Click here to read Friday's interview.Many people abroad are looking at the country - at Ramon, at Katsav, at Hirchson and at their perception of the war in Lebanon, and say, "This isn't the Israel we knew or dreamed of. What has happened to this country?" How do you respond to that?
First of all, put aside the war in Lebanon. It doesn't belong in this context. I guess most of those people are from America. Did they win the war in Iraq so rapidly? Sometimes there are difficulties. What does this have to do with the basic image of Israel?
The problem is not in their question. The problem is in your ability to answer them. If I were you, I would have said, "Let's go to visit the north of Israel, and look at the piece of land that was attacked by thousands of rockets. See how it is flourishing, how beautiful it is. There is more employment in the North than there was a year ago, more income in the North than a year ago. More investments in the North than a year ago."
Then you can take them to some of the high-tech plants, in both the North and South, and show them what is being done there. Tell them, "This is the State of Israel that in spite of the war, and the fighting, had more growth last year than your economy, in America, and than most of the European economies. This is a country in which there was more investment in the social needs of the people last year. You have many answers to give.
How do I explain the corruption and the scandals?
When I meet with Tony Blair, I think he's had more visits of [police from] Scotland Yard in his office than I did, and no one says that Great Britain is a corrupt country. Let's not exaggerate.
But his administration has lost tremendous support and popularity, and he is stepping down partly because of this.
He is not stepping down because of this. And he is not stepping down because everyone who comes to Great Britain thinks Great Britain is corrupt. He is stepping down because of other political problems.
Including for taking a robust and decent position on Israel...
Okay, so he is going to get the credit. But what I am saying is that in democracies, people step up, step down, step up, step down, it's part of life. But I think this exaggerated self-criticism, which has crossed every possible line of proportion, should be put in place. Israel is not a corrupt country.
We have allegations. But we just have [a looming] indictment against the president, which is very unpleasant. Do I have to remind you how long the entire United States of America was dealing with the sexual habits of one president? So things have happened, in this way, in that way. Haim Ramon kissed her, didn't kiss her. Let's not blow things out of proportion. He made a mistake. But to take this as an example of the corruption of the country...
But you have Tsahi Hanegbi on trial for alleged illegal appointments and some of the defenses are, "Well, everybody was doing it." There is a stream of cases. For example, do you have full confidence in the financial propriety of your finance minister [Avraham Hirchson]?
He is being investigated about something that happened years ago, not about anything that he was allegedly doing as the minister of finance. To expect me to comment on this at the time of the investigation would be inappropriate. I don't want to do it. I've known him for many years, and hope that all these allegations are untrue. I hope so. Very much.
The problem is that we sometimes exaggerate the degree, then we create these false impressions that the entire country is corrupt, and I don't think this is the case. I think that events that take place in Israel are no different in nature, scope, in size and in numbers than in most other democratic countries.
And in no other country would the journalists and politicians and comptrollers and commentators step out every day and say, "We are corrupt, we are corrupt, we are all corrupt." In Israel there is this emotional instability, to some degree, that leads you into inflated statements that are blown out of any reasonable proportion.
Isn't it the case that people feel that in the past we had leaders to whom the development of the country was central, was everything, whereas today there is a sense that there are too many leaders who have a personal desire for betterment?
It's only in the mouth of the press.
Do you regret offering the Defense Ministry to Amir Peretz?
Exactly a year ago, I ran for elections. And he came in second. With more votes than Bibi Netanyahu, with more votes than all those experts who are now talking. Okay. And his party was the natural partner for the coalition government. And I offered him a very attractive social portfolio, which he turned down. So it was obvious that if the Labor Party was to be a partner to the coalition, they would have to have a very senior position, and they decided to have Amir Peretz as their minister of defense, to have their representative as minister of defense.
What do you think of his speech Tuesday night, that if he wins the primaries he wants the Finance Ministry?
The Labor Party is in the middle of a political campaign now. They are running for the leadership of the party. All kinds of strange statements are being made.
Was that a strange statement, or something you might welcome?
I wouldn't even comment on something that is part of a political agenda and not a serious political maneuver.
Are you concerned about defections from Kadima back to Likud?
Your position is that Kadima is solid now?
There is some nervousness, because the rating of the party is not high enough. This is natural. This is politics. By the way, we still have more support today than Bibi Netanyahu had in the last elections a year ago. So things change. They change. Sometimes downside, sometimes upside.
I don't wake up in the morning and ask myself, "What is my situation in the polls? Did they go up, did they go down?"
We have to run the country. I am running the country. Working hard, every day, and I want the best for the country - no less than anyone who was in this chair before me. I know of no person in the history of the state of Israel who held this responsibility who was more committed to the betterment of Israel than I am.
Some may have been much better leaders - this is a different issue. But I don't think I want less for the good of Israel than anyone else... There will be elections in 2010, and we will see what the polls say then.
How are you addressing the overtly growing alienation of Israeli Arabs?
I'm not certain so much about the overall Arab population. It is true that the Arab members of parliament... I am very unhappy with certain expressions that come from their side and their sense of recklessness with regard to the State of Israel and its basic national symbols. I hope that we will be able to build up a viable process that will improve relations with the Arab population. There is a lot we can do. We have not done everything we should have done to create the necessary conditions for Israeli Arabs to feel entirely equal.
It is not that they are totally in the wrong and we are totally in the right. We have made our mistakes. They have made many mistakes. Raed Salah is a very dangerous phenomenon.
We have to move forward rapidly, and I'm going to address this. Housing, education, jobs. We have the first Arab minister in the cabinet now.
Another frequently asked question is about Israel's inability to articulate its narrative officially, to formulate strategic public diplomacy, to invest enough in this.
I apologize for not doing enough in this last year to cover all the different issues I face. But it has not been the easiest year. But this is an issue I am aware of, and I have asked to have prepared for me a serious study on how we should handle not just PR, but the better, thorough, broader, more comprehensive definition of national goals, and how they can be shared with the international community and with the Jewish communities. What tools we should adopt.
In the light of this week at Homesh, are we now seeing a return to confrontation with the settlers?
All of the settlers left Homesh. They asked for permission to come there, and they made a commitment to leave, and 95 percent left and the rest were helped to leave.
What do you say to Ban Ki-moon and other leaders when they ask Israel to live up to its obligations regarding stopping the expansion of the settlements?
Israel made a commitment not to build more settlements, long ago. This has long been part of our understandings with the international community. There were some understandings about building for natural growth within [existing] settlement lines. But we are going to have to decide on our strategy for the future: Where do we want to stay? Where do we want to pull out from? Do we want to keep all the settlements? Do we want to pull out from some? Do we want to maintain the same basic posture that we have today forever, or do we understand that in the long run, living with so many Palestinians is going to create a problem that will threaten the very Jewish nature of the state of Israel? These are issues that we have to deal with...
The last question we asked you last time [in September] was whether you were enjoying the job, and you told us you had no illusions...
I haven't changed my attitude. I have no illusions. It's an interesting job. It's a tough job. Sometimes the attitudes against me are not balanced and are not fair, but I accept that this is part of life. And I didn't come to this position naive. I know that this is politics. Many people are after me. Some can't forget that all their lifelong dreams were shattered when I became prime minister rather than they.
The war is central to the public [attitude]. Real people lost their lives. As mayor of Jerusalem, you were dealing with suicide bombings, but you weren't the key architect of policy. Now, to have been the prime minister when people's lives were lost, how has that impacted you?
I am ready to face my responsibilities. I am ready to take the necessary decisions that are needed in order to make life here better and more secure for the people. That's what drives me. Nothing else. I want life here to be better and more secure for the people.
Some people say that in all of the 33 days in Lebanon we lost about the same number of people as we lost in a few streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in March 2002. We lost them then in our coffee shops, our schools, our buses, in the heart of our country. Life is not easy here.
But I think that today people feel very secure in the North - much more than ever in the past 40 years. They have to ask themselves, "How come?" Perhaps because of the responsibility we manifested when we took our decisions about the war.
[In terms of how I am perceived], the truth will come out. This truth will prevail, and we'll be victorious over the slandering, over the libels and over the accusations and the allegations and the fantasies of political opponents and others.
Is it your position that the price we paid for what was achieved in the war last summer was the lowest price that could have been paid?
I don't want to talk in these terms - the "lowest price." To lose 158 people is not a low price. But had we not lost these people in that context then, we may have lost a lot more later, as a result of the negligence and the indifference which has characterized the policy of Israel toward the south of Lebanon for so many years.
So I decided to change the tide. And when changing the tide, naturally, you pay a price.
I meet these families. Each and every one of them. And I face them and look in their eyes. And I'm prepared to accept the responsibility, as I did when I was mayor of Jerusalem, even though at that time I wasn't in charge of the country. I went to their homes when no one else came. I felt that I wanted to hug these people and support them. And I feel the same way now for the families of people who were killed.
We don't want to lose people. Unfortunately, if we will not be prepared to fight to live here, it will only be worse. Sometimes you have to fight. The decisions made by us on the 12th of July were the right decisions. We have changed the realities. We have proved to everyone that we will not tolerate these violations of basic human decency as were manifested by Hizbullah.
They can say whatever they want publicly. But deep down, they know what a terrible price they paid, and why they don't want to repeat this for a very, very long time.
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