One on One: 'Whatever we do, we will not get peace'

'Disengagement' author Dan Schueftan says logic that led to the withdrawal from Gaza still applies.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
'My attitude was, and still is, that Israel without the Gaza Strip is stronger than Israel with the Gaza Strip. Israel without Nablus is stronger than Israel with Nablus," says Dan Schueftan emphatically, with the utter self-assurance and extremely good cheer of an enfant terrible. But, he stresses, "this has nothing whatsoever to do with peace." In fact, says Schueftan - a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa, where he serves as deputy director of the National Security Studies Center - "my concern is not whether the Palestinians will stop being terrorists, because they won't. My consideration is whether Israeli society will be as strong today and tomorrow as it was yesterday." Schueftan, who also lectures at the IDF's National Defense College, insists that the only way the country can remain a flourishing, modern democracy (what he calls the "eighth wonder of the world") is for the Jews to have a sustainable majority over the Arabs. His point is that while "we may be able to do with less aircraft and fewer tanks," demographic imprudence will do us in for sure. Indeed, the author of Disengagement - the 1999 book that became a virtual blueprint for the 2005 withdrawal from Gush Katif and northern Samaria - is a demography doomsayer. So much so that he even goes as far as to claim that the state's allocation of child allowances, which encouraged "non-Zionist, non-productive, non-democratic, non-modern" elements to be fruitful and multiply, posed as great a threat to its survival as an Iranian nuclear bomb. Not that Schueftan - a leading expert on the Middle East in general and Arab-Israeli affairs in particular, whose advice is sought out by decision-makers at home and abroad - isn't worried about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's program. On the contrary, he is hoping and praying for a massive American military operation against the Iranian despot's dangerous infrastructure. "As one who retroactively condones Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he states unabashedly, "I believe that this would send a signal to radicals the world over that the US can only be pushed so far." You are credited with being one of the main fathers of disengagement. Your book, Korach Hahafrada (Disengagement), was considered its manifesto, if not impetus. A year and a half after the Gaza withdrawal, how do you view its having panned out? Indeed, my book was the first conceptual framework for disengagement decision-makers had seen. Some of them were even specifically convinced by the book that this was the inevitable course that Israel should take. I still believe today that this is an inevitable course - one that we will resume at a later date. At the moment, it's not popular, but we will inevitably come back to it, because the basic logic that led to it is still there. Arthur Conan Doyle put it so well in Sherlock Holmes's mouth: "If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." In this case, I'm not speaking about truth in Doyle's sense of the word, of course. But when you eliminate the impossible courses of action - peace with the Palestinians and perpetuation of the status quo - you inevitably revert to unilateral steps by Israel. Unilateral steps can take different forms. For instance, I wouldn't suggest today that Israel leave the West Bank and take the IDF out. I would remove the settlements more or less behind the fence - mutatis mutandis - and leave the IDF there for as long as it is absolutely necessary, taking the security consequences of Israel's leaving the area into account. But basically my attitude was, and still is, that Israel without the Gaza Strip is stronger than Israel with the Gaza Strip. Israel without Nablus is stronger than Israel with Nablus. Even more than that: Israel without the parts of east Jerusalem heavily populated by Arabs - with a very different delineation of the line than we had before 1967 - is stronger than Israel that includes 300,000 Arabs. My assumption is that, for the foreseeable future, we'll have neither peace nor any kind of working settlement with the Palestinians. My assumption is that the conflict will go on for at least this generation. What about the Jordan Valley? The Jordan Valley should be under Israeli control for as long as possible and necessary. The best option would be if we could reach some kind of an accepted settlement according to which the Jordan Valley stays in Israel but the heartland of Judea and Samaria is linked to the rest of the Arab world through a corridor in Jericho. Among other things, this would also protect the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan from the Palestinians. In other words, you support Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's realignment plan that has been put on hold. Yes, with one exception: not taking the army out of the West Bank... for the time being. But in terms of territory, I would remove most of the settlements, and keep most of the settlers inside Israel, including the Ariel bloc, Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev, Pisgat Ze'ev, Gush Etzion. I'm sorry that the Supreme Court imposed going back to the June 5, 1967, lines in Judea. There is no reason whatsoever for this, as far as population in the area is concerned. We could have taken a portion of it. But, if this is the deal, I would accept it. When Olmert reiterated his realignment plan during the Second War in Lebanon, he was chastised by the public for it. His popularity has suffered greatly since then. Are you saying that he was given a bad rap? No. He deserved a setback, because he mishandled the war. Secondly, Israelis expected the disengagement from Gaza to lead to a decrease in terrorism, which it didn't do. You didn't expect this? I certainly didn't. If I may put it in a broader context: In 1977, when asked if I would leave the Sinai Peninsula for peace, I answered, "What [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat is offering (a separate settlement removing Egypt from the active violent confrontation with Israel) is so critical for the future of Israel that I would have paid more than merely the Sinai Peninsula, but it has nothing to do with peace. And when we withdraw - indeed, the more we concede to Egyptian demands - the more hostility, hatred and anti-Semitism we will arouse." I don't expect the Arabs to accept us. Even the elite among the Arab citizens of Israel don't. They would like to undermine our national existence. Let me stress that I'm not offering concessions because the Arabs deserve them. When they try to destroy us, they deserve nothing. The question is not, "Will we get peace with the Palestinians in return for these concessions?" Because, whatever we do, we will not get peace. I have one consideration only: How to guarantee Israeli society's continuing to be as strong as it is. Individual Israelis may be extremely unpleasant, but when you look at the Israeli collective, you cannot but be amazed by the strength and resilience of the society as a whole under extreme pressure. Poets should be praising it. Its strength is manifested in the fact that, on the one hand, it does not turn in the direction of capitulation, like the Europeans; and on the other hand, it does not turn in the direction of radicalization, like the Palestinians. The beauty of Israeli society is that the more pressure you put on it, the more it gravitates to the center. It is the eighth wonder of the world. Look, people are not leaving this country. People don't take their money out of this country. Democracy is flourishing - and if it is threatened, it it is threatened from the direction of anarchy, rather than fascism: In other words, what is threatening the separation of powers in government is not the army, but the Supreme Court. Now, I don't like it, but if you are at war, and your problem is with the Supreme Court, that's somewhat comforting. Imagine, 25 years ago, we were on the brink of tearing society apart on the Sephardi-Ashkenazi issue. Today, we've got almost a million kids who don't know whether they're Sephardi or Ashkenazi. We all but solve problems of a magnitude and multitude that nobody in the world even encounters. This is a most impressive society, and it's our No. 1 asset. In our arsenal, if there's one thing hostile Arabs should fear, it is the strength of Israeli society. A few weeks ago, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, I was asked if Israel lost its deterrence after the Lebanon War. I facetiously responded, "You don't understand. If I were a hostile Arab, I'd be frightened of Israel, because this country survives in spite of Amir Peretz's being defense minister." This is a society that basically says, "If the government doesn't function, we'll function without government." And it works! This is a country that, after six years of war - with buses and pizzerias and cafes exploding, and then a million people living in bomb shelters - has a booming economy. We may be able to do with less aircraft and fewer tanks. We can even survive confrontations with the Arabs that we don't exactly win. But if, God forbid, we undermine the strength of Israeli society, we're doomed. My concern is not whether we will have peace, because we won't. And my concern is not whether the Palestinians will stop turning to terrorism, because they won't. My consideration is whether Israeli society will be as strong today and tomorrow as it was yesterday. In this context, we must understand that the perpetuation of the status quo, in the long run, is not an option. Why? Because mainstream Israelis didn't want to be in Gaza. I'm choosing Gaza because it's easy; Judea and Samaria are much more complicated. The Israelis who count are those who say, "We understand the need to stand fast for generations; we understand the need for our newborns to serve in the army 18 years from now." The notion that our children will have to be in the army at some point in the near future is something that most Israelis no longer expect. And if there is the slightest suspicion that this war is continuing because of the Gaza Strip, most mainstream Israelis say, "I'm sorry, thank you very much, you can have Gaza. Your 1.3 million Palestinians can go and do whatever they want, but out of our face. We don't want to see them or have anything to do with them. We want them behind a high wall." It is only if people realize that this is what they're fighting for will we continue to have a strong society that is not only supported by people who are as ideologically committed as the settlers tend to be, but also by people who may have doubts that settlers don't have - and you need them on board more than anybody else. The Jewish people made an irrevocable mistake in the early 1920s. Half a million Jews coming here then would have provided a critical demographic mass for a Jewish state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. But we didn't come. This is something we've been paying for ever since, and it means that the Land of Israel must be partitioned between us and the Palestinians. Not because they deserve it. They don't. Simply because we cannot digest it. And what we cannot digest, we shouldn't swallow. And what we cannot swallow, we shouldn't bite off. We must take a broad strategic view, rather than focus exclusively - or even primarily - on territory. Territory is important; I'm not saying you can disregard it. But there are many different elements that have to be considered. Two things keep Israel alive today: the resilience and creativity of our society, and our alliance with the United States. In comparison, the rest of the universe [he laughs] is an unconfirmed rumor. Do I agree with the settlers that we must be careful not to undermine the patriotism of people who have a somewhat different approach from mine? Yes. Should we try our best to keep good patriots inside, rather than alienate them? Yes. But at the expense of incorporating the Gaza Strip in Israel? No. By this logic, what is Israel supposed to do about "digesting" the Israeli Arab demographics? Withdraw from Haifa and Acre? By disengaging from the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, we transform an unmanageable threat into a manageable challenge. We have hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship today, who wouldn't have it had we built a fence immediately after 1967. To this day, the Beduin are taking demographic and geographic control of the Negev, because we failed to take the appropriate steps to secure our most vital needs. In extreme cases, a Beduin marries his cousin; they have 15 children. He takes a second wife from the Hebron mountains; he has another 15 children. He takes a third wife from the Gaza Strip; then has yet another 15 children. Then he can take more and divorce as many as he pleases, who collect Bituah Leumi [National Insurance money] as single mothers. With his 45 or 60 children, in one generation, he is a village. So not building a fence is a crime against Zionism. If you let Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank move freely into Israel, we are doomed. The worst danger was the allocation of child allowances, because it encouraged Muslim Arabs and haredi Jews (Christian Arabs didn't go in this direction) to have many children and only one parent participating in the workforce. Such a policy increases the non-Zionist, non-productive, non-democratic and non-modern elements within the country. This is an existential threat to Israel - almost as much as an Iranian nuclear bomb. In 2003, when Binyamin Netanyahu was finance minister, he reduced the child allowances. This was as important as having aircraft that can reach Iran. You don't really believe that people have dozens of children because of child allowances, do you? Wouldn't the populations in question be having that many children anyway? There is this legend, perpetuated by people who don't know what they're talking about, that haredim necessarily have many children and don't work because their religious belief dictates it. But look at haredim in Antwerp or in New York: They work and have far fewer children. The same goes for the Arab world. The campaign in Egypt to lower the birthrate succeeded, as it did in Iran. We shouldn't be mortgaging our future by changing our demographic balance in this direction. We have a commission of inquiry into the failures of the Second War in Lebanon. But the issue of child allowances - as they were until 2003 and could come back - is far more critical in the long run. But the child allowances were only a part of an entire welfare state system that has been around since the days of David Ben-Gurion. It wasn't from the days of Ben-Gurion; it was from the days of [Yitzhak] Rabin. For a long period of time, the idea was to support families whose children serve in the army. It was only after 1992 that it changed vis- -vis the Arabs; unfortunately, it eroded vis- -vis the haredim earlier than that. Surely you are familiar with the study conducted by Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid and Michael Wise of the American Research Initiative, showing there are far fewer Palestinians than is commonly stated. I'm familiar with it, and it doesn't matter much. It's the "so what" effect. It doesn't matter if the Arabs are already 50% - or let's be radical and say 40%. The question is: Can we have a state with an overwhelming Jewish majority? If it is not overwhelming, this state will not be modern; it will not be democratic; it will not keep the kind of salt-of-the-earth people who make Israel survive and prosper. If you have millions of Arabs inside Israel, Israel is doomed. Which brings us back to the issue of the Arabs who are already citizens of Israel. If there is not an "overwhelming" majority of Jews in places like Haifa and Jaffa, are you saying that they're doomed? What I'm saying is that you can keep a certain proportion of Arabs, even if it is problematic, say 16% - or even 20-something. You can live with it. But 50% - or even if you accept the study that says it's 40% or 45% - is something else. In an interview in these pages in 2004, your colleague (and co-promoter of disengagement) Arnon Soffer said: "We will tell the Palestinians that if a single missile is fired over the fence, we will fire 10 in response. And women and children will be killed, and houses will be destroyed... if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day." If the idea, as you say, has nothing to do with peace, but self-preservation, why did we allow Kassams to land while we were withdrawing? And why does mainstream Israel not view disengagement as you do? In time, the mainstream will come again to see things my way. Look, there is this very childish approach which says: Let's make enormous concessions and then, if the Palestinians do commit even the slightest provocation, all hell will break loose. But, in every situation, you must ask yourself what the smart thing is to do. The key to being politically smart is to forget about justice and conduct a very strict cost-benefit analysis. For instance, would it have been justified to say that once [Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser] Arafat committed this or that act of terrorism, we would immediately destroy PA infrastructure and reoccupy Palestinian cities and refugee camps? Yes, completely justified. But wasn't it wiser to do what [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon did - which was not respond to the Dolphinarium bombing [in 2001] until the Americans were on board? Remember what happened in the interim between the Dolphinarium bombing and Operation Defensive Shield? The Karine A incident. The Americans finally understood that Arafat was a terrorist. As a result, we were able to do something very radical with American support. The difference was enormous, because the Americans shielded us from potentially dangerous European pressures. This was worth waiting for. We have no option of responding to every provocation by indiscriminate mass killing of Palestinian civilians, because of what we are. That is another dimension of the strong society we discussed before. Professor Soffer, like you, said it was time for a unilateral step, time to tell the Palestinians that we would no longer let them keep killing us. Soffer had an important role in warning Israelis of the dire consequences of integration with the Palestinian territories, and his outrage at their terrorism is, of course, justified. The broader question we are discussing here is conceptual. We should choose our methods and timing, realizing that, for the Palestinians who are fighting us under the post-Camp David-Taba circumstances, killing our children is more important than giving hope to their own. This is a problem we have to deal with wisely. Now, if you look at the 85-year period since the emergence of the Palestinian people, you will see that our situation gets progressively better, while theirs gets worse and worse. In the final analysis, who suffers strategically more from their terrorism? Think about it: If there were no terrorism, how could we defend the fence? What would we do if peaceful Palestinians wanted to come into Israel? The answer is that it would be much more difficult to prevent our demographic destruction were it not for terrorism. It would have been very difficult to explain to people why Oslo was a profound mistake, if the Palestinians hadn't been so stupid as to revert to radical terrorism. Indeed, until that point, you couldn't convince mainstream Israelis that Oslo was completely detached from reality. Had Arafat not used massive terrorism, we would still have people in the mainstream believing that the Palestinians have abandoned their commitment to the destruction of the Jewish nation-state. So, do you think former prime minister Ehud Barak is telling the truth when he says that he brought Israel to the brink on purpose - to call Arafat's bluff? I don't care what his purpose was, but Barak saved us from Oslo at Camp David - where he did the right thing; and he was profoundly irresponsible in Taba, where, when the Palestinians started a war, he gave them much more and sent Yossi Beilin to represent Israel [at the negotiating table]. Now let's talk about Sharon. Would you have imagined - after he was elected by a landslide aimed at ousting Barak - that he would espouse disengagement, and then actually carry it out? I doubt if there was anybody was less surprised than I. In 1999 - when Sharon was foreign minister in Bibi's [Netanyahu's] government - I went to see him with a copy of my book. I told him I had come to tell him his future. "I may not look like a gypsy," I said. "And I left my crystal ball in the parking lot, but I came to read your fortune. Within three to five years, if you become prime minister, you will recognize a Palestinian state, build a fence and remove the settlements that you planted." He responded, "Please repeat everything you just said, because I want to write down every word. You laughed at me in '82, and now it's my turn to laugh at you, because I know that I'm not going to do any of it." In fact, Sharon - the good Mapainik that he was - ended up doing exactly what all responsible leaders of Israel have done when push came to shove: the right thing. Take Menachem Begin, for example, whose life plan had been to remain ideologically pure, and lose one election after another for the rest of his days. To his amazement and shock, however, in 1977 he was elected prime minister. And what was the first thing he did? He asked Moshe Dayan to be his foreign minister, and committed not to incorporate Judea, Samaria and Gaza into Israel - the opposite of his platform. He did this because he understood he now had the supreme responsibility of Israel on his shoulders. Look at Yitzhak Shamir, the "Jordan is Palestine" ideologue. The golden opportunity to make his vision a reality arose during the first Gulf War. But he didn't take it, because he understood that in the seat of the prime minister, he was no longer in the role of ideologue. He had to ask himself whether he wanted Jordan as a buffer state between Israel and the radical Arab states. And he came to the conclusion that he did. What about Bibi? Bibi opposed Oslo, and rightly so. But what did he do when he became prime minister? He kept Israel's commitment to it. He started the process of bringing the right-wing Likud party into the political center. I'll tell you a story about Golda Meir that explains this phenomenon. During the Yom Kippur War, we had the Egyptian Third Army encircled and could have destroyed it. But the Russians said that if we didn't open the encirclement, the Soviet Union would become directly involved in the war. After the war, I went to see Golda, and I asked her if she had believed the Russians would actually do it. I asked her in Hebrew. She answered in English: "No, they were bluffing." So, I asked, "Then why did you give up?" To which she replied - in Hebrew - "Lo vitarti; nichnati." ["I didn't give up; I capitulated."] "Even more interesting," I said. "Why did you capitulate?" "I am the prime minister of the Jewish people," she answered. "The prime minister of the Jewish people does not gamble with the fate of the Jewish people." If all our leaders behave "responsibly" once they take the helm, are you saying that you don't really worry about who wins the elections? Of course I worry. In the first place, not everything that applied in the past necessarily applies to the future. And if Yossi Beilin, Effi Eitam or Amir Peretz were prime minister, I wouldn't sleep nights. Surrounded by a hostile Muslim world - and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's finger nearly on the button - isn't focusing on the Palestinian issue a form of tunnel vision? It's worse than tunnel vision, particularly since the Palestinian problem doesn't have a solution. Palestinian society has disintegrated. The only reason I would discuss negotiating with them would be to go along with [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice's make-believe, as long as I know that nothing can come of it. Nor is it only the Iranian issue that is more important. For instance, the problems we're having with strong mainstream voices in Europe questioning Israel's right to exist. And, contrary to what they say, this has nothing to do with the Palestinians. Delegitimizing Israel continues, even accelerates, after you withdraw from Gaza. It accelerates after you accept a Palestinian state. It accelerates after you accept the partitioning of Jerusalem. The more concessions we make, the deeper the process in Europe of questioning the legitimacy of a Jewish nation-state grows. If this is the case, why concede anything whatsoever? Whatever we do, we should consider primarily how it affects our own society. What is your view of the Bush policy in Iraq? The Bush policy had two components - destroying the Saddam Hussein regime and bringing democracy to the Arabs. I was for the first part. I supported the war. But, as I suggested before the war - and you can judge it with today's hindsight - "Be punitive, not corrective." Destroy the regime, destroy as much of the infrastructure as it takes. You cannot have somebody like Saddam Hussein succeeding. And this part worked; his regime isn't there. And the domestication of [Libya's Muammar] Gaddafi cannot be explained without the context of what happened to Saddam. But bringing democracy to the Arabs? This was foolish to begin with. You cannot sell freedom to people who don't want it. Like the Palestinians, you mean? Nobody is as irresponsible as the Palestinians. But in the Arab world in general, democracy is not something that can be produced exogenously. It must be endogenous and start from one's own society. If you have enough good guys, then we can come in from outside and break the bad-guy stronghold, so that the good guys can take over. But if there are not enough good guys in a society, then destroying the bad guys and substituting for the good guys doesn't work. Are there enough "good guys" in Iran? Yes. Iran is completely different. In Iran, the problem is the regime, not the people. At the moment, however, I don't see any other option but an American military operation in Iran. If there isn't one, Iran will become nuclear. And if Iran is nuclear, civilized life the world over will be threatened. If Iran has nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will immediately go in this direction; other Arab countries will follow. Radical countries throughout the world will not be able to afford not to develop nuclear weapons. And before you know it, clowns like [Hugo] Chavez in Venezuela will have nuclear weapons - 30-40 countries will have nuclear weapons - and then nuclear war is only a matter of time, and not a very long time, at that. What about an Israeli attack on Iran? With all due respect to Israel, we cannot do it properly. Politically or militarily? Even militarily. Knocking out the nuclear infrastructure so that it stays knocked out is beyond our capability. Because you need aerial staying power over Iran for weeks. My hope is that the Iranians would then retaliate massively, which would cause the Americans to respond in a way I would really appreciate. Such an operation would also be the way out of Iraq. The reason the US cannot leave Iraq today is that it would lose its deterrence. But if it bombards Iran, that problem would no longer exist. As one who retroactively condones Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I believe that [an American attack] would send a signal to radicals the world over that the US can only be pushed so far. But Bush is very unpopular at the moment. What are the odds that he'll be able to take such action? He is very unpopular, but he is committed to not leaving behind a world that is much worse off than the one he received. And I wouldn't underestimate the significance of this commitment.