True Visions: An Interview with the Prime Minister


(April 28) Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu caps an action-filled day with an interview explaining his vision of Israel's next 50 years

Sunday was a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary-kind of day for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In the morning he chaired a short cabinet meeting, and in the afternoon he met for a couple of hours with US envoy Dennis Ross. A special cabinet meeting to deal with rising unemployment was postponed for a week because of the prime minister's tight schedule.

At nightfall, after Ross headed to Gaza for a meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu did what he does so well - grant interviews. Indeed, the prime minister turned himself into a veritable interview machine. Journalist after journalist waited in his office, squirming impatiently on soft, enveloping couches, for the once-every-50-year jubilee interview with the prime minister.

First Ilana Dayan and Gidi Gov were there for a Channel 2 jubilee special. Then a reporter from the Russian Language Vesti, followed by a correspondent from Vesti's competitor, Novesti Nedelyi. And finally, at nearly 11 p.m., three hours later than scheduled, The Jerusalem Post. The prime minister's bureau felt like a dentist's office.

The time of day is barely felt inside the brightly lit corridors, as phones ring, televisions and radios blare, and people still come and go close to midnight. The time of day is also difficult to discern on Netanyahu's face. By contrast, his spokesman, Shai Bazak, has the harried look that comes from working long hours.

Netanyahu sat behind his large, uncluttered desk, four pictures of his family resting on bookshelves behind him. He answered question after question - in signature Netanyahu fashion, without missing a beat. The room was inordinately cool, the air conditioner working overtime on this chilly Jerusalem night to keep the office's chief occupant - wearing a coat and tie and obviously under intense pressure - cool. Jubilees don't come around every day. As such, Netanyahu was eager to talk about the "vision thing." He was more interested in discussing the past 50 years in generalities, than in giving specifies about the diplomatic maneuvers of the last few days. What follows are excerpts of the interview:

In your discussions with Ross, what is holding up the negotiations with the Palestinians, the second withdrawal, or the third withdrawal?

We insist on two principles. One is reciprocity, which means the Palestinians have to keep the promises they gave us time and time again in the Hebron and Oslo accords. The second is the principle that Israel and only Israel can determine its security requirements, and hence the extent of the redeployment.

That is a fairly succinct summation of the problems we have.

Do you think Arafat will declare a Palestinian state in May 1999?

I strongly advise him not to. We prefer a negotiated solution, not actions by which one side imposes its view of a final settlement on the other. Obviously, if Arafat insists on going it alone, he will encounter unilateral reactions on our part, which we prefer not to take, and the consequences will not benefit either the Palestinians or peace. The best thing to do is to avoid unilateral declarations or actions, and join - as I have been calling for over a year - accelerated negotiations on the final settlement.

What are the options, in terms of unilateral actions, that Israel can take?

They are pretty variegated. I would not start listing them now, you can use your imagination. I'm sure you will create a very long list. I don't think we should be dragged into a discussion of it.

Why not list the actions available? If Arafat says he will declare a state, why not say explicitly what you will do?

We may have no choice but to do that, but I prefer to exhaust the effort initially, to resume a different dialogue, a different atmosphere. Obviously, if we don't succeed, we will have to consider our options.

You have spoken about the small difference between a "state minus" and "autonomy plus." But whatever you call it, we are still talking about a demilitarized entity of some sort. How can it be kept demilitarized?

By having Israel in overriding control of the international passage points, among other things. This doesn't prevent local production of weapons, but it makes it more difficult to envision tanks, artillery, heavy rockets and so on being poised on hills above Tel Aviv and Haifa, and around Jerusalem.

The minute we forfeit land and hand it over to the Palestinians, we take a very big risk. But we can minimize that risk by not throwing caution to the wind, by not adopting the facile position that we will let them have a state, let them do what they wish, let them arm themselves to the teeth, and let us close our eyes and hope for the best.

We don't close our eyes.

Is there anything positive you can say about Yasser Arafat?

Well, I hope I'll be able to sign a final settlement with him. That's what I can tell you. If we get to that point, it means that he has done what has been required of him in the agreement, and that will indeed be a very positive development.

But what about at this point?

He has done one or two things recently against Hamas, but more in response to perceived internal threats. Nevertheless, these are positive actions. They merely show that he and the Palestinian Authority have the capacity to fight terrorism if they want to.

You have said that previous governments were not under as much international pressure as this one, because they made concessions. But hasn't this government moved so far in the other direction that it is inviting pressure?

No. We haven't moved in any direction, we have been consistent and true to our principles. We are not freierim (suckers). We are not prepared to have a unilateral process in which Israel gives and gives, and the Palestinian Authority takes and takes, and gives nothing in return. It is very difficult to make that change, especially since the Palestinian Authority has become used to receiving everything and having the international community applaud it. And, of course, Israel was patted on the back as long as it continued to give.

When we put a stop to this and demanded reciprocity, and demanded that the Palestinians fight terrorism, two things happened. One, we were assailed from every conceivable direction, and two, terrorism declined. It has not disappeared by any stretch of the imagination, it could hit us at any moment, and we are busy fighting it with our own means as well.

Do you imagine the peace with the Palestinians to be like the peace with Jordan or Egypt, a full peace treaty? Or do you imagine that there will still be open issues even after the final settlement?

I would prefer to see a full peace treaty. With Jordan we had some issues left open, such as the precise delineation of the border. With Egypt we had something left open, which is the negotiations over autonomy. I don't know if anything will be left open with the Palestinians, but I'd like to give it the stamp of finality so as to inject a very strong element of stability into what is otherwise an inherently unstable situation.

In 50 years do you think there will still be Jews living in Yitzhar, or in Bracha [two settlements near Nablus]?

Yes. I am not delineating a map for you, but our insistence has been on keeping all the settlements, that is in fact why we are undergoing this difficulty [in the negotiations]. I don't want to jeopardize the security of any one of them.

Is it possible to keep all the settlements, yet give the Palestinians a contiguous land area?

From our point of view it is. What we have been looking at, dealing with, are certain conceptions - I'm not sure it would be useful to get into them here - but arrangements which permit that to happen.

Do you envision that Jews will be in Hebron in 50 years, celebrating the centennial there?

In another 250 years, and many more. We have had an almost uninterrupted Jewish presence in Hebron since biblical days, with some painful interruptions in this century, and I don't intend to have that interruption resumed. The Jewish presence in Hebron is an integral part not only of our political policy, but also of our values. It is the oldest Jewish point of settlement on earth, and it is not one we are about to forsake, whether in terms of being there or protecting the people who are there.

Given that sentiment, how do you explain that Hebron settlers are always at the forefront of demonstrations against you?

Because they are at the friction point. Our policies are different from the previous government, which was effectively to evict them by a phased method. Their ministers declared time and time again that they did not see any point to Jews living in Hebron, that it was a mixed city and therefore the Jews should leave, as though this is merely a question of demographic neatness. There are other values in Hebron, it contains the Tomb of our Patriarchs, where Jews have lived for thousands of years, and we view it as a value in and of itself for Jews to continue living there for thousands of more years.

What message does the talk about bringing Moledet into the government send to the country, to the Israeli Arabs?

We don't accept [Moledet's] transfer doctrine. When [Rehavam] Ze'evi joined the previous Likud government he had to agree to the government's platform. That will be the situation in this case as well. He will know that we do not accept and will not adopt his own policy.

You have to ask yourself what will be Ze'evi's contribution.We do not need Moledet to say no [to ratifying a second-stage withdrawal]. We probably don't need Moledet to say yes either, but it helps me to bring as many MKs together around an interim agreement, should we have one.

Will there ever be another decade in which a million Jews immigrate to Israel? It is possible, and I would like to see it come from the West. Israel has just achieved the per capita income of western Europe, and has more scientists, technicians, technologists - relative to the size of the population - than any other country. This is potentially the source of great wealth, because wealth in the 21st century will be created by conceptual products.

Look at the wealthiest man in the world today, Bill Gates. Nobody can count his billions. But what we do know is how much he had 10 years ago. Close to zero. This is the greatest multiplication of wealth in history.

And what is true of individuals is true of nations, too. Those nations will thrive that have the ability to manipulate knowledge in every field of human endeavor, and I believe that we are very fortunate to have that kind of advantage. Therefore I think that Israel could - fasten your seat belts - be a very wealthy country, and I think that as the standard of living rises, it will begin to attract Jews from the West. It already is attracting Jews from parts of Great Britain that have a lower per capita income than Israel does. I believe it will attract many Jews from South America, and many remaining Jews in Russia who are concentrated in the Moscow area, and who are doing better than they did before, but will do even better here.

And I believe that we will see in the next 10 years a much larger immigration of Jews from North America.

Clearly, I would like to see all that immigration motivated first and foremost by Zionist ideals. But I also know that the span of this immigration would increase significantly if Israel is transformed, as we are rapidly transforming, into a liberal, free-market economy and society.

I think, too, that within the next decade we will realize the dream of ages, namely that the majority of the Jewish people will live in the Land of Israel. This is an unparalleled achievement that we can accelerate by doing something else on the 50th anniversary of Israel.

Up to now we received assistance, up to now assistance flowed one way, from the Diaspora to Israel. As Israel gets more prosperous, more developed, it has to start worrying about securing the Jewish people in the Diaspora by beginning to invest - this year in a symbolic way, and continuously from now on - in Jewish education, the teaching of Hebrew, the teaching of Jewish and Zionist history, the expansion of Jewish identity and pride in the Diaspora.

That is the key to aliya, the key - in my judgment - to the well-being of Jewish communities abroad. I believe that this transformation will begin this year. I know people don't believe this , but people didn't believe me when I said that I would start to draw down on American financial aid, and we are going to conclude that agreement now.

Believe it, Israel is going to start helping the Diaspora, because that is a central task, to save the Jewish people from the abyss of assimilation. This is one the fundamental tasks facing the State of Israel as it enters the 21st century.

Does this mean Israel will start telling federations in America to keep their money there and invest in Jewish education, rather than sending it on to Israel?

I 'm not sure that we shouldn't send money directly, or talk to the Jewish Agency and talk about programs [in the Diaspora], joint programs , funded partly by them and partly by us, by the budget of the Jewish state.

Can Israel do something about the fact that 60% of American Jews have never visited?

I think we have had three periods since the Zionist restoration. The first 50 years the Jewish people had to launch a major effort to recover what was lost in the long years of exile - Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish land. In the next 50 years we had to struggle very hard to protect what had been achieved, and we still have our challenges ahead of us. But I believe we have been able to establish miracles. In the next 50 years the Jewish state has to act to prevent a disintegration of Jewish life outside the Jewish state, and create a human bridge of aliya that will both sustain the state, and, not paradoxically, sustain the communities, which will have families in Israel and in the Diaspora.

That is a natural transition of a great success story. I think Israel is the greatest success story of the 20th century, and in many ways it is the greatest triumph of a people of all the nations of history.

©The Jerusalem Post

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