Jerusalem, June 19, 2013
I thought the question was a little bit different, what you asked. Should we sit and wait, or should we act? So I interpreted what the question was as, “should we move forward with an arrangement with the Palestinians now, or should we wait until we get clarity about the direction the region is going in?” And put that way, I have two sets of considerations to answer that question. First of all, with respect to the Palestinians. How many prime ministers have been in power since 1993? I’ve lost count. But I’ll say this: everyone has tried one way or another to advance towards a permanent status arrangement. And if there’s one thing that is crystal clear today it is that the gap between the parties, between Israel and the Palestinians, on all the key issues of permanent status, not just one, not just two, but all of them, the gap is too wide. The gap may be unbridgeable at present. If that is the case, then that has to be taken into account to answer your question.
I think the different Middle East we have today is one in which Israel and several Arab countries have similar threat perceptions. And if you look at the origins of Europe, that we think of as a model, the European Union grew not out of the coal and steel community alone, but out of the common threat they faced from the Soviet Union.
We are facing two common threats: one, the Iranian threat, and the second one, the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. And if we are smart, we can build some foundations of dialogue with key Sunni Arab countries. That, unfortunately, will have to be kept very quiet.
Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t want a negotiation right now. Maybe he looks at the region. In the old days, Mahmoud Abbas could sit down with Osama El-Baz and President Mubarak and they’d give him advice and give him support. Well now, you know who’s in control of Cairo? The sponsors of his enemies in Hamas, so it’s a much more difficult region not just for us, but for him.
What is happening in the region? Some might say that the region is actually less threatening. We don’t have the massive Soviet- equipped Soviet armored forces that could mass on our borders that we saw in ’73, and the Israeli army planned for years later. But what’s happening is also very disturbing and something we have to take into account: it’s the breakdown of countries. It’s the breakdown of states into smaller statelets.
We talk about Syria; is the future of Syria a Syrian state, or a breakdown into four or five states? For years we talked about what will be Israel’s border, and some references are made to the ’49 armistice line, well, right now we’re in a position where the 1916 Sykes- Picot lines are about to melt down. So the region could look very different.
Will the Sunnis of Iraq unify with the Sunnis of Syria? We don’t know; but one thing we do know is that all of the old states that were there a few years ago acquired immense arsenals of weapons. Libya was known to be one of the biggest arsenals in the Middle East. Of course, Sadaam had a huge arsenal of weapons, and we all talk about the chemical weapons and other weapons that the Syrian army has. Well, those weapons are now flowing outward, and they will go into these little statelets, and so both the non-governmental terrorist organizations, as well as the statelets could pose serious problems to Israel and to our other neighbors.
So I think, considering that we do not have an option, in my judgment, of a full permanent status agreement at this point, and considering that we have uncertainty, and yet a new round of threats in which lethal weaponry will go into the various new neighbors that are emerging, it becomes incumbent on Israel to guarantee its future, to make sure that it continues to adopt the principle of defensible borders. If Israel were, for example, to leave the Jordan valley, that would be a national disaster. And much of the weaponry, for example: shoulder-fired missiles to take down aircraft begin to flow into the West Bank. They are now in the Gaza Strip; they are not in the west bank. And that’s only one example of how the immediate strategic environment could be changed if we made a mistake and assumed that we could go all the way in making the kinds of concessions that have been talked about in the past.
To summarize, what is important to recognize is, first of all, that if we go diplomatically forward, and I would recommend going diplomatically forward: on more limited types of agreements. But secondly, that diplomacy, for more limited types of agreements, must be based on maintaining Israel’s defensible military situation, and not assuming that in this new era we can let down our guard.
With respect to Iran, look, it’s been said by everybody that the real power in Iran, the real decision-making on issues of nuclear weapons, nuclear arms control is in the hands of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That is true, but the president can be influential, the president is part of a decision-making process. He can influence, but he can’t make the final, ultimate decision.
Now, I have to say I know a little bit about Hassan Rowhani. I wrote a book in 2009 called The Rise of Nuclear Iran. He’s the star of the opening chapter. Because Hassan Rowhani was a master of taqiyya, the doctrine of deception which Ayatollah Khomeni told the Shiites to use as much as possible, and deception means saying one thing and doing something else.
In fact he confessed in 2004, in a speech in Teheran, that while he was negotiating with the EU three: Britain Germany, and France – and he was criticized for that negotiation because he went into a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment – he built, or Iran built the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan. Conversion is when you make the fuel that is injected into the centrifuges. We won’t go into more detail here. He said “I negotiated, but we completed our nuclear program because of my negotiations.”
So, I don’t see him so much as a dove. I see him more as a fox. And hopefully the world will be aware of his contribution not just to diplomacy but also to the Iranian nuclear program.
I want to speak on something very specific, which is the Arab Peace Initiative. Look, the spirit behind the Arab world reaching out to Israel is something positive. The problem with the Arab Peace Initiative, and I refer to the statement made by Saud al-Faisal, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, in 2007. He was asked, ‘is it a take-it-or-leave-it initiative or is it negotiable?’ If it’s negotiable, let’s negotiate. But if it’s take-it-or-leave-it, here it is, you can’t even take the refugees and put them in Lebanon or in Jordan because it says there’s a whole prohibition about them receiving Arab nationality outside of Palestinian territory. So what I’m trying to say is this: it would be great if this was the basis for sitting down and we can bring our positions to the table, and they can bring their positions to the table and we can talk about it. We have to reach a deal with the Palestinians in any case. But unfortunately, as much as people get very excited about the Arab Peace Initiative, we’re not there yet.
The settlement issue shouldn’t be overrated. By the way, there was an amazing piece in the New York Times magazine, an interview with Mahmoud Abbas a few years back. I don’t remember the name of the interviewer; he’s an academic from Canada, and the settlement issue came up, and Abbas said, ‘You know what? The built up areas of all the settlements come to 1.2% of the West Bank.’ And he said, ‘And I offered Olmert a 1.9% land swap’. In other words, ‘I was more generous with him than he actually needed.’ But he was trying to say that the amount of territory taken by the settlements, from his perspective, whether he’s right or not is another question, wasn’t terribly great. The settlement issue was built up by various international players. So let’s not overrate it today. Arafat came to Washington to have Abu Mazen sign the Oslo agreements in 1993 without a settlement freeze. Keep that in mind. Put this in perspective. There are far more important issues that are affecting the peace process than construction in the West Bank.
One month before he was assassinated, Yitzchak Rabin appeared in the Knesset to present the Oslo 2 interim agreement for approval. And it was a haunting speech because of the timing.
But what he did was, he laid out what he viewed as the future borders of Israel. With respect to the Jordan valley Rabin stated to the Knesset – we’re two years into Oslo, this isn’t a speech from the 70s, two years into Oslo – he says Israel must retain the Jordan valley in the widest sense of the term. He didn’t say whether we have to have sovereignty – I’ll admit that – but he made it very clear.
This was also the position of Arik Sharon. And when I was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu to present to President Clinton the IDF security interests map that was done by the planning branch of the army, it included the Jordan valley. When Sharon asked me to make a presentation that he presented to President Bush in 2001 on Israel’s vital interests – when we went to the White House – it included the Jordan Valley.
So if Rabin, Sharon, the IDF interests map which was presented by Bibi Netanyahu in Washington, all included the Jordan Valley as a vital Israeli interest, I say it’s a vital Israeli interest.