Politics: Home safe?

Avi Dichter speaks with the 'Post' about everything from Gaza to gays, from Kadima to crime-fighting.

Dichter 88 (photo credit: (Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post) )
Dichter 88
(photo credit: (Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post) )
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter projects an aura of security. He speaks confidently about guaranteeing the security of Israelis despite Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip, and about learning lessons from the past about how to avoid violence ahead of Thursday's Gay Pride Parade. But when it comes to the job security of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Dichter makes no guarantees. He admits that Kadima's leaders prepared for the possibility of replacing Olmert ahead of the interim Winograd report, and says they will be ready to replace Olmert if the final report forces the prime minister to quit. Dichter was a political novice when he took office a year ago, one of Kadima's most promising rookies. After a year at the ministry in charge of both the Israel Police and the Israel Prisons Service, he is confident that he can lead the organizations to new heights, restoring public faith in the law enforcement system. The former Shin Bet head has also kept a watchful eye on developments in his former area of expertise, the Palestinian Authority, saying that Fatah must take a serious look in the mirror when seeking parties responsible for the chaos in the Gaza Strip. Israel, he says, should not take steps that would add to the humanitarian crisis there, but should explore options to stop the flow of weapons into the area. If you were prime minister, how would you respond to the delicate situation in Gaza? Gaza is a good reason not to be the prime minister [laughs]. I talked to the prime minister, and as someone who lived in the Gaza Strip for so many years, I see myself as someone who understands what's going on in Gaza. Until last week, the government needed to be careful vis a vis the terror organizations in Gaza, because we didn't want to hear the US or EU blame Israel for the collapse of the PA. I think that's the main reason Israel didn't take bigger steps in Gaza. But since Friday, we all understand that the PA in Gaza has collapsed, and not because of Israel. On the contrary, the PA hasn't collapsed in the West Bank, due to actions taken by the IDF - beginning with Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, which was launched because of Israeli, not Palestinian interests. But isn't Israel still being blamed for the situation in Gaza? I have always noticed that kids never blame themselves. One of the problems the PA suffered from, especially in Gaza, was a lack of leadership and commanders. When you looked at the PA in Gaza, you saw a security apparatus with no commanders on the ground. With no leaders to lead them at their most difficult times, you understand that they don't have any chance. In Gaza, since the first intifada, the main issue we've seen is the lack of determination in stopping terror attacks. [Fatah members in the PA] believed murdering Israelis was something they could tolerate, and they wouldn't do anything about it. In my meetings with them, I warned them that if the PA didn't respond, sooner or later they were going to face it themselves - that if they thought Hamas was going to stop after murdering Israelis and not use the same tools against the PA, they were wrong. That's exactly what happened. Since 2002, we have been very busy in the West Bank, because that was where we suffered 900 fatalities and thousands of injuries in the first three years of the intifada. At the same time, Hamas started to enhance its capabilities in Gaza while we were focusing on Hamas in the West Bank, putting them one by one in jails, questioning them and taking information. That was what brought the West Bank to a situation where Hamas was severely damaged, although we can't say that we ruled out Hamas in the West Bank. As a result, it's much easier today for the PA to calculate their steps in the West Bank. But if they are going to repeat the same mistakes [they made in] Gaza, it's not going to work. We weren't in Gaza, and [the deterioration there] is all the fault of [Fatah security chief Muhammad] Dahlan and his people. If all those people and all their troops had actually been brave, the situation would have been completely different. But we haven't been there since 1994. It's the bar mitzva of [our withdrawal from the Arab areas of Gaza under Oslo], and almost two years since we disengaged from the Israeli settlements in Gaza and from the Philadelphi Corridor. The only place that I think we could have done a bit better was along the Philadelphi Corridor, to block the flow of weapons smuggled from Sinai into Gaza. Unfortunately, we failed. By "we," I mean Israel and the international community - we failed to convince the Egyptians to block the smuggling of weapons, even though we enabled them to put the Border Police brigades instead of regular police between Egypt and Gaza. But even Egypt now understands better than anyone else that their lack of determination in blocking smuggling is part of Hamas's success in building what they call their "popular army" of 12-13,000 in addition to the elite Izzadin Kassam terrorist units. So what should Israel do now? Should we go in? Should we cut off water or electricity? No. It's a different situation, because now we are dealing not with the PA, but with a Hamas Authority that represents an Iranian interest in Gaza. We must decide that the capability to make war in Gaza must be dried up by Israel and Egypt. Egypt must block the Philadelphi Corridor, and Israel must make sure that merchandise that can be transformed into chemical items or any other part of the Kassam rockets won't leak into Gaza through the Karni crossing. But I don't think we have to add to any humanitarian crisis. The people of Gaza will continue normal lives in terms of food and basic needs, but we have to do everything to ensure that no more weapons enter or are smuggled into Gaza. And if Egypt isn't going to do it from the Egyptian side of the border, Israel will have to do it. There is more than one way. I know everybody mentions the Philadelphi Corridor, but I'm not sure it's the best way. We need to ensure that there are no further terror attacks from Gaza against Israel - by any means necessary. What about punitive measures like shutting off electricity or water? We have better ways of achieving an advantage over Hamas. We all understand that Iran is trying to assert influence over Hamas, but we know that the majority of people in Gaza are not pro-Hamas, but pro-Fatah in their philosophy of nationalism. What happened last weekend was a military revolution. It's not a statement of what people really believe in Gaza. We know that in a revolution, the majority does not have the ability to decide what happens. We know that when the revolution succeeds, it takes years to change it. I don't know how it's going to be with the Gazans, and I don't know what kind of PA we're going to see in the West Bank. But I believe the PA leadership now understands that sitting on the balcony watching the clashes between Hamas and Israel isn't going to create a new PA. In Gaza, they sat on the balcony. Are the problems over for Kadima, or could the Winograd report still cause problems? You have to distinguish between Kadima and Olmert and the government. No one knows what exactly will be in the final Winograd report, or even when it will come out. As we waited patiently for the interim report, we will wait for the final one. Kadima does not live from report to report. We will get the report when all of Israel does and determine the situation. We will see what the report obligates us in Kadima to do. If there are things that have to be done, we will do them. What happens if the Winograd report says the prime minister cannot continue? The interim report was tough, and no one can take it lightly. No one in Kadima took it lightly, and I certainly didn't. We all understand there are other things besides the Winograd report. The Winograd Committee could make a very pointed decision like the Kahan Committee did when it said to Ariel Sharon, 'You can't continue as defense minister.' That's not an easy statement [to hear], but it's a clear statement that the committee could make. But if the committee does [make such a statement], there is no problem with decision-making - whether it's about the prime minister, defense minister or anyone else. I expect the words to be clear, pointed and everyone will know what will happen. What will happen? If the Winograd Committee says the prime minister or another minister can't continue in his position, I can't see a situation in which the prime minister or the relevant minister will continue in his position. I don't think that's going to happen. But why should we guess, when there is a committee that is the only body that sees the entire picture? Perhaps because Shimon Peres is no longer around as a possible successor to Olmert. Is there anyone in Kadima who is ready at the moment to be prime minister? Kadima is more than one man. Kadima is more than just Olmert. Kadima has a vice prime minister in Tzipi Livni, who fulfills her role in every way for the time being. Then there are other leaders at the top of Kadima, and we would have to choose one if we were asked to decide who would lead Kadima. I don't think any of the people leading Kadima are any less worthy than the leaders of other parties. It's incorrect to present Kadima as a herd with just one shepherd. There are several senior people in Kadima, so if we are faced with a reality in which, due to Winograd or some other reason, the prime minister cannot continue serving, we will decide who will be the man to lead Kadima and the government until the elections in 2010.This issue was also on our agenda before the interim Winograd report. Naturally, we all consider all the possible scenarios. Were the reports true that you conspired with Livni a few months ago and urged her to challenge the prime minister? In relation to what I said, ahead of the interim report, we looked at the possibilities. When you look at the possibilities, you can't help but ask what Kadima would do if the interim report said that Ehud Olmert could not continue to serve as prime minister. It's a harsh scenario, but we have to give ourselves answers to harsh scenarios. We sat and talked among ourselves, and I think that if the worst-case scenario had happened, we could have found a solution for the leadership of the country and Kadima. Fortunately, that's not what happened. The interim report was very difficult. But we continue to lead. We have many plans. The government is restructuring over the next few weeks. I think the government will last until 2010. Did you learn from your experience with past Gay Pride Parades how to handle the parade and the protests ahead of it? The most important thing we have learned is how to speak to the Open House, which is organizing the parade, and with the haredim and others who organize the demonstrations against it. Last time, there was dialogue, too, and a compromise was reached. It's not the Public Security Ministry's job to say who is right. It dealt a harsh blow to the ability of police everywhere in the country to fulfill their mission of defending citizens and their property. It's my responsibility as a minister to ensure that other areas throughout the country are not abandoned because of the need to secure the parade. The issue is so controversial, disputed and tense. This year, there was a new angle on the issue since over the past few months there were several incidents that had terrorist aspects to them. The use of explosives and bombs - that's crossing the line from protesting to harming people. We have a bad history in Israel of people losing that balance. From Emil Grunzweig getting killed by a grenade thrown into the Peace Now rally [in 1983], to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The justified concern of the police is that such incidents have elements of terrorism, and that changes everything. The new chief of police, Insp.-Gen. David Cohen, has spoken out against the influence of the media within the Israel Police. Do you agree with the statements in which he reportedly compared the media to a "plague" on Israel? Everybody - whether you're the head of an organization or a minister - understands the importance of the media, the power of the media and the role of the media. There is no logic in ignoring the media, and there is no justification to push away the media. In a democratic country, it is impossible to fathom how the country would run without a free press. I think in the police we need to close the faucets, which in some places have been opened without justification. The idea is not to make the media's life harder, but to prevent injury to people whose lives are ruined when they are mentioned once in the papers - even if the suspicions are later proven false. There is a level of caution that I hope penetrates the police force. It is an organization that deals with very sensitive material; there is no body in Israel that has the invasive authority the police does. And I am not sure that we do our work as faithfully as we could. I would like to reform that. But where is the line between the public's right to know and the police's responsibilities? When you're talking about a specific person or company that can be injured financially, statutorily or personally, you must be much more careful than you are today. We slander people left and right, and then, when we realize we've made a mistake, we can't take it back. As Shimon Peres says, "You can make an omelet out of an egg, but you can't put the omelet back into the egg." There are also tactical reasons not to publish things, which was particularly evident during the Second Lebanon War … . I am convinced that our enemy's intelligence picture of us is not the one that we would have liked them to see or to know. But each person puts in a little, and - as an intelligence person, I know - its like a puzzle. This is true not just in terms of security issues, but also in the criminal world. When you give out details about cases and police techniques, you're helping the bad guys. The public's right to know is very important, but professional tools are no less important. And sometimes those tools are revealed through leaks. I am aware of the competition that exists among media outlets. But I don't think it's the police's job to make it easier for the media, who want at any price for their articles to be more attractive, to be read more. I think that on this subject, we can do more, and we will. This is part of the policy that I have brought with me to the police. Another cornerstone of your policy has been improving Israelis' sense of personal security. What is the state of personal security today in relation to how it was a year ago, and where would you like to see it? There are two subjects here: increasing personal security and raising the sense of security. The latter the public checks, and I don't know a better way to measure it. But the police know better how to measure whether we are increasing personal security. We just began a greater effort to strengthen the police stations. We are turning over a lot of resources from different fields for the sake of the stations, filling up empty positions as well as trying to enlist new people. In my policy guidelines, I also mentioned this as both a short-term and long-term strategy that will continue until 2020. This is something that demands a lot of patience. This is not something that began today and will be completed tomorrow. [We also] need to take elite units and use them for crime-related operations rather than terror-related missions. This will complete the theme of strengthening the stations and will help the public's security. The specialized national units that were established are in the coming months going to form a unified body, because there is no reason to carry out this work in segments rather than as one force. We will add an operational unit to do the field work - an elite unit that we already know more or less how to integrate, consisting of a few hundred people. In the coming years, we will update the Signals Intelligence in the police. We are very behind in this field. There is also the topic of forensics. This is a very significant tool that allows the police to submit case files to the court with hard evidence. Whenever you bring a police officer to testify in court, the defense can always bring forward an attorney, who can color the testimony. In the end, the defense only has to provide reasonable doubt. When you come with forensic evidence, though, the defense can tell stories until tomorrow, but forensic data constitutes hard proof.