'Today, mine is the only right-wing party'
MK Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the combined list National Union, comprised of his Yisrael Beitenu, Benny Elon's Moledet, and Zvi Hendel's Tekuma Party, is a man who does not shy away from controversy.
He speaks bitterly of Sharon's policies and yet hopes to join his government. He views the Likud as a party that has lost its ideological bearings.
He is willing to sacrifice democratic rule for the purpose of national survival as a Jewish and Zionist state. And he believes that a Palestinian state will be a strategic disaster for Israel.
In an in-depth interview with The Jerusalem Post, Lieberman discusses his views on what he sees as the country's leadership crisis, his hopes for his party and views of the challenges facing Israel in the years to come.
Q) Do you think that Israel suffers from a leadership crisis?
Since the days of Begin we are steeped in a deep leadership crisis. What motivates our leaders is principally how to move from election cycle to election cycle. Decisions are made not on the basis of informed beliefs but on the basis of opinion poll data. Everyone just chases after his or her tail.
Q) Do you think that a leader can go against his own party?
It is crazy for a leader to go against the wishes of his party. He has to represent his party. If a leader doesn't know how to convince his party to follow him, if he cannot lead his party, he cannot lead a country. The wisdom of a leader is to at once be able to go against the grain of public opinion but to debate and to convince the people to follow him, not to be chasing after his followers to please them.
Q) Some of your critics say that what they find problematic with you is that it doesn't seem as though the notion of democracy is one that courses through your veins.
Whether a state is governed by democratic means or is led by a dictatorship is not a result of human caprice. It is a result of economic development, of cultural development. A regime type is not the result of will; it is the result of objective conditions. If we suffer a terrible economic downturn there will be a dictatorship here, and on the other hand, if we are able to maintain an adequate economic situation there is no way that our democracy will fail.
I do think that for me the identity of this country as a Jewish Zionist state is of supreme importance in a way that democracy is not. We cannot live under a democracy if this were to force upon us a situation of collective suicide. In Israel we have a phenomenon of people exploiting every loophole in our democracy in order to support Hizbullah, Fatah, Tanzim and all sorts of other terror groups that are attacking us on a daily basis.
Bear in mind that when America is at war, they are quite flexible in their interpretation of the laws. Think of what they did to the Japanese Americans during World War II or how they hunted Communists in the Cold War.
Q) This is true, but the democratic character of the US was maintained throughout. Decisions were made democratically and upheld through the democratic courts.
I agree. And it is the same thing here. We are in a war and we have to treat actions aimed at helping our enemies the same way that the American did when they were at war. Even in America the world's greatest democracy, when the US is at war limits are placed on otherwise permissible activities.
Q) While we are talking about democracy, why weren't there primaries in Yisrael Beitenu?
Because I don't believe that primaries are democratic. I think they promote inequality and corruption.
I don't think for instance that there are many new immigrants with the financial means to present themselves before 300,000 voters. To the contrary, the dependence on financial backers and vote contractors will just increase.
I think that the most democratic and fair way of choosing candidates is by committee. We have a selection committee. We have a committee of five people who decide. Look what happened in the political arena over the years.
When you walk through the halls of the Knesset you see the pictures of the members of all the previous Knessets. As you go from the first Knesset's to day's body you see how the landscape changed. Do you think for a moment that the same type of intellectuals, of thinkers and of builders that once sat in the Knesset would be able today to get a spot in the Likud's primaries? Uri Zvi Greenberg, would he get elected? Today people are in a constant rush to go out and meet people. They go from bar mitzvah to bat mitzvah. They have no time to think. I've talked to a lot of people, in the top of their fields who say that they would be happy to serve but they are unprepared to go out and make fools of themselves begging for votes.
Q) Yes, but there is a flip side to what you are saying. There is something right and proper about having direct contact with the people you are supposed to be representing. You shouldn't see it as a sacrifice to have to be talking to those who sent you where you are to advance their interests.
There is a difference between being a representative of a constituency and being enslaved by elections. We have a procedure in our party where twice a week we MKs go and meet with our party members, in our branch offices, in conferences.
Q) Again though, there has to be a sense of dependency on constituents. After all, think of Rabin in 1992. In those elections he promised not to talk to the PLO and he promised not to withdraw from the Golan Heights. He won the election because of those promises. A lot of people who voted for him would never have voted for him if they had known what he was going to do. Having to be in contact with voters means that you have to answer to your voters for what you do.
What happened with Rabin's lies was a result of the primaries in Labor. If Rabin needed to answer to 100,000 people he had to answer to no one. But if there had been a selections committee he would have known whom he had to answer to. It would have been much harder for him to manipulate the situation the way that he did.
Q) That really brings up the question, what is the right wing's problem? Since 1977, most of the time the right has been in power and yet, during the years that the right has been in power it has implemented the policies of the left.
I'm not a psychologist. What you say is true. I can't give explanations but I can say that with me that will not happen. Today, mine is the only right wing party. Today there is no nationalist camp, there is no right wing other than the party that I lead.
Q) The Likud isn't right wing?
Today there is no connection between the Likud and the nationalist camp. I think that it is clear today to everyone that a true Likudnik has to vote for the National Union. There has to be a limit to cynicism. The Likud is going to elections when in its platform it says that they oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state and the Prime Minister says that a Palestinian state will be established and that he won't appoint any minister who doesn't agree with him. This is impossible.
There has to be a limit even to our cynicism and all the dirty tricks that we are so used to that we have come to expect. You cannot lie to everyone like this.
Q) Yes, but here Sharon isn't lying. He's behaving just like your ideal leader. He's saying this is what I believe in and this is how I will do things and if you agree wonderful and if you don't tough. This is just the opposite of what Rabin did.
No, because here there is a double message. All the institutions of the Likud rejected Palestinian statehood and here he is saying the opposite. You can't do that. You have to leave your party. You don't represent your party.
Q) Yes, but he beat Netanyahu fair and square. He creamed him. Likud members knew what his policies were, they knew what Bibi's policies were and they chose Sharon. How do you explain that?
Bibi ran a bad campaign. Other than that I don't want to try to explain what happened there.
Q) Now when you are looking at everything that Sharon is saying and doing do you regret having had a hand in bringing down his government and forcing these elections?
Two people brought down the government Fuad [Binyamin Ben-Eliezer], and Sharon and both did it for internal political reasons. Fuad was having trouble with his primary challenge and Arik was having trouble with his. So Fuad left the government and Arik brought down the government and called speedy elections.
Q) But you refused to join the government.
When we were preparing for negotiations I told Yuri Stern who was in charge of them for us, 'If they start discussions by asking about ministerial portfolios it's a sign that they are hustling us. They will want to present us to the public as heavies who are trying to bilk them. Don't talk to them about portfolios, just talk to them about government platforms. Talk to them about throwing out Arafat, about fighting terror, about establishing a Palestinian state, about economic problems. If they immediately start talking to you about portfolios then they are trying to make us look like we are blackmailing Sharon.' And that is what happened exactly.
Q) And it worked.
I think it worked to a certain extent but not completely. But it was a partial success. There is a problem with Sharon. And he has really hurt me on a personal level as well. I am very concerned about Sharon's leadership.
Q) What do you mean?
I sat with him at his farm and we discussed what would happen to Gandhi's assassins. It was when our soldiers were sitting in Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and Arafat was sheltering Gandhi's murderers inside with him. I said to Sharon, 'The murderers can't come out alive. Those that gave the kill order and those that carried it out Ahmed Saadat and Majdi Ramali, they can't come out alive.' He got all upset. He stood up and looked at me and said, 'How dare you talk about Gandhi? What do you know about Gandhi? Do you know what the brotherhood of soldiers is? Me and Gandhi fought together in the Palmach. We went to sergeants course together in 1948. We received major general's ranks the same day, together. I would never let them come out.' A few days later he got on television and said 'I prefer early elections to compromising on Gandhi's murderers.'
Two days later they were transported to the guesthouse in Jericho. They are still there today, talking on cell phones, giving press interviews and planning terror attacks against us. These for me are totally unacceptable behaviors. This isn't even about politics, it's a measure of a man.
Q) So you figure that he probably won't want you to be in the next government.
I think at the end of the day he will ask us to join, we want to join very much. It's important that we be in the government because only we can prevent this disaster of a Palestinian state from falling on us.
Q) What will your party do if Sharon keeps his promise and turns his back on you again and forms a unity government with Mitzna for the express purpose of establishing a Palestinian state?
If that is what Sharon wants to do, we will do everything in our power to prevent this from happening. Sharon's problem isn't us. Sharon's real problem is within the Likud. We have already seen that his control of his party is compromised. Look at his argument with Tzahi Hanegbi [about Palestinian statehood]. Look at how he is now insisting that MKs agree with his diplomatic positions as a condition to serving in his government on the one hand and on the other hand he said that he will keep Bibi in the Foreign Ministry. Look at how he says he will ignore the primaries results of his own party and appoint anyone he wants.
I look at people like Tzahi Hanegbi and Netanyahu and Uzi Landau and Yuval Steinitz and wonder how will they accept the notion of a Palestinian state. Because of this we think that we can be a catalyst or an anchor for all of those who think that we must prevent for such a state to be established.
What is Sharon doing? He's taking votes from the right and moving them to the left. This we have to prevent. This is our job.
Q) Do you expect these people to leave the Likud and join your party? Do you expect to replace the Likud?
No I think that we will be able to be a political force that counterbalances Peres and Mitzna, a bloc that prevents the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Q) And why is a Palestinian state such a terrible thing in your view?
There are many reasons why the establishment of such a state would be a total disaster to Israel. I will give you just a sampling of them.
If today Kiryat Shmona sits under the constant threat of Katyushas and mortars from South Lebanon, a Palestinian state would increase this threat to all of the Sharon and Dan Region. All of the major cities would be living under threat of Kassam missiles, Katyusha rockets and mortars from the Palestinian state. The entire withdrawal line that people are proposing abuts population centers.
If today, when the Palestinians don't have statehood we are unable to prevent Al-Qaida from opening a branch office in Gaza, what do you think will happen when there is a recognized sovereign Palestine in our midst? How will be able to conduct anti-terror operations inside a Palestinian state recognized by the United States?
The linkage between Arab Israelis and Palestinians after the establishment of a Palestinian state will also become more dangerous. We already have seen the radicalization of Arab Israelis since the PA was established. The situation will only grow worse.
From an economic perspective as well we will suffer from the establishment of such a state. For instance what do you think will happen at Ashdod port if the Palestinians open their own port in Gaza? Lastly, in this non-exhaustive list, we must bear in mind that no concession that we have ever given the Arabs has improved our situation. To the contrary, every concession we made to Egypt, to Hizbullah, to Arafat brought us not peace, not prosperity but increased our enemies' hatred of us and rejection of our rights. Concessions are considered a show of weakness. For all of these reasons and many more, the establishment of a Palestinian state would be a disaster for Israel.