Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman says the Israeli-Palestinian talks that are due to begin this week will either turn Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into someone who made history or leave him as one who missed an opportunity and ended up a mere footnote in the history books. Netanyahu, he added, must not be allowed to lead people astray or to tread water indefinitely.
He did not rule out that the Labor Party might leave the coalition if the talks do not progress, and he supports convening the party's institutions to formulate a stance and decide. But he declined to say whether he will work to oust party leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and run for the chairmanship of the party.
With regard to his own ministry, he said there has been progress on several key issues but a lot of work remains to be done. He also said that Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman's attitude toward the Arab population does not hurt Israeli Arabs as much as it hurts the state and its international standing.
With direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians about to start, do you believe the freeze on construction in the settlements should continue?
"We must distinguish between what is of prime importance and what is not. To my way of thinking, the important matters are security, borders, Jerusalem, the right of return - which cannot be implemented - and cooperation with Arab countries. The job of a leader is to effect a breakthrough, and if the talks collapse because of an issue like continued settlement construction, this will be a strategic mistake.
"I know part of the right would like the talks to stall over the issue of continued construction in the settlements. But Israel has a vital interest in progressing toward two states. Otherwise, we will end up with an Arab nation-state with a Jewish minority.
"Thus for the sake of progress and the window of opportunity that is opening, I am in favor of continuing the freeze for another few months during the negotiations and setting up an exceptions committee, in cooperation with the Americans, that will discuss everything connected with building in the settlements."
Do you believe this government, in its current composition, can bring about a historic agreement and end the conflict?
"The responsibility rests on the shoulders of the leaders, in this case Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and Netanyahu. The Arabs have already announced their position and presented the Arab peace initiative. Netanyahu must march ahead of the camp. I believe most of the ministers will support him, and most of the public, 60 or 70 percent, will support any arrangement that is worked out.
"It is important for the prime minister to make decisions and move things forward. The decision-making mechanism is particularly important prior to implementation. The prime minister has to look ahead, like [Yitzhak] Rabin, [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat and [Jordan's King] Hussein did. He must stride onto the stage of history, not merely lead in the opinion polls."
Should the Labor Party give Netanyahu an ultimatum?
"First and foremost, the Labor Party has to convene its institutions and formulate a clear policy on everything connected with the conflict and a diplomatic solution. It must not continue with a policy of ambiguity, because we mustn't be a fig leaf.
"But if there is no progress in a few months' time, the Labor Party should not be in the government, and it should not be afraid of this. The Labor Party entered the government for the sake of several key issues, and chief among them was the peace process. So I and my colleagues in the party have to work to advance the diplomatic process."
The peace process began with the 1991 Madrid Conference. Has the Labor Party still not formulated its policy?
"I don't wish to relate to what happened in the past; we have to look ahead. I see what is happening now as an opportunity that must not be missed. Otherwise, the moderate Arab countries will also abandon us. Therefore, we must make immediate progress on the core issues, on the basis of the Arab initiative."
There are people who think Ehud Barak is the reason for the ambiguity you mentioned. Will you initiate a move to hold primaries and oust him?
"This is not election season, and we are not talking about personal issues. At the moment, the Labor Party is an unattractive brand, and it needs an immediate overhaul and face-lift, based in part on its glorious and historic past."
Will you run for the party chairmanship?
"When the time comes, I'll make a decision, and I promise you'll be the first to know."
You accepted the job of minority affairs minister in a clearly right-wing government. Do you not feel you chose a post that was doomed to failure?
"I don't think so. From the start, I identified key issues that I am now dealing with: the economic issue - we have already launched an economic plan to develop 13 Arab towns in every way, and we have a plan for an investment fund to develop the Arab sector in the fields of industry and employment - and the higher education issue.
"Over the next six years, more than NIS 300 million will be invested in higher education for minorities, and I wish to take the opportunity to thank the finance minister and the education minister. The plan for higher education includes hiring Arab lecturers and supporting academic institutions in the Arab sector, absorbing more than 9,000 Arab students, university preparatory programs and academic leadership programs."
On the other hand, there are major complaints over the government's attitude toward the Arab sector with regard to land, the expansion of areas of jurisdiction and master plans. That attitude hasn't changed; quite the contrary. What is happening with the Bedouins in the Negev is a prime example.
"I agree with you that an Arab town has to wait 20 years to move forward with expanding its area of jurisdiction or [enacting] a master plan. Meanwhile, they build, and then the buildings are destroyed on the grounds that they were put up illegally. That is why it's important to make progress on detailed planning, and I'll work to push this through the government. I believe the prime minister will support this.
"As for the Bedouins in the Negev, I'll wait for the prime minister to return [from Washington] and then push forward a plan for a gradual solution for the Negev Bedouin. I consider this matter a time bomb. We must reach agreement with the Bedouins, including on the issue of land ownership.
"But I repeat that these matters are dependent on the prime minister. He must make a decision to follow in Rabin's footsteps - with regard to both a peace agreement with the Palestinians and closing gaps with the [Israeli] Arab population."
But instead of development and closing gaps, the government is promoting a series of laws that mainly target the Arab public and its leaders.
"We've blocked a significant portion of the bills by Lieberman and his colleagues. It must be said that some of this conduct by Lieberman and his colleagues in the faction is aimed at getting votes. We blocked them thanks to the Labor ministers and some of the liberal Likud ministers, including [Dan] Meridor, [Michael] Eitan, [Silvan] Shalom and [Benny] Begin.
"Unfortunately, these proposals have caused damage not to Israel's Arab population but to the State of Israel. They harm its international standing. I am often forced to deal with issues of this kind abroad - to explain that Lieberman's policies are not the policies of Israel's government, and that there is a Lieberman, but there is also a Braverman."
Are you still optimistic?
"I'm always optimistic, and optimism and determination together can effect progress."
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