‘We must reduce the terrorists’ sense of victory’

By David Horovitz May 11, 2005

Binyamin Netanyahu talks exclusively to the ‘Post’ about the dangers of disengagement, why he hasn’t resigned, a vision for Gaza and his prime-ministerial aspirations

(With Gil Hoffman)

On his desk in the Finance Ministry, Binyamin Netanyahu has a little gold sign that reads, ‘Just keep in mind: Nobody but nobody is invincible. And it goes both ways.’

The more you think about it, the more interesting that particular choice of desk ornament gets.

Netanyahu learned the first part to his detriment in 1999, when the Israeli electorate ousted him as prime minister. In this interview with The Jerusalem Post, he makes crystal clear his determination to act on the second part: He evinces mature respect for Ariel Sharon’s particular burden as prime minister, but is unstinting in his criticisms of Sharon over disengagement, and forthright in asserting his own qualifications for the job.

He is also characteristically articulate despite the late hour – it is close to midnight by the time we finish, and aides are visibly wilting. He makes what some may find surprising comments about his final-status thinking, and his support for limited Palestinian sovereignty. And he is genuinely disappointed that we choose to ask him mainly about the impending Gaza and northern Samaria pullout rather than the economic reforms he has spearheaded as finance minister – the position, he wryly observes, from which many believed he would not emerge with leadership aspirations intact.

The Jerusalem Post: What is the case against disengagement?

Binyamin Netanyahu: I think that’s been decided. The question now is will there be future unilateral disengagements, right? That’s really what’s at stake.

Really. It’s been decided? Were there not supposed to be a series of four votes in the cabinet, with a timelag between each one [as each cluster of settlements was evacuated]?

I don’t think the timelags are going to be significant. It may be one other vote. It’s very clear that the timelag approach, the phased approach, has been pretty much scratched. And if you ask how will I vote in the next one, it will be the way I voted on this one [that is: against disengagement]. Nothing has happened to change my mind.

But this phase thing was a big deal. It was Sharon saying, ‘My own party rejected my disengagement initiative. So I’ve come up with a whole new plan now – a pullout in four stages.’ And various ministers were very adamant that we’d have to see how the first stage is going, wait a few weeks, even a few months… Are we just going to see the ministers who were so keen on these stages lie down?

You’ll have to ask them. I am very consistent. I was willing to enable the preparations for the disengagement but I voted against it. The compromise that we reached with the prime minister after the Likud plebiscite vote against disengagement was that we make the preparations for it but actually defer the decision until it came to the cabinet. And when it came to the cabinet, I voted against it.

I did not vote against because I thought we should stay in the Gaza Strip forever. I didn’t think that in a permanent settlement, if we got one, that we should stay there, because Gaza is a small place with a very large Arab population. But this is not the question now. This is a question of whether we should withdraw, unilaterally, under terrorist fire and without any reciprocity. I thought that was a mistake. That’s why I urged Sharon to fence in the major settlement blocs, so that the Palestinian terrorists do not have the sense of an unlimited victory. That is: Israel may give but it also takes.

So, unilaterally, you would have done what?

I would have finished the fencing in of the Kedumim-Ariel bloc, the Maaleh Adumim bloc and the Gush Etzion bloc, as a minimum. This would be partial compensation for the withdrawal. As it turns out, we are going to withdraw without having done that, and it may take considerable time before we do.

The principal problem with the withdrawal as it is taking place is that it may set in Palestinian minds the belief that there is a pattern of Israeli behavior: We received terror in Lebanon, and withdrew. We received terror in Gaza, withdrew. We received terror in Judea and Samaria, we will withdraw. And then under terror the Jews will withdraw from Palestine.

All this was a preamble to Palestine. Palestine is Jaffa, Acre, Haifa. This is what animates the Palestinian movement’s imagination. This is what fires the terrorists’ minds and hearts. The greatest impetus to terror is their sense of impending victory. The greatest discouragement to terror is the sense of failure and hopelessness. It is very important that we do everything in our power even with this disengagement decision to minimize the sense of victory. That’s why I advocate very forcefully that we demolish the houses. Because the last thing we want is for the terrorists to celebrate with fiendish glee this idea that they murdered and profited by it.

If your opposition is so principled, why did you vote with the government in fall 2004, at the first reading of the disengagement implementation bill, when a ‘no’ vote from you and the two other Likud ministers with you would have meant that most of the Likud’s Knesset faction would have been voting against? Wouldn’t the dynamic have been different? You might have been able to stop disengagement, no?

We were voting on preparations. I don’t think I could have changed the dynamic or mustered enough votes to stop disengagement. Most of the Likud’s primary voters voted against it. That couldn’t stop it.

I think there is a majority of the people right now who want it, and that’s why it’s going through. But as it goes through, we have to minimize the dangers both for an internal combustion on the Jewish side, and the inflammation of terrorist hopes on the Palestinian side. Once it goes through – assuming it’s not blocked by ferocious Palestinian terror.

Right now they are pinpricking us. They are doing this very cleverly. They are not creating outright explosions of terror, because they believe this would stop the disengagement. The terrorists are controlling themselves. They are rationing their acts of murder with the hope that once we leave they can then proceed, and the intelligence people are saying that they will probably proceed from Judea and Samaria.

There was wide consensus to depart from Lebanon, but now in retrospect there is a growing understanding that the way we left Lebanon was a mistake, that leaving it in a state of frenzied flight helped to inflame the next intifada. Remember the speech of [Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah at the border fence: Jewish power is nothing more than spiders’ webs; no matter what weapons they have, they cower and flee before superior Muslim will.

The conflict is maintained with the Palestinians uniquely and differently from the other peoples and states in the Arab world. The other states, whether it be Egypt or obviously Jordan, but also Syria or Libya, they don’t define their existence by our disappearance. They may have enmity, they may have residual animosity, antagonism, but they don’t define their very being by the dismantling of Israel.

Palestinian nationalism, Palestinian radicalism defines itself at heart by the nullification of Zionism. It is an integral part of their self-definition. This is the tragedy. It fuses both the Muslim fundamental radicals and the secular nationalists. The Palestinians have moderate and sensible people but they are weak and they do not stand before the combined force of the radicals who are pushing toward a gradual elimination of Israel.

They define us as neo-Crusaders. They see the Crusaders had superior technology and superior military might, just the way Israelis do, but the superior Muslim and Arab will pushed them from one fort to another until they came to the last fort on the Mediterranean and there they were pushed out too.

Anything that persuades the Palestinians that we are being pushed by their superior will and their acts of terror to vacate one position after another emboldens terror and pushes peace further away. Anything that creates the opposite effect actually brings peace closer. This is completely antithetical to the idea that you can just walk out and things will be all right. You can walk out. You can walk out to the ’67 lines. But what happens beyond?

You can build a fence, which as you know I have been advocating very strenuously. But that doesn’t answer the question: What happens on the Palestinian side of the fence? If the Palestinians sense a pattern of unilateral withdrawals under terror and without any Palestinian reciprocity, this poses a great danger to us.

An existential danger?

We’ll have to wake up to it at a certain point. But the later we wake up to this danger, the more we pay.

So why didn’t you put your career on the line to stop this?

My career is not relevant. I don’t have to safeguard my career. I took a much bigger risk coming into this office as finance minister. Some told me that they didn’t think I would survive this post because of the hard choices that we had to make which were politically very unpopular and could have cost me my political career.

But you could have stopped disengagement.

Well, you give me great credit. I’m not sure that I agree with you.

I had been prime minister and I know that it is the prerogative and the realm of the prime minister to lead foreign policy. There was an implicit, unspoken division of labor between the prime minister and myself. He would lead foreign policy and I would lead economic policy. When he came up with the disengagement idea I went to him and I told him, ‘Arik, I don’t think this is the right thing to do.’ And I wouldn’t have done it.

Did he tell you before the Herzliya speech [on disengagement in fall 2003] what he was going to say?

Not in detail. I spoke to him afterwards. I said, ‘I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think it’s a good idea. But you’re the prime minister and I’m fully aware of the consequences when the prime minister of Israel makes such an announcement. I think the very least you should do is minimize the damage and the risks.’

He said, ‘What do you need, what do you think we should do?’

I said I think we should do three things and I haven’t changed my view.

One, keep the Philadelphi Corridor in our hands. I don’t expect the Egyptians to fight and die for us. I think it would be a mistake to ask them. The entry into the Sinai and right up to our border of a large Egyptian contingent, that could actually endanger the peace. The peace with Egypt has worked for several decades. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Second, [I told him] we should create a counterbalance to our withdrawals by including the main settlement blocs in the main fence – that is, they should be part of the territorial contiguity of Israel, and I think this should be complete before the withdrawal so at least we mitigate the perception of the terrorists that we are just giving. We are giving and taking. We are not formally annexing. We are just putting a line that makes sense in terms of security but also has significance for the future. It’s not that we give up what’s beyond the fence, but what we’ve included in the fence is permanent. We can still argue about what’s beyond the fence and we will.

Third, I said we should get the president of the world’s sole solitary superpower to say categorically that the United States will not recognize the so-called right of return.

The third was achieved, the first is still being debated and the second has not been achieved.

Let’s be clear: You would be prepared to leave Gaza?

My preference and my thinking is that this would happen when we get a final settlement. I would not have initiated a unilateral disengagement. I think it’s problematic at best. I think the only way you can do it [disengage unilaterally] is by compensating Israel for territory which it cedes, by territory and other assets which it takes.

By the way, in addition to the main settlement blocs, there are vast unpopulated areas in the Jordan Valley and the Judean desert which may be empty of population but are replete with security, strategic and historical significance for us. So it would be possible to also fence around them. By the way, this was perfectly possible in the year following September 11. One could have finished the fence, both along the Jordan Valley and along the settlement blocs as well, and thereby saved ourselves a great deal of tragedy.

If you ask me about future unilateral disengagements, they cannot be unilateral without Israel receiving something. And if Israel doesn’t have a partner to negotiate with, the only way to receive something is to take it. In other words, if we cede something, we should unilaterally also take something, though I would not suggest we take a single populated area.

You make it sound as though ‘Disengagement II’ is about to happen.

No, but people ask me, can you ever see a situation where you would make a unilateral withdrawal? And I say yes, conceivably I could. But I believe in the principle of reciprocity, which is not a tactical but a strategic principle. When you have a neighbor that basically believes he can push you to the sea, the only way you can relieve him of this fantasy is to break the fantasy and to show that you are not a new Crusader fleeing from weakness, but that you are deciding on your own what is in your benefit. Leaving Gaza, we are told by many, is the benefit that we get. Unfortunately, the Palestinians don’t see it that way, so we are involved in empowering their fantasies.

And this disengagement is a done deal unless Palestinian terrorism becomes overpowering?

Realistically, I think that’s the case. I wish I could say something else.

Shimon Peres has just told the Post he doesn’t think disengagement is necessarily a sure thing, that he’s very worried that someone will still stop it.

Look, this is a democracy. The key in a democracy is that the loser accepts the result, not the winner. Since I am a democrat, I have to accept the will of the majority of the Knesset even though I don’t like it. If you want to change that, change the Knesset.

You’re being much more pragmatic than you were when you were facing off Yitzhak Rabin in the Oslo years. You were much more strident in your opposition.

Well, it was much more far-reaching. I did say in 1993 on the signing of the Oslo agreements that missiles would fly out of Gaza and I was poohpoohed. ‘Here was the end of 100 years of terror and the beginning of a euphoric peace.’ I said ‘No, that’s not what’s going to happen. The opposite will happen. You are empowering a dictator committed to our destruction, giving him bases and weapons and a small army next to us, and he’s going to use them.’

Of course this wasn’t the line so I was viewed at that time as being more adamant or vitriolic. Remember, people were possessed with this idea. They actually believed, as did the American administration at the time, that Arafat was the prince of peace.

Your colleague Mr. Sharansky has resigned.

Yes, he has and I respect him for it. I think that each one of us makes an assessment of what is the point where he stops being relevant.

I think I’m relevant for the economy of the country. I really think I’m making a difference in the sense that we are conducting a free market revolution, and if I stop, it will stop, and that will be a tragedy because Israel is well on its way to becoming an independent economic power. It’s going to be a very powerful economic power because of the combination of high technology that it has and free technology that it has lacked and is now obtaining.

In terms of the political process, I’m not happy with it. I try to influence it as much as I can. I think I just did with the demolition of the houses.

Are you saying that this has now been decided, that the houses will be knocked down?

I don’t know. But I have influenced the course of the debate. I’ve stood against everyone. I argued as forcefully as I can. The overriding consideration would be to deprive the Palestinians those roofs on which they would dance. The killers of the kids would dance on the rooftops of their houses, chant their slogans about destroying Israel, go fire a Kassam rocket and then go and hide in the security room of the same house.

So it’s you against everyone? Now you’re the furthest to the right?

Well, if you keep firing ministers, then that’s what you get. You know, the majority of the Likud faction is actually with me. That’s my sense. I haven’t counted it on every single vote.

Where is the red line for you? Do you wait for the next elections and then challenge?

If you have no red lines, you have no reason to be in politics… But if you have red lines every step of the way, you shouldn’t be a leader. Leadership requires a combination of restraint and conviction. Leadership is cool fire. It’s not a raging furnace.

So, we’ll get to the other side of disengagement, and then you will challenge for the Likud leadership?

If you ask me, ‘Do you think that I can lead this country, am I ready to do so, am I prepared with the sum of my experiences to do it?,’ the answer is yes. I feel that I’m perfectly capable to do it. I’ve had a variety of experience – in the diplomatic, political, security and most recently economic fields. And the record speaks for itself.

If you want me now to announce my upcoming… I’m going to ask you to come and call again when we have elections. Now we know we’re going to have elections by November 2006. So I think you have sufficient warning to come and solicit answers to these questions.

Is Mahmoud Abbas a partner?

Regrettably not. He is not Arafat. But though he doesn’t dispatch terrorists like Arafat, he doesn’t do anything to stop them. And he doesn’t start educating his people on the idea that the war is over, as Sadat did, as King Hussein did. He’s saying that the right of return is still there. What he believes is immaterial. What is material is that he keeps that hope alive, and that hope is what drives the terror, what drives the conflict.

What about his argument that ‘you have to give me more concrete evidence, for my people, of the benefits of moderation’ – pulling back in the West Bank, releasing more prisoners?

More evidence? More evidence? We’re withdrawing from Gaza for God’s sake.

Well, we were doing that anyway.

Well, that’s a thought, isn’t it. We could have tied that in. I wouldn’t have done that [disengagement]. But if you were already going to do it, it would have made sense to tie him into it, to condition the withdrawal on something we would get from him. As it is, what you’re seeing now is a very worrisome dynamic. The strengthening of Hamas beyond belief. [The withdrawal] is unfortunately linked to their propaganda, that they are the driving force in Israel’s withdrawal.

Are you concerned that they are going to win the Palestinian elections in July?

I don’t know if they will win, but they are getting stronger. Plus you have this continuous sprinkling of terrorist attacks and you know they’re holding back. Holding back not in the sense that they’re on a permanent diet and they’re never going to go back to terrorist binges. On the contrary, they say that they are preparing the groundwork, they are preparing their missiles and their bombs and they’re just waiting.

Is there some unknown source of pressure on the prime minister?

I don’t think there’s pressure. Certainly there’s not American pressure. This is one of the friendliest administrations, if not the friendliest administration ever as far as not applying pressure on Israel to withdraw…

We should advocate massive and continuous American application of pressure on the Palestinians as on others in the Arab world [to democratize]. There has been no place in the world where the process of democratization has taken place without external pressure.

I don’t think we’re doing enough to focus American pressure on the Palestinians to achieve this transformation. We just think that if we separate ourselves, put up a fence, things will be all right. It’s not going to be all right. Missiles fly over the fence. Tunnels can be dug under it. Armies can be amassed on one side of it. The fence can be breached. The fence is a defensive means, an important one, but that’s all it is.

How credible is Sharon’s talk of the Americans’ giving him a quid pro quo – that Israel is not going to have to give up the major settlement blocs?

I think that the [Bush] statement that there’ll have to be geographic adjustments to reflect demographic realities is important. But what are the demographic realities? Is it Ariel or is it Ramot? It’s not been defined. It’s been left vague.

When the US says we’re in trouble building houses in Ma’aleh Adumim, that gets me worried. Can you imagine that we dismantle, how many people live in Maaleh Adumim? [More than 30,000.] The human misery: Look at what’s happening when we’re trying to take a few thousand people out of Gaza. Look at the enormous strain. The lives of families that are just torn away from their homes and children that are dislocated. It’s a tremendous toll. And Ma’aleh Adumim? Ma’aleh Adumim is part of Jerusalem for God’s sake. So the principle is good, but I have some problems with the application.

Do you still oppose independent Palestinian statehood under any circumstances?

My problem with the word ‘state’ is not that the Palestinians have sovereignty over their lives. I have no problem with that. I don’t intend in any definition of secure borders to annex the Palestinian population… Nobody in his right mind would want to annex Ramallah or Nablus. The Palestinians are not going to be under Israeli sovereignty. They could be under Palestinian sovereignty.

But what are the limits that we should place on Palestinian sovereignty in whatever designated territory comes out, either through unilateral action or through an agreement? The principal limitation that we want to place on Palestinian sovereignty is not how they govern Ramallah, but it’s whether they can import weapons and troops into Ramallah. The principal thing is control of the borders and the air space and the ports for the foreseeable future.

This is a society that is not merely unreformed. It has been poisoned by suicide kindergarten camps, by schoolbooks and mosques that preach not merely the destruction of the Jewish state, but the destruction of the Jews through suicide and terror, day in, day out. So to simply say ‘let them govern themselves’ is not proven, wise or safe.

We are stuck with an antiquated conception: full sovereignty or none. That’s silly. Full sovereignty within the Palestinian territories, for the Palestinian over Palestinians? Fine, one would hope, in the shift towards more democratized rule. But full sovereignty over the borders? No. I think it’s a mistake.

I would place no limitations on the Palestinians to govern themselves, but I would place any limitations necessary on the Palestinians so that they do not threaten Israel’s vital security. Except that there’s no term for that. That is the crux. The last thing that I want to do is to annex Palestinians to Israel. The idea that we want to rule them is absurd. There is no demographic threat from the territories, because no one thinks of annexing those populations to Israel.

You are presented as someone who is intransigently opposed to Palestinian statehood, but what you are saying is ‘No, I am opposed to a Palestinian state that is unlimited in the ways that it could threaten us’?

This is true but there is no term. The word state implies unlimited sovereignty. In fact, you do want to limit it – not in its internal management, but in its external. That’s why I’d rather be precise on the definition.

Do you not want to talk about the economy?


Israel’s economic malaise was viewed by many to be the result of the intifada or the burst of the hi-tech bubble. Obviously they contributed to the crisis, but the crisis was brewing for many years.

Some countries that were behind us 15 years ago caught up with us and passed us: Ireland, Singapore, Cyprus. They shifted very vigorously to free markets. For growth to occur you have to have free markets. You cannot have a unionized, monopolized, highly-taxed, high-welfare, high-bureaucracy economy. Some of the leading countries in Europe are stuck there.

We were approaching financial collapse only two years ago. We made a very significant change by reducing taxes, reducing government expenditure, getting people from welfare to work, busting open the monopolies to competition, reforming a significant part of our pension funds. The result has been much faster growth than western Europe. We grew last year by 4.3%. They grow an average of 1%.

The doubling of the stock market, the decline of interest rates – all of these things can and should be continued, except that Israel has potential that exceeds the tigers it has passed. We have the greatest concentration of people capable of producing mind or conceptual products. We ought to be very, very rich. But we can’t be rich because we’ve had basically an economy that discouraged enterprise and creativity and growth and the creation of wealth. The argument that we used to sustain this was that this was better socially. In fact it was horrible. It created an underclass of welfare recipients and condemned vast portions of our people to poverty. This is what I’ve been busy dealing with the last two years.

To come back to something you said earlier: How do we minimize the potential for internal Jewish combustion over disengagement? I assume one of the ways you envisage is demolishing the housing. I know that that’s something very painful for the people in Gaza…

You raise an interesting point, but I wasn’t thinking of that. I think you have to be very careful in the way this thing is done. It has to be done with great care and deliberation and caution. Just as we ask and demand of the settlers not to use violence against the security forces, we have to ask the security forces not to use violence against the settlers. If you have to be slower, be slower.

It seems that there is an awareness of that concern in the security services.

Yes, I think so and I hope there is among the settlers too. We’ve had enough tragedies here.

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