Extended interview: Shlomo Ben Ami

The former Israeli foreign minister talks about the campaign against Arafat and the logic of targeted assassinations.

These are clips from an extended interview with former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami, who talks about the campaign against Yasser Arafat and the logic behind Israel’s targeted assassinations.

So I think that this is what one can say of Arafat. As a whole, my impression of the man, I never came to negotiate with Arafat from a sense that I’m talking to a bloodthirsty enemy which some of my colleagues felt. I came to this man from a position of respect. To me, he was an intriguing figure, very intriguing. I’m not sure I understood him fully. The whole process was, for me, a process of discovery of a man very complex, very complicated. Sometimes I think that to write a biography of Arafat, you would need a Talmudic scholar and you had always to interpret what he meant by what he said.

I think it was Lloyd George who said of de Valera, the Irish leader, that negotiating with de Valera is like picking up mercury with a fork. More or less, this is Arafat. I mean, it was extremely difficult to come with something tangible. He would never close a door. He would never lock a door. He will always leave options open. He will never commit himself fully and irreversibly. His language was always ambiguous. It was clear to me that he wanted an agreement. It was never clear to me what were the conditions for such an agreement, and, therefore, you always had the sense that Arafat was drawing you into a black hole where there was no wall where you stopped negotiating.

No, if I were a Palestinian, I said many times, I would not have accepted the deal, whatever this deal might have been because as I’ve said before, there were different interpretations of what was put on the table in Camp David. But I admit that that was not sufficient for the Palestinians. That did not meet the minimal requirements of the Palestinians for a deal with Israel.

I thought different when it came to the Clinton peace parameters a few months later. There, I thought the Palestinians committed a historic mistake, and I’m not alone. Others in the Palestinian camp thought the same, and Bandar bin Sultan as well in a famous interview in The New Yorker thought that the rejection of the Clinton peace parameters by Arafat was a capital crime against the Arab nation or the Palestinian people as he said.

Well, I think that, frankly, as far as I can know, I mean, I was not privy to any orchestrated campaign, but what I can say is that Clinton was much more sensitive and sensible to the worries of Barak than to the political constraints of Arafat. Therefore, once the summit ended, the focus of the American administration was how to save Barak from the political price he’s going to pay in Israel for the failure of the summit. Not exactly for the failure of the summit, but you see, my understanding of Israeli public opinion is this, Clayton.

The Israelis, even today – even today, in my view – would accept almost every deal that a legitimate government would sign, and they will not punish politically the prime minister. They will punish the prime minister if they know of the concessions that he made and yet did not reach a deal. This is like being a sucker.

That was the problem of Barak in the wake of the Camp David summit, that people in Israel would know that he negotiated Jerusalem. He was ready to divide the Old City. He was considering all kinds of formulas on sovereignty in Temple Mount for the Palestinians, and yet he did not reach an agreement. So, he is a sucker. Who needs such a leader?

This is where Clinton thought he needs to try and ease Barak’s way into Israeli public opinion. That is the campaign as it were because then they say that Arafat was to blame and the rest of it. There were even talks between Israel and the American administration. I think that they were nonstarters where Barak wanted, for example, that the American embassy would move to Jerusalem, you know, too much for that particular moment in the relations and especially entirely irrelevant to the peace process. If the Americans wanted to get back into the game that was obviously not something they could do. But that was, again, that was the focus.

Arafat’s is a dictatorship. He doesn’t have any problem with public opinion, and they were not too wrong really. I mean, he came back to Palestine as a hero. I stood, I show steadfastness in front of two allies – Israel and America – and there was no sellout of Palestinian interest. So he came back to a euphoric, almost euphoric audience. So the understanding of the Americans was not too wrong really when they say that the political problems of Barak are different than those of Arafat.

No. I always thought — no, I thought that he was ill because he had some illness. There were all kinds of legends about his health. It never crossed my mind that Israel would have anything to do with his death. Among other reasons because I thought that the very existence of Arafat was politically an asset for Sharon. He could always say, look, am I going to negotiate with this extremist, with this radical leader? Because if Arafat passes away, he will have to negotiate with Abu Mazen, people that he cannot easily dismiss as unworthy as interlocutors. This is why it could not occur to me that there is interest in Israel of seeing Arafat pass away.

No. Well, you’re putting me in a position to explain the logic which I’ve not been privy to – of this kind of operation as of Shabak, et cetera. But the way I understood 26 is that even Yassin — first, to begin with, I think that all these targeted killings did not change iota in this process. To me, that’s the bottom line. The Palestinians continue to ask the same requirements that they wanted always for a peace deal, and it helped nothing, practically. And if they decided to stop suicide terrorism, it was not because of targeted killings; because it did not do anything good to the Palestinian, of course. Today, they are in a different strategy, not because Israel got rid of Sheikh Yassin or anybody else.

Again, in my interpretation of things, Sheikh Yassin was the leader of a movement that was at the time producing havoc among Israelis, whether a thousand Israelis killed — no, a thousand, was it? Or throughout the Second Intifada, and therefore, you were getting rid of a leader that was sending directly or indirectly, or inspiring people, or giving legitimacy to this mass campaign of suicide terrorism. That was the way that one could understand it.

But Arafat was somebody that was negotiating with you. He was negotiating. He was the one that if you give a sober interpretation of his role throughout the last 20 years, you would see that he was the man with whom you need to have a kind of peace deal; otherwise, there is not going to be any kind of deal. So I draw a line between the way Israel fought leaders of Hamas during the Second Intifada and the person of Arafat.

Yes, but all this does not necessarily lead to a physical assassination. They were trying to diminish his political clout, his political influence. And I saw it also as a way — frankly, again, to me, it remains to be proved that Israel got rid physically of Arafat. I saw this campaign to appoint the prime minister, et cetera as part of the reforms that Israel and others were seeing as a prerequisite for a viable peace process. And frankly, I always saw that this was one shortcoming of the Palestinian National Movement. This is where Zionism had the upper hand.

You see, when Israel declared the state in 1948, a state for all practical purposes existed already. This is what Salam Fayyad understands today, and this is why institution-building and state-building is a prerequisite to state creation or to state declaration. This is how I saw it. I didn’t see it as a way that its natural conclusion is that if it doesn’t work we’ll get rid of him physically. I simply didn’t see it that way.