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Bibi can’t reject Trump’s peace plan, even if he doesn’t like it – former Israeli deputy FM

Benjamin Netanyahu has become the first Israeli prime minister to hold office for five terms. Will his right-wing coalition bury all hope for peace with Palestine once and for all? We asked Danny Ayalon, former deputy foreign minister of Israel.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Danny Ayalon, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel, welcome to the show. It's great to have you with us. Lots to discuss. Benjamin Netanyahu has won a new record term as Israeli Prime Minister. Now, he supports the settlements, his backers have a hardline view on the Palestinians. Is his next term going to be absolutely nothing to advance to peace cause forward? 

Danny Ayalon: I think actually that there is a better chance to move forward, not only because Bibi is on his fifth term and a veteran and is very secure in himself. He is a man of... a history scholar. His father was a history professor and I believe he is very much interested to leave his mark on history and for that any agreement with the Palestinians, a long-term agreement, would be very very important for him, and I think on the basis of the Trump plan, which we don’t know too much about, but... 

SS: Yeah, we're going to talk about the plan a bit later in the show. Before it, if you allow me, I would like to go step by step and deconstruct all possible sides of whatever is going on right now between Israel and Palestine. So the public - is the Israeli public getting a bit tired maybe of maintaining the occupying force, of the defense budgets, of rockets from Gaza, of all  that war brings with it? Or are they OK with it? 

DA: Well, I can tell you that the Israeli public would very much like to see peace with security, with dignity, with recognition and everything that it entails. You know that in 1978 Egypt was our, let's say, biggest enemy. When Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem and he was found to be trustworthy and honest - we had peace with him. The same thing with Abdullah of Jordan. This was the same attitude that Israel came with the Oslo agreement. And I can tell you, during the Oslo agreements, the first years, 80 percent of Israelis were for a Palestinian state. 80 percent! Now it's just the opposite. And what happened in the middle was the intifada because in 2000 at Camp David, and I was part of the Israeli team, we met with Arafat and the Palestinian team. Ehud Barak who was the prime minister made a very-very generous offer, including dividing Jerusalem, and Arafat rejected it and not only rejected it but he started this worst intifada where more than 1000 Israelis were killed. So this is why the Israelis feel now a sense of betrayal by the Palestinians. And today if you ask most Israelis they are against a Palestinian state. However, and this is, Sophie, I think, is the main point: if we will see a leadership of the Palestinians who are ready to negotiate without preconditions, to negotiate without the threat of terror all the time, without the political terror that they are trying in the international organisations, then I think we can really move forward because it's a win win. We do want peace. It's important for us, it's important for the Palestinians and we can move forward quite quickly. 

SS: Right. But the problem is… These are all “if”that are to happen: if there were no preconditions, if Palestinians weren't fighting, - I mean, they're fighting with each other. So it's kind of hard, right? You have the given facts, it is what it is. So at this point it seems like a vicious circle that no one can move forward because Israeli public figures keep telling me that Palestinians don't want peace. Palestinian officials tell me exactly the same thing about Israel. So nobody is really willing to make the first move, to make concessions, you keep blaming each other for not making the first move or enough efforts. But that's like a never ending circle. How do you break out of this deadlock with the given facts of life that you have as of today? 

DA: Well, this is exactly what the Trump plan is designed to do - to break the deadlock and to think out of the box and to put a new plan which is quite, maybe, refreshing. You know, Sophie, for 25-26 years four different American presidents tried the same thing over and over again and every time they hit a brick wall. So if you do the same thing over and over and you have failure you have to find something else. So I think what the Trump plan is (and I know we will talk about it) but I think here that Trump is going to engage the region leaders as well which were not in the, you know, in the center of things before. So I think this is giving us a better chance for going forward. And even though you said so, that there is a lot of infighting among the Palestinians in Gaza and Hamas is a big-big problem, but for Israel if we see that the Palestinian Authority is willing to come forward and negotiate we can agree and achieve some arrangement, an agreement with them irrespective of Hamas, and Gaza can be dealt with sometime later or when they are ready for it, when the Palestinians take back what was taken from them in a coup in 2007 by Hamas. 

SS: So we keep mentioning this Trump deal as if it's going to take care of everything but we don't know if it's going to take care of everything. And if the status quo as of today drags on for longer, if settlements keep growing, if protests like Gaza or even missile strikes and, you know, skirmishes keep happening things will boil over. And a lot of people fear that there will be another intifada. Won’t there? 

DA: Well, you know, what the Hamas is trying to do, they have a real strategic goal and that is to take over the entire Palestinian people and territory and really to take over from the Palestinian Authority. In order to do that they have tried and they are still trying to recruit many people in the West Bank (you know, Hamas is in Gaza), they are trying to actually recruit many terrorists who would do terror in the West Bank, who would go against the Palestinian Authority, and for that matter they didn't succeed. They really thought that all their terror and launching missiles on our civil population will encourage the Palestinians in Gaza to come out to the streets. It did not happen. And you know why? Because the people in Ramallah, the people in the West Bank today have a lot to lose. Their standard of living is going up so high after the violence stopped that they are thinking twice and three times before they want to throw all this away. And at the same time the Gaza people under Hamas are in very miserable poor conditions because Hamas would not put away their arms and would not like to open Gaza to free trade under supervision to make sure that they do not smuggle arms. So I'm not so much afraid of an intifada now. 

SS: So let's elaborate on this Palestinian divide for a second. Hamas and Fatah factions are fighting each other with vigour. It seems like this allows Israel to say that there is nobody to talk to, “so let's just keep on doing what we're doing”. Do you feel like this divide is kind of playing into Israel's hands? Is Israel actually interested in facilitating Palestinian unity? 

DA: Well, I can tell you that the bottom line is that Israel's goal is to have peace and security and we know that we will not have peace and security without a political settlement. Everybody knows that. It is true that we can withstand all the attacks and we can go on forever. But, of course, everybody would like to have a much better condition and no threat of violence and terror and really move forward. You know, today Israel is one of the strongest economies in the world. Per capita income in Israel is 40-45 thousand dollars. But if we solve the Palestinian conflict we can be double than that. We can be among the highest in the world. So, of course, we want to to solve the issue. For Israel it's not just a political interest, it's a strategic interest, I would say, almost a moral obligation. But you have to do it in a way that will ensure our future and our security. And until this moment any offers that were given from the Palestinians did the opposite, and offers that we gave them they either rejected or didn't answer. So I would say, we would like to have peace. Absolutely. But not at any cost, not at the cost of our freedom, or our independence, or our well-being, or our future. But for that we need a true partner. If we do not have a true partner, of course, the second best, you know, if you ask me what is better the best thing, of course, of all conditions it is to have peace that everybody is happy with. But if we cannot achieve that the second best is to keep the status quo as it is now. Now whether we are happy with the divide among the Palestinians I don't know. There are some speculations that, yes, Israel is interested in dividing the Palestinians into two different entities: Gaza and the Palestinian Authority. This is very short sighted. If you look long term, I think, we would be much better if the Palestinians would have one leadership which is a legitimate by everyone there, by the international community that we can really engage with and do a negotiation. 

SS: Ok, so let's say a miracle happens and Palestine has one government, one leader. The current peace idea in that construction is a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side. Now at this point from an outsider's point of view we don't really understand how the logistics work. If you look at it as a Lego construction with the settlements being built in the West Bank they now crisscross West Bank like a spot blanket. How can there be a Palestinian independent state when it would be covered with enclaves of Israel? 

DA: Well, first of all, again I think we must think out of the box. You know that 80 percent of all the Jewish communities in the West Bank or Judea and Samaria in their historic name are on 8 percent of the area. Indeed there are some other what we call, you know, outside of the major Jewish blocs, outside of this 8 percent of the land. But we can think of a future solution whereby those settlements would stay there even under some kind of Palestinian sovereignty. You know that in Israel itself we have 20 percent of our civilians who are non-Jews. They are Arabs and they voted in the Knesset. They have representatives, judges all over. So if we have Arabs inside Israel why would the Palestinians reject anybody who is not Palestinian? You know, we are not talking about, I hope, ethnic cleansing and the Palestinians so far wanted the ethnic cleansing, of course. This is something that nobody can accept. So I'm saying there are many many modalities. I do not think, Sophie, and I say it really from the bottom of my heart, I do not think that the settlements have ever been the problem. 

SS: Now, Mr. Ayalon, Netanyahu said he would push for Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank settlements, and, I'm quoting, “I will make sure we control the territory west of Jordan”. Was it just talk, to score some easy political points, or do you see that actually happening any time soon? 

DA: No, actually, I don't see it happening. You know, this was during the campaign rhetorics. I don't think that Israel will do anything before we see the Trump plan, and in any case, it will be in coordination as much as possible with the international community. 

SS: So what about an extreme case? Would you see full annexation of West Bank as a possibility, a one-state solution with equal rights and full citizenship for both Palestinians and Israelis living there? 

DA: No, I don't see an annexation of Area A, you know, you have to remember that Palestinians already occupy 40 percent of the West Bank with 95 percent of the population, which is already theirs. We are not there. They run their own affairs, so about occupation, it's not exactly what people think. But at the end of the day, I do not think that anybody in Israel is thinking of a one-state solution with having the Palestinians here, and we will find a way to have a total separation. And again, I want to say, it's not just one or zero, yes or no, black and white. It could be also some kind of confederacy, some kind of relationship like Benelux, so, you know, we used to have Belgium and the Netherlands and Luxembourg, it could be Jordan, Palestinians and Israel. Everything is still possible. Nothing is etched in stone. 

SS: All right. So I've read a lot of what you have been saying on this subject, and you've been expressing the opinion that Palestinians have the culture of violence. But then, you know, you step back and look at it, the culture of violence is only bred by violence, right? The Palestinians who are humiliated at wall checkpoints and settlements like Hebron, who are blockaded in Gaza, who are killed by snipers at protests... I mean, why should they like Israel, right? They have no reason, I mean, from their point of view, Israel has taken their land, and it's controlling their lives without giving them a voice.I kind of, like, understand why they would be feeling violent about it, you can't really breed culture of love from that. 

DA: Well, I believe the Palestinians have been betrayed by successive Palestinian governments and leaders, all the way back with Haj Amin al-Husseini. Again, I don't want a history lesson, but he is the one who went to Hitler asking him to kill all the Jews of Palestine as well. And what was Palestine, Palestine was never a state, it was an administrative unit, there were Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs. My parents, I still have their Palestinian papers. They were the ones who started, they were the ones who rejected any offers in 37, in 1947, all the way to Camp David and even 2008. 

SS: Yeah, but we are talking about now. I mean, the young generation right now, living in Palestine, they have nothing to do with those historical events. They're just born into this reality, and what they get is what I have said in my previous question. How do you make sure that they are actually more loving toward Israelis, while all these realities are on the ground right now? 

DA: Israel would love to love them, but for this we have to have a cultural change. I'll tell you what is the problem. If you look at the textbooks in the Palestinian Authority, they all teach to kill Israel, to eliminate Israel from the map. They make demands not over the West Bank or Gaza, but all over Israel. This has to stop. They also are trying to attack us politically. You know that there is also what we call the pay to slay, you know that in the Palestinian legislation book, there is a law which encourages Palestinians to kill Jews. And if they kill Jews, they get money for it. And you know what, even there is a tariff. The more Jews they kill, the more money they get. So if we see elimination of all these, the elimination of incitement, I think then you will see that Israel will be more than generous and more than helpful with all the Palestinians. So it's a matter of changing their attitude, and especially the attitude of their leadership. 

SS: So right now, the United States and its Republican leadership couldn't have been more pro-Israeli, but things look different on the left wing, right? There, you have the center-left establishment, which is more or less friendly to Israel, but also figures like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar. Could a future Democratic president, whoever that would be, drop the U.S.-Israeli ties below the Obama era? 

DA: I don't think so. I mean, certainly, they will not be as warm, as intimate as it is with Trump, but basically, the alliance between Israel and the United States is a natural one, which the United States also gets a lot from, in terms of technology, in terms of intelligence, in terms of stability in the region. Many American lives are being saved because of the cooperation with Israel. So any President, new President, who comes to the White House, and he looks at the analytical report of the strategists in Washington or intelligence reports, they will continue. Maybe not as intimate and warm as with Trump, but the alliance will continue. 

SS: After the Jerusalem embassy debacle, the Palestinians do not see the United States as a fair broker anymore, and Mahmoud Abbas has been calling for more EU involvement in the peace process. Could the table be turned on Israel if Europe steps in? 

DA: I don't think so. The Europeans have always taken the back seat. I don't think that they have the wherewithal, I don't think that they have the capacity to lead. We are talking about 28 different countries, and not all the time they have a consensus, and they do not also have the means, in terms of strategic capabilities, and not even economic, to do what the United States can do. However, having said that, I think the Palestinians and Abbas made a big mistake in not actually receiving Trump and trying to boycott the Americans. This will not help them. On the contrary, if they would negotiate with the Americans, I think they would be much better off. 

SS: So Israel has been developing its economic ties with China,and some very recent reports hint that Trump would have none of that. And he even said this could affect the U.S.-Israeli security cooperation. So is Israel willing to bend the knee and lose the Chinese investments to please its American friend? I mean, it's a tough choice here. 

DA: Well, it is a tough choice, but here, we can square the circle. Certainly, we have very-very important relationship with China, a lot of interests with the United States, of course, it's our best friend and ally, but I think we can find the middle of the road. Yes, the Americans do see China as the chief global opponent to the American interests, and maybe Israel is in the position to try and help the two sides to come and understand better each other. But in any case, we are obligated by the Americans not to sell to China any military technology, only civil technology. 

SS: Team Trump is about to roll out the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, the deal of the century, like you called a couple of times, and Trump said earlier that since he's already given Israel a boon after boon, Palestinians would also get something very good. Is Netanyahu in a position to say “no” to that deal, if he doesn't like it? If it splits Jerusalem, for instance. 

DA: Yeah, I don't think Netanyahu will say “no”. He may say “yes, but”, but he will not say “no”, you're right, Sophie, he is not in the position to say “no”. And Trump said many times that, you know, Israel got their, let's say, advantages, with moving the embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Jerusalem as our capital. And he said that there would be some painful things that Israel will not like either. So this is why I think the Palestinians should come with open mind to the negotiation. 

SS: So the Trump administration has recently recognized Israeli sovereignty over Golan heights. This unilateral move has been rejected across the board in the international community, basically, by almost everyone but some of the most staunch Trump allies. Netanyahu has been lauding it as another foreign policy victory, but if virtually no one else sees the Golans as Israel, does that really mean victory? 

DA: Well, I think, for Bibi, it meant victory, also political victory, and we saw it in the ballots for the election, he won in a very big way. But for Israel, the Golan Heights are important today more than ever before, because things have changed, since Iran is trying to take over Syria, which is against the interests of Israel, or the interests of Syria, of the Syrian people, or even the interests of Russia, since they are there. And we see that the chaotic situation, the Golan Heights is very, very important for us. Also, with the Golan Heights, there is no population whatsoever, so this is not something that is... You know, it's a barren land, it's not very important to anyone else but to Israel's security. 

SS: So Netanyahu is facing indictment on bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and, you know, there are speculations in the press that he may actually use his parliamentary majority to pass legislation that would make a sitting Prime Minister immune to standing trial. Do you think that could happen? 

DA: Theoretically, Sophie, yes, it could happen. We call it here the French law, because according to the French law, they cannot indict or prosecute the President there. But I don't think that the Israeli legislators will go this way, and I don't think they have to, because, according to Israeli existing law, if a Prime Minister is indicted, he doesn't have to step down, only if he is convicted. So it could be a long long process. And all the coalition members of Netanyahu right now are promising him that they will adhere by the law and they will not demand his resignation, if the attorney general decides to indict, only after a trial and after - if - he is convicted. 

SS: Mr. Ayalon, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. Good luck with everything. Thank you for this wonderful interview. We were talking to Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former Deputy Foreign Minister, discussing the future of the Netanyahu administration and Israel’s international standing. That is is for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.

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