil fields and oil reserves for the next 150 years. If Iran takes the lead, they will be a major superpower, can create a nuclear bomb, and become a major player in the economic market.
The Americans made a mistake by allowing Hamas to participate in the PA election, even though the Oslo Accords said no organization calling for the destruction of Israel could participate.
The US thought Hamas would only win 30 percent and that they could then say that there was another democracy in the Middle East.What should the West be doing to prevent the spread of Iran’s influence?
The West must show more determination. Those Arab leaders need to think that they can still rely upon the West. The Iranian ships in the Suez were a statement that they are the new leaders of the Middle East. It was ironic that while Iran was supporting demonstrators elsewhere in the region, they were killing their own protesters. I am a big believer in sanctions, which worked with Libya and South Africa, and I believe they can work in Iran. I back intensifying sanctions by the US, Europe and like-minded nations. There are signs the sanctions have encouraged the 13 minorities to rebel, which could lead to the regime crumbling.Do you see protests taking root in Syria and Iran?
I believe that all the corrupt regimes will eventually collapse. The young generation is connected to the 21st century while the regimes are in the 19th century. They have found out what life is like outside and that they can ask for more.Are you comfortable with elections in Egypt in September or will we get a repeat of the Hamas 2006 victory by Islamists?
They might need more time for a gradual transition. The army controlling Egypt is not a dramatic change from before. It looks like they are moving toward more freedom and more openness. It happened because of the problematic situation in Egypt – the poverty, high birthrate, unemployment and young couples forced to live with their parents and not get married. This could bring extremists to power, but as I see it, the situation is still stable.Is the peace deal with Egypt lost?
I hope not. But we have to prepare for every scenario.How do we address the problem of the Beduin in Sinai?
It’s the Wild South down there. The security forces of Egypt are not even trying to take control of all of Sinai and the Beduin are celebrating there, which is problematic for the future.
We allowed Egypt to have more soldiers than our peace treaty allowed.
But that’s for a limited time.How worried are you by the Beduin in the Negev?
There is a long process of illegal construction and taking control of property. Three are categories of Beduin: 1) people in their own land, 2) people on land they claim but have no proof, 3) people who stay in land that they can’t ask for because it is clearly not theirs. There is a committee dealing with the issue that will be summarizing its conclusions soon.Some in the US and some in Europe argue that this is the moment for Israel to push hard for substantive progress with the Palestinians in a climate of a push for freedom. Do you see that as wrongheaded or smart?
We don’t need to hurry or rush, because that’s never smart. It should be considered in a smart way. The Palestinians are trying unilateral moves, and trying to prevent direct negotiations. We are trying to do everything possible to advance negotiations with the Palestinians.
They asked Netanyahu to accept a two state-solution, which he did at Bar-Ilan University. After that, they brought the obstacle of freezing settlements, a demand not made of any prime minister before and it didn’t prevent agreements in the past. Sadat didn’t ask for it and Begin withdrew from all of Sinai. It was the same with Oslo, and Netanyahu with the Hebron and Wye accords. Sharon enabled settlers to build in Gaza still the last day.Will you work against Netanyahu’s new diplomatic initiative that he intends to announce in Washington?
I think it looks strange that the congressmen will hear the details of the plan before the ministers. We need to look for paths to peace, but it has to be thought-out, not done with haste but with brains. It has to fit the Likud’s agenda on which the voters gave us our mandate. And we shouldn’t give up our assets before negotiations.Who is to blame for the lack of a peace process?
I blame the Palestinians. It’s complicated to understand why the world is blaming us. Our international situation is not the best and we have to improve it. The Palestinians are seeking unilateral recognition for a state in September after they blamed us for withdrawing unilaterally in Gaza. [Forming a state] now, when Israel and the PA are so interconnected, could lead to the PA falling to extremists.
It’s very important to think about what will happen the day after.Do you think Netanyahu will divide Jerusalem?
I doubt that anyone elected prime minister would divide Jerusalem.Do you support the effort to bring about the release of Jonathan Pollard after not pushing for it as foreign minister?
These days are different. There are many who have had the courage to
join the request of Israel, while before officials and Jewish leaders
were afraid to join the request. There must be full cooperation between
his family and the governments of Israel and the US for it to happen. I
hope to see him home ASAP. He paid a much heavier price than he had to.
The time has come to release him home to his family.Has Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Avigdor Lieberman and not you as foreign minister caused damage?
He made a promise to appoint me. I thought I would be foreign minister,
but that was the decision he made. I am enjoying the jobs I have.