Published in the Jerusalem Report, November 13, 1998
Report: Your 1995 book “Fighting Terrorism” is scathing about Yasser Arafat, adamant that, for him, Oslo is the first stage of the PLO’s “phased plan” for Israel’s elimination. How can you do business with him? Has he changed? Or have you?
PM: Well, the situation has changed. We inherited an agreement that we didn’t sign, we didn’t like, that we opposed. We still think it’s full of holes and flaws.
What we said, however, was that we would keep the Oslo agreement under two stipulations: one, that we would reduce the extent of the withdrawals, and we’ve done that; the second is to insist that the Palestinian side be obliged to keep its commitments by assuring the principle of reciprocity in the redeployment. We’ve done that too.
So it’s not a question of trust, it’s a question of verification. We’ve installed verifiable concrete steps of Palestinian implementation. If they carry out their part, we’ll carry out our part. If they don’t, we won’t.
Report: Do you think he’s abandoned the phased-plan mindset?
PM: Well, we shall see. One of the things that may give an indication of that is the straightforwardness, or lack of it, with which they carry out the stipulation about annulling the charter [the Palestinian Covenant] in the PNC [Palestine National Council].
Report: It’s interesting that you raised that clause. Maybe there are things that haven’t been published, but the [Wye River] Memorandum that we’ve seen, the published memorandum, talks of reaffirming previous decisions at the PNC. It doesn’t appear to be a more formal event than the one that has already taken place.
PM: No, the “previous decisions” we’re talking about are contained in the earlier decisions of the Central Committee that will meet two weeks before this, at which they will ratify, confirm the letter sent by Arafat to Clinton in which he itemizes the provisions of the charter calling for the destruction of Israel that are to be nullified.
Therefore, the reaffirmation of the decision to cancel these items is tantamount to annulment. This is what we expect to see. We hope they’ll do it. In any case, we’ll watch carefully.
Report: Arafat has begun to talk of you as his peace partner. Is that how you see him?
PM: If he keeps his commitments, the answer would be positive. If he doesn’t, then this will be a tragedy for peace.
Report: What is it about your relationship with Arafat that makes it acceptable, whereas Yitzhak Rabin’s and Shimon Peres’s was, as you put it, dangerous to Israel?
PM: I think what was dangerous to Israel was that there was no reciprocity, and no cap on Israeli withdrawals. It’s widely known – even though it’s being widely denied, it’s being currently denied by the Labor party – that they were prepared to give most of the historical and strategic land of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority in three successive withdrawals.
We’ve reduced that number, that extent, significantly, to 10 percent, plus 3 percent nature reserves in which we have full control, full security control, and no construction takes place. The third redeployment that we will announce with the passage of the agreement in the cabinet is all of 1 percent.
So we’ve changed the situation dramatically, from a dangerous slide to the 67 borders that the original government, or rather the originators of Oslo, had the Palestinians believe they would receive.
Secondly, we insist on getting something for it. We insist that there be full-scale action against the Hamas terrorist organization, the annulment of the charter, the reduction of the Palestinian police Force, and so on. All of these things are concrete demands, or rather are concrete ways of verifying, that the Palestinian obligations are actually being kept. That’s a very far and great difference. I think the basis of peace in our area is founded on security and Israel’s ability to defend itself. But also on the idea of mutuality, namely that it’s not only Israel that gives, but also that Israel receives.
Report: Now that you’re back from the summit, you have Hamas transparently determined to thwart the attempt at progress, and you have demonstrators here calling you a traitor. Do you understand more of what Yitzhak Rabin was going through?
PM: I think that the calls of “Traitor” were despicable then. And I opposed this kind of language, and came out against it in the face of impassioned crowds. I condemned the use of the words “traitor” or “murderer” and so on.
And that remains my position today. We can argue. That is legitimate. But we cannot, we cannot incite to violence. Violence has to be struck from our public life. You cannot kill prime ministers. You cannot kill anyone, over anything. You cannot murder anyone, over anything. So that I think is important.
On the other hand, you also have to remember that we are not carrying the torch of the Labor party, as some would have it. We are not continuing on their path. We inherited their agreement, and we’ve sought to minimize its imperfections, to plug some major holes in it. But this is not a breakdown of our ideology, as some would have it. We remain attached to the Land of Israel. We try to keep as much of it as we can under our jurisdiction.
Report: Still, with hindsight, do you feel you could have acted differently in any way as leader of the opposition?
PM: No! I don’t think I have anything to apologize for. I share a deep regret, and shock, of every Israeli over the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. That’s natural. But I think that we conducted ourselves in this campaign … I personally stand by every word that I said.
It’s interesting that only one journalist actually scoured the texts of the Knesset debates and the demonstrations, and had to admit after an exhaustive search that I always spoke to the pint, that I never used inflammatory language, that I was always respectful of Rabin personally, as I am today. The attempt to identify a sizable portion of the population and the leader of the party that opposed Oslo with an act of a lunatic fringe is character assassination of the first order.
There are two things that are unacceptable in a democracy: one is to cross the lines of legitimate debate and argument into violence; and the second is to try to taint, in MaCarthyite terms, the legitimate positions of a large segment of the population as unacceptable because of the illegitimate actions of a solitary criminal.
Report: Are you confident that Israel has learned the lesson of the assassination, that nothing similar can happen again?
PM: I cannot say that.
Report: What does that mean – that you do feel that it could happen again?
PM: It could naturally happen. It could happen again. Unnaturally, I should say. But I cannot address that threat. I’ve said that leaders that begin to think about their own personal safety should not lead.
Report: So you don’t think about your personal safety?
PM: No, I don’t. There are people who are charged with that. If I started thinking about that, I would be immobilized. I would not take any decisions.
Report: Do you think a final-status deal with the Palestinians is a matter of years? Is May 4 a viable date in any way? How do you see things panning out?
PM: It’s not a likely date anyway, because none of the dates in Oslo has been kept. We’ll begin very soon the final-settlement negotiations, but I have no illusion that this will be rapid or easy.
Whether or not we come to an agreement depends on the reasonableness of the Palestinians. If they keep on talking about flooding Israel with refugees under the right-of-return clause, or dividing Jerusalem, or the other unacceptable demands that they raise, we won’t reach a solution.
If they modify their aims and understand that the State of Israel is here to stay, with a united capital, then it’s more likely we’ll reach a settlement. It’s up to them, more than it’s up to us, because these demands at the center of their agenda are unacceptable to any Israeli, to any sane Israeli.
Report: Is your vision of the final deal something less than independent Palestinian statehood? A limited statehood that somehow doesn’t threaten Israel?
PM: There has to be a curtailment of sovereignty, that’s clear. That’s why I don’t use the word “state,” because it implies uncurtailed sovereign powers. And in this case there has to be an abridgement of certain powers, such as the ability to make military pacts with the likes of Iraq or Iran, or the stationing of foreign troops on the soil of the Palestinian entity, or the importation of weapons which could mortally endanger Israel. There are natural abridgements to such powers.
The right formula for achieving a final settlement must strike a balance between the Palestinians’ need to run their own lives and our need to protect our lives and our vital interests. And, first, that can only be achieved by negotiations. And, second, it necessarily means a compromise, not only on the Israeli side, but also on the Palestinian side.
Report: On the Israeli side, could you envisage that compromise involving the dismantling of some outlying settlements?
PM: I don’t intend to dismantle any settlement. It is a fact that in this particular redeployment, the redeployment right now, none of the settlements will be disconnected. We’ve taken care to ensure their security and their well-being.
Report: We have a redeployment now. We have 1 more percent in a third redeployment. And then we have the final-status deal. You would not be expecting to give the Palestinians control of any more land in the final-status deal?
PM: Not necessarily. That’s one of the questions for negotiation. They will want more. We will want less, or nil. That’s where the negotiations will begin. As far as the status of those territories, we’ll also have a difference of views. They will want unlimited powers. And we, of necessity, will demand that they have limited powers.
Report: There’s outrage in the opposition that, in championing the Wye deal, you’ve taken to mocking the Labor leadership, suggesting that, as you’ve said in this interview, the previous government would have relinquished more land and that the current leadership…
PM: Yes, well, look at the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan. It’s not a claim, it’s a fact, and everybody knows it. The attempts to describe the Labor position as asking for more [from the Palestinians] is ludicrous, and everybody knows it. They had given more, they were prepared to give a great deal. And in fact when the original American initiative came out, they said, “Let’s just accept it, why are we wasting time?”
Report: Ehud Barak says he didn’t accept it.
PM: Well, not only did he accept it, he said, “There’s no point in this delay.” Well, what was the delay about? The delay was about ensuring reciprocity. The delay was about ensuring that the third redeployment is agreed between us, or rather that Israel make clear that the third redeployment will be no more than 1 percent, and we will not enter into conflict with the United States about that. The delay was about assuring that the police force be reduced, to ensure it, and that the Palestinians collect illegal weapons and to have a mechanism to verify that that gets done, and so on. All of these things were important.
But the opposition even said, “The PNC is not important. Don’t even deal with it.” The PNC, the annulment of the charter. So this is a transparent attempt to evade their positions that they’ve taken. They would have given a great deal and immediately. We gave less, because we insisted on Israel’s security interests. And that’s one of the differences between us.
Report: Isn’t there something counterproductive in having President Clinton come to Gaza or the West Bank? Isn’t that a greater stamp of legitimacy for Yasser Arafat’s and for Palestinian aspirations than anything else ever before?
PM: Not if they nullify the Palestinian charter in his presence.
Report: You think it’s worth the status…
PM: We shall see if they actually do it. I’m sure the Americans are interested too. If there’s a bluff, we won’t settle for it. We won’t settle for any bluffs, or any attempts not to carry out the Palestinian commitments as detailed in the agreements. If they carry them out, we’ll carry out our part. If they don’t, we won’t.
Report: Do you think, from these first few days, that this Wye deal is going to be carried out?
PM: It’s up to them.
Report: What is your assessment? Are you at least hopeful?
PM: I cannot give you assessments. I can deal in facts. If they carry out their commitments, we shall do our part. And if they do not, I guarantee you that we will not. That is the only fair and sensible way to act.
Report: Given Barak’s performance, you must be confident of another election victory, whenever it is you go to the polls. Would that be fair to say?
PM: Well, confident of the way that we’re marching, which is to advance peace carefully with responsibility, all the while looking at security and reciprocity. And I think this is what the overwhelming majority of the people want and trust us to do.
And I think too that we’re entering the stage where the crucial question will be, “Who do you want to negotiate the permanent-status arrangements? Who will better guard Jerusalem? Who will best guard the settlements, assure the best borders, and other national interests of Israel?”
I have no doubt that we will bring the best team to bear, with myself and Arik Sharon as foreign minister and Yitzhak Mordechai as defense minister. I think it’s an excellent team.
Report: Is there anyone you fear as a potential challenger?
PM: No. I don’t fear anyone as a potential challenger. I do want to ensure, in the best way that I can, that this government, which began a sober and realistic and responsible approach to peace, not a wide-eyed, unrealistic one, gets a chance to complete the job.
Report: In other words, you want to keep the coalition in its present form, if you can?
PM: If I can. I cannot guarantee it. But I’m sure that the people will entrust us to continue the job and bring a permanent peace, a peace based on security, to Israel.
Report: How would you hope that history will judge you as a prime minister?
PM: Having done the best I could for ensuring the survival and security and prosperity of the State of Israel.