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Is Netanyahu ‘Apologizing to the Obama Administration’?

Part II of a two-part interview with Moshe Arens — former Israeli defense minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the U.S. (Read Part I here. And don't miss Joe Hicks at PJTV on "Netanyahu vs. The Yahoos.")

by
Ruthie Blum Leibowitz

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April 4, 2010 - 12:03 am

The concluding half of Ruthie Blum Leibowitz’s interview with Moshe Arens — former Israeli defense minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the U.S.

Q: Are the Obama administration’s policies towards Israel a total about-face from the position of the Bush administration, which maintained there was a global struggle going on between the West and radical Islam, and that the Palestinian conflict belonged to that struggle? The current administration seems to be asserting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a phenomenon in and of itself, but that solving it is necessary to dealing with the rest of the world.

A: The major difference, again, is that this administration is taking its disagreements with the Israeli government public. If we look back at the history of U.S.-Israel relations, the last time we can discern this kind of a breach in the discourse was during the Eisenhower years. That was right after the Sinai Campaign, when Secretary of State [John Foster] Dulles publicly pressured Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion into moving the Israeli army out of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, though Ben-Gurion was initially hesitant. The Eisenhower administration made no bones about its views on that subject, and hinted at additional pressures that might be forthcoming if Israel did not accept. That was in 1957. Here we are 53 years later.

Q: Why didn’t you mention the Carter administration in this context, as so many commentators have been doing of late?

A: Well, I don’t think we had a serious rift with the Carter administration, though we certainly might have had one, had Prime Minister Menachem Begin not accepted the terms that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat insisted on during negotiations at Camp David. President Carter might very well have come down on Sadat’s side. But we never got to that point, and in the final analysis, Carter was quite happy with the fact that Begin, after some convincing and maybe a little bit of discrete pressure, accepted the condition that there be a total withdrawal of Israeli forces and removal of Israeli settlements from the Sinai.

Q: Can Netanyahu be compared to Begin in this respect? After all, at the time, Begin seemed to be the least likely prime minister to give away territory. Netanyahu, today, is considered by many to be “intransigent.” Will the upshot in this case be similar? Will Netanyahu ultimately agree to withdraw to the 1967 borders?

A: It’s very unlikely. And the analogy is not entirely apt. Begin was quite doctrinaire, and what made it possible for him to agree to a total withdrawal from the Sinai was his view that it was not really part of the land of Israel. The fact is that he was not prepared to give an inch of the Gaza Strip, because he said it was part of the land of Israel.

This ran contrary to my own view, which was that Gaza was an area where concessions maybe should have, or could have, been made at the time, whereas the Sinai was of strategic importance to Israel. Furthermore, the very idea that a country that initiated and was defeated in three wars should have what it lost in battle returned is not only obnoxious, but sets a very bad precedent — one from which we suffer to this day.

But Begin looked at it in slightly different, more ideological, terms. To him, reaching peace with Egypt — which, of course, is an important achievement in itself — was so important that conceding the Sinai was in the realm of possibility. He didn’t like it, but he was prepared to do it.

Now, where Palestinian demands and conditions are concerned — demands such as the right of return and withdrawal to the ’67 borders — it’s a different story. First of all, the area in question is very close to home, literally and figuratively. Whereas the Sinai seemed to most Israelis to be quite far away, Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] are right next door to where most Israelis live. Not only that. Judea and Samaria, as integral parts of the biblical land of Israel, are also close to the hearts of most Israelis.

Finally, there are 300,000 Israelis living there. I therefore don’t believe that Netanyahu would be prepared to cede it.

What he has been doing, however, is apologizing to the Obama administration, which, as part of its maneuver to pressure Israel, declared it was insulted by the announcement that 1,600 housing units were being added to a Jerusalem neighborhood. The whole thing is really ludicrous. It all had to do with some clerk on the local planning commission and a meeting that happened to fall on the day of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit. But the Netanyahu government decided to play along and say, “You’re insulted? OK, we apologize.” It could have said, “You’re not insulted. There’s no reason to be insulted. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Q: But would it have been wise for Netanyahu to respond that way?

A: Right after Obama’s speech in Cairo in June — where he said he was going to put the differences between his administration and the Israeli government on the table, and that Israel would have to stop all settlement activity — I was of the opinion that the Israeli government should have said, “With all due respect to the president of the U.S. and the U.S.-Israel friendship, we don’t takes orders. Jews have a right to live in Judea and Samaria, and it’s not going to be the Israeli government that prohibits them from living in any part of Israel.”

But then, too, the Netanyahu government decided to play along, at least partially, by declaring a temporary freeze on settlement activity. Maybe it’s their idea of how to outsmart the Obama administration. But Obama’s pretty smart, and I doubt it will work.

Q: How important is Israel’s relationship with Washington?

A: It’s very important; there’s no question about it. But the independence of the state of Israel is more important. To Israelis, anyway.

Q: When such a divide exists between the two governments, to what extent is Israel really at liberty to exert its will?

A: When I was ambassador in Washington, there was disagreement between us and the Reagan administration on a number of subjects. As a matter of fact, I assumed my post in February 1982, not long after the Iraqi nuclear reactor was destroyed by the Israel Air Force, and the administration didn’t like it at all. What I said at the time to my American interlocutors was that when we have disagreements, we should discuss them in private, and if we can’t resolve them, then one of us should defer. I said if it’s a matter of vital importance to the state of Israel, I would expect the U.S. to defer to us.

Now, the issues of settlements in Judea and Samaria, of Israel’s ability to defend itself, and of the conditions under which it can reach an accommodation with the Palestinians are of vital importance to the state of Israel. So I would expect that, if Israel and the U.S. are unable to resolve the disagreement on these issues, the US would defer to the Israeli point of view. But clearly that is not the position of this administration.

Q: What is your view of the indirect “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians that were supposedly about to begin before the blow-up with Washington?

A: Anybody who does not recognize that the Palestinian entity is dysfunctional is not looking at the facts on the ground. There is one entity in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], run by Abbas. There is a separate Palestinian entity in Gaza, run by Hamas, that not only doesn’t accept Abbas’s authority, but wishes to overthrow him. This entity does not recognize Israel, and the ideology it promotes suggests it will never recognize or negotiate with Israel in the future.

What this means is that Abbas does not speak for all the Palestinians. It’s not even clear whether he speaks for the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. He’s certainly not very strong or popular among them. And I think that if the Israeli army were to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, Hamas would take over there, as well.

Q: What about PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad? Do you see him as a potential leader, who commands authority among the Palestinians?

From his point of view — and maybe even to some extent from Israel’s — he’s doing a good job of trying to build Palestinian institutions. Of course, he’s got tremendous assistance, not only in financial aid he receives from the European Union and the U.S., but also in the military force that General Dayton is putting together and training, which seems to be becoming fairly effective.

But I understand that he’s not popular at all. People who know the Palestinian scene say he has no chance of being accepted as a leader. So, though many would take umbrage at this, there’s really nobody to talk to on the Palestinian side; no one with the authority to negotiate, reach agreements that include concessions, or implement agreements. In this sense, with all this talk about the need to negotiate with Abbas, he is not in the position to come forward and say, “OK, I’m now prepared to negotiate with no preconditions. I will make concessions.”

You’ll hear Israelis say, “We have to make ‘painful concessions.’” But they must be masochists. You don’t hear Abbas saying that. He’s not a masochist. But anyway he’s not capable of making painful concessions.

Q: Doesn’t Washington understand this about Abbas’s leadership? And if it does, is this at the root of its pressure on Israel to get moving on the peace track?

A: There have been a number of cases in recent years which indicate that the administration in Washington has been naive about the Middle East, not only with regard to the Palestinians. There have been mistakes, including the military operation in Iraq, indicating that there was not a full understanding of the complications that might be involved, what might happen thereafter, and how difficult it would be to bring democracy to a country like Iraq. Now, things seem to be moving in that direction — though it’s not certain where all this will end up — but clearly, the U.S. didn’t fully understand the situation. I think that same lack of understanding applies where the Palestinians are concerned.

Here is another case where the US is engaged in nation-building. And it really is nation-building, because you remember that when the UN passed a resolution in 1947 to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, the resolution was to establish a Jewish state in Palestine and an Arab state in Palestine — not a Palestinian state in Palestine. The Palestinians were not considered at the time to be a national entity. And when King Hussein of Jordan annexed Judea and Samaria, nobody called for a Palestinian state to be established. It was considered perfectly natural that the Arabs of Palestine would now be part of Jordan, and they were all given Jordanian citizenship. It was really with the PLO and Arafat that this Palestinian entity and Palestinian nationhood began to develop and be accepted.

So, no, the U.S. doesn’t really understand the Middle East and the Arab world, and specifically the problems that Israel faces with the Palestinians.

Q: If it were possible for Israel to achieve true peace with the Palestinians, not mere agreements on paper, what strategic significance would territory have? Isn’t the idea of peace that the parties to it no longer harbor belligerent, military intentions? In such an event, wouldn’t the Palestinians cease firing missiles at — or sending suicide bombers into — Israel?

The question is: What is the meaning of “true peace” in the Middle East? Especially at this time — with the ascent of radical Islam and the tremendous hostility promoted by the Iranians and others — areas that are right on Israel’s doorstep pose a potential danger. This would be true even if Abbas — who, as we have said, is not in the position to do so — were to declare that the conflict is over. But the conflict is not going to be over, and Israel is going to have to protect itself.

Q: Speaking of Israel’s need for self-protection, how much do you, as an aeronautical engineer, think it can rely on interception as a response to enemy missile fire?

A: Here a distinction has to be made between long-range missiles — like the Scuds during the Gulf War, and like the Iranian missiles currently pointed at Israel — and those with a shorter range. We have now shown something that most engineers didn’t consider possible 30-40 years ago — that long-range missiles can be intercepted. There are differences of opinion about the probability of the intercept — whether it’s 90% or 95% — and people will say, well, even if it’s 99%, what if the one missile out of 100 does get through and it has a nuclear warhead, then what have you achieved? That’s a rather simple-minded view of the situation.

The fact that the Iranians, for example, know Israel has interception capabilities changes the basic strategic equation. And it will make them think three times, maybe even 10 times, before launching a missile with a nuclear warhead. In any case, they’re not going to launch 100. But if they launch two or three, and have to consider that those might be intercepted and their whole game might be exposed, they would be careful to avoid the consequences they would suffer from the world for having attempted a nuclear attack — and an unsuccessful one at that.

As for shorter-range missiles, you don’t have to be a physicist to understand that the shorter the range, the more difficult the interception. The time that the missile is in the air is shorter; you have less time for warning that the missile’s coming at you; and there is less time to actually do the intercept. Whereas the Iron Dome [a mobile air defense system designed to intercept short-range rockets], which we have developed at great expense, presumably will intercept the Kassams, it cannot intercept mortar shells, which are also like missiles. But their range is so small that it’s almost physically impossible to intercept them.

So, though interception is an important tool, I was not enthusiastic about the development of the Iron Dome. There is a much simpler and less costly way of dealing with short-range missiles: going in on the ground and putting them out of range.

Judea and Samaria are the proof of the pudding. The reason we don’t have missiles launched from that area is because the Israeli army is there. And if it were to withdraw, we would get missiles on Tel Aviv, no question about it.

Q: That was the idea behind Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, was it not?

A: Yes, but we never finished the job. We did leave behind a certain deterrent image, which, as we can see from the renewal of sporadic Kassam fire, is beginning to evaporate.

Q: But isn’t this why Israel is demanding that the prospective Palestinian state, in the event that negotiations lead to its establishment, be demilitarized?

This goes back again to the fact that there is no Palestinian leader who has the authority to negotiate or sign any deals. So if you were to bet on a two-state solution’s coming about in the near future, you’d be doing so against all odds.

(Read Part I here.)

Ruthie Blum Leibowitz, former features editor of the Jerusalem Post, is completing a book on the "Arab Tsunami," to be released by RVP Publishers in early 2012.
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