Interview: Homing in on next pullback

PM's adviser on settlement talks about Sharon, lessons from disengagement.

tekoa 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tekoa 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Uzi Keren? The name is not widely known, and its bearer is not remotely troubled by the fact. Indeed, a lack of personal publicity has helped this veteran behind-the-scenes official walk the finest of lines through the tensest of times, staying on speaking terms with settler leaders even as he advised prime minister Ariel Sharon on issues relating to their evacuation from Gaza last summer. "During disengagement, I always stood next to the photographers," he says. "That's why I was never in the picture." Keren retains the same job under Ehud Olmert - adviser to the prime minister on settlements (a slightly misleading title, given that his responsibilities cover settlement in the non-politicized sense of the word, on either side of the Green Line). From his strikingly small room on the ground floor of the Prime Minister's Office he will be weighing in on matters relating to the intended centerpiece of Olmert's premiership - the "realignment" plan under which many, perhaps most, settlements beyond the West Bank security barrier are set to be dismantled. Agreeing to a rare interview, Keren, once general-manager of the defunct don't-give-up-the-Golan Third Way political party, is at pains to stress his commitment to bolstering the Jewish population of the Golan, the Galilee and the Negev, along with his concern for the West Bank and Gaza settlers. In fact, he sees potential for serving both causes simultaneously. "From the moment I entered this job [five years ago], I have said that settlement is settlement," says Keren. "It's also the Negev, the Galilee and the periphery and those who are being fired upon. It's everything outside of the area from Hadera to Gadera, and from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and to Haifa." His office is filled with maps of projects the government dreamed of, sometimes implemented and often abandoned in some of those "peripheral" areas. But he takes particular pride in producing those that cover the Halutz Sands area, south of the Gaza Strip along the border with Egypt down toward Eilat, where work on the Negev's first new settlements in years is about to begin: Halutzit 1 and Halutzit 4, the intended permanent homes, respectively, for the former Gaza settlers from Netzarim and Atzmona. "At Sharon's prompting, we made all kinds of plans for the Negev and Galilee in recent years," he notes. "In 2002 and 2003, something like 70 percent of the transportation budget went to infrastructure and roads in the Negev and the Galilee. Route 6 was built so that you could get into your car in Afula and be in Tel Aviv in an hour. The government this year allocated NIS 17 billion to fund a 10-year strategic plan to develop the Negev - NIS 1.7 billion a year. That also includes money for education and for the Beduin. There's not been a plan like this for years. "When Sharon was the settlements adviser from 1979 to 1983," Keren recalls, "he built 80 new settlements in the Galilee. He was determined to demographically strengthen the Galilee and today we are reaping the benefits." And the aim now is to maintain that trend. "Most of my work in the near future," he stresses, "will be focused on Negev and Galilee development. I see us creating six new settlements in the next five years, three of which are a consequence of disengagement [an apparent reference to the Halutza construction]." Anxious to ensure the Post is aware of his full job description, Keren takes out a binder and reads out his formal responsibilities, which include dealing with issues relating to the defense of the country's borders, seam-line communities, water, nature reserves and agriculture. Also highlighted is development of areas outside the pre-1967 borders that he says he and the government believe Israel should retain, such as those (unspecified) areas of Judea and Samaria unaffected by "realignment," the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights. "Arik would never have given up the Jordan Valley and I hope that Ehud won't either - militarily," he volunteers. As for the Golan, true to his Third Way principles, he says: "It's the gate that safeguards Israel against its hostile neighbors to the east, like Syria, Iran and Iraq. You have to be firm on these points." Keren, unsurprisingly, says he supported disengagement and backs further territorial withdrawal under realignment, though he indicates that the scale of the pullback will be smaller than widely assumed. He also plays down the likelihood of what would nonetheless plainly be a larger pullback than Gaza sparking more serious internal rifts. There will be more time to prepare for realignment, he says, and key lessons have been learned. Among the prime misconceptions last summer, he says, was the government's assumption that some 60% of the evacuees would prefer individual solutions to communal ones. In reality, some 80% of the evacuees opted to try and maintain their communities, to seek new homes alongside their neighbors. "At the beginning we thought we would pass the Disengagement Implementation Bill and about 60% would take the money and live in [say] Bnei Brak," says Keren. That thinking was wrongheaded, he goes on, and an opportunity to encourage thousands of Jews imbued with pioneering spirit to relocate to areas that most need them, notably the Negev, was missed. "When they first started to talk about settling the evacuees at Nitzanim, between Ashdod and Ashkelon, I told Ilan Cohen [Sharon's director general] that we were crazy. I said, 'Let's organize it so they go to the Negev and the Galilee.' Ilan said that 'our objective is not the Negev or the Galilee. Our objective is that there won't be a civil war. And if giving them [the Gaza evacuees] the option to go and live in, say, Herzliya [or anywhere else they choose] is the way to prevent civil war, then that's worth everything.'" So an opportunity was lost? Yes, also because they [the settlers] didn't want to make plans. There was little dialogue. I think it has to be different this time. It will be a reverse process from what happened in Gaza. First we will build. And once the homes are built, we will tell people, 'Here are homes. We suggest that you move here' - whether it's in the Negev, the Galilee or in Judea and Samaria. That kind of building takes a long time. Listen, we built a city, Nitzan, in four or five months, that is absorbing 500 families. Okay, the [intended] homes might not be completely finished. The garage can be built later. But it won't be like in Gaza, where because there was no dialogue, the people were left without a house. That's not a healthy situation. We have to prevent that from happening again. Do you regard the violent clashes that broke out when the security forces demolished nine homes at the Amona outpost in February as a sign of worse things to come? ... It was unique. It was a payback for Gush Katif, where people didn't fight back. It will be better next time [with realignment]. There are some differences. In the last process [disengagement], we took an entire settlement bloc out of the [Gaza] area. This time, you won't take out an entire bloc. The [evacuated] settlement won't have to leave Judea and Samaria. It can be added on to settlements like Emmanuel or Ariel or Karnei Shomron. That's happened before in our history - moving a settlement from one point to another. To move from Har Bracha to Karnei Shomron, for instance, is [only] seven kilometers. It's not a transfer. It's a consolidation of the area's population. And that's more acceptable. In [Gaza] we said, "Come to the Negev and the Galilee" [and other relatively distant places]. Here I am saying, "Come to your neighboring settlement, and your kids' school will stay the same school." Here we are saying, "You already go to school in Ariel, so move your house to Ariel. We will build you a home there..."[Still,] it's possible that I am imagining it will be easier that it will be. Are you sure that those same people won't be asked to leave Ariel in 10 years time? You can't keep telling people, "Sorry, you have to move." You can do it once, but you can't keep doing it. It will be done within a permanent agreement. But the realignment plan is not a permanent agreement. Why isn't it permanent? It will be permanent - part of a bilateral or unilateral agreement. There will be a nation called Palestine. It will have a fence and territory. If there is no dialogue, it will be unilateral, with the support of those nations that determine world events. How, next time, can you better grapple with the high unemployment among evacuated settlers? Gaza was a hothouse of conditions that do not exist anywhere else. The Hof Aza Regional Council's budget was the second largest of the 260 regional councils throughout the country. Out of 7,000 people [in the Gaza settlements], there were 1,200 teachers and nursery-school teachers on the council's payroll. Everyone who wanted to work in education did so. In Judea and Samaria, the people work elsewhere. There won't be the same problems of unemployment. The Gaza disengagement was a very difficult process for me, and for Ariel Sharon as well. You go into the job in order to build and to strengthen, not to destroy. But looking 20 years into the future, I can't see how Israel could have held onto Gaza. There were small, isolated communities, situated among several million Palestinians, with no territorial continuity with Israel. In the end, the cold logic of this long-term thinking set the course [of disengagement]. At one time, we established settlements on hilltops in the territories to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. The idea was that if someone wanted to create a Palestinian state at some point, he would fail because on every hilltop we would put some Jews and there would be no contiguous territory for a Palestinian state. But today, there is the belief that you have to have a Palestinian state. To accomplish this, the government plans to consolidate Jews into settlement blocs, rather than to disperse them and ask them to leave the area. We want to create settlement blocs that we will defend with all our strength. And we will create a future map in which the Palestinians will have contiguous territory from south of Hebron to Jenin even if [the borders] are convoluted and do not run according to a straight line. We want to do this even if the solutions [to enable contiguity] are as "crazy" as the plan for a road for the Palestinians connecting Hebron to Gaza. The idea was for this road to be considered extraterritorial. If it weren't for the [second] intifada, they would be traveling back and forth on this road now. Another even crazier idea, to be achieved maybe with US funds, was to build a sky-train route where passengers disembarked only in Palestinian areas. You would get on in Hebron and get off in Gaza or Ramallah. It would travel over Israel at a height of five meters. These ideas haven't been taken off the table, but there is no partner for them. Is there enough space in the West Bank settlements that are being retained to absorb the 70,000 the evacuees? Yes, there is enough space there, on state-owned land. But I think the numbers are much lower than [the 70,000] that people are talking about. Only 20 or 30 settlements [out of perhaps double that number beyond the security barrier] will have to move to another place. Some are already begging to leave. People from the settlements of Mevo Daton and Hermesh in northern Samaria came to this office a few months ago, before disengagement, to say, "You want to take out four settlements. We want to be numbers five and six." I said, "The government decided on four." They said, "We are volunteering to leave, we are suffering. We want you to give up on us, let us leave. It's a shame to raise children under these conditions." I said, "When there is an early compensation [package available], you will be the first ones to leave, but we can't do it in advance of that." I told them this with a heavy heart. If you want to move to Netanya, you can, so why can't they? In a short time, people who want to leave will be able to do so. We have to work quickly to allow this. A matter of months? Yes. It is already being thought about. Let's say a quarter of the 20 or 30 settlements will leave willingly. The disputes will be over the rest. The number of people that need to be moved will be fewer than 70,000. The 70,000 figure is an estimate of the number of settlers who today live beyond the route of the security fence. I'm not sure that the line of the fence will be the line of the Palestinian state. If you count all the settlements outside the fence you are right, those are the numbers... But there is room to maneuver. You watched as Sharon transformed himself from the politician who told Israelis to grab hilltops in the territories into the prime minister who carried out disengagement. How do you explain the shift? I was not here when he said, "Capture the hilltops." I was here in the period when there was a war. People forget what it was like in 2001. The Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza was urging Arik, "Let the army win!" Arik stopped the army from hitting back. Why? I remember his hesitation. He said, "I want to seek a solution and that can't be done by attacking them." So the initial reaction [to the terror war] was defensive and restrained. The thinking was, "Let's protect ourselves... but let's not attack them with all the means at our disposal." After a year, though, with the intifada continuing, Sharon introduced the policy of targeted assassinations. I remember how [settler leaders Pinhas] Wallerstein and [Ze'ev Hever] Zambish would come here to the Prime Minister's Office and ask, "Why doesn't Arik hit them back?" I would say, "Hold on. He will do it. But he is waiting to see if there is a chance for dialogue, even a slim one, before he attacks them." When Sharon saw that there was no solution [through dialogue] and the violence was continuing, and Jews were being killed, he couldn't be restrained any longer. He had to act. But then came the shift toward disengagement. What were the key factors - demographics, a changing sense of Israel's security needs? All of that, and other factors [including] September 11 [and our relations with] our US brother. Disengagement was not solely a consequence of external pressure or of demographics or of security issues. It was all of these things. The veteran Arik Sharon saw himself in the continuation of a great historical process, peopled by characters like Moses [in the biblical era] and Ben-Gurion in this period. He saw an obligation do achieve more than minor change, but rather to create new picture. And in the situation he inherited, he came to the understanding that we needed to compromise now in order to be strong afterward. There's a military doctrine of consolidation that holds that when you are overly dispersed you are vulnerable to attack, you can be hit from all sides. When you consolidate your forces and strengthen yourself at strategic points, you bolster your security.