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 “We are ready to discuss the fate of Jerusalem”

By Syed Nazakat

Binyamin Ben Eliezer is considered a hawk on the Israeli foreign policy. He was one of the main architects of the invasion of Lebanon and also a strong proponent of the Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin. Born in Iraq in 1936, the pugnacious former general, who spent three decades in uniform, commanding Israeli troops in South Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, insisted in an exclusive interview with THE WEEK that Israel was ready to take any painful and difficult decision to ensure peace in the region, and that military tools would not work. That is unusual for an Israeli Labour leader whose party’s stated position is not to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s declared capital. Besides, it supports the continuation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Eliezer is currently minister for industries and trade and has previously held the posts of minister of defence, deputy prime minister and other ministerial portfolios. One of the senior-most members of the Labour Party, which has held power for 50 years in the country’s 60-year history, Eliezer talked about how to end one of the most enduring and explosive of the world’s conflicts.

Excerpts from the interview:

Are you ready to bite the bullet and accept Palestine’s demand for a peaceful resolution to the conflict?

Today our leadership is ready for peace solution. The prime minister of our country is a man who has been elected by the right-wing and the extreme right-wing people. We have made two historic decisions. First, to have two states for two nations—Israel and Palestine. Second, to freeze all settlements. He was accompanied by me last week to meet [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak. We assured the Egyptian leader that we are ready to start negotiations now, and that we are willing to talk about everything including settlements, borders, refugees and also Jerusalem.

You are saying Israel is ready to discuss the fate of Jerusalem?

We know exactly what is going to be the prize for making peace with Palestine. We know exactly up to the last metre [of land] what it will take to accommodate the demands of Palestine. We are ready to sacrifice almost everything. The evacuation of Gaza was the beginning of an attempt to show that we are willing to evacuate. Now what has happened? Gaza has become one of the biggest terror bases in the world. Only the other day, eight missiles were fired from there. We need a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state. That’s the winning formula forpeace. You have signed peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt. Why has it been so difficult to make peace with the Palestinians? To make peace, you need a tough leader, a leader who can take risk. We made peace with Egypt, the largest Arab country, when Anwar Sadat visited Israeli parliament and said, ‘no more war’. That was it. For that he paid with his life. He was assassinated. We are looking for a leader in Palestine who is tough enough to come and sit [across the table].

Do you think it was a mistake to sideline Yasser Arafat?

He was a tough guy. Yes, he was an influential Palestinian leader. We trusted him, and we agreed with him for a solution. But I regret that during the Middle East peace summit at Camp David [in July 2000] Arafat missed the opportunity. He walked away from the table without making a concrete counter-offer. We offered Arafat an eventual 91 per cent of the West Bank, and all of the Gaza Strip, with Palestinian control over eastern Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state. But he was not convinced. That was unfortunate.

You were one of the architects of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. How come a semi-military organisation of the Hizbullah with its few thousand men resisted your strong army, which enjoyed full air-superiority and size besides technological advantages?

We made mistakes in the war. We messed up things.

Was it a mistake to go to war?

No, I don’t think it was a mistake. We were attacked almost every day by the Hizbullah with rockets. Your military is accused of committing war crimes or somethingclose to that, crimes against humanity. Many argue you overreacted. It’s absurd. Israel was rocketed, pummelled for years by thousands of rockets that came from Lebanon. So, what’s a country to do? I mean, what would you do if thousands of rockets fell on your people? We did what every reasonable country would do to protect its people. We tried to get at the rocketeers, the terrorists who fired those missiles and rockets and those who placed themselves, embedded themselves in the civilian area.

Do you believe Israel had exhausted its military options and had no choice but to return to the negotiating table?

I have been in the army for three decades. Military means won’t help us resolve the conflict. Also, in our region the threat of today is not Israel-Palestine but the nuclear-armed Iran. The problem with Iran’s nuclear issue is that it is in the hands of irrational people.

Will Israel hit Iran?

We can do it, but we don’t want to do it. But I don’t think Israel is going to wait until someone hits her in order to respond. And let us be clear on one thing that we are the first victims. Sunni Muslim countries in our region like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt worry ten times more than us because they are going to be the victims, too. For us, of course, this is an existential problem.

(THE WEEK, February 2010)

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