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Middle East Bulletin interview with GI Signatory and former IDF Chief of Staff, Amnon Lipkin Shahak

By: Middle East Bulletin interview


Lieutenant General (Ret.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former chief of staff, Israel Defense Forces; member of Knesset; and minister. Geneva Initiative Signatory. Interview with Middle East Bulletin.
This week, Israel commemorates the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Fourteen years later, what would you say are the main pillars of Rabin’s legacy?
Today we speak about Rabin’s legacy but his assassination came at a time when he was in the midst of doing and did not think of the legacy he would leave after him. That leaves us with interpreting his lifespan of public service and deriving from it what we call legacy. I would say that there are four issues around which we should strive to build Rabin’s legacy.
First, the assassination was a political act. Not that this was the first political assassination in a democracy, but in Israel it immediately prompted a debate on what the limits of freedom of expression should be when it comes to incitement. For example, is walking around carrying a coffin with Rabin’s name on it a legitimate act? Is showing Rabin in an S.S. uniform with a hanging rope next to him okay? I am not an expert on this, but should the rabbinical decrees din rodef and din moser [calling for the execution of anyone persecuting Jews or handing over Jewish land]—which were interpreted by some as calls to commit murder— be allowed? These questions have not been answered in the past fourteen years and I think we should try to determine the boundaries of the democratic game in Israel.
The second issue is linked to the first and involves the supremacy of the rule of law. Although marginal, certain groups in Israel even today argue that the Halakha [the collective body of Jewish religious law] supersedes civil law. Just ten days ago or so, we witnessed soldiers at their swearing-in ceremony hold up a banner against settlement evacuation. The Israeli society as a whole should be educated to respect the law and the rule of law and to understand that personal values cannot be above the law.
Third, taking personal responsibility as a leader was something that very much characterized Rabin. He never hid behind the concept of collective responsibility and never avoided taking full responsibility over unfortunate incidents that took place during his watch.
On the first three topics there is no controversy in Israeli society. There are different interpretations but no dispute. The fourth topic, on the other hand, is still a subject for disagreement, and that is Rabin’s struggle for peace. Ostensibly, there is no argument about it, but below the surface people still disagree with his path and that was, of course, the reason behind his assassination.
There are probably additional relevant areas but in my view, those four issues are heavy enough to take center stage as we develop the Rabin legacy.
How would you describe Rabin’s strategic outlook? Is it still relevant in today’s world?
I am deliberately not going to dive into the details, but Rabin understood that solving the Israeli-Palestinian and the Israeli-Syrian conflicts is a strategic Israeli interest necessary to strengthen the state of Israel.
Undoubtedly, he also promoted additional agendas that defined his worldview, including minimizing the socio-economic gaps between Arabs and Jews in Israel, investing massively in education, allocating resources for infrastructure to connect the periphery with the center of the country and others. But, more than anything else, the issue over which he was murdered—solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—sticks out.
I think that Rabin understood that continuing to control the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is a huge burden on the state of Israel, not only with the international community but also internally. That is what made him go ahead with the process that later became known as Oslo.
Back in Rabin’s days, the two-state solution was perceived as treason by the Israeli right. Rabin was called a traitor because he was willing to give back land. Today it is supposedly accepted—even Netanyahu, Livni, Olmert and Sharon changed their minds and moved closer to Rabin’s position. In that regard, I think not only was he courageous but he also created a real shift in the worldview of most, albeit not all, Israelis. Given that we are still not done with this conflict, this outlook remains as relevant as ever.
What in your view has changed on the Palestinian side in recent years and should that affect Israel’s calculations in pursuing peace?
Rabin’s approach to terrorism was uncompromising. He thought the phenomenon should be fought to the point of total elimination. At the same time, one of the expressions he is most remembered for is: "We will negotiate peace like there is no terror. We will cope with terror like there are no peace negotiations." I think it is difficult to separate so clearly between the two, especially when your negotiating partner is at the same time responsible for terrorism. Arafat, for example, never did all that was in his power to curtail terrorism.
In my opinion, as long as Hamas in Gaza maintains its Iran-like model of a terror state, it is impossible to bring it to the negotiation table. We can talk about a ceasefire or the release of Gilad Shalit, but not beyond that as long as Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction and says so very clearly. If Hamas changes its positions like Fatah did years ago, the situation will change.
The West Bank is a completely different story: there is almost no terrorism and the Palestinian leadership—Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad—and the security forces are making real efforts in implementing law and order and fighting terrorism. As long as the Palestinian Authority persists in its efforts, it should be viewed not only as partner for conversation, but Israel should also encourage it to maintain its ways—not by means that would make the PA look like a collaborator with Israel, but in a way that would clarify to the Palestinian people that there is a real choice here.
There are things that Israel can do now beyond the removal of checkpoints and roadblocks. For example, stop giving the PA a hard time with the establishment of the second cellular operator, Wataniya, or allow the use of a road necessary for the construction of the new city of Rawabi. Israel will eventually approve both, but some gifts lose value if not given at the right time.
Many in Israel talk about a leadership crisis. Do you agree? Why wasn’t it part of the public discourse when Rabin was prime minister?
Rabin was perceived by the public as a leader, an authoritative figure. He staked out where he wanted to go and what he wanted to achieve and pursued that. That is not to say he did not have critics, but no one doubted his leadership. Since his assassination we have been looking for a strong leader unsuccessfully, with the exception of Ariel Sharon, who although different from Rabin was also a strong leader in his way. There is still a feeling today that there is no leader of the stature of Rabin.
Yitzhak Rabin cannot be brought back, but can his way be revived?
I don’t think we have a choice. The most important thing is solving the conflict with the Palestinians. As I said earlier, it is costly not only in terms of Israel’s stance with the international community but also internally—Israel squanders people, money and other resources on maintenance of the conflict.
There are barely any investments today in other fields in which Rabin worked to change their reality. Just recently, for instance, Israeli Nobel laureate Ada Yonat cast doubt on the prospect of more Israelis winning the Nobel in the future due to lack of investment in education. Young, talented Israelis seek academic careers abroad because Israeli academia is underfunded.
With Israeli Arabs, the problem is far from solved. I am not talking about the recent incidents in Jerusalem around the al-Aqsa mosque, but the real Arab sense of injustice stemming not from being a minority in the country but from what the state deprives them of. Should we keep working on closing the gaps between Jews and Arabs? Absolutely.
As long as we don’t solve the dispute on the future direction of the State of Israel—what the boundaries of the state are, what the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is—we will find it difficult to deal seriously with other issues. From time to time the government will tamp down the fire with superficial remedies that work until the next time the flames rise again.
As chief of staff, you met with your Syrian counterpart. Since then it seems that despite the unwavering support of the security establishment for Israeli-Syrian peace, Israel has hesitated to move forward on this track citing security concerns. Can you explain why?
The way I see it, two approaches prevail among opponents to Israeli-Syrian peace in the commonly understood framework. Some argue that Israel should make peace with Syria but not withdraw from the Golan Heights. Whoever says that, in my opinion, either does not understand the issue or is lying to himself. It is not clear exactly where the border would be, but I don’t foresee Israeli-Syrian peace without returning the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty.
Others argue that withdrawing to somewhere around the June 4 line is dangerous for Israel. I would like to remind them that many said the same thing before we evacuated the Sinai Peninsula. The same security arrangements would apply in this case, as well as perhaps demilitarization of the area, an international presence and other means that would reduce the security risk. There is never a guarantee for one hundred percent security and safety but what is the alternative if there is no peace? Will Israel’s security be guaranteed then?
An Israeli-Syrian peace would carry additional benefits for Israel. I don’t see a situation in which there is peace and Syria keeps arming Hezbollah or allowing the Hamas leadership to conduct its business against Israel from its headquarters in Damascus. I think peace is as much an Israeli interest as it is a Syrian one. It is a matter of trust, but if the will is there, I think peace with Syria is viable and the right security arrangements can be found. It is also easier than the Palestinian track because the rules of the game are clearer. I don’t think it is more important, but definitely simpler.
What is your position on the Arab Peace Initiative and how do you think Israel should respond to it?
Since our objective is not only end the conflict with the Palestinians and the Syrians but also with the rest of the Arab world, this is an important initiative. I think there have been changes in the positions of some of the Arab states, two of which we have peace agreements with already. Moreover, Arab involvement has significant value because every agreement would face opposition, both in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Arab backing could generate more support at home for the Palestinian leadership as well as demonstrate to Israelis the big prize peace waiting at the end of the road.
It might not be right to accept the initiative as is without any questions but it merits a discussion. Let’s talk about it.
The U.S. administration is trying to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. What role do you want to see for the United States in the negotiations and the region more broadly?
The most important advantage Obama had in the Middle East was that, more than his predecessors, he was perceived in this region as an honest broker. Two mistakes, in my opinion, have complicated the situation in the last few months. First was the U.S. demand to freeze all settlements, including in Jerusalem. Not that I disagree with the United States on the importance of freezing settlements, but the Israeli government is a right-wing one, after all, and could not cope with not building on Har Gilo, for instance. On the other hand, some positive things have happened recently such as the removal of checkpoints and roadblocks and reduced construction in the West Bank. Yet, what was seen as backing away from the demand for a settlement freeze embarrassed the Palestinians.
I don’t know to whom to attribute the second mistake, but the publicity given to Abu Mazen’s initial deferral of the Goldstone report from the agenda in response to pressure only weakened him and strengthened Hamas.
Everyone has and is continuing to make mistakes: didn’t we make mistakes? Didn’t the Palestinians? Only those who don’t do anything are never mistaken.
Moving forward, I think that U.S. involvement in solving this conflict is necessary for all: for us, the Palestinians and the Arab world. Without the United States, it would be extremely difficult to get anywhere. There is plenty of knowledge now in the United States that can be used to prevent future mistakes. I would not want to see them give up because of the present difficulties in restarting negotiations. On the contrary, genuine U.S. involvement should continue and grow.
How has the administration’s even-handed image that you mentioned resonated with Israelis?
I think most Israelis see in the United States not only a friend but also a country whose outlook, worldview and democratic principles are close to Israel’s. A recent poll actually showed that most of the Israeli public still sees Obama as a friend of Israel. The administration of course continues to show it support for Israel. We saw for example the U.S. stance on the Goldstone report; that they would veto it at the Security Council. This friendship is an Israeli strategic asset and we should maintain it.

The interview can also be accessed on MEB by clicking here