ed. note: Netanyahu resigned from Sharon's government the day after this interview was published
Why is Bibi still in the government?
Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is in one of the most unenviable positions in Israeli politics today. He is attacked from the Left by the Prime Minister's Office and Ariel Sharon's supporters in the government, the Knesset and the press for his opposition to the disengagement plan. He is attacked from the Right by the plan's opponents for his refusal to resign from the government in light of his opposition to the plan.
Two weeks before the plan's implementation, and ahead of the government's vote on Sunday to approve its implementation beginning on August 15, Netanyahu spoke at length with The Jerusalem Post on the reasons for his opposition to the pullout, on how he sees its impact on Israeli society and on why he remains in the government despite his opposition to its central policy.
Will the withdrawal from Gaza affect the western Negev? If so, how?
First of all, we allocated NIS 300 million in order to protect communities in the western Negev. The very fact of the allocation in the wake of the withdrawal shows that there is a realistic possibility that there will be a deterioration in the security situation because, after all, we did not need to protect these communities beforehand. This is the basic problem and the reason for my opposition to the withdrawal from Gaza.
This withdrawal is taking place under terrorist pressure. Whether or not terrorism has led to the decision to withdraw, the fact is that the Palestinians believe that terrorism is what made us decide to withdraw. The leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad say clearly that from their perspective this is a rout, not a choice. Because of this they are becoming stronger politically and militarily, and are encouraged to continue using these methods.
So, the question is simple: Will Israel's security situation be improved or harmed by the withdrawal – and perhaps also by the manner in which it is carried out – that is taking place without any gain and while strengthening terrorist forces? In my view, the situation will get worse. This is why I will oppose withdrawal when the government votes on its implementation on Sunday.
Will there be consequences from the opening of Gaza to the Sinai through the IDF's withdrawal from the Philadelphi corridor and from the opening of Gaza to the world through the operation of a seaport and an airport after the withdrawal?
Not only is Hamas getting stronger in front of our very eyes, and not only are they openly announcing that they will move their missiles from Gaza to Judea and Samaria in order to rain them onto the suburbs of Tel Aviv. There exists an additional problem of outside terrorists and deadly weapons far worse than what we have seen so far that are liable to stream in from the Sinai to Gaza the minute we abandon our control of the boundaries of the Strip.
Last week, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel's security control of the Philadelphi corridor is unnecessary if Israel is enabling the construction and operation of a seaport and an airport in Gaza.
I think that there is a lot to that statement. We have to maintain complete control of the external boundaries of Gaza. I am aware that there are real difficulties in maintaining control of the Philadelphi corridor. There is a price for doing so after the withdrawal. But the price of leaving it is inestimably greater. Tuesday we heard al-Qaida's announcement that they are opening an al-Qaida Gaza branch. Today it's on the Internet. Tomorrow they will enact this in the field. And if that isn't enough, opening a seaport, together with the abandonment of the Philadelphi corridor, will create a highway for the transfer of terrorists and terror materiel.
Now, apropos the port, the first time the prime minister told me about the disengagement plan, I told him that one of the things he has to do, no matter what, is ensure that we maintain control over the external boundaries over the land, sea and air passages. Everyone remembers the Karine A [the weapons ship the Palestinian Authority purchased from Iran, that Israeli naval commandos intercepted in the Red Sea in January 2002]. If that ship had managed to penetrate, it would have brought in arms that could have easily threatened Ashkelon and Ashdod. Now there will be a Karine A, Karine B, Karine C and Gaza will be transformed into a base for Islamic terrorism
adjacent to the coast of the State of Israel.
Will this have an impact on US efforts in Iraq, and regarding global terrorism in general?
You need to ask why the Americans aren't unilaterally retreating from Iraq.
Why aren't they simply leaving? Because they fear what would fill the vacuum if such a policy were implemented there. They want to ensure that when they leave there will be a stable military and political base that will prevent the return and strengthening of terrorist forces. This is an encapsulation of our problem here. No one can say, with their hand on their heart, that the situation in Gaza will be better after we leave than it is today from a security perspective, from the perspective of terrorism. Because of this it isn't just our problem. It's the West's problem as well, because forces that are controlled by, deployed by and cooperate with Iran — and today Hizbullah and Hamas are controlled in a significant way by Iran — will receive an additional base of operations not only in close proximity to Israel's cities, but also on the coast of the Mediterranean not far from Europe.
It's true that people think this withdrawal will help calm the region. If it were to take place as part of an agreement with a responsible party capable of stabilizing the area, it would be possible to argue this case. But that is not the situation we have today. Because of this, the real danger is the transformation of Gaza into a base for global Islamic terror and it doesn't have to happen immediately.
In 1993, in the midst of the euphoria over the Oslo agreement, I warned that terrorism would plague us from all the areas we transferred to the Palestinians and that there would be missiles shot at us from Gaza. It didn t happen immediately. It took time.
In 1995, I warned that Muslim zealots would bomb the World Trade Center in New York. It didn't happen immediately. It took time. But it happened.
Today as well, when I warn about the establishment of a base for Islamic terrorism in Gaza, the realization of the danger doesn't have to happen immediately but, sadly, the possibility that it will happen is very tangible and only increases as time passes.
I would be very happy if this prognosis were proven wrong for a change. I would be very happy if we saw thousands of members of the peace camp in Gaza demonstrating with banners reading, "Thank you Israel for the just peace" and releasing thousands of doves into the sky.
But this isn't what we are seeing. We are seeing thousands of new members of Hamas who are waving their rifles in the air and crying out, "Today Gaza, tomorrow Tel Aviv."
Will the decision to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines in Gaza have an effect on future Israeli claims to territory in Judea and Samaria?
Unilateral retreat without an agreement or any compensation – indeed, with the negative "compensation" of the strengthening of terrorist forces – is something we shouldn t be doing. But the withdrawal from Elei Sinai, Nisanit and Dugit in the northern Gaza Strip will create a precedent for a return to the 1967 boundaries. This will justify the demand.
The claim that the international community will not accep
t a lesser retreat – including the Philadelphi corridor, because if it is limited in any way the occupation will continue – has to be divided into two parts. From the perspective of the Arabs, particularly the extremist forces in the Arab world, a retreat from Gaza to the last meter and a retreat from Judea and Samaria to the last meter will not end the occupation. The occupation will end when we re in the sea, under the waves. That is the true liberation of Palestine, because all the territories in Gaza and Judea and Samaria are just the outside perimeters of Palestine. The real Palestine, as they themselves say, is Jaffa and Acre and Haifa and all of Jerusalem. This is a fantasy ideology, but it dictates, prolongs and strengthens the conflict. And when they see they are making progress towards this goal, the fantasy gets stronger and provides more and more fuel for the conflict.
As for the rest of the international community there are bombings in London, Madrid, New York, Bali, indeed everywhere. Of course, it is possible to explain Israel's security needs to these people. Because I do not believe that there is a country in the entire world that would evacuate, en masse, territory in close proximity to its cities and suburbs when faced with the possibility and the danger of terrorist forces entering.
What do you think of the government's acquiescence to the American demand for a freeze on all building activities in Judea and Samaria?
First of all, until now, it was always agreed even in our worst disputes that construction for natural growth was permissible. Because of this it is wrong, even in the framework of diplomatic understandings, to accept a cessation of building for a growing population. After all, people get
married. They have children.
Secondly, there are locations which strategically require our building in them. One such location of vital importance is the area that connects Ma aleh Adumim to Jerusalem, the area called E-1. There we have a duty to build as quickly as possible because the area is filling up with illegal Arab construction and the consequence of not building is that Ma aleh Adumim will be cut off from Jerusalem.
Additional construction that must take place is the central fence around the settlement blocs. These must be fenced not as isolated islands, not as ellipses that are cut off, but inside of the central fence. This is not because we will give up on the communities outside of the fence but because we must fortify on a practical level everything that is included inside of the fence route. There is a government decision to carry this out but it isn't being implemented. And it isn't because of the legal battles that it isn't being implemented; those disputes only relate to specific, relatively small, points on the fence route.
How does PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) compare with Yasser Arafat?
What constitutes a Palestinian partner? We need someone who will stop terrorism – fight it, not support it. We need someone who will cancel the goal of terrorism, which is the destruction of Zionism through the granting of a right of return. Abu Mazen abides by half of the first demand. He doesn't support terrorism, but he doesn't fight it.
As for the second criterion, a cancellation of the demand for a right of return and the idea of the destruction of Israel: Here, not only does he do nothing, he continually repeats the demand for a right of return. He isn't prepared to say, "It's over. No more war, no more bloodshed," like Anwar Sadat and King Hussein said. He isn't as terrible as Arafat because he does not actively support terrorism, but he doesn't fulfill the other criteria.
So it is reasonable to say that we have no partner.
But under these circumstances, if you want to make any unilateral moves because you don't have a partner, they still have to be based on the principle of reciprocity. When I was prime minister, I said, "If they give, they will get. If they don't, they won't."
I didn't support unilateral disengagement, but I told the prime minister on the first day that he presented it that in addition to maintaining control over the external boundaries, to take the large settlement blocs and place them inside the central fence. If this had been done, at least it would have been possible to mitigate some of the damage and receive something to compensate for the tragedy of expelling people from their homes.
That is, you redeploy to new lines. You can gain some measure of credibility only if you take territory and fortify settlements rather than just leaving unilaterally. That could perhaps have lent some support to the view that we are leaving out of our free will and that we haven't been routed by terrorism in the eyes of the Palestinians. Since this wasn't done, in their eyes we are fleeing and rewarding them for terrorism.
Why did you want to discuss the protest organized by the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip in Sderot at the cabinet meeting on Sunday?
Because the issue of the boundaries of democracy is a crucial issue. I don't think that the government has to decide what demonstration to permit or to prohibit. I wouldn't want to live in a country where the government decides things like that. There is a legal framework and the government has to enforce it.
The police are also subordinate to the rights of freedom of expression and of protest. I thought that the decision to stop vehicles in distant cities [ahead of the protest two weeks ago in Netivot and Kfar Maimon] was bizarre.
I am not aware of a single instance of a democratic country using forces to prevent people from gathering for a protest located far away from where they were blocked.
Forces have been used at the location of the demonstration. They have prevented the crossing of borders – both physical and behavioral – by demonstrators. That is legitimate and it is the right and the duty of the government and police to act in such a manner. But I never heard of a case where they stopped buses in New Jersey or Milwaukee on the way to a protest in Washington because some of the demonstrators might try to reach the gates of the White House.
Do you feel that Israeli democracy is being adversely impacted by the manner in which the evacuation is being implemented?
Not from a legal perspective. The decisions that were made were made legally. There is no question about that, in spite of my personal opposition to the plan. There is no doubt that there is a parliamentary majority and a majority in the government for the plan. But enabling people to demonstrate lawfully is the foundation of democracy. It's like an argument in the cabinet. The argument is the purpose of the government.
When I was prime minister, there were difficult and harsh disagreements. I respected the fact
that some of the ministers did not support me including someone who was then the minister of infrastructure [Ariel Sharon]. I never saw anything anti-democratic or subversive in these disputes. Deliberation is an organic part of the democratic process. That standard must not be canceled.
Sharon says that it is easy for his opponents to criticize him because they aren't the ones who have to make the decisions. As a former prime minister, do you agree with that?
Everyone has the right to think he is right. But at the end of the day, policies are determined both by majority decision and by deliberation and disagreement. In democracies, there are almost no decisions that are made unanimously. Deliberations are what distinguish between democratic and other forms of government.
Do you think that the involvement of the army in the evacuation will harm the IDF's ability to remain a melting pot for Israeli society after the operation is complete
I hope this operation will not be a precedent on two counts. First, I hope there are no more unilateral evacuations in the future. And second, I hope we will not need the IDF for such operations again.
One of the main criticisms lodged at anti-evacuation demonstrators is that they are disregarding the democratic decision-making process that led to disengagement – and that therefore, their protests are illegitimate.
The goal of the protesters is irrelevant. Their actions are what are relevant. In a democracy you don't check what a protester feels in his heart. You don t send in a psychologist or an intelligence operative to check what the protester is saying to his wife. There are actions that are unacceptable. If the plan is to enter into the closed military zone in Gush Katif, then you have to prevent that from happening. If the plan is to overturn cars or pour oil on the highway, you have to stop that.
But there are two dangers to a democracy. The first is when someone on a side to some dispute takes the law into his own hands and harms, wounds or murders his adversary while breaking all the boundaries of legitimate dispute. This is one danger.
There is another danger, of attaching to your political opponents the actions of extremists whose actions or possible actions are illegal in order to delegitimize an entire pubic.
The best example I can give you is actually from the US. There are people who support legalized abortions and there are people who oppose them. This is as stormy and emotional a debate and it is a legitimate one. What is not legitimate is that there are some people who have bombed abortion clinics and even killed doctors. These are criminal acts against which the full brunt of the law must be exercised. But to say that because of the actions of these extremists, anyone who opposes abortions is a murderer or supports murderers is just as much of an anti-democratic act. It is not legitimate. Both extremes have to be avoided. The law must be upheld and an entire
political camp must not be delegitimized when someone breaks the law in the name of its cause.
Many people say that in light of your opposition to disengagement, you should leave the government and lead the opposition.
The majority in the Knesset and the government is an automatic one that will not change. I say this with sorrow but this is my assessment. At the same time, our security problems are not about to go away with the withdrawal, they will only begin. And there will be a lot of issues on the agenda before elections are called. As long as I can influence Israel's security, and of course our economy, I will remain in my position. For example, there was a dispute about whether or not to destroy the homes of those set for evacuation. I think that my view [that the homes should be destroyed] was influential. Now we are dealing with the question of whether or not to give the Palestinians guns — another terrible mistake. I think that I have spoken out strongly against this and I want to believe that my views will carry weight.
Will you pay a political price for remaining in the government?
I don't need to think about that. I didn't consider the political damage I incurred when I came out against the Oslo plan in 1993 when 70 percent of the public favored it. I didn't think about the political damage that would be caused when 70% of the public opposed my economic reforms. Nor am I thinking about political damage when I come out against the withdrawal when the Israeli public supports it. I do what I think is right.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.