Jerusalem, March 3—Israel’s government should try to block the reconstruction of Gaza; incoming Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu might try to send the military back into Gaza at some point; the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead; and Israel is strong and the rest of the world just needs to get used to that: These were some of the key themes that emerged in an interview I conducted here March 1 with senior Likud security-affairs specialist Efraim Inbar.
Inbar is Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and has often advised Likud leaders in the past. The views he expressed in the interview coincided at several points with those expressed in an op-ed article published in Yediot Aharonoth today by former Netanyahu national-security adviser Giora Eiland.
Like so many other interviews that foreign journalists and researchers conduct in Jerusalem, this one was conducted over coffee in a lounge of the lovely, traditionally built American Colony Hotel. Inbar is a friendly man in his early 60s who wears a yarmulke atop a mass of springy white curls.
I asked his assessment of the prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “The most important factor for us is not the Arabs, but the Americans,” he said. “And honestly, no-one there really believes in this. Even at Annapolis, in spite of all the fine rhetoric about concluding an agreement before the end of the year, in actual fact their only goal was a ‘shelf agreement’—that is, an agreement that could sit on a shelf for an indefinite ength of time.
“The two-state solution is passé—because the Palestinians aren’t up to it. The only way it could work would be if two conditions were fulfilled: that the Palestinians should support it, which they don’t; and that the state would have a monopoly on the use of force, which the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have.”
He recalled that he had published a book about Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who concluded the Oslo Agreement with Yasser Arafat’s PLO back in 1993, and said, “Even Rabin’s formula was always ‘land for security’… What Rabin wanted was a tyrant in power in Palestine. But he couldn’t get an effective one.”
He argued that this vision of Rabin’s “was the vision of most Israelis.” Modern Israel is, he said, “very realistic, not idealistic.”
Moving to the expectations he has, regarding the various strands of the peace process, from the incoming Netanyahu government he said he thought that with the Syrians, “the status quo is bearable for Israelis.”
Regarding the Palestinian track, he noted that Netanyahu has started to try to sell the idea of an “economic peace.” I noted that this approach had been mooted and even halfheartedly tried before, by Netanyahu during his earlier premiership, 1996-99, and other Israeli leaders, and it had always proven not to be viable in the absence of any real progress in the diplomacy. Inbar’s immediate response was to declare forthrightly “We don’t care if it’s viable or not!”
He then said, “We can’t give up the West Bank because it’s too close to our heartland. Gaza—okay, because it’s further away from the heartland. But there, anyway, we saw the chaos and violence that ensued after we withdrew.”
“What we should do,” he argued, “is try to involve Egypt in running Gaza and Jordan in running the West Bank.” (This was the same plan that Eiland espoused in his latest article.)
“Maybe Egypt would be interested in intervening in Gaza because they don’t want to see a Hamas state established there,” Inbar said. “In the West Bank, the Jordanians are wary of intervening for their own reasons. But maybe we could see some form of Palestinian-Jordanian confederation there, because the PA certainly hasn’t ‘delivered’ for us in the West Bank. They haven’t collected all the weapons held by the armed groups.
“Yes, sure, some people say the US-trained troops are better trained than what was there before. But we doubt if they’d fight against Hamas if they needed to. Palestinians don’t fight! Hamas didn’t fight in Gaza—they just left their weapons on the battlefield, which also means they weren’t undertaking a guerrilla-style tactical withdrawal.”
He noted that another Israeli strategic-affairs analyst had remarked that PA president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was actually relying on Israeli bayonets to protect his position in the West Bank. “And now, indeed, Abu Mazen is widely accused of collusion with Israel. He is truly not a great leader.”
The most realistic scenario Inbar could foresee over the coming years in the West Bank was, “Conflict management: to lower the flames, limit the suffering, and not anger the Americans too much.”
The other members of the international community, he said baldly, “don’t count—even though in Europe there is now greater understanding of the shortcomings of the Palestinians than there was before… There is movement.”
Turning to the situation of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza, he referred to an article he had published in early February in which he argued that the international community should not do anything to help the rebuild the homes and public infrastructure that were so extensively destroyed by Israel during the recent war. In the article he argued that the international community should “not be drawn into sentimental escapades of rebuilding and humanitarian assistance that undercut our paramount strategic goals.”
He told me he still believed that. I pointed out that most portions of the international community now seem to have decided that they should help to rebuild Gaza. “The international community may insist,” he said, “but we can certainly do a lot to slow the process down.”
Taking a different approach to the question of Gaza, he then commented with a smile that “Hamas is good for the Jews! As long as they are there it is a gift to us!”
He added, “I wouldn’t hesitate to make a wave of refugees out of Gaza. That would put pressure on Egypt to increase their presence inside the Gaza Strip. They should take over the whole Strip directly, or have their own puppet government there, be it Hamas or whoever.”
(During the recent war, the Egyptian government certainly seemed to fear the impact that a wave of refugees coming in across its seven-mile border with Gaza might have. The numbers of security forces Egypt can have anywhere near Gaza or the border with Israel is tightly limited by the terms of its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. But during the war it made a special effort to keep its border crossing with Gaza as firmly closed as possible, allowing only a trickle of medical-emergency cases to cross from Gaza into Egypt.)
I circled back to the idea of an “economic peace” in the West Bank that Inbar had mentioned, noting that though he and Netanyahu talk about the idea of that the West Bankers could be allowed to enjoy some real economic development—mainly, it seems, as an alternative to having their rights to national independence being seriously addressed—still, both he and Netanyahu also seemed to favor keeping in place the very intrusive system of more than 600 roadblocks with which the movements of Palestinians between different cities and areas within the West Bank remain tightly controlled. Referring to various studies from the World Bank and other bodies, I put to him the idea that you could not actually have real economic flourishing so long as the West Bank was diced up into a large number of tiny enclaves.
“It could be like Singapore or Hong Kong!” he said, at first.
I pointed out that those territories both had much larger populations than that of the whole of the West Bank, as well as free access to the regional and world economies. Picking up the demographic point there, he said, “Well, like Monaco then!” (He did not, however, seem to be very serious in trying to persuade me of the strength of his argument. Maybe his earlier response that “We don’t care if it’s viable or not!” was a more accurate expression of his real views on this matter than the argument he was halfheartedly making about Singapore, Hong Kong– or Monaco.)
I asked how he assessed the impact of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank on the peace process. “The settlements act as an incentive to the Palestinians to become more reasonable in the diplomacy,” he said. “And you know, that worked before Oslo. But since Oslo, well, their learning curve became very slow.”
But might not the Israeli government now start to face some pressure from the new US administration to stop the settlement-expansion program and to follow up on its previous undertakings to immediately remove those settlement outposts that even previous Israeli governments have deemed to be ‘illegal’?
He replied, “We may be pushed, yes. The Americans may push us some, so we’ll remove one or two outposts or one or two roadblocks. We’ll play with the Americans.”
So what were his expectations from the Obama administration, in general?
“Well, they are talking very differently from Bush. But they have so many other things to deal with! The economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran! How much energy will they have for this issue here?
“Most Israelis, you know, see their policy towards Iran as appeasement. So I hope Dennis Ross will come to the president after six months and tell Obama that there’s no deal to be had with Iran, so then Obama will be ready to get serious.”
More Gaza: “It just doesn’t make sense to rebuild Gaza! It doesn’t help to strengthen Abu Mazen.”
So Efraim, how can Abu Mazen be strengthened?
“No-one can do it from the outside…. The Palestinians need an Ataturk, but I just don’t see one on the horizon. It’s the same problem of weak regimes throughout the whole Arab world: in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Somalia…
“So we are building a fence. We don’t want to see them! The fence is more or less like a border… Israelis like the fence, you know. Most believe, however wrongly, that it’s of great security value, though in actual fact our success in preventing terrorism comes through arresting, and detaining, and targeted killing.
“That’s my main criticism of the operation in Gaza. If we did that—targeted killing—like we did Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Rantissi back in 2004—then, Hamas went immediately to a ceasefire.”
So Efraim, the picture you paint looks pretty bleak?
“Well, we are strong and they are weak.” (He gave a sweet smile. To underline his point, or to try to take the harsh edge off it? Who knows?)
“And time is on our side. That’s the difference between the hawks and the doves here. It is they who are pessimistic, while we, the hawks, are optimistic.”
But what about the mounting chorus of concern from the international community about the level of destruction in Gaza?
“We can take it! Jews have not always been popular in the world. And now, at the Durban review summit, we are being singled out once again.” (A chuckle here.)
His expectations from George Mitchell?
“Organizationally, it’s a clear problem, because Hillary has too many envoys. I don’t think he can do much good. But he’s American, so he’ll try. But what can he do? Can he change Abu Mazen? He might end up going along with Netanyahu’s plan an economic peace. He and the president probably don’t want a crisis in American-Israeli relations so soon.”
Expectations from Netanyahu?
“Well, he doesn’t oppose a flow of money to the PA. Then, there are people around him who speak of the need to destroy Hamas.” (He did not say whether he shared this view. Probably, I should have asked.)
He noted that the outgoing Olmert government was careful not to aim at the destruction of Hamas during the recent war.
So had the war as a whole been a success?
“No! They are still shooting at us every day. We may have to go back in, even though the Egyptians are not happy when there are ‘high flames’ there.”
And might Netanyahu agree that that the Israeli military might have to go back in to Gaza? “Yes, there’s quite a chance that Bibi would go back in. The security cooperation with the Palestinians didn’t work, and we are unilateralists by nature anyway. This is the Zionist ethos. We are no longer dependent on the Gentiles.”
He sat back and grew expansive. “I’m a student of Albert Wohlstetter,” he said, referring to the University of Chicago strategic studies thinker at the University of Chicago who influenced many of the leading US neoconservatives. “But I’m not a neocon! I told Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Cristol, both of whom are my friends, that trying to bring democracy to the Middle East was a big mistake.
“Oh sure, yes, it was good to get rid of Saddam. He was a very bad guy. But they didn’t need to try to democratize the country, too.”
More on Obama: “I was concerned about him at the beginning, but most of his appointments seem to be mainstream. It’s a real tribute to the United States that you elected a black person. So let’s wait and see. Yes, I’m critical of some of his policies on, for example, Iran, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt because we need a strong America.”
I asked his view of the emergence of hard rightwinger Avigdor Lieberman as a major force inside Israeli politics. He had an interesting analysis of the Lieberman phenomenon, noting—correctly—that along with many strongly rightwing views, Lieberman supported some of the causes of the left, including that he is not against the establishment of a Palestinian state.
He concluded by saying that Lieberman “is accepted by Israelis, even if he is not liked by some. Also, he has attracted some very prominent personalities to his party… I don’t like his tone; it’s not my cup of tea. But it’s acceptable in a democracy.”
We came back to the peace process. He described the decisions Olmert took in 2005 to allow the Palestinians of the West bank and Gaza to hold parliamentary elections, and to allow Hamas to run in them, as “a mistake.”
I asked about the prospect of resumed negotiations between Israel and Syria. He replied, “With Hamas now in power in Gaza there is much less pressure on our government over the peace process in general, so what need is there for us to do anything with Syria? Sure, if we’re under pressure from the Americans, we can negotiate. But why would Bibi want to proactively go after a negotiation or an agreement with Syria? … Also, we don’t have a demographic burden in Golan. It’s clean of Arabs. It’s very beautiful.
“Time is on our side! Who remembers 1967? And is President Asad serious, anyway? Does he want open borders with Israel? Is he ready to distance himself from Iran? I don’t think he’s going to ‘flip’ so easily… So I don’t think there will be pressure on Israel to leave the Golan Heights, because we won’t be seeing any pressure from Asad, either.”