There are some matters regarding which we will be ready to take far-reaching steps. We will be ready to carry out very painful steps. But there is one thing that I told President Bush a number of times — I made no concessions in the past, and I will make no concessions now, or ever make concessions in the future, with regard to anything that is related to the security of Israel. …
Isn’t that phrase “painful concessions” a hollow expression?
Definitely not. It comes from the depth of my soul. Look, we are talking about the cradle of the Jewish people. Our whole history is bound up with these places. Bethlehem, Shiloh, Beit El. And I know that we will have to part with some of these places. There will be a parting from places that are connected to the whole course of our history. As a Jew, this agonizes me. But I have decided to make every effort to reach a settlement. I feel that the rational necessity to reach a settlement is overcoming my feelings.
Some people expect you to be an Israeli de Gaulle — a general who at a certain point understands that reality has changed and turns his back on part of his own history and creates a dramatic historical turning point. Do you have any such aspirations?
One has to remember one thing about the comparison with de Gaulle — ‘Algeria’ is here. It is not a few hundred kilometers away. The required measure of caution here is therefore much greater.
But I am asking about you. Do you want to be remembered as the one who spearheaded such a dramatic change?
Let me tell you something. I am determined to make a real effort to reach a real agreement. I think that anyone who saw the tremendous thing called the State of Israel in the making may understand things better and know better how to reach a solution. That is why I think that this task rests with my generation.…
I am 75 years old. I have no political ambitions beyond the position I now hold. I feel that my goal and my purpose is to bring this nation to peace and security…. I think that this is something that I have to leave behind me — to try to reach an agreement.
Have you really accepted the idea of two states for two peoples?
I believe that this is what will happen. One has to view things realistically. Eventually there will be a Palestinian state. I view things first and foremost from our perspective. I do not think that we have to rule over another people and run their lives. I do not think that we have the strength for that. It is a very heavy burden on the public and it raises ethical problems and heavy economic problems.
In the past you talked about a long-term interim agreement. Did you not believe in a permanent solution and an end to the conflict?
I think opportunities have currently been created that did not exist before. The Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular have been shaken. There is therefore a chance to reach an agreement faster than people think.
Do you not fear that perhaps you won the battle against Yasser Arafat and against the terror but lost in the matter of the Palestinian state and the settlements? After all, the thing on the agenda now is the road map, which is not very comfortable for Israel.
We supported the principles that were presented in President Bush’s speech of June 24, 2002…. Regarding the latest draft that was sent to us, we have 14 or 15 reservations that I have passed on to the White House.
What are the main reservations?
The main issue is security. How terror will be handled. There is no difference of opinion in this matter but there is a difference in the wording.
The second matter is that of the implementation of the stages. Our understanding with the United States is that there will be no transition from one stage to the next without the completion of the previous stage.… The issue of the stages is of paramount importance to us.
Our third reservation concerns the right of return. This definitely poses a problem.
Is your willingness to recognize a Palestinian state conditional on the Palestinians backing down from their demand for the right of return?
If there is ever to be an end to the conflict the Palestinians must recognize the Jewish people’s right to a homeland and the existence of an independent Jewish state in the homeland of the Jewish people. I feel that this is a condition for what is called an end to the conflict. This is not a simple thing. Even in the agreements we signed with Egypt and Jordan this was impossible. That is why they did bring about an end to the conflict. They are important agreements, very important, but they did not bring about an end to the conflict….
That has to do with the end of the process. But do you think that the compromise on the right of return has to come beforehand?
This issue must be clear right from the outset.
Would you be willing, perhaps as a gesture to the Americans, to freeze construction in the settlements or to evacuate illegal outposts as part of the first stage?
That is a sensitive issue. In the final stage of negotiations it will be brought up for discussion. We don’t have to deal with it just now.
Bush will have to choose soon between two people whom he values — Ariel Sharon and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Are you not afraid that even with all Bush’s respect and affection for you he will choose Blair?
We are not under pressure. There is dialogue. Sometimes we see things the same way, sometimes we view them differently. But our relationship is very close. Our relationship with the White House has never been so good….
There are those who feel that the road map is worse than the Oslo accords. Some people figure the Americans have caught you off guard. Do you not feel that you have been misled?
Not at all. Israel is not a pawn on a chessboard…. We live here. It will be impossible to budge Israel on the major matters that are principles of her existence.
Do you feel that the dark and violent period of the past three years is ending?
I will make every effort to make it end. I do not intend to be passive. The moment a Palestinian state forms I plan to begin working with it. I will not wait for the telephone to ring.
Prime Minister Sharon, we are at an astonishing historic moment. From your point of view, is the new reality in the Middle East after the fall of Iraq promising or dangerous?
The Iraqi leadership was a horrific and murderous one. As early as 20 years ago they understood it was impossible to acquire an Islamic bomb, and therefore it had to be manufactured. So the removal of Iraq as a threat is definitely a relief. However, this does not mean that all of the problems we are facing have been removed. Iran is making every effort to produce weapons of mass destruction and is engaged in making ballistic missiles. Libya is making a very great effort to acquire nuclear weapons. What is developing in these countries is dangerous and serious. In Saudi Arabia, too, there is a regime that grants sanctioned aid to terrorist organizations here.
Are you saying that what happened in Iraq has to happen, in one way or another, in Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia?
In the matter of Iraq, the United States showed leadership at the highest level. I don’t think it is realistic to think that immediately after the conclusion of one campaign, another will begin. Even a superpower has limits. When you win, you are also weakened to a certain degree.
But we face the possibility that a different period will begin here. The move carried out in Iraq generated a shock through the Middle East and brings a prospect of great changes. There is an opportunity to forge a different relationship between us and the Arab states, and between us and the Palestinians. That opportunity must not be neglected. I intend to examine these things with all seriousness.
Do you think there is a prospect of reaching a settlement in the foreseeable future?
That depends first and foremost on the Arabs. It requires a different type of leadership — a battle against terrorism and a series of reforms. It requires the absolute cessation of incitement and the dismantling of all terrorist organizations. But if there is a leadership that understands these things and will carry them out seriously, the possibility of reaching a settlement exists.
Do you consider Abu Mazen a leader with whom you will be able to reach a settlement?
Abu Mazen understands that it is impossible to vanquish Israel by means of terrorism.
One day very soon the telephone might ring. The president of the United States will tell you, Arik, I have removed an existential threat from Israel, I am fomenting a revolution throughout the region. Now the time has come for you to make your contribution. Let’s have [the Gaza settlement of] Netzarim, please.”