Yesterday, I interviewed Mark Regev, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s international spokesman and international media advisor. Mr. Regev was appointed by former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert in 2007 and has held the position ever since. Previously, he served as spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We met at the Media Department of the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO) in Kiryat Ben Gurion/Kiryat HaMemshala. In this neighborhood, you can also find many other government ministries as well as the Bank of Israel, the Knesset, and the Supreme Court. The media department, aside from offices, also house a small studio from which the Prime Minister delivers many of his televised addresses and the press conference room. A constant hive of activity, I was thrilled (and incredibly lucky) to get Mr. Regev’s mostly undivided attention.
We started our discussion with the topic of Gaza. Mr. Regev asserted that he has never heard the Prime Minister discuss the issue of Gaza in any terms other than its repercussions for the State of Israel. Other claims, namely historical, economic, and even demographic, have largely fallen by the wayside. Moreover, Bibi recognizes that the threat posed by Hamas control of Gaza is not stable, but rather is growing. With active support from Iran, they are keenly aware that Hamas is attempting to acquire newer and more advanced weapons and, in fact, fear that anti-aircraft missiles may already be Hamas’s possession.
Bibi knows full well that “deterrence works until the day it doesn’t,” but that Israel has succeeded in keeping the Gaza border relatively quiet. This, Mr. Regev, attributes to Israel’s vigorous policy of responding to any and all attacks that emanate form the territory, such that Hamas and other armed groups there know that they cannot attack with impunity. However, they have no illusions that the problems posed by Gaza are solved. If anything, the security situation is getting worse and although Israel has no intention of initiating another military conflict, they do believe that a clash is likely.
As for the much publicized blockade of Gaza, Mr. Regev notes that while there have been failures in Israeli policies, there have also been great successes. First are foremost among these are that, since Cast Lead in December 2008, Sderot and other communities near Gaza have never been so quiet. The dramatic decrease in cross-border violence has been good for Israelis and so too has it been good for Gazans. He also takes exception to the term blockade. Indeed, 250 trucks laden with food enter the territory every day from Israel and Israel has removed almost all restrictions on civilian goods.
A problem still remains with so called dual-use items (which includes materials such as piping and cement), but Israel has worked around these concerns by cooperating with international organizations involved in construction projects there. This ensures that Israel can account for the usage of all materials which might otherwise be directed towards violent ends and that construction in Gaza can continue. Criticism has continued with regard to Israel’s severe restrictions on exports from Gaza, the argument being that the territory cannot truly develop without access to global markets. There is truth in this, but Mr. Regev believes framing this problem as a human rights or humanitarian issue is stretching the definition considerably.
Moreover, the question must be asked that if the regime in Gaza wants Israel destroyed, continues to hold Gilad Shalit captive without access to even the ICRC, and regularly pronounces that each and every Israeli is a legitimate target for violence, why should Israel open its borders to such an entity? Indeed, why should the world at large conduct regular diplomatic relations with such an entity?
Mr. Regev insists that Israelis do not see the people of Gaza as their enemy and that the suffering of this population is largely due to the Hamas regime. In this vein, he is quite critical of the “Free Gaza” types who use the language of human rights to condemn Israel’s closure of the territory while posing for pictures and receiving medals from the Hamas leadership. If human rights are truly their concern, forget the human rights of Israelis, then they should be condemning Hamas for their treatment of their own people.
Next, I asked him what Netanyahu believes are the prospects for territorial compromise with Syria over the Golan. Mr. Regev countered that the first question that must be asked is if there is even a real chance for peace with Syria any time soon. Assad’s regime is firmly in the radical camp of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran and is the only member of the Arab League with an active security alliance with the Islamic Republic. If Syrian policy were to chance, “it would be interesting.”
It is the Prime Minister’s position that he is willing to meet with the Syrian leadership in Damascus, in Jerusalem, or in a third-party country, and engage in direct or indirect negotiations, however these must be without preconditions. Israel will certainly bring its terms to the table and Syria will bring theirs. Yet to demand a particular outcome of an agreement before negotiations even begin is to negotiate in bad faith.
Some in Israel and abroad have suggested that the absence of any mention of the Golan in Bibi’s recent address to the Jewish Federations of North American General Assembly indicates that the PM might be willing to make considerable concessions here. Mr. Regev insists that although there is a great willingness by Netanyahu to engage in negotiations, all other assertions are mere speculation. Having traveled often to the Golan, Bibi understands the importance of the region as a strategic asset for Israel. He is not of the school that the emphasis of the country’s enemies on using missiles has made the control of these highlands obsolete.
The residents of the Golan, for the most part, utterly reject the idea that the region should be up for negotiation, either to be turned over to the Syrians or divided in any way, as do most Israelis in general. Netanyahu has shared this sentiment in numerous visits to the region, famously stating on several occasions that the Golan will remain in Israel and Gamla will not fall again. In this, he “understands the importance of the Golan to Israel’s security and has greater respect for the people who live there.” That said, many are nervous that although it is his stated position that Israel will remain there, he will not make this a precondition for talks with the Syrians. However, as both the government and the people of Israel are skeptical that anything positive will develop on the Syrian front, this concession is broadly viewed in theoretical terms only.
Turning to the West Bank, Mr. Regev notes that the PM has not been timid to insist upon the Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria. This is where Jewish history is rooted, where Jewish civilization began, and is central to its homeland. When UNESCO recently designated Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem a Muslim mosque and demanded that this and the Tomb of the Patriarchs be removed from Israel’s list of heritage sites, Bibi responded forcefully that “the attempt to disconnect Israel and its heritage is absurd.” This is a territory which Netanyahu believes is enormously important to the history, culture, and religion of the Jewish people.
At the same time, he understands that there are Palestinians who live there that have a separate national identity. He moreover has absolutely no interest that they be citizens of the state nor its subjects. As such, he sees no alternative to separation in the form of “Palestinian statehood.” This, in the PM’s thinking, is not a demographic issue. Whether there are 3.83 million Palestinians in the West Bank as claimed by the Palestinians or 2.49 million as argued by Yoram Ettinger, the reality is that they have no interest in being a part of the Jewish state. The key requirement for this state, he insists, is only that it does not pose a threat to Israel. As such, it must be a demilitarized state which recognizes the right of the Jewish state of Israel to exist. Without such an understanding, Israel cannot be expected to concede sovereignty, territory, or effective control.
One of the primary demands of the Palestinians is that Israel cease building settlements in the West Bank. The growth of these Jewish communities, they claim, take up valuable territory and will prevent the emergence of a contiguous Palestinian state. Yet Mr. Regev points out two discontinuities in this argument. The first is that Jewish communities in the West Bank take up less than 2% of the territory excluding the Jerusalem Envelope. I am unsure of the precise validity of this statistic, but his second point is poignant regardless of the numbers. If the growth of settlements equals a territorially diminished Palestinian state, how is it that the previous PM Ehud Olmert was able to offer territorial concessions to the Palestinian Authority in December 2008 larger (including land swaps) than that made by PM Ehud Barak at Camp David to Yasser Arafat in 2000?
This discussion is particularly relevant as the government mulls a new 90-day building freeze in return for concessions and security guarantees from the United States. The previous freeze, instituted unilaterally by the Netanyahu government against great popular opposition, lasted 10 months and was declared by American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be “unprecedented”. Indeed, it was the first time that Israel has ever completely frozen settlement construction in the entire history of the peace process.
Governments stretching back to the 1993 Oslo Accords: Livni, Olmert, Sharon, Barak, the previous Netanyahu government, Peres, and even Rabin, did not halt settlement construction even while negotiations with the PA continued. Neither did the PA demand, until one month before the expiration of the previous freeze, that such a freeze be a preconditions for talks. Now, argues Mr. Regev, the world is demanding another unilateral concession from Israel; one to which Bibi has apparently agreed and because of which is facing a rebellion within his own cabinet, party, and coalition. However, the PM believes that if he can secure a deal good for Israel, he can push it through with government support.
Jerusalem, of course, stands out as a notable exception here. The PM has consistently refused to consider any kind of building freeze in the capital. Indeed, all Israeli governments over the last 40 years have always made a distinction between Jerusalem and the rest of the territories captured by Israel in 1967. While there may have been shifts in perception of how others view the subject of Jerusalem, Israeli government policy has been remarkably consistent. All Israeli governments have emphasized the centrality of the city to Israel and the Jewish people’s history and national culture, all have built in Jerusalem, and this one will continue to do so.
The Palestinians have claimed, in turn, that such building “prejudices” a final resolution of the conflict and will prevent them from making any part of Jerusalem as their capital. Here, Regev had two responses: The first is that it is the policy of this government that Jerusalem must remain the united capital of the state of Israel. Asking him about the character or importance of peripheral Arab neighborhoods to this claim, he plainly responded that the Prime Minister is not negotiating with me. In short, whatever nuance is to be introduced regarding a discussion of the future and final status of Jerusalem is something which must be determined through negotiation. Complications and complexities do exist as to how one might define Jerusalem, but this must be resolved through discussion with the Palestinians.
The second is that it is absurd to claim that building in Jewish neighborhoods prejudices any final resolution of the conflict. Each and every peace proposal which has in any way approached the subject of dividing Jerusalem, from Oslo to Annapolis, has insisted that Jewish majority neighborhoods remain under Israeli control. Indeed, over half of the Jewish population of the city lives in neighborhoods which have been constructed over the Green Line, and Israel has no intention of relinquishing control of these neighborhoods. To give credence to Palestinian claims that it should be otherwise both disregards numerous agreements to which they have been party and the facts on the ground.
Returning to the freeze, the concessions which have been offered by the United States, which are still under discussion, are an attempt by the Americans to offer some incentive to Israel in the absence of any being given by the Palestinians. This, the PM believes, is one of the biggest problems involved in moving forward with both another freeze and negotiations. If the Palestinians would show flexibility in negotiations, the Americans would not have to fill the vacuum. Mr. Regev points to host of critical developments which Israel has facilitated to benefit the Palestinians of the West Bank.
Aside from freezing settlement development, it has considerably liberalized the security regime allowing for greater freedom of access and travel between Arab communities. Although this has been achieved in cooperation with a PA which has gotten much more serious about improving its security apparatus, this would have been impossible without continued Israeli assistance not to mention material and logistic support. So too, in cooperation with PA Prime Minister Salim Fayyad, the West Bank economy has grown an unprecedented 5-10%.
What, then, have the Palestinians done in return? They have hardened their negotiating positions, demanded that a settlement freeze be a precondition for peace talks, and refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. They have also demanded that designation of final borders be determined before any minor issues. This, Mr. Regev, understands, is a rational approach as it is an issue upon which it requires Israel to show maximum flexibility, placing the onus of deadlock on the Israelis alone.
Yet what if the Israelis were to demand that refugees be the first issue on the agenda; that the Palestinians must renounce a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees as a first issue for talks? This would similarly turn the tables, but it would not be productive for negotiations. If the peace process is going to succeed, it must be a two way negotiation. Indeed, how can the Prime Minister agree to a border without knowing what the character of a future Palestinian state will be? Will it be peace-loving? Will it be demilitarized? Will it recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
Netanyahu agrees that the settlements, like refugees and like final borders, is an issue that must be resolved, but it must be resolved in negotiations. And it cannot be expected that Israel will spend all its political capital on “peripheral issues” while outstanding principles remain in question. First and foremost, in the PM’s mind, is whether the Jewish state is considered by the Palestinians and the Arab states at large as a legitimate part of the neighborhood. If Israel can accept that there is a Palestinian people who are have a historical connection to this land and are therefore entitled to a sovereign state on a part of it, so too must Palestinians accept that the Jewish people have a historical connection to the land and are entitled to statehood.
Here, Regev pointed out that while the PA leadership has said that Israel can call itself whatever it wants, it has refused to directly acknowledge the Jewish character of the state. While they have often acknowledged rights for adherents of the Jewish religion, they have historically adamantly denied Jewish “peoplehood” or “nationhood.” This amounts to no less than denying the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. So, Regev asks, if Israel is fundamentally illegitimate in your eyes, what kind of peace are you offering? The Jewish people, he insists, are entitled to self-determination in their homeland. Without a genuine recognition of this right, neither peace nor coexistence are possible.