One on One: 'We're still fighting the 1948 war of Independence'

Under fire from Kassam rockets and disgruntled residents, Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal says that he is taking all the flak, even though he's a victim.

eli moyal 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
eli moyal 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'I took a big pay cut to be able to tell the truth," says Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal - a lawyer by profession - with a touch of irony. "I used to earn in a day what I now earn in a month." Salary aside, Moyal didn't know what he was getting into in 1998, when he took office to head the Negev development town where he has lived most of his life. "I was elected to deal with education, welfare, sports, to collect the garbage on time, to provide clean parks and streets," he asserts. "But suddenly, history placed me at the center of the world." We are sitting in the living room of his rented "villa" in the Kassam-beleaguered city that has become the focus of international attention in the last few weeks. An assistant and a bodyguard are in the adjoining dining nook from where they, like Moyal, have a view of the flat-screen TV tuned in to a station showing thumbnail views of every news channel simultaneously, and a runner at the bottom with updates from the Walla Web site. No sooner does our two-hour interview begin, when Moyal's men yell at us to take cover. Though we do not hear the wail of the Tzeva Adom (Color Red) siren, apparently it has been sounded, and we are ushered into a nearby laundry room to wait for the coast to clear. Nor do we hear the boom of a missile hit. After a short pause, Moyal says that either the alarm was false, or the Kassam struck far enough away to be out of earshot. (He turns out to be wrong on both counts. A Kassam has slammed through a centrally located apartment building, across the street from the home of Moyal's sister, the mother of five young children. No one is physically wounded in the attack, but a number of residents suffer from shock.) "You are witnessing the surreal conditions under which Sderot has been living," says Moyal, lighting a Marlboro and heaving a smoke-filled sigh. "We didn't ask for it, but we'll survive it." Moyal, 56, says he will not leave Sderot under any circumstances - even after his tenure is up. The proud Israeli of Moroccan descent, whose family made aliya when he was five, attributes these and other values to his upbringing. The son of extremely poor parents - a kabbalist father (who died when he was 18) and a mother who won the Israel Prize in 1984 for her ability to raise 10 university graduates under the harsh conditions of the ma'abara (transit camp) in the 1950s - Moyal says that though he and his siblings ate meat only once a week, their true nourishment and enrichment came from books. "There is a difference between poverty and the culture of poverty," he explains, adding that though their household was religious, his parents stressed tolerance and Jewish values even more than mitzvot. This may help to explain why Moyal is an altogether unusual tile in the mosaic of his milieu. The single father of a 20-year-old son - an operations officer in charge of Sderot - Moyal breezily tells the story of meeting a "gorgeous Australian girl" several years his junior at a bar: "We got drunk and made a baby." To this day, he says, he and she are on very friendly terms. In fact, he claims, "Whenever she and her husband visit Israel, they stay at my house." Moyal is equally candid about his current love-life. He says that he intends to marry the girlfriend he has had for the past three years or so - since she applied his make-up on the set of Judy Shalom Nir Mozes's TV show - when her younger daughter finishes school. It will be his first wedding. As to where the couple will settle, Moyal says, "She will come and live here with me in Sderot." Is it true that you threatened to resign? I didn't threaten; I announced that I would be leaving at the end of my term in October 2008. But this has nothing to do with the Kassams. Ten years is enough. What will you do? I've been a lawyer for 30 years. I was a good lawyer before I became mayor, so I'm not worried. Maybe I'll be involved in politics in another capacity. In the Knesset? Could be. Most likely. Or some other public function. In the past, you said that you were elected to "collect the garbage," not deal with Kassam missiles. That's right. I'm not responsible for the security and defense of the residents of Sderot. I was elected mayor to deal with education, welfare, sports, to collect the garbage on time, to provide clean parks and streets. But suddenly, history placed me at the center of the world. And everybody's asking me what the solution is. I tell them that I'm the victim, and that instead of asking the victim for the solution, they should be asking the prime minister, the defense minister, the chief of General Staff and the foreign minister. What's it got to do with me? But they are turning to me, because the others are giving them either no answers or ones that insult the intelligence. The government doesn't understand that what's going on in Sderot is a national problem of the highest order, not a local issue. It doesn't understand that this is a war on a city inside the Green Line. What makes you think they don't understand this? The members of the government are preoccupied with their own political and existential problems. With the Winograd Committee report hovering over them, their attentions are focused elsewhere, at the expense of the country's burning issues. But the withdrawal from Gaza, from where the Kassams are being launched, took place way before Winograd. I don't think the previous prime minister was any different from the current one. He was also preoccupied with his own problems. Are you saying that disengagement was his way of deflecting attention from his personal problems? I can't prove anything; I can only tell you what my sense of it is. I was among the most ardent and outspoken opponents of disengagement. I was the only mayor in the country who stood up against Arik Sharon. No other mayor from the Likud dared do so. And Sharon - in private conversations with his close advisers that were leaked to me - said that I was the one who ruined his famous referendum. [He is referring to the referendum in the Likud, which Sharon said he would honor, but when the party members voted against disengagement, he reneged on his commitment.] This is because it was due to the development towns joining the settlements in opposing the plan. Before that, it had been Sharon vs the settlers. And the polls had shown that even with all the settlements opposing him, he would still win the referendum. It was when the development towns, led by me, joined in the opposition, that he lost. Sharon was living in a historical moment which he didn't understand. This precedent of a people burning its own synagogues, destroying its own houses and absconding like thieves in the night from its land was beyond belief. I thought that Sharon had lost his mind. Is that how you view Israel's pullout from Lebanon in May 2000 - "absconding like thieves in the night"? It was just as bad as disengagement. But at least it accomplished one thing: There were six years of quiet in the North. Here, we didn't have a minute of quiet. On the night of the evacuation of Gaza, they were firing Kassams at us. Do you feel that the rest of the country is indifferent to what's going on in Sderot? One mustn't confuse the people with the leadership. We have the best people in the world. Governments come and go, but the state and people will always remain. So, you harbor no feelings of resentment toward other parts of the country these days? Not in the least. I suffer here so that the Tel Avivians can sit at cafes in peace and quiet, just as the people of Kiryat Shmona suffered so that people could sit at cafes in Jerusalem, and just as Jerusalemites suffered so that people in Sderot could sit at cafes. This is the people of Israel. This is our part in history. We shouldn't complain. It's not easy living here. We didn't ask for this situation, but we'll survive it. You've fought in several of Israel's wars... I was a lot less afraid during those wars than I am now. At least then I was armed; here I've got nothing. I'm just a sitting duck. If so, why are you against Sderot residents leaving the city temporarily? If someone chooses to leave, I completely respect his choice. But my role today is to stress that the people of Israel must not abscond from their cities at any cost. Because if we do, we'll lose the war. It's as simple as that. If we run away from Sderot, we'll run away from Tzahala, and we'll run away from Savyon, and we'll run away from Tel Aviv. Just because we have a failed government doesn't mean that we have to help it continue to fail. Still, we're talking about innocent civilians under fire. I understand them completely. But a leader has to speak his mind. If a leader stammers, the public stammers even more. I can't identify which of the population is influenced by what I say, but some of them are listening. It's not for nothing that I got elected. How does this jibe with what you said about not having been elected to deal with issues of state? But history summoned me, so I have no choice. Like former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani on 9/11? That's right. He thought he was going to be tackling crime - that was his task - and suddenly he had to become a national hero. That's what happened to me here. Do you think that you have risen to the occasion, and given the residents of Sderot the sense that you are taking care of them? I don't know. History will be the judge of that. We're still in the middle of the story. You not only oppose people leaving the city; you also oppose reinforcing their houses. Why? Every nation, army or concept that is defensive has a subtext. When you say, "I'm going to reinforce Sderot," the subtext of what you are saying is: "I accept terrorism as part of my life." I don't think the concept of the state should be that we accept terrorism as part of life. Even if it's true, you have to reject it. Even if the facts indicate that terrorism is going to be part of life here for another 20 years, you have to say, "There will be no terrorism here." Otherwise, it will be around for a million years. And how did we get to reinforcement? By capitulating to terrorism. Can't you do both - fight terrorism and reinforce houses - simultaneously? Governments are cynical by nature. The war against terrorism in Gaza is what I call a "waiting war." The more the government reinforces homes, the longer it will take it to take real action in Gaza. Furthermore, no one here has ever been critically wounded or killed inside a house or a store. This is almost a Kafkaesque issue, because you can't reinforce the street, so you reinforce the houses in which nobody is killed anyway. This is part of the general concept of the government to treat the symptoms and not the illness. The infection is over there [in Gaza], and they're busy trying to lower the fever over here. I told the government that we've got to cause the people in Gaza to want to reinforce their houses. But, because we are so failed in our thinking, in Gaza they're not reinforcing houses, but in Sderot we are. And in Ashkelon we will reinforce houses, and in Netivot. In the end, the entire budget won't suffice. Meanwhile, reinforcement is useless. Even to the extent that it makes residents under fire feel safer? It's true that reinforcement calms the residents of Sderot down somewhat, but I'm telling you it won't protect them. Look, let's say we reinforce all the houses with two-meter-thick walls. We still have to go outside. We still have to drive in our cars. We have to go to school. We have to go grocery shopping. You can't turn a city into a fortress. The whole concept is mistaken. As for the residents: Of course they don't care whether the state spends millions on reinforcing their houses, so that at night they can feel at least partly protected. I don't have a problem with them. Whatever they want they should have under these impossible conditions. But, the fact that the government is reinforcing houses doesn't make it the right thing to do. And I have to say what I think. I remember sitting in a meeting with members of the defense establishment four or five years ago and saying exactly what I'm saying to you now. They nevertheless decided to go for reinforcement: beginning with the kindergartens, then elementary schools, then public buildings - such as community centers and the Cinematheque - and finally the houses. So, I said, "But you're going to reinforce these structures against Kassams as we know them today. The battlefield is progressing. In three or four years, the Kassam will be developed, and that reinforcement won't be worth anything. "Furthermore, according to your own assessments, the Gazans already have Katyushas, and this reinforcement certainly won't protect against them." Their answer was, "That's our budget." In other words, "It's the economy, stupid," as they say. I told them that they would eventually have to redo the whole thing. Which is exactly what's happening today. This reinforcement is worth nothing. The Gazans already have six-kilo Kassams. This means that the schools we've already reinforced are not reinforced. Now, they'll spend several more millions to add another layer. Then they will discover that the buildings won't hold up to the extra weight, and either the foundations will have to be strengthened or the buildings rebuilt. It's Chelm. What you're saying sounds a bit like the discourse following the first Gulf War in 1991, when it turned out that the sealed rooms and gas masks would not have protected us in the event of a chemical attack. And that's when Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister, not Olmert or Sharon. Let me tell you something. Israel is not prepared for any ballistic threat. Armies are always prepared for the last war, never for the next one. Which is why we were surprised last July. Nobody had prepared the home front for a ballistic attack. Yet, if you read newspapers as far back as five and six years ago, you discover that we knew Hizbullah had all the missiles in the world. Still, we weren't prepared for a ballistic war, because we needed to have a ballistic war in order to prepare for the next ballistic war. But, of course, the next ballistic war will be more sophisticated, and we won't be prepared for it. There's nobody determining how the next battlefield will look. Is it even possible to anticipate how the next battlefield will look? Of course. But nobody wants to take responsibility. Winograd is good and bad. It's good because it's telling the public what happened last summer. It's bad because it is paralyzing the decision-makers. What about the Iranian threat? Are we prepared for that? The Israeli government won't do anything about the Iranian threat. I know this with certainty, from the cacophony it's making. I suggest the government take its cue from Menachem Begin. Begin didn't open his mouth. Nobody knew what he was up to in 1981 before he bombed the Iraqi reactor. That's leadership. A whole different concept of responsibility. Today, the concept is not to think ahead, but to worry about the headlines in tomorrow's paper. A leader has to put his fate on the line. If the attack on the Iraqi reactor had failed, Begin would have gone home. That's leadership, not populism - not asking advisers to assess what kind of inquiry commissions will be formed in the event of failure. Leading Israel requires the dedication of mind, body, heart and soul. If you don't have it, you shouldn't be a leader. The problem with leaders today is that they don't want to make any decisions. Is this why Gilad Schalit is still in captivity? That's right. When Schalit was abducted, the government didn't go out on a rescue mission; it went to the media. This is the country that executed the Entebbe raid in 1976. When did the shift occur? Toward the end of the Rabin era. Until Rabin, all our prime ministers ended their terms in a three-room apartment with a mortgage. From Rabin on, we began to see Americanization setting in. It's a new generation of leaders - which may be good for Europe and America, but not for Israel. What difference does it make if a leader has money? You sound like Ehud Barak's critics, who are now accusing him of being rich, as though it were some kind of crime. Ehud Barak is a personal friend of mine. I think of him as someone with a lot of credit in this country. I'm talking about phenomena, not about specific people. Something happened to Israel. We lost something. What did we lose? Our way. We forgot that we're right. How did we forget that? Israel bases its existence today on the economy. That's the biggest holocaust we'll ever have. This state never was based on economics. It existed on solidarity; it existed on dedication and pioneer spirit. All for one and one for all. Today, it's the Dow Jones. Don't forget, this is a country still at war! The War of Independence didn't end in 1948; it only just began. When you live in a place whose borders are not accepted by its neighbors, you haven't achieved independence. If your borders have changed five or six times in 59 years, you're not exactly independent. If you're still being fired on - and vilified in the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian press - you're still fighting your war of independence. Yet Israelis are behaving as though they already have a state. Speaking of economics, what's your opinion of Arkadi Gaydamak? I'll talk not about Gaydamak the person, but about Gaydamak the phenomenon. I have nothing against the man. I'm not a psychologist; I don't want to analyze his internal motives. At the end of the day, I know he has helped people. But the Gaydamak phenomenon is dangerous. It put a mirror in front of the country, showing that we've forgotten our solidarity and mutual assistance. Everybody sees Sderot under fire, yet only a single Jew has managed to come to its aid. Isn't being forced to look in the mirror a good thing? From that point of view, it is good. But it's bad, because Gaydamak is telling us that we never left the Diaspora. He is saying, "I'm the king. If I want, I'll become mayor of Jerusalem. If I want, I'll buy this newspaper or that one, and you will bow down before me." He's humiliating the country. Bringing us to our knees. I can't like someone who hurts my country. I'm a Zionist - perhaps one of the remaining few. If I weren't, I wouldn't be here. Zionism is the only thing that keeps any of us here. We've been elsewhere. We've been in the pogroms and the ghettos and the Holocaust. We established a Zionist state, and now we're ashamed of the word "Zionism." It's become old-fashioned to use it. When we begin to return Zionism to our lives, the rest will resolve itself. Is Binyamin Netanyahu the answer? I estimate that by the end of this year there will be elections, and it's clear Bibi is going to be the next prime minister. I support him. I'm in his party and in his camp. But as for whether he is going to provide the answers, I wish I could say yes. When I say I support him, it doesn't mean I'm a blind follower. I'm no one's disciple. I'm a man of ideas. And you can't choose utopia. Among all the possible candidates today, Bibi seems to be the one best equipped to lead Israel through this crisis. If he doesn't do the job properly, we'll have to find someone else. Do you think he has learned any lessons since the last time he was prime minister? Since I am very close to him and meet with him frequently, I think so. Otherwise I wouldn't be supporting him. If he were prime minister today, would he be doing things differently vis-a-vis Gaza? The bloody guy would be in the Gaza Strip so fast, it would make their heads spin. Still, I understand that no matter what action we take, we won't totally eliminate the Kassams. But we are human. And the most inhuman thing to do is not to respond. Even if the response isn't effective. The government is pulling the wool over our eyes. They talk about our ability or inability to eliminate every last Kassam, but what they're not saying is that this isn't an issue of getting rid of all the missiles. The point is to create a situation in which it doesn't pay for the Palestinians to fire them. The point is to respond so harshly every time they fire a missile that, even if they have 200,000, they won't dare fire one. That is how to solve the problem. Even though the Palestinians don't mind committing suicide for Allah? That's bullshit, believe me. They talk to me on the phone. Who? Members of Fatah? Yes. And they're not afraid of us. They're afraid of Hamas. Are you saying that Fatah is better than Hamas? I don't know. Anyone who fires Kassams is bad. But the citizens - the farmers - hate both Fatah and Hamas. But they elected Hamas. First of all, the vote was split approximately half and half. Secondly, Beit Hanun is not a democracy; it's ruled by terrorism. I asked one Beit Hanun resident why he doesn't write what he's been telling me in the newspaper. I told him I would call a reporter from Channel 2 and he could say anything he wanted on the air. He said, "Are you crazy? If I do that, tomorrow I'm dead." People think we are at war with the Palestinians, but we aren't. We are at war with international terrorist organizations. The Gazans have nothing more to ask of us. We gave them the entire Gaza Strip, which they never in their wildest wet dreams expected to get. And they got it on a silver platter! The problem is that it isn't the Gazans fighting us - it's al-Qaida, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades and Hizbullah. Without those groups there, we could have an agreement, and everybody could come and go - just as it used to be. But our leaders and the media are confusing all the issues. Speaking of the media: Reporting on the demonstration in Sderot's industrial area, where merchants burned tires, Israel Radio said that the residents of your city are angry at you, not just at the government. Is this accurate? The media and the public feed off one another. If there hadn't been cameras here, the demonstration wouldn't have taken place. This is not to say the merchants aren't genuinely suffering. They are. And they're justified. I anticipated this problem a few years ago, even before they themselves saw it coming. There are protocols of my meetings with ministers and directors-general during which I warned that commerce in Sderot was crumbling, and demanded that the merchants be compensated before it happens. I repeated this warning every year. The government said no. This is not only an issue of money; it is humiliating when no one comes into your shop. Compensation can't solve the problem of humiliation, though, can it? But at least the merchants wouldn't be totally broke. And now, not only are they humiliated because no one is entering their businesses, but the government is ignoring them as well. That's why they burned tires. But they are wrong to be angry at me, because I neither created the problem, nor can solve it, nor can compensate them financially. So, what is it they want and expect from you? They think I'm prime minister and defense minister and trade minister and chief of General Staff. I'll tell you why. Because the others, who are sitting in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, aren't listening. The only one listening is me. So, I'm the one who's taking all the flak. Perhaps they see you as a mediator between them and the government, and they feel you're not pushing hard enough. If that were the case, I'd be in good shape. But they consider this all to be my fault. They don't consider this to be the fault of the Palestinians? If the government didn't have the means to protect them, they would be blaming the Palestinians. But because they know we have the best army in the world, they blame the government. During the War of Independence, when we couldn't defend the North or Jerusalem, nobody blamed the government, because the government didn't have the means. So, you don't hear cries of "Death to the Arabs" on the streets of Sderot after a Kassam attack? Very little. There's much more anger directed at Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz. When you walk through the streets of Sderot, how do people respond to you? Most of them hug and kiss me. A handful curses at me, and some even hit me. You see that I have a bodyguard? The police appointed him, because in the volatile situation in Sderot, somebody is liable to do something foolish. People under pressure sometimes do dangerous things. What is your view of the media coverage of Sderot? Sderot has been covered through the eyes of people who are not representative. The TV crews film only a certain minority - people who, whenever they see a camera, spew slogans that the majority of Sderot residents wouldn't even agree with, let alone say. Every Sderot resident has the right to express his opinions. But the media are showing a very one-sided picture. Most Sderot residents aren't like the ones you see on TV. This is a city of writers and musicians; many important people hail from Sderot. Like him or not, our defense minister is from Sderot. And other Knesset members, as well. When this war is over, one of the hardest tasks ahead will be repairing Sderot's image. One would think that it's the most low-class city in the world. And that makes me angry. Are you implying that there's an ethnic slant here, because Sderot is a development town? No. The media are shallow, ratings-seekers. That's it. Let me tell you, there was one day when there were more TV crews in Sderot than residents. That's our reality. And when some person goes on camera and tells a sob story, the media eat it up without even checking the facts. So, one guy says that his business crashed because of the Kassams, and I happen to know that the guy has been unemployed his whole life. Or another one says that he fought in all of Israel's wars and that now the government won't help him. But I happen to know that this is a guy who never even served in the IDF. But did the reporter bother checking before putting that guy on the air? No way. That's because the media take coffee-shop gossip and present it as prime-time news. The 50 percent of the population that aren't leaving Sderot are the real story, but nobody's filming them. Nor are they filming the 17-year-olds studying for their matriculation exams while the Kassams are falling. The residents of Sderot are also upset by the coverage. The TV crews are filming the exodus from Sderot, but they're not filming the exodus from the kibbutzim in the area. And more people are leaving the kibbutzim as a result of the Kassams than are leaving Sderot. But you know why they're not filming that? Because the kibbutzim don't have cafes where the crews can go and hear gossip. What are your relations with Sderot resident Defense Minister Amir Peretz? As mayor I can't express my opinion. He and I were never in the same camp. He always belonged to the extreme Left and I was a member of Likud. But we have polite relations. I respect the fact that he doesn't criticize me in public, because I'm sure he has much to say. When I finish my term, you can interview me then, and I'll tell you what I think of him.