MK Dr Yuval Steinitz is the chairman of the Knesset's Security and Foreign Affairs Committee. He was interviewed in March 2004 by Hillel Schenker and Omar Karmi from the PIJ.

How has the invasion of Iraq affected regional security, both in the short and the long term?

I would say it was a positive move. First, one of the most brutal regimes on earth was eradicated, which is good not just for Iraq, but for the whole world. Second, following American military, economic and political pressure, some countries are changing their behavior or their tone. Following the September 11 attacks, the world discovered two things in the Middle East. The negative one is that the Middle East might produce threats to the entire world. Terrorism might escalate to a different level; it might hit at much longer distances and at a much higher scale of devastation. The world also discovered that some brutal dictatorships might be working on developing nuclear capacity and long-range ballistic missiles. The positive aspect is that it is still not too late to deal with this. The American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq showed us that you can change or neutralize some of the threats from the Middle East, and not just through brute force. Following the invasion of Iraq, we saw Libya completely change its approach to issues such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Libya disconnected itself from terrorism, not just terrorist organizations, by paying compensation to the Lockerbie bombing victims. This is a real change. Other states, like Iran and Syria, are trying maybe to gain time. They've slightly changed their rhetoric towards terrorism and the West, but it seems they still believe that in time this global war on terrorism and brutal regimes will be over. It's too early to say if we are to see a less dangerous, more democratic Middle East or not, but there are some real changes.

There are two possible directions for Iraq. Either the post-World War II direction of Germany, which became a democratic state, or Vietnam, where the Americans found themselves bogged down and their aims unrealistic. How do you see the situation in Iraq stabilizing?
I don't think something on the scale of Vietnam would follow. In the long-run I see three options: First, sooner or later Iraq will be ruled by some kind of military regime or dictatorship - whether as one Iraq or two. This would be a complete failure on behalf of the US. The second option is that Iraq will be ruled by a pro-Western democratic, or a less totalitarian regime with some openness, that may establish diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Jordan. This is the best option. The third option is that Iraq will become a pro-Western country, allied to the US and the West but still extremely hostile to Israel, like Saudi Arabia and, unfortunately, Egypt. It is still too early to call.

What or who do you consider the greatest threat to regional security?

There is clear asymmetry between Israel and the Arab world. If the Arabs lay down their arms, there will be peace and stability. If Israel lays down its arms, there will be a holocaust. It is difficult to identify the major threat to regional stability. If someone de-legitimizes the existence of the Jewish state then, of course, this is an existential conflict. Such a conflict would be a threat to regional stability. As such, you can say that Israel is a threat to the region because the region is eager to destroy the State of Israel.
The other threat is the lack of democracy. As a philosopher, I cannot but help recall [Immanuel] Kant's distinction between democracies and dictatorships with regard to war and peace. Kant says it is natural for a democracy to avoid war unless its most vital national interests are under immediate threat. And it's vice-versa in dictatorships. Since they rule by using brutal force against their own people, the use of force against other countries is also likely. So I believe the source of instability in this region is not the Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the lack of democracy in Arab societies. If we want real peace and stability, it's important to solve current conflicts, but it is even more important to change the type of regimes in the region.

The US administration has set the achievement of democracy in the region as one of its primary goals. Can democracy be imposed? Can the program resonate without movement toward a resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Israel is an open democracy, with popular demonstrations and an independent judicial system, despite the threats it has faced for so many years. So why can Egypt, which is slightly less involved, and does not face the same threats as Israel - or Libya, Algeria or Iran - not form such a democracy? This miniscule Jewish state can conduct this conflict and create one of the most vivid democracies on the face of the earth, but Morocco, 2,000 kilometers from here, is so disturbed because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it cannot create real democracy. It's ridiculous. It's a poor excuse.
About imposing democracy. It's extremely complicated to impose democracy by pressure from other societies, but it has worked in the past. Two excellent examples are Germany and Japan. Even the democratization of Eastern Europe was partially imposed by enormous pressure from the West: economic pressure, diplomatic pressure, pressure from the media. I'm not claiming these were the key reasons, but clearly, without pressure from the West we wouldn't see such a process of democratization in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, South America, and even in Asian countries. So it is wrong to say that democracy cannot be imposed by foreign forces.
I participated in meetings in London with members from Arab states, and somebody said, "You cannot impose democracy." Someone from a Gulf state said, "Why not? How long can we wait for ourselves? We have waited for these processes for fifty years and nothing is happening. Now we should tell the West they can't help us?"
I think another key element for the West is the freedom of women. Societies with more freedom for women are more open and democratic. One thing I read a lot is that Western-style democracy is against Arab or Muslim values, that you cannot combine Muslim heritage and tradition with Western openness. I disagree. Western democracy is not necessarily completely liberal. It can be a democracy with a conservative flavor. Take the example of the Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel and the US, which prove it is possible for women to be Orthodox and live in open societies. Women have freedom, women go out to work. The Jewish way of life is very demanding on a daily basis. Still, religious women in Israel are able to work and remain extremely religious. I believe it is also possible in the Muslim world.

What, other than encouraging democracy, can the international community do to enhance security in the region?

If there is change in this region, there may still be disagreements between states, but it will be like Britain and Spain which disagree over Gibraltar, but are not close to war. If the current situation prevails, then it is extremely important that such dangerous regimes do not develop weapons of mass destruction. If Iraq had succeeded in this, it would have forced Syria and Saudi Arabia to follow suit. Of course, any kind of regional cooperation, such as joint exercises, can help to reduce tension. European countries could contribute in this way.

Is it possible to generate a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on our own? Is there a role for the US, Europe, NATO, the UN etc., to help find a solution?

The world can impose a settlement, but it won't be a solution. Any solution must create two viable states: A viable Palestinian one, with some kind of territorial contiguity, and a secure Jewish state that can live in peace with its neighbors. If the Israelis don't feel secure it won't help. If the Palestinians feel deprived there will be a lot of unrest. The world can impose an Israeli withdrawal or Palestinian concessions, but will it hold in the long run? It is important that any solution isn't entirely imposed but that the leaderships on both sides come to an agreement.

If there were a negotiated agreement between Israelis and Palestinians tomorrow, how would this improve regional security?

I think the conflict is more Israeli-Arab than Israeli-Palestinian. If the Israelis and Palestinians were on an island, despite all the bitterness and different religions, we could find an agreement. The pressure from the Arab world on the Palestinians not to compromise is extremely significant. I think Israelis put too much of the burden for the failure of negotiations on Arafat. The failure of the Oslo process belongs more to the Arab world than to the Palestinians.
The encouragement from the Arab world for suicide bombings and attacks against civilians, and the anti-Israeli incitement that Palestinians are exposed to in their own media and in the Arab media is extremely significant. I think there was real pressure from Arab leaders, mainly Egypt, not to compromise. This is my analysis of Camp David: Ehud Barak had decided this was almost the last opportunity to solve the conflict peacefully. Arafat was reluctant, and Barak was afraid he wouldn't sign, so to secure Arafat's signature, Barak kept his strategic surprise, his willingness to divide Jerusalem, for later. Nobody in his government knew about it. On the third day of the summit, Barak put this on the table, anticipating that Arafat would be enthusiastic.
What happened? Several hours later, [President Hosni] Mubarak came on national Egyptian television and said that Arafat would not sign on the division of the Old City of Jerusalem, because it is not in his capacity to give up something that belongs to all Arabs and Muslims. He said he was confident Arafat would not sign. The next day, all the Arab world followed Mubarak's lead. Arafat might have signed if he had had the backing of the moderate Arab countries, but without Egypt, it could not work. Arafat came back and because he couldn't explain how he refused an offer that seemed so generous, he had to start an armed Intifada to shift attention away from the summit. I believe the responsibility for this conflict, for the failure of the peace process, belongs no less to the Arab world than to the Palestinian leadership.

There has been a proposal by Syria to resume negotiations. Is this an opportunity? Have there been missed opportunities in the past?

A real opportunity is not easy to miss. Syria came with this proposal to resume negotiations only after the war on Iraq and strong American pressure. People are rightly suspicious about it. Maybe this proposal is only to avoid questions with regard to its occupation of Lebanon, to democratization, to weapons of mass destruction. If this is the case, why should Israel cooperate?
If there is a real approach, a dramatically different one, then let the Syrians show it is not just tactical: Let them disconnect from terrorist organizations, from Hizbollah and enable the Lebanese Army to take up positions along the border. Let them show they have closed terrorist offices in Damascus, and ended incitement in the media. And let [Bashir] Assad come to Jerusalem, like [Anwar] Sadat, to make it clear this is not just some sort of diplomatic discussion, but that he is willing to coexist with Israel as a Jewish state. Let me add another thing. I am not sure that Syria is eager to get the Golan Heights back. I think the real policy of the late Hafez Al Assad was to do everything in his power not to get the Golan Heights back. Twice, in the 90s, the Golan Heights were proposed by Israeli prime ministers, first by [Yitzhak] Rabin in '93-'94, when he said that Assad would not get less than Sadat, and then by [Shimon] Peres in 1996.
Assad didn't get the Heights back. Now, either he missed the opportunity or maybe it was his strategy. When Peres was trying to push the Golan Heights back into Syrian hands, he even agreed to go beyond the international borders. Assad was trying everything in his capacity not to reach an agreement. And when Peres kept pushing, he gave orders to Hizbollah to send 600-700 Katushya missiles into northern Israel. Some analysts say this was pressure on Israel to make more concessions. But Peres had to make a choice: Either invade southern Lebanon beyond the security zone to stop the shelling, or not invade and lose the elections.
I think Assad believed it was not in Syria's, or his regime's, interest. If there was an agreement, there would be some openness between Israel and Syria, and there would be some democratic influence in Syria. There are many Arabs in Israel. If they travel there as tourists, it might be dangerous. More importantly, however, is Lebanon. Assad believed that if he got the Golan Heights, he would lose Lebanon. Lebanon is producing millions of dollars for Syria and stabilizing the regime. It is much more important to Syria than the Golan Heights.

There have been suggestions of a Benelux-type model for the region. Do you think this could work?

I don't think a Benelux model would work. You need to have some similarity between the countries: either they are democratic or they have other similarities. To combine countries that are so different from each other is very difficult. It is more likely that some states in the region will join the EU or NATO. In both frameworks there are many countries, and if some are different to others there is less of a problem. Absorbing Israel would be easy as it is already a democracy. Countries like Jordan or a future Palestinian state could also join the EU.

We've spoken a lot about what other countries in the region should do. What can Israel do to enhance regional security?

I don't think it's in our hands. It might not even be in Palestinian hands. We might be going for unilateral disengagement according to the ideas of the prime minister, but it cannot lead to peace without strong guarantees for Israel's security, without a reliable partner that can be trusted. Since we cannot move right now, let us stop the occupation in Gaza, because in Gaza you can take more risks than in the West Bank. Even if there is fighting, we will be able to sustain this unilateral disengagement. Unfortunately, we cannot do this in Judea and Samaria without a partner. Maybe after Arafat we will see a different approach from the Palestinian leadership, maybe conditions will improve.
I think this is reasonable, although it is going to be extremely difficult from an internal Israeli perspective to uproot Jewish settlements, if it's not for peace, but only to sustain the situation and maybe make it more comfortable for the Palestinians. I don't think it will bring down the government. If the withdrawal is focused on Gaza without dramatic changes in the West Bank, then almost nobody will leave the Likud. They will protest. And if the right-wing parties leave the government, Labor might join it. Other things might end the Sharon government, like the corruption allegations and the Tennenbaum affair, but not Gaza.

Could Israel make a contribution, for example, by signing treaties against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction?

It was always our policy that we should not be the first to introduce weapons of mass destruction into the arena of conflict. Unlike other countries on the region - Egypt in Yemen, Iraq and Iran - Israel has never even threatened to use such weapons. Israel might consider reducing armed forces and its arsenal when it is clear there is no animosity among the majority of Arabs and Muslims in the world, when there are no brutal dictatorships in the vicinity.

But it still leaves the question, what steps can Israel take to make the region safer?

The strong side, the Arab world, should make the steps. Israel has shown its intentions. We withdrew from Sinai, and we are ready to take, with certain precautions for self-preservation, similar steps toward the Palestinians. We've already stated that we are ready to see a Palestinian state and that we are ready to uproot Jewish settlements. This was said by Rabin and Barak, and by Ariel Sharon.
The strong side, although we are strong militarily and economically, is the one with 60 times the population, and 2,000 times more land. If the lion and the wolf meet in the jungle and fight, the lion will win. But if the lion comes to the wolf cave, and there are cubs there and the female is standing in front of the opening, who will win? The wolf. She is fighting for her existence. That is the secret of Israel. We are strong because we have to be strong, because the threat is so devastating for us.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

It's difficult to say. From an Israeli perspective, I am optimistic. I think we are in a very good position to prevail, despite the animosity towards us. I think we have many resources and strengths, as we have since the beginning of Zionism. One of our main strengths is that this is our only home, we have no other place to live as a proud, independent nation with Jewish sovereignty.
With regards to peace with the Palestinians and Arabs, I am not optimistic in the short term, but I am not pessimistic in the long term. In a few years there might be different conditions that will enable Israelis and Palestinians to make a more serious attempt to reach a solution. At the end of the day, we will have a peaceful settlement. This might partially solve the problem. I'm not that confident that without dramatic changes in the Middle East it will entirely solve the basic animosity between the Arab world and the Jewish state.