Discouraged by Abu Mazen, unfazed by Shimon Peres

By David Horovitz December 21, 2004

An interview with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom

(With Herb Keinon)

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, during his nearly two years in office, has proved a skillful tightrope walker.
He has gingerly tiptoed a line between the right-wing leanings of his power base in the Likud Central Committee, and the left-wing sentiments of the foreign statesmen he engages daily; between opposing the unilateral nature of the disengagement plan, and drumming up support abroad for the Gaza pull-out; between loyalty to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and an inclination to join in an alliance with Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

And he hasn’t fallen off the high wire yet.

This week, as Sharon was trying to find a job for Shimon Peres – a man who views himself less as foreign- minister timber than as a veritable foreign-minister forest – Shalom carried on with business as usual. He insisted that he was ‘absolutely’ assured that his authority will not be compromised by the coalition horse-trading.

If Shalom was concerned about his role, he wasn’t letting on. Now he met with Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, then he was planning for a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini. He seemed as confident in himself and his position as he was when Sharon commanded the allegiance of a right-wing government a few short months ago.

On Sunday – with the coalition talks going full steam, and with foreign statesmen arriving one after the next – Shalom sat down for an interview with The Jerusalem Post, which he insisted on conducting in English, and scanned the diplomatic horizon. Excerpts:

Are you satisfied with what you have heard in recent days from the Palestinians regarding the right of return and terrorism?

We are discouraged. Abu Mazen’s [Mahmoud Abbas’s] first declaration was divided into two parts. The first part was that he will preserve Arafat’s legacy. For us that legacy is terrorism. We can’t live with that, but we can understand [such comments] during this period of elections.

The second part was that they would never give up on the right of return. That is unacceptable.

These types of pronouncements are not encouraging, because they create illusions.

What is the level of contact now with the Palestinians?

We are coordinating with them in order to help with the elections – to ensure free access to the polling booths, more freedom of movement, to give them all the assistance they may ask from us, to help the [international] monitors, or observers, monitor the election.

We want them to have their elections. But the day after, on January 10, we would like to see them take the strategic decision to fight terrorism. But unfortunately Abu Mazen made a statement a few days ago that he will not do it by force, that ‘We will have to talk to our people and our brothers,’ and convince them not to carry out their attacks.

Is that acceptable?

Not at all. It is a ticking bomb. I said it about a year and a half ago, when [US Secretary of State Colin] Powell was here. He asked us about a cease-fire between Abu Mazen and Islamic Jihad and Hamas. I told him then that it is a ticking bomb. That it would be just a matter of time before it blows up, that it only gives them time to rebuild their infrastructure.

Secretary Powell didn’t like it. He thought this was the appropriate way to move forward… It took only 40 days and there was a huge attack in Jerusalem.

What about Abu Mazen’s recent comment that the intifada was a mistake?

That was a positive statement, but many of the others were not. Many foreign leaders tell me we must understand it is election time, and it will be different the day after. I hope it will be different. I think we should do everything to seize the opportunity.

Do you think it is possible to conclude a permanent agreement with Abu Mazen?

I said more than once that we would never be able to reach an agreement with [Yasser] Arafat, and I called for his expulsion more than three years ago. I have said repeatedly that there is a moderate Palestinian leadership, but that it can’t emerge while Arafat is still around. Now we should wait and see if there are moderates or not. I always said that while Arafat is with us there is no partner. I also always said it is easier for me as the deputy prime minister to call for Arafat’s expulsion than for the prime minister to do it. I understand that.

But I think that if we would have done it three years ago, we would have saved hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian lives, even thousands. No mourning, no widows and orphans.

Right now, with Arafat no longer around, if the Palestinians will take the right moves, and will show us 100 percent of effort – that they are trying to put an end to terrorism and violence by arresting wanted people and confiscating illegal weapons, by trying to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure – I think it will be better to cooperate with them, to coordinate [disengagement] with them.

Should the coordination begin immediately after the elections?

We should wait and see. Of course, this does not mean we should wait for months, but for a few weeks, that’s all. And if they take a strategic decision [to combat terror], it is better to coordinate [disengagement with them].

I think that the day after the elections we should coordinate on issues dealing with incitement and security. If they move to implement in full their commitments under the first phase of the road map, I don’t see why there can’t be a conference at Aqaba. I think this can be a positive signal, with the same players who were at the last Aqaba summit – President Bush, Abu Mazen, Sharon, King Abdullah [of Jordan] and maybe Mubarak and some other moderate Arab leaders.

What would be the purpose of another Aqaba summit?

It can jump-start [the process]… It is symbolic. I think it would be a positive step that the US, Israel and moderate Arab countries are moving together to negotiations towards a comprehensive agreement.

When you dig deep into your soul, what is your vision of an agreement after disengagement?

Every solution or compromise I make now in the press would be a starting point for the Palestinians when we negotiate, so we shouldn’t say what sort of compromise we would like to see. It is very complicated for us to pull out of Gaza; we feel very upset by the idea that we might do it. The final [cabinet] vote will take place on March 1.

Are you absolutely sure you will vote for it?

I want to be sure that it comes to a vote in the cabinet four times, as planned. I have read in the press that it may only come for one vote. It was agreed to vote four different times [on each group of settlements to be dismantled] to allow us to see if the plan is working.

Is there a time frame between votes?

I don’t think we can have a vote one day after the next. I’m not saying the votes should be held over the space of a few months, but of course it can’t be a few days.

It’s not as if we in the Likud are in favor of leaving Gaza, or are very satisfied, happy and glad about it, like some on the Left. We feel great pain, it is very painful, not something we like. If the Labor Party asks to hold one vote on the matter, I don’t see how we can support it.

I know you don’t want to set out your positions, but do settlers on the other side of the security barrier have to be concerned about their future?

No way. We have said more than once that the fence is not a political route, not a route that will tell us or others where the border will run. If that were the case, many of us would not accept it, and much of the international community wouldn’t accept it either. We have said more than once this is only a temporary, preventive measure.

That’s the Israeli position, but you saw [White House Middle East specialist] Elliott Abrams’s comments that everything on the other side of the fence will be dismantled. How does the US see things?

The Americans, regardless of the administration, never accepted the idea of settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Every administration since 1967 opposed settling Israelis in the territories. All the settlers came there knowing that the Israeli government took the decision to settle them there, not because the Americans gave any approval. They didn’t in the past, and won’t in the future.

I think things look better now because of the commitments President Bush gave in his letter to Sharon, that the settlement blocs will be kept in our hands. This is a positive move, progress. We didn’t get this from any of his [Bush’s] predecessors. We never said that those who live on the other side of the fence will be evacuated in a final-status agreement. We need to discuss this with them [the Palestinians] and establish [the border].

But I imagine those who live in settlements on the other side of the fence are a little worried?

Maybe, I can’t ignore it. I can understand those settlers, I would like to tell them, as I tell my colleagues around the world, the fence is only a temporary measure.

If someone were to ask you whether his child should move to Beit El, what would you say?

I don’t see why not.

And could you ensure that his grandchildren will also be living there?

I won’t be in politics by then. I can’t ensure what will happen in 40 or 50 years, I would like to say that the answer is positive.

Regarding someone who has been in politics for many years, how is it going to work now having Shimon Peres in the government? Has some kind of mechanism been worked out to govern your relations?

I don’t think it [this mechanism] has to work between me and Shimon Peres, it has to work between the prime minister and Shimon Peres. I don’t see any connection it will have with me.

What will Peres’s role be?

It will be created between the prime minister and Shimon Peres.

But you can’t be happy that an incredibly senior minister will be sitting at the table who will see his role as similar to yours?

I think it is very nice and juicy to talk about this, and the press might discuss it and try to create fights between us. But I don’t see it like this. There is a foreign minister and a Foreign Ministry. It is for the prime minister to decide what kind of forum to give to Shimon Peres.

Do you have assurances from the prime minister that your role won’t be changed?


Let’s turn to Syria. How do you see developments there?

I have said more than once that Assad [is making his overtures] only because he is under a great deal of pressure. The Syrians know they are under enormous pressure from America and the international community, because many Iraqi leaders escaped to Syria, and many terrorists go into Iraq from Syria.

If Assad stops Syria’s involvement with terrorism, it is very important not only for us, but for the Palestinian Authority as well, and for the new Palestinian leadership. Because if they [the PA leadership] want an end to attacks carried out by Islamic Jihad and Hamas, they should know that these days most of the instructions for those attacks come from Damascus.

What should we be saying to the Syrian overtures?

If he [Assad] will put an end to terrorism, shut down the headquarters and training camps of the terrorist organizations, stop shipments of missiles from Iran to Hizbullah, stop Hizbullah from attacking Israel, there would be no reason not to resume negotiations with Syria.

But he is still not willing to do it. I don’t think the old leadership of Syria will allow him to do it.

I ask him to show us he is serious by starting with some gestures – send back the bones of [Israeli spy] Eli Cohen, start working with us in agriculture, trade and environment issues.

You made this call at the Herzliya conference. Has there been any reply through any channel?

I didn’t get any feedback.

Is the world doing enough to stop the Iranians from getting nuclear weapons?

First, we are very satisfied that they [the international community] are dealing with it. For a very long time it was only Israel’s problem. Like terrorism, when people would say it takes place in Israel because of the occupation. We tried to say that the terrorism is the result of an extreme ideology that threatens everyone.
Now everyone realizes we were right. The same is true with Iran. They said first that the threat was only to Israel, but now it looks different, so they are working hard.

But isn’t it too little too late? Shouldn’t we be panicking that a country which has said it wants to destroy us may soon have nuclear weapons?

We are trying very hard, but still need a majority in the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] to get the issue to the United Nations Security Council. President Bush is trying to convince the Europeans to be more determined and tough with the Iranians.

What is the status of Israel’s ties with the Arab world?

For a year now I have been saying that Egypt is playing a more constructive role, that they have a more positive attitude toward Israel… It might be he [Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak] realizes that after Saddam Hussein the world has changed. Maybe because of the withdrawal from Gaza and Egyptian concern about the day after. No matter, the fact is that we have been working with each other very closely over the last year. The highlight was the release of Azzam Azzam.

You speak often about the possibility of relations with another 10 Arab states. Is anything real happening with that?

We have contacts with most of our Arab neighbors, but most of them are still confidential.

Are these contacts at your level? Do you talk with their foreign ministers?

Israel has contacts with most of the Arab countries, but we still unfortunately can’t make it public. I believe that we don’t have any conflict with the North African countries and the Gulf States, and I don’t see why we can’t talk to them or have [mutual] interest section or embassies.

What is preventing that?

They want us to have progress with the Palestinians. If the elections take place in the PA, and we resume coordination with the Palestinians, it might be easier for them.

© The Jerusalem Post