Retired Israeli Air Force Brigadier General Relik Shafir was the keynote speaker at “Israel Under the Lens: An Academic Conference” as part of the Caravan for Democracy, an advocacy group sponsoring speakers regarding Israeli democracy. After the conference, Shafir sat down with The Michigan Daily for an exclusive interview. Excerpts follow:
The Michigan Daily: You have called what’s going on in Israel now a ‘sine wave of violence.’ Does this get worse before it gets better?
Relik Shafir: ‘Sine wave’ in the sense that we are in the high tide part of violence. I should expect it will spend itself; at a certain time, I would expect the Palestinians and ourselves should revert to different types of conflict resolution than killing each other.
TMD: Is there a foreseeable end to the current violence?
RS: I hope the Palestinians will realize that the Israelis are resolute in their will to live and that violence and terrorism will not get their ambitions fulfilled. I think the Israelis will realize that we should use tactics other than military strength.
TMD: You said essentially that the relationship between (PLO leader Yasir) Arafat and (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon is irreparable. What do you do until there are new leaders?
RS: I would say it’s difficult at this point in time to envision a true brinkmanship between these two individual leaders. That does not mean they can people as go-betweens, but on a one-to-one level I do not think they would strike a harmonious tune.
TMD: What about the current Arab proposal? Are the 1967 borders something Israel would ever concede to?
RS: I think as dialogues go, certainly as the eastern part of Mediterranean, one does not expect to fulfill 100 percent of their wishes. I think the proposal is a good starting point, and I can envision a situation in which each side gives in to one another on strategically important points. I can envision a situation in which both sides are equally dissatisfied. I think the 1967 border is a starting point.
TMD: Can the Saudi deal be seen as a springboard to further negotiations?
RS: The Saudis have their own agenda, both on the internal scene and the struggles for power. … We understand that they have their own agenda, but I would not use that as a pretext not to take it seriously.
TMD: And what do you think the Saudi interests are?
RS: After 54 years of Israel’s existence, they are ready to put their ideas in the center of world press, and be subjected to criticism by other parties and put forward this type of offer that has not been done before at this type of level. Their private interests are that after the (Sept. 11) terror attack, the concept that was realized in the west was that Saudis, in one way or another, the breeding ground for terrorists. I think they feel very defensive about it, and have taken the proactive step to try to play that down.
TMD: You mentioned in your speech that you thought Israelis would be willing to tear down settlements. How likely is that?
RS: The bad thing about democracy is that things evolve very slowly. The good thing about it is that if enough people reach a conclusion or see things my way, if people like myself are able to put forward an offer which is palatable, then it would create pressure on the government. I would think most Israelis – don’t ask them tomorrow, during this emotional phase – most Israelis would be willing to abide by what we talked about – to take down settlement without compromising security to a great degree.
TMD: How do you view the Israeli retaliation to the suicide bombings? Is it fair?
RS: Where you stand is where you sit. That is, if you are a native of Natanya, and you have people blowing up or attacking you in a coffee shop, you will have a hard time refraining from retaliation. This is an emotional response that is natural, but it will probably never end, it just brings more animosity. It takes courageous leadership to offer something else. … Make a trust-building maneuver that will not look like (it was made from) a position of weakness … that will give the Palestinians a reason to control the terrorism. I hope Arafat will prove himself a partner in that. He hasn’t proven himself that in the past, but we should hope we can at least build something with his peers.
TMD: What sort of trust-building steps should be taken?
RS: Sharon recently said we will talk about a cease fire under fire. In the past he said six weeks of complete quiet before sitting down to talk, and then he said seven days, and then he said he would speak even though there is violence because he knows it is not stopping. He certainly shows signs of flexibility. Maybe he could make a bigger step, but he is certainly not as adamant as he was conceptualized before.
TMD: Do you think Arafat is capable of stopping Palestinian terrorism in Israel?
RS: I think he’s afraid of trying. We have a saying that he has released the tiger from its cage, and he is riding on the back of the tiger. If he gets off the back of the tiger, he might be eaten up. It’s a good question whether he can do that. Some people say that not only is he not ready, but that he is not able to move into a statesmanship position and that he is still a warrior, a microtactical leader.
TMD: What happens if the U.S. attacks Iraq? Does this set back the peace process, and how does Israel respond? Do they support the U.S.?
RS: I think that we as Israelis are not in a position and we shouldn’t take the position that we are aiding the U.S. in that region. That would be translated by the Arab countries as the U.S. leaning toward Israel, and the U.S. using the terror attack to lean toward Israel.
I think removing Iraq from its part of evil … and the path that it’s working to – that is, creating weapons of mass destruction – it is in the best interest of the western world.
Israel is a small part of it. They didn’t attack Kuwait because of Israel, they didn’t attack the Iranians because of Israel, they didn’t fire 39 scud missiles at Saudi Arabia because of Israel, and they didn’t in fact fire 39 scud missiles at Israel because of Israel, they did it to break up the Arab coalition. … If the Iraqis attack Israel, than I think we will use our prerogative to attack Iraq in, of course, coordination with the U.S. at that point in time. Let’s hope we don’t get there.
TMD: How would Arafat react to a U.S. attack on Iraq?
RS: I think at that point in time, he would refrain from doing something at all. I think that this is such an obvious mistake. I think that this now stems from mistakes he has made in the past year and a half.
TMD: Do you think he would stay neutral? Since Sept. 11 he has been very much endearing himself to the U.S.
RS: I think in the question of Iraq, he will have a problem being too outspoken for the Americans, because the perception is that they danced on the roofs during the last war. We can at least analyze why they were happy. I think that he will not want to against what he sees as the feelings of his own people.
TMD: What about the Yesh Gvul movement – Israeli soldiers are saying ‘this is not an issue of security and we don’t want to be involved.’ How does this internal dissent play out in terms of what Israel is doing.
RS: Let’s put the record straight. About 250 out of 170,000 Israeli reservists have signed the petition that you have alluded to.
TMD: Criticism of Israel revolves around it being called a poor democracy, that it is apartheid, even tyrannical. How would Israel respond to these criticisms?
RS: I think if you take one of the oldest democracies in Europe, Muslim girls are not allowed to go to school with their heads covered. In Israel, they are much more respected than they are in (that) European country, where they speak French. … Of course there could be criticisms as there is in other countries, but there is internal criticism in Israel and it is much stronger than it is in the outside world. Arabs and other denominations don’t have to sit in different places on buses or planes or in theaters such as you might have found in the past in democracies. Going to court for civil rights is very easy in Israel, it costs a very small amount of money.
TMD: How divided are Israelis? What are the things that people agree on, and where do the dichotomies begin?
RS: I think all Israelis agree about Israel being a Jewish democracy and about the borders of the pre-1967 war. You would find adhesion to that view at a minimum. The disagreements go to where would the border go and how many of the settlements should come down. There are about six million Israelis; you could draw about six million borders.
TMD: In terms of college campuses, at least liberal college campuses, Israel is painted as the oppressor to the Palestinian oppressed. How do you feel about calling what Israel is doing an illegal occupation? First, how do you feel about calling it an occupation, and second, that it’s illegal?
RS: I take the occupation for what it is, it is an occupation. A lot of Israelis will tell you that Hebron is the foundation of our forefathers; that being true, realistically speaking and practically speaking, it is an occupation. About the illegality, Israel did not come to occupy Judea-Sumeria by some accord, it was a result of the Six Day War, where we were attacked by the Jordanians who occupied it before us, and before the Jordanians occupied that area, the British occupied that area, and before the British occupied that area, the Turks occupied it for several hundred years.
There has never been a Palestinian entity or a Palestinian state, it’s been occupied for the last 2000 years, or at least since we left – and if I may mention, we were exiled at the time. So in that sense, we didn’t come to occupy it one day but as the result of a war that took place. It was the policy of the government at the time that it was a bargaining card for making peace. I think if the Arab states at the time had recognized Israel’s right to exist (it might be different), but history has it that that didn’t happen. So right now we are at the position of where we are able to negotiate and make a dialogue.