On the surface things seem mighty dark: The threat of Iran is looming, the prospects of reaching a deal with the Palestinians are slim and Israel’s isolation in the world is growing.
Some ministers, interviewed on these challenges, exude a heavy, dejected feeling, combined with a sense of urgency and the need for action. Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor is one such minister.
Other ministers, while they may have no less a sense of the challenges the country faces, create a very different sense. Vice Premier and Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom falls into that category.
If, after talking with Meridor, one might walk away feeling as if a 100-pound weight had been dropped on one’s head, an interview with Shalom could leave one, by comparison, with a feeling of almost walking on sunshine.
Not because Shalom doesn’t see the dangers, or that he downplays them, but rather because of a conviction he radiates that this country and people, which have gone through so much, will be able to prevail in all this as well.
There are certain things you just have to deal with, Shalom intimates, and one of those is the real possibility that no solution will come quickly to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. If a song could be selected as apt background music to this interview, it would be the 1990 Meir Ariel classic with the refrain, “But we overcame Pharaoh, We’ll overcome this as well.”
There was something almost Yitzhak Shamir-esque about Shalom during this interview. Remember Shamir? The short, plucky and tough prime minister who, when asked questions about one impending catastrophe or the other, would often start by saying, “Tov
” (good) and then explain that Israel had dealt with more difficult things in the past.
Shalom doesn’t brush off the challenges, certainly not, but he also doesn’t blow them up into monstrous proportions that, if not dealt with right now, constitute in his mind an existential threat to the country.
What follows are excerpts from an interview conducted with Shalom last week at his office in Tel Aviv.What do you think about the recent decision by Israeli Arabs to boycott Israeli products from the settlements?
I think this is a scandal, but you can’t generalize. I don’t know whose decision this was, and whom it obligates.
This [should be seen] as part of the same bitter campaign by [PA Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad who is now involved in a primaries race with [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen and wants to look more nationalistic, and is now making decisions that unfortunately are not characteristic.
I met Salam Fayyad many times as a colleague when I was finance minister, and then afterward when he was prime minister and I was the deputy prime minister and foreign minister, and I saw him as a man of peace. Unfortunately for a full year now he refuses to meet with us.
He thinks Abu Mazen will retire in June, and he wants to be elected. So since he is not a member of Fatah or the PLO, and they say Abu Mazen’s replacement should come from the PLO or Fatah, he is paying in Israeli currency.
Fayyad lit a bonfire, threw the Israeli goods into the fire, established a special unit to go to grocery stores to take the goods off the shelves and levy fines. Even though he knows that 25,000 Palestinians work in the settlements. Abu Mazen can’t lag behind, so he issued an order that forbids selling goods from the settlements. And then the communications minister came and issued an order against [Israeli] cellular phones – but that wasn’t enough for Salam Fayyad.
When we made the decision [in February] to declare [a list of Jewish] heritage sites [for renovation and preservation], Fayyad immediately ran to Hebron to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs, and held a special cabinet meeting in Hebron.
I want to detour for a minute and go into this decision, because I think the heritage site issue is something that touches on the root of the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab conflict. They refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, for one reason: What they want to do is to come and say that we came here some 120 years ago, but that they were here all the time.
So when we talk about heritage sites, about Abraham the Patriarch, or Rachel the Matriarch, that is 3,700 years ago. That shows that we were here first. When I raised this in the Knesset, [United Arab List – Ta’al MK] Taleb a-Sanaa spoke after me and said my description was correct. Right, he said, Abraham the Patriarch bought the Cave of the Patriarchs from Ephron the Hittite for 400 shekels in silver. But Ephron the Hittite was Palestinian.
That is like [Yasser] Arafat used to always say, “I am a Jebusite.” Why? Because King David conquered Jerusalem form the Jebusites. Therefore, they said they were Canaanites, because this was the land of Canaan.
This is why the heritage site issue scared them so much. When the government decided on declaring a list of heritage sites, I said the morning of the cabinet meeting that it would not be complete without the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, because in the beginning those sites were not included. I though you can’t have heritage sites without these sties.
They [the Palestinians] will never agree that this is a Jewish state – it goes to the crux of the issue: Who was here first.They will never agree that this is a Jewish state?
Never.So there is no reason for this diplomatic process, for indirect talks?
I think the process is a dead end, and I will explain why. First of all it is good that we are talking. I am in favor of talking. We waited a full year, and did everything.
What did they say to [Binyamin] Netanyahu? They said he has to accept the principle of two states. After [Ehud] Olmert, [Ariel] Sharon and [Ehud] Barak who all accepted the principle of two states – he can’t come and say “stop.” The world has moved forward.
Then he made the Bar-Ilan speech. I said to him there won’t be negotiations. Afterward they – the Americas, the Palestinians, the Arabs and the Israeli media – said that it was impossible that during the negotiations Israel would [continue to] build [in the settlements].
I said this [the Bar-Ilan speech] will not bring about negotiations, but it would place all the focus onto Jerusalem... From the time the security cabinet made a decision [to agree to the parameters of the Bar-Ilan speech], the European Union – two days later – decided that construction must stop in Jerusalem because in the future it would be the joint capital of both states. There are not yet even two states, but there is already a joint capital! But the talks were not renewed. The Palestinians thought genuinely that they created a new paradigm, where they could just sit on the side, and the Americans would do the work for them.
And look what happened. The Americans got a two-state solution out of the government as well as the settlement freeze. [The Palestinians realized that] if they would come to the negotiations then they, God forbid, would also be asked to make concessions. We would ask things of them: about security arrangements, about arresting suspects, about collecting illegal arms, stopping incitement in the media and in the educational system, and – of course – fighting terrorism, what is called dismantling the terrorist infrastructure.
So if someone else is doing the work for them, why should they go to talks? Until the Americans understood [what was happening], and are now coming to them. But now the question is what are the possibilities? I think the possibilities are narrow.
Why? Because the legacy that Arafat left here makes things almost impossible. The minute he said no to the offer he received from Barak, there is no way that anything could change. Barak, according to reports, offered 97 percent of the territory, and the remaining 3 percent in a land swap. [He offered] three of the four quarters in the Old City of Jerusalem, and sovereignty over the Temple Mount – we would get it underneath, as you remember. [The Barak government] started with [an agreement to allow the acceptance into Israel of] 40,000 refugees, and at Taba afterward on the eve of the elections, after the government fell, increased it to 100,000.
We demanded an end of claims, end of conflict. They [the Palestinians] said, “Fine, but why an end to claims? How can I say the next generations won’t have claims? They will have claims.” It fell apart.
So what happened? Abu Mazen cannot accept an offer less than this, nor an offer similar to this. And I don’t believe that there is a Jewish prime minister who can offer anything more than this.Olmert didn’t offer more?
No.You said something more far-reaching. You said they will never accept us.
They will never accept us here as a Jewish state, that is for sure.Then what can we do?
There will be those, perhaps they will be future prime ministers, who may think that their recognition of us as a Jewish state is not necessary.
I’m not saying that is the central barrier [to an agreement]. In my opinion the legacy that Arafat left here is the central barrier, because no [Palestinian leaders] will agree to anything less than him.
Abu Mazen doesn’t want to, Salam Fayyad certainly can’t [accept anything less] because he is not in Fatah or the PLO, and they will be on top of him every morning and night. There are rumors that he even made a coalition with [imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan] Barghouti, that Salam Fayyad will be [PA president] until Barghouti is freed, and then he will give it to him.
You have to have talks, but they should focus on economic projects, development of industrial areas, which we are doing today – joint projects, electricity, sewage water, infrastructure assistance, freedom of movement, lifting roadblocks, and that they will fight terror and increase security.
From a diplomatic perspective they are almost a state in all sense of the word. They have a parliament; a government; every leader that comes here goes to meet them; with a national anthem, hymns, flags going up and down; they have representation in every organization in the world; they have relations with more states than we do. That is to say that they have almost everything. True, they don’t have borders, but we also don’t have borders. So from that perspective we are in a situation where, de facto, they are functioning like a state.If I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is the status quo is not bad, and we can continue. Or are you saying that it is not bad for them, but it is bad for us.
I’m saying that no matter what we do I do not see a Palestinian leader who is willing to accept what Arafat rejected, and I don’t see a Jewish prime minister who can offer more than what Barak offered. Therefore I see it as a dead end.
I think that the Palestinian issue is one thing, and the Syrian issue is another. You can agree or not agree, but [with Syria] there is a state. Everyone has an idea of what the agreement would be. But if you would get to an agreement – regardless of what it is – there is a state behind it. Here he [Abbas] does not represent Gaza, nothing, he can’t accept another offer. It is a problem.
I’m not saying that discussions cannot bring about greater understanding. But even the proximity talks are not exactly that. Proximity talks are where you sit in the same hotel and go back and forth from room to room. True, it is only 25 minutes from Jerusalem to Ramallah, but he [US envoy George Mitchell] can’t every minute travel back and forth 25 minutes, it doesn’t work like that. Proximity talks are when you sit in the same facility – it can be a hotel, or Wye Plantation. This is not proximity talks in the true diplomatic definition. This is something else. It is bypass talks.You are looking in a very relaxed manner at a situation where there will be a diplomatic stalemate. But if we don’t make progress, the Europeans and US will try to impose something. Doesn’t that concern you?
I don’t believe in an imposed solution, because no one will accept it. Israel will certainly not accept it. Israel also has red lines.
I think the relationship with the US is a strategic asset. I think the US is our only friend in the world who gives us diplomatic, military and economic support – it represents the last barrier before a nuclear Iran. So there is no doubt that the relationship with it has great strategic significance. Also for them, by the way... The US is also important for us on the Iranian issue, and that is a central issue... Regarding Iran, once it was made clear to them [the Europeans] that the Iranians were developing long-range missiles that reached much farther than Israel and into Europe, then they started to deal with this.
I met an international statesman in Europe at the end of 2005, and he told me, “Listen, you are always demanding that the Iranian dossier be brought to the UN Security Council. If there will not be economic sanctions, it will not be effective; and if there will economic sanctions, there will be a general economic crisis because the price of oil will rise to $100 a barrel.” So I said to him. “While I am talking to you about the living, you are talking to me about the standard of living. First let us make sure that we will keep the living, and then after that we will find ways to improve the standard of living.”
There are also other things. China, of course, clearly needs oil and gas. It signed with Iran the biggest deal in modern history: $75 billion for a supply of gas for 30 years. Russia today has the approach it had in the past: that the US’s enemy is perhaps Russia’s friend.
But there is something else that people don’t realize: Russia and China think like superpowers. For them Iran is the last stop before complete US control of the Middle East. If Iran falls, the US gains final control of the Middle East – Iran, Iraq, Syria which will soon fall, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf countries. This is also an area that is geographically and topographically important, militarily, economically – all the oil – this is the global thinking of a superpower, it is a different way of thinking.Will that prevent the international community from stopping Iran from going nuclear?
It causes problems. I am a big believer in sanctions... sanctions worked in the past. They worked against South Africa, they worked against Libya, they are working to a certain degree against North Korea, and they will work against Iran... Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran – that is clear to everyone.What does that mean?
It is something that needs to be said.But we can’t take military action without US support.
I’m not talking about military action or anything. By the way, there are those, also in Israel, who say, “Okay, Iran will have a bomb.” I am not one of them. But I think we need to try everything to get the Iranians to make a decision – [via] economic [pressure], diplomatic [pressure], isolation, everything.You believe we can stop them?
I don’t know what that means, I don’t want to get into it. We have to act in such a way so that at the end of the day Iran will not have nuclear weapons.Does the government as a whole think that it is impossible to live with a nuclear Iran?
I believe that Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran, it will dramatically change the balance of power in the Middle East to our detriment. It will bring about a situation where our ability to act in a future conventional war will be limited. It significantly disturbs the balance of power, something Israel can’t live with.On the Palestinian issue, if we’re at a dead end, aren’t you worried by the intensifying process of international delegitimization of Israel? Won’t that process accelerate if there is deadlock in the negotiating process?
The question is who will be blamed for that [deadlock].Even if it’s not Israel’s fault, won’t Israel be blamed?
Look, there are points on which Israel cannot concede, even if perhaps part of the international community will think we are being unacceptably stubborn – which I don’t think would be accurate. For a full year, we’ve been saying that we’re prepared to talk. For a full year, we’ve been saying that we want to open the talks. There was the Bar-Ilan speech. There was the decision on the settlements, which incidentally no previous prime minister was asked to make.And none of that helped Israel in terms of its international standing...
Okay. So maybe we need to reach a certain point and say, “There are our red lines.” We need to be clear, transparent and trustworthy. With the United States, I’ve always said we need to make our positions clear. Put things on the table. Take the issue of Jerusalem. On Jerusalem, with all due respect, no one is going to tell us not to build in French Hill.Or in Ramat Shlomo?
Indeed.Is there a difference?
I see no difference.And we’ve made that clear.
Indeed. We’ve told them. The question is whether we accept [the American demands on this] or not. Here, the answer is no.And that isn’t hurting our relations with the United States?
Israel is important to the United States too. We don’t have the option of transferring our allegiances, zigzagging.And that works both ways. The Americans know we have no other options.
Yes. And the Americans also know that we’re their only dependable friends in the Middle East. And from the perspective of several global American interests, Israel has a certain importance. I’m a great believer in the Israeli-American connection, in all fields. I believe that this connection is ultimately unbreakable.Do you believe Israel has an imperative to separate from the Palestinians? You seem quite sanguine, compared to some of your colleagues and many Israelis, who feel we need to separate from the Palestinians to maintain a Jewish, democratic Israel. You sound so relaxed.
I don’t want us to get into a deadlock. Is there an Arab leader who’ll accept less than Barak offered [in 2000]? I’m asking you. Is there an Israeli prime minister who’ll offer more? I don’t see it? So what can I do?But then there’s the danger that we’ll become what the world will regard as a kind of South Africa?
No. Why?We’ve not asserted sovereignty in the West Bank, but we’re controlling it. Controlling another people.
How so?They don’t have full independence. They don’t determine all aspects of their day to day affairs. They don’t control their borders. So we control them. Even in Gaza, where there’s not a single Jew apart from Gilad Schalit, the world regards us as occupiers.
Before the withdrawal from Gaza, there was an argument over the Philadelphi corridor. The Shin Bet opposed withdrawal [from the corridor]. The IDF supported it because it argued that soldiers would be sitting ducks. The legal establishment said that if we stayed there, we’d be seen as occupiers. But if we withdrew to the pre-1967 lines, the occupation would be seen as over. I remember those comments. So what. It’s not that I’m sitting here, apathetic. Many of my colleagues say I always speak in overly realistic terms. Some say you should speak of the vision, even if it cannot be implemented, because it looks better. But I’ve got my feet on the ground.You’re not worried about...
It’s not that I’m not worried. I say that there will not be a Palestinian leader who will be prepared to accept what Arafat rejected. As things stand now. Maybe in the talks now, we’ll discover something different. Maybe we’ll discover progress. If we do, if things change, then there’s a basis for moving ahead. But so long as that’s not the case... It takes two to tango, as the Americans say.I want to return to a question about Israeli Arab participation in the Palestinian boycott of settlement goods. What does that signify?
The Arab leadership in Israel has become more extreme. For them it is more important how they look on Al Jazeera, and to become popular in Damascus and Tripoli, than to worry about their own people... When do they talk about sewage, about water, about education? It doesn’t interest them and this is horrible. They have parliamentary representation, but who sent them [to the Knesset] does not interest them at all.How should we deal with this new internal boycott?
We need to do much more for the periphery, regardless of who is there, Jews or Arabs. Ninety percent of all prime ministers’ time is spend on security and foreign affairs issues. Both because of the situation, and also because, let’s tell the truth, because it reflects what they are interested in and how they grew up.
With the remaining 10 percent of their time, they have to deal with the central committee meetings and whether [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman votes or doesn’t [in the Knesset].
So when can he [the prime minister] wake up in the morning and think about Ofakim, Umm el-Fahm, Yeroham or Kiryat Shmona.
big part of the budget also goes [to security]. At the end of the day
the government decides and has to set priorities. A senior official in
the defense establishment sat with me two weeks ago and talked about
the impending battle with the Treasury. I said, “Why are you worried,
prime ministers have always accepted your requests.” There was a
decision a few months ago to move NIS 2 billion-NIS 5b. for swine flu,
and NIS 1.5b. to security for something they couldn’t talk about. I
You can’t give a 1,000% answer to everything.
Even when you take the car on the road, you might – God forbid – have a
light accident. But just because of that, you don’t go onto the street
in a tank. You have to weigh things. Of course, security is central. I
certainly know that, but you have to use judgment and realize that
there is also education, health, social welfare, the periphery – and
those are things that are very significant in my view.