Daniel Bar-Tal, co-editor of the PIJ, interviews Minister Dan Meridor, who participated at the 2000 Camp David talks as a member of Ehud Barak's government.

Daniel Bar-Tal: To put things in perspective, what was your opinion about settling the conflict with the Palestinians in the 1980s, before Oslo?

Dan Meridor: Since l967, down through the middle of the '80s, I believed that we should remain in control of the entire land, from the Jordan to the sea, eventually making it one state - Israel - where I believed we would have a stable, Jewish majority. Of course, all of the people living there, whether Jews or Arabs, would have the right to be citizens of that state. I considered this to be a part of traditional Zionist thought, and that it could be achieved.
During the late '80s and the beginning of the '90s, I changed my mind, because of demography more than anything else. I saw that the two peoples in this land couldn't live in one country, in one state, and that fear and hatred on both sides was growing immensely. The total numbers of the two peoples were becoming so close that I feared we might lose the Jewish identity of our state, and I understood that we had to go in a different direction.
If you read carefully Menachem Begin's idea of autonomy, that was presented to the public in l977 after President Sadat came to Jerusalem, and if you read the speech he gave to the Knesset, you will see that he says openly - even if we don't apply our sovereignty, if we only apply security controls and the Arabs will have the right to rule the other aspects of their lives - we will give every Palestinian the right to become an Israeli citizen if he so chooses. He said that if we didn't do that, we would become Rhodesia, meaning apartheid. This is basic. To include all the land under our sovereignty, but not to allow citizenship, is against the basic tenent of both Begin's autonomy proposal and, of course, what I believe.
As I now see it, with the numbers growing in a manner which will not allow us to maintain an independent Jewish state with a solid, vast majority, as painful as it is to me - because we are talking about our land, not somebody else's land - we have to give up parts of the land which I believe is ours, so that the other nation here, which believes it's theirs - will have a state near us, or part of a state together with Jordan. This is how my thinking developed in the late '80s and early '90s.

What did you think about the Oslo accords when they were announced in l993?

When the Oslo agreement was made public, I spoke openly in the Knesset, gave interviews and wrote articles in which I said it was a bad move, a big mistake, and generally too great a risk. I felt there was a high probability that it would fail.
I said this many times, and I even remember telling Yossi Beilin soon after the agreement was announced that, "I would not go the way you went. I would tell them is what I'm going to give, but this is what I want from you in return." I would have presented basic demands. This is a Jewish state, and you have to accept no right of return to this state.
I remember that when the Oslo Accord was made public and was about to be signed, there was a professor at Hebrew University, Yehoshua Porat, a member of the Meretz movement at the time who almost became a member of the Knesset, who was opposed to Oslo from the very beginning. He said that if we are giving up so much of our demands, our rights, our ability to control the land and have it in our possession, giving them a legitimacy for Palestinian nationhood which they never had in the past, legitimacy for a Palestinian state, giving them part of the land, bringing them to our doorstep and giving them weapons, and we don't demand that basic thing - it's a big mistake. I totally agreed with him then, and now as well.
Two mistakes were made. One was the Oslo agreement itself, which was too risky. And not because it failed. I said so even before it failed. The other mistake was committed by those people who felt we should do nothing, just stay the course, without offering any alternatives. This too was a mistake. Which is why I said then, and continue to say, that we need to do something. To move ahead. To try to bring about negotiations with the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. We started at Madrid, and then stopped. I think that we should have gone on, with greater flexibility, to try to reach a better agreement.
And now I say that this is the major shift we should make. If we see no chance to end the conflict and achieve a comprehensive peace, we should not make peace a pre-condition for an Israeli movement on the ground. We should take steps towards creating the two entities, actually the other Palestinian entity, since one already exists, leaving the final issues like borders, refugees and Jerusalem for a later time. If this cannot be achieved by a final status agreement, it can be achieved by an interim agreement. And if this doesn't work, we should take unilateral steps. But to just stay the course would be a big mistake.

How would you move forward today in accordance with your approach?

Now we are trying to mend, correct, rebuild a house that has been destroyed. Today, looking back nine years after Oslo, we see the collapse, and the very heavy cost that we paid. It should not have been unexpected. It didn't happen because Yitzhak Rabin would not have given up on Jerusalem, or Behjamin Netanyahu didn't behave nicely, or Ehud Barak made certain mistakes, or Shimon Peres.
I think that's all quite naïve. We are speaking of a national conflict with people who have deep beliefs, and that's the source of the problem. People should learn from what they see, not close their eyes.
I went through this process and changed my view of the reality as it unfolded before my eyes. But some people on the Left didn't want to read the writing on the wall. Barak took it down to the laboratory at Camp David, all those wonderful theories, and put them to the test. We held an experiment there for two weeks, 14 consecutive days and nights. And the result is very clear.
Firstly, Arafat said no to the idea of a Jewish state. In other words, they want the "right of return" to Israel. I think that other people in the Palestinian delegation would have gone for the agreement. But Arafat still was the decision-maker. He may say that, "if only it had been my good friend Rabin," but that's not very serious. For Rabin would never have given up on Jerusalem or the right of return, and I don't think that Arafat would have given up on the Temple Mount or on Jerusalem. It was impossible. So we brought people to our doorstep with guns, and with no borders, and left it all open. Which is why I continue to believe it was a mistake.
All of this doesn't change my view that we should act now. We should try to create a border, with or without an agreement, and then either move towards peace or continue the struggle. But do it all from a Jewish state.

This interview seems to put the entire blame for the failure of the peace process on the Palestinians. Do you think that Israelis share any of the blame, of the responsibility for what happened? How do you evaluate the Israeli side?

Yes, I put the blame clearly on the Palestinian side, as did US President Bill Clinton. He was there at Camp David, and saw it with his own eyes. Let me say that the judgment of President Clinton is important. After all, he's not a private individual, he was the American president, the superpower of the world. For the president of the US to do what he did, to put the blame plainly on one side, openly, is very unusual. Usually, because America is the go-between, the honest broker, the superpower that everyone wants to rely on and meet with, it refrains from such a statement.
To say what he said, that Arafat is to blame, and Barak was doing the right thing, could be explained and understood only on the basis of the realities that he saw. Barak risked everything, politically, and he lost the premiership, maybe his entire political career, and went way beyond the lines that everyone expected, including the Palestinians. And after Clinton we have President George W Bush, who says openly, Arafat go home, you are the obstacle, not the solution.
To look for mistakes on the Israeli side? Yes, there might have been mistakes in the behavior of this person or that person, not preparing well this or that, but these are minor details. An offer was put on the table to put an end to the occupation, to divide the land between our and their demands, to give them, against all my advice, a share in Jerusalem, even in the Old City, and regional security as well. Clinton also added a US$l0 billion offer for the Palestinian refugees. This was an unprecedented offer, a very generous one. And if the answer is no, then enough!
Today, you can hear some Palestinians say that; "our big mistake was Camp David." So why should I say that the Israelis made a mistake? As far as I'm concerned, the Israeli mistake was to give up too much. I said several times at Camp David during the deliberations; "Don't forget that what we do here will either end in agreement, or, which is quite probable, as the final Israeli position which will be the beginning of the next round of negotiations, which will require us to withdraw even further. So don't give up everything." I think we gave up too much at Camp David.

Do you believe that there were any achievements during the negotiations at Camp David?

The facts are that there was no agreement. This is a simple truth. But there is an indication that Israel was ready to do certain things.
I can say that the Palestinian negotiators were ready to give up on certain things as well. There was almost a complete agreement on security arrangements. In the channel that dealt with security arrangements there was a meeting presided over by Clinton on one of the last nights, and the result was a 99 percent agreement on security. Almost everything was agreed upon. Interestingly, even the questions regarding land. They understood that the l967 lines are dead and that they'll never get them back. Or get them, because they never had them. And there was an understanding, though there was no agreement, they are not officially under any obligation. But the fact is that it was very clear that the major settlement blocs would stay with Israel - about l0 percent of the land, more or less. It was understood that if there would be an exchange of land, a swap, which I was very much against, it was going to be only symbolic, not quid pro quo.
So there were certain understandings. But two issues remained: one was the Temple Mount, and the other, which can be called the finality of the conflict, the refugees, or the question of a Jewish state, it's all the same.
On the issue of the Temple Mount, Arafat insisted that there has never been a Jewish Temple there. If somebody sees the past that way, he sees all the Jewish claims to the land as a fabrication. I remember Clinton telling him that; "we Christians tell you there was a Temple there." The Temple Mount was a symbolic thing that showed me that either Arafat is not interested in an agreement, or that he really believed that the idea of a Jewish Temple is a fabrication, in which case there will never be an agreement.
On the issue of the settlements, as I say there was an understanding, conditional upon a final agreement, that the main settlement blocs will stay with us, and of course the Jewish part of East Jerusalem, is important. It's not enough, but it's an important step. No negotiators in the future, on the Palestinian side, will be allowed to step back from this understanding.
So something has been achieved, but it is minimal. The most important thing, the most basic thing in the words of Ehud Barak, the prime minister who tried and lost everything, is that he has put the theory of the Left to the test, and it didn't work. He put Arafat to the test, and he failed.
The right wing, or "national camp" in Israel, has had to wake up from the dream that we can have the entire land. And the Likud endorsed Oslo, post-factum, with many objections. But after an agreement had been reached, we couldn't say no. And it caused a major historic shift in policy.
The left wing has to go through the same process. The understanding that their idea that Arafat could be a partner for true peace was not only misleading but also very dangerous. As long as they don't understand this, they may not have the credibility needed in the eyes of the people of Israel for their leaders to continue the quest for peace.

Do you believe that there are people among the Palestinians with whom it's possible to arrive at an agreement?

Yes, I do. There are such people. But to my understanding, it was never put to the test. Once Arafat is no longer the decision-maker, others will have to make the decisions. My feeling is that there is a chance that other people understand that the right of return to Israel will never occur.
Sari Nusseibeh says it publicly. That there is a Jewish state and it's going to stay a Jewish state. And that the l967 lines are not going to be the Israeli borders. I think that there are people who understand this, and some of them have a greater sense of real politik than Arafat, who is more of an ideologue, committed to the goal of no Jewish state.

What do you think will be the contours, the guidelines of the final settlement of the conflict?

The end should be that alongside Israel there will be an Arab state for the Arabs in Palestine. Whether it will be in confederation with Jordan is a good question. I think we should take Jordan into account. They have a role here, and interests here. I think that the borders cannot be the l967 lines. There will have to be different borders.

Do we have to make changes in the borders?

We have to set the borders. Unlike the border with Egypt, Jordan or Syria, we never had borders with the Palestinians. Arafat will never say that Haifa is not Palestine. And I will never say that Hebron is not Israel. It's one land that two people demand, and they have to arrive at a settlement. There's no border to return to. There's never been a Palestinian state before in history. There never was a border. There was an armistice line, and there was Jordan.
The basic border will be the State of Israel and the main settlement blocs, with some other modifications. The main Arab population centers should be under Arab sovereignty. Basically, they will have a state comprised of two parts: Gaza, and Judea and Samaria.

What will happen with the dispersed, isolated settlements?

Those settlements that will be in those areas under Israeli sovereignty will become part of Israel - 80 percent of the settlers as Barak used to say. The others will have to choose. I think that if we reach an agreement, we will be able to tell those people that they were the most successful movement in Israeli politics. They were able to shape, to create the borders for Israel. They did not change the security situation. But the major settlement areas - around Jerusalem, Givat Ze'ev, Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion and others, everyone understands that they are going to be part of Israel, because of the settlement movement.
So they can claim that they have a victory, that they succeeded - despite the fact that we will have to give up part of the land. And some of them will have to move, unless they want to live in a Palestinian state, which is not something that most Israelis would want to do. In principle, I don't see any reason why a Jew can't choose to live in Hebron, Schem (Nablus), Tel Aviv or London. It's all the same. People should be allowed to live anywhere, and a Jew should be allowed to live anywhere, particularly if it's in the Land of Israel. However, if a Zionist wants to live in a (Palestinian) state, where the Jews are not the majority, he should have the right to do so, but he cannot dominate it.
Arrangements should be made about these issues, though I don't want to go into details here.

What about Jerusalem?

Jerusalem should remain under Israeli sovereignty. We have to think of a regime with special arrangements for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. It's not only a question of access to places of worship, but we can also have special municipal arrangements, like in Paris and Rome. There are many ways of working this out. However, to cut the Old City into two is a bad idea, and it will not work.
I know that it's not an easy issue to resolve, which is why I say that if they don't accept this and we can't reach an agreement - let's leave the question open and discuss it later. In the meantime, we can reach an agreement on other issues.
The more important question is the refugee issue. When I saw the resolutions of the Beirut Arab League conference, the repeated citation of UN Resolution 194, I knew they meant that after they will have a state of their own, they would also want the right to be able to send Palestinians to live in Israel. To me this means a continuation of the conflict and not the end of the conflict.

At the beginning of this interview you said that we might have to take unilateral steps.

I don't think that we have to act unilaterally. I believe that we can go to a second step in the negotiations, taking some steps forward, while leaving some issues unresolved. We don't have to act unilaterally if we can arrive at agreements from which both sides can gain.
We can give them what Sharon calls; "a Palestinian state with temporary borders," whether it's 40, 50, 60 or 70 percent of their dreams. And then, having a two state situation, we will remain with a conflict over the final borders. Just like the situation we have with Syria. We have a conflict over the Golan Heights, but there is a state called Syria, a state called Israel, and a border conflict between those two states. That is not the situation we have with the Palestinians, and it's something we should work towards.
Leaving the situation as it is today is much more dangerous and risky than moving in the direction I propose. If, after moving in that direction, the creation of this new two-state situation, the reality and the atmosphere will change and there will be a greater readiness to move forward, we will hopefully be able to move towards a full peace.
But if we can't, if God forbid they will return to violence, we will be able to struggle much better against it from our own territorial base. Even if that will be the outcome, moving forward in the direction I propose is much better than remaining on our current course.

Do you believe it's possible to arrive at some kind of conciliation with the Palestinians, or are we locked in an eternal conflict?

No, this is not an eternal conflict. The vast majority of the Israeli people have made a psychological, sociological and political shift. The idea of two states, which had only marginal support in Israel 20 years ago, is now accepted by 80 percent of the Israelis. I don't yet see the same type of shift in the Palestinian camp. If there is one, and the leadership says, "yes, there is a Jewish state and it has the right to be here. We don't demand to send people to Haifa, Acre or anywhere else in Israel - we just want our own state." If they said that, as some of them already do, then conciliation is possible.
The Palestinians need a leadership that is ready to understand reality and take the best it can from reality, while not dwelling on dreams that will never materialize and will only cost a lot of blood.
There are other nations who fought each other for centuries, with very fierce battles, that have arrived at conciliation - like France and Germany. We can do it.

Sometimes you sound optimistic, and other times pessimistic.

I'm a very realistic person. I want there to be peace here. I'm ready, and it's very painful for me, against my basic feelings, to make compromises that will cut off part of my land. Because I know that there is another people, actually millions of people, who want the land, and I can't retain it as part of my country because I will lose the identity of my country. And I understand that they want the same thing from their perspective.
Within the greater Arab world, we can have a Jewish state with an Arab minority. Just as Jews live as a minority in many other countries. Arabs who live in Israel should have full, equal rights, as a national minority. A very small part of the Arab world lives as a minority in other people's countries. If this is not possible, then we won't have an agreement.
Am I optimistic? Not because they agree with our justice, I'm not sure that they do. I am optimistic because I think that we have built a strong enough presence here, politically, militarily, economically, culturally and demographically, that they will have to understand, as some of them do, that we are a real state. I think that King Hussein of Jordan understood this, as did President Sadat of Egypt, and some others as well. It takes time, but they will. <