In an exclusive Independence Day interview with The Jerusalem Post, President Moshe Katsav asserts that the gaps between Israel's political parties are narrower than they have ever been, and believes there is now a real opportunity for greater internal dialogue and understanding.
Even before winning office, Moshe Katsav had set himself a goal as Israel's president - to try and heal the internal rifts afflicting the Jewish state. "I am going to ignore my political ideology - to put my ideology in a box and close it for seven years," he told The Jerusalem Post in June 2000, shortly before he secured election. "I will be involved just in Israeli society, to minimize the gaps and lower the tensionsâ€¦ The mission of the president is to find a way to increase interaction and dialogue between all the different sectors. Every rift requires a different formula."
Now, in the penultimate year of his seven-year term, Katsav says he feels some of those gulfs are healing. And the former Likud Knesset member, a little surprisingly, cites the Oslo Accords as what he calls the "belated" catalyst for this narrowing of differences.
Katsav traces a line from the Oslo Accords to last summer's pullout from Gaza, and sees in the process a kind of enforced national sobriety and moderation: the recognition by the Right of the need to respect the Knesset and other institutions of our democracy, and not assume that pioneering acts of settlement would ultimately be endorsed by the government and parliament; and the recognition and appreciation by the Left of the passionate Zionist motivation and value behind the settlement enterprise.
Perhaps his assertion that the gaps between Israel's political parties on issues relating to the fate of the territories are narrower than they have ever been is itself a reflection of his own, self-enforced, move toward where he sees the heart of the national political consensus. Certainly, Katsav has shifted.
Short of undergoing a personality transplant before entering the President's Residence, Shimon Peres, whom Katsav so narrowly and memorably defeated in the Knesset vote to succeed Ezer Weizman, could only have been a divisive head of state. He would likely have used the post to champion his particular vision of a remade Middle East, and quite possibly, unless bound by an unprecedented self-discipline, have sought to personally intervene to try and bring this about, notwithstanding the formal limitations of what is meant to be largely a symbolic office.
Katsav, by contrast, has sought to establish himself as a national father figure, a soothing presence whose house is the religious, political and social home of all of us, and to whom we can all air our grievances. It remains to be seen how much of lasting consequence will emerge from his efforts to formalize a kind of second parliament to cement Israeli-Diaspora relations, his ongoing dialogue with Israeli Arab leaders, his sessions with highly politicized settler rabbis and other such forums. But in a nation so fraught with tension and division and even murderous dissent as ours has been in recent years, maybe the very act of providing a place in which highly charged Israeli figures can vent their most passionate complaints is itself a service of real value, and an avenue to the eventual internal conciliation that he regards as being more attainable than ever.
In this interview, arranged to mark the 58th anniversary of our modern nation's independence, what is striking is the president's earnestness - a quality readily associated with the state's founding fathers and rather less so with many of our current political leaders. There can be no doubting the earnest conviction that underpins his efforts at internal dialogue, nor the earnest dismay with which he regards Iran's vicious assaults on Israel's legitimacy and Hamas's insistent determination to invoke a religious basis in its call for Israel's destruction, nor the earnest horror at the "lightness" with which some Diaspora Jews cast away their commitment to the religion, and in so doing break a "historical chain" dating back 3,000 years.
Despite so many years in politics, it is that earnestness, contrasted with the more characteristic cynicism of his colleagues, that sets Katsav apart as something of a figure from a bygone age. By happy fortune, he wound up not as a parliamentarian overtaken by more dynamic and ruthless politicians, but at the President's Residence. Here he stands as an emblem of the kind of courtesy and decency that we would like to think we exemplify or at least aspire to as a nation, and that we long for our neighbors to display toward us.
Before we get to questions relating to Independence Day and the modern state, I wanted to ask you a little about your background - as a young boy in Iran. You came to Israel at age five. Do you have memories of that period?
I remember the shah's parade in the streets of Teheran. I think that it was at the time of his wedding. I remember a journey from Teheran to Yadz, where I was born, for a visit, in the course of which one of my brothers died. He's buried at Yadz. I remember our Jewish school, the Koresh school, and the efforts my mother made to get me into first grade there. Like every young mother, she wanted her son to go to school already. I was younger than the other kids.
Why did she want to push you ahead?
In Israel, she managed to get most of us into school a year ahead. It was an obsession for her that we study. Maybe because she didn't get to study enough. We are eight brothers and sisters; I'm the oldest. Most of us finished high school at age 17.
When we came to Israel, they asked us where we wanted to live and she said wherever there's a school. Tents, no tents; jobs, no jobs. The main thing was the school. We got to the Kastina tent camp, and everyone was grumbling that there was no work. But she was happy because there was a school.
Did the whole family come in 1951?
They were a young couple - my father was 30 and my mother 21. I was five. My sister was a year old and my mother was pregnant. A grandma stayed there, and cousins. Others came later.
And now there's no one left?
Not for many years now. By the end of the 1950s, the whole family was here.
How were the relations with the neighbors for the Jews in Iran? I assume you don't have personal recollections, but...
The Jews managed fine, especially in the shah's time. There were good ties between Israel and Iran, and that influenced the freedom of religion for the Jews there.
After the revolution there was a change. The Jews themselves are a little blinded to the reality. They are obliged to send their kids to school on Shabbat; they have Muslim teachers. But they still think that they have religious and economic freedom.
How should we be dealing with this deterioration, with the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism of the current regime there?
First I draw a distinction between the Iranian people and the regime. The regime is the most hostile since the Islamic Revolution. Previous presidents were not as hostile as the current one. The Iranian parliament is the most conservative and extreme since Khomeini came to power.
For years, there was an argument in the West, and the conventional wisdom was that internal changes would ultimately bring Iran closer to the West: the Internet and the student demonstrations and the satellite dishes in the streets of Teheran and the worldwide conferences of scientists - there were numerous signs over the past 25 that led the West to believe that the change was gradual, too gradual, but positive nonetheless. Four years ago, there were major student demonstrations on the Teheran campus. And they held firm for a few days.
But in the last year it's become clear that the notion of positive change was a Western illusion. The reformists didn't prevail. They've been thrown out of the majlis; they're no longer in parliament. The fact is that there's a fanatical, extremist president, and his declarations reflect a world view and a mind-set and a policy that is very dangerous.
We've been battling for more than 10 years against the Iranian efforts to achieve nuclear weapons. Ten years ago, Israel was alone. In the last year it's become clear that this is an international problem of the first rank, maybe the most pressing international problem. But there is hesitancy in the West. The economic negotiations, the efforts to reach trade agreements in order to entice Iran, have been proved to be ineffectual. Iran simply led Europe astray. It recognized that the free world doesn't want angry reactions, doesn't want to pull the rope too tight. So the Iranians pretended to want trade agreements, but they didn't slow in the slightest their plans to reach nuclear capability.
In my opinion, they aim to reach the day when the world will say, "Too bad, they've already got it. Fait accompli. It's behind us now." And the fact that Russia and China themselves have difficulties with Muslim minorities, including terrorist activity in Chechnya, hard problems in China, precludes them from taking a determined and forceful position against Iran.
The world needs to stand firm. If the world in recent years had been forceful, it would have prevented the enrichment phase. The enrichment of uranium reflects the weakness of the West. The aggressive stance of Iran reflects the free world's hesitancy.
This is a state that is geographically very close to the West, unlike distant North Korea. And the Iranian people are more liberal in their views than the North Koreans because of the Internet, because of their previous connections with the West, because of their connections with the Iranian Jewish community in Europe and America, family ties, phone contacts. They understand the West.
Is it too late now?
As long as they don't have nuclear weapons, it's not too late. To reach 3,000 centrifuges enriching uranium will take a long time and obviously will still involve technical difficulties. Yet I still don't see the West responding. I anticipated, after the Iranian president declared that he was enriching uranium, an urgent meeting of the Security Council, an urgent meeting of the IAEA, an international outcry, discussions and dramatic debate about how to deal with this new development, but the whole response of the West has been, "We need to continue our diplomatic efforts." Enough! Acknowledge that the diplomatic effort has failed. Why don't they open their eyes?
And start doing what?
Hold the discussions. That doesn't immediately mean sanctions or military force. I'm not talking about a military action, but we have to take a forceful stance. We can't have Iran cheating the world, behaving with contempt. I imagine that in the inner rooms of the Iranian regime, they are falling over with laughter at how they are moving step by step toward their goal and how the free world is hesitant and weak. I don't see any kind of deterrent announcement coming from the international community.
It's now become a matter of national prestige in Iran. Even the moderates in the regime are like sheep, standing with the regime, seeing this as a matter of national pride. There's a big, real, danger of nuclear weaponry in the hands of Iran.
It's not only a threat to Israel, which is a danger, because he declares that Israel has no right to exist. There was a growing acceptance in the Muslim world of the fact of Israel's existence. Not everybody said so publicly, but there was acceptance. Some of them recognized us de jure, some of them de facto. The declarations of the Iranian president are putting the brakes on this process. Suddenly the question of whether Israel has the right to exist is again being asked in the Muslim world. That's grave.
The second grave aspect is that Iran is likely to be a model for other Muslim states to develop weapons of mass destruction. Lots of Muslim states will say, "If Iran got nuclear weapons, why not us? Why just Muslim Pakistan and Muslim Iran?" Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran are a real danger to moderate Arab states. America's deterrent posture is likely to be weakened. Many states are likely to say that the US was unable to stand up to Iran, so we need to find our own ways to strengthen ourselves and counter threats to our existence. A nuclear Iran is a threat to Europe, to Israel, the Persian Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom. Imagine a situation where, for other reasons, there is a desire to impose sanctions on Iran after it attains nuclear capability. The international community will be in a much weaker bargaining position.
The combination of three aspects of Iran represents the greatest threat to the whole world, to humanity in our day. Totalitarianism, cooperation with international terror groups - al-Qaida is within Iran, and it stands behind the activities of Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad - and nuclear weapons.
Everybody thinks that we Israelis, when we speak of standing firm against Iran, are talking of military action. That is not the case. I think that a resolute, unhesitant stance by the free world is precisely what will avoid military action. If somebody wants to avoid military action, they must now take a forceful stance.
What message do you have for the Iranian people as the Iranian-born president of Israel?
Iran has great financial revenues: a barrel of oil costs $74 nowadays. Huge revenues. On the other hand, the poverty and distress are terrifying by any international measure. I saw a Teheran taxi driver on CNN saying "[President] Ahmadinejad promised us that he would deal with our financial and social problems first. Why is he busying himself instead with the Holocaust and nuclear weapons?" Iran could be as wealthy as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with a high standard of living, fighting illiteracy and financial and social woes, fighting drugs and corruption. It has the financial resources because of its oil revenues. But it invests all its resources in developing a nuclear capability.
There is no physical threat to Iran. There's not a single country that threatens the existence of Iran. So why does Iran need this capability? The West offered all kinds of formulae to solve this, if they want it for peaceful means.
So your message is?
That the world is not against the Iranian people. Israel is not against the Iranian people. As somebody born in Iran, I have great love for Persian culture, Persian history, Persian music, not to mention Persian food which is I think is the tastiest in the world. But the regime in Iran is an enemy and a danger to the internal situation in Iran, and a danger to peace and security in the world. The Iranians, to my sorrow, are either too scared or don't recognize the reality and therefore don't see the regime leading them to the abyss.
Let's change tack. How do you interpret the Israeli elections?
There are fewer political rifts in Israel than ever before. The gaps between the parties in the diplomatic arena are narrower than ever. The recent election, the "small bang," the establishment of Kadima and all that accompanied it were a belated direct response to the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords narrowed the gaps between the parties.
The attitude of Israeli society to the settlements has changed. At first, settlements were established to try and pave the way to the annexation of Judea and Samaria, and were seen as a part of the Land of Israel. In the second stage, it was understood that we couldn't annex Judea and Samaria, so the settlements were intended to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. In the road map, Israel declared that it supported the establishment of a Palestinian state. Ariel Sharon was the first to formally declare this, and the Knesset approved it. So it was understood that the settlements could not prevent a Palestinian state. Now settlement was needed to strengthen the major blocs, and to establish a more secure border to ensure the survival of Israel. So the purpose of the settlements is no longer historic, religious, political, but now mainly serving a security purpose.
The evacuation from Gush Katif gave the Left for the first time recognition of the value of the vision, the faith. Suddenly, the Left, which continues to oppose settlements, saw that the settlement enterprise was not solely political and wasn't solely economic - a cheaper home, a better quality of life. It saw the value of the settlers' Zionist vision, the religious faith.
On the other hand, the settlers recognized that vision, faith, passion and the readiness to sacrifice were not enough, and that you have to respect democracy. They had thought that if they pioneered a settlement, the state and the institutions of government would follow, and they suddenly recognized that this isn't the case, that you have to cherish the Knesset as a democratic value.
This meeting between the values of faith and the values of democracy facilitates for the first time a real dialogue between Left and Right, Orthodox and secular. There is a certain awakening to the positive aspects of the opposite camp - the Left sees the value of faith; the Right sees the value of democracy. So I believe the political rifts are shrinking.
But the fact that almost a third of voters didn't vote attests to a lack of faith in the political system, hopelessness, deep disappointment. I had assumed that with such high stakes, with Ehud Olmert speaking of convergence, the people would want to have their say.
But the people, this time too, decided not to take a decisive position as a collective in the dispute over the future of the territories. It placed that decision in the hands of the Knesset. The people did not clearly take a decision. Take into account that almost 5 percent of votes went to waste because they were cast for parties that did not clear the threshold. Take into account that 35% didn't vote at all. Add the seven seats won by the Pensioners Party, where there was no diplomatic agenda. Combine those three, and you get close to 45% or 50% of Israelis who didn't take a position on the burning issue.
What will determine ultimately if there is an existential threat to Israel is the eastern border. We haven't set our eastern border. And I would have expected the people to have been a more active player in the decision. It chose not to, to my sorrow.
Didn't the election result really mean that the security barrier will be the border?
That border is still disputed. Where the route is convenient for the Left, it says, "Yes, this is the political border." Where it doesn't like the route, it says, "It is temporary and for security purposes is only." The same goes for the Right.
I see it as a temporary security border. And the permanent border will be agreed in negotiations for a peace treaty if and when the Palestinians sober up from the illusion that their leaders are encouraging, when they accept the three red-line conditions set by the Quartet.
Are you saying that the incoming prime minister has no mandate to fix the border at the route of the security barrier?
No, I'm not saying that. The Knesset has the mandate, even though close to 50 percent did not participate. The Knesset has the legal right, the legitimacy to set Israel's permanent borders on any route. What it decides must be respected.
Those who oppose Knesset decisions have the right to struggle against them. Extra-parliamentary groups have the right, by lawful methods, to try and get those decisions changed. And that has happened. The fact that last time, in Gush Katif, it didn't happen, was not because it was impossible. I can conceive of decisions that the Knesset takes, and that citizens, via legitimate, legal means, can get changed. Obviously not through violence, or division, or force as at Amona.
You've called the PA elections non-democratic. On what basis?
They were held in opposition to the Oslo Accords, under which the PA obligated itself that no terror group would ever play a role in the elections. Hamas is declared to be a terror group in Europe, the US, not only Israel. Hamas, as a religious, fanatic, extreme, radical group, appeared in people's homes. They came with weapons. That certainly violates the democracy of the process. A terror group that takes part, and brings weapons to the entrance to the polling stations, infringes one of the most basic aspects of democracy - free elections. I'm sorry the world says the elections were democratic and that it is unhappy with the results. That's not true. The elections were not democratic.
And the repercussions?
When Israel said there should be no Palestinian state, it wasn't only because of the feeling that it would endanger the existence of Israel or because we didn't love the Palestinians as a state. The main argument was that if the Palestinians deserved an independent state, why did the Arab world, pre-1967, not work to establish one? But in 2003, Ariel Sharon had a volte face and secured government and Knesset approval for an independent Palestinian state. Then, after we made this shift, suddenly a new Palestinian government rises and says, "Yes, you've recognized our right to independent statehood, but we don't recognize your right. You, the Jews, don't have the right to sovereignty and an independent state." Bibi Netanyahu in 1996, before the elections, made clear that the Likud would honor all the agreements made by the previous governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. That's a basic tool in the continuity of government. Along comes the new Palestinian government and says, "No. we'll choose which of the agreements and promises and obligations given by Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] we'll honor." So say Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal. They'll make a selection. They openly support terror groups. Arafat in doubletalk said he was against terror. Abu Mazen really was against terror. The new government says it is not opposed to terror, says it is the right of self-defense.
How absurd. I as a Jew come and say that Islam and the Koran oppose bloodshed and terrorism. They, in the name of Islam, say, "No, Islam does support acts of terror," like the one in the old bus station in Tel Aviv, against women, old people, young people, hurt in the name of religion.
I am certain that there cannot be a religion that supports bloodshed. It cannot be that the Koran and Islam support this. But I don't hear Muslim religious leaders speaking out against this.
Despite everything that Hamas has done, we're prepared to talk to it. We're not boycotting it. We're hoping that it will accept the three Quartet conditions. We've never said we oppose a diplomatic negotiation with Hamas. And along comes Hamas and says it is not prepared to negotiate with us.
There's a consensus among the Israeli political parties. I had the opportunity to meet with them all during the coalition talks. There is national consensus not to negotiate with the Hamas government if it doesn't accept the three Quartet conditions.
And yet a group of Arab Knesset members recently went to see Hamas leaders?
That was inappropriate, a mistake. This has nothing to do with freedom of expression or action by Knesset members. It's an illusion and naivety to think that this might influence Hamas parliamentarians.
These MKs are not naive people.
They should not have done it. They as Israelis should have demanded that Hamas parliamentarians accept the three trivial demands of the Quartet. They say they are not ready to negotiate with us, that they support terror, that they won't accept the international obligations of Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen, and we're supposed to maintain contacts with them? The entire Knesset should stand together and hold to those Quartet demands.
I attended one of your meetings of Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab leaders a while back. Is this effort at dialogue ongoing?
I'll continue my dialogue with Israeli Arab leaders, of course. I respect all Arab MKs as the elected representatives of the people - as with all MKs, whatever their views. The President's House is their house too.
I am very careful in criticism of them. But I must tell you honestly, I don't always hear from them criticism of the policies of the PA. It cannot be that Israel is making all the mistakes, according to these MKs, and all the right and justice is on the Palestinian Authority side. They never have a word of criticism of the Palestinian leadership. I ask them about this, and they say that they raise such criticisms in meetings [with the Palestinians]. But sometimes, I'd expect to hear them raise their criticisms in a clear voice.
Maybe some of the Arab MKs share the Hamas agenda?
No, I think Israeli Arab leaders recognize Israel's right to exist and regard me as their president. They have differences with other MKs and with the government. They support Palestinian statehood and that's legitimate. They oppose government policy and that's legitimate. They truly oppose terror - I have no doubt of that. My criticism of them is that they don't make this known in a clear, determined voice. It's not enough to say this behind the scenes. And some of their initiatives, such as this meeting with Hamas, should not have taken place.
What do you make of the 2002 Arab League peace proposal, which is now being talked about again?
Declarations are no substitute for negotiations. And there they demanded that we return to the 1967 borders. Certain irreversible facts have been created since 1967. And we shouldn't encourage delusions. The large part of the Arab world that talks about a return to the 1967 borders needs to recognize that this is a delusion.
A leader needs to uproot illusions and to lead, not be led. A central element of the Beirut declaration is "led" rather than "leading." They sought to curry favor with the Palestinians. Sane leaderships require that they say, "We seek a Palestinian state on as much of the territories as possible. We can't go back to the 1967 borders. There'll be no right of return." And around the issue of Jerusalem, there can be a solution there too. We don't rule out the right of Muslims to pray on the Temple Mount. But neither can they uproot from us the fact that the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Jewish history, religion and faith. We don't intend to harm the Palestinian right to pray there, but let's make arrangements there, as we did at the Cave of the Patriarchs, to enable coexistence without either side's rights being infringed.
Regarding the Diaspora, we're about to turn 58. People have made their minds up about where to live - in Israel or the Diaspora. Is the gap between those two Jewish worlds widening, and if so what can we do to bridge it?
I'm concerned by the growing gap between the Jews of the world and the state of the Jews, the linkage, the feeling of connection, of identity. I certainly see Israel as strengthening the Jewish identity of the Diaspora Jewry. I am sorry to see the numerical decline of world Jewry - a direct consequence of the weakening connection to the nation, the religion, the state. The fact that most US Jews have never visited Israel speaks for itself. Most US Jews are unaffiliated to any of the dozens of Jewish organizations and streams of Judaism. Then there are the issues of intermarriage and assimilation, which are growing. We've been discussing this for decades and there is not a single Jewish leader who is not concerned by it.
I want to do something about it. So I convened the world Jewish leadership and we decided to establish the World Jewish Forum, to build a work plan to reduce the erosion in numbers, the erosion in the relationship of world Jewry to the religion, the nation and the Jewish state. I believe the problem can be solved.
Globalism is increasingly more dominant than national identity. It may be that the Israeli-Arab conflict deters some Jews from identifying themselves as Jews. But all this and more is nothing compared to the historical journey over thousands of years in which we overcame all obstacles. In the current era, when we have a state, we are disconnecting? We all have a responsibility to future generations. Any one of us who stops being Jewish, or whose children stop, is breaking a historical chain of 3,000 years. He has personal responsibility, a national conscience. How can he so lightly break that chain, by raising children who have no basic knowledge of Judaism, who never came to Israel, who never entered a synagogue or saw a Sefer Torah? That Sefer Torah preserved the Jewish people for 3,000 years. Thanks to it, the Jewish people did not disappear. And people are prepared to lightly disconnect from it.
It is our job as Jewish leaders to look for solutions. I think the most effective solution is to increase aliya. But if not that, then Jewish education. And I'm finding Jewish leaders who are willing to answer the call to boost Jewish education.
In the coming six months, I hope to finalize the World Jewish Forum, convene it and produce programs. There are some Jewish communities of which I am immensely proud - Australia and Mexico among them. It's a pleasure to look at those communities, how they understand the historic importance of Jewish life. And there are communities where 70% have dropped out; in another one or two generations, in large parts of the world Jewish people won't still be Jewish.
Finally, before you took this position, you highlighted the need to narrow the gulfs within Israel. Overall, do you feel that at 58 we're on the road to mending those rifts?
In the wake of the events at Gush Katif and Amona, things can go in one of two ways. The positive one is of greater dialogue, greater understanding as produced in the wake of the Gush Katif evacuation. Because with all the pain of the evacuation, a connection was made - greater respect on the secular Left for the values and religion and faith, and greater respect for democracy on the religious Right.
But the events at Amona threaten that. There are voices among the settler rabbis with whom I meet: that the Knesset doesn't represent them; that the courts, the Supreme Court, are politicized; that one shouldn't go into the army and should encourage refusal; that the president should have opposed the withdrawal; that Knesset decisions are not legitimate or legal; that the pullout was an existential threat - all of this, I reject. On the other hand, on the Left, there are some voices that say the settlers are stalling peace, they are a danger, that they need to be forcibly removed, that Gush Katif was a success and the trend needs to be maintained.
These are the extremists on both sides. But if they strengthen and become dominant, the situation will become grave.
So the question for each camp is which voice will dominate - the sane, unifying, rational voice, or the voice of extremism and separation. I think we need to stand united - around the Bush letter of June 2004 on the major settlement blocs: Let's define the essential security interests, define the settlement blocs we want to maintain. We can find national unity around these issues.