In a startling departure from his usual resolute non-intervention in the internal governance of Israel, President Moshe Katsav has launched a scathing attack on a series of Israel's recent prime ministers and governments for failing to "get anything in return" for the historic concessions they made in signing the Oslo accords, endorsing the notion of independent Palestinian statehood, and pulling out of the Gaza Strip. Because of this cardinal error, he said, Israel was today further from peace with the Palestinians than it would otherwise likely have been. Speaking exclusively to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Katsav ascribed the record of incompetence to a consistent failure to carry out appropriate preparatory work ahead of major diplomatic moves, and to the abiding absence of an agreed "map of vital Israeli national and security interests" to guide policymakers.
Katsav still enraged by Reform rabbi's snub
Katsav, who had hitherto made it a hallmark of his presidency to avoid the kind of bitter conflicts with the elected political echelon that characterized some of his predecessors' periods in office, added that he had made similar concerns known to the current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the "realignment" plan for a dramatic West Bank pullback.
There should be no illusion that a unilateral pullback would constitute any kind of a diplomatic solution, he told the Post. And even a unilateral move based solely on security considerations should not be attempted until his recommended map of vital interests had been drawn up and thorough preparatory work conducted, involving the General Staff, Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet and the other relevant bodies that could weigh its potential repercussions.
Former Likud minister Katsav, who is about to enter the final year of his presidency and has given no clear indication of plans for a return to party politics, said that Olmert "does not rule out what I say when we talk," and that "I'm not sure he doesn't believe the same. First he wants to try [the diplomatic route]."
Failure to first agree on a blueprint for Israel's vital interests, and then to carry out orderly staffwork, said the president, had led to "three big mistakes" in the past 13 years.
"We didn't get anything in return for the Oslo accords," he said, stressing that he was not saying he opposed the accords per se. Similarly, with the Road Map, "the Knesset and government declared that we support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. That is a major, historic concession and we didn't get anything for it. And I'm not opposed to the road map."
Finally, as regards last summer's disengagement, which again he stressed he did not oppose in principle, "here too, there was a big mistake. We took the army out of Gaza, we evacuated 25 Jewish settlements and we got nothing in return."
"If there had been orderly staff work, if we'd had this map of vital interests, those three moves - Oslo, support for a Palestinian state and the pullout from Gaza - could have given us much closer relations with the Palestinians, with less hostility, less enmity, more empathy, more understanding, and perhaps even brought us nearer to a peace agreement."
Asked what specifically Israel might have obtained, Katsav replied: "We might have reached agreements on settlement blocs, we might have reached understanding on the 'right of return,' perhaps understanding on Jerusalem, although I'm less sure of this possibility... And these three issues are the ones today preventing progress."
Offering a particularly detailed critique of the preparation for disengagement, Katsav said that the pullout should have been coordinated with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Had this been done, "the problems in the Philadelphi corridor could have been avoided. The political crisis would not have occurred - the collapse of the [Israeli] government. Hamas might not have been victorious. The confrontation with the settlers would have been less intense." The "massive arms smuggling" that went on "in the two or three weeks between the army's departure and the entry of the Egyptians and the international force [might have been prevented]. Al Qaida might not have got into Gaza."
Katsav said he had told then-prime minister Ariel Sharon that he saw a vital need for coordination with Abbas, and even thought he had convinced Sharon at one point. But Sharon came back to him "and he said 'we did think it over again and we again reached the same conclusion that we have to act unilaterally.'"
Sharon's reasoning was that trying to reach a new accord with the Palestinians over disengagement might have given them the sense that Israel was giving up on their first obligation under the Road Map - that the Palestinians dismantle the terror groups. "I can't entirely dismiss his reasoning," Katsav said.
But he added that he thought an identical commitment on dismantling terror groups could have been included in an accord on Gaza. "If the Quartet had said to Abu Mazen, 'Listen, the IDF is prepared to leave Gaza'" but that the pullout was conditioned on the disarming of terror groups, "the terror groups might have disarmed because it was very important to them that we leave Gaza. Perhaps."
The president said that the realignment plan was not yet ready. "There's no map yet. There are no borderlines. Where are we withdrawing to, who's withdrawing, how many - it's not clear. It's taking shape, but as of now it is not drawn up." He said he hoped the committee working on it would conduct the necessary preparatory work, so that mistakes of the past would not be repeated.
Katsav also criticized Abbas for focusing his energies on the "prisoners' document," rather than seeking a referendum among the Palestinians on the Road Map, or the Quartet's three conditions to Hamas, or President Bush's April 2004 letter - all documents that would determine the nature of Israeli-Palestinian interaction. Palestinian agreement on the prisoners' document, which he noted involves no recognition of Israel, would solve nothing, he said.
Katsav said "most Palestinians do not stand with Hamas when it comes to the political field. I believe that most Palestinians accept the Quartet's conditions, accept the Road Map, accept President Bush's letter." He also said he believed Abbas wants peace. Asked why, then, Abbas had chosen to focus on the "prisoners' document," Katsav said: "He saw a tactical opportunity in that some Hamas prisoners signed onto the document. He thought this might create some kind of revolution. That's a mistake..."
(The full interview with President Katsav will appear in Friday's Jerusalem Post)