'We Can Manage With The Palestinians If The Americans Don't Interfere': An Interview with MK Dr. Aryeh Eldad

Published: April 8, 2010

As the son of former Lehi leader Israel Eldad, Knesset Member Dr. Aryeh Eldad (National Union) is no newcomer to Israel’s political wars.

Dr. Eldad, who serves as director of the plastic surgery and burns unit at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem (and was was chief medical officer and senior commander of the IDF medical corps for 25 years, rising to the rank of brigadier general), recently met with The Jewish Press.

The Jewish Press: Was there a connection between your medical background and your entry into politics?

Dr. Eldad: Yes, I thought I was going to the Knesset to practice preventive medicine, which is the best kind of medicine. It’s better to invest in inoculations than in antibiotics. During the second intifada, I treated 3,000 of the casualties from the Jerusalem area alone in my department – victims suffering from burns and soft tissue injury. I wanted to practice preventative medicine because I was sure we could prevent more terrorist acts from occuring and stop the suicide bombings.

I thought the way to do it was not to put on another skin graft but go to the Knesset and prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. If the issue of a Palestinian state would be removed from the negotiation table, and they would know they will never be able to achieve a state in the heartland of Israel, we would not suffer from terror. Terror is their tool to achieve a state. But after I arrived in the Knesset I realized I hadn’t prepared myself properly for a political job. They don’t need surgeons in the Knesset; they need psychiatrists.

As a member of the rightist National Union party, you are outside Netanyahu’s coalition. Do you consider Netanyahu and the Likud to be on the Right or have they become centrists?

Netanyahu is considered to be Right and Kadima is considered to be Left, even though you need a microscope to analyze the differences between them, as witness the two-state solution. Maybe their level of enthusiasm in implementing it is different, but when you study it on paper there is no difference in their political plans.

When I met Netanyahu two years ago, I asked him why he didn’t try to unify all the right-wing camps under his leadership. He replied that it would be a great mistake because he could trust the right wing to always be in his pocket, since they don’t have any other leader. What he really needed, he said, was to gain the people in the center. To a certain degree he did it. He increased the Likud party from 12 seats to 27. And he became prime minister. But he wasn’t strong enough to maintain the charter he was given by his voters.

After Netanyahu’s acceptance of the two-state solution and his implementation of the settlement freeze, do you think people on the Right have come to regard Netanyahu as just another politician?

It is true that Netanyahu betrayed the policy he adopted for many years and doesn’t adhere to his own ideology. It is also true that he did it under pressure from Obama. I don’t think Netanyahu really changed his mind about the Palestinians. I’m sure he remembers that Yitzhak Rabin said, “A Palestinian state can be only be [built] on the ruins of the State of Israel.” But he cannot resist the pressure. So Netanyahu’s [policy switch] wasn’t a great surprise to me.

Doesn’t Netanyahu have to adhere, at least to some degree, to the wishes of his right-wing base?

The benefit of Netanyahu as a weak leader is that he can bend to counter-pressure as well. We need to pressure him from the grass roots, from his sources of support and genuine constituency. Every leader from the Right has the option to turn left and get support from Kadima or Meretz or even from the Arab parties. But Netanyahu wishes to have a long career as prime minister, and he understands that if he turns left, that’s the last time he will be prime minister. If we do not create huge counter-pressure – and were he sure he would not lose his position – I think Netanyahu would be willing to leave Judea and Samaria. I don’t trust his ideological character, but with counter-pressure he won’t be able to do it.

Are peace negotiations stuck?

I am not sure they are stuck. Now the Americans hope they can break the ice through proximity talks with an American negotiator. We are going back 30 years. Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas met regularly, and Tzipi Livni and Abu Allouh met every three weeks or so. They negotiated personally one-on-one for the last two years. But the Americans want very much to maintain the important international position of mediator in the Middle East. They don’t want to give up the hope of convincing the Palestinians to accept Olmert’s generous offer to go back to the ’67 borders with some “corrections” like compensation in the Negev and elsewhere.

Does Obama have the ability to push through such an agenda?

The beginning of Obama’s term as president stamped him as one of the most hostile presidents toward Israel, maybe since Carter. Obama was sure he would have a quick victory in the Middle East arena by putting most of the pressure on Israel. He knew he couldn’t win in Afghanistan, he knew he couldn’t win in Iraq, but he needed a quick photo-op on the White House lawn with a new peace agreement. Even though Netanyahu was soft enough to collapse under pressure, the Palestinians didn’t jump on the bandwagon, and this is in large part due to Obama.

The Palestinians realized they didn’t have to jump on the bandwagon because they were getting what they wanted anyway.

Exactly. They were promised by the White House that Israel would support a total freeze. If I wanted to be an advocate of Netanyahu, I’d say he gained time. But he created huge damage by the freeze, on a moral and a legal basis. Once he said Jews were not allowed to build everywhere in Judea and Samaria, he undermined the moral basis of our living there. But Netanyahu did gain time, and Obama became weaker. His party recently lost some very important elections. He’s facing midterm elections and knows he will lose more power.

And with the economy and healthcare now the major concerns of the administration rather than the Middle East – especially when there’s no quick victory on the horizon – part of the pressure has been relieved. Not that the Americans have given up; they are keeping it at a low-profile level. I hope they will abandon it. We want the Americans to be out of the negotiations in the Middle East. We can manage with the Palestinians. If American pressure will be relieved, we will be in a much better situation with the Arabs.

Israel may not want American involvement with the Palestinians, but isn’t it still looking for American intervention with Iran?

Nothing will stop Ahmadinejad from producing weapons, certainly not engagement. And sanctions are a joke. Even if the Americans enact crippling sanctions, they really do not understand the ideological and religious component of Ahmadinejad’s motivation and decision making. His motivation is the same motivation as the suicide bomber, and he will take Iran on the same path on a state level. Unless the American administration understands this, it will still play with sanctions, but it’s not going to work. Then Israel will remain alone on the military arena.

In that case, do you think Israel will take military action against Iran?

Yes. With or without American agreement. But it will be very difficult to do it with American interference.

Can Israel rely on its friends in Congress?

We just had a meeting with an important group of senators in Washington, including Senator Kyle and Senator Feinstein, and I reminded them of President Johnson’s remark to then-Prime Minister Levi Ehskol on the eve of the Six-Day War: “If you will act alone, you will remain alone.”

And I told the senators, “If Israel will remain alone, we will act alone.” Some of them protested that Israel is not alone. But yes, we are alone because all the sanctions and engagement are useless. Eventually there is only the military option. And it seems that America is not going to take any military steps against Iran. Americans don’t feel the threat. They don’t feel a missile can reach New York. They really believe Israel will be first, and if Israel will be first, the U.S. will then have a very nice excuse [to respond militarily to Iran].

Well, I don’t want to be the excuse. Iran is a threat to Europe and the West as well, but Israel will be first. It was a huge Israeli mistake to say Iran is the whole world’s problem and not just Israel’s, because now the whole world says to us, if it’s our problem, then we’ll deal with it in our own manner. But it is not Iran’s priority to attack France or England or Germany. It’s Iran’s priority to attack Israel.

How has the Goldstone report contributed to Israel’s growing isolation? And how might it affect future Israeli military operations?

The lesson from Goldstone is that if we create a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria and come under attack from there, we won’t be able to do what we did in Gaza. I remember how a few weeks before the disengagement from Gaza, I asked Sharon, “What if they will start shooting at us from Gaza immediately after the withdrawal?” He lowered his glasses, looked over them at me mockingly and said, “I see you are worried, Doctor. Don’t worry, we also have cannons.”

I was a brigadier general in the army and I know our capabilities, but Sharon ignored the fact that we cannot use our cannons; that eventually the world will deprive us of our ability to defend ourselves. We won’t be able to shoot at Nablus if we will be stupid enough to withdraw from it and allow the Palestinians to create a huge terror base in Judea and Samaria.

Original Article Published in The Jewish Press