(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was at Annapolis last week, Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman was strutting around the Knesset like a king. He knew that he had succeeded in removing any significant content from an event that attracted ministers and media from dozens of countries around the world.
The strategic affairs minister was also excited about a promise Olmert made in Annapolis that a Palestinian state would not be formed until President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority regained control of Gaza, something Lieberman does not believe will ever happen. Olmert's aides called Lieberman from Annapolis to brag about the promise, and Lieberman then bragged about it to the press.
Make no mistake, Lieberman likes being in the government and feels he has nothing to apologize for. He believes he has more influence inside the government to prevent any potential damage from the Annapolis process, and polls show his voters agree.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post in his cigar-smoke-filled Jerusalem office, Lieberman talked about the summit, the polls, the American intelligence assessment of Iran, the political protests against him - and why he believes none of those things matter at all.
What is your reaction to the American intelligence report that claimed that Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but was continuing to enrich uranium?
The report will not make any difference. We already knew the conclusions of the American experts, but they don't change anything.
It's clear that the Iranians are hiding a lot. Even IAEA chief Mohammed Baradei wrote that. Iran threatens Israel and the West not just with their nuclear capability but via Hamas, Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad. The weapons against American forces in Iraq and against NATO forces in Afghanistan are also from Iran, which is leading the anti-Israel wave around the world.
How much time is there left for sanctions, before military action needs to be considered?
We think the third round of sanctions will take place in a week or two in the UN Security Council, after the Chinese gave their OK. The unilateral sanctions applied by countries on their own must continue. They make life much more difficult for Iran. These moves must continue as long as the Ahmadinejad regime is there, regardless of their nuclear capability. Ahmadinejad's constant talk of destroying Israel is unacceptable. No one really knows how long it will be before they actually have a bomb. I hope the diplomatic effort works and prevents them from obtaining a nuclear bomb. [Such efforts] worked in Libya and North Korea, and we hope they work with Iran. If they don't, we will sit and decide whatever we have to decide.
Has Russia's behavior in the Middle East become better or worse lately?
The Russians have an interest in the Middle East that doesn't overlap ours. We need to insist on the Russian Middle East policy not harming us. Supplying advanced technology to Syria no doubt threatens Israel.
We have succeeded in ensuring that Russia maintains balance with Syria. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin said publicly that they only sell them defense systems, and not attack systems, and that's still the case. The Russians are handling the Iranian issue responsibly. The nuclear gas they pledged to Iran has not been given, and we hope it won't be.
Was Olmert's relatively noncommittal address at Annapolis a victory for you?
There were no winners out of Annapolis. Everyone in Israel is losing from what happened there. What I achieved is that the summit was downgraded to a meeting, and - as Olmert promised me - there weren't negotiations on the core issues. Even the deadline for completing an agreement is not really a deadline. Everyone knows there is no chance of reaching an agreement in 2008. We have three relationships with the Palestinians: economic, security and diplomatic. We need to work on economic and security issues, and not [on] diplomatic [ones]. Starting on the diplomatic path now is bound to lead to a deadlock, because of Abbas's weakness and his inability to win support among Palestinians. The minimum that he is willing to receive from Israel is much less than the maximum that Yossi Beilin is ready to give. None of the other diplomatic agreements Israel signed over the past two decades had any results. What matters to Israelis is security, and what matters to the Palestinians is their economic situation. We should first try to stop the Kassams from Gaza and invest in projects like water purification in the West Bank. We have to negotiate from a position of strength. It's not right to negotiate with the Palestinians when they are firing rockets at us every day, and when Abbas's police kill Jews like [Shavei Shomron resident] Ido Zoldan [killed by Fatah terrorists in a drive-by shooting last month]. In such an atmosphere, it's wrong to negotiate.
Is there a way that Olmert could succeed in keeping Israel Beiteinu in the government, even if an agreement is implemented?
The difference between us and the other parties is that instead of land for peace, we call for exchanges of territory and populations.
The Palestinians also have to accept us as a Jewish state. If they agree to those two issues, there is what to talk about.
Are you considering leaving the government if Olmert doesn't keep his promise not to start negotiations with Abbas until he accepts Israel as a Jewish state?
We aren't looking for excuses to leave or to stay. I quit three exciting government ministries. When I left former prime minister Ariel Sharon's government, then-National Religious Party head Effi Eitam came in. When I left Sharon's second government, the Likud ministers continued to serve in the government.
What are your red lines where remaining in the government is concerned?
We won't threaten. If the situation is intolerable, we will go. What's more important is what happens on the security issue. The test of the government is not negotiations with Abbas. It's restoring our security.
What is your reaction to polls saying that Israel Beiteinu voters want the party to stay in the government?
Everything I have done until now has been against what the polls have said I should do. The test of leadership is to lead - not be led - and to not be afraid to go against the tide. I will continue to do what's unpopular. We joined the government when most of our people didn't want us to, and we can leave when most of our voters want us to stay. I don't make decisions based on polls. But I am happy that a Ma'ariv poll two weeks ago found that 46 percent of Israelis support exchanging territories and 46% oppose it. Thirty-seven percent support my plan for an exchange of territories and populations.
Haven't you been affected by the pressure on you to leave the government?
The pressure doesn't do anything for me - not this [derogatory] poster or that. The people on the Right [who call me a traitor] are ridiculous and are responsible for all the failures of the Right time and time again since the Oslo agreement. We need to ask why we keep failing. The answer is people like [Jewish National Front Party's] Baruch Marzel; [Bar-Ilan Hebrew literature professor] Hillel Weiss [who hurled epithets at the brigade commander in charge of evacuating Weiss's daughter's family from Hebron in the summer]; [National Union MK] Effi Eitam; and [NU MK] Aryeh Eldad [who will head a new secular right-wing party in the next election called Hatikva] - who, instead of elaborating on issues that unite the nation, focus on issues that are most controversial. Things like the pulsei dinura curses of Weiss on the IDF's Hebron commander, and calls to refuse orders and for civil rebellion kill the nationalist camp time and time again. I am in the national camp and they are not. I don't call for dividing the land. I call for keeping the people unified. When these two values compete with each other, the unity of the people must win out.
But aren't the critics right when they say you are ready to divide Jerusalem?
I never saw more incitement and hypocrisy towards me than that relating to the Jerusalem issue. We are against dividing Jerusalem. We are for strengthening Jerusalem. The words "concede" or "give" are not in our vocabulary. We say that we could exchange territory under Israeli sovereignty in Arab towns around Jerusalem for sovereignty in settlements like Gush Etzion. For instance, no Israeli has been to Anata, except drug buyers. It is inside Jerusalem's boundaries, but exchanging it will strengthen Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.
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