Document: PM Sharon's Ha'arez interview as Israeli delegation flies to DC on
PM: `Iraq war created an opportunity with the Palestinians we can't miss'
By Ari Shavit
Ha'aretz 13 April 2003
Outside the bureau the usual spin is spun. There's no concern at all.
Relations with George Bush are excellent. Mutual esteem, reciprocal
fondness, joint credibility abound. So what's to be afraid of? There's no
danger the "road map" will turn into a road trap. Anyway, Ariel Sharon is
good at getting out of traps. It's his speciality, leading others into the
traps he himself has eluded.
However, the prime minister is not the same person he was not so long ago.
Polite as always, evoking memories as always, but more cautious than ever.
Lying under every question he sees a landmine. Lying under every statement
is a crisis it is liable to foment.
Since the elections he hasn't spoken out much. In fact, even during the
election campaign he didn't speak very much. The last time he said something
explicit and clear, Justice Mishael Cheshin cut him off. No, he hasn't
forgotten that, and no, he didn't like it. But no one will catch him
uttering a word of criticism about a judge. He won't say a word about the
journalists, either. He recognizes the importance of a free media. But the
words he used then - you have gone crazy - reflects his feeling. What
happened during the election campaign he still sees as a clear-cut case of
The year that has passed since the Passover eve massacre at the hotel in
Netanya was his greatest year. He responded to the crescendo of terrorism
with military might - Operation Defensive Shield - and with political
moderation (the confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu at the Likud Central
Committee meeting). In his mid-seventies he achieved unprecedented
popularity because he proved so adept at maneuvering within the
It was the solid backing of the president of the United States that made it
possible for him to imprison Arafat in the Muqata and Netanyahu in the
treasury. However, the suspicion is looming now that the year of grace is
drawing to a close; that it is Bush who is about to imprison Sharon himself
in the road map. So things are very tense these days in the Prime Minister's
Bureau. Quiet, but tense.
Prime Minister Sharon, we are at an astonishing historic moment. The reality
around us is changing radically. From your point of view, is the new reality
in the Middle East after the fall of Iraq promising or dangerous? Good or
bad for Israel?
Sharon: "The Iraqi leadership was a horrific and murderous one. As early as
20 years ago they understood it was impossible to acquire an Islamic bomb,
and therefore it had to be manufactured. So the removal of Iraq as a threat
is definitely a relief. However, this does not mean that all of the problems
we are facing have been removed. Iran is making every effort to produce
weapons of mass destruction and is engaged in making ballistic missiles.
Libya is making a very great effort to acquire nuclear weapons. What is
developing in these countries is dangerous and serious. In Saudi Arabia,
too, there is a regime that grants sanctioned aid to terrorist organizations
Are you saying that what happened in Iraq has to happen, in one way or
another, in Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia?
"In the matter of Iraq, the United States showed leadership at the highest
level. I don't think it is realistic to think that immediately after the
conclusion of one campaign, another will begin. Even a superpower has
limits. When you win, you are also weakened to a certain degree.
"But we face the possibility that a different period will begin here. The
move carried out in Iraq generated a shock through the Middle East and it
brings with it a prospect of great changes. There is an opportunity here to
forge a different relationship between us and the Arab states, and between
us and the Palestinians. That opportunity must not be neglected. I intend to
examine these things with all seriousness."
Do you think there is a prospect of reaching a settlement in the foreseeable
"That depends first and foremost on the Arabs. It obligates a different type
of leadership - a battle against terrorism and a series of reforms. It
obligates the absolute cessation of the incitement and the dismantling of
all terrorist organizations. But if there will be a leadership that
understands these things and will carry them out seriously, the possibility
of reaching a settlement exists."
Do you consider Abu Mazen a leader with whom you will be able to reach a
"Abu Mazen understands that it is impossible to vanquish Israel by means of
One day very soon the telephone might ring. The president of the United
States will be on the line. He will tell you, Arik, I have removed an
existential threat from Israel, I am fomenting a revolution throughout the
region. Now the time has come for you to make your contribution. Let's have
"There are some matters regarding which we will be ready to take
far-reaching steps. We will be ready to carry out very painful steps. But
there is one thing that I told President Bush a number of times - I made no
concessions in the past, and I will make no concessions now, or ever make
concessions in the future, with regard to anything that is related to the
security of Israel. I explained to President Bush and made it clear to him
that this is the historic responsibility that I bear for the future and the
fate of the Jewish people. You should know this - on this subject there will
be no concessions. We will be the ones who in the end decide what is
dangerous for Israel and what is not dangerous for Israel."
And what about Netzarim? [An isolated settlement in the Gaza Strip]
"I don't want to get into a discussion of any specific place now. This is a
delicate subject and there is no need to talk a lot about it. But if it
turns out that we have someone to talk to, that they understand that peace
is neither terrorism nor subversion against Israel, then I would definitely
say that we will have to take steps that are painful for every Jew and
painful for me personally."
Isn't that phrase "painful concessions" a hollow expression?
"Definitely not. It comes from the depth of my soul. Look, we are talking
about the cradle of the Jewish people. Our whole history is bound up with
these places. Bethlehem, Shiloh, Beit El. And I know that we will have to
part with some of these places. There will be a parting from places that are
connected to the whole course of our history. As a Jew, this agonizes me.
But I have decided to make every effort to reach a settlement. I feel that
the rational necessity to reach a settlement is overcoming my feelings."
You established the settlements and you believed in the settlements and
nurtured them. Are you now prepared to consider the evacuation of isolated
"If we reach a situation of true peace, real peace, peace for generations,
we will have to make painful concessions. Not in exchange for promises, but
rather in exchange for peace."
Some people expect you to be an Israeli [Charles] de Gaulle - a national
leader, a general, who at a certain point understands that reality has
changed and turns his back on part of his own history and creates a dramatic
historical turning point. Do you have any such aspirations?
"One has to remember one thing about the comparison with de Gaulle -
`Algeria' is here. It is not a few hundred kilometers away. The required
measure of caution here is therefore much greater."
But I am asking about you. Do you want to be remembered as the one who
spearheaded such a dramatic change?
"Let me tell you something. I am determined to make a real effort to reach a
real agreement. I think that anyone who saw the tremendous thing called the
State of Israel in the making possibly understands things better and knows
better how to reach a solution. That is why I think that this task rests
with my generation, which was privileged to live through one of the most
dramatic periods in the history of the Jewish people.
"I am 75 years old. I have no political ambitions beyond the position I now
hold. I feel that my goal and my purpose is to bring this nation to peace
and security. That is why I am making tremendous efforts. I think that this
is something that I have to leave behind me - to try to reach an agreement."
Have you really accepted the idea of to states for two peoples? Do you
really plan to divide western Israel?
"I believe that this is what will happen. One has to view things
realistically. Eventually there will be a Palestinian state. I view things
first and foremost from our perspective. I do not think that we have to rule
over another people and run their lives. I do not think that we have the
strength for that. It is a very heavy burden on the public and it raises
ethical problems and heavy economic problems."
Even so, under your leadership Israel went back to directly controlling
"Our stay in Jenin and in Nablus is temporary. Our presence in those cities
was created in order to protect Israeli citizens from terrorist activities.
It is not a situation that can persist."
In the past you talked about a long-term interim agreement. Did you not
believe in a permanent solution and an end to the conflict?
"I think opportunities have currently been created that did not exist
before. The Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular have
been shaken. There is therefore a chance to reach an agreement faster than
The Israeli public chose you twice by a large majority because it wants you
to repulse Yasser Arafat and beat him. Have you done that?
"I think that one of our successes is that we opened many people's eyes to
the true nature of the Palestinian Authority and the nature of the person
who heads it, making him irrelevant. When I used that phrase in the past it
shocked many of our supporters, mainly those who write and express
themselves. But in the end, Arafat became irrelevant."
Do you not fear that perhaps you won the battle against Arafat and against
the terror but lost in the matter of the Palestinian state and the
settlements? After all, the thing on the agenda now is the road map, which
is not very comfortable for Israel.
"We supported the principles that were presented in President Bush's speech
of June 24, 2002. As long as the sketch matches the speech, it is acceptable
to us. Regarding the latest draft that was sent to us, we have 14 or 15
reservations that I have passed on to the White House."
What are the main reservations?
"The main issue is security. How terror will be handled. There is no
difference of opinion in this matter but there is a difference in the
The second matter is that of the implementation of the stages. Our
understanding with the United States is that the will be no transition from
one stage to the next without the completion of the previous stage. The
determining factor is not the timetable but the execution. That is why the
issue of the stages is of paramount importance to us.
Our third reservation concerns the right of return. This definitely poses a
Is your willingness to recognize a Palestinian state conditional on the
Palestinians backing down from their demand for the right of return?
"If there is ever to be an end to the conflict the Palestinians must
recognize the Jewish people's right to a homeland and the existence of an
independent Jewish state in the homeland of the Jewish people. I feel that
this is a condition for what is called an end to the conflict. This is not a
simple thing. Even in the agreements we signed with Egypt and Jordan this
was impossible. That is why they did bring about an end to the conflict.
They are important agreements, very important, but they did not bring about
an end to the conflict. The end of the conflict will come only with the
arrival of the recognition of the Jewish people's right to its homeland.
That has to do with the end of the process. But do you think that the
compromise on the right of return has to come beforehand?
This issue must be clear right from the outset.
Would you be willing, perhaps as a gesture to the Americans, to freeze
construction in the settlements or to evacuate illegal outposts as part of
the first stage?
"That is a sensitive issue. In the final stage of negotiations it will be
brought up for discussion. We don't have to deal with it just now."
One of your tactical achievements is your success in avoiding as much as
possible any situation that forces you to make difficult choices. But if we
are in fact approaching the moment of truth and your choice will have to be
between Bush and Ze'ev Hever. [A prominent settler leader and close
associate of Sharon's]. Who will you choose?
"Each of the two people you mentioned is a special and impressive person.
Each of them is very impressive in his own field."
Bush will also have to choose soon between two people whom he appreciates -
Ariel Sharon and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Are you not afraid that
even with all Bush's respect and affection for you he will choose Blair?
"We are not under pressure. There is dialogue. Sometimes we see things the
same way, sometimes we view them differently. But our relationship is very
close. Our relationship with the White House has never been so good. I would
like to emphasize that we are not in a conflict with the U.S. I do not live
with a feeling that we are under any threat.
There are those who feel that the road map is worse than the Oslo accords.
Some people figure the Americans have caught you off guard, that they led
you to believe that the road map is not a serious document and then
presented it to you as a fait accompli. Do you not feel that you have been
"No. Not at all. Israel is not a pawn on a chessboard that anyone can move.
We live here. It will be impossible to budge Israel on the major matters
that are principles of her existence."
Do you feel that the dark and violent period of the past three years is
"I will make every effort to make it end. I do not intend to be passive. The
moment a Palestinian state forms I plan to begin working with it. I will not
wait for the telephone to ring."
`I trust Netanyahu, the economic plan - and my sons'
Your finance minister is a Thatcherite, he believes in a small government
and a big free market. In the past you were also a Thatcherite. Are you
comfortable with the [economic] plan?
"We have reached a stage where difficult measures are necessary. This is a
necessary step. therefore I support the plan that Mr. Netanyahu presented to
The whole plan is acceptable to you?
"Everyone can fiddle and find an article here or an article there that he
can argue about. But we are talking about these things also. This is a plan
that must be passed. We all must stand together on this matter. This is not
an easy matter, it is a difficult one, and it requires a great effort from
all of us."
Your relationship with Mr. Netanyahu is well known. Are you not sacrificing
him? Do you not enjoy watching him sweat?
"No. Not at all. I hear that there is such talk. But I can say with
certainty that my relationship with him is good. I am in close communication
with him. We talk nearly every day, and sometimes more than once a day."
Do you respect him?
"I think he is an excellent finance minister. He has my full backing, and he
will continue to receive my full backing."
Besides the personal question, there is a fiery social and economic debate
taking place. Your voice is not heard in this debate. Are you not worried
that your government will be viewed as an Ashkenazi, secular and sated
government that lacks sufficient social sensitivity?
"I do not think that this government ignores social issues. I also don't
think there is any link between social sensitivity and ethnic origin."
Are you enjoying this government more than you did from the previous one?
"I think this is a very good government. It has good ministers and it is
handling matters very well. But I enjoyed the previous government also. In
my eyes its greatest achievement was that it brought a near end to hatred
between the right and the left. This, in my opinion, is one of our greatest
Still, during the elections, the spirits were inflamed once again. What did
you think when you found yourself under fire once more?
"Well, all right, this is not the first time that I encountered such things.
Did I feel good about it? I did not. But I knew what the truth was. I knew
that the day after the elections it would all disappear. Look, the Jews are
great. Really great. The Jewish nation is among the great nations, perhaps
the greatest nation. But the Jews also know how to hate."
Do you not think that there was a flaw in the relationship between your son
Gilad and Dudu Appel and Cyril Kern or in the relationship between your son
Omri and Shlomi Oz?
"Believe me, I am not involved in those things. I do not know the details. I
trust my sons."
The sons are an important part of your decision making process? Are they
active partners in the handling of the affairs of state?
"These claims are exaggerated. The sons are not part of the handling of the
affairs. But our family is very special. I think that Lily [Sharon's late
wife] had a part in creating a special atmosphere inside the family. They
are good friends, the boys, true friends. I am proud of them."
You are a man that respects action, striving, bravery and friendship.
However, maybe the whole matter of rule of law and public ethics does not
really relate to you.
"This is a matter that relates to me a great deal. The law is the law and
everything related to it must be obeyed. I support keeping the law in full,
for everyone, on an equal basis."