‘The solution will come with time’

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gives a wide-ranging Rosh Hashana interview to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ at his Sycamore Ranch.

Ariel Sharon's Sycamore Ranch. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ariel Sharon's Sycamore Ranch.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It’s three days after the numbing attacks in New York and Washington, and Ariel Sharon is sitting Friday morning on an easy chair in the salon on his ranch just north of Sderot.
Sharon loves his ranch, feels comfortable there, escapes to its familiar confines – just some three kilometers from Gaza – nearly every Shabbat.
Work goes on there – he speaks by phone with the US president and secretary of state on Friday, holds a marathon meeting with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres there on Saturday – but the atmosphere is more natural for him.
He sits there comfortably, resting his foot on a footstool, as a German shepherd dog wanders into the room looking for affection. If he wants, he can look out the window at the grave of his wife, Lily.
His sons live in another house just a few meters away.
It is a singular experience interviewing Sharon. First of all, unlike former prime ministers Ehud Barak or Binyamin Netanyahu, when Sharon sets aside time for an interview, he sets aside time for an interview. He is fairly punctual. He is not rushed. He is not interrupted.
Sharon, compared to his predecessors, doesn’t talk much to the press, but when he does, you walk away with the sense that he does so wholeheartedly.
Second, one gets the sense talking with Sharon that the present is a seamless continuation of the past. For example, to him, the War of Independence is not history but a wellspring of experiences from which he can still draw.
Everything is related. Asked why he doesn’t address the nation more frequently, Sharon recalls an experience in 1948 when he didn’t address troops under his command as they had wanted. Asked about Israel’s preparedness to deal with hijacked planes exploding into its cities, the prime minister remembers a discussion of the General Staff in the 1970s when it appeared that a hijacked plane was intent on blowing itself up over Israeli airspace and the decision was made to down the plane if need be. Talking about Jordan, Sharon recalls that he was in the minority in the General Staff in 1970 against mobilizing the IDF to keep Syria from moving into northern Jordan.
Outside, a detail of security guards patrols Sharon’s ranch. They walk among guinea fowl, peacocks and lambs. Inside, guests are met by the sound of classical music coming from the stereo. A pillow that reads “What a mensch” sits on one of the couches.
Soft-looking paintings hang on the wall.
The world this week seemed to hover on the brink of hell, but Sharon – at least – conducted business over the weekend from pastoral, downright soothing surroundings.
Maybe it helps him think clearly.
What follows are excerpts of a two-hour interview with the prime minister: Since the attacks in the US, many people have said that the world has changed, that what was, is not what will be. Is that true regarding Israel as well, and how so? We have faced terrorism – Arab, Palestinian, Islamic terror – for many years. For us it is nothing new; we have fought it for more than 120 years.
I view with pain and concern the horror that happened in the US. I share in the pain of the American people and understand the deep shock they are going through. One thing is clear to me, the US needs – and I’m sure it will – to stand at the forefront of a coalition of the world’s democracies leading an uncompromising battle against terror, so that the free world can live in freedom and liberty and preserve its values.
Terrorism is the principal danger to stability in the Middle East. Arab, Palestinian, fundamentalist terror stretches from Afghanistan to Lebanon – that is the center of terror in the world. In the next few years that will be the biggest danger to stability in the Middle East.
In another few years there will be another danger – the danger of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Iran and Iraq. We also have to be prepared for that, we and the free world. I don’t see nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists – it is too complicated – but we also must not let it happen. We need to act against terror.
Everyone is now saying that, but what does that mean precisely? Against whom? I think President Bush said it clearly – this is a struggle against terrorists, those who dispatch them and those who aid and abet them. When I defined our actions against terror, I used the same definitions – against the terrorists, those who send them and those who aid and abet them.
If you could advise Bush right now, what actions would you recommend he take? Should he, for instance, invade Afghanistan? Permit me not to answer those kinds of questions, about the targets.
OK, but everyone is talking vaguely of a coalition against terror. How do you envision it? The US needs to lead, and it is clear that inside the coalition you will have the British and other European countries. The Russians will want to take part.
Is there room for Arab countries? For instance, Egypt, maybe Jordan? I think the Americans are making their own calculations and will work against countries that harbor terrorists – Syria, for example. Syria hosts the most extreme terror organizations.
If it were not for Syria, Hezbollah would not be able to exist without the delivery of weapons and Katyushas, all of it transferred through Syria. There is an airlift from Teheran to Damascus and then convoys of trucks to Lebanon.
And now Syria wants very much to be a member of the UN Security Council. That only shows the cynicism of that organization. Syria, which stands behind countless acts of terror, is a respectable candidate.
It has to be made clear today that steps need to be taken against Syria and all other countries that host terrorists. This is not to say that every step has to be warlike – there are economic steps, steps to prevent it from being accepted in the Security Council, to prevent its planes from flying. There are many diplomatic and economic steps, and – when needed – there are also military steps.
Are you saying that the US should first start with economic and diplomatic steps and then move to military steps? I didn’t come here to determine American’s strategy, only to explain that there are many different tools available if you just use them.
You need to start to use them. What happened is unbelievable; it shows the danger of terrorism. But there are many tools.
Has Israel been asked to help? Are they expecting anything specific from us, for instance, intelligence information? We have ties, but I am not going to detail these things. A few weeks ago there was a strategic meeting [with the US administration]. I renewed the strategic dialogue that was started before. There is certainly cooperation.
Will Israel be a factor in the coalition? We are not building the coalition – we are willing to help. Regardless, we will continue to fight terror.
Are you concerned that, when building the coalition, the US will push Israel to the side, concerned that if Israel is a member, Arab countries won’t join in – like what happened in the Gulf War? We have very friendly relations with the Americans – I speak very clearly. In my mind, trust is the most important thing. More important than a short-term agreement. I know that approach – come to a meeting, nod your head in agreement and then do something different. I don’t believe in that. For me, yes is yes, and no is no. I mean what I say and say what I mean. There is an understanding between us – I’m not saying there is always agreement, but there is understanding.
I have made it clear to the administration, as well as to a list of countries in Europe, that while stability in the Middle East is important to them and is very important to Israel, we will not pay the price for that stability.
We will simply not pay it.
If you ask me whether Israel will make concessions so that one Arab country or another will take part in the coalition, the answer is an emphatic no.
I said in meetings [with these leaders] that Israel is willing to make painful concessions in exchange for true peace that will last for generations. But Israel will not make any concessions, and I emphasize any concessions, when it comes to its security.
I have made it clear that the Jews have one small country, the only place the Jews have the right and the merit to defend themselves by their own strength – and we will guard that, we will not give up on that.
I want to say as clearly as possible, we will not pay the price [for the formation of the coalition]. We are willing to help, even without being asked. There is already a network of very close contacts. If we are asked to be open partners of the coalition, I will certainly bring that to the cabinet, and it will be approved. If the relationship will continue as it is now, with strategic and intelligence cooperation – informal – I have no problem with that. There is no matter of honor here.
We need to understand that the Arab countries now will certainly try to use this opportunity to pressure Israel and say that what is bothering them is that Israel did not give concessions to the Palestinians. I see that possibility. Our clear, unequivocal answer is that this will not be at our expense.
I want to say something else – the US is the mother of democracies, together with Britain. The US stands at the head of the democratic world. The US has moral values – and in my mind, these things have great weight.
But there have already been some voices raised in America to the extent that, if it were not for its relationship with Israel, none of this terror would have hit New York or Washington.
I believe that we can count on the ethical, moral, democratic values that exist in the US – that they understand the root cause of Arab, Palestinian, Islamic fundamentalist terror. They understand and realize the dangers. Therefore, I’m not worried about this. Israel needs to stand firm and not give even the smallest concession when it comes to security.
Are you concerned about the words of the French ambassador, who said that terror in Israel is different from terror in New York? I see that statement as most grave, most grave. I instructed the foreign minister to take two steps, to summon the ambassador and reprimand him and for the ambassador in France to submit a protest to the foreign ministry.
But the question is whether this doesn’t reflect a wider school of thought and is not just the personal opinion of one ambassador.
We know that our relations with Europe are different [than they are with the US]. We need to reject this completely and take the two actions that I specified.
How about those who say that the fundamentalist Islamic terror is integrally connected to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict? What, and take upon ourselves the responsibility for this? What is happening here? But isn’t this a widespread perception in the world? It is a widespread perception, and there are also Jews, a few, who share that perception today. But in my mind, that perception is not widespread. Let me make it clear. We know the world very well; we saw [what happened in] Europe only 55 years ago. What, are we going to take on the guilt for this now? No, not with me.
This is a struggle with extreme Islam, a deep struggle of values. What connection does it have to us at all? And even if you would say for a minute that there is a connection with Israel – does that mean we are responsible for what happened? For what? What do you say to those who argue that now is the perfect time to take more aggressive steps against Palestinian terror? We are doing exactly what needs to be done. I hear this advice. But the cabinet, before the horrible attack in the US, decided to step up our actions based on three criteria: that there be a reaction to every attack, that there are what I defined as commando [actions] against terror, which is part of securing the roads; and the third thing is targeted prevention, or as [Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres wants to call it, interception of terrorists.
Will there be less concern for things such as collateral damage? I want to say something – were we not careful about not hitting innocent people, a big part of that terror group would not exist today.
We take extra caution with these sorts of things that no other country in the world would take. A number of times we were prepared to carry out an action, but the person was in the company of someone else – his wife, children – so we didn’t carry it out. This has happened dozens of times.
Will that change now? Our activity against those preparing car bombs, those enlisting suicide bombers will continue. I have said that they will continue; we do not intend on stopping this until Arafat does what we told him to do. We gave him lists. I was willing to endanger my son by sending him to Arafat to make sure that he was delivered those lists by hand.
We gave him the lists, and he could have prevented [targeted killings] by arresting these people. But he has not taken the smallest step against terror. Four days ago I sent him messages through the foreign minister and the head of the GSS to immediately stop the terror.
But he didn’t take the smallest step.
We need to understand, Arafat is conducting a strategy of terror.
Immediately after Camp David he decided to open up a terror front, even though he received promises that no prime minister before [Ehud] Barak would have dared to make to him, and no prime minister after Barak – myself included – will ever give to him.
And then he decided to start a wave of terror. He wants negotiations under fire, but he won’t get it with me.
Arafat has established a coalition of terror – once he had Hamas, Islamic Jihad, but now it is all mixed up.
The presidential guards are a conduit to the Hezbollah; Fatah and the Tanzim are under his full control, part of his security forces; Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Iraqis have started to act here, and [Osama] bin Laden has already left his fingerprints on the ground.
I have told the US, the British, the French and the Russians, that what is good for them is good for us.
What they would do [to combat terror], we can also do.
Are you saying that what happened in New York will not affect the magnitude of Israel’s response now to terror? That there will be no influence? Why should it influence what we do? To take advantage of the situation now, I don’t think that’s right.
We have a plan. It is very complicated, very sensitive.
There are a lot of considerations to keep in mind. Having said that, our goal is to attain a true peace for all the residents of the region, first and foremost for Israeli residents. I don’t take back what I said [during the election campaign] that I want to bring peace and security, but we have to put security before peace, because without security there will be no peace.
It is not easy, can’t be done at one time. It has to be done carefully, in stages, slowly. I have decided to do it that way.
The first thing that needs to be done is to stabilize the situation, by this I mean bring about a cease-fire.
When there is a cease-fire, then we can talk peace. But without a cease-fire, we can’t talk. It is inconceivable that while Arafat conducts acts of terror, Israel will talk peace with him.
That was the mistake of the previous government.
They were willing to negotiate under fire – and as a result every minute Arafat wanted more.
But with me that has ended.
If that is the case, then why is Peres meeting Arafat? Is this the time for that meeting? No, if you ask me – in principle, I asked Peres to deal with two issues: one is easements for the civilian population who are not involved in terror, and all they want is to bring bread home and raise their children. We need to help them, just as we need to fight the terrorists and those who send them and aid and abet them.
I had two conversations with Arafat a few months ago. I told him that easing [up] for the population is important, and I intend on doing it. On the other issue, I said it is his responsibility to stop the terror, that he signed on that, committed himself to it and must deal with it. I said that if he doesn’t, then unfortunately we would have to do it ourselves.
I asked Peres to explore ways to make easements for the Palestinian population who do not take part in fighting against us, and – since he thinks he can bring about a cease-fire – I said he can talk to him about a cease-fire. No diplomatic issues will be raised at these talks. The Arabs know this, so there is nothing to try.
In principle, I am in favor [of Peres talking with Arafat on these two issues]. But in my mind it is a mistake to meet with him now because of the timing. Arafat acts only when he is under pressure and isolated; that is how he acted in the past, he doesn’t act any other way.
Therefore, the timing now is a mistake.
Then why don’t you forbid Peres from meeting him now? What do you know about my conversations with Peres? Excuse my manner of speaking, but what do you know about what I do or do not say to him? The timing now is a mistake – simply a mistake – which will encourage him to continue with terror.
Is this issue a threat to the coalition? I don’t believe so. I’m not opposed to Peres meeting with Arafat but don’t think now is the time.
But could it now precipitate a coalition crisis? I don’t think so.
In your mind, does the benefit of having Peres in the government outweigh the possible damage of a meeting with Arafat at this time? It is not a matter of Peres, it is an issue of unity. I think unity is very important and am in favor of unity governments. I said that before the elections and formed such a government. It is easier to establish unity governments than to preserve them. I don’t see a crisis. But the matter of unity is very important. Unity – we are talking also about unity of Jews abroad.
If Arafat could, he would like to break up the unity: It is completely opposed to what he wants – he likes to get the Jews arguing among themselves.
What about your strategy for getting out of the current crisis? First of all, we need to stabilize the situation. This has to be clear. After that we can talk peace.
Arafat today – standing at the head of a terror coalition – is not a partner for dialogue. He hasn’t done anything against terror. On the contrary, he encourages it.
If he will act against terror – I have many doubts about this, many doubts – and there will be complete quiet, and he will pass the test that he has to pass on this, then it will be possible to talk to him. Today he is not a partner. He is head of a terror coalition against us.
Do you see the US negotiating with bin Laden? Can you imagine some- thing like that? Everyone has his bin Laden.
These bin Ladens act against all of us.
I know that there are those who say I have no plan. I have a plan, not just one – more than one. But it would be a mistake now, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, to reveal it here.
From the minute I present the plan, it will be the starting line for negotiations. That is exactly what happened to the previous government.
I know that the public is asking what will be, but it will be a mistake to say these things. I heard people say that since I have said there will be painful concessions for peace, why not say what they are? Because it would turn into the starting point for negotiations. So we don’t need to reveal it. We need to show restraint, quiet, learn from the experience of others.
There were attempts in the past by my predecessors who publicized one plan or another, and all the plans failed as a result. Believe me, I have given this much thought. What would be easier than to give in to the public’s pressure and come forward with the plan, but that would be a mistake, and I won’t commit it.
Forget about revealing it to Arafat, what about letting your own nation know where you are headed? The nation is going through a difficult time. Don’t you feel an obligation, as its leader, to tell us how we will get out of this? I want to say something concerning the nation. The nation is much, much stronger than those who, from time to time, come and presume to express what it is thinking.
The nation has gone through times more difficult than these. If you ask me if this is the most difficult period in the country’s history, I want to say that I have seen much more difficult situations.
I don’t want to say that there is nothing to worry about; there are things to worry about. But if I have to decide what to do at the present time, whether to reveal the plans and the depth of the concessions which will then turn into the starting point of negotiations and weigh this against the concerns of the nation – I came to the conclusion that it is much more important [not to reveal the plans].
I had a similar experience in one of the most difficult battles that I took part in during the siege of Jerusalem.
There was no chance of getting out of there [Latrun in 1948]. I was seriously injured in my hip and in my knee, and there were many losses. During this battle, two soldiers in my unit crawled to me. They asked, how will you get us out of here? I was weak from my injuries and told them that we were already six months in battle and that they were with me at a number of different places, and I named the different places. And I told them that at every place I managed to bring them home. I then said they should go back to their positions and do what I tell them to do.
When they left I heard one say, “Sure he took us out of different places before, but I want to know how he is going to get us out of here, now.” I always remember that; it cut me to the soul. Then I thought, maybe I should have told them, first we’ll go to that tree, and then move to that rock, and then another tree. That would have calmed them down. In the end, in my unit there were 15 dead, 13 injured, five captives, and four were not hurt.
Those who came to me were among the captives.
This [incident] is always in the background when I decide what I should reveal. But here and now we have to act differently, show restraint and not spell out all the details. This is something that can determine the fate of Israel for many years, if not generations.
There is criticism, however, that without revealing everything, you still need to speak to the nation, as Churchill did, to raise the country’s spirits.
I am talking to them through you.
Is that enough? I don’t know – what are the surveys today? [His aide assures him, in an understatement, that the recent surveys are “not bad.”] First, maybe I need to talk more, but now I am talking to you, also the afternoon papers, the radio and television.
There is no need to exaggerate.
Believe me, I have more than one plan.
Is there a disagreement between you and the chief of staff over what is needed in the seam plan? I have no disagreement with the chief of general staff – I read from time to time that I do, but there cannot be a disagreement between the government and the chief of staff.
We truly have excellent relations.
In my eyes there are discussions, and the army has to bring its opinions as clearly as possible. From the time that the government makes a decision, the army has to do exactly what the government says and not place leaks or talk about it. That’s if we want to live in a democratic state.
Regarding the seam plan, there was no disagreement. It is something that was blown up, maybe with the goal of creating a disagreement.
Israel has a conception of security zones, which are vital.
One of them is called the seam area.
Another one starts in the Beit She’an Valley in the north and reaches Ma’aleh Adumim. This is an area west of the Jordan about 16 to 20 kilometers wide. Then from Ma’aleh Adumim it extends – about 10 km wide – to a point at what was once the Green Line just north of Arad. That is the eastern security zone which is vital, has no substitute. This zone is not problematic because it is mountainous, desert territory, empty of population, except for a small number in Jericho and Uja.
I want this to be clear, there will be no diplomatic agreement without this security zone remaining in our hands. I have been saying this since 1967.
Then we have another security zone called the seam area, along what was once the Green Line, a depth that ranges from a few hundred meters to five to seven kilometers. This is the mountain range that commands a view over the coastal plain, and the country’s most important water aquifer, which provides more than a third of Israel’s water.
To this you have to add what is called greater Jerusalem, all the area around Jerusalem – including Ma’aleh Adumim and that area, such as Abu Dis and Eizariya. It is not for nothing that we are in those areas today, to stop the involvement of terror organizations in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem returns to what it was, to our complete control, that was neglected for many years. Orient House will not be returned, nor Abu Dis nor any of those areas.
And we also have a number of strategic roads that connect the coastal plain with the Jordan Valley – the eastern security zone – which are very important.
The western side will have a region where our forces can operate to prevent attacks in the center of the country.
The purpose of the eastern zone is to prevent a situation where there could be one Palestinian state from Iraq to the suburbs of Tel Aviv – Kfar Saba and Petah Tikva. This situation would be impossible for us.
For that reason we need a narrow strategic strip. When I spoke earlier of a Palestinian state from Tel Aviv’s suburbs to the border of Iraq – the Hashemite kingdom is a stabilizing influence today, but we don’t know what will develop. I know that the Jordanians don’t like that and will not like when I say it, but it has to be clear. If we don’t sit on the eastern security zone, the danger to the royal house is very great, because of the demographic nature of Jordan.
Since we are talking about a long conflict, it is impossible, in my opinion, to reach a solution at one stage.
Apparently, we will have to go and find a different plan, where the first thing will be an armistice agreement that will lead to a situation of non-belligerency. And the solution has to be spread over time, not with a time schedule but rather a schedule of expectations.
It is clear that when you go along this path you cannot give up immediately all the historical and strategic assets, for what will you do after that? It has to be done in stages.
The problem with the plan seems to be that the Palestinians won’t accept it.
And the 97 percent that Barak offered they did accept? No, so if they didn’t accept that, why would they accept this? Then what do you suggest, that we go to another country? The Jews need to decide. They decided, by the way, they want a country of their own.
Allow me to ask a question about the image of Ariel Sharon – no longer extreme, now restrained, who takes the responsibilities on his shoulders. Is this another Ariel Sharon? I would say like this, the answer is somewhere in the middle. I matured a bit, part of the country matured a bit. I matured a bit, and perhaps the eyes of the country also opened up a bit, concerns were increased, the sweet dream of Arafat being the one who will look after our security [was seen as not realistic].
What is your message on the eve of the new year? When I look forward to the future, I can say to you that we are doing everything to ensure a better future for us and our kids. I would also recommend to the Palestinians to ask themselves if they are doing everything for a better future for themselves and their children. I am not convinced [they are] – and those causing their suffering is their leadership.
I’m not talking about the plague of deep corruption but the pace of preparedness to stop the terror – that is what is the cause of their suffering. • This interview first appeared in the daily edition of The Jerusalem Post on September 17, 2001.