JERUSALEM — Israeli Minister of Intelligence Israel Katz is known as a political bulldozer. It’s a label he is proud of and a trait, he believes, could bring about peace with the Palestinians.
Albeit in a roundabout way.
Katz’s plan, which he says has been adopted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is regional and multilayered. And if all goes smoothly, there might be some type of autonomous, demilitarized Palestinian entity at the tail end.
“Netanyahu went to America after many discussions here in which we spoke about the idea for regional peace, based on security and economic considerations in the region,” said Katz in an interview with The Washington Post.
“I told the prime minister that the goal should be to deal less with labels and more with content,” said Katz, who also serves as Israel’s minister of transportation.
This was the one of the messages Netanyahu shared in a news conference with President Trump in the White House earlier this month.
Responding to a journalist’s question asking if the prime minister had come to Washington to tell the president he is backing off from the solution of two states for two people — the Israelis and the Palestinians — Netanyahu said: “Rather than deal with labels, I want to deal with substance. It's something I've hoped to do for years in a world that's absolutely fixated on labels and not on substance.”
“I am against two states. As one White House official pointed [out] – ‘if you ask five people what two states would look like, you'd get eight different answers,’ ” said Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet.
Katz said this point and others made recently by the new U.S. administration has made clear that Trump will allow Israel to find its own solution, in its own time.
Trump, he said, has opened up the playing field for peace.
We sat down with Katz recently in his office in Jerusalem.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity:
After all that’s been said and done in the past few weeks by the Israeli government and the new American administration, do you believe that the two-state solution with the Palestinians is dead?
I come from the perspective of reality. This is a concept that is not relevant. Even those who want to create two states know that it can’t be done at the moment.
[Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas is weak. He needs security support from Israel. And, Hamas was extreme before but since changing Ismail Haniya and placing Yehiya Sinwar in the leadership position, this means that Hamas’s military wing is now controlling Gaza.
If there were nuances before that might have helped us reach the creation of a Palestinian state, they now no longer exist. What kind of Palestinian state can we create in this reality?
What is your solution to bringing about peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
I have been pushing a more regional perspective. Layered peace that starts with security coordination between Israel and the moderate Arab countries, including moderate Palestinians.
Relations already exist between Israel and Sunni Arab states in the region. We are not allowed to say which but they do include countries where we have no peace agreement or diplomatic relations.
How would this work?
When it comes to fighting ISIS or al-Qaeda, everyone wants to work with Israel. The whole world is against ISIS and if Israel can help share intelligence information, then there is a willingness to work with us. [ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.]
There is also the Iranian-Hezbollah axis. There are two groups that are against this axis — Israel and the Sunni states. The Iranian nuclear agreement created a situation where the United States did nothing to curb Iranian activities in the region, and Russia wants to partner with Iran for its own reasons.
But now, there has been a change in position by the new American administration and that has given us the tools and support to deepen partnerships with the Sunni states to fight against Iran and ISIS.
One of the goals of the new U.S. administration is to strengthen the relationships between Israel and these states.
After intelligence sharing and a level of strategic regional peace, what comes next?
Regional economic peace. I have been trying to push this idea forward for some time. The prime minister raised it with the Americans, too.
When the Turks ruled here, they built a train line across the whole region. Because of the tensions since Israel’s creation and the new borders, that train system was abandoned. Now we have renewed the train lines in Israel, and we want to extend this line so it reaches Jordan. Jordan will be the key that connects to the Israeli train line and to train lines across the Arab world. And we also have a plan to connect the Palestinians to that system, too.
Israel recently opened a train line from Haifa port to Beit Shean (near the Jordanian border), and we can extend that line, across the Sheikh Hussein bridge, up to the Jordanian city of Irbid. From there, the line can connect to the whole region.
I have full support from the prime minister on this, and we are currently working to garner support in the region, from the Gulf States, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia. We have already met with senior officials in Jordan about this.
Why do think this will work when so many people, including leaders of the countries you mentioned, are opposed to working with Israelis unless the Palestinians receive a state?
First, there is a financial interest in this, and second, they are always looking for alternative transport routes so they can reach Europe, and goods from Europe can reach them.
Already, over the past year, because Syria is now closed to them, Turkey has used Israeli ports to send some 5,000 trucks of goods across the Middle East. It's already being done with trucks, the train is a new element.
How will all this bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians?
Security coordination and economic peace will help bring about the diplomatic, political peace, which is more complicated for all different reasons.
The United States still supports a two-state solution, and Netanyahu has not rejected it.
But is it realistic to talk about regional peace before sorting out the problems with the Palestinians?
The Palestinians are a nation that knows how to survive. They are educated and hard working, they have their businesses in place, and this plan will give them the chance to connect economically with the rest of the Middle East. Peace can arise out of that.
It might not be a peace that will allow Israelis to head to Damascus or Riyadh to eat hummus — those are naive concepts. But I am a doer, and I believe this plan can exist within the conditions of today’s Middle East.