Editor’s Notes: His master’s (very loud) voice

By David Horovitz January 7, 2005

Sharon’s high-volume spokesman Ra’anan Gissin on counter-tsunamis, inadequate deputies and Mahmoud Abbas as a reluctant parachutist

Ra’anan Gissin, the prime minister’s most trusted and loyal spokesman, is a voluble and earnest man. Unable, or quite possibly disinclined, to turn down his internal volume when pushing the TV microphones beyond their limits in years of CNN, Fox and BBC interviews, he is just the same in a one-to-one conversation across his desk at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Before an audience of one, as with a global audience in the millions, he thumps the furniture, gestures widely with arms, elbows, open palms and outstretched fingers, knits and knots those trademark eyebrows, and booms. My tape recorder is set on its lowest level, but the recording intermittently distorts nonetheless, its Japanese innards nothing like a match for Gissin’s dramatic emphases.

As someone who does a fair amount of speaking in public, I can only admire him for this. It can’t be easy to muster such demonstrable conviction day after day, week after week, year after year, often in hostile environments, often repeating arguments he’s made time and again to skeptical audiences. Yet Gissin is relentlessly energetic, perpetually passionate. He is also good-natured and articulate.

He indulged me at considerable length this week, impatient to answer my questions even before I had finished formulating many of them, and so, whether by accident or design, occasionally avoiding them. He provided some devastating insights into prime ministerial thinking, especially regarding the settlers. Some complex and sometimes dubious arguments. And some memorable descriptions: Sharon as a mission commander bereft of adequate deputies, for instance, and Mahmoud Abbas as a reluctant parachutist whom Israel must, after this weekend, cajole into jumping.

He was, almost certainly, rather too garrulous for his own and his boss’s good. Still, after all these years on the job, of course, he may be disinclined to change that quality either.

It’s not been a good week for the Jewish state, has it? That confrontation at Yitzhar. A soldier feeling so threatened as to have fired into the air. The only thing left now is firing on each other, no?

Well, excuse me for bursting into this arena by immediately attacking, but part of it has to do with the way the press allows itself to be manipulated by the settlers.

Everyone was talking about disobedience [soldiers refusing orders when disengagement comes around]. So this was the promo for the story. You had the proverbial disobedient guy. They even showed him resting between one disobedience and another disobedience. And, of course, that’s exactly what the settlers want. They want to create real images and real scenes that will create panic, that will create fear. And then people will say: ‘Hold your horses, you know we can’t do this [disengagement].’

Now, that worked for over 20 years or more, and they were able in this way to manipulate and maneuver all the Israeli governments, Labor and Likud. And they always won…

[But now] they’re misjudging. I’m not saying it in a pejorative sense, but I think that like many ideologically committed groups, they can see like horses, only through blinkers. They can’t see peripherally. And most things happen peripherally. Things happen around them. From their point of view, moving straight, they make perfect sense and evoke legitimacy: ‘Okay, look, we’re a minority. We’re trying to stand.’ And they’re using all the tools of democracy.

Except for one thing that is missing. The consensus for what they’re doing is not there. It’s not there because people say, ‘Well, we support the settlers and we support their individual plight. But when it comes to paying the price for it, and the price that you are demanding today is the tearing apart of Israeli society, or splitting the army and forcing the army to engage in such activities that will create greater strife and schism in society, that is something that we do not accept.’

Everybody is alarmed. But the alarm is having the opposite effect [to that intended by the settler campaign against disengagement]. Not that it will paralyze people, but that it will drive them to stand firm.

Are you not alarmed by the bitterness of the struggle now?

I am alarmed. Not because we have some focused intelligence report on someone who is about to shoot Israeli soldiers or provoke them, but at the general permissive atmosphere – the incitement by public leaders which has created an atmosphere. I mean, this is worse than inciting to actual disobedience.

When leaders of the settlers come to you and roll their eyes to the heavens and say, ‘Oh, we can’t control it any longer. It’s out of control,’ the fear here is this thing going out of control, which is the perfect excuse for some lunatic to take the law into his hands, to go one step further – whether we are talking about, you know, using violence against political leaders, assassinations, or whether we are talking about blowing up historical religious sites…

[There's a] level of hostility within what they call the hillbillies, or the hill boys and girls. It’s a minority, a minority that in a sense controls the leadership. The leadership does not want to go against them or to restrain them. That’s the fear, because most of the people in Judea and Samaria are reasonable people.

How strong is the anti-disengagement mindset in the army? Are there or are there not thousands of soldiers who will disobey orders?

I don’t think we have a phenomenon of disobedience. I was with the prime minister when he talked with the brigade commanders. These are the people who have the finger on the pulse. They said, ‘We have cases, individuals.’ But if there will be no strong stand, no strong counter-advocacy, against disobedience by leaders, by spiritual leaders, by rabbis, then the phenomenon can spread.

You mean that we tear each other apart?

And therefore you need responsible leadership on all parts. It’s not just the prime minister. Leaders of these groups cannot insinuate. They have to be clear and unequivocal.

Is there not more the prime minister could do to reach out to the settlers? Two weeks ago I interviewed [the founder of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip] Israel Harel, who doesn’t feel there is anything Sharon could say that could justify disengagement but says the prime minister hasn’t even tried.

He’s tried and he was rejected. There’s an ambivalent relationship between Prime Minister Sharon and the settlers. He told them how to build settlements and where to build settlements but he did not control them. As a result, when he was with them that was fine, as with anyone. But when he stood up and said, ‘Okay, now we have to…’ And they ignored, for a long time, the fact that he told them, ‘Look, eventually when we reach an agreement, we have to take what we think is the best for us and give the rest away.’

You can hardly blame them. His shift is much more radical than Rabin’s. The sense among these people that the prime minister is so not the man they thought they were electing is much more profound than it ever was with Rabin.

It’s all a question of timing and time. When the road map for peace did not take off after Aqaba [the summit with Mahmoud Abbas in June 2003] and there was a spate of terrorist attacks, he realized that we don’t really have a partner for peace…

And so Sharon said, ‘Look, where should I place my bet? On reaching an agreement with the Palestinians which they will not respect, or reaching an iron-clad agreement with the president of the United States at a time when he is most favorable, when I can come to an understanding [with President Bush] on basic issues, on residual issues, on the borders, on refugees, on aspects of security, the rights of Israel to retain not only its self-defense capability but self-deterrence…’

And when he weighed all these things, he said, ‘I don’t have time. I have to go it for now.’ And of course there was the personal [aspect. He is] at the end of the career, and looking to Left, looking to Right, there was no else there who could do this… Those who are your colleagues now? They’re not built for it.

And if he falls ill, who is there?

His sibling! His matching sibling Peres. The only person left from that generation, who I don’t think could lead, but he can be the deputy.

I think it was that sense of timing, and he has a much better sense of timing than Barak and Netanyahu, and I worked with both… And then he goes for it. And then, as [Sharon biographer] Uzi Benziman said, he doesn’t stop at red.

There’ll be no cataclysmic internal confrontation?

No. I think a lot of it will dissipate in the months ahead. We do have a built-in alarm system. We have a self- destruct system, all of us Jews. But after the Holocaust and after we established the state, I think automatically, into our DNA code, is imprinted this alarm system [which warns], ‘Hold on. You know we’ve reached the point of no return.’

An alarm system? We killed our own prime minister.

Okay, that’s true, that’s true. But that also was another element in the deterrence.

You don’t think the alarm bells are ringing madly?

They’re ringing madly, and it’s good that they’re ringing madly, because it causes the public to awaken. The one thing that was missing in all past confrontations of this sort was a solid majority in support of the policy of the government [which you have now].

The counterargument is that, yes, opinion polls tell us there’s a majority, but it’s never been put to the test.
I can’t buy this perverse urging and wish that we have a civil war. Some people are looking forward to it. Crazy. We can’t afford it. The Jewish people cannot afford it. We had one that was imposed on us – not a civil war, but a war that decimated one third of our people.

But what you’re hearing from Yitzhar is, ‘Stop disengagement, otherwise we’re going to have a civil war.’ And what you say to that is…?

No. We’ll stop you.

And we can do this without it deteriorating…?

In the next few months we’ll see. With the wave of support that they try to raise, they [will] raise a counter-tsunami which is going to wash them away if they don’t watch out. And I think there are some people there who are reasonable enough to understand and who are starting to understand now that the rules of the game have changed. Sharon is saying to them, ‘The dialogue must be conducted.’ But not with the army. The army should not be involved. The army has to follow orders. They want to talk about their political grievances, wishes, desires? Fine. Do it with [Defense Minister] Mofaz.

Sharon wants to meet with the Yesha Council but they don’t want to meet with him.

He meets with these people and those people, but at this stage, you know, they don’t want to meet him. And he told them [in the past], ‘Take my deal now and you’ll thank me later, because that will remove the issue of other major evacuations, major withdrawals in Judea and Samaria, particularly the major clusters of settlements. And you know that sometimes if you try to fight up to the last inch you can lose the whole thing.’ That was his concern. Why, you think he wanted to evacuate Gaza if he could hold onto it? No. But he understood that you have to give.

To the Americans?

Or for the future State of Israel. There are demographic issues also. There are objective issues that have changed… In Gaza, we have a very acute demographic problem. In Judea and Samaria it’s less acute because there are 250,000 people there.

So what is the West Bank vision?

It depends. If they [the Palestinians] will rise up to the opportunity and move the process forward, then we can find ourselves within a short period back in the road map – provided they take real steps to stop terrorism, to exorcise it from the body of their society.

Again, though, what is the vision?

We don’t talk about borders at this stage. We talk first about stabilizing the situation. If the Palestinians want to be partners to the disengagement, we will coordinate it. And from the security coordination that we’ve got, we gradually start transferring cities to them. Elements of the conflict will remain. But make it a normalized conflict; not a conflict of lunatics, not a conflict of radical suicide bombers. Isolate the radical elements there and then try to move forward… The point is we haven’t yet reached even the point of entry to the road map. They’re not past the threshold demands which are: Take steps to stop terrorism.

If Abbas achieves calm without dismantling the terror groups, won’t there be international pressure on Israel?

After disengagement, the onus really will be on the Palestinians to show that they are willing, capable and really desiring a state. Now you can’t have a state in any kind of definition – this attempt to reconcile a state with the presence of armed groups within it is a sine qua non. Max Weber once defined a state as the monopoly of a coercive power over a given territory and people. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a state. You don’t have a government. You’re back to the state of nature.

And Abu Mazen realizes this, but he’s not a killer. He doesn’t have a knife between his teeth. He never killed a man… If you really want to deal with terrorism you have to have some teeth. You have to have some muscle. Maybe he can recruit some of these people, who can use the security forces to impose law and order… and fight terrorism.

Sharon seems to be incredibly forgiving about Abbas at the moment. Is that because, behind the scenes, you know things are going to change after the elections?

There’s a hope, and there’s a long acquaintance between the prime minister and Abu Mazen. He believes Abu Mazen has the capability. Whether he will want to do it, or the timing of that, that is not something that we can control, but there’s no doubt that there’ll be United States pressure and incentive. As the prime minister said, we understand that Abu Mazen has problems in the election. We’re not pressing right now.

Because we know what?

Look, we keep daily contact with them and he’s willing to move forward. Of course, he puts all sorts of conditions, you know, like a man before he jumps out of an airplane. He wants to make certain he has his parachute on, and he checks everything. It’s not natural for a man to jump out of an airplane, so you have the fear before you get out of the door. But once you get out of the door, you fly… We’re providing him with the parachute: We allowed this free election, and we’re not responding [to his remarks denigrating Israel and praising the groups that have engaged in terrorism]…

Will he be on the Temple Mount on Friday?

He won’t be on Temple Mount.

And he will come to Jerusalem?

I don’t know. That depends very much on the security, and his security around him.

Why not the Temple Mount?

First of all he hasn’t asked, and his security people are against it because they cannot provide that kind of security. Right after the election, then the personal threat will be much greater. And it will come from armed groups here who would be directed, instigated, supported and paid by Iran. They don’t want him. They don’t want to see him. And he is the last hope to move the process [forward] for the Palestinians.

In the past, when there was someone before in the territories who sort of presented the possibility of swaying people to follow him, because he came with some sort of a vision, he was murdered…

With Abu Mazen, I think there is a gap here, a slight gap, because he believes that what the road map demands of him is a clear declaration, an announcement that he is against terrorism, and he has to say it, so he’s saying it. That is not a sufficient condition for Prime Minister Sharon. And the interpretation of the Bush administration, too, is that you have to take steps. No, saying is not enough, declaring is not enough. The only thing we’re giving him is time…

Is negotiating a cease-fire good enough?

As a temporary step, yes, we will accept it… But Sharon reminds him all the time that you have those armed groups which not only present a threat to us, which conduct terrorist actions, which will force us to take action – ticking bombs, Kassam rocket squads, mortar fire – we will have to take action if you don’t act.

There was even a suggestion made to them in the context: Out of the 30,000 armed men in Gaza who are intact in the security services, deploy one third of them in the areas where they launch the rocket attacks – in Khan Yunis, in Beit Lahiya, in all those places. Deploy the forces. It will create a deterrent effect. You don’t have to fight. Even that he wasn’t willing to do.

The prime minister says, ‘Okay, I understand, Abu Mazen has problems in the elections. So he enjoys the benefit of the doubt for now with what he says, since everything is kind of fuzzy, everything is words. Okay. So the real test will come after elections, to see if he takes action.

Do they speak every day?

He doesn’t speak with him directly.

But his people and your people?

Yes…

The prime minister sees two stages. After he is elected, we will meet, and the two issues we have to discuss first are security coordination between our services and then coordinated disengagement.

In addition, if that works in Gaza, we’ll get out of the [West Bank] cities as well. But that has to be on condition that you have the capability, that you take the steps… And there’s a plan for that, by the way. Remember, after Aqaba, Mofaz worked out a plan with [Gaza security chief Muhammad] Dahlan for a staged withdrawal from the cities. But a suicide bombing by Hamas destroyed it.

President Bush’s commitments from last April, the president being ‘on board’ on the issue of borders, what does that really mean?

You have to put those understandings in the context of the last stage of the road map. The last stage, after a period of normalization, and a state without final borders, and all the normalization arrangements, commerce, open borders. Then, when we come to negotiate the final status, I think what has been done in the agreement between the prime minister and the president, endorsed overwhelmingly by the two houses of Congress, is a sort of outline of how this state will look in terms of the boundaries. First, it will not be the ’67 borders. It will have to be secure borders and it will have to be the kind of borders that take into consideration realities – demographic realities, economic realities, that were created on the ground.

When we come and present our position, the United States will not say, ‘This is the plan that we endorse.’ But they will support it.

Practically speaking, does that mean we would control no more than a few percent of the West Bank?

(Gissin answers without apparently registering the query about a few percent, which he essentially discounts later in his answer. DH.)

That’s true, that’s true, but [we will have] the most vital percentages that we need, in terms of what the prime minister calls the security zones. He is confident that there will be an eastern security zone and a western security zone: the eastern 10-15 kilometers and the western 3-5 kilometers from the ’67 borders. These are necessary both to ensure our ability to fight terrorism, but also to ensure… defensible borders. We are not going to annex them, but the security zones will be area that will be clearly under Israeli control.
We’re talking about Areas C.

That’s 58 percent of the territory.

Yeah… If we come to provisional arrangements, security will be left with us, and the full daily lives, and control of traffic, water and sewage, will be in the hands of the Palestinians.

And what of the settlements in those areas?

Those settlements in those areas will not be removed. but, of course, those that are outside the security zone, isolated… If you talk about the possibility that Olmert referred to [in a December 30 interview with The Jerusalem Post, of a second, West Bank, disengagement], that’s a long way to go. That’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s not useful to discuss it now.

It may not be useful but it’s being discussed.

The Palestinians want to leapfrog, circumvent the phases that force them to change.

Olmert got three steps ahead of himself?

You can’t reach that stage without a full cessation of violence and terrorism and incitement.

Not weeks and months?

It will be years, no doubt. But the quicker the Palestinians move in that direction, the quicker normalization moves in. It will be easier from a political view to make concessions if there is security, if the border is open, if there is commerce, and both sides stand to gain from it and to lose if this situation does not progress. There’ll be more willingness here, from the Israeli public, to make those kinds of concessions. But to think about it now? I mean, first of all, the Israeli public cannot digest another withdrawal right away. Second, I believe that it’s premature. We are offering all those options, two steps ahead, and the Palestinians haven’t even taken half a step.

But eventually, if there is an end to terrorism, there is going to have to be more territorial compromise?

Yes, but only when things are under control… And I can tell you that as long as this prime minister is here, and even anyone else who will come after him if he decides to resign, [no one] could make the kind of compromise and say, ‘Okay, we accept terrorism and we’ll start to negotiate a Palestinian state.’

If he decides to resign?!

No. I told you he looks backwards to see if there is any of his generation to step forward and really there isn’t.

But he would like to be able to hand over? Has he had enough of this?

After the mission is accomplished, come to me again with that question.

You mean after disengagement?

Because he won’t leave mid-course. He feels the responsibility. If the disengagement is going to be under fire, not so much Palestinian fire but internal fire here, he will have to go to another election, an early election in which he can get the kind of solid, massive majority that will enable him to move the process forward and then he can decide if he wants to stay the full term.

You mean an election post-disengagement?

Post-disengagement… David, get it into your mind that this man will not leave before disengagement is accomplished by hook and by crook. In other words, I’m telling you this: He will accomplish disengagement, with ad hoc coalitions if necessary. Okay?

But after that he might step down?

I don’t know. It depends how things develop. If things go smoothly, he may decide… Look, as I see the scenario unfolding, he will call for early elections, but after disengagement. That means it will be another two or three years.

Disengagement is the most important. That’s the name of the game. That’s the mission. And in the paratroopers, they say you don’t return before you accomplish the mission. While you do that, you also train commanders. He always used to say, when he was head of the training branch in the IDF, the commander has two missions. That’s how he would open his speech at officers’ school: First, you have to accomplish the mission, to completion; second, you have to raise and educate new commanders. He’s doing both right now.

And who is his favored commander?

I don’t think he has any. I think that’s one of the reasons why he sticks around. He looks left and right and doesn’t see any real candidates.

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