Excerpts of an interview with Binyamin Netanyahu,
former Israeli Prime Minister
Arye Shavit, Haaretz, 22 November 1996 (published by New From Within, Jan 1997)
AS: The historical model which your predecessors in this office held before their eyes was the Algerian model. They believed Israel was like France, and the [occupied] territories like Algeria; Yitzhak Rabin was seen as an Israeli DeGaulle trying to put an end to the occupation, to the colonization of 1967. When you committed yourself to uphold the Oslo Accords, did you adopt this historical model as well?
BN: No, absolutely not! I think that the very fact that Israelis could think up such an analogy indicates a dangerous disconnection from sources of our being. This land is not a foreign land. It is not Denmark or Holland. We are not here by chance. Jews fought for thousands of years in order to be able to come back. For thousands of years they wept and bled in order to return to this land. And now a generation has emerged in this land which is destroying this connection with its own hands. I believe the fact that such an analogy was concocted is a serious matter, a symptom of a deep loss of identity. It is simply unbelievable. When I go visiting the hills of Beit El or the Judean hills or the [eastern] approaches to Jerusalem am I visiting a foreign country?
[ … I Such comparisons are baseless. But they reveal the heart of the problem. Because we cannot leave this place. Where would we go? Where will the demand that we withdraw end? At what point on the map does the country cease to be a foreign country?
And if the? foreignness ascribed to us there flows from a recognized and well-known reality – the fact that there is a large Arab public in Yehudah and Shomron (sic the West Bank] – then the Galilee and a large part of the Negev are also foreign countries. They also have a large Arab population. The approach which claims we are foreigners in those parts of the land which are mainly settled by Arabs, will necessarily lead to a gradual acquiescence to the partition plan and to a surrender of our fundamental right to any part of the land [ … ]
AS: In your book, A Place Under the Sun, there is quite a moving passage in which you tell how you, as a young soldier during a tour in a training course for new recruits, once stopped near Shilo [a Jewish settlement in the West Bank] and felt as if you were returning – returning in the name of all the generations. You quote Moshe Dayan: ‘We have returned … to the cradle of our people, to our inheritance from our fathers … we have returned to Hebron and Shechem [sic – Nablus], to Bethlehem and Anatot [home to the prophet Jeremiah].’ Could it be that in the end, through an irony of history, it will in fact be you who finally disconnects us from all these places. From Hebron and from Shechem, from Bethlehem and Anatot?
BN: We are not disconnecting from Hebron. We are not leaving it, we are [only] redeploying there. That’s precisely what I have been engaged with for the last few weeks and taking pains to ensure: to both guarantee the security of the Jews of Hebron and to ensure our continued hold over the places which are holy to us in the city.
And for all that for me the agreement in Hebron is an exceedingly difficult issue, because I have a deep connection to these places. They speak to me. Every stone and every terrace, every tree and every mound fill me with memories. They connect me to a concrete historical existence of which I feel I am an inseparable part. I completely fail to understand why some of us honor the Arab attachment to the land, even though this attachment is much more recent than it is for us, whereas they tend to marginalize and belittle our own connection with the land, which has existed for thousands of years […]
AS: You first appeared as a figure on the international scene in 1983, in a wide-ranging, comprehensive article you wrote for the Wall Street Journal, in which you claimed that the Palestinian problem is not the heart of the conflict in the Middle East. Is this still your view today as well?
BN: In my opinion, the main motive-force of the conflict is the clash between ourselves and the Arab world, which saw us, and to a certain degree still sees us, as a foreign element which has no right to exist in this region. The Palestinian problem is the result of this confrontation and not the main cause of it. One of the most widely-accepted assumptions in this country is that if we solve the Palestinian problem, we will have solved the Arab-Israeli conflict. I do not accept this assumption. If only it were true.
Even if we do achieve a stable settlement with the Palestinians, as I hope and believe we will, we still will not have solved the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its aspects. This conflict will only come to an end when the entire Arab world, as well as Iran, which is nonArab, becomes convinced that Israel is an accomplished fact. Or, alternatively, when the countries that surround us undergo democratic reform.
AS: Do you completely reject the notion of the ‘New Middle East’?
BN: The idea is a characteristic one for a people who lived under continuous siege, and who want to change what is going on outside the walls by means of imagining another reality. I do refuse to adopt this psychology of the besieged. I look objectively at what is going on out there, and I know that for the foreseeable future, the willingness of the Arabs to accept the State of Israel, and to live with it in peace, is conditional on our ability to transmit to them the message that we are not a passing episode.
The word ‘normalization’ is thrown around a lot. It is true that normalization, psychological changes and economic relations are all very important, and we have to cultivate them. But we have to look at what’s happened to normalization between Egypt and ourselves after ten years. We have to examine to what
extent the concept of an irreversible peace with Israel has actually taken hold in Egypt. We have to examine to what extent the Egyptian elite has really internalized Sadat’s declaration: ‘no more war, no more bloodshed.’
The answer, unfortunately, is that they have not internalized it to a sufficient degree. I remember Yitzhak Rabin, may he rest in peace, speaking to me with great intensity and even bitterness about Egypt’s attitude toward us; about the fact that there are fluctuating tides of opinion in Egypt and that there is not enough stability in the attitude of the leadership elites there to Israel. Today, moreover, neo-Nasserism is taking hold in important social layers in Egypt.
[ … ] Together with this, I would like to emphasize that there have been positive developments in our relations with Egypt which should be encouraged. But it should be clear to us that it is highly doubt that a weak Israel could conduct peaceful relations with Egypt.
AS: Then we have to continue the policy of the ‘Iron Wall’? [see note 1]
BN: Until further notice we are still living in the Middle East in the era of ‘Iron Walls.’ What the iron walls do for us is to buy time. The hope is that during this time, positive internal changes will take place in the Arab world which will allow us to lower the iron walls, and perhaps even take them down altogether in the future. This process is indeed gradually occurring, but in order for it to be completed we have to make the Arab world understand conclusively that the idea that we are going to disappear from here is baseless. That despite what sections of the elites in the Arab countries think, Israel is not some sort of neo Crusader entity which will gradually shrink and eventually vanish into thin air.
AS: How would you assess the strategic situation in which you find yourself? What is the true face of the situation that confronts us?
BN: There is a competition going on in today’s Middle East between two processes on which Israel has almost no influence: a process of radicalization and a process of moderation. Unfortunately for us, the extremists are now stronger than the moderates, and at any moment the moderates might themselves become extremists. That’s why I find the notion of a I new Middle East’ to be so amusing. Because since 1979 [when the Shah of Iran was overthrown], we have indeed been living in a new Middle East. We have been confronting a phenomenon of panIslamism which has no parallel in the past thousand years.
On the other hand, there are countervailing trends of moderation and pro-Westernism in various countries, even in Syria. This phenomenon reflects the Arabs’ reaction to the international situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which there is only one dominant pole, the American pole. But this is a thoroughly temporary situation. The American pole won’t remain dominant for long. As early as the beginning of the 2 1 st Century, a world situation with 5 poles will emerge: the USA, Europe, China, Japan, and India. Each of them will try to be active in our region. The first sprouts of this situation arc already visible. Therefore, within a relatively short period we are going to have to learn how to manoeuvre in a new, multi-polar world.
What all this means is that despite what we have been led to believe in recent years, Israel is not about to arrive at rest and peace. The struggles in the Middle East will not cease, and history, obviously, is not about to reach its end. Even if we achieve a contractual peace with all our neighbors – and I certainly believe that it is possible, that it is attainable, perhaps even during the term of office of the present government – these contracts will not ensure that the problem of security will fade away. We have to understand that in the complex world in which we find ourselves, and in the difficult region in which we live – a region which has not yet undergone democratic reform, a region in which there is a strong Islamic movement – that even apparently stable frameworks, and peace agreements, arc always fragile. Among other things, we have to understand that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the entire regional balance of forces will be changed. All the peace agreements which we have signed and will be signed in the future will then be placed under a lot of pressure […]
AS: In your book you relate to the phenomenon of separate Palestinian nationalism as a tactical ploy in the global strategy of pan-Arabism. The term ‘Palestinian people’ often appears inside quotation marks in your writings. Today, do you recognize the existence, and right to exist, of the Palestinian people? Do you acknowledge that they have legitimate rights west of the Jordan River?
BN: It is indeed true that the Palestinian national movement began as a tool of pan-Arabism, basically as a tool of Nasser. But as it developed, it acquired a life of its own, and I certainly think that we have to acknowledge that these separate aspirations exist. I am not attempting to deny the existence of this phenomenon. On the contrary, what I am trying to do is to define it exactly.
My claim is that Palestinian nationalism does not restrict itself to Judea & Samaria [sic – the West Bank and the Gaza Strip]. On the one hand, it broadens itself out to include the Palestinian communities in Jordan, Lebanon and other places, and on the other hand it is penetrating rapidly into the midst of the Arabs of Israel. Anyone who would claim that there is some kind of separate identity in Yesha [sic – the West Bank and Gaza Strip], which is confined to there, simply sins against the truth. Therefore the problem here is very difficult.
We are confronted by a Palestinian nationalism which is a branch of the big tree of Arab nationalism, which has a very intense irredentist ambition to implement the Palestinian covenant – which still has not been rescinded – on the rest of the territory of the State of Israel. On all of ‘Palestine.’ The assumption of Meretz supporters is that if we give this movement what it is demanding in the first stage – that is, a state in the territory of Yesha [sic] and half of Jerusalem – its national aspirations will delineate themselves and stop at the green line. I think that this assumption is just not realistic [ … ] There will be no end to this thing. This principle will keep taking more and more slices from us in Jerusalem and Acre and Haifa. It will take slices from us in Tel Aviv and Jaffa as well.
AS: […] Does this mean that, in your opinion, a fully sovereign Palestinian state in most of the territory of Yesha [sic] would constitute an existential danger, in the full meaning of those words, to the State of Israel?
BN: I see concrete dangers to the State of Israel that could emerge from such a state. I also think that the current debate among the Israeli public between those who seem to say that they are for a Palestinian state and those who oppose it is an artificial debate, a debate which does not extend to the root of the broad national consensus which embraces both camps. When I ask people who apparently support the establishment of such a state for their views, they say: a Palestinian state, yes, but bn condition that it not have tanks and planes and missiles. A Palestinian state, yes, but on condition that it does not control its airspace. A Palestinian state, yes, on condition that it not be allowed to make military alliances with Iraq and Iran.
A Palestinian state, yes, but on condition that it not be allowed to put siphons in the ground and draw off our water. A Palestinian state, yes, but on condition that it not be allowed to bring in 2-3 million refugees and settle them on the border of Wadi Ara [in the Triangle, in Israel proper] or near the Tel Aviv suburbs or around Jerusalem. However, there is nowhere in the world where such limits on sovereignty exist. There is not a single state in the world which is completely de-militarized. There is no state in the world which does not have the right to defend itself and the right to arm itself, the right to control its borders and the right to make military alliances.
Therefore, when the majority in Israel wishes to place all these limitations on the Palestinian Authority, it is in fact opposing the notion of Palestinian sovereignty. It is making demands which can not be harmonized with the concept of sovereignty as it is understood in the world. From this perspective, the only difference between myself and those who speak with such unbearable composure and dexterity, and with such irresponsibility, about a Palestinian state, about giving them a state and thereby ridding ourselves of the problem – is that I am more aware of what the term ‘state’ means. I am aware that the momentum of sovereignty will always overcome any agreements which attempt to place various limits on sovereignty. I am aware of the fact that throughout the entire twentieth century, every time there has been a competition between state sovereignty and demilitarization agreements, state sovereignty has won, and at a heavy price in blood. Including to the Jewish people.
Therefore, I believe that it will finally become clear that the differences among us with regard to this issue are much less than people think. I am convinced that it will be possible to achieve a broad national consensus that will enable the Palestinians to enjoy a not inconsiderable degree of independence, while retaining over-all authority, especially in the security field, in our hands. It should be possible to arrive at a stable peace agreement, on this basis, as early as this term of office [ … ]
AS: A number of people in the country have felt quite depressed since the elections. Some people are talking about internal disintegration and internal alienation, about a crisis of values and culture. Some are speaking of a collapse of Israeliness. About the disappearance of the common denominators which unite this society.
BN: [ … ] Just as I think that in the political sphere, there is really a quite broad consensus as to what is the proper solution, so too I think that in the sphere of values, there is a broad consensus. As I see it the vast majority of the Israeli public is united around a number of basic aspirations which are expressed in a desire to maintain Jewish identity, and which understands that Judaism has a religious, and not merely a national, dimension.
Nevertheless, I do think that the phenomena of alienation and polarization and nihilism are dangerous. Our economic prosperity, as well as our military might and political strength, depend on one ftindamental factor: our indispensable capacity to develop unity around those values which give strength to a nation [ … ]
I think that the fathers of Zionism have something to teach us about this question as well [ … ] What the fathers of Zionism recommended was to avoid insularity, to be open to the West, to be citizens of the great big world – but on the other hand, to maintain our unique identity, which is connected to this particular place, in conformity with the prophets and spiritual teachers who gave us an ethical teaching which is universal and particularist at the same time […]
BN: Don’t you worry that Your political alliance with the haredi [‘ultra-Orthodox’] camp will lead to a change in the nature of Israel? That it will cease to be a well-functioning, liberal-democratic state? The problems between the haredim and the secular will not be easily solved. There is no one simple idea that can form a compromise between the demand of the haredi? community to live according to halacha [Jewish religious law] and the refusal of the secular majority to do so [ … ] Therefore, the only way to solve the problem is to come up with a series of ad hoc compromises. This is what, in practice, every government of Israel has done. I find it hard to understand why we found a way to talk to the Palestinians, who fought a bloody war against us, but we can’t find a way to talk among ourselves, members of the same people […]
AS: You have taken several opportunities to state your view that Zionism today faces new dangers and opportunities. Can you give us some concrete examples?
BN: As I told you, we are heading toward the political world of the 21 st Century, which will be a multi-polar world, and therefore complex and unstable. Our main task will be to learn to manoeuver in this new world, in which we will be facing two main threats: on the internal front the threat of Palestinian irredentism, and on the external front, the threat of pan-Islamism [ … ] As an idea which speaks to the profound desires and needs of so many throughout the Middle East, and which has a mother-country [Iran] which leads it, Islamism is certainly a danger.
[…] I think that if we are able to free the economy from excessive governmental involvement – and that’s what we are going to do – we will be able to realize our human potential in a way which will lead to the rapid growth of the Israeli economy. Even today – before we have undergone the Thatcherist revolution – our per capita GDP is close to that in Britain – around $16,000 – and after we carry out this revolution, we can double this within five to ten years. This process will be accompanied by a doubling of our population, and therefore we will come to a situation in which the output of the Israeli economy will be tripled or quadrupled within 15 years. And then we will be one of the richest countries in the world. Not relatively, but absolutely. And when this happens, the entire profile of our existence in the Nfiddle East and in the international community will change. We will become a true and equal partner to the leading power in the international arena [… ]
Note 1 The concept of the Jabotinskyite Revisionist-Zionist movement, ideological forebear of today’s Likud, that the borders of the Jewish settlement in the land would always have to be defended by military force alone [News From Within]