'Israeli settlements in West Bank a sad issue, seems irreversible' - ex-Israeli diplomat

Israel is expanding its presence in the West Bank despite the fact it's one of the main obstacles to peace talks. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, however, keeps talking about his desire to find a solution to the Middle East conflict. But looking at the actions, not the words, does Israel really want peace? We talk about this and more to Alon Liel, former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is Alon Liel, former Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. You don’t believe Netanyahu wants peace with the Palestinians – any peace, even with concessions, so, basically, all speculation regarding talks and solutions involving this government is just hot air – is that right?

Alon Liel: I think Netanyahu would like to have peace, but on his terms, and his terms, I think, are unacceptable to the Palestinians. The word “peace” lost its meaning over the years. Everybody wants peace; the question is what are you ready to sacrifice in order to achieve peace. And not many people in Israel, and also, maybe, in Palestine are ready to sacrifice enough to in order achieve this target.

SS:So you personally, you don’t expect anything to happen, any steps further while Netanyahu is in charge?

AL: I don’t expect to have a final resolution, what we use to call “peace” – I don’t expect this to happen. Everybody is busy now with what is called “Plan B” – how can we arrange the talks to fail in the agreement, meaning not to fail in a way that will bring violence or a lot of Palestinian international activity especially in the UN, but to fail in an agreed way that the Palestinians will get something and everybody will be able to say the talks achieved something for the Palestinians. This is what is going at the moment. I am personally very much against it, but there are different views about it.

SS:What needs to change in the Knesset? Who needs to come to power to bring a Palestinian solution a step closer?

AL: I don’t think anything has to change in the Knesset. There is one individual that can make the difference, and that is PM Netanyahu. He is having now a very comfortable majority to move to an agreement, not a partial agreement or an interim agreement – to move to an agreement, if he will decide to lead such an agreement. As it seems now, he is not ready to do it: the price that he will have to pay is that he will probably need to leave his own party, Likud – because in Likud you don’t have a majority for the agreement, a final status agreement with the Palestinians. But, Ariel Sharon did the same when he was PM and left the Likud for a new party. It doesn’t look as if Netanyahu is willing to do it.

SS: It does look like everything is centered around one person, right?

AL: Yes, but it happens sometimes, because historically Israelis kind of delegated the authority on issues of peace and war to the PM. The average Israeli is saying: “What do I know about the threats, about what’s going on behind the screen, I have to leave it to my PM.” When Begin was PM and decided to go for peace with Egypt - on the following morning 50 percent to 60 percent of the public changed its mind and supported such a peace, which included withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. So, if Netanyahu will stand up and say “This is my suggestion for the final agreement with Palestinians,” he will have the majority. This is happening in Israel only on matters of war and peace – if it would be on economic matters, social matters, then the public can challenge the PM, but I don’t think on war and peace.

SS:Benjamin Netanyahu seems quite a phenomenon from the outside – he’s always been a target for criticism from both foreign and Israeli press, but still he keeps winning power, and as we know, it happens democratically. Why do you think he has this much support?

AL: First of all, there is no “left” left in Israel, meaning the left side of the political map has been almost crashed. There is no real “peace” camp as we used to have – today we have center and right with a minimum amount of “left.” Netanyahu has positioned himself in the middle of the political map, he is kind of the moderate right. Also I think he has economic achievements, the country is doing well – it hardly felt the international world crisis of 2008, and people appreciate the way he is running the country on the economic issues.

SS:Israel is building and planning to build more settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and that’s despite all the criticism it is getting, including from the UN and the US. Is ignoring it actually the best tactic?

AL: I think this is the sad issue, historically, in the conflict – the settlements. I think when we started speaking if there is chance for peace or not, and I was pessimistic – this is the reason. The amount of settlements is huge and probably irreversible, and the signal that the Israeli government is sending to the Palestinians, to the rest of the Middle East, to the world, by continuing even aggressively to settle – it is a very negative signal, because if now the talks will not conclude in an agreement, it won’t be called a “peace agreement,” when we will meet next time to talk with the Palestinians? In three or five, who knows, maybe 10 years – the volume of the settlements will be bigger, and the chance for a Palestinian state smaller. I personally do not understand what this government is doing, I know there is a lot of pressure from the Israeli right to go on settling, but the price that we pay and will pay is enormous for thiSS: first of all, regarding our international image, but also, if we will not be able to establish a Palestinian state – we will be the Palestinian state! It will be an Israeli-Palestinian state, a bi-national state, so I don’t understand what the government is doing.

SS: OK, but what can be done about the settlements? Israel insists there cannot be another Gaza solution which saw settlements dismantled. What’s the way out?

AL: First of all, we had a freeze in the past. But the issue of these settlements is directly connected to the issue of an agreement. If Netanyahu wants to reach peace with Palestinians, the first thing he personally has to say is “Let’s stop settling,” because the more settlements we have, the more difficult it is to reach an agreement. So first, he should be the one stopping it. Don’t forget that Prime Minister Sharon, when he decided to go out of Gaza in the North of the West Bank, he removed the settlements, removed them and said “no, we should be there.” Netanyahu is not doing it. First of all, he doesn’t look courageous enough to stand against the pressures of the right, but even more worrying, it looks as if he is personally in favor of it – so this is the real main complication, the continuing of the settlements.

SS:Talking about the pressure from the right, the Jewish Orthodox population sometimes has the most extreme far-right views, very hard-headed, self-righteous in many ways, and that behavior can actually aggravate the other nations, let alone the Palestinians, but it does seem that the government is benefiting from such behavior, because who else would live in the settlements if not people like them, right?

AL: There is also some economic aspect to it and I would say that maybe one-third or even more of the settlers moved to the settlements because of economic reasons, because they could get better housing, cheaper in the settlements – governments saw to it, so not all the settlers are ideological. But, when you speak of this lobby on the right, that is threatening to topple the government if the settlements are being stopped. If Netanyahu would face them and say “I’m stopping,” he would have to change the coalition and this is possible. He has players outside the coalition, who are ready to join anytime if he moves toward peace, like the Labor Party. I think it’s up to him – he can resist this pressure if he decides to do it.

SS: At first sight, there’s very little interest among Israelis toward how the Palestinians live – or a peace solution. Is that because they are constantly bombarded by the media about the level of threats? Is there no human dimension being put across?

AL: It’s a good question. It is connected of course, the fact that the Palestinians are the enemy – they are not only presented as the enemy. As you know, over the years, we had two intifadas, each of them lasted for several years, very violent, especially the second one with about 250 suicide attacks, a lot of Israeli casualties. We still have missiles from time to time coming from Gaza. It will be not fair to say that somebody is manipulating it and presenting the Palestinians as the enemy – the Palestinians are the enemy. One of the enemies of Israel, so it’s very difficult for part of the public to sympathize with the difficult conditions they have, especially in Gaza and in the West Bank. However, I think there are many, many Israelis, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands that care about it, that are in touch with Palestinians and support them through civil society. Also, there is a responsibility of the Israeli government, because we’re the occupiers, to see to it that the conditions will be bearable and we’re passing [along] money that we collect as taxes.There is some economic contact, even with Gaza, not only with the West Bank. But, the truth is that the majority of the public sees the Palestinians as enemies, as lots of them sit in jail for terror attacks on Israel, even for murdering Israelis. It’s difficult for the average Israeli, who doesn’t see a long term political issues in front of him, he sees the daily situation, he sees the past – it’s difficult for him to like the Palestinians.

SS:Let me ask you a question, as I would ask an average Israeli: do you think something should be changed about how Palestinians are portrayed, or it’s a fair portrayal?

AL: I’ll give you my personal view: I think – and it’s not a secret – there is a basic mistake in the Israeli approach to the peace process…[it is] based on the balance of power between us and the Palestinians. We are by far much stronger than the Palestinians, in every possible dimension – take economics, take technology, and take the military, the infrastructure. The gap is enormous. When you come to a peace agreement between 6 million Jews who live here and 5 million Palestinians, one and a half million of them are Israelis, you have to change the approach. You cannot base it on the balance of power, because if you base it on the balance of power we really can do everything we want, because we bring the tanks, we bring the aircraft, and we force them to do what we want them to do – but this is not peace, definitely you will not achieve justice in such a way. So, I would make a switch, and change the attitude, and look at the historic circumstances, demographic circumstances and not base the talks on the fact that we are strong and they are weak.

SS:But if you look at the Palestinians themselves, they don’t look very politically united either. Why is that – I mean, is that the hand of Israel again, or a Palestinian lack of engagement?

AL: It’s a tragedy what’s happening to them. They are split between Fatah and Hamas, and it is not only dividing them almost 50-50 and kind of paralyzing them. It’s also affecting the Israeli position, because Israelis say, “Let’s have an agreement with Abu Mazen [Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] who is heading Fatah, the moderate side, but what about the rest, what about the Hamas, what about Gaza – so why to withdraw when we don’t have peace with the whole Palestinian people?” It’s a big problem; it’s an additional problem to the problems that we had in the past when we were negotiating with them.

SS:I want to touch upon another huge topic for Israel, which is Iran. So Iran, on one hand, could be getting closer to its nuclear goal, on the other – they have shown willingness to negotiate. Israel is sort of stuck in its own position with calls to strike falling largely on deaf ears. How uncomfortable is the situation now?

AL: We come back to Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is sure that if the Iranians acquire the atomic bomb it’s the end of the state of Israel. This is an approach he is preaching for now for 15 years or maybe even more. This is how he sees things. He compares it to the situation of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, and speaks about it all the time, and it affects public opinion on this issue. The feeling is… although every year we say the next year the Iranians will have the bomb, the feeling is that now it’s not a matter of years, it’s a matter of months, or maybe even weeks. So he still speaks on the possibility of attacking Iran, all sites in Iran, in order to slow down the progress towards the bomb – and the Israeli public lives under the impression that this can come any moment even if the international community is negotiating with Iran. The Americans apply now a lot of pressure on Israel not to attack. First of all I don’t know if they will succeed, the attack can come, and it can come any week. However, there are a lot of talks in the background that Netanyahu will give up on the attack on Iran, if the Americans will not put pressure on us to withdraw from the West Bank. It’s a kind of Iranian-Palestinian deal. It’s a lot in the papers, in the big papers even these days, and maybe this is one of the things in the background, that the Americans are not putting pressure on us to achieve with Palestinians, and we kind of promise them that we will not attack Iran.

SS:So you’re saying that the Israeli public isn’t tired of speculation about a strike on Iran by now, because everyone else, I can tell you that much, is very fatigued by it at this point…

AL: Look, I think in Israel it’s taken very seriously, especially before the Iranian elections, because when Ahmadinejad was the ruler, to just imagine that Ahmadinejad will have an atomic bomb in his hands was very, very frightening. Now, there is a different leadership: it looks different, smiles more and I think definitely for the international community but even in Israel some people are saying: “If they will have the bomb now, it’s going to be in more responsible hands than it would have been three, four or five months ago.” It’s relaxing a little bit – but not for Netanyahu. Netanyahu and his government say “All these Rouhani exercises are just a trick to fool us, and the bomb is on its way.” And this is very effective. You know Netanyahu, one of his big advantages as a politician is his ability to address the media, to address the public through the media, to convince the public. He’s very powerful and effective in it, and he frightens the Israeli public, the Israeli public sees only the Iranian bomb as an existential threat to Israel, and don’t forget the national traumas the people have here, so many people will back him, I think the vast majority of Israelis will back him if he attacks Iran in the way he decides to do it.

SS: I want to talk a little bit about Syria as well. There has been much speculation about Israeli involvement in Syria. Some believe Israel played a role in destabilizing Syria, others say Israel has been staying back because Assad is the devil they know. Do you see something that we don’t see here?

AL: The only thing that I see, that is not much talked about, is that for Israel when it comes to Syria there is one crucial element: Israel wants to keep the Golan Heights. And, as long as nobody asks Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, this is something very important strategically. I think, as long as Assad will rule Syria, even if he asks for peace with Israel, we’ll never get the Golan Heights. And I think the majority of Israelis want to keep the Golan Heights, and the fact that we don’t have pressure to withdraw from the Golan Heights, like we have to withdraw from the West Bank, this is considered a great development here. Another thing that you see also internationally is that we’re afraid that Al-Qaeda or Iran will control Syria, because then we will have another Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda on our borders, and in this case people probably prefer Assad. The main thing is, and I think it was clever for Israel in the last two or 2 1/2 years since these developments in Syria started, to stay aside. And if there is a need to do something militarily, maybe to do it, but not to get involved supporting this side or the other, Assad or the rebels, because both sides – Assad and the rebels – are enemies of Israel in any case.

SS:Here’s my last question, I’m going to ask you to answer in a nutshell because our program is coming to an end. Israel thought about ratifying the Chemical Arms Treaty in the wake of the Syrian chemical attack, and all the diplomatic efforts around it, but then it decided to stay ambiguous on this question. Do you believe that’s the right step?

AL: We didn’t join many international bodies and agreements because we thought it would affect us negatively and it’s not only the chemical, it’s also the atomic and even the ICC – the international criminal court… I think that as long as we are in the middle of such a conflict, it’s difficult legally to join some of these international agreements [due to] the fear that it will have negative effect on Israel or its army, and so on.

SS: Thank you so much for this interesting talk. We have been talking to Alon Liel, former Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. See you in the next edition of Sophie & Co.