Editor's Notes: The president roars

EXCLUSIVE: Katsav has kept private his thoughts on the competence of Israel's leadership, until now.

katsav 88 (photo credit: )
katsav 88
(photo credit: )
For six years of his presidency, Moshe Katsav maintained his pre-election commitment to "put my ideology in a box and close it," and to use his office, unlike certain of his predecessors, to heal rifts rather than exacerbate them. So when, on Tuesday of this week, the president unburdened himself of what sounded like years of pent-up frustration at the mismanagement of our interaction with the Palestinians by successive Israeli governments - some of which, he readily acknowledged, he sat in himself - it constituted quite a departure. As is his way, Katsav, speaking exclusively to The Jerusalem Post at Beit Hanassi, did not deliver bitter, personal barbs. Instead, he launched his assault in tones of pained despair. But the critique is no less scathing for that. He began by focusing on what he said were Mahmoud Abbas's misplaced efforts to achieve Palestinian unity around the "prisoners' document" - a waste of energy, said the president, given that this document was no basis for viable dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians. But he then moved on to highlight a perceived failure by Israel's elected leaders these past 13 years to extract anything in return from the Palestinian leadership for a series of major concessions - incompetence that he said was born of a scandalous absence of proper planning ahead of major diplomatic moves. His comments might be read as the warning cry of an immensely worried national figurehead against a repetition, with "realignment," of the mistakes he says were made in the Oslo process, over the road map, and ahead of last summer's disengagement from Gaza. They may also be interpreted as the opening steps of a planned new route for Katsav, after the presidency, back into party politics. If the latter, however, it is not clear from Katsav's line of thinking where exactly he might expect to find a home on the political spectrum. His remarks will hardly endear him to the center-left. But equally, the former Likud minister is no longer a fit with his former party. For although his complaints, initially reported in a news article in the Post on Wednesday, have been seized upon by some on the political right as affirmation of their opposition to Oslo and disengagement, Katsav was self-declaredly not opposed in principle to those processes. He believes, rather, that most Palestinians want peace. He thinks Abbas [Abu Mazen] could constitute a partner for a workable accord based on independent Palestinian statehood. And he argues that had Israel's recent governments mapped out Israel's most vital national and security interests, and properly planned their diplomatic moves based on those interests, peace with the Palestinians - so distant a notion this week of all weeks - might have been far closer to realization. "A year ago," Katsav began, "I really believed that the rifts between us and the Palestinians were narrower than ever. But the rifts have grown of late, especially since the Palestinians chose a new parliament and a new government. It now seems to me that the gaps are wider than they ever were between the Palestinian government and the Israeli government. "The main argument is an internal Palestinian argument and the debate surrounding the Palestinian prisoners' document is meaningless in my opinion. Maybe it's important to Abu Mazen and Ismail Haniyeh, but it doesn't resolve the dispute within Palestinian society as to how to relate to Israel. "Israel, the international community, the Palestinians themselves and the Arab world have an interest in that question being resolved via a referendum on one of three documents which do shape the nature of the interaction: either the road map or the demands [of the Hamas government] made by the Quartet, or President Bush's April 2004 letter. Each of those three documents, if brought to a referendum, will determine the nature [of interaction with Israel]. They'll know where they stand, we'll know where they stand, the world will know where they stand. "As for the prisoners' document, I think it's wrong that murderers of women and children, prisoners in Israeli jails, initiate a political move and are given precedence by the Palestinian parliament, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian government. That also says something about the Palestinians themselves. They have a leadership. Why do they need people in jail, murderers of women and children, [to set the agenda]? "After so many years of argument, especially since the Oslo accords, we need to know: where are the Palestinians headed? I think Abu Mazen is making a mistake in focusing all his energies on the prisoners' document. And this week's action [Katsav was speaking of the murderous attack across the Gaza border at Kerem Shalom] is a consequence. "When the Palestinians deliberately harm women and children in Israel, when they fire Kassams at Sderot, Palestinian society celebrates the 'successes.' People go out into the street. When Israel, in error, harms Palestinian women and children, the Israeli prime minister publicly expresses sorrow, the chief of staff appoints an investigation, Israeli society grieves over the deaths of Palestinian women and children. That vast rift between the norms of the two societies can in my opinion also be solved by the referendum, because in the end it's the Palestinian leadership that shapes the interaction with Israel. And the leadership [today] sends dual messages. I'm not even talking about the schools and the mosques. I'm talking about the responsibility that the leadership took on itself: how it wants to lead the Palestinian public. "As for realignment, a central issue for Israel, there are two things I want to say. First, if it is unilateral, it cannot be of political value. Any unilateral plan, in its very essence, can only have security relevance. It is a mistake to ascribe to the realignment plan political significance if it is implemented unilaterally. If it is achieved by agreement, and I favor a plan through agreement, then it takes on political significance. Second, any security move and any political initiative must be based on a map that we have not yet drawn up - a map of Israel's vital national and security interests. The late Yitzhak Rabin began drawing up such a map. It must be done, and any and every political initiative, every security move, must be based on such a map. To be arguing today about whether the realignment plan is good or not when we don't have that map is a mistake. Let me ask you first about Abu Mazen. I sense that you believe that if he were to focus on one of those three documents you mentioned, the Palestinian public would endorse it. Is that so? You think the Palestinian public wants peace? Your sense is accurate. That is my impression. I'm not relying on surveys or on declarations. I believe that 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. So how is it that Hamas got elected? I think the election system gave it an advantage. It was better organized than Fatah. Fatah was seen to be corrupt. Hamas controls all the mosques in Gaza and more than two thirds of those in Judea and Samaria. Hamas provides welfare assistance. It wasn't the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the peace process that Palestinian voters were thinking of when they elected Hamas to parliament. That's my impression. I might be wrong. I believe the Palestinians want peace. There are three possibilities, all bad. Either Hamas continues to run matters. It won't be a partner. It continues to support terror, not to recognize Israel, not to respect commitments Arafat and Abu Mazen made to Israel. Then there's a danger of escalation between us and no chance for a peace process. The second bad option is that there are early elections and Hamas is chosen again. We'd be harmed by that as well. Or third, that Hamas loses such elections and transfers all its efforts into terrorism, also effectively preventing a peace process. Three bad possibilities and we have to be prepared for them. I am convinced that the political path of Hamas is not the political path of the Palestinians... There are many more things you can say about why Hamas was elected. Maybe it was because of terrorism - that they became popular because of the suicide bombs. But in my opinion the political question was not the issue on which Palestinians voted. In any case, there is a PA chairman and he does accept all three of those documents. And there's a parliament and a government that opposes them. This dispute must be resolved by the Palestinians, and the prisoners' document doesn't do that. Even if the prisoners' document was endorsed, the same Fatah-Hamas arguments would still be there the next day. Abu Mazen is no fool. Why would he be pushing the prisoners' document for a referendum when it wouldn't help him? Maybe he's wrong and thinks it will help him. 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... I don't see this document as meeting the Quartet's conditions. I don't see it as a readiness to end terrorism. The negotiation between Abu Mazen and Ismail Haniyeh has revolved around whether the clause that permits terrorism in Judea and Samaria can be widened. The document involves no recognition [of Israel]. In Europe they believe that this document speaks of two states for two people. That's not so. There's no recognition of two states for two peoples in that document. The document gives much less than Abu Mazen and, yes, Arafat already gave to the State of Israel. We took big steps forward for 13 years. This document takes us many years back. You talk about a referendum for the Palestinians. You used to speak about referendums in the Israeli context. The political question was at the heart of Israel's elections in March... You can't compare the Israeli elections [with those on the Palestinian side]. The issues in dispute were at the heart of Israel's elections. There is no need for a referendum on them. It's possible to have a referendum but you can't say that the last elections weren't a referendum. By contrast, on the Palestinian side, my impression is that the people don't stand behind Hamas on the political issue. They had elected Abu Mazen a few months earlier and his political direction differs from Hamas's by 150 degrees. And the Palestinian elections weren't democratic. A terror group participated. A group defined as a terror group by Europe and America won. On what do you base your assessment that Abu Mazen seeks peace? I hear him. In contrast to Yasser Arafat, who I didn't believe when he condemned terror, I believe Abu Mazen. He's not pro-Zionist, he's not pro-Israel, he's pro-Palestinian. He's a Palestinian patriot, first and foremost. But I believe that he's a partner with whom we could reach compromise. If Abu Mazen's path prevails, he'll get backing from the Palestinians. Reconciliation and peace with the Palestinians is within reach. But if Hamas's path prevails, I fear an escalation and I see no chance of reconciliation. What reconciliation can we reach with Hamas, which says we have no right to exist, supports terrorism, derides the commitments made by Yasser Arafat. Moving on, it's shocking to hear you say that Israel has no map of vital interests. Well, we haven't. There are differing opinions. In the defense establishment, there are drafts, ideas. I think the State of Israel needs to draw up a map of political security interests. I think we can reach national agreement on this. I think the gaps between the Israeli political parties are narrower than ever - in the political-security arena, and in the economic-social arena. It's easier today than ever, after Oslo, and after disengagement, and after the road map, to achieve national agreement on the map of national/political/security interests. It was always argued that as soon as Israel fixed its bottom line, this would constitute the starting point of negotiation with the Palestinians. Not necessarily. If we decide on our bottom line, we shouldn't budge from it. And tactically, we need not publicize it. But we have to make the decisions. Either we don't publicize it, or make it plain to the world that this is our red line and we won't back down from it. Are you concerned that without such a map of vital interests, the current elected leadership may be prepared to relinquish elements that will subsequently prove to have been vital? I don't know what they're prepared to relinquish. Clearly we should all be concerned if vital interests were relinquished - vital from a national or security perspective. I don't oppose unilateral actions if the considerations are security considerations. But I am concerned if we are making unilateral moves for political considerations. One can understand and accept a decision to relinquish this or that hill for a security reason. But we don't even have the vital interest map that I talked about... In the last 13 years we've made three big mistakes because we didn't demand anything in return. We didn't get anything in return for the Oslo accords. The mistake is not in the decision on the Oslo accords, but that in the fact that we didn't get the appropriate return. The second mistake was on the road map. Here again, we made a major, historic concession. For the first time in the history of Israel, the Knesset and the 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. The third mistake relates to disengagement - and here too, I'm not opposed to disengagement, but here too, there was a big mistake. We got nothing in return. 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. What specifically might we have gotten in return? 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 on this possibility than on the first two. It's possible that in return for those three concessions, if there had been orderly preparatory work, if we'd had a map of interests, it may well be that we'd have reached understandings on the settlement blocs and the "right of return." And these three issues are the ones today preventing progress. Two could have been solved, and perhaps the third [Jerusalem]. We had experienced prime ministers in those years. Evidently they didn't see the possibility of such achievements. Perhaps. Essentially, though, you are blaming them... I was in some of those governments... This isn't a question of blame. I may be wrong. I may be right. I think I'm right. You might say I'm wrong. I can't disprove that. Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 was ready for concessions on much of Jerusalem and Arafat didn't accept that. You're getting into tactics and psychology... At Camp David II [in 2000] there was no orderly preparatory work. There was no orderly preparatory work at Oslo. If there had been such preparation, such preparation for Camp David II, Ehud Barak might have succeeded. He might have failed. But the fact is that he went without orderly preparatory work. That should have involved checking the significance, the repercussions, the tactics, the psychology, what to raise, what not to raise, what to let Clinton raise, what to raise ourselves, the need for a one-on-one meeting with Barak and Arafat. There was no meeting between Barak and Arafat alone. Clinton suggested that Barak not come to Camp David. Arafat didn't want to go to Camp David. The issue is complex. Answers to a lot of these questions can be found through appropriate preparatory work. You sit, hold simulations, discussions. We have very good experts in the Mossad, in the Shin Bet, military intelligence, general staff, the national security agency. They would have sat and it's possible Barak might then have succeeded. He also might have failed... My criticism of disengagement is because of its unilateral nature. Also as a consequence of inadequate preparation? We know exactly what the IDF and others said. But I don't want to get into that now. I think that the big mistake of disengagement was in its unilateral nature. It may be that if it hadn't been unilateral... This is all with hindsight, although I also said this ahead of time. I told Ariel Sharon what I thought. The prime minister sat where you're sitting. I told him what I thought. That we should coordinate more with Abu Mazen? Yes, to do it by coordination. 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. If it had been coordinated nationally, politically, even from a security perspective... On the Philadelphi corridor all that 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... Al-Qaida might not have gotten into Gaza. There would not have been massive arms smuggling. Apparently Sharon felt differently? Absolutely. And he had the authority, not me. So how did he respond to your suggestions? We sat here on the eve of my departure to Paris on an official visit [in early 2004] and I thought that I'd convinced him, but in the morning when he came to see me off at the airport, he said, 'We did think it over again and we again reached the same conclusion that we have to act unilaterally.' I can't entirely dismiss his reasoning. I know of all the speculation about what happened to Arik Sharon. But Sharon's reasoning - which is not without logic, indeed it's certainly reasonable in my opinion - was that the first obligation of the road map is dismantling the terrorist infrastructure. If he were to reach a new agreement with the Palestinians on disengagement, without them meeting their road map obligation to disarm the terror groups, it would be as though he had given up on that condition. He didn't want to give the Palestinians any sense that he would give up on that basic condition... Nevertheless, I think it could have been agreed to include that obligation [to disarm terror groups] in a new agreement on disengagement. Exactly the same clause as in the road map. But then Sharon would never have been able to pull out of Gaza. I don't see that. Just as we didn't condition support for a Palestinian state on the dismantling of terror groups. Israel said in that historic declaration in the road map, which I see as akin to the Balfour Declaration... The Palestinians understand that Oslo is in their pocket, the road map is in their pocket, disengagement is in their pocket. Now, [they say], 'Let's start negotiating from the beginning' without them having made any concessions. And they may have made concessions [ahead of disengagement]. If the Quartet had said to Abu Mazen, 'Listen, the IDF is prepared to leave Gaza... [if] you dismantle the terror groups.' If that tactic had been followed, the terror groups might have disarmed because it was very important to them that we leave Gaza. Perhaps. And what of realignment, where the mistakes you speak of have not yet been made? Have you made your concerns clear to the prime minister? Yes, he's trying to reach some understandings with Abu Mazen. I greatly hope he'll succeed. He is talking about what will happen if not. That's the question to which I have no answer. And that's one we should deal with after we've drawn up our map of interests. You and Olmert basically see eye to eye? Let me say that I see the need for unilateral realignment if it's a security need, not a political need. If it's a political move, it cannot be unilateral. Only a security move can be unilateral. And in any case, if the political leadership of Israel decides to unilaterally realign, it must be done only after we've drawn up a map of national interests and we have a few months for that. But the Prime Minister apparently sees this differently and believes that something of relatively long-term importance can be achieved by a unilateral departure. After his visits to the US, Europe and the Arab states, he wants to see where things stand with the Palestinians - to give a chance for negotiation if it's possible and, if that fails, to take unilateral action. And I say that unilateral moves can be made after we have a map of vital interests. But you're also saying it's an illusion to think that this would be any kind of diplomatic panacea. Diplomatically, it won't solve anything. He believes to the contrary? Diplomatically it won't solve anything, and I'm not sure he doesn't believe the same. He does not rule out what I say when we talk. First he wants to try [the diplomatic route]. The realignment plan also isn't drawn up. The director-general of the Foreign Ministry is working on it. I asked him about it two days ago. 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. But it is being drawn up without the necessary preparatory work? I hope this Foreign Ministry director-general's committee will... It's too early. But there must be preparatory work. That's a condition. I hope we won't repeat these same mistakes we've made in the past. Do you see at least the beginnings of serious strategic preparatory work? I'm not sitting there so I don't know what this committee is doing. I don't know what authority it has, what mandate it has, whether there are other committees - on the general staff, military intelligence, the Shin Bet - that are examining realignment. But that's what is required? Yes, that's what I believe.