Adam Garfinkle: Thank you for sitting down with me today. Let me start, please, with some military matters.
It has seemed to me for a while now that if the fighting ever stops in Syria—and all wars end sometime—that Hizballah will end up as a result of what it has experienced as weaker in some ways, for example within Lebanese politics, but maybe stronger in other ways. It will certainly be more beholden to the Iranian regime. So I’m sure there is planning in the Israel Defense Forces for what might happen if another war should start. What is the planning template generally now in preparation for the possibility of another significant fight with Hizballah on Israel’s northern border?
Moshe Yaalon: As you suggest, the decision about war between Hizballah and Israel is not going to be made by Lebanese, or even by the Assad regime in Syria; it is going to be made by Khamenei in Tehran. Lebanon has been abducted in effect by the Iranian regime, making the Lebanese government irrelevant to any decision to go to war or to enact a ceasefire should a war begin. It’s a pity. It’s against international law for Iran to ignore Lebanese sovereignty, and it clearly harms Lebanese interests, as well. Hizballah has come to be the Iranian strategic arm for the day to come of which you speak, so another war with Hizballah would probably come with a different and broader context than the ones before. I am not sure what that context will be; no one can be sure, for many considerations we cannot know in advance might shape the future.
Of course, for the Iranian regime this use of Hizballah from Lebanese soil is the only real answer, the only deterrent, to Israel’s hitting their nuclear facilities, or something like that. They are unable to challenge the State of Israel in any other way, despite all their missiles and so on, so Hizballah is, as I say, their strategic arm for the day to come.
And yes, as you say, Hizballah is better armed than they were before; they have more than 100,000 rockets and missiles, with greater range and better accuracy. It might be that they will use them for purposes other than retaliation, but so far it seems that Iranian leaders keep Hizballah under control. Their interest is not to escalate the situation now, and of course Hizballah is still very busy in Syria, as you note.
Having said that, I don’t believe that Hizballah’s interest lies in escalating the situation with Israel, even were there no Iranian constraints. They understand that the price they would pay would far exceed the price of the Second Lebanon War. They paid quite a heavy price then, and this is one of the reasons they’re still deterred; otherwise they would have shifted to attrition-type warfare—terror or missile attacks from across the border on a daily basis. In Israel, too, we have better capabilities, both defensive and otherwise, and they know that. So they don’t do it because they know what the price would be, and because they witnessed and remember the outcome of the military operation in Gaza in 2014.
There, too, Hamas paid quite a significant price, so that even Hamas is now keeping quiet along the border with Gaza. It is not allowing other elements to escalate the situation, either, because it is against Hamas’s interest.
But while for now neither Hizballah nor Iran wants to escalate the situation in Lebanon, over the past two years Iran has tried to open a new terror front against us in the Golan Heights. We have suffered about a dozen terror attacks there, all of them perpetrated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard—and not a single one perpetrated by a Sunni force, whether ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra or any others.
AMG: And from that new front Iran can also pressure Jordan. The Revolutionary Guard forces are bivouacked in the triangle area between Golan, Israel, and Jordan, so Jordan could be a target too at some point.
MY: Sure. The problem in the region is not primarily Hizballah or Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad or ISIS; the main generator and instigator of instability and violence in the Middle East is the Iranian regime. In Syria it created the fuel that let ISIS grow as it did. The regime is exploiting the nuclear deal to seek hegemony in any place possible, even Yemen, and they seek the same dominant relationship over the Shi‘a government in Baghdad, using militias loyal to them.
Of course the Iranian regime is also trying to use Shi’a populations to subvert the Sunni regimes in the region. We see this in certain activities in Bahrain, in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, and yes, they could attack Jordan as well. They have also built a global terror infrastructure spreading over five continents: Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, and in North America as well. It’s up to Khamenei to decide whether to escalate the situation not just along the Israel-Lebanon border, but everywhere in the region and even beyond.
AMG: The focus on the region beyond the Lebanese border is certainly justified, but I want to ask about home-front morale. The papers in Israel run articles from time to time that discuss Hizballah’s larger and improved arsenal of missiles, and of course everyone remembers the major disruption of normal life that went on during the earlier round of fighting. So sometimes there are opinion pieces reasoning that if there were a new outbreak of fighting, for any reason, Israel would have no choice but to suppress the fire sooner and faster than before—in what was once called a sheleg gadol, a “big snow.” That’s what you read about so I’m just wondering if that’s the way IDF thinking is trending—again, all because of an unstinting determination to protect the morale and the physical well-being of Israel’s civilian population.
MY: We in Israel we do not look for escalation, but we are used to living with waves of hostility. It was so before the creation of a state and it has been so ever since independence. The good news is that we are not challenged today in conventional warfare. But our enemies believe that if they deliberately target our civilians, bypassing our military power, we will lose our ability to stand together and maintain our willingness to keep our Jewish homeland.
AMG: Yes, this was the Palestinian argument during the intifadas, that it would generate massive yerida, emigration of Jews, out of Israel. But it really didn’t.
MY: That’s right. And Hizballah, too; Hassan Nasrallah referred to Israel as mere spider webs.
AMG: Spider webs, yes, I remember that comment very well.
MY: I don’t think he believes it anymore. The truth is that enduring thousands of rockets from Lebanon, from the Gaza strip, and, unfortunately, 1,500 casualties as a result of the Palestinian terror attacks, has made Israel a stronger and much more resilient society. Israel’s real social challenges await peace, but those are challenges we also will overcome.
AMG: You’ve raised a question I didn’t mean to ask but I can’t resist. I lived in Israel for a while and I remember essentially the armor of stoicism one needs to adopt in situations like that. When I see how hysterical Americans get over objectively small stuff, like how our political class has vastly exaggerated the threat of ISIS, it’s depressing. Of course this kind of hysteria just helps the enemy, and of course the press is complicit in this even without the new exaggerations that come from social media. Most Israelis must think this is a really stupid way to behave.
MY: I am not in a position to judge Americans. I only know Israeli society. There is a need to prepare people for such challenges, so that they have the endurance and resilience to withstand terror and rockets.
AMG: I just wanted to get that out of my system. Now let me ask you about something a little bit neuralgic: the issue of t’horat neshek—purity of arms. Back in the day back when “the old man” [David Ben-Gurion] was still around, it was a national badge of honor that Israeli soldiers upheld the highest moral standards when dealing with adversaries. There were some lapses, of course. But lately there seem to be lots more lapses. Is this true, and if so, how has the IDF high command tried to deal with it?
MY: I don’t agree that it has become more common; it is more publicized, however. I think you ask because of the most recent incident, with the soldier in Hebron. From his platoon leader and even his friends, up to his commanders and then all the way up to the Chief of the General Staff, it was clear and obvious that he violated the rules of engagement, violated Israeli law, violated our moral values. Unfortunately, some politicians intervened, embraced him, and introduced him as hero.
AMG: Yes, that was very disturbing.
MY: It is disturbing, and it was one of the main problems that led me to resign as Defense Minister. During my tenure I empowered the officers, and I was and remain confident that when things like this happen in the military the commanders deal with it in a proper way. Our situation, especially in Judea and Samaria, is challenging. If I had the choice not to be there, I would not want to be there; but we don’t have an alternative now. We have tried to separate ourselves from the Palestinians, and we were stuck in the political process not because of us because of them—but never mind that. There are many challenges regarding our moral values in uniform; it is part of the dilemma we face. But it remains the mission of the commander to educate soldiers in advance, and when bad things happen we act to punish those responsible. We deal with it, and we have to bear it. The situation is difficult, but the standards have not changed.
AMG: Like most advanced countries, in Israel the ratio of capital to labor in the way that the military operates has increased. Yet still the personnel system takes in virtually everybody out of high school. So some observers have commented that there are now too many young people coming into the army, many more than the IDF needs. On the other hand, the IDF still plays a very important socializing role, bringing the country together as a unit. So there seems to be a tension between what is ideal for military purposes and the social function that it plays.
MY: Every youngster in Israel is still needed to serve in combat or in certain related areas, like in the intelligence function. And in this regard we still do not have enough.
AMG: Not enough?
MY: Not enough. That’s why we still mobilize reservists to serve in operations on a daily basis. But now we need fewer reservists to serve in routine positions, and so reserve duty has become shorter. In the past you retired from the reservist service at the age of 56, and today it’s 40. I served as a reservist in an operational role for more than one month and in training for two to three weeks every year; for a commander it was even more. Today it’s significantly less, which helps the economy. We believe there is a lot of good in the idea of mandatory service, and we’re not going to give it up. But we adjust the personnel balance so that we have shorter military service periods. Now we are going to reduce term of the mandatory service from three years to 32 months and then to 30 months.
And you know, it’s not just the socialization process. It’s better, I believe, for youngsters to gain confidence, responsibility, discipline, and motivation before college, and it’s better for the universities to have more mature students.
AMG: Amen to that.
So let me change the subject a bit by telling you a short story. I was in Germany last week, and in Heidelberg, I think it was, I ended up having a beer with a group of people, and a peculiar Australian raised the issue of the $38 billion U.S.-Israel MOU. His point was that it looks like a reward from the U.S. government to Israel, and this seems dissonant in light of the poor political relationship in recent years, and what he called “Israeli intransigence.” Let me not bore you with what I said in response; better, I think, that you should please reverse engineer this outcome.
MY: First of all we are grateful to the United States for allowing $38 billion to come to Israel in the next decade. Having said that, both parties benefit from it; it’s not an entirely one-sided gift. When it comes to the relationship between our two defense establishments, both sides benefit. The same is true for intelligence cooperation. Note, too, that we defend ourselves by ourselves; we don’t ask and we don’t want or need U.S. troops to fight for us.
I believe Israel is an anchor of stability in the Middle East. We are fighting for the same strategic interests and I would say for the same fundamental values. We are not exactly in the same boat; we might see things differently. So it is not surprising that we’re not always on the same page. Nevertheless, $38 billion over ten years is quite cheap in light of the benefits. Compare it to how much the U.S. government has spent on Iraq over the past ten years, and note how many American soldiers have died or been wounded there.
AMG: The U.S. government provides aid as well, though not as much, to Jordan. So let’s talk about Jordan, which used to be a checked box in terms of assessments of its stability. Now, however, many observers are worried about Jordan’s future. What would happen if there were a meltdown in Amman, if the Hashemite kingdom faced an existential crisis? Can you imagine a situation in which Israel would come to the active assistance of the Hashemite monarchy under duress?
MY: One of the consequences of what was romantically called the Arab Spring is that it has become clear and obvious that the Sunni regimes in the region and Israel are more or less in the same boat. Not just Jordan, but also Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, other Gulf states, and the North African countries.
AMG: Even Qatar?
MY: There is a change lately in Qatar. The Qataris joined the Sunni coalition in Yemen. They are not so committed now to the Muslim Brotherhood as in the past, which is why we now allow them to invest in the Gaza Strip—this so far has been off the record. They are the only Arab government willing to spend money in Gaza.
So there is already cooperation between Israel and Jordan, and more recently more cooperation with other Sunni regimes in the region. Relations between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Egypt are strategic; we have treaties of peace with both and we work together on many things. It is in the Western and U.S. interest that we do so, not just the Israeli interest. Regarding Jordan, it faces challenges because it borders both Syria and Iraq, where ISIS has power. Hizballah also might act to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom, as we discussed before.
But I don’t think the Kingdom can fall from outside pressure. Any element that would threaten Jordan from the outside understands that it will face resistance not just from within Jordan, but also from the United States, Britain, Israel, and other Sunni regimes. And so far the King is doing well in defending the country.
AMG: You have now mentioned Israel’s relations with several Sunni Arab regimes that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. There’s a limit, though, isn’t there, to how far relationships beneath the table can go? There is some talk of tacit but full-fledged military cooperation with Saudi Arabia—the idea of Israeli aircraft refueling on Saudi territory after a mission into Iran, for example. I have a hard time crediting that and certain other scenarios. Am I mistaken? What are the limits, as you see them?
MY: There are certain issues in the Middle East that we don’t put on the table not because of Israeli sensitivity but because of Arab sensitivity. But the issues are not all the same, so the limits are not the same. For years we have focused on getting broader Arab support to solve the Palestinian issue. We have tried to explore aspects of a regional settlement. Lately they are more prepared to offer tokens of cooperation by making certain statements, but the truth is that, generally speaking, they couldn’t care less about the Palestinians. As I have said, the only party ready to spend money to help them is Qatar.
AMG: Well, we know the history of these “fraternal relations,” for example the legacy of pro-Iraqi Palestinian attitudes from the occupation of Kuwait.
MY: True, but more important today is that Iran sits at the top of their lists of threats. They care about the interactions between Iran on the outside and Muslim Brotherhood elements and global jihadi elements on the inside. The Palestinian problem, they think, cannot really hurt them. It is not a threat in the same way. Moreover, the Palestinian problem is still useful as a tool for the regimes, to placate the people and divert their attention from other, more local complaints. It provides a way to criticize and try to harm Israel, as within the United Nations system, for example. But the real motive is internal.
AMG: Let me ask a broader question about diplomacy. On the one hand, it is objectively true that Israel’s relations with many large and important countries—China, India, and others—are much improved and more beneficial to Israel than was the case twenty or thirty years ago. On the other hand, there has also been a sharp rise in campaigns to delegitimize Israel internationally—the boycotts and divestment efforts and the like. So there’s a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty situation to parse. How do you parse it? What’s the net balance between these two seemingly opposing trends?
MY: There were days as Defense Minister when I wished Israel were more isolated, because I had to welcome so many Defense Ministers coming from all over the world that I could not get any real work done. Israel is not as isolated as it once was, but the effort to delegitimize Israel is also obvious, and it is increasingly coming from Western or Western-influenced people—and this is also different from before.
Take the 2011 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. What amazed me at the time is that there were four elements involved. One was IHH, a Turkish Humanitarian Relief foundation, whose thinking is close to al-Qaeda’s—that there is no room for a Jewish state in what they consider as an Islamic land (wakf). I don’t agree with them but I understand them.
Second we had Arab nationalists who claimed that there is no room for Jewish state in the Middle East, that the Middle East should be kept purely Arab. Again I don’t agree but I understand.
Third, and what I couldn’t understand, were the Westerners. There were two such groups on this specific flotilla speaking English, French, Swedish, and a couple even speaking Hebrew. I call them naive liberals. I’m liberal but I’m not naive. Blaming Israel for occupation and apartheid is of course absurd, requiring either an ignorance of apartheid or an ignorance of what goes on in the territories and in Israel, or likely both. The only Christian community in the Middle East that is growing is the Israeli Arab Christian community, so if Israel is practicing apartheid we’re doing a terrible job at it. These are manipulated people, deceived by propaganda.
Fourth were the outright anti-Semites. When the commanding Israeli naval officer called on the flotilla to stop, the answer from the bridge was, “Go back to Auschwitz.” Only the Jews, it seems, can unify radical Islamists, Arab nationalists, naive Western liberals, and mentally ill haters.
AMG: We have quite a knack, don’t we? And by the way, not that it mattered to the Mavi Marmara quartet, but the security closure of Gaza is not just an Israeli policy, it’s a joint Israeli-Egyptian policy.
MY: Sure, and I can tell you a story about that. When President Sisi assumed the presidency after the Mohammed Morsi period, he decided to close Egypt’s border with Gaza. Hamas being the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood being Sisi’s problem in Egypt, one can understand the logic of wanting to isolate Hamas. Before that, the Qataris used to bring oil for free via Egypt into Gaza, and so when al-Sisi closed the border that stopped, soon creating an energy crisis.
Not long afterwards, I got a phone call on a Thursday night from the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He wanted to talk about the Mediterranean crisis, the energy crisis in Gaza. So I let him talk, and when had finished I asked him, “Why did you call me? Why didn’t you call General Al-Sisi? He is the one who decided to close the border and not to allow any more oil for free. Or why didn’t you call Abu Mazen?” I asked him. “Do you know that we, the Israelis, have now allowed the Qataris to bring in the oil via our port in Ashdod, and we agreed to take it to the Gaza Strip? But Abu Mazan rejected this arrangement because he would not be able to tax it if it was free.” Then I asked the Secretary-General, “Why didn’t you call Ismail Haniyeh? Do you know that we’re not in Gaza anymore? We disengaged and left in 2005, and the Hamas leadership decided to go on with hostilities anyway, which is the source of the Israeli-Egyptian closure in the first place.” I added that in this confused situation we still provide Gaza with electricity from an Israeli power station, and they use the electricity in part to dig tunnels and manufacture rockets that, in time of hostilities, they use to target the power station. “Welcome to the Middle East,” I told him: “Again: Why did you call me?” I answered my own question for him: “I know that you know that only the Israelis care about the situation of the people of Gaza.”
AMG: Before Al-Sisi and before the Ikhwanji [Muslim Brotherhood] interlude, the Mubarak regime long played an interesting double game. They let all kinds of stuff into Gaza over land and through the tunnels, much of it carried to the border by the Bedouin. They had the Bedouin to worry about, so allowing the trade amounted to a kind of payoff. The security apparatus under Omar Suleiman of course took its share. The whole thing worked like a kind of pressure valve that could be opened or closed or modulated in between. Now that’s over, and it constitutes a real change, does it not?
MY: Mubarak let the Palestinian terror factions draw our blood by allowing the smuggling from Sinai to the Gaza strip. It was a means of leverage he liked to have over us.
Let me tell you another story. The late Congressman Tom Lantos came to Israel when I was Chief of the General Staff. We discussed the phenomena of the tunnels and the smuggling from Egypt. He asked me, “What do you recommend that I do?” I told him, “Go to Cairo and tell Mubarak that if he will go on allowing the smuggling, you will introduce a bill in Congress suspending U.S. aid money to Egypt, and you can get it approved.” He did it, and before the day was out Egyptian intelligence called the smugglers to a conference to warn them, “Don’t do it now. Stop, wait for a while.”
AMG: Wait a minute: They called a smugglers conference? Suleiman knew them by name?
AMG: Let me now ask you about Israeli politics, if I may—not personal politics, but a broader, historical question.
Obviously, we all know the trajectory of domestic politics in Israel from 1948 until mid-1977. Labor dominance ended and then Revisionists came to power, after which there was a good bit of back and forth lasting about 18 or so years. But since Ehud Barak there hasn’t been a Labor Prime Minister, and the past couple of governments seem to have gotten ever more rightwing. Why is this? I have an explanation, but I’d prefer to hear yours.
MY: I grew up in the Labor Party. I actually have to admit that I supported Oslo. I believed then that if we could reach peace and tranquility by giving up land, since I sanctify life more that I sanctify land we must do it. When I became the head of intelligence, however, I had my political awakening. Serving under the late Yitzhak Rabin I realized that Arafat cheated us and we cheated ourselves. The unhappy reality is that no Palestinian leadership has ever recognized Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people within any boundaries. The conflict is not really about what happened in 1967, but about what happened in 1948. To the Palestinians, Tel Aviv is as much a settlement as Ma’ale Adumim, just bigger. Any piece of territory delivered to Arafat would become a launch pad for homicide bombers, rocket launchers, and terrorists. I know what I’m talking about; I had to deal with it.
Then we disengaged from Gaza, and we all know what happened, even before Hamas took over there. That’s mainly why the Israeli public moved from the Left to the Right.
AMG: I think there are other factors that explain it as well, but we do see the trend you speak of—people like Shlomo Avineri, Benny Morris, and many others have moved in exactly the direction you describe.
MY: But some already on the Right have moved too far, and what I’m afraid of now is less naivety about the Palestinians than extremism. My main dispute during the past year with the Likud Party, and on top of it the Prime Minister, was about extremism. We have to know how to prevail and to keep our values at the same time. We cannot ignore the rule of law, the checks and balances of democracy, and above all the sanctity of life. The incident with the soldier in Hebron we mentioned earlier—it’s unbelievable. It is unbelievable that anyone could support the soldier. I’m ready to back any soldier even if he makes a mistake, but to kill someone intentionally “because he deserves it” is not a mistake but a crime. How can an Israeli politician support criminality? These are not our values.
In my resignation speech I said I’m ready to leave our party leadership just because of that. I believe that the vast majority of Israelis keep these values and do not chant “death to the Arabs” and other outrageous things. Generating hatred has become part of what some politicians in Israel now do, whether hatred against Arabs, against the Left, against settlers, against the haredim. Hatred is not a policy.
AMG: The Likud slogan of the last campaign was, in translation, “It’s us or them.” When I first saw it displayed in huge blue-and-white letters I could barely believe my eyes.
MY: Yes, it’s very dangerous. Absolutely, and it’s not Jewish. We have to strengthen our educational system so that the next generation will reject this kind of thinking.
AMG: Speaking of education, I want to ask you about Israeli Arabs. The Prime Minister, whose name I won’t mention, opened the school year at an Arab school and that was interesting. It was interesting in part because often enough the school year begins with a teachers’ strike, and that didn’t happen. But it was also interesting as an example of penance for some of the disturbing things the Prime Minister had said at the tail end of the past election campaign. But again I want to put the question in a broader historical framework.
The question of the politicization of the Israeli Arabs over many years, within a relatively open culture, has been discussed a great deal recently. As you know, the Arabs who remained in Israel in 1948-49 tended to be the ones most wedded to the land, and least likely to flee to family members living outside Palestine. They tended to be the least sophisticated, the least urban, the least well educated of the group. It’s taken a long time, more than fifty years, but now this population is increasingly sophisticated and mobilized politically. To some Israelis, it poses an existential issue. Some have considered giving away heavily Arab-populated parts of Israel inside the green line to a Palestinian state in the context of a negotiated deal. One friend of mine would love to get rid of Umm al-Fahm and the Islamic Movement that is strong there. The only problem is that Umm al-Fahm sits on top of the Wadi Ara road, which is—what?—just bad luck? When you look ahead, say, twenty years or so, do you see existential problem or a manageable one?
MY: It is manageable and more than manageable. We need integration, not separation. Unfortunately, too many politicians support separation. The vast majority of the Arab citizens of Israel want to integrate and live within Israeli society, but with respect and dignity, which is due to all human beings. Besides, they look around and what alternatives do they see? Do they want to be ruled by the Palestinian Authority? Do they want to go to Syria or Yemen? How many even want to go to Germany? Almost none. And how many terrorists are there amid one and a half million Israeli Arabs?
AMG: Almost none.
MY: Right, almost none. In the recent case this past year, all those involved were members of what we call unified families—families with many or most members living in the territories. Most Arabs who are Israeli citizens are loyal to the country, and we should allow them and encourage them to be integrated, to include military service if they want, or non-military national service. Their demand to participate in national service is more than we allow them today. And if we integrate them better we have to take the problems Israeli Arabs experience more seriously. Their crime rate is more than double that in the Jewish sector. This is not inevitable and we can do a lot to improve the situation. But not if we push them away or allow politicians to champion separation.
AMG: One more question about politics, which sort of leads into a matter of diplomacy. I’ve noticed lately that more right-of-center Israeli politicians no longer make the argument that the status quo is sustainable. They are reacting partly, I think, to bad optics. When the French come up with something in the UN, or when the Arabs come up with something and the Israeli government basically does a Nancy Reagan “just say no” thing, it looks bad. But I think it’s more than that. You?
MY: It’s not a change. I don’t call for the status quo but I have no illusions regarding a potential settlement with the Palestinians. The old “land for peace” slogan is irrelevant. We gave land for terror, tunnels, and rockets. The next slogan was separation. Even Barak talked about separation, full separation, high fences making good neighbors, and so on. You have high fences along the Gaza strip, and the missiles are carried underneath and then launched over the top, and tunnels are dug underneath. There’s a limit to what a fence can do.
Besides, whether we like it or not, we and the Palestinians are a little like Siamese twins, at least in the sense that full separation will cause a lot of bleeding and the weaker one may die.
AMG: You’re referring to a failed state at birth, right? And what about the electricity grid and the fuel and the water….
MY: Absolutely. Certainly in Gaza the Palestinians will continue to depend on our water and electricity for a long time. Let’s look at the various kinds of separations. Political separation exists. This is the only positive outcome of Oslo. The Palestinians enjoy political independence, with their own parliament and all the rest. I don’t want to govern them, only if possible help them gain the capability, the competence, to govern themselves, to have a judicial system and political institutions and so forth. It is completely in Israel’s interest to have a reliable, accountable neighbor.
But what about the economy? There is no viable Palestinian economy without the State of Israel. More than 100,000 Palestinians from the territories are employed in Israel, and 60,000 more are employed in Judea and Samaria by Israeli industries and settlements. Still more Palestinians work as subcontractors to Israeli enterprises, and 88 percent of their production is exported into Israeli proper. Naturally, then, they use the sheqel as currency, and not any Palestinian currency.
What about infrastructure? Can they survive without getting their water and electricity from us, in the near future?
What about security? It’s the same. At least for a long time, security will need to be shared. Abu Mazen can’t survive without it. They do part of the job, we do most of the job in fighting Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), ISIS, and other terror factions.
So we can be largely separate politically, but we have to share infrastructure and economic and security functions. That is why the slogan “separation” really does not make much practical sense, nor does talk about the status quo. Status quo refers to peace conferences and processes and things like that. Forget about it; we can leave alone peace conferences, peace accords written by lawyers and all the rest. What matters are constant improvements in building shared interests from the bottom up.
AMG: For many years I have been describing this bottom-up process as constituting a “higher quality level of belligerence.” You can’t get formal peace right now, but you can work toward a higher quality level of belligerence.
MY: Sure. That’s my focus. Improving the economy, infrastructure, security, governance, yes.
AMG: I take it from some of the comments you’ve made earlier that you favor this relatively new plank in the so-called peace process, by which I mean this mirage of getting the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This is a relatively recent innovation….
MY: No, not at all. It’s false propaganda. Rabin in Oslo understood that he might be cheated, so he demanded a change in the Palestinian Covenant to eliminate the language calling for the destruction of Israel. Arafat promised but never delivered, and neither since has Abu Mazen. He still believed in the “phases theory” of destroying Israel step by step. Rabin wanted to be sure that if a deal was reached on the basis of the 1967 lines, that would be the end of the conflict. We haven’t heard it yet. Rabin got a side letter from Arafat before he signed Oslo in which Arafat committed himself to change the Charter.
AMG: Right, but he never did.
MY: I have since lost count of the many maneuvers he invented to avoid this change. Abu Mazen is not ready to do it either, even if he could. The Palestinian view remains that there is no Jewish people or nationality, only a religion called Judaism. We’re asked sometimes, why do you ask this of the Palestinians, but you never asked it from Egypt or Jordan? The answer is clear: No Egyptian or Jordanian leader or government ever claimed that Tel Aviv belongs to them. In today’s Palestinian educational curriculum children are still taught that Palestine goes from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
AMG: Yes, but the current Prime Minister raised it in a high-profile way, and in a way that made it seem he was adding a new aspect to the diplomacy of the peace process. Most Israeli governments historically did not raise this matter in this fashion. Instead, they believed that the recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State” was implicit in the Partition Resolution itself, in the Rhodes armistice agreements of 1949, in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and so on. The idea was that the Palestinians, having hauled all this history with them, implicitly accepted it, so that the real question had to do with the tactical wisdom of turning this into a high-profile issue that might make any progress impossible.
MY: No, they don’t accept the language of the Balfour Declaration or any of the language that came after. When the French initiative came out recently the idea was to put the Jewish state plank in the initiative. They rejected it.
AMG: Well, I suppose we can talk more about this as a practical, tactical matter some other time. But it seems to me that it’s a philosophical problem in a sense because even Jews don’t agree about this. Now, some Palestinians and even some Israeli Arabs—including one gadfly Knesset member—like to say that by insisting on this kind of statement Israelis are asking Palestinians to become Zionists. I think it’s even more complex than that. You know as well as I do that the whole question of Jewish identity is very complicated. There are Jews who say that it’s a religion, there are Jews who say that it’s a race. Most of us believe we are a people, neither a race nor just a religion, and that “people” is the most historically accurate term because Jewish identity is a hybrid of ethnicity and religion. Non-Jews can become members of the Jewish people through religious conversion; that’s an absurd idea for someone who wants to become, say, a German or a Japanese. But we don’t tell an insistent atheist that a lack of faith disqualifies a Jew born of Jewish parents from being a member of the Jewish people. This is obviously an esoteric matter, and to ask a Palestinian to takes sides here just seems to me to be first, none of his damned business, and second, just too much to ask.
MY: No, that’s not the case. This is the cause of the conflict. The Palestinians are still reluctant to recognize our right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people, as a Jewish homeland. This is what international law recognizes, and we are asking the Palestinians to concur. This is the core of the conflict, not the occupation since 1967. We decided to raise it in more public way because, in many cases, our politicians did not want to deal with it, and this was a form of self- deception. We believed we needed to end the deception.
AMG: Let’s go back to Oslo for a moment. You said a moment ago that the only good thing Oslo produced was a way to achieve political separation between Israel and the Palestinians. It did that, I agree, but I think it did two other things. First, without Oslo I don’t see how we get to a peace treaty with Jordan—and that has been an important positive step historically. Second, I still think that it was something that simply had to be gone through. It didn’t work, obviously, and you point out that its failure had a profound effect on the attitude of Israelis toward this whole enterprise. I agree, but I still think now the way you thought then: The Palestinians had to be put to the test; the box had to be checked one way or the other. I just saw a new book, or really a pamphlet, in which the author claims that Oslo was a catastrophe that deranged Israeli policy. I don’t agree with that.
MY: I’m in favor of being separated politically. I don’t want the Palestinians in the territories to become Israeli citizens. If Oslo facilitated that kind of separation, then it had some uses. But there may have been other ways to do the same thing.
AMG: There is of course another way to think about this, but it’s nothing you don’t understand better than I do. The way Palestinian politics is constituted now, movement toward a more conciliatory perspective is possible but might take a century, or more. One way to speed up the process might be to pragmatically cocoon Palestinian nationalism in a broader Arab fabric. In other words, if the relevant Arab states who have compatible interests with Israel on a range of issues—as we discussed earlier—essentially deliver the Palestinians to a deal and vouch for them, we might actually get somewhere. At the same time, if the Palestinians are cocooned within the Arab League, Israel can be symbolically cocooned within NATO or the OECD or some Western grouping. So the line would be, in essence, “The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority will sign this piece of paper, but we neighbors will hold the deed and guarantee its fair implementation.” That would hard to do and it would not solve everything, but might make it easier to gain institutional traction leading to a better situation.
MY: That’s what we tried to do during the past seven years. Alas, so far our Arab neighbors are not willing to invest themselves that way on behalf of the Palestinians.
AMG: They will, maybe, one day. Especially if the U.S. government gets with the program.
AMG: Just one more question, please. David Vital wrote a book in 1990 called The Future of The Jews. He was pessimistic. He argued that the “golden triangle” composed of Israel’s relationship to world Jewry, and American Jews’ relationship to the United States and to Israel, was eroding. It’s been 26 years—was he right?
MY: I start with our situation in Israel. Against all odds Israel is prosperous country, strong, the strongest in the region, no doubt about it. If I have to compare the situation now to my family’s experience, it looks not so bad. My grandparents on my father’s side came to the Land of Israel in 1925 after losing one of their sons. He was murdered in Ukraine when he was 18 years old, because he was a Jew. Another son was arrested because of his involvement in Zionist activities. They came over and founded Kiryat Motzkin. My father fought in the independence war. My mother came from Poland; she survived the Holocaust. My grandparents from her side perished in the Holocaust. This is a fairly typical situation among Israelis of my generation.
Then came my generation, my kids’ generation, now my grandkids’ generation. Every generation things get better. Maybe the situation of world Jewry, and of Jews in the United States, is different. But I am a Zionist, and I believe that as long as Israel is strong and safe and has a healthy and growing Jewish society, I cannot be a pessimist about the future of the Jews. In order to keep Israel a prosperous country with a bright future we have to go on spending on education, on the betterment of mind and spirit. On Jewish values and Zionist values. As long as we do it our future will be bright.
AMG: I’m tempted to thank you and let it be at that. But I am even more tempted to ask you to be more specific about education. You’re talking about education in history and about culture. Are you also talking about religion, about Rabbinic Judaism?
MY: Judaism is a unique phenomenon, and this is my explanation for our survivability. It’s a combination of religion, peoplehood, nationality, and civilization. This is our secret formula for survival. It doesn’t matter if reality moves the goalposts; we have a flexible formula for success. I was educated according to Jewish values, but not in an Orthodox religious setting. We keep the tradition of educating young people about the sanctity of life, being responsible for each other, and so forth. That is the way that I was educated, that’s the way I educated my kids in the youth movement and my officers and soldiers in the military. That’s what I do today as well. This is Judaism for me.
AMG: I understand, but here is the ultimate question: Can this tradition you speak of survive in an essentially secular form, basically separated from the religious values that incubated it?
MY: It can, and it can even grow stronger, but it depends on us. Our future will not be determined by anything that Iran or Hamas or Hizballah or anyone else does. It depends on us. As long as we live our values and spend on education in the right way and allow all kinds of free thought to compete, our future is bright.
AMG: Thank you so much, General. Qol tuv l’kha [All the best to you].
MY: Thank you, and you are most welcome.