Nobody could accuse Haim Ramon of false modesty. In the space of a 90-minute interview, he takes firm credit for the demise of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition in 1999, the erection of the West Bank security barrier, the entry of Labor into Ariel Sharon's government and the unilateralist approach that impelled Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza.
The thing of it is, the claims are not unreasonable.
And while others might fiercely dispute whether these are all initiatives to be proud of, Ramon has no doubts of their centrality to Israel's interests. Indeed, he appears to entertain very few doubts about the rightness of all his positions, and only laments the inability of his political colleagues to acknowledge his wisdom and more quickly act upon it.
A Knesset member for close to a quarter of a century and only 55 years of age, one quality Ramon plainly has is patience. Today he is a comparatively lowly minister without portfolio, working out of a strikingly barren office in the Prime Minister's Office. But make no mistake he wants to be prime minister. He just recognizes that his time has not yet come. In the elections after next, he says, he'll certainly expect to be a candidate.
Until then, he'll be urging the radical remolding of Israeli politics the so-called Big Bang as well as the introduction of a presidential system of government, major disengagement from the West Bank, and the redrawing of the security barrier to exclude 50-60,000 Palestinians in southern Jerusalem. Extolling the virtues of these initiatives, Ramon paints himself as an opponent of both the head-in-the-sand old-style political Right, and the naive, deluded classical Left. Rather, he sees himself as the best physician for an ailing Israel the man who has diagnosed the illness and, while all around are fumbling with inappropriate treatments, is ready to prescribe the right medicine.
You had long advocated a unilateral pullout from Gaza.
I wouldn't have settled there in the first place, and I would have pulled out unilaterally two years before, but the prime minister took the initiative and pushed it. He got the benefits domestically and the accolades in the international community.
What does Bibi say? "We will leave, but only with an agreement." That means if there's no agreement, we will stay there forever. What is Bibi really saying?: "Yes, we agree that we have a liability, a cancer. But until the cancer agrees to leave, and gives us something in return for cutting it out, it can stay." Yet it is in the interest of the person who has cancer to get rid of it, because it threatens his very existence.
Staying in Gaza was a disaster for Israel a threat to our demography, our diplomacy, our security, our economy, our morality. There was no logic to staying there. It was also morally wrong as regards the settlers. Israel was essentially telling them: "You won't be there in the end. You're hostages. Until Abu Mazen or a successor agrees that we leave, you'll be there, generation after generation." That's immoral.
Now the argument that says "We're there and we want to be there forever and that's our struggle," that's a position I disagree with, but it has logic. But to use these people as bargaining chips...
Our departure, though, is perceived by all Palestinians as a victory for their "resistance."
Don't pay attention to Palestinian propaganda. The only one who believes it is Netanyahu.
No, the Palestinian public believes it. I sat recently with a group of Palestinian reporters in Ramallah, and they all said that this is what their public believes.
So what? Does it have any significance?
Yes, if it leads to renewed terrorism.
Look, we've been here before with Lebanon. When we pulled out we were told that we were a spider's web that would be swept away. In fact, we've had five years of quiet [on that border]. Hizbullah is starting to talk about disarming. All the assessments were that Hizbullah would continue its fight all the way to Jerusalem. Rubbish. It never happened.
Hizbullah would say that it did its bit in Lebanon, and now the struggle continues elsewhere, with its support...
That's not what the security "experts" said. They said Hizbullah would aim for Jerusalem. Now, in retrospect, they say other things.
I don't claim to know what will happen now in Gaza. But the fact is that the Palestinians know we can reconquer Gaza in a day. They know because we retook the West Bank in a day [in spring 2002 at the height of the terror war]. We are leaving Gaza because we decided to take our own fate into our hands, that the Arabs would no longer dictate our actions.
Netanyahu is capitulating to terror by saying that the Palestinians will determine what we do. Should we really stay just because the Palestinians say that our leaving is a victory for terrorism? I have a thousand more important considerations.
And if the Palestinians really believe their own lies [and renew terrorism], they'll get hit with all force.
That's what happened in Lebanon. After a period, we responded [to attacks] in a completely different way from the way we had before the pullout. We attacked Syria. We changed the rules of the game. And that's what we'll do in Gaza if necessary. I agree completely with the position of the chief of staff: If there is terror, we will respond disproportionately. By leaving, we are creating the international legitimacy for a disproportionate response.
The international community will truly back that kind of response?
The rules of the game will have changed. Look what we did with Lebanon. Every Hizbullah attack, we hit Syria, on relatively minor things.
I believe that in Gaza there will be quiet.
Moussa Arafat has just been assassinated!
That's an internal Palestinian issue, internal fights that characterize Gaza society.
With no implications for Israel?
What really matters is the ability of the Palestinian Authority to control the various gangs not Hamas and Islamic Jihad that are half-criminal, half-terrorist. During disengagement, the PA was able to control them.
[If it can't] the rules of the game need to change right away.
But remember, there was terror when we were in Gaza. It will be easier to deal with the terror when we are out of Gaza than it was when we were in. Nobody wants to rule or annex Gaza because it is a disaster a threat to our existence as a Jewish democratic nation. We cannot absorb those 1.5 million Palestinians. We can face up to terror.
Today, on the Palestinian side, there are very serious advocates of a one-state solution. They're not terrorists. They say, "We do not want two states for two people; we want one nation for two peoples. One person, one vote." Very respectful people will go to Capitol Hill and ask, "Why is what's good for Mandela not good for us? We oppose terror. We believe in Jews and Arabs living together."
Our departure from Gaza drastically reduces that danger.
What does Netanyahu think? That we'll stay in Gaza for another 10 years and the Palestinians will do nothing?
That's the existential threat to Israel. With all the problems of terror, Israel is learning to deal with it. The fence is helping. Four million Palestinians, an Arab majority [between the Jordan and the sea] that we can't deal with.
And I do estimate that there is a chance that, from Gaza, there won't be terror; there'll be relative calm a better situation than when we were in the Strip.
And what of the West Bank?
If there is political stalemate, there'll be a third intifada. I don't believe we can attain a final status accord. On the Israeli Left, they'll say it's Israel's fault. Others will say it's because of the Palestinians. I'll say both, but the bottom line is that another bid at negotiations for a final status deal will end like the Camp David effort [in 2000], with an explosion.
What has to be done, therefore, is follow the same logic we used with Gaza. We have to decide what we want under Israeli sovereignty forever, and what we know won't be. And let's not continue to deal with the areas we know won't be ours. That's the only fair way to deal with the settlers.
If someone is living in Yitzhar, we have to say to him: "Sir, you won't be here [long-term]." We have to tell him straight. There should be no illusions. He should relocate to one of the settlement blocs [that we will retain].
And we have to carry out Disengagement II coordinated as far as is possible with the Palestinians. This pullout has to keep [under Israeli control] the settlement blocs in other words, everything that is inside the fence, plus Ariel. There has to be a sleeve to Ariel. And a route to the [Israeli-retained] Jordan Valley settlements. Perhaps 15 percent of the West Bank in all.
And we have to leave the rest of the territory. Some 50,000 Israelis, settlers, will have to be evacuated. It will take two or three years; it's not 8,000 people.
And that's your favored platform for the Labor Party?
Absolutely. I suggested it as the Labor platform three years ago, and they rejected it. They only belatedly accepted the Gaza [pullout] idea; the idea of unilateralism.
What was the big mistake of the Left? The Left, out of good intentions, brought us to hell. The Left wanted to solve all the problems, including the problems of Jerusalem and the refugees. And those problems were the main obstacle to solving the problem of the occupation. And the occupation is the main problem for Israel. The State of Israel can live without peace, but it cannot live with the occupation also because of the international community.
So those who wanted to solve everything essentially allied themselves with the Right. The Right and the Left both said they only wanted to negotiate a permanent accord. The Left meant it. The Right didn't. But both of them brought us to the hell that Camp David led to.
All or nothing brought nothing. What we really need, now, is to put an end to our control in areas where there's almost a consensus that we won't be there forever. When Sharon says "yes" to "Ariel forever," that means "no" to everything that is not in the settlement blocs. So why wait?
We have to go to the Palestinians and say, "We're leaving. Let's coordinate it."
The historic mistake of Netanyahu and Barak, especially Barak, was not to proceed with the Further Redeployment [in the West Bank under the Oslo process]. Instead, Barak went for a permanent deal... Had we implemented the further pullouts, there'd have been a process and we'd have been [territorially] where we are today without a second intifada.
It's in Israel's interest to minimize the friction and reach the stage where we are dealing with the issues that have to be solved: Jerusalem and the refugees, and the trade-off between them. Plainly there will be settlement blocs; the permanent size of them will have to be determined in a final accord.
The international community can tolerate anything except a status quo. That is what happened with Gaza. Sharon thought he could maintain a status quo. Suddenly he saw that the world would not agree to it, and that if he didn't initiate something, he'd face an imposed solution.
Now too [with respect to the West Bank], we'll be in the same position. So let's initiate. Let's do what is inevitable at our initiative.
Then the [international community] won't mess with us over the refugees, Jerusalem, even the settlement blocs. So long as we're pulling out...
Yes, and as soon as we've pulled out to where you suggest, the pressure will come again...
Absolutely, and then it will be time for a permanent deal. Pushing for a permanent deal now could bring a third intifada.
But why wouldn't pressure for a permanent deal after "Disengagement II" also lead to a new intifada?
The degree of friction will be different. It will be more of a border dispute.
Well why can't we reach a permanent accord now?
It can't be done. We all know the parameters of such a deal, but can Israel today divide Jerusalem? Can the other side make concessions on the refugees? But after a second pullout, it will be clear that Israel does not want to be an occupier, clear to the world, too.
I remember going to the Council of Europe, a parliament of 45 member states, at the height of the terrorism, as a representative of the Knesset. Buses were blowing up every day. Families being destroyed. We should have received all the sympathy in the world. But it was a time when we were also expanding settlements and there were the outposts. These were friends and they said, "We don't believe you. You're using terror as a pretext for maintaining the occupation. If there wasn't terror, you'd also be staying there."
Now that we've gone from Gaza, of our own free will, and said, "We don't want it," and unilaterally dismantled settlements, this has fundamentally changed the attitude to Israel. Now it is said that the Israelis really don't want the territories and they have a genuine dispute.
Now we all know the terms of permanent solution, what the international community supports: Annexation by Israel of the settlement blocs via some kind of land swap to be negotiated; Jewish Jerusalem for Israel and Arab Jerusalem for the Palestinians; and the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return. That's the world consensus.
Maybe in three, four years, the other side will be able to make compromises. It's not even a year since Arafat died. Abbas can't relent on the right of return now.
Someone very close to Sharon suggested to me a few days ago that he, too, has a West Bank vision of the security barrier, plus Ariel and a few more percent...,/i>
I have no indications on that either way. But if negotiations on the first phase of the road map get deadlocked, then the same logic that brought him to the Gaza pullout will apply; maybe not on the scale that I have described; maybe something more limited.
I am convinced that Sharon will be aware that he cannot get locked in the status quo. And there is little chance of that first phase of the road map being cleared successfully. So if he's prime minister, Sharon will face that dilemma.
He did not plan the Gaza pullout far ahead. I was talking about it in 1987. Sharon tactically responded to the reality.
Sharon also didn't want to try for a final status deal, so we agree on that; he wants an agreed interim solution. I do not think the Palestinians will agree to that. So we need a de facto interim agreement: a unilateral Israeli step that is coordinated with the Palestinians.
Sharon today talks only of the road map. So I can't say what vision he has. I'm not one of those close to him.
Be a little more specific as regards your vision for Jerusalem.
There have been terrible mistakes in Jerusalem, too. The route of the fence has to be corrected to exclude 50,000-60,000 Arab residents in the south of the city. The same logic that applied in the north of the city should apply in the south. All the Jewish areas must be under Israeli sovereignty, including, of course, the neighborhoods beyond [the 1967 line], Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev and Betar Illit. Arab areas should be under Palestinian sovereignty. For the "Holy Basin," a special solution must be found. That way Jerusalem can be under a Zionist administration.
Jerusalem today is not under Zionist control. It's one third Arab, one third haredi and one third Zionist and it's getting worse. If the Palestinians participated in elections today, there wouldn't be a Zionist mayor. There'd only be haredi mayors and Palestinian deputy mayors. Ehud Olmert was the last Zionist mayor.
Do you consider yourself the father of unilateralism?
Well, of course. I remember almost being spat on by the Americans when I first suggested it. Rabin excoriated me in the Knesset in 1987 for suggesting that we leave Gaza unilaterally in 1987. I suggested it to Rabin in 1992... and he said we'd come back to it if we got deadlocked, and then came Oslo.
In late 2001, together with Shlomo Ben-Ami, I advocated a program of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank: to build a fence, an idea I also fathered, and pull back to it. And my route for the fence included Ariel. If we'd built around Ariel at the height of the terrorism, when I was urging, no one [internationally] could have opposed it.
The irony is that Arik opposed the fence because he realized its political and ideological significance. And all of the Yesha council opposed it. And then there was a struggle by all the settlements to be included within the fence, because they all understood that those that weren't... And my route for the fence was much wider in some areas... 10% in all [compared to the 7% of the current route].
So what would you say to all settlers today living beyond the fence?
Tell them the truth: They won't come under Israeli sovereignty. And the people who don't tell them this are lying, just as they lied to the settlers of Gush Katif.
If I was prime minister, I'd offer them compensation and get them out of there.
You have that ambition, to be prime minister?
Look, all of my assessments have come to pass.
Let's start with Bibi. I said Bibi wouldn't implement Oslo and that he should be ousted, and that it was possible. And I ousted him. His error was to try and play between the extreme Right and the Third Way; he lost them both. I was behind that. I introduced the bill that brought him down; I was the only one who thought it was possible. I said he wouldn't implement the Wye accords and that this was a mistake.
I opposed [Barak's] Camp David effort. I said we should give the Palestinians 70%, retain 20% for an interim period and wind up ultimately with 10%. Barak rejected that.
After the intifada started, I opposed the continuation of negotiations [with the Palestinians], a terrible diplomatic, political and moral mistake. I said we needed to build a fence and I was ridiculed. I was also told it was topographically impossible.
If they'd have heeded me at the time, it would have saved 400-500 lives.
In November 2003, I was still arguing with Sharon, saying we had to disengage, that there was no point to talking to the Palestinians and that we had to take unilateral action in Gaza and the West Bank.
I led Labor into the coalition, amid all kinds of criticism, to ensure disengagement was carried out.
Not a bad record for someone who wants to be prime minister. After all, which doctor would you want to go to? One who can diagnose the illnesses and treat them effectively, or one who misdiagnoses and misprescribes and says later that, "Oh, yes, that's what I wanted to prescribe."
Speaking of doctors, the Post just interviewed Uzi Landau, who said that our mistake is that we don't stress that this land is ours, that this part of the territory we are leaving is really ours.
No question. Gaza is a problem, but Judea and Samaria? Of course it's all mine. Hebron isn't mine? But what can you do? I have to choose between staying alive with a limb less or dying whole.
Every rational man would rather live with one limb less than die. There are some who say, "No, I prefer to die than to amputate a limb."
There are some who say that the whole body can be saved.
No, when you get to the critical point with them, they say, "God will help."
I don't think, in the Jewish tradition, you rely on God in that way. If that were the attitude, you wouldn't go to the doctor, you'd rely on a miracle. But Orthodox Jews do go to the doctor. But what an Orthodox man does in his private life he isn't doing on the national level. He says, "God will help. They'll leave." All kinds of things that, I assume, the white extremists in South Africa and those in Zimbabwe thought would happen.
How do you read the political map for the near future?
On the day that Sharon decided to go for disengagement, he disengaged from the old Likud. So the chances that he would remain head of the Likud were slim. I said this months ago; now it's the consensual position.
I don't think he'll leave politics. So he'll head a different platform. Because even if he were to win out in the Likud, he would be so hemmed in as to be unable to move, and he won't want that. Sharon and Netanyahu and Landau is also political fraud. So he'll go to a different platform, I don't know which. Big bang. Little bang.
The parties today reflect the past. They are anachronistic.
In Labor, there's an argument over whether to seek a permanent accord, along the lines of the Geneva Accords, or go for the unilateral approach that I advocate. And I'm in the minority. That's one example.
In the Likud, there's nothing left but the name. The Knesset faction split long ago. The Likud "rebels," faithful to the old Likud, vote no-confidence in the government, act as a faction in every respect. There is no Likud. The Likud fell apart long ago.
We need parties that meet the needs of the public, not those that fit the maneuverings of the politicians.
On the diplomatic front, in the Greater Israel camp, Landau has yet to describe any compromise that would be acceptable to him.
On the classical Left, they favor the Geneva approach: talks on a final deal, let us sit with Abu Mazen and we'll have peace within a month. Yossi Beilin believes this.
And then there are those who say our destiny is in our hands. We have to do what's good for Israel. If it's together with the Palestinians, good. If not, not so good. But let's do what's possible, and negotiate from there. A series of unilateral steps coordinated with the Palestinians.
So we need three parties, to present those three approaches. And voters can choose and know what they'll get. Not choose Sharon and get Landau. Or vice-versa. That's a fraud...
You've heard what I stand for.
On religion and state, not, heaven forbid, the Shas-style Orthodoxy and United Torah Judaism, and not Tommy Lapid's terrible anti-religious approach.
On the electoral system, I've submitted a bill for a presidential system. Israel's problem is terrible instability in government. We need to know that the man in power is there for four years. A president who appoints ministers. A Knesset. Checks and balances. It's unacceptable that every few months, ministers change places. You can't run a country this way.
I urge that the Labor party be the party of the Big Bang, but I imagine I will be disappointed and Labor will continue to head downhill.
Do you support Shimon Peres as Labor leader?
Yes, he led the party to the right decision in joining this government. He was a key player in disengagement. I certainly support him and hope he will prevail in the party's leadership primaries. At this moment, he is the best leader the party could have.
Later on, I have the combination of political experience and the right ideology for Israel. I'm 55, the right age. I've filled many positions... led a few revolutions. In the elections after the next elections, I'll see myself as a candidate. But a lot can happen before then. n