Interview: Colonel (r) Shaul Arieli

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, the retired colonel questions Netanyahu’s intentions.

Interview: Colonel (r) Shaul Arieli (photo credit: Shaul Arieli Archive; 1994)
Interview: Colonel (r) Shaul Arieli
(photo credit: Shaul Arieli Archive; 1994)
Retired Col. Shaul Arieli is a decorated Israeli military official. Arieli commanded the operation to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip for transfer to the Palestinian Authority in 1994. A key man for both Itzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak during their respective governments, Arieli has been invited by the US National Security Council and the Pentagon to offer his views on various regional issues affecting Israel's security. In this exclusive interview with the Jerusalem Post’s Premium Zone, Arieli discusses a number of pressing issues.
What are the consequences for Israel of the Arab Spring?
The popular uprisings in the Muslim world, express a change of era, in which the masses no longer fear their governments and regional solidarity expands. Israel is not the center of interest in this process, but must adapt to avoid regional isolation. As long as Israel does not resolve the Palestinian problem, Arab solidarity, which now has significant international pressure to oust Assad in Syria, could act against Israel.
Why did the revolution in Syria not achieve the same results as the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya?
One reason is the strong support Assad receives from Russia and Iran. In the case of Russia, the support is due to economic reasons; that of Iran is due to the fact that Syria provides access to the Sunni Arab world, and the facilities of passage offer Syria a stream of weapons and supplies to Hamas and Hezbollah in case of a military conflict with Israel. I think Assad's departure is a matter of time. Among the later stages, the Baath party, without Assad, may lead an orderly transition, but I do not rule out the possibility of an abrupt change of command.
How can the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian elections affect the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel?
I do not believe that the rise of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could lead to a war with Israel. My rationale is that the Egyptian army is not in a material position to sustain a war with Israel and it is dependent, economically and militarily, on the United States. However, if Israel does not advance the peace process with the Palestinians, one would expect a cooling of relations between the two countries, with negative effects on trade between the two.
Does the Iranian nuclear program represent a threat to Israel?
Iran's nuclear program is a threat to everyone. Despite the threats of (Ayatollah) Ali Jaminei and (President) Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leadership knows that if Iran were to use nuclear weapons against Israel, it would decree the disappearance of the whole region. The reason for Iran's nuclear development is not to destroy Israel, but to ensure the stability of the Islamic regime against threats from the West, as well as deepening the Shi’ite influence in the Muslim world. The success of its nuclear program put pressure on Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, and this arms race is not good for anyone.
What elements should Israel consider in assessing an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities?
The Israeli government should evaluate whether it can provide an effective blow, and how long it will take to achieve satisfactory results. Also, it needs to clearly define the military and geopolitical framework of the attack, and the potential damage of Iran's response, which would include missiles from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and a wave of unprecedented terror against Jewish targets worldwide. It should also evaluate the cost to be paid if operating results are not satisfactory. Among them is the difficulty of sustaining future security if the United States and part of the international community retracts the military and diplomatic protection that they provide, and the tremendous internal pressure it would put on the Israeli population, if, for example, 50 Israeli pilots were held in Iranian prisons.
Do you believe that the aspirations of the P5 +1 to reach a negotiated solution with Iran can thwart the Iranian nuclear program?
I really hope so. In recent months, the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council have yielded positive results. I hope that current efforts by the five permanent members plus Germany can be successful, both to appease Ahmadinejad's nuclear intentions, and to hear the voices opposing the current regime, which are now silenced. Iranian society is not a monolithic and uniform society, and has important opponents that can change the political and international face of Iran.
Who is responsible for the stalemate in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?
I think most of the responsibility for the suspension of direct talks since September 2010 lies with the Israeli government. Netanyahu does not accept the so-called "terms of reference" agreed upon at the 2007 Annapolis Summit, which recognizes the creation of a Palestinian state within the '67 borders, with exchange of territories, i.e., transferring West Bank settlements to Israel in exchange for other lands.
The Israeli government only asks that the Palestinians recognize their country as a Jewish state. Does this not seem a logical demand?
In such sensitive issues, what is illogical is to change the patterns of negotiation, after the other party has agreed to give us what we asked for. Why would Israel not negotiate with the Palestinians until the early 1990 [sic]? Because the Palestinians did not accept resolutions 242 and 338 of the UN Security Council, which involved the recognition of Israel's right of existence. Now that they give us what we want, we make new demands: recognition of the Jewish state, water management, control of the radio-electric spectrum…It does not seem serious.
Netanyahu said that a Palestinian state in the West Bank would compromise Israel's security. What is your view on this?
I think most people do not know what we mean when we refer to a Palestinian state. If there is an agreement, that would mean a completely demilitarized Palestinian state. Palestinian security forces would be responsible for internal affairs, and NATO troops would have to guarantee peace on the borders. In addition, the Israeli army would have permission to use the airspace of the new state and would have early warning stations to prevent possible attacks. In this context, if Israel's security is compromised and it decides to intervene militarily, it would take only a few days to regain control of the land. In summary, Netanyahu's position and his arguments regarding safety do not correspond to reality but to purely political and ideological reasons.
Even so, one could say that if progress was made towards an agreement, Israel would be taking a risk?
Neither war nor peace are insurance policies. Always take risks, but ask what the possible scenarios are and evaluate the pros and cons of each. The first scenario would achieve an agreement with the Palestinians initially and with Syria later, when things in this country are clearer. Based on the peace proposal of the Arab League, Israel would normalize its relations with the Muslim world, but would also assume the risk of escalation. However, it is clear that the deepening of the status quo is not an intelligent alternative for any of the people, for it leads inexorably to the growing problem. Therefore, I argue that in this difficult balance of interests, agreement with the Arabs is best for Israel.
Why did the Israeli government authorize the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank?
Most people think it is for safety reasons, but it is not. It is because of political determinants and especially ideological ones, rooted in the conflict between religious and national Zionism. Religious Zionists believe that the divine right of the people of Israel to the land of Israel overrides any other rights, including the Palestinian people's right to self-determination. The Likud party is currently strongly influenced by religious Zionists, who manipulate the government policy for settlement construction.
What would you say to a Jewish settler, convinced that through his actions he is favoring the Zionist cause?
I would say that his Zionism is different from mine. My Zionism, which is also the Zionism of Herzl, Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, Weizmann and Moshe Sharet, places the People of Israel in the center, and is secular and democratic because it responds to Jewish and universal values. In contrast, the religious Zionism of many settlers, whose reference points are rabbis such as Kook, puts the land of Israel in the center and is willing to give up the democratic character of the Jewish state to retain all land.
A section of Israeli policymakers, among which is MK Arieh Eldad, says that Jordan should be the Palestinian state. What is your position on this initiative?
The proposal has no historical, legal, or military rational. Already in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, a year before the Balfour Declaration, it was clear that an Arab state would be established in the current territory of the Kingdom of Jordan. In fact, in 1919, during the Paris Peace Conference, the Zionist movement asked for an 18,000 square km territory, not the 90,000 square km today involving Israel and Jordan. Therefore, to suggest that Israel "resigned" to Jordan to be the Palestinian state is a historical fallacy. In addition, there is no way to move nearly 1.5 million Israeli Arabs and 2.5 million West Bank Arabs to Jordan. Finally, in military terms, Israel's strategic position would worsen drastically, since instead of dealing with a demilitarized Palestinian state it would have to deal with the Jordanian Armed Forces.
Why did you oppose Minister Lieberman when he proposed to transfer part of the Israeli-Arab population to the future Palestinian state?
Lieberman's plan would open a pandora's box that would lead to multiple conflicts with uncertain solutions, including the assessment of the value of the assets which belong to the Arab-Israelis, the treatment of minorities in Israel and the redefinition of citizenship in relation to the geographic localization of people. Assuming that Israel decided to deal with this, in the best case scenario it would transfer between 8 and 10 percent of the Arab-Israelis to the future state. Fortunately, the Lieberman Plan has received the joint rejection of the Israeli government, the Arab world, Palestinian Authority and the international community; a unanimous reaction that only Lieberman is able to achieve.
You were one of the most important military references that suggested the construction of the separation barrier between Israel and West Bank to Ariel Sharon. Is this the security barrier you expected?

When the Peace and Security Council asked Sharon to build the barrier, we did so based on criteria of defense. Unfortunately, construction has responded to political arguments and colonization. This situation led us to counsel the Supreme Court of Israel, which finally urged the army to make certain changes which we required. At present, the barrier is working with Israel's security, but we must also recognize that the main factor reducing the suicide bombings is the bilateral cooperation between the security forces commanded by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli army.
Does the barrier still provide security?
Barriers alone do not provide security. Look at the Gaza Strip, where Israel has built a similar barrier and yet has failed to prevent terrorism. In the case of the West Bank barrier, 60 percent of the planned 800 km was built and it has three important gaps, but significant socioeconomic disparity is a more evident separation. The West Bank per capita income is fifteen times smaller than the Israeli [sic]. If we take as a benchmark the relationship between Mexico and the US, which has four times the per capita income, one can understand the magnitude of the gap that the barrier separates.
According to the Jerusalem Law enacted by the Knesset in July 1980, Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel. What happens in practice?
Jerusalem is divided into almost every aspect of community life. The 300,000 Arabs living in East Jerusalem have their own systems of education, health, transport, leisure, commerce and industry. The lack of Israeli police to deal with high crime and poverty in that part of town created anarchy, which Hamas ended via political control in absolutely all neighborhoods of East Jerusalem during the last Palestinian parliamentary elections.
How do you suggest the status of Jerusalem to be normalized?
I share the vision of former US President Bill Clinton, to divide the city between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods, depending on the identity of the population. Thus, the forces loyal to Abu Mazen could dismantle Hamas, just as they did in the West Bank, essentially preventing them from acting in schools and mosques. With regard to the Old City of Jerusalem, which contains over 100 sites holy to all religions, that is, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I think that should be put under the administration of international forces to ensure access to holy places for all.
What solutions are considered feasible to solve the Palestinian refugee problem?

Despite what many think, there is strong agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on this issue. Since 1988, the PLO has agreed that a just solution to the refugee problem can not threaten the demographic balance in Israel. In addition, the UNRWA agency of the United Nations points out that of the 5 million Palestinians refugees, more than 50 percent are now living in Israel, West Bank and Gaza; while most of those who live outside these territories show no intention to return. In short, the Palestinians would claim financial compensation and those requesting citizenship would be mostly incorporated into the Palestinian state, while the United States, Canada, and even Israel, would offer citizenship to a symbolic number as part of the agreement.
Do you think that Abu Mazen really wants peace with Israel?

Abu Mazen wants a Palestinian state, and knows that the means of achieving this is an agreement with Israel. For that reason, not for love of Israel, he accepts the terms of reference of the Annapolis summit. Meanwhile it is the Israeli government who rejects the 1967 borders as a basis for the agreement. The terms of reference are equivalent to the yellow lines that mark a route. In a path you can draw two crosses, four interchanges or eight lanes of traffic lights, and none of that will change our destiny. However, if we transgress the yellow lines, we can end up anywhere. Netanyahu says "negotiate without yellow lines," which means rejecting any progress made to date.
Do you think that the recent formation of the Government of National Unity in Israel could lead to advances in the peace process?
No, because the problem is not in the coalition government, but in the Likud. Unlike what many believe, Shas and Lieberman's party are not what impede the peace process. I maintain regular contact with several government ministers and I know that Netanyahu has no green light in his own party to advance a solution based on the boundaries of '67; and that is, in my opinion, the main mistake of the international community, which presses Netanyahu, when they should create conditions for the ruling party to change its position.
What can the international community do to facilitate the dialogue?

The world is in a process of change. With the changes brought on by the Arab Spring, the world must understand that the challenge present today is far more important than before. I think it is essential that the international community provide political, economic and diplomatic support to President Abbas so he can face the opposition and terrorist groups funded by Iran. It is also important that communicators avoid the temptation to demonize Israel and, in turn, provide support to those who, from this country, work tenaciously to reach negotiated solutions.

The author of this interview is managing director of bacalor strategic consulting: