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Ze’ev Binyamin (Benny) Begin, is an Israeli geologist and politician. A member of the Knesset for Likud, and currently a minister without portfolio in the government of Binyamin Netanyahu.

A few days ago met Minister Benny Begin and interviewed him. In light of the swift turn of events in the Middle East, Minister Begin was able to crystallize the main issues with cutting clarity.  From the history of Hamas’ road to power in Gaza, through a thought provoking analysis on the connection between democracy and peace in the Middle East, Minister Begin offered factual observations.   The interview was held in English to avoid alterations during the translation and follows below We are just coming out of another round of fighting with Hamas – where does this lead Israel? Are we heading for another large scale offensive with Hamas?

Minister Begin: I wouldn’t like to enter into details that have military or operational aspects, but I’d like to go into the roots of the issue. The root problem is that for the last 4 years we live next to a “Little Iran”. How did this happen? To understand that we have to unfold the events backwards: Little Iran is there because Hamas is there, controlling Gaza. In June 2007, Hamas kicked out the PLO out of Gaza. When they did it, Hamas acted as the legitimate government within the Arab Palestinian camp, having won the elections in January 2006. So Mr. Haniyeh was at the time the legitimate prime minister. How come Hamas won the elections on January 2006? The reason is that Hamas participated in the elections. How come Hamas, a terrorist organization openly bent on the destruction of Israel, was allowed to participate in those elections? The simple reason, quite painful, is the following – the Israeli government at that time, at the first week of January 2006, agreed to allow Hamas to participate in those elections. How come the Israeli government agreed? The Israeli government agreed to the participation of Hamas in the elections, despite its basic will, to satisfy our friends in America. Under the banner of democratization, the Americans under the previous administration were pushing for the inclusion of Hamas in the so called democratic process within the Arab Palestinian camp in Gaza, Judea and Samaria. All that of course, has to do with another sad fact, which is that in 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, dismantled villages and forcefully evicted about 10,000 Jews from Gaza. Israel did that under the assumption that these actions will bring about improved security for citizens of Israel. I asked a group of Europeans and Americans in the last few weeks, if they remembered how many Americans or European installations were hurt by rockets launched from Little Iran? Well the simple answer is zero, none. The lesson of the story is that it’s easier to give Israel an advice from the safety of Paris, London, Rome or Washington, and leave us in Israel to deal with the consequences. Israel is left alone to deal with the rockets coming from Little Iran, from that Hamastan. It’s our citizens sitting in bomb shelters and the Israeli government is responsible and obliged to the protection of its citizens. Hamas tries to create a separation between its military arm and political arm – how do you view Hamas as an organization? Is this a real distinction in your eyes?

Minister Begin: Hamas is a terrorist group. Every organization has certain departments that are responsible for activities at different times, but the activities cannot be separated one from the other. Hamas has an integral structure. Part of it is stationed constantly in Damascus, where Hamas and Islamic Jihad find safe haven. While Syria is considered a legitimate part of the international community it protects terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. I don’t think there is any distinction between the military wing and political wing of Hamas. An attempt to make such a distinction is dangerous since it paves the way for international recognition of the organization through that separation – e.g. we’ll talk to the political wing and not the military wing. That applies to Hezbollah as there is no difference between the two organizations. Those who operate the mortars, who physically launch the rockets, cannot be separated from the political leadership. That’s the way it should be viewed and I do hope that European countries and of course the USA view it that way and keep up the restrictions on Hamas recognizing that Hamas is a terrorist organization openly bent on the destruction of Israel. With the new developments in Egypt, Hamas feels its posture is bolstered by the legitimacy given to their sister movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Also noteworthy is the fact that a Hamas delegation was received by the new Foreign Minister in Egypt, before Abu Mazen was allowed to arrive in Cairo. It’s symbolic and important politically. The Iron Dome system successfully intercepted its first rockets last week? How will that impact Hamas’ strategy?

Minister Begin: The Iron Dome system is a great success and a great technological achievement which has first to do with the bold vision of the developers. It must not be considered total coincidence that no one tried it. People thought for many years that such an endeavor must fail because of the short time span between the launch of the rocket and its landing, we’re talking about seconds. But the engineers and the scientists in Rafael and the Defense Ministry were bold enough to stretch their imagination. You first have to resort to such imagination before getting to the drawing board. However, you must understand that the system has its limit and we cannot build our strategy on that umbrella that is not hermetic anyhow. How will that impact Hamas’ strategy? I would hesitate to guess. In the last round I didn’t see an immediate effect; maybe we’ll see it in the future. Iron Dome is very helpful but I would not totally count on it. One cannot win a conflict solely by defense. Even if Iron Dome would have been a device that allowed us hermetic closure, it will be fool hardy to sit with our hands on our hand and wait for the technologically system to intercept the rockets. The early warning alarm is still needed, Red Color alert is still needed, and people still need to run to shelters to its sound. There is a limit to the technological ability and a limit to our readiness to accept such situation, where women and children will have to rush to shelters under a barrage of Hamas Rockets even if they assume many of these rockets will be intercepted by Iron Dome. So this great achievement must also be viewed in perspective. 2011 has been a stormy year across the Middle East – How do these revolutions and changes impact Israel?

Minister Begin: I’ll say something that everyone knows which is that is that no one knows. No one knows where things are headed, people guess and estimate, research institutions guestimate, intelligence services have their own assessments, but no one really knows. The Egyptian leadership didn’t know a week before the revolution happened, and the same goes for the Tunisia leadership. It’s all in an embryonic stage and I, according to my scientific background, am trying to guess as little as I can. So what I usually do in situation like this is put some constraints on my imagination. The way I proposed to do that is through observation of 3 democracies in the Middle East, since Democracy is what we’re told these events lead to.

I start with Turkey, a long term democracy, even an improved version of democracy compared to Israel since they have a constitution. So Turkey has a constitution, an independent judicial system, elections that take place on time and are to a large degree orderly and transparent, a parliament, coalition and opposition, coalition crises from time to time,. So, it’s a fine democracy. Turkey is also a member of NATO. But now we have to take into account that in the year 2002, a new government was elected. The AKP party ascended to the throne and this Islamist government voluntarily elected to turn their ambitions east wards towards Iran under Ahmadinejad instead of Europe and the European democracies, despite the fact that Turkey is a NATO member. They have aligned themselves publicly with the new bloc comprising Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. They have been supportive of all these bodies. Let’s remember that AKP have their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon in the 20s of the last Century. These are the same roots; they are off shoots of the same plant. This will explain to you why the current Turkish government so readily supports Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which could not hold their conventions openly in Egypt under Mubarak, held them freely in Turkey for years. Finally, Turkey’s alignment with Ahmadinejad, whose ambitions to eradicate Israel are well known, is repulsive. That’s Turkey, a democracy – how far does it contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East today?

The second democracy is Lebanon – a long term democracy, constitution, elections, parliament, and a coalition crisis for the last 2 months. For some Europeans it would seem natural to have a coalition crisis and they assume it’s the same as in a European Parliamentarian democracy such as Holland or Belgium. But we know better than that – we know that Lebanon is not an independent democracy. It’s a Syrian protectorate which deploys two armies – the official Lebanese army, supplied at least partly by western democracies and Hezbollah army which has 50,000 rockets supplied by Iran and Syria, aimed solely southwards towards Israel. It is well know that Hezbollah’s army is much stronger than the official Lebanese army – they will have the upper hand in any clash. What kind of a democracy is this? Of course the recent coalition crisis was engineered by Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran. Just a few days ago it became known that even if a government will be formed under Najib Mikati, the Sunite, it will comprise of 2/3 of the March 8 coalition which is the Shiite Hezbollah camp that lost the elections only 2 years ago. So now the same Hezbollah camp might form a new government. That shows us again that the question is very important – to what extent does this Lebanese democracy contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East.

The third democracy is Iraq – it’s a new democracy installed by western democracies. Several months ago they had a second round of elections on time. They enjoy a constitution, parties, free elections and have experienced a coalition crisis in the last few months. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will continue to act as prime minister in Iraq’s almost national unity government. That government includes ministers that belonged to the Sadrist Shiite terrorist group whose leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, resides in Iran most of the time. This very extreme organization perpetrated terrorism in Iraq a few years ago. The Sadrist party now threatens that if American soldiers will still be present in Iraq after the end of 2011, they will create a new coalition crisis. How come that after months of negotiations Iraq was finally able to establish a government? The secret is simple – Iran and Syria agreed tacitly on a split of power in Iraq between them two. To use an American expression, the Iraqi government “drives under the influence” of Iran and Syria.

Now we sum it up – look at the map, it’s a new Muslim crescent. Five countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, comprise an Islamic radical block, with terrorism and instability emanating from two of them to the whole Middle East. That’s even before Iran has acquired nuclear weapons ability.

Middle east muslim cresent

The irony is that out of these 5 countries the majority are democracies. 3 out of 5 are democracies. Of course, the numbers are small so it’s not a great sample, but to me these observations, that are factual, there is no assessment there, afford constraints on the possible positive outcome of the revolutions in the Middle East.

Add to this the fact that in the last two months, all news that pertain to Israel having their source in Egypt, are negative ones. The New Egyptian Foreign Minister announced that Egypt would now seek friendship with Iran and Syria. Amr Moussa, the leading candidate for presidency in Egypt, made several negative statements in the last few days, alluding to the need to recheck and scrutinize the international commitment of Egypt, referring obliquely to the peace agreement with Israel. We understand that and Egyptians understand that. All that is combined with the Egyptian overture towards Hamas, and it doesn’t herald a new spring arriving from the Tahrir square in Cairo. If reality refutes the constraints I’ve put on my imagination I would be happy, but this is the reality as I see it today. The Palestinians are making moves towards recognition of a Palestinian state by international community as a way to force a Palestinian State on Israel. What’s the best course of action Israel should follow here?

Minister Begin:

First let’s observe that this attempt and others like it, on part of the PLO leadership, are actually an expression of their policy of refraining from taking the only path that could lead to stability and peace between the two communities west of the Jordan River, the Arab and the Jewish communities. The only path is direct negotiations without pre-conditions set on the very beginning of the negotiations. Mr. Abbas has been piling pre-conditions that change with time but amount to the same – the PLO wouldn’t like to enter into these negotiations because they realize that if they really want to achieve peace west of the Jordan River, they would have to give in on something, which they haven’t done for decades. Actually Abu-Mazen bragged about this a few months ago in one of the PLO meetings. In reaction to Al-Jazeera leaks he asserted that the PLO never changed an iota in their platform since the declaration of independence in Tunisia 30 years ago. Well he is correct; the PLO hasn’t changed an iota. So this unilateral track would not have any hope for a positive outcome. I do hope that the Europeans and Americans do impress it upon the PLO that such declaration by the UN’s General Assembly will be futile. You do not establish a new state by such declarations. I think that the PLO leadership knows it but they are still being encouraged by some countries and some political leaders. If they’ll resort to this it will be a very negative development which will lead nowhere. But I’m not sure it will happen anyhow. In the coming months the PLO may have a second thought which will be very healthy, even from their point of view. There is an important role in this respect for European, American leaders that should serve the purpose of bringing the PLO leaders down to earth, if I may use this expressions being a geologist. A recent survey claimed that 1/3 of the Palestinians support the massacre of the Fogel family in Itamar, do you think the Palestinians genuinely want peace?

Minister Begin:
We should be careful with such polls. It is very difficult for me to attach such intentions to human beings, to our neighbors. I would assume that the greater majority of our Arab neighbours would like to see nothing but their children being well educated and seeking a better future. But I would separate between ordinary people and their leadership. There should be no doubt in the mind of an objective person, taking into account the development of the last 10 years at least, that the PLO leadership is not interested in, unwilling to and maybe unable to come to terms with any Israeli government. For example, Mr. Olmert put on the table at the end of 2008 a concrete proposal that included very far reaching concessions. The proposal entailed the following – 98% of the total area of Samaria, Judea and Gaza would be handed over to the PLO; the balance of 2% would be swapped with territory inside the midget state of Israel proper; Jerusalem would be split into 2 capitals with a safe passage under PLO control that would connect Gaza to Judea and Samaria and Israel will relinquish its sovereignty over the Temple Mount and surrounding area to be replaced by an administration of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, USA, PLO and Israel. In addition, in the momentous interview given by Abu Mazen to Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post on May 2009, he expressed his understanding that Mr. Olmert accepted in principle the right of return of Arab refugees into the state of Israel proper (Mr. Olmert denies) and accompanied that by a proposal that Israel would accept several thousands of them. In that interview Jackson Diehl asked Mr. Abbas, so why did you decline such an offer and the short, and I think correct, answer was: “the gaps were wide”. Where is the gap? With Mr. Olmert’s proposal, how wide could it be? Of course it would always be a wide gap vis-à-vis or the ambitions. Since the ambition is to “eliminate the Zionist entity and liberate Palestine”, extending from the Jordan to the sea, we cannot satisfy these ambitions. In case you are wondering why I say this, I’m quoting the Fatah’ platform, the moderate faction within the moderate PLO, the platform that was reaffirmed on August 2009 less than 10 KMs from this office, in Bethlehem. That platform would also explain how come the Palestinians so publicly and openly reject the notion that they would ever agree to accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. According to their political philosophy, Judaism is not a nation but only a religion, and religions are not eligible to sovereignty anywhere. That’s their philosophy and it still directs them and ties it all together. This also affords an explanation to those who wonder how come with all the concessions put on the table by former Israeli governments in the year 2000 under PM Barak and in 2008 under PM Olmert, were of no avail and we didn’t reach an agreement. To sum it up, no, this PLO leadership is not really interested in peace with the nation state of the Jewish people which is the state of Israel.

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