'Anything is possible'

Security around the prime minister is tight for a reason, says Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra.

gideon ezra face 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
gideon ezra face 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Striding up to the police command post on the edge of a massive anti-disengagement rally in Sderot in early August, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra suddenly found himself in the midst of a sea of angry right-wing activists waving fists and hurling curses at him. Breaking out their fisticuffs, Ezra's bodyguards fought off the angry crowd, working hard to cordon off the minister until he was safe and sound behind police lines. Immediately following the assault, Ezra - one of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the disengagement's most vocal supporters within the Likud Party - sat down with a group of policemen, lit up one of his handy Benson & Hedges cigarettes and shrugged off the assault. He did not feel threatened, he said. No, not even for even one second. Two and a half months later, Ezra carries the same level of coolness with him. If it were up to him, he said recently while waving his hand at his tight Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) security detail, he would travel around without a bodyguard. After all, he says, he was the deputy director of the Shin Bet. He has worked on Palestinian threats as well as Jewish threats, and none of them have ever scared him. The 68-year-old minister, who joined politics in 1996, has spent more than half his life defending the State of Israel. Ezra served 33 years in the Shin Bet, including a two-year stint as a member of a Mossad hit squad assembled by Prime Minister Golda Meir to avenge the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Even today, while reluctant to talk about his Mossad past, Ezra admits there are sometimes instances when democratic countries need to use special means to obtain justice. But alongside his seemingly cool and flippant demeanor, Ezra, in a recent exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, became serious as he warned of continued efforts by extreme right-wing elements to assassinate Sharon as an act of revenge for disengaging from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. A Jewish terror attack on the Temple Mount, he warns, could spark a third world war, and would turn the entire Arab world against Israel. "Security around Sharon is tight for a reason," he says. "There were attacks against Palestinians before the pullout [from the Gaza Strip] and even though they were not against Sharon they were of the same mold." Celebrating this month a year to his appointment as Internal Security Minister, Ezra said that while the Shin Bet has improved itself 1,000 percent since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin 10 years ago, the threats against Sharon are still high, and the security organization should continue investing all available resources in protecting him. A staunch supporter of Sharon, he is not concerned with his political future. He has dedicated his life to the state, and his constituents know it and respect him for it. Despite polls showing him losing ground in the upcoming race, he is not concerned. "I trust my friends," he says. Speaking on a wide range of topics, including plans to dismantle illegal outposts and Israel's assessment of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Ezra clearly enjoyed speaking the most about his Sharon-endorsed anti-violence committee. At one point, he even compared himself to former New York City mayor Rudolf Giuliani - known for his success in eradicating crime from New York's streets. Ezra's committee is hard at work coming up with practical solutions for fighting crime and lowering the level of violence in Israel despite severe budget constraints. He is looking into expanding municipal inspectors' authorities to the level of policemen, the creation of urban police forces and the establishment of a witness protection program. However, he says the problems don't lie just in the police force, but rather in the entire law enforcement system. "We need to have a zero tolerance attitude," he says. "The whole system needs to change." Overall, Ezra says, Israel is doing quite well. Despite fears of drive-by shootings at nightclubs, people still venture out to entertainment spots and are not deterred by the seemingly growing crime wave. When he wished people a happy New Year this month, he said, "for the first time in a long time I felt it might actually come true." Where are we as a society since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995, and can it happen again? Look at the warnings. Security around Sharon is tight for a reason. There were attacks against Palestinians before the pullout [from the Gaza Strip] and even though they were not against Sharon they were of the same mold. There are crazy people out there and anything is possible. Anything is possible when we are dealing with crazy people. Are there right-wing extremists the Shin Bet is currently following? Yes. The danger has gone down since disengagement but we cannot yet shut down the Jewish section in the Shin Bet. Has the Shin Bet improved since the mishaps that led to Rabin's assassination? By 1000 percent. The prime minister is unbelievably guarded. To protect the prime minister they do things that we never would have thought of. The sky is the limit. The amount they invest in his security is unbelievable. There is also the investment in the protection of the ministers, which I am opposed to and wish they would take away my security detail. Should administrative detention be used against Jews? They need to use administrative detention in all cases. Not only against Jews who want to do something, but also against Arabs and criminals. I am in favor of administrative detention for organized criminals. We need to remember that in some cases it comes down to choosing between administrative detention and the loss of life or even a national disaster. How serious are the warnings on the Temple Mount? You have said in the past that an attack there would spark a third world war. That was true then and it is still true today [that an attack there would spark a third world war]. The State of Israel invests everything it can in securing the Mount and preserving calm and quiet there. Recently on the radio someone complained about the fact that 2,500 policemen were deployed at the Temple Mount [for Ramadan prayers, Y.K.] and they can't even assign one officer to secure nightclubs. That way of thinking is wrong. There is an order of priorities. What can we do? Where will the next Jewish terror attack happen? I don't even want to think about the possibility. Who ever would have thought that there would be a [Jewish] terror attack in Shfaram or in Shilo? There are plenty of crazy people out there and as internal security minister, I always need to ask myself over and over again what more we can do to prevent what has yet to happen. Do you fear that Israel will be struck soon by a wave of terror attacks similar to the beginning of the Intifada? In the Middle East, anything is possible. Not being in Gaza, however, allows us to invest more in fighting terror in other places. We have more intelligence capabilities. When I wished people a happy and good New Year this year, for the first time in a long time I felt it might actually become true. I haven't felt that way for years. But this year I felt there was a reason it would really come true. You were a member of the Mossad hit squad assembled to avenge the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich 1972 Olympics. Should Israel today be motivated by the will to take revenge? It is not about revenge but about prevention. First, a democratic country needs to be able to put people on trial. Only when they can't do that does the country resort to other means. All of Israel's official institutions need to safeguard the state's security. Do you foresee additional disengagements? No. Judea and Samaria is not like Gush Katif. I think the prime minister has made it very clear that now we work according to the Road Map and that under that plan we will be left with three main settlement blocs. He is building the fence in that direction. I do not see any time in the future that we will leave the Jordan Valley. Another issue is Jerusalem, since if we aren't willing to touch Jerusalem then we will never be able to end the conflict [with the Palestinians] which means we will need to run the conflict on our own optimal terms. Will Israel evacuate illegal outposts in the near future? It is part of the Road Map and it will be done. We cannot expect the other side to fulfill their obligations in the Road Map if we don't fulfill our obligations and evacuate the outposts. How weak is Abu Mazen? Does he have a chance in gaining control? Anything is possible, but the problem is that there is not a democracy there. Everyone wants him to do his job. The Palestinian people are fed up with the Hamas, which has received bad publicity lately. I hope he will succeed. But if he doesn't he will be replaced by a different Abu. The Palestinian public understands what it means if the Hamas gains control. Israel will not allow an armed militia to run around there and control our neighbors. There have been several high-profile investigations into police corruption lately. How serious is this phenomenon? It looks very bad on the outside, but the police are checking themselves and I am involved. We need to make sure that at the most senior positions things are clean. I think we need to require that officers take a deterrent polygraph since then people will think twice before they do anything. Someone who made a mistake needs to know that not only will their career suffer, but also their pension and salary. Are you running into budget problems with implementing the conclusions from your anti-violence ministerial committee? We are not receiving any special budgets. We wanted to launch a hasbara program for parents and new immigrants from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union and Arabs. We need some NIS 23 million but there is nowhere to take from. We went to the finance minister and he said to curb resources, but no one is going to cut back from their already existing budget for this purpose. So in the end, there will just not be any hasbara. But the prime minister announced a war on crime. Why doesn't he provide the resources and the funds? The police force and the Justice Ministry's budgets actually grew this year not just because of the disengagement. The prime minister, however, set the war on violence as a goal, alongside improving education and combating poverty. It seems that in the end, these other goals will come first. The bottom line - when will we finally see a decrease in crime and an improvement in the police's ability to fight violence and crime? Already in the Northern District there has been an increase in the amount of knives police are confiscating, but there is a problem in getting these people to trial. The whole system needs to improve. If you catch someone with a knife you can send him to jail for five years. But the problem is that it never happens, and even when someone stabs another person and injures them they don't get five years. The judicial system is too lenient and the Prisons Service (IPS) lacks spaces in cells, so even when someone is arrested by the police there isn't always where to put him. We need to have a zero tolerance attitude. The whole system needs to change.