Russian paper interviews Israeli deputy PM on Syria arms, Obama initiative

Text of report by the website of government-owned Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on 3 June

[Interview with Israeli Deputy Premier Moshe Ya’alon by Vasiliy Vorobyev; place and date not given: "The Middle East Fears an ‘Arab Winter’"]

We had to wait a long time for the start of our interview with Moshe Ya’alon – and not through the fault of the Israeli deputy premier. It was simply that his schedule in Moscow was very full.

I greeted Israel’s deputy premier in Russian: "Dobryy Den." He smiled knowingly, but preferred to answer in English.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: I had hoped that you would answer in Russian. I read that you know Russian well and, possibly, even speak it. Is this true?

Moshe Ya’alon: Not entirely. Russian was the secret language of my parents – they are from Ukraine and spoke it at home. But I did not learn it. Although there are now many Russian-speaking citizens in Israel. It is a pity, of course, to be in Moscow and not have the possibility of speaking in Russian.

RG: It is well known that Russia sells Syria arms. Have you managed in Moscow to obtain assurances that the modern arms will not fall into the hands of terrorists?

Ya’alon: We are very concerned at the supplies of arms to such countries as Syria since we have encountered weapons made in Russia – such as the Kornet anti-tank missiles – fetching up from Syria with militants of the Hizbollah movement in Lebanon. The Israeli military came under fire from these missiles during the second Lebanese war. And Hamas activists recently fired missiles at a school bus from the territory of the Gaza Strip. And once again these were Kornets! We know that they did not fall into the hands of Hamas from Russia directly but we are sure that these weapons were transferred to it by Syria. We hope that the Russian Government will reconsider its policy of arms supplies to Syria and Iran. For when weapons fetch up in these countries, they may do with them anything they want. This is not permitted by the terms of the contract but they violate it.

RG: Russia recently expelled Israeli Military Attache Vadim Leiderman. Have you discussed this situation in Moscow?

Ya’alon: This matter was not broached since it is closed. Everything was explained through the appropriate channels established between the Russian and Israeli governments.

RG: US President Barack Obama has proposed that Israel return to the 1967 borders. But following the visit to Washington of Premier Binyamin Netanyahu, the American leader’s position has softened somewhat. How did the head of the Israeli Government manage to achieve this?

Ya’alon: There are too many misapprehensions in the international perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One, specifically, is that the conflict began in 1967. But this is anything but the case. The Fatah movement appeared earlier and spoke of its intention to combat the "occupation". What did this word mean? The Palestinians are not prepared to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a state of the Jewish people within any borders. This conflict began at the dawn of Zionism. When my forefathers came to Israeli land in 1925 from Ukraine, no one was living on the bulk of this territory. They settled in Kiryat Motzkin – this is now a city to the north of Haifa – cultivated the land, and had no intention of taking it from the Arabs or of fighting them. But the latter attacked, and they had to fight back. This occurred before the formation of the state of Israel. So believing that the conflict may be settled by Israel having returned to the 1967 borders is a delusion.

We do not want to govern the Palestinians. But we are endeavouring to ensure that, in the event of any final settlement, there be recognition of Israel’s right to exist as the state of the Jewish people. So we simply cannot accept President Obama’s proposal.

RG: But the head of the White House was supported by all the participants in the Mideast Quartet. Is Israel not afraid of isolation?

Ya’alon: This is one of the reasons for my visit to Moscow – to explain Israel’s position. The Palestinians are talking about a so-called "unilateral approach" – they intend to appeal to the United Nations for recognition of their state within the pre-1967 borders. But this would be a political catastrophe for the Middle East. Why? Because we would be getting on the West Bank one further Hamastan. Is this ultimately in the interests of Russia, America, or the Quartet? And it is certainly not in the interests of Israel or even Jordan, of course. So this initiative needs to be blocked as soon as possible.

RG: Nonetheless, the General Assembly could adopt a resolution on recognition of Palestine and its UN membership this fall. On which partners and allies might Israel count to prevent this?

Ya’alon: We cannot block this resolution in the UN General Assembly, of course. Decisions there are adopted by majority. But this would be merely a declaration. There’s little that’s pleasant for us here, of course, but this decision would not have a practical continuation so we could put up with it. But were such a decision to be approved by the UN Security Council, this would then be a problem. This is why we are doing everything possible to avoid such a development of events. We would not get the support of a majority in the Security Council but at this level the US Administration could, if necessary, employ its veto – based on the interests of the United States, not Israel. A strengthening of the positions of the jihadists in the region is not in the interests of the White House.

RG: The so-called "Arab spring" in the Middle East and North Africa has re-carved the geopolitical map of the region. Israel’s friends could become its enemies. Calls for a revision of the peace treaty with Israel are being heard increasingly often in Egypt. Is not your country now isolated?

Ya’alon: Israel is not isolated. We have overt strategic relations with Jordan and Egypt. We maintain covert relations with other countries of the region also. As you know, Iran is the enemy of many Sunni governments, and terrorism is the enemy of many moderate regimes. So when it is a question of common interests, we established cooperation with them.

If, though, we are speaking of the uprisings, unrest, or even the "regional upheaval," whatever you call it, on the one hand we would like to be surrounded by democracies. The ideals of freedom and human rights have been taking root increasingly among the youth in the past couple of years.

On the other, the moderate forces are not very well organized, they lack political power. Whereas such forces as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hizbollah in Lebanon, and other radical Islamists could be bad news for the region. It remains to hope that the spring is not replaced by winter. How this will all end is not yet clear. We estimate that the region will not stabilize in the immediate future. So it remains for us to keep a close watch on the situation and to act in accordance with our interests.

RG: You are a member of the "narrow cabinet". It is also called a "kitchen" cabinet. Do the sessions of the "narrow cabinet" differ greatly from the customary meetings of the government? Do you argue with your colleagues in defending your own viewpoint?

Ya’alon: The smaller the cabinet, the more candidly you can speak without fearing that your words will become known to the news media in a distorted form. There is this inner cabinet in Israel. This is a very useful format. We meet with the prime minister, discussing all sensitive issues – security, strategic problems in the region, and so forth. We speak very frankly, in a very effective manner. Such meetings are highly productive.

Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta website, Moscow, in Russian 3 Jun 11

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