Editor's Notes: The transformation of a Herut ideologue

"Our faith meant that to take one inch of the western land of Israel from us, you would have to kill us first," recalls Likud minister Michael Eitan, a former Greater Israel advocate. No more...

Michael Eitan  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Michael Eitan
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
When Michael Eitan was a boy in the early years of the state, growing up in north Tel Aviv not far from the beach, the older kids in the neighborhood taught him how to swim. “They always reminded me, when I swam out to sea, to keep looking back to the shore,” he remembers now. “They told me to keep my eye on my point of departure, and to check back every few minutes, to make sure that I knew where I was headed and that the sea wasn’t taking me places I didn’t want to go.”
The young Eitan grew up in a household committed to the Land of Israel, to the Herut ideology that regarded Judea and Samaria as an inseparable part of Israel. His mother, who had immigrated from Poland in 1935, infused him with a profound sense of connection to the historical Jewish heartland. He saw himself as a “disciple of Menachem Begin,” and says he got “beaten up by the Socialists” as a consequence of that overt adulation.
An ex-IDF officer who had headed Herut’s Young Guard, he entered the Knesset in 1984, two years after the Begin era had ended, led the Land of Israel Front, helped found the settlement of Kfir Yosef and other settlement projects, and dedicated a central part of his political efforts over much of that past quarter-century in parliament to advancing the settlement enterprise.
But Michael Eitan, the Begin disciple, was also changing over the years. This became apparent in the late 1990s, during the first Netanyahu premiership, when he committed the near-heresy of joining forces with the ultra-dovish Yossi Beilin to shape an attempted consensual Israeli framework for negotiating the establishment of a “Palestinian entity” with “limited sovereignty.”
And the transformation has been further demonstrated in the past few weeks, when Eitan, a parliamentarian of unmistakable earnestness and a reputation for personal integrity, chose to send a carefully drafted letter to his Likud party colleagues relating to the direct talks and the imminent end of the 10-month settlement freeze. Among the five points of a new settlement policy he set out in the letter is the call for Israel to put a halt to any further building in areas that the government intends transferring to Palestinian control. He also calls on his government to introduce a program to assist the voluntary relocation of settlers from those areas to major settlement blocs or to Israel, with their evacuated homes to be taken over by IDF soldiers.
Eitan, whose ministerial responsibility is for the improvement of government services, is now the longest serving Knesset member along with Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. He also holds the record for the longest Knesset speech, at over 10 hours.
His rhetorical capabilities were demonstrated to the full during a particularly lengthy interview in his office on Monday. In fact it was rather more of a monologue than an interview. He had a great deal that he wanted to say, and several times politely restrained me from posing a question because there was “just one more point” he wanted to add in first. When the interview was finally curtailed because of prior commitments, he telephoned to add a final thought or two a few hours later.
Plainly, it was highly important to Eitan that he fully convey the evolution of his thinking on the settlement enterprise, and the role of settlement in the context of Israel’s widest national interests – however long it took. He was, after all, tracing a very personal journey of change.
And what follows was indeed, to these ears at least, a rare and fascinating account of a patriotic politician’s anguished reassessment. It is a case study in the gradual reorientation of a man for whom Greater Israel was a value to be defended at almost any cost, right up to the near-loss of the modern state itself, but who now argues that an insistence on building everywhere in Judea and Samaria is misguided and dreadfully counterproductive – for Israel in general, and the settlers themselves in particular.
It may well be that the transformation Eitan so candidly details here mirrors the process that his prime minister has been undergoing. But of course Eitan, who was re-elected last year at No. 16 on the Likud list and has no delusions about any further likely rise in popularity, can afford to speak rather more openly than the man in the No. 1 slot.
For the 66-year-old Likud minister, it all comes back to that childhood aquatic metaphor. In Eitan’s dramatically revamped mindset, those colleagues who will not compromise on the absolute commitment to Greater Israel – the absolute commitment that he once shared – are guilty of the novice swimmer’s potentially fatal error. They have forgotten where they were headed – what they sought to achieve for the Jewish nation via the settlement of Judea and Samaria – and they are being swept along to places they, and the State of Israel that they love and seek to defend, should not want to go.
“I’m not prepared to keep on swimming without checking where I set out from and where I am now,” says Eitan. “And what is happening to us, within the Likud, is that there are wonderful colleagues who really set out from the same place that I did. But they’re not looking back to see where we set out from. And they’re not looking from left to right to see where we are now in regard to the ideological goals that motivated us in the first place.”
Why did you choose to get prominently involved in this argument about the freeze? Why did you draw up that letter to Likud members? And tell us a little about how you see Israel’s interests as having changed?
I have the privilege of being a veteran. That gives me certain wider perspectives. It doesn’t mean I’m automatically right. But I was personally involved in certain things in the history of the settlement enterprise and the history of the Likud. I was chairman of Young Likud. I was the chairman of a major branch of the Likud [in Ramat Gan] for a long time. I personally established settlements on both sides of the Green Line.
Such as?
Kfir Yosef, a settlement of several hundred families that later unified with Alfei Menashe. I was head of the Eretz Yisrael Front. I worked day to day with the settlements in the Knesset. That was one of the flagship issues for me in public service.
My letter came to say to people, “Look, the policy of settlement, for its own sake, is not the aim.”
Settlement, in the Zionist movement, from the time we came here, was intended to serve our diplomatic goals. The thinking of the Zionist leaders was to place settlements where they could protect the future state of Israel. Where did we want the borders? Well, that’s where we settled.
If you examine the situation on the eve of the declaration of statehood, that’s what you’ll see. There were exceptions, but no one settled on the other side of the Jordan, with the exception of the Golan Heights, even though Herut and Hashomer Hatzair certainly thought that the other side of the Jordan was also ours.
When the Likud came to power [in 1977], I remember the arguments in the party were between two mindsets – between Arik Sharon and Ezer Weizman. Sharon said, “Grab every hilltop [in the territories] and then we’ll fill in the spaces.” Weizman said, “No, focus on six or seven major centers.”
And we followed Arik Sharon. Menachem Begin led the way, and we supported it with every sinew. The concept was that the whole western Land of Israel, at the least, is ours, that we have historical rights to it, immediate political rights.
But on the eve of taking power, Begin did two things. One, he declared that the border with Egypt would be determined via negotiations. From that, you could understand that there was no ideological obstacle for Begin to relinquish the Sinai. And two, he called for negotiations with Jordan for a peace treaty. When you analyze that, it was directed at some of those Revisionists who, like me, had grown up in households where, if “the Kingdom of Jordan” was mentioned, we’d put it in quotes. Because in Herut [the precursor of the Likud], in our first policy platform for the state of Israel, we proposed to erase that particular consequence of British imperialism – the Kingdom of Jordan.
Begin changed the entire concept, both subtly and formally. Suddenly we wanted peace with Jordan!
With Begin, in terms of Judea and Samaria, there was initially a kind of duality of thought. On the one hand, he conveyed the message that Judea and Samaria belong to us and that we could never give up on that.
For us, his disciples, this was part of a way of life. We had been with him in the opposition. We rose together with him to power. As a child I would run after him to the Tel Aviv neighborhoods where he would appear, to prepare sandwiches for the people manning the voting booths, and I would get beaten up by the Socialists. And I went with him to the settlements to help. This was Begin for us: The Land of Israel. I believed Begin would never be able to give back a centimeter of the western part of the Land of Israel.
But there was another side. The same Begin who spoke so much about our rights to this land also [as prime minister] refused any initiative or proposal to unilaterally annex Judea and Samaria. Part of this was his gentlemanly commitment to the Camp David policy [he set out when making peace with Egypt], which stated that in the final-status agreements we would claim the entire western part of the Land of Israel as being part of the State of Israel, and that there would be autonomy for the [Arab] inhabitants. But part of it was also realpolitik.
I don’t want to talk about what happened along the way from the global, historical perspective. But I can look at what happened to me personally.
I remember when Bibi Netanyahu, with a small staff of friends, sat preparing for the coming elections, he verbalized his approach to [Yasser] Arafat and to the Oslo Accords. And he went much further in his wording than those of us with him felt we could accept.
This was in 1996?
Yes. Bibi said then that we would honor the Oslo Accords and we would meet with Arafat. He went further.
And we said, “Bibi, we can’t do this. Don’t go in this direction.”
He said, “you need to make your minds up. I need to catch up with [Shimon] Peres [who had inherited the prime ministership after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin]. These are the issues which will determine the election. If you want [the Likud] to win the election, I must give the public some of what it wants on these points.”
In the end he did come down a bit [toward more traditional Likud thinking], but he made declarations which appealed to the center of the political map, and that helped him win the election.
We came to power on the strength of that. And then, in line with the promises he had made, whether or not he wanted to, he implemented the Hebron agreement [relinquishing 80 percent of the city to Arafat’s control in 1997]. It was during that same period, and I would add in the trauma of the Rabin assassination, that we started to think in different terms.
I personally found myself, a member of the Herut movement, a disciple of Menachem Begin, a man of Greater Israel, giving over Hebron, the second most holy of our cities, to the Palestinian Authority. To this day, I have very strong sentiments regarding the historical value of Hebron. This is our national pantheon. I’m allowed to be in love with my ideal. It is also the ideal of many other people.
But on the other hand, I looked at myself and at my surroundings. I found that I could live with things that, for me, would previously have been unthinkable. And then, suddenly, politics replaced religion. Previously it had been almost a religious conviction: No compromising on the Land of Israel.
The insistence on Greater Israel had been like an immutable religious dogma for you?
An absolute faith. We raised many security arguments in defense of Greater Israel. But the truth is, even if there hadn’t been security issues, we would not have agreed [to any compromise]. Because for us, our “faith” meant that in order to take from us one inch of the western land of Israel, you would have to kill us first. And it wouldn’t matter if it was Tel Aviv or Nablus or Hebron – each would be exactly the same. Not one inch; we do not have the moral right. Better to pay a very heavy price, including wars. Not to lose the state entirely. Not that. But close to that. We were obligated to fight every conceivable fight.
My metamorphosis was further strengthened after some conversations that I had initiated as chairman of the [first Netanyahu-led] coalition with the head of the opposition, [Shimon Peres]. I had attacked the Oslo Accords in a Knesset debate. He told me later, outside the plenum, that he feared the various interim steps [of the Oslo process] would cause the entire process to fail and that, since we were strong and held the key cards, we should skip [the interim stage] and try for a complete agreement.
At first, I disagreed strongly with the whole process. But I began to realize that we had entered a new era – we had moved from the era of Greater Israel to the era of territorial compromise. It was clear that Begin’s “autonomy” [for the Arabs] would not be “personal autonomy” [inside an expanded Israel with sovereignty throughout Judea and Samaria]. It would mean a “state-minus” [for the Palestinians].
And so it came to pass that, as coalition chairman, charged with defending Bibi’s positions, I wasn’t defending them because I had to, because of my job, but rather, because I recognized that Bibi was handling the situation in the appropriate way. That now we were in power, we could not bring all our goals to fruition, just as Begin had been unable to fulfill them in practical policy.
Not only would we be unable to annex Judea and Samaria, but if things were to proceed [in negotiations with the Palestinians], the minimum that would be demanded in order to get to an arrangement would be a “state-minus” – [sovereignty with certain limitations for the Palestinians]. This was one major turning point.
A second, incredible turning point [for me] was [prime minister] Sharon’s acceptance of the road map [in 2003]. The road map provides for a Palestinian state. And yet Likud ministers, and more right-wing ministers from the National Union, stayed in the government.
It’s worth looking: Israel raised 14 reservations regarding the road map. But there was no objection raised by us that specified that we would continue to build in the settlements, that we considered this our right, until there was a final-status agreement.
That was a bigger turning point for you?
Absolutely. Remember, after the Hebron accord, when we were in power, when I supported Netanyahu’s nationalist, realistic policies, I had worked toward understandings with Yossi Beilin on the framework of an accord. That cost me dearly. It didn’t destroy me politically, but it hurt me badly. Beilin and I were trying to create a platform for a unity government, setting out the red lines of the Zionist enterprise, as the basis for negotiations with Arafat. When people [on the Right] called me a traitor, I told them that time was working against us, and that one day they’d wish for what Beilin and I were working on.
And that’s absolutely the case. Our agreement specified that most of the settlements and their residents would be annexed to Israel. That Jerusalem would stay within its municipal borders as the capital of Israel. There’s a complete rejection of the right of return. It’s written there that the Jordan Valley will be our security border. There’s a sentence there that Beilin would be afraid to have people see – that even in a permanent accord, Israel would not uproot settlements. That the settlements would retain a special status – as communities and individually, with linkage to the State of Israel.
And your next turning point?
The point after that is Bibi’s speech [at Bar-Ilan University] last year. He got up and he said my policy is two states for two peoples. People started to say, he doesn’t mean it, it’s a bluff. People don’t understand that a declaration like that, combined with reaching out to all the states of the world – that’s a fact. That is the declared policy. And it is inconceivable that the issue of settlements will continue to roll forward as though we’re still in the era of Begin and have to settle every hilltop.
And that means that if our policy nowadays began with a moratorium, and we are finishing the period of the freeze, we need to sit down with ourselves. In my letter, and openly, I say that the freeze is automatically ending and nothing needs to be done about that. It doesn’t have to be renewed. But between not renewing the freeze and not sitting with ourselves and thinking, “Dear colleagues, what is the right settlement policy for the State of Israel at this moment?” that’s ridiculous. To today use the resources, take the risks and pursue a settlement policy that utterly contradicts the declared policies of Bibi Netanyahu? You just do damage, without any benefit.
Why doesn’t Netanyahu get up and say this?
He does.
No, he doesn’t say I made my declaration more than a year ago and my policy has to reflect that.
Well, that’s the difference between me and him. I’m No. 16 on the Likud list and that’s where I’ll stay, if I’m lucky. And he’s in the No. 1 position and needs to stay there and needs to reflect a wider consensus. But I’m sure that in his policies, when he has to resume settlement, he’ll place practical limitations.
So, why did I write my letter? Because I’m trying to put to the Likud members what I’ve been saying to you, and there are more and more people [who are receptive]. When I went with Beilin, they didn’t kick me out of the party. They pushed me down the list a few places. Those who want to leap into the leadership positions must reflect a wider consensus. So I forgo those votes, the votes of people who, in their faith, and I respect them for it, believe that I am saying things that are not appropriate for the Likud.
There are colleagues who bring money in from abroad and they have support circles and they send out letters and petitions and so on. I don’t. But I have an opinion which is no less important than theirs and I want it to be heard in the Likud. I’m certain that I influence some of the people.
You’re saying that to build outside the blocs and Hebron causes us damage. It doesn’t protect the state? Quite the reverse?
The flux is moving to a situation where there’ll be a Palestinian entity which will have territorial control and it will have judicial authority over the territories it holds. Those are our declarations. That’s the direction we’re moving.
So we can’t build settlements there which we’ll subsequently have a problem dismantling and replicating elsewhere. We saw how difficult, and rightly so, how painful it was to pull people out [of Gaza and northern Samaria in 2005]. So today or tomorrow morning we’ll bring more people, and put them in places we’re telling the world will be Palestinian territory?
Now, there are places where we say no, where we will battle to ensure that they stay in our hands. So let’s put the people there!
Again, I’m not directly involved in negotiations. That gives me certain advantages, as I said. Now let me talk about the disadvantages. I don’t know the details. I don’t know the dynamics. And by the way, that goes for the overwhelming majority of the ministers. The average member of cabinet has next to no information. They don’t know more than what’s written in the newspapers. Members of the [inner ministerial] septet get a little bit more information.
Here, too, my thinking has undergone something of a revolution. I see the problems for the executive branch in our democratic system. Look at what’s happening now [in the battle of recriminations] between [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak. It’s shameful. And these are talented people. This stems in part from the coalition system and the clashing egos within it.
So I asked myself, should Bibi seek advice from his fellow politicians when they have their natural ambitions? If he tells them everything, it’ll be leaked in a minute.
Bibi said to the Likud ministers, give me a mandate to run [these negotiations] my way. “My way” means he has a few people he personally trusts, his people. They’re not in the political system. Bibi takes the political responsibility.
Once, I wouldn’t have accepted this easily. But now I’m reconciled that there’s no alternative in our political system. And Bibi has made clear that if we reach a deal that requires a decision, he’ll present it. We can argue. Everyone can speak and we’ll put it to the test of the democratic process. It will pass or it won’t. I think that’s the right approach. On these matters, and I stress on these matters, I rely 100% on Bibi. And I have enough patience to give him the opportunity to explore the whole issue.
We mustn’t miss any opportunity for an agreement. And if we can’t reach a permanent accord, then an interim accord. We have to assess the opportunities and the risks.
We were so happy to be accepted into the OECD. But if we continue to act as though we are not in the OECD, we won’t have achieved our goal. We need to measure ourselves against benchmarks on different subjects: democracy, transparency, open government, economics, education, every field. To compare ourselves to the global reality and to seek to be the most excellent.
My aspirations for the nation have not contracted, but perhaps they have moved to a slightly different place at the cost of that tie to the territorial issue. It’s not that I am neglecting the territorial issue – it’s central to life and death and security, and as a value in and of itself, but not to the degree that it once was.
Let me just add perhaps the most important sentence. At certain stages, I’ve heard Netanyahu lament that our international status creates situations where we are denied the legitimate right to self-defense.
Of course. A tiny example: Nick Clegg, who is today Britain’s deputy prime minister, called for a halt in arms sales to Israel and other sanctions at the time of Operation Cast Lead, when he was in the opposition.
We have the right to defend ourselves and yet we are gradually being silenced and shut down. If someone is denied the right to self-defense, he is laid vulnerable to being lynched. In this kind of situation, the most urgent thing is to regain your legitimate right to self-defense. It makes no difference that you think you ought to have that full right. What matters is the situation that has been created, whether it is your fault or not.
And I tie that to the issue of readiness to enter negotiations and to hold negotiations and to do so honestly. Netanyahu went to all the countries that were prepared to listen to him, in Europe, in the US, and said, I want to start these talks. I want these talks. And [Egypt’s President] Mubarak said at the recent Washington summit, okay, we’ve heard you. Now we want action.
So people would say to me now, why isn’t everyone making demands of the Palestinians? But that’s not relevant right now to our status. I’m not saying we should take steps that are dangerous to the State of Israel. I’m saying we may have to take steps that are dangerous for our politics [– a presumed reference to the constellation of the coalition – DH]. And I’m certain that if there’s a leadership that takes the right moves, it will be able to bring the public with it.
But if we say we have political problems and so we can’t take the decisions we need to take for the national interest, both [political] camps will suffer. It will worsen our international situation and we’ll have problems at home. We [in the Likud and the national camp] will have kept the vociferous believers, but we’ll be in opposition.
Netanyahu has convinced me that it is vital to extricate Israel from its isolation, from deadlock. This has to be handled with a readiness for concessions. We’re not yet making concessions, but we have declared a readiness.
So what will happen when the freeze ends?
In my opinion, nothing.
The leader of the free world has asked us to extend the freeze.
I don’t want to prophesize. But I assume they’ll find a path. There’s ending the freeze and there’s settlement policy after the freeze. Do we need to build now everywhere we built until 10 months ago? Not necessarily.
Settlement should continue according to the needs of the State of Israel today. If we squeeze every last drop of the lemon, utilize every last inch of our room for maneuver, of our political power, and beg and implore and ask every country in the world to understand that we have to build [everywhere], those drops of lemon that we’ll need for the problems of the permanent accord won’t be there any more. We’ll have confrontations a thousand times worse, where we’ll need to extract every last drop of support for issues of much more importance, including for the settlers themselves.
Aren’t we already costing ourselves dearly by prolonging this argument now?
These are some of the problems of our democracy. Ultimately wisdom will prevail. I believe that Bibi will clear this obstacle without blowing up the talks.
Critics on the Right would say that your position on the territories is defeatist, and that if we more forcefully asserted our rights we’d be able to get to a better accord from a position of strength. And from the other side, your critics would say, Abbas is going to go home if we miss this opportunity and aren’t more forthcoming.
And that’s the nature of compromise – that it is attacked from both sides. You have to find the point of balance, and I’ve told you where I think the point of balance is based on my experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m right. There is a time for extremism. But I think Netanyahu’s approach now is correct.
The dangers are profound. We see the fragility in the Arab world. We’ve already seen the Palestinian entity fracture into two and we don’t know which side will prevail, and these kinds of things can happen to every Arab state, wherever they may stand right now.
We just marked the Yom Kippur War. I ask myself, what would have happened, heaven forbid, if the [Arab] invasion had begun not from the [Suez] canal, but from Kalkilya. We must not forget those lessons. So the dovish approach that says we’ll take risks? Well, we have to weigh the level of risk we can take.
I favor a more calibrated approach. I favor progress, bit by bit. I favor the creation of economic peace, the creation of interest groups that want to strengthen peace. And not on our side alone. It won’t work if we’re the only people making concessions.
On the issue of building, we’ll find an arrangement, but the settlement blocs will not be dismantled. The world has to respect our problems, not just the Palestinians’ problems.