Israel Report

April 2001         

Interview with Ariel Sharon

"I am optimistic, completely optimistic"

By Jeff Barak and Herb Keinon

JERUSALEM (April 27) - Remembrance Day had just been ushered in by the siren that for a brief minute put an unnatural stop even to the ever-present, around-the-clock hum at the Prime Minister's Office. "The prime minister is running a bit late," his spokeswoman said apologetically. (Ariel Sharon, unlike his two immediate predecessors, is known for his punctuality). "But don't worry, you will still have time."

Indeed, for over two hours Sharon spoke of Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, Gaza and Jordan, reserve duty and immigration. He was in no rush. The day's work was done, the out-of-office meetings finished, the last ceremony attended to, the cables read, his desk cleared. Now, at last, he had time.

And he took his time. He answered, he emphasized, he reiterated, he said things that he has said a million times before, and others that were new revelations. He initiated topics that he didn't think were being covered. He talked of his love for music, and rhapsodized on how he sees the state. He touched on his crossing of the Suez in 1973, his move into Sinai in 1967, and - not be confused - last week's incursion into Gaza.

He joked.

Indeed, one of the most striking things about meeting Sharon is the extent to which he comes across different from his public persona: The fearsome general makes sure his guests have what to drink; the cunning politician makes a point of saying "thank you" to his tea-lady; the intimidating leader pleads with his security man to take a seat. ("They haven't done anything bad yet," he says of his guests to his bodyguard, who adamantly refused to sit down. "But then again, they haven't written anything yet.")

Two messages kept cropping up in the interview, two Sharon mantras, two ideas that the prime minister doesn't want anybody to miss. First, Israel will not conduct diplomatic negotiations under fire, and second, there is reason for optimism.

"Yihye tov, things will be good," the prime minister says, repeating that ubiquitous but so often vacuous phrase. But Sharon genuinely sounds like he believes it, genuinely sounds like he believes that things will work out. When, however, is the great imponderable he could not answer.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

Do you agree with the assessment of a senior defense official that we can't make peace with Arafat and have to wait for the next generation of Palestinian leaders?

Israel always has to make every effort to reach peace; but first of all Israel has to worry about the security of its citizens. I made this the first priority of my government and we'll act accordingly. When there's quiet, we'll definitely enter negotiations. It's not for us to decide who will lead the Palestinians. The main thing is that we can only negotiate when there's total quiet.

I stress that terrorism has to stop, and not that there's a decline in terrorist activities. If we agree to [returning to talks after a] decline in terrorism, we'll quickly find ourselves in an argument over how to define a decline in terrorism. If God forbid, one Jew is killed, whereas a week before, two were killed, is that a decline in terrorism? I reiterate my position is to bring about an end to violence, not a decline. I talked to President Bush about this, and the Americans understand.

Do they agree with this position?
I think they understand very well the dangers of terrorism. The US's interest is stability in Middle East. So is ours. They know very well that the most dangerous destabilizing element is terrorism. The center of world terrorism is between the area of Afghanistan [Saudi tycoon Osama Bin-Laden] and Lebanon, where Iran has begun to build a terrorist base. Iran also has missiles or rockets under its control there, long-range Katyushas that can reach the center of the country.
Under Iranian control?
Under direct Iranian control. Recently they've begun to build their own base where they can aim long-range missiles against Israel. They have a longer range than we've been used to before, reaching beyond Haifa to the center of the country. That is the center of international terrorism today.
What can we do? Is this an existential threat?
No. It's a problem, not an existential threat. This topic of the region turning into an Islamic terrorist center was one of main topics of my meetings in Washington. I didn't go there with a shopping list... My discussions focused on examining these problems, and how we can coordinate our positions.
Is bin Laden trying to develop a base of operations here?
You have a situation now where Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hizbullah are working together with part of the Palestinian Authority security forces... a different situation has been created to what existed in the past, and the organizations are working together, or making efforts among them to coordinate and work together.
What are the implications for us of that coordination?
This government, unlike the previous government, understands the danger of terrorism, and therefore has insisted there won't be peace negotiations under fire - that there can be contacts over a cease-fire, but not on a diplomatic settlement
Is Arafat in charge of terrorism?
Arafat is in full control. Does Arafat give direct orders? That isn't his character. But the fact is that he thought mortars were not good for him, that they could harm his [chances to] visit to the United States, so he gave an order to stop the mortar fire. For three days there weren't any mortar attacks. He controls the Palestinian media, which put out dreadful incitement every day. We see terrorism as the greatest danger because it can be a factor leading to escalation in hostilities. You have terrorism, this leads to a response from us, and this can cause escalation.
So what do we do?
We have a program to deal with terrorism, some of which is known, other parts which we don't talk about. Not everything that is done is seen. We are working and doing more than ever in this struggle, part of the activity is seen and felt, and I hope in the future we will feel more security. I can't say more than this.
You say we won't negotiate under fire. What about the Egyptian-Jordanian plan? We are getting mixed messages on Israel's position here.
It's good that there are initiatives. It's positive, especially since Egypt and Jordan are countries with which we have peace agreements. We received a proposal. We think it needs some changes and improvements. We will give our answer to that.
What is the time frame?
We're working on it now, together with the foreign minister. I would be happy if Shimon Peres would visit Jordan and Egypt
Does that mean that the violence does not have to end before we formally reply to this initiative?
What does the initiative deal with? Putting an end to the violence. Nothing else.
How about the issue of settlements in the proposal, or where to pick up negotiations?
Let's put things in order. First, regarding settlements, in the coalition agreement it was written that no new settlements would be established. But there is nothing preventing population increase in existing settlements. What, are we going to stop having children there?

I don't see a problem to the issue of settlements. In Oslo it says, I think, that until there is a peace agreement, we won't talk about settlements. If we make peace, what's the problem with there being settlements? Who does it bother? Aren't there Israeli-Arab-Palestinians living in Nazareth? And large numbers in Beersheba, Lod, and Ramle? What is the problem? I don't see any problem. So long as there's no peace, there is no [settlement] issue. And in a period of peace, what is wrong [with Jews living in settlements]?

What about the issue in the Jordanian-Egyptian proposal of starting final-status talks?
We're not talking about that at all. I've stressed this.

When Arafat called me after the election I told him that Israel wants peace. But in my mind the peace negotiations didn't lead to anything. We didn't reach peace or security. Therefore, we have to look for another way, a better, more secure way... It's totally clear that we can't enter negotiations for a diplomatic settlement when there's terrorism. If you ask if the Americans understand this, I say yes definitely.

When you were in the US, you lobbied on behalf of American aid to Jordan. Why, especially when they have not sent an ambassador here since October?
In my trip to America, one of the issues I dealt with was the need to aid Jordan. I spoke to the king not too long ago. Jordan today, or rather the Hashemite monarchy, is a stabilizing factor, just by its presence. It stands between Israel, the PA, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq to the east. We have an interest in strengthening them, economically and militarily... In today's situation, they are important to us.
What were Israel's aims in last week's incursion into Gaza?
The orders were limited to: Go in and deal with Palestinian positions from which [mortars] were fired, deal with foliage near the fence that enabled mortar fire from there... From the beginning, it was clear that [the IDF forces] would leave in the morning, but the chief of staff asked to stay until nightfall and he got the okay.

You have to understand that it wasn't our first entry into Area A [under full Palestinian control]. There are [military] operations, but not with vehicles. Do you think we prevent ourselves from entering there to deal with terrorists about to carry out an operation?

What lesson did you learn from the raid?
That Israel has to be very cautious in coming up with [territorial] solutions, because the process is irreversible... You gave, you cannot go back in again and hold on to the territory. There's no such thing as thinking that if you made a mistake you can go back in again.
What lesson did Arafat learn?
Surely, Arafat knows today that this is a different government. It's a government that won't negotiate under fire and has a clear policy for dealing with terrorists and those who aid them. He knows this.
He knows, but the violence continues
This is a long, continuous battle that demands a great deal of determination, persistence, patience, and calm. This is complex battle that we have to deal with in a way which will not bring about an escalation.
Does Israel have these attributes?
There are many Israelis who do.
People want to see an end, a light at the end of the tunnel. Can you give any indication of when we will see the results of your program? Otherwise they may throw out your government.
The government is not the most important thing. We have gotten ourselves into the most complicated situation since the War of Independence, precisely at a time when Israel is economically and militarily strong.

If you ask whether there will be security, there will be security. If you ask whether there will be peace, there will be peace, and it will be possible to live here in quiet. It will be good, I say things will be good, but this takes effort.

For those who are tired, it is worthwhile looking at the past. We don't live only by the sword - as if the only thing that we have done here over the past 100 years is grasp the sword!

We brought millions of Jews here from 102 countries, speaking 82 different languages. We built more than 1,400 cities, including cities with hundred of thousands of people, moshavim, kibbutzim, villages; an educational system; a public-health system that other countries can envy.

We are among the leaders in the world in fields from music to advanced agriculture, from science and research to hi-tech. And we built here one of the best armies in the world... And this happened while we were holding one sword in hand. This is to say that there is no reason for people to despair. I think you can look forward with hope. I am sure that it will be good here.

But with that, children today are afraid to ride buses. What do you say to them?
It is difficult for me, with my size, to enter into the skin of a child. But we have seen days much more difficult than these. All we can do is explain, educate, and know that with all the problems we have, this is the only place where the Jewish people has the right and the strength to defend itself on its own.

It is necessary to look ahead. We need to bring another million Jews here, that needs to be a top priority of all governments. It will be another country altogether [if we do]. We have seen the contribution of the million Jews who came here in the last 10 years.

But where will these million Jews be coming from?
There are 230,000 Jews in Argentina in a very difficult economic situation, and another 130,000 Jews in Brazil. There are 50,000 in Mexico, and there are others in Venezuela and elsewhere [in South America]. There are half a million Jews in Latin America, many of them in distress now, who we need to be taken out of there.

In addition, there are still 80,000 Jews in South Africa, a very strong community. There are nearly 700,000 Jews in France. There are many hundreds of thousands in the Ukraine. There is a big potential resource. If the Jewish people would make an effort, if they would see this as the most important priority, we would not have a problem bringing another million Jews here within the next 13 years.

Finance Minister Silvan Shalom has said he has to cut the budget by NIS 2 billion to NIS 4b., because of increased defense expenditures. Where do you intend cutting?
The IDF has had many unexpected expenditures, including the big outlay for pulling out of Lebanon. [In addition,] the army is involved in a war. We call it "fighting," because there is no feeling that the country is at war. But the soldiers, the units who are under fire all the time, feel that they at the front, in a war. There were unexpected expenditures, and there will be a need to bolster the defense budget.

There are two other [ministries] that I don't think should be touched even in the existing [economic] difficulties, and which, indeed, we should strengthen: education and infrastructure.

Do you think the government will make it to the scheduled November 2003 election date, and are you concerned by Binyamin Netanyahu suddenly becoming much more visible?
Yes, we will make it to the November date.

[Regarding Netanyahu,] I deal with issues of state from early in the morning until late at night. It is not because of you that I remained here tonight. Truthfully, I don't know what he is doing, or what he intends to do. I'm not concerning myself with that.

Are you in contact with him?
Only "Hello, how are you." We meet here and do not - God forbid - have bad relations.
Are you in contact with former premiers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Shamir?
I am someone who consults with people. Shamir called me recently, and I saw him on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We exchanged a few words, and made an appointment to meet. I'm in contact with Barak. When he recently traveled to the US, I asked him raise certain things [with the people he was meeting]. I have good relations with him, there was no falling out.
How do you respond to criticism of using your son, Omri, as a messenger to Arafat?
I respect the law, and will act as the law determines. The dispute now is on the interpretation of the law. There are those who think like the attorney-general, that this is not legal, and there are serious legal experts, like Amnon Rubinstein, who think that it is completely proper, especially since it is not a permanent position... I will respect any decision the High Court of Justice takes, of course.

I think that Omri's contacts, some of which happened at critical moments, had an important influence, and prevented casualties. I admit that I endangered him in sending him [to Ramallah], but there were moments where there was a need to intervene immediately, or clarify something immediately. He did not negotiate, he did not commit the state to anything, or represent the state. He brought personal messages from me - sometimes clarifications, sometimes warnings.

He went there twice. There were times when Arafat called him, such as once at a critical moment following the exchange of fire [involving Gaza Preventive Security Service chief Mohammed Dahlan] at the Erez junction. That was very unpleasant, that whole incident.

Can't you speak directly to Arafat by phone?
I don't speak to him on the phone. It is impossible - there are times when you have to look the other person in the eyes, so he knows what you mean. Arafat also does not rely completely on the reports he gets. The Americans said [they feel] the whole thing is unfortunate, because it could have created a channel that could prevent an escalation of tension, and clarify intentions.
Do you want to see more US involvement now in the Middle East?
I have contact with him [President George W. Bush] We don't talk every day, there were prime ministers who spoke every day... If you are asking if I would want it to be like it was under the previous government, where they talked to the administration about every hill and wadi - I think better to have bilateral talks, and if one or both sides needs the Americans, they will ask.
What do you think of Yossi Beilin's recent diplomatic missions? Among other things, he is trying to arrange a meeting between you and Arafat.
I want to tell you something: We don't need Yossi Beilin to organize a meeting between me and Arafat. But I will not have such a meeting when the country I lead is coming under daily attacks that the PA could prevent.

If you are asking me if there is a contribution to be made by self-appointed messengers, many of whom run to the Palestinians to express their private views - I say that we have already seen where these [contacts] lead. We are now eating the rotten fruits of these past contacts. In my opinion this causes confusion, creates unnecessary expectations among the Palestinians, and delays entering into negotiations because they have more hopes. In my opinion these [private diplomatic missions] hurt.

You talk about rotten fruits, but you have the same foreign minister that Yitzhak Rabin had during the Oslo period.
I have no problem with my foreign minister. I work with him excellently. First, regarding the need to restore security, he agrees with me, and speaks on this very clearly. Regarding our work [together], we are in full coordination.

Everyone knows when it comes to the stage of a full solution, we have different views. But we are not even close to that stage.

I think a wall-to-wall government creates a better atmosphere both domestically and [for Israel's standing] in the world. I have no problem with Shimon Peres. The atmosphere in the government is good. The cabinet meetings are short, not like they used to be. Two-and-a-half-hour meetings - that already seems long to me - and we finish everything.

Are there currently discussions to try and widen the government?
Yes, with the National Religious Party and the Center Party. As much as I don't want or think it will happen, we need to prepare everything so things are ready [in case Labor bolts before November 2003]. We need a majority without them.
What needs to be done regarding IDF reserve duty?
There are a few tens of thousands of people who serve in fighting units, who for dozens of years have been carrying the security of the sate on their shoulders. They have problems, with university studies, with financial remuneration.

But if you ask me if those are their main problems, I say no. We solved that. Their main problem is that society looks at them as frierim (suckers). They are not frierim, they just look that way to others. They are proud of what they do, and love their units. But there is no appreciation of them in public.

Instead of a child complaining that his friend's father is home all the time [while his own father is in reserves] we need to get to a situation where he is proud that his father serves in reserves. But this is more difficult. We need to educate, to teach. I miss no opportunity to talk about this.

Do you, as has been reported, plan on okaying a railway line from Tulkarm to Gaza?
This is something I raised at the Wye [River talks]. I said then to the Palestinians that they should set up a train company, and use our lines, to go from Gaza to Tulkarm. They could call it the Gaza-Tulkarm express, or Dir el-Balah-Kalkilya local.

Establish a train company, I said, use our tracks, pay for them, and leave from Gaza and arrive in Tulkarm. That would require our laying six kilometers of track near Yad Mordechai, and improving a stretch near Tulkarm and Kfar Saba.

I raised the idea twice, but nobody talked about it afterward. Then suddenly, in a meeting the Palestinians had [last week] with the foreign minister [Peres] and the minister of infrastructure [Avigdor Lieberman] on water lines and things like that, they raised this issue. I then raised it with the transportation minister.

I want to say something. Fighting terrorism and restoring security is at the top of our agenda. Diplomatic negotiations will not be held under fire, but discussions on stopping the violence will take place. I have no problem with that. And we also have an interest in discussions on economic issues that are important to both sides, for example the desalination plant, the train - I have an interest in them riding in a train rather than on crowded roads.

Can economic discussion take place before there is an end to violence?
An issue that I asked the foreign minister to deal with, and which the Palestinians gave their agreement to, is a water problem in Hebron and Kiryat Arba. Water is pumped there today from the Herodian area, but on the way Arab farmers hook up into the pipeline, and a large part of the water is lost on the way.

We have a water line that begins near Beit Guvrin, and runs to Telem in Judea. We suggested bringing the line from Telem to Hebron, so there will be water for Kiryat Arba and Hebron. This is in the interest of both sides. Desalination is in interest of both sides.

I believe in interdependence, of large projects in which each side has something to lose if it decides not to keep up the relations.

Isn't this a degree of normalization, while the mortar shells are still falling?
We separate the issues. First, there's the humanitarian point of view. We area also aware of our standing in the world.

When they come to us with complaints [about economic restrictions], we note that we are letting 5,000 people out a day to go to work, though they are not filling up this numbers. There are also another 1,000 businessmen, 600 trucks a day going in and out with materials, fishermen going out to sea. I say it is very important, humane, the right thing to do, and also makes it easier for us in the international arena.

It doesn't seem to be making much of a dent in Europe.
We truly have problems in Europe. They very much want to be involved in the peace process. I said clearly to the Spanish foreign minister when he raised the issue [on Tuesday], that we would be happy for European involvement - if their approach is balanced. If they want to help with economic assistance to the Palestinians, that's fine, but not [involvement] in negotiations, because their position is not balanced, and is pro-Palestinian a priori.
Are you concerned about possible European economic sanctions?
Over what? Over the fact that Jews defend themselves?
Over what they say is excessive force.
To shell a city like Sderot in the afternoon, when everyone is out and about, in order to kill children and adults?
They don't see it like that.
We see it like that. What do you suggest - to surrender, to leave? What do you suggest?

I am not worried about this [sanctions]. I am not saying that there will not be difficulties - there will be difficulties. But we are right on this issue. We are in the right. This obligates explaining our position [better].

Is there anything in the prime minister's job that surprised you, that you did not expect?
I have been in this building for 24 years, with small breaks in the middle. I've been in [the Prime Minister's Office] hundreds of times, and came to meet many different heads of government
Now that you are sitting on that side of the desk, however, is there a difference in how you see things?
If you are asking if I have changed my mind about what diplomatic arrangement it is possible to arrive it, the answer is no. If you mean have I changed my mind on the need to fight terrorism as a central danger to Israel - no. But if you mean whether I think that as prime minister I need to present things in a different way - yes.

Not on the substance... but the question is how to convince, how to present things, how to lead on these issues. I now see additional aspects that I have to take into consideration on the way to achieving the same goals I have always believed in.

This is a land of problems, with great dangers on one hand, and great hopes on the other. And the problem is how to fend off the dangers, while on the other hand furthering the hopes.

How do you fight terrorism, but don't lead to an escalation? How do you stand firm, but also desire to negotiate for peace? You have to invest a lot of thinking in this, do it with caution.

But if you ask me if we can look forward with optimism, I think we can... I am optimistic, completely optimistic.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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