Seven days before the elections, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is busy. Not, he says, with electioneering and campaigning, however.
Indeed, ensconced in his spacious office on the top floor of Tel Aviv's "Kiriya" military headquarters, he seems confident he will still be here after March 28 to continue doing what he has done most of his life - guarding the country.
But he is a man of many contradictions. On the one hand, while the government says it will not deal with Hamas and will sever all ties with the Palestinian Authority, Mofaz decided this week to reopen the Karni Crossing into Gaza, despite high terror alerts. And while the defense minister refers to the settlers as "pioneers" and people who have made one of the greatest contributions to the state, at the same time he unfalteringly lists the settlements that will be dismantled under a Kadima-led government's planned withdrawal from the West Bank.
How does it all fit together? Israel will not deal with a Hamas-run PA, Mofaz says, but will not punish the Palestinian people for their leaders' crimes and errors. Regarding the settlers, he says their mission is over, but that they will go down in history as having created Israel's final borders.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Mofaz spells out the clearest blueprint so far as to how Kadima intends to physically shape the country. He even names the settlements that will remain, including some that are currently on the Palestinian side of the fence. "If need be," he says, "we will just move the fence."
Why did you decide to open the Karni Crossing despite the terror alerts?
There are threats there, but they vary in category and degree. Due to the serious shortage in flour, we decided to partially open Karni for the transfer of flour and other basic goods like milk, but not to open it all the way. This was a risk we were able to take. But after we opened Karni [on Monday] someone started running to attack it, and the IDF commander there immediately closed it down. So every day now we are reassessing the security situation there.
Are you afraid the Palestinians will try to create an image of there being a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip?
We decided to open the Kerem Shalom Crossing [in the southern Gaza Strip] and told the Palestinians, "Whatever you want to send through Karni, send through Kerem Shalom."
But there are people there who have an interest in not opening Kerem Shalom, since they get a cut of whatever goes through Karni. This is part of the Palestinian corruption.
Couldn't you have told the Palestinians that Israel agreed to open Kerem Shalom but not Karni, due to security concerns, and that it is their problem that they are not getting supplies?
But the world doesn't understand it that way. They [the Palestinians] say that the Israelis are trying to pressure them to use Kerem Shalom since in the future Israel wants to close Karni; and they say we want to create a humanitarian crisis and hurt the Palestinian people.
But if there are terror alerts, shouldn't Israel's priority be the safety of Israelis at the crossing?
We are looking after the safety of Israel, and if we feel that the alert demands a closure, we will close. Today [Tuesday] it is open, but if the threat cannot be removed, we will close it. In the past there have been attacks there and, we take the threat level there into consideration. Someone suggested that we keep helicopters in the air over Karni to deter attacks while Karni is open. I don't think we need to transfer trucks under the cover of helicopters. We also won't keep helicopters airborne all day long. We are therefore taking reasonable security measures that are logical, but we also don't want to be blamed for creating a humanitarian or economic crisis in the Gaza Strip.
What will happen after the Hamas forms its government? Will there be coordination between Israel and the PA?
We will be able to coordinate things without going through Hamas. There are plenty of international groups operating on the other side whom we can use to transfer goods and with whom we can talk. We still don't know what will happen - whether Hamas will recognize Israel's previous agreements with the PA and accept our other conditions [disarm, change the Hamas charter and recognize Israel's right to exist]. We do, however, make a distinction between the PA and the Hamas government and some of the humanitarian needs of the population. Not all Palestinians are involved in terrorism.
If we allow the transfer of basic goods due to a fear of a humanitarian crisis, aren't we making it easy for Hamas not to accept our conditions, since they know Israel will ultimately give in?
Our stance against Hamas will be firm and decisive. We [the defense establishment] recommended not letting Palestinians enter Israel for work purposes. Now there is a closure there, and anyway no Palestinians are entering Israel. We need to wait and see what the [Palestinian] government does. The population there doesn't need to suffer, however, and Hamas will need to take care of its people.
But the people elected Hamas. If we want to change the atmosphere in the PA, don't we need to make it difficult for Hamas to operate?
We are in a transitional phase. The international groups continue operating, and the economic and humanitarian concerns continue to be an issue, depending on the level of threat.
Do you envision a situation in which Israel would talk to Hamas?
If they accept the conditions, we will be able to move forward with them according to the road map. The message they are conveying today is that they will try to play both sides: They will not say clearly they accept the conditions, but they will find various ambiguous wordings and claim they are restraining themselves in a way that shows the world they are responsible and are stopping terror. And then they will tell the world, "Judge us by our actions."
But when we spoke [before the PA elections] to Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] he said he would hold elections, gain power and succeed in dismantling the terror groups while continuing on the road map. We told him to go ahead, and now that the elections are over, he needs to do what he said he would.
Abu Mazen thinks Hamas needs to accept our conditions, but he is not adamant about it with the correct amount of resolve. We do not want the PA to develop in such a way that it will have two heads - one a Hamas head, Ismail Haniyeh, and the other Abu Mazen, who will work with us and do all that needs to be done, while Hamas continues to be a terror group calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. We will not accept this. We see the PA as one entity.
What will the results be? If international assistance stops, how long will the Palestinians be able to hold out?
They will be able to get money from Arab countries. [Hamas leader] Khaled Mashal was in Iran and other countries, so they will get assistance. The question of how long it will continue and in what capacity - is difficult to tell. International assistance, as long as it is humanitarian, will continue. But the dream of an economic master-plan according to which billions will be invested in the PA - and especially in the Gaza Strip, to turn it into something else - will not happen.
But I believe that the people there are not stupid, and are also very tired. They went through [Yasser] Arafat and this past year with Abu Mazen hoping things would change, and in the end they see the situation has only regressed. The public there understands that terror and Arafat's way, as well as Abu Mazen's failure to deal with terror, has taken the Palestinian people backwards.
The biggest danger is that Hamas will turn the PA into a terror entity that lives next to Israel and calls for its destruction. This is a reality we will not accept.
Hamas is different from Abu Mazen. He recognized Israel and agreed to work according to the road map, but he didn't have the power or courage to use the security forces to fight terrorism.
The Hamas are terrorists. Haniyeh was the bureau chief of [Sheikh Ahmed] Yassin and he has Jewish blood on his hands. Mahmoud Azhar [slated to be the PA foreign minister] is a terrorist in every way. If there is terror under their government, they are responsible. If the internal security minister there doesn't recognize Israel or the previous agreements and calls for the destruction of Israelâ€¦and there is a terror attack by Fatah or anyone else - to me, he is responsible.
Therefore, we will fight any place where terror originates from. Mashal says the "resistance" needs to continue.
What is "resistance" if not terror? Will you be able to launch Jericho-like or Defensive Shield-like Operations following the formation of a Hamas government? Will you arrest or perhaps even target Haniyeh for assassination?
What are they? Prime ministers of terror or foreign ministers of terror? There is no reason not to take action against anyone who engages in terror, and we will, of course, launch operations like the one in Jericho and if needed another Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank.
As long as they don't change their attitude, you will hold them personally responsible for any act of terror?
Would you kill a Palestinian prime minister? How would the world react?
The world also views Hamas as a terror organization. I did not say we would kill the PA prime minister. But if he continues supporting terror and does not stop the terror that originates within his government - and his internal security minister doesn't stop terror with the PA security forces - then he is playing a part in it.
I did not say that I plan to kill anyone, but they will be held responsible.
How will this develop?
We need to wait and see. But in principle, they are responsible and will not be able to run away from it. They cannot go on saying that they were chosen by the people but will continue with the resistance, and that they want 1967 borders, the right of return, Jerusalem as their capital and until this happens, they will continue with terrorism.
Will Mashal be allowed into Gaza if he comes to the Rafah crossing?
No. We will do everything possible to stop him. The Rafah arrangement is relatively OK. There were periods when the EU and Egyptian supervision was better and they did a good job. I can't say that nobody unwanted succeeds in getting in. But I don't think the Egyptians or the EU would let Mashal in, since Mashal is not just another person entering the Gaza Strip.
Has al-Qaida infiltrated the Gaza Strip?
Al-Qaida has entered the Gaza Strip and the West Bank but not the way you think. They are operating Palestinians as al-Qaida and Islamic Jihad operatives. They did not come from Afghanistan into Israel. It could be that some people came from outside and established the infrastructure. But the cells we are talking about are sleeper cells and they are planning attacks against Israel. They receive instructions from outside of Israel, but I cannot say they receive their instructions from [al-Qaida leader in Iraq] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They are involved in Palestinian terror just like Hizbullah is involved and like Islamic Jihad headquarters in Damascus is involved and transfers money from Iran. Last month, Islamic Jihad [in Syria] transferred $1.8 million to the organization in the West Bank. This money is fuel for their terror activity.
Why don't you stop the money transfers?
Whatever we can do legally, we do - and there are channels we have succeeded in stopping. But there are still ways they succeed in transferring the funds.
Did Israel tell Abu Mazen not to accept the Hamas government if it doesn't accept the conditions? What is the status of our talks with him?
We don't talk to Abu Mazen; he talks to the US and the EU. And everyone told him that without these conditions, Israel would not be able to recognize the PA. And this includes him. There will be no contact with him if these conditions are not met. The Hamas government and the PA are one entity.
From a security standpoint, what are the opinions within the defense establishment about holding on to the territory within the West Bank?
This is foremost a diplomatic issue. The army can deal with any reality. Regarding Judea and Samaria and Israel's permanent border, there are two main points: We want to set our permanent borders under which Israel will have a Jewish majority, and create borders that are defensible. It would be good if we could achieve this through negotiations and according to the road map. But if we see there is no partner, we will need to take our fate into our own hands and make a decision where it is right to be and where it is not right to be, with the main idea being that we will hold onto the settlement blocs - the Jordan Valley, a united Jerusalem and its surroundings - and wait for a partner and continue building the fence. This way, we create a better security situation and start to create the future permanent borders. There may be some places we will hold on to until there is a final status agreement.
The settlement blocs are Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Eztzion, Efrat, Ariel, Kedumim-Karnei Shomron, Reihan Shaked, Ofarim-Beit Aryeh. These are the main places, and if we need to move the fence to enclose all these places for their protection, we will. And we will wait until we have a partner.
The Palestinians don't like this unilateral move since it is being set by us. But it will create better security for the settlers and the rest of the country. And it will make it easier to operate militarily within the [evacuated] territory.
Will the army remain in the evacuated area?
We will continue operating in the area under every possible situation. We are still operating in Gaza, though not on the ground. We need to reserve the right to operate in all senses of the word. Judea and Samaria is different from Gaza. We pulled the army out of Gaza, since it was one dense urban area, and staying there would have been difficult. Judea and Samaria is different. But to tell you that once we leave, we will return to every place - I don't know.
So, we will evacuate army bases from those areas?
First of all, there aren't many bases in Judea and Samaria. Second, I think it is not right to declare until we formulate the plan. The plan is based on holding on to settlement blocs and reserving the right to operate anywhere we want. How we will do that - and whether it will include one or two bases or no bases - we don't know yet.
When will this happen? Is 2006 a lost year for this process?
I think 2006 will be the year that we formulate the plan, set up its principles and garner international support. I don't see that during 2006 there will be movement, but certainly over the next two years.
Some claim that there are those in the IDF who oppose this plan but are afraid to say so.
The army does not have just one voice, and not everyone agreed with disengagement. People can talk freely and express their professional opinions, but in the end they have to follow orders.
Are the settlements still a security asset?
Yes. The historic contribution of the settlers from the West Bank and Gaza is that the settlement blocs will in the end set the permanent borders for Israel and this is a huge contribution. Just like the communities in the north set the border in the north, so, too, will the settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley set Israel's eastern border. This is a great achievement for those 200,000 people.
US President George W. Bush said he would not hesitate to strike Iran to protect Israel. Do you believe him?
Of course. The US is Israel's greatest ally and helps us in many different spheres. All its presidents have expressed a deep commitment to Israel. This remark is backed by a deep belief that after what the Jewish people went through, a leader who denies the Holocaust, like [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, cannot be allowed to reign. He hates Israel and wants to wipe us off the map. And the world will look much different if Iran obtains nuclear ability.
Will the US take military action against Iran?
I am not the spokesman for the US, and Bush said what he said. The presidents of the United States make their own decisions, and if they say something, we should assume they mean what they say. At the moment, however, the US is leading the [Iranian issue] to the UN Security Council.
Are we close to the point of no return? Is it too late to stop Iran?
There are a number of stages. There is the stage of their desire to achieve independent research and development capabilities. This could take between one and two years. Then they will have the technology to move forward. If they continue moving at this pace without being disturbed, then it is somewhere in the next decade [that they will have the bomb]. Some say 2012 or 2015, but that is not important, since what is essential is their having achieved nuclear ability.
How do you see things developing with regard to Iran?
I hope that the sanctions will be significant and effective enough to stop the Iranians, or even suspend their ability to reach nuclear research and development and the stage of separating the centrifuges. This depends on the resolve of the US and the European countries, even though China and Russia still don't see this the same way. I think that if sanctions - which the Iranians fear - are extensive and decisive, they will have impact.
We also need to strive to get invasive and comprehensive supervision in all of the Iranian nuclear sites. The Iranians have two nuclear programs - the civilian and the military. The civilian one is out in the open, so it is the one we know about. The military one is secret, and the one we don't know too much about. That they have a secret military plan only enhances the danger in their program.
In Germany recently, you said that Israel has many contingency plans.
We have solutions and responses to every threat out thereâ€¦and we will defend ourselves.
When will Israel decide it needs to take military action on its own against Iran?
You can interpret what I said any way you want. We have the right to defend ourselves. Today we are doing all that is needed through the diplomatic channel. It is not right to say anything more.