Israel's crises with Hizbullah and Hamas are only part of the Middle East conflict but not the crux of it, according to President Moshe Katsav, who believes that Islamic extremism is at the root of Middle East tensions and international terrorism.
Katsav shared these views on Monday with a solidarity mission comprising some 50 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Katsav placed much of the blame for the chaos in the Middle East on the Iranian authorities, who he declared have "brought disaster on the Iranian people." Iranians have never been as extreme as they are now, he said of the leaders of the land of his birth.
It was these extreme elements, he said, that fomented the struggle between the Islamic world and the norms and values of the Western world. Iran, he charged, is in the forefront of this battle against Western values.
Katsav refrained from calling the situation across the confrontation line in the north a war and kept referring to it as a military operation. He also differentiated between the fighting in the south of the country and that in the north and said that even though Hizbullah would like to link them they are two separate issues.
For the first time he noted in a reference to the northern clashes, "Leaders of the free world stand behind Israel and understand that we have no other choice." Katsav also made the point that for the first time since 1948, when Israel became a sovereign state, some Arab leaders, especially Arab moderates, have demonstrated an understanding for Israeli considerations and motivations. "They do not stand behind us, but they do understand why we could not allow Hizbullah to shed our blood," he said.
Katsav, who over the past week and a half has paid some dozen condolence calls to families of soldiers killed in battle, said that in all the cities, villages and towns of Israel, in his meetings with grieving relatives, friends and neighbors of the deceased, "especially the people of the north," he had been told over and over again that people were ready to suffer further rocket attacks and to remain in shelters for as long as the Israel Defense Forces continue with their mission and do not stop until they have achieved their goal, which is to vanquish Hizbullah.
While expressing regret for the number of Lebanese casualties in this military operation, Katsav suggested that the Lebanese authorities were far from blameless because they had allowed Hizbullah to form its own autonomy within Lebanon. All Israeli leaders in their meetings with foreign counterparts had sent messages to the Lebanese warning them of the inherent danger and urging them to prevent an escalation of Hizbullah's power and influence. The messages went unheeded.
"We cannot allow Hizbullah to decide where, when and how to attack Israel," Katsav said. He was still hopeful that the Lebanese leaders would take responsibility for their own future. "It should have been their obligation in the past," he said. "It is their duty to the people of Lebanon."
Katsav was convinced that in their hearts many Lebanese leaders want Israel to succeed.
Because there is national consensus over this military operation, said Katsav, Israel will not compromise. Israeli society is so united, he said, that even the opposition stands behind the government.
He did acknowledge that not all of Israel's Arabs are in favor of the military operation and said that he had been very upset that Abed Taluzi, the father of the two small boys who had been killed in Nazareth by a Hizbullah-launched Katyusha rocket had chosen to blame Israel, when his sons had been the victims of Hizbullah. Nonetheless, said Katsav, "his attitude is marginal in Israel's Arab society." Sympathetic to the inequality between Arabs and other sectors of Israeli society, Katsav said that while there was discrimination against Arabs, it was not a policy of a succession of Israeli governments but a matter of budgetary allocations.
"After this operation is over, the government must discuss how to improve the situation of Israeli Arabs," he said.
The international community will have an onerous task after the operation has concluded, said Katsav, warning that if the international community remains complacent and does nothing, Hizbullah could interpret this as a sign of weakness and could recover. Unless the international community stands behind Israel in the aftermath of the operation, Katsav continued, it will send the wrong message to terrorist organizations in the region.
There can be no compromise with regard to Israel's demand for the release of the kidnapped soldiers, he said.
Katsav, who went to Nahariya 12 days ago, traveled to Kiryat Shmona on Monday afternoon and said that he would continue to visit communities on the confrontation line.