Labor, it turns out, is not the only party to boast a dynamic, Sephardi, ex-mayor of a disadvantaged city, in his mid-50s, with dovish views on peacemaking with the Palestinians, who wants to be prime minister. The Likud, until recently, had one too in Moroccan-born ex-Yavneh mayor Meir Sheetrit. Now, he's batting for Kadima.
During a lengthy interview with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, we questioned Sheetrit at length on his work and plans as transportation minister - material that will appear in our pages next week. But we talked politics, too.
Sheetrit, energetic and the fastest speaker I've ever interviewed, said he considers the establishment of Kadima, and its strong showing in current voter surveys, to be a vindication of the dovish mind-set he'd previously championed in what he claims used to be a more tolerant and diverse Likud.
That mind-set, he made plain, eschews further unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank, but opposes further Jewish settlement there - highlighting the Galilee and Negev, instead, as the places to fulfill the Zionist dream of tomorrow and safeguard Israel. Strikingly, he asserted firmly that Ehud Barak was responsible for the failure of the Camp David talks five years ago, and that Yasser Arafat was a viable peace partner.
Reading over his comments, I realize how much I badgered him about his thinking on the territories, the merits of unilateralism, Palestinian intentions and so on, returning to some issues several times. He was unfailingly courteous as I persisted in seeking to understand his arguments. It will be interesting, I think, to reread the exchanges below in a few months from now, particularly if the polls prove more accurate than usual, Sharon is reelected and Sheetrit, as he says he has been promised, is given a prominent cabinet position in a government that reflects his thinking and acts upon it.
What determined your move from the Likud to Kadima? You'd worked with Bibi as a minister at the Treasury...
I worked very closely with Bibi. I see the economic aspects the way he does. I believe in a free market, competition, in an efficient economy. But I have absolute differences on the diplomatic front with him. I've never hidden my views. I'm the only Likud Knesset member who supported the Oslo accords. And I was still elected by the Likud.
I think this country must reach peace. I don't want to risk a binational state. I want a Jewish state - democratic, with a clear Jewish majority, and no danger that tomorrow there'll be a different majority. That's why we established this state. And if I want that kind of state I have no choice but to leave most of the territories and let the Palestinians establish a state next to us. My only condition: that there should be complete peace, that they should eliminate terror.
There's no way that this [two-state vision] can happen with the Likud of today, to my great sorrow. I've been in the Likud for 33 years, a Knesset member for 24 years. Until today, the Likud behaved differently. Nobody dreamed that Begin would leave Sinai. But he made peace with Egypt and we left the Sinai, dismantled all the settlements there. And look, thank God, there's been quiet there for almost 30 years and no soldier is getting killed on the Egyptian border. When Rabin made peace with Jordan, the Likud supported the agreement. Now with the Palestinians, the last bone in our throat, we have to reach an accord. Not at any price. My starting point is that the Palestinians must, as a condition for progress, eliminate terror. There won't be further unilateral withdrawals. Only negotiation.
And if they don't eliminate terror?
Then there's no progress.
But then you risk that Jewish, democratic majority?
No. We're building a security barrier, along the entire West Bank. And that's enabling us to neutralize the strategic weapon that they've been using against us.
Until they develop something else?
The key strategic weapon is suicide bombers and we're preventing most of them from hitting us in our soft underbelly. That's the only real threat they have. No other weapon is effective. They fire missiles? We can fire hundreds as many. Look at what happened in Gaza. They tried. And quickly capitulated, because they realized the consequences. We're not impotent, we're not afraid of the Palestinians. But we don't want to rule over them. The opposite. We want to get out of there. And in my opinion they understand this. And they understand that there's no going back to the 1967 borders, and that we're not going to uproot 200,000 [Jewish] residents of the West Bank.
Aren't we encouraging them, for now, to focus terrorism on settlements to the east of the barrier, to force us back to the barrier, for this phase?
They tried that. It didn't work. I'm demanding that they eliminate terror. If they don't, it will only hurt them. The intifada hurt us badly; it hurt them even worse.
Maybe they don't care?
So I don't care either.
We left Gaza, and there's not a Palestinian alive who thinks we left for any reason other than what they call "resistance" and we call terrorism. And now you say we want a democratic state with a Jewish majority, and that we need to leave most of the territories, and we've built a barrier, but there won't be further unilateral withdrawals. That doesn't make sense.
We left Gaza to prove that we're serious. We proved it. All the threats of missiles on Ashkelon and Tel Aviv proved baseless. They're not falling. Finished.
There's an area east of the barrier with an overwhelming Palestinian majority...
Yes, and we don't rule over that population. We left. It's in the hands of the Palestinians. Perhaps 5 percent of the Palestinians are in Israeli-held territory.
Most of the territory is in our hands.
Precisely. That's the idea. So they can't do anything. And they understand that too. And they want to get a state.
You can foresee a situation where for years, if they don't tackle terrorism, we won't pull back to the barrier unilaterally?
If they don't tackle terror, we won't pull back. Don't you think they understand this and have an interest? Today, Abu Mazen is very weak, to my sorrow. Maybe he realizes, in the wake of their elections, that the moment of truth is here. Or, if he wins a majority in the forthcoming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, he can gather the necessary courage, impose law and order, use his security forces the way he should, and eliminate terror. If he does that, he'll have a state very quickly.
And if he doesn't?
Then we stay. We're not running away.
Why should voters believe you and Sharon now?
Because Arik is the only one who delivered the goods.
But two years ago, when he ran for elections, he did not promise a pullout from Gaza.
He changed his mind.
So why believe him this time when he says there won't be further unilateral withdrawals?
There won't be. He changed his mind to the direction he's now following. This is a man nearing the end of his political life. Maybe his last term. Do you think he would be trying to suck up to people? His only interest, I believe, is the good of Israel. You can't say he doesn't love Israel. He's fought for this country all his life. And the time has come for him not to be a war general but a general of peace.
But if there's no partner? I hear him say that he wants to shape Israel's permanent borders.
But the only way to do that is with a partner or unilaterally.
We won't act unilaterally. The partnership is achieved through negotiations. The world won't sit idly by. The Americans are involved. The Europeans. Not all the Palestinians hate peace. I know almost all of the Palestinian leadership. Lots of them greatly want a peace agreement with Israel.
So why isn't Abu Mazen acting against terror? He says he opposes terror.
He does oppose terror. But you're right. He's a disappointment. Today he has no power.
He won election with a huge majority. Maybe he doesn't use power, doesn't broadcast power?
It's up to him and I can't get into his considerations.
He's afraid he'll be killed. Isn't that his consideration?
If he falls and fails, someone else will rise and will have the power and we'll make peace with him. We won't compromise on Israel's security.
I believe that if Israel is really ready for peace, there's a chance. There are those who don't believe that, fatalists who say 'There'll never be peace with the Arabs. You can't believe them.' I don't think like that.
And what are the contours of that agreement, territorially?
I don't have a map. It's an issue for negotiation. And there won't be further negotiations on interim stages.
Why not pullout unilaterally if there's no partner for negotiation?
Because you don't achieve an agreement that way, and we want a peace accord.
So, again, why did we pull out of Gaza unilaterally?
There was nothing for us in Gaza. It was a terrible mistake to build settlements there. I opposed those settlements 30 years ago. A terrible waste - of money, of effort, of spilled blood. It was all unnecessary. We should never have settled Gaza in the first place. There was no chance to put 7,500 souls in a sea of a million and a half Palestinians. What did that gain anybody? The thoughtlessness and shortsightedness! And what terrible damage, to my truly great sorrow, for those good settlers, those pioneers who were sent by our governments. It's not their fault. They were caught in a terrible situation of having their homes uprooted. Appalling and terrible.
It's the task of statespeople to look far ahead. A prime minister is allowed to change his mind. He said Netzarim was as important as Tel Aviv? So what. And Bibi didn't say that he wouldn't pull out? And what did he do? He left Hebron, right? He signed the Wye accords that gave 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
When a man becomes prime minister and has the responsibility, he immediately discovers the limits of power. That he's not alone on the world stage. We have a tiny state, dependent on the world on every matter. All those big heroes on the right who talk so big, if we had a single sanction imposed on us - say, no flights in or out of Israel - then we'd see how big they really are.
In that context, given the realpolitik you've just described: If we don't state what territory we require for our security and other needs in the West Bank, and pull back to those lines unilaterally if there's no partner, don't we risk losing everything, losing the Etzion Bloc, losing...?
That's the wrong approach. Without an agreement, you've not produced peace or security. Israel's real security is comprehensive peace.
Again, fine if there's a partner. But if there's no partner?
Then there's no peace.
But don't you then find a realpolitik problem? We boosted our international legitimacy by leaving Gaza, proved to the world that we don't want to rule over the Palestinians. But if we now say, 'There's no partner and so we're not moving from the West Bank,' isn't there a danger that the world will say: 'Sorry, of course there's no partner, because you didn't leave. Go back to the '67 borders.'? They are already saying they don't accept our annexation of east Jerusalem. Isn't there a danger that we'll lose even those West Bank areas where there is an Israeli consensus?
I'm not worried about that. I'm not worried about what the world will say. My obligation is to worry about Israel's interests. I believe that I am right and I act according to my sense of right. I say that I'm prepared to make concessions for the Palestinians. I'm prepared to withdraw from territory for peace. If I don't have a partner, I don't care what the world says. I'll continue to protect Israel's interests and the security of its citizens.
In Jerusalem, the Palestinian demand is simply ridiculous. When were they ever a state? When did they have a capital? It's our capital and has been not since Camp David but since King David. Someone expects me to give up on Jerusalem as a capital? The world recognizes or doesn't recognize (our annexation of east Jerusalem)? I deride that. I tell you straight. There are things that nations can't concede.
So I tell you that a unilateral pullback is not a solution. It's running away. We cannot withdraw unilaterally. We cannot withdraw without a peace treaty. And we won't withdraw without a peace treaty. And it doesn't matter what the world says. We can hold firm for 100 years if necessary... We have, thank God, the strength and the weaponry for as long as necessary. In my opinion the Palestinians are also tired of wars. Their losses hurt their mothers just as much as our losses hurt ours. They're not happy with the situation either. I know that. Everyone is sick of war, of intifada. Everyone wants to reach an agreement. And the negotiation has to be handled wisely to reach an agreement.
Look, Barak tried to reach an agreement with them. But he did it so badly that there was no chance to reach an agreement.
That's the reason Camp David failed?
Or did Arafat follow a strategic decision not to make a deal?
No. In my opinion that's the reason, 100 percent.
And if Rabin hadn't been murdered, or Barak's attitude had been different, we could have made peace (with Arafat)?
I have no doubt. No doubt.
Arafat's failure to eliminate terrorism between 1993 and 1995 doesn't make you think differently?
Between 1993 and 1995, he behaved the way he behaved. But when they went to Camp David, it was an effort to reach a permanent accord. Barak's way of behaving was ruinous. Simply ruinous. If you don't build up trust with a person, you can't reach an agreement. Rabin succeeded more than anyone else in establishing a relationship of trust with Arafat.
Yet even in the Rabin years, did Arafat fight terror?
Before Rabin was murdered, there were several acts of terrorism. Some of them done by Arafat's people and some by his opponents.
Did he broadcast to his people the message that terror had to stop?
In the end it did stop. There were many years of quiet.
Did he say to his people, 'Stop this and prepare for peace'?
No, and it was a terrible disappointment. He was a liar.
But you believe we could have made peace with him?
Arafat's dead, thank God.
But you just said...
I said that if the attitude had been different [with Barak], if people who understood Arab culture had run the negotiation, people who created understanding and trust, an agreement could have been reached. Germany and France, did anyone believe they could live in peace?
You don't think Arafat believed the demographics meant he had no need to make concessions and peace with Israel?
I don't know what he thought and I'm not interested. From my point of view, I want to be rid of control over the Palestinians in order to guarantee a Jewish majority.
I'm sorry, but since you've stressed the need for a partner, it is very important to know what the partner thinks.
Of course. I think the terrible mistake of Oslo, and I said it in the Knesset debate before Oslo Bet (which I opposed; I supported Oslo Aleph), was to go stage by stage. The thinking was that, stage by stage you can build trust and then find solutions when you reach the permanent accord. They should have done the opposite - agree on the terms of a permanent accord from the start, and implement it stage by stage.
Isn't the road map another phased plan?
There's no choice today. We're already in the middle. We've already given them the cities. We have to work via the road map - and the first condition is that the Palestinians collect illegal weapons, dismantle terror, and then we'll make progress. If they don't... we're not afraid. Not of the Palestinians or any other Arab nation.
The Palestinians aren't alone on the field either. The Arab world is also sick of them. The Arab world is pressing them. They also need world support. And they see that Israel's position has improved radically in the international arena. It has proved it is willing to make far-reaching steps for peace.
What were you doing in the Likud all these years?
Everything I've said to you, I said all along in the Likud. After I supported Oslo, I was still elected to the Likud list. So there are lots of Likud voters who think like me. That's why I think lots of Likud voters will vote for Sharon.
This move to Kadima is in truth a victory for my approach. I always said that I preferred that the Likud make peace and not the Left. Because with the Likud the price will be as low as possible. If the Left made peace it would be at the highest price. And Barak proved that. Barak offered absolutely everything and even that didn't work for him.
So we can make peace offering less than Barak?
Of course. 100 percent.
Without concessions on Jerusalem?
I'm telling you, 100 percent. We'll never offer what Barak offered. It won't be on the table.
Have you got a timetable?
If I become prime minister, I'll give you a timetable.
That's a realistic ambition?
How old are you?
Fifty-seven - 20 years younger than Arik. And remember I ran against him in 1999 for the leadership of the Likud - Ariel Sharon, Olmert and me. Now we're part of the same package. He got 52 percent then. Ehud got 24% and I got 22%.
That's certainly an ambition, and I don't hide it. If I didn't think I could get there, I'd leave politics.
I'm not looking for honor. I care about this country. I think it can be changed from A to Z. I think the gap between the potential of this country and the reality is so vast that it gives me my political drive. This country has more potential than any other. If I thought I couldn't reach a position of true influence, to realize that potential, I wouldn't be here.
Why am I leaving the Likud? It was hard to leave my home of 33 years. But the Likud is in deadlock, can't achieve anything.
Do you think Netanyahu will win the Likud leadership?
That's what the polls suggest. And if he does, let him join us in a coalition, accept our platform. There's no reason why he shouldn't. He supported disengagement, didn't he? He voted in favor in all the Knesset votes, at every stage. All those so-called Likud anti-disengagement ministers voted in favor at the critical juncture. All except Uzi Landau. If their ideology was less important than keeping their ministerial seats, they should stop messing with our heads.
If, say, the government was going to annex Judea and Samaria, I'd vote against and resign from the government there and then. I couldn't sit in a government doing something that I considered unthinkable. And people have done that. Bennie Begin (when Bibi left Hebron). And I told him how much I admired him even though I disagreed with him utterly. Same with Uzi. We are the best friends. He knows that I'm principled in my positions and have never misled anyone in the Likud about them. And he's also very principled.
What's your attitude regarding the status of the Ariel settlement?
I've not made maps for myself. Ariel is so large a settlement that it's hard for me to see someone pulling out. It was built in that place as a deliberate obstacle that could not be gotten rid off. You can't ignore what's happened... We'll have to find solutions. As Arafat would say, 'Where there's a will, there's a way.'
You're quoting Arafat?
Yes, he used to say that a lot.
What would you say to someone considering building a home today on the eastern side of the security barrier - not in Ariel - in, say, Ofra?
If there's room to build in a certain yishuv...
You've criticized those who encouraged the people who built homes in Gaza...
Look, he should make his own decisions. I'm not going to force him. From my point of view, people who want to build homes, should build only in Israel. Build in the Negev and the Galilee. I think that the true Zionism of tomorrow is not to build a single additional house in Judea and Samaria. Only in the Galilee and the Negev.
Not even in the Etzion Bloc, or Ma'aleh Adumim...?
Only in the Galilee and the Negev. We are losing the Galilee and the Negev. People aren't paying attention. That's where the big danger is. The Galilee is empty. The Negev is empty... We have enough settlements. We don't need more settlements.
And not even to expand existing settlements?
Those that will remain under our permanent control, why not? Jerusalem.
But you won't define which areas will remain ours.
When we get to the negotiating table, we'll define. We have our thoughts. Essentially it is claimed that all the settlement blocs will remain on our side, and that's okay. Because in total all the settlement blocs take up 5-10% of the West Bank territory. In my opinion, it's fair enough that they remain ours.