Visit to Israel
I and thirty Board members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spent one week in Israel, January 15-23, 2002. We found the country facing daily terror attacks and an ongoing battle against the terrorist infrastructure that perpetrates these attacks.
The mood we encountered was both sober and determined, with a striking sense of unity among Israelis. We were there only two weeks after the Israeli Navy’s dramatic interception of the Karine A ship—the finding of extensive weapons aboard the ship as well as the related intelligence assessments were raised in almost every meeting.
The resilience and determination of the Israeli public were palpable. We witnessed the unity not only on the public level, but also as expressed by leading Israeli officials as to the unity which exists along the political spectrum. We heard from a leading journalist, David Horovitz, that the Israeli official and public attitude toward Arafat was hardening. Despite policy differences between Likud and Labor on how to deal with the Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman, there was no dissension concerning his role in terrorism.
The three leaders of the unity government—Prime Minister Sharon, Foreign Minister Peres and Defense Minister Ben Eliezer—met with our group and laid out for us the situation and the range of options facing the leadership. They were each engaged in the conversation with us and went to great lengths to explain the current situation. We also discussed with senior leaders some of the problems that persist concerning Israel’s negative image in the media, and what might be done on the public relations front to correct this problem.
During out visit, we met with the following officials and non-officials: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; Foreign Minister Shimon Peres; Defense Minister “Fouad” Ben Eliezer; Housing Minister Natan Sharansky; Bank of Israel Governor David Klein; Foreign Ministry Director General Avi Gil; Jewish Agency Chair Sallai Meridor; Envoy for the PM, Omri Sharon; former Ambassador Dore Gold; United States (US) Ambassador Dan Kurtzer; Jerusalem Report editor, David Horovitz; Haifa University Professor Dan Scheuftan; and Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) Director, Yigal Carmon.
We also were briefed by a number of senior officials from the security establishment: Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Planning Chief Giora Eiland; IDF Coordinator for the Territories, Amos Gilad; National Security Council head, Uzi Dayan; and General Meir Dagan. We visited the Arrow Test Site at an Israel Air Force base, and had a confidential briefing from Dr. Aaron Moss from the Defense Ministry’s Cooperation Programs Office, and by Arieh Herzog from Israel’s Missile Defense Organization. At the Arrow site we discussed how Israel would respond to Phase Two-related threats from possible targets of American action, and what would be the American role in such an eventuality.
The Israel-Palestinian Conflict
The overarching policy question we encountered was that of the military struggle being waged by Israel against the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure. During our stay, we witnessed a gradual escalation of the conflict—the IDF went into Tulkarm (Zone A) and remained there for some 30 hours. That operation was then followed by a brief, and highly successful, incursion into Nablus. During this period, the IDF engaged in a counterterror operation, taking action against the local terrorist infrastructure, something which Arafat had not been willing to do.
In addition to the Tulkarm operation, the Israelis began to take a more active role in the West Bank, again since Arafat showed no signs of meaningful action against the militant, terrorist groups. For example, the IDF began to increase its arrests of known militants and terrorists, especially the leadership of the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Tanzim; they also arrested or targeted terrorists known to be “en route” to carrying out a terror attack; and the IDF began blowing up a greater amount of Palestinian weapons caches.
The array of weapons being brought into the territories has been vastly expanded, with the cache on the Karine A ship being the starkest illustration. Mortars and Kassam-2 rockets are the most recent examples of a stepping up of the munitions held by the PA.
Despite these measures, 100 percent prevention of attacks is not possible, and we learned of nearly daily terror attacks during our stay. Nonetheless, security officials explained to us that without the actions of the IDF, many more attacks would have been successfully carried out.
The growing isolation of Arafat continued, with one minister referring to his forced continuing presence in Ramallah as “virtual house arrest.” Similarly, we encountered different ideas on how to solve the situation in the long run, among them the concept of unilateral separation (known by proponents as “unilateral disengagement”), which entails the physical separation of the territories from Israel proper and also the dismantling of certain settlements as part of this process.
The diplomatic arena continues to be active, with the primary contact between Israelis and Palestinians being the security channel. Conversations between Peres, Avi Gil and the PA leadership continue, with the emphasis being on bringing about a cease-fire. Key Israeli leaders, including the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, expressed their commitment to implementing the Tenet and Mitchell agreements.
The policy debate continues and the range of political options was presented to us. The different schools range from returning to the negotiating table and starting from the place where the parties left off at Camp David and Taba, to attempting a long-term interim agreement, to increasing the military pressure on Arafat, all the way to an attempt to change the PA leadership.
The United States
- PALESTINIAN CONFLICT
There was continued discussion as to whether General Zinni would come back to the region or not. There was no consensus whether it is General Zinni’s presence or absence here which adds more to the pressure on Arafat. Both parties awaited the decision from Washington regarding Zinni’s potential return.
- PHASE TWO
Israel’s connection with the United States was discussed repeatedly in our meetings. The US is viewed as Israel’s main ally. There was universal praise for President Bush’s leadership and for his approach to the conflict. There was also praise for the US-Israel relationship overall. According to Israel’s leadership, the US truly understands “our war on terrorism.”
The Israelis were loath to express any preferences for US action in Phase Two of the war on terrorism. However, there was concern expressed that an effort to strike Iraq could well be met by a retaliation against Israel. Therefore, the Israelis are asking for early consultation and warning as well as help with the necessary homefront preparations.
We heard of the profound consequences in the region regarding regimes in this area, if the US pursues them in a Phase Two effort. To this end, there was hope expressed that the US would be serious in its interest in Hezbollah and other terror groups, and those who host them. The Israelis by now understand that there will be further phases beyond the Phase Two.
There was far greater interest expressed in Iran than Iraq. In the aftermath of the Karine A ship, it was the combination of three elements about Iranian involvement in the region that was on the minds of many senior officials:
- Continued Iranian acquisition/production of weapons of mass production;
- Iranian connections to al-Qaeda and the global terror network;
- Iranian efforts (via Hezbollah) to become directly involved in the territories, apparently with the acquiescence of the PA.
We heard about the growing concerns inside Israel about the population increase among Israeli Arabs and what that may mean for the future of Israel.* These conversations invariably led to discussions of the need for more immigrants to come to Israel.
The situation in Argentina was uppermost on the minds of Israel’s leadership. Concerns were raised about preparing adequately for the high numbers of immigrants that the Jewish Agency was anticipating from that country.
This past year saw some 44,000 immigrants arrive from the former Soviet Union, with an additional 40,000 expected this year. These high rates of immigration are expected to continue, despite the terrorism and related security tensions. We also heard in more than one meeting about possible increased immigration from France and South Africa, due to mounting anti-Semitism in those two countries.
The unity government, and the respect and coordination between Sharon and Peres, were dominant themes. Associates of each leader spoke very positively about the other, despite the policy differences that clearly exist. The Prime Minister himself stressed the importance of unity in the country. He admitted that the government might not always speak in one voice, but that the unity was important.
The emergence of Binyamin “Fouad” Ben Eliezer as the head of the Labor party occurred shortly before our arrival (following a Labor primary re-vote in certain polling stations). Scenarios for his departure from the unity government were discussed, as was the probability for early elections. Informed sources shared their assessment that elections before the end of this year were a serious probability.
The economy is in a downturn, both as a result of the worldwide recession and the costs of security. Unemployment has passed ten percent and heading higher. The principal cause of the economic decline is the slow down in the world economy which in the past has absorbed a large quantity of Israel’s high technology and other exports. We learned in our meeting with Bank of Israel Governor David Klein that the year 2001 saw a five percent decrease in gross domestic product (GDP), of which three percent is directly related to the Intifada.
During our stay, the government was wrestling with the passage of the 2002 budget. Failing to secure approval of the budget by December 31, 2001, the government received a ninety-day delay, but the budget must be approved by March 31, 2002, or else the government automatically falls. While no one suggested that the budget might not pass, there was considerable time and attention given to this issue.
* Editor’s Note: According to the United States Department of State, Israel’s total population is 6.4 million (as of November 2001) of which 5.2 million are Jewish and 1.2 million are non-Jewish. Of the non-Jewish population, about 80 percent are Muslims, ten percent are Christian and about ten percent are Druze.
United States Ambassador to Switzerland, 1989-1993