'Israel's PR appeal isn't lost, it just needs a new label'
Now-retired FM director general believes Israel can still redeem itself in the eyes of the world.
The recent changing of the guard in Jerusalem, and the introduction of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-led government, has also brought about retirement for Israel's longest-running ministerial director.
Although Aharon Abramovich kept a low profile in the seven and a half years he ran the justice and foreign bureaus, he had a significant role in deciding on and executing some of the country's most important diplomatic and security events: the Disengagement from Gaza, Olmert's defunct Convergence Plan, the Second Lebanon War, the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis peace conference, and the IDF incursion into Gaza, also known as Operation Cast Lead.
Abramovich sat down with Haaretz after his retirement, and dished out some thoughts on how Israel might improve its face abroad.
According to Abramovich, the first step for the newly instated government mis to adhere to the two-state solution.
"We're not improving our state of affairs by avoiding a solution," Abramovich said. "The world is invested in the Palestinian story day and night. There has not been a single official visiting from abroad who has not raised the Palestinian issue, be they from Europe, Asia or the U.S."
"The world expects us to reach a compromise and an agreement with the Palestinians. It has been decades since negotiations began, and the issue was never taken off our agenda. And if it is taken off, it would not be in our interest, but the other around," Abramovich added.
"Say we're allowed to rule the Palestinians for another few decades. That is not in our interest, even if the world complies. They'll say 'We get it, Israel isn't going out of there so let's discuss the alternatives including granting voting rights [to Palestinians], and a country other than a Jewish one.' That's the danger."
The reality of a Jewish democratic state
Abramovich, 58, went through a difficult personal transformation before he recognized the importance of land partition and the foundation of a Palestinian State.
He was raised by Etzel fighters: his grandfather was one of the organization's founders; his uncle took part in the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, and was killed in the operation; and his father participated in the organization's first operational action, was exiled by British authorities to Kenya and Eritrea and escaped captivity. His mother was part of the King David operation's auxiliary unit.
"Two banks hath the Jordan River' wasn't only sung in my house then, it's still sung today," he said.
"At first, as a young man, I believed in those ideals, and even today I consider then impossible dreams. In the reality of a Jewish and democratic Israel those dreams had to be discarded."
The ideological change began during the Yom Kippur War, in which he served as an artillery officer and took part in the shelling of Damascus.
"The war represented a departure since it made it clear that it would be difficult to achieve the Greater Israel ideal if we want to remain a democracy," he said.
"It continued with coming to terms with the peace agreement which Menachem Begin signed with Egypt."
He was recruited to governmental service by former minister Meir Sheetrit, who knew him from their joint work in the Jewish Agency. Abramovich was then appointed director of the Justice Ministry in Ariel Sharon's first government in 2001.
He went on to work under ministers Tommy Lapid and Tzipi Livni, with whom he also moved to the Foreign Ministry. The two had never met, but the common "fighting families" background brought them together.
"Anyone who grew up in an Etzel fighters' family has a common identity. It's a unique and worthy bunch, very committed to the state," he said.
Both sides will concede
And so the children of Etzel fighters, Livni and Abramovich, found themselves leading negotiations with the Palestinians geared at a permanent peace treaty and land division.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert also ran parallel talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although no agreement was reached during those negotiations, Abramovich was left with an optimistic conclusion: "There was a sense that both sides were interested in making concessions. It wasn't only Israel that was yielding."
Where did you achieve progress?
"Some progress was made with regard to borders, security issues and refugees. There was no progress in regard to Jerusalem. I can assert clearly that there were no talks concerning Jerusalem," he said.
Do the Palestinians you were dealing with really accept the notion of a division based on the 1967 borders, or is it all just smoke and mirrors, as the right-wing claim?
"We negotiated with serious people who would like to see an independent Palestinian state and understand that it will be established in borders that even narrower than those of 1967, and they accept that concept. They also had interests to protect, and their desire to reach a compromise was just as powerful as ours."
So, where's the problem?
"Conceding borders and settlements is very difficult for Jews and Zionists. Regarding security, any compromise that represents less than what we have today is difficult. Issues such as water and aerial control can also immediately affect the quality of life and security of Israeli citizens."
"But Jerusalem is the most contested issue. We didn't discuss it with the Palestinians, and I'm comfortable for not discussing it, since I don?t know if I could have handled it emotionally. My family came here in the 19th century. My father's underground name was 'Yerushalmi' [Jerusalemite]. My grandfather had the fact that he never left Jerusalem inscribed on his grave. I think that's the most difficult issue, one which I do not have an answer for."
And for the Palestinians?
I think for them the refugees represent a more significant national emblem."
Worried about Lieberman
Abramovich said that negotiations were held based on the assumption that an agreement would end conflicts and annul any future disputes. He affirmed that Israel did in fact ask the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state prior to the Annapolis peace conference, a request denied and which was subsequently never raised again. Incoming Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's statement saying Annapolis understandings are no longer relevant to the new government.
"Lieberman said that he supported the Road Map. The Road Map includes discussing Jerusalem and any of the other issues required to reach a Palestinian state. Lieberman said that he was for two-states, but that the current vehicles to achieve a solution had not worked and new ones new to be considered. I think the old vehicles are still relevant. He may return to them after trying, or he may not," he said.
Abramovich was first exposed to the diplomatic issues during the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza, during which he was in charge of talks with evacuees and organizing the 'Pinui Pitzui' [Evacuation-Compensation] Act.
He says that already in the their first meeting, the Gush Katif residents had a document, prepared years ago with the aid of attorneys and accountants, which was to serve as a base for compensation calculations.
He is at peace with the evacuation of the Gaza settlements but said that, in hindsight, things should have been dealt with differently, and that Israel should not have ceded control on Philadelphi Route and should not have evacuated the settlements on the strip's northern border, both as a result of security concerns as well as so not to set a precedent of going back to the 1967 borderlines.
Working on the Disengagement brought Abramovich closer to then prime minister Ariel Sharon. Shortly before falling ill, Sharon put Abramovich in charge or examining the possibility of another unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank, what Olmert later dubbed the Convergence Plan. Sharon never had the chance to listen to the team's conclusions, which were given to Olmert just before the Second Lebanon War.
According to Abramovich, the Convergence report served as the base for United Nations Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War. The Convergence team looked into the possibility of positioning a multinational task force in the West Bank, and so Livni and Abramovich were first exposed to the idea which was later brought up as a possible exit strategy to the fighting in northern Israel.
The Foreign Ministry's proposals, which were being prepared as early as in war's second day, were ultimately realized in the Security Council's resolution. Both the war and the subsequent Winograd Commission report solidified the Foreign Ministry's position.
"I was at every place I thought I needed to be during Operation Cast Lead, in the most sensitive discussions and briefings," he said. It is his opinion that the Foreign Ministry should hold on to those achievements.
Abramovich's lesson from the war in Gaza earlier this year is that "The use of power is something which needs to be improved, the tools that are used in military campaigns."
"I don't know of any systems today that do not affect the civilian population, and in these kinds of systems the question should be raised as to what implements are used. There's a need to examine how these implements influence media concerns, how they influence the willingness of the international community to advance resolutions during fighting, and how they influence the various post-war investigations."
Is there a solution for Israel's media woes?
"I don't accept the axiom that we are not doing well. With Gaza, the world understood that Israel cannot stand for its citizens coming under fire. It happened as a result of years of diplomatic and media efforts. All in all, if you look at the broad spectrum of the diplomatic community, our stance among Western countries isn't too bad."
"There's the issue of addressing the general public. Over the years here in Israel, we've tried to reason with and convince everyone that when you see a newspaper picture with a child and a tank, that the tank is justified, because we are besieged and they are using children. But it's almost impossible to convince anyone that the tank is justified."
"That's where the idea of changing the label of Israel abroad. It's a notion that has yet to be executed, and one which I hope will be advanced by the next government. Israel needs to be identified as a living being, effervescent and breathing, and which, when aggravated, acts. We polled around the world about how we appear to people with no knowledge of the conflict."
"They asked random focus groups about their [conception of] various countries, and what they associate with them. When asked about Italy, people answered 'good wine, beautiful women, antiques.' When asked to draw an Italian house, they drew a garden or a backyard. When they're asked about Israel there's always silence, and no one says anything. The house holds only men, there's a security fence and cameras, and no vegetation. That's how the non-anti-Israel American sees an Israeli house, and that has to change."