A Conversation With Avigdor Lieberman

Interview by Lally Weymouth
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Whom would you like to see as Israel's next prime minister?

I think Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu], but our biggest problem is that at the end of the day, there is no clear result.

One of the reasons you are so popular is because you called for a loyalty oath for all citizens of Israel. What do you mean by a loyalty oath?

The dividing line for Yisrael Beiteinu is who supports terror and who fights terror. We cannot accept that there are people in Israel that even during the war [in Gaza] openly supported Hamas.

You're talking about Israeli Arabs?

Of course, but not only Arabs. I'm sorry to say that there were also Jews.

Who were supporting Hamas?

Who supported terror.

Most of your statements about loyalty oaths and changing populations have been about changing areas where Israeli Arabs live.

We speak about citizens' responsibilities for Jews and Arabs. For example, the Jewish orthodox community doesn't want to serve in the army or do national service.

You're not going to argue that these Orthodox Jews are not loyal Israeli citizens?

The same law pertains to Jews, Arabs and Christians.

So the responsibility of all Israelis is to take this oath?

The responsibility first of all is to be against terror. . . . We cannot accept the fact that we have some parties in the Knesset that support Hamas and Hezbollah, even during the war.

You propose to say that these people are no longer Israeli citizens or that they're supposed to go to the Palestinian territories?

First of all, [I propose] to outlaw these parties and these political leaders. Secondly, there must be some kind of national or military service for all Israelis.

Even for the Orthodox?

Of course. I don't understand why the Orthodox people cannot go to serve their community in some hospital.

We take all our examples from Europe or the United States. For example the pledge [of allegiance]. When I suggested the exact procedure like in the United States for the pledge, everybody here says you're a racist, you're a fascist. Why? It's the same as in the United States.

It's not. No one makes you recite the pledge.

. . . I understand that in school every child . . .

It's not mandatory. You don't have to say it if you don't feel like it. No one's going to kick you out of the country if you don't.

I agree with this. We don't have a proposal to kick people out of the country. But I think the country must demand from the citizens real responsibility. It's a crazy thing in Israel that a minister doesn't agree to our anthem. I can't imagine it.

Do you agree with President Bush that there should be a two-state solution?

It was a big dispute between Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon and me before disengagement [in 2005]. I said you go to establish a Palestinian state without even one Jew, we will become a binational state with more than twenty per cent minority. It won't work. . . . It is really a state and a half for the Palestinians and a half-state for the Israelis. . . .

Our proposal was exchanging territory and population, exactly like the Cyprus model.

You would take the territory where the Jews live in settlements on the West Bank and Israeli Arabs live and swap them?

Of course. Here is a picture of my settlement behind you, Nokdim, in the Judean Desert. I even agree to vacate my settlement if there really will be a two-state solution. What does the leader of the Israeli Arabs say? They're not interested in any Palestinian state. Even the Palestinians aren't interested in a Palestinian state.

You think they want all of Israel?

They want one country from the Jordan River to the sea. [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak gave a very crazy proposal to go back to the 1967 borders. [Yasir] Arafat said no. Also, Sharon gave up all of the Gaza Strip. And at [the] Annapolis [peace conference in 2007], a left-wing government gave very strange and crazy proposals. Even so, the Palestinians didn't accept. Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert tried to jump from the first stage [of the roadmap] to the final stage. It didn't work, it's impossible.

You went to talk to both [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni and Netanyahu. Why did you evaluate Netanyahu as being the better leader?

[The best] solution for us is a government of the three biggest parties -- Likud, Kadima and Israel. It will be a stable government that can deal with all the problems from the economy to Iran. . . . We have two results from these elections. The first result is that the right wing really won the elections. The second result is that Kadima is the biggest party. The best solution for our country is a combination of these two results.

What portfolio would you like?

I think I can hold every portfolio -- defense, finance and foreign ministry. I think personally I'd like the foreign office.

Do you think you would have a problem with the international community, living in a settlement and having very hard-line views?

I've met everybody, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, Javier Solana. They know me. I don't see that it would be an obstacle.

You have a new administration in Washington.

I think we share the same values and the biggest problem of our region is not territory and not the Palestinian conflict. We must create new priorities in the old Middle East. I think everybody who lives here understands that our biggest problem today is Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and only after this the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also, our neighbors are not afraid of Israel. They're afraid of Iran.

So what do you think should be done about Iran?

I think we need sanctions -- really tough and very strong political and economic sanctions, as in the case of North Korea and Libya. I think a military operation -- I think I don't even want to imagine the consequences of this step.

People must understand that Iran isn't [just] our problem, it's a headache for all the free world.

If you become foreign minister in Benjamin Netanyahu's government, will you continue the peace process?

Of course, but we will put things in the right line. Not to start with a final agreement, [but] to [go] step by step. You can't start with Jerusalem or the evacuation of the settlements. You must start with security and the economy. You must strengthen the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is really a problem for the Palestinians and for Egypt more than Israel. It must be clear that the problem of our region and of Israel is Iran by proxy, because Hamas and Jihad are really Iran by proxy as is Hezbollah. Without Iranian support, they cannot exist. It's Iranian money, Iranian ideology, it's political support, Iranian technology.

Would you give up the Golan Heights to make a deal with Syria?

I don't see why we must give up the Golan Heights. Damascus is the center of world terror. All these organizations, Jihad and Hamas, their headquarters are in Damascus. Syria supports Hezbollah.

But there are people in your military who argue that if Israel could make a deal with Syria, perhaps you could split them off from Iran.

No, we cannot split them off. Even [Syrian] President Bashar al-Assad says that even if he receives the Golan Heights, he will continue his ties with Iran. People don't want to see the truth.

Do you believe that the Obama administration will be as supportive of Israel as President Bush was?

We respect every American administration, every American president. We'll respect any choice of the American people. We expect you to respect any choice of the people of Israel. There is only one democracy in the Middle East, one country that shares the same values.

You were born in Moldova. How old were you when you came to Israel?

Twenty years old.

How did you get out?

There was a big Jewish movement, a big Zionist movement in the Soviet Union. About 200,000 Jews came during the Brezhnev period. There was a meeting between President Gerald Ford and General Secretary Brezhnev. During this period we asked for visas to Israel.

What happened when you got here?

I started to work the same day as a porter in Ben Gurion Airport. I was a common immigrant -- I came here without the language and started from scratch. . . . In 1999 I established my political party.

So is your next ambition to become prime minister?

No, my personal ambition is to realize all our ideas. Yisrael Beiteinu is a party that puts on the table all the problems that people are afraid to speak about.

But people in the United States think you are a racist. What do you say to those people?

I think they don't understand our reality. We say the left wing in Israel and the United States is in shock that we were so successful.

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