The Full Interview

Zvi Hauser Tells Haaretz What Israel Is Doing Wrong

In an exclusive interview, the former cabinet secretary and long-time aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explains why settlement evacuation is a fantasy.

In the past few years, Zvika Hauser had a secret role: he was Tel Aviv's ambassador to the bureau of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Amid all the Jerusalemites, settlers, religious Zionists and English speakers who surround the prime minister, the cabinet secretary was an anomaly: very secular, very Tel Avivian and sporting granny glasses.

When the need arose to know what Tel Aviv thought about a Bibi move, Hauser was the one who was summoned to the closed room at the end of the Jerusalem “aquarium.” The Tel Avivian among the right-wingers and the right-winger among the Tel Avivians had to explain the mood, the frame of mind and the trends of the capital of the coast to the prime minister of the mountain. As he has done all his life, attorney Hauser had to bridge the gap between the ideological world he believes in and the cultural world he lives in.

Zvi Hauser was born in Ramat Gan in 1958. At the age of 15 he joined the youth section of the ultranationalist Tehiya party, and at 18 he switched to a similar ideological group, Tzomet, and tried to set up a secular core group to found a settlement on the Golan Heights. Together with the current interior minister (Gideon Sa’ar) and the former director general of the Communications Ministry (Idan Bartal), he developed a distinctive national-oriented approach that was influenced both by the Revisionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky and by the right-wing flank of the historic Labor movement in Israel. These young, ambitious Tel Avivians believed in everything that their urban milieu had ceased to believe in: settlement, activism, Greater Israel.

At the age of 25, Hauser was already the media adviser of the new leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu. Three years later, he worked with minister Limor Livnat on a series of reforms that revamped the local communications market. So, when Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, Hauser was an obvious choice for cabinet secretary. The intelligence, education and belief system of the promising Tel Aviv lawyer were exactly what the new-old prime minister needed. His pragmatism, enlightenment and connections in the media also contributed.

Hauser became the palatable, representative face of the despised bureau. Even though he was never a personal loyalist, Netanyahu came to appreciate the cabinet secretary’s extraordinary executive skills and therefore refused to forgo his services even in hard, tense and tempestuous times. Hauser stood to Netanyahu’s right when he objected vehemently to the Gilad Shalit deal, and Hauser stood to Netanyahu’s left when he opposed the raid on the Gaza-bound Turkish ship Mavi Marmara and when he opposed splitting the task of the attorney general. But for the most part he and the boss saw eye to eye. Together they led the project of preserving national heritage sites, which befitted their historical inclination and their desire to place Zionism on a firm secular foundation.

Three months after he ceased to be a civil servant, Hauser greets me in his Tel Aviv apartment, which is crammed with Israeliana: a bust of the iconic Zionist pioneer Joseph Trumpeldor, a white Tnuva Dairy container from the 1930s, a bottle of Carmel Mizrachi wine from the start of the 20th century. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Ronald Reagan and checkered Bermuda shorts, he shows me the well-known collection of Zionist memorabilia that is his pride and joy: a copy of Herzl’s “Altneuland” with a dedication by the author, a children’s book that belonged to Max Nordau with a dedication by Nahum Sokolow, Nathan Alterman’s first book of poems, with the poet’s autograph.

But immediately after we move to the modest dining area, the obsessive collector begins to tell me about what is worrying him deeply: the state of the nation, the condition of the state, the way the government is conducting itself. Hauser’s testimony is restrained, but of great importance. It tells the story of the past four and a half years, and it suggests what lies ahead.

Zvika Hauser, you were there for four years and three months. As cabinet secretary, you learned how the State of Israel conducts itself and how the Netanyahu government functions. What did you learn? What do you know today that you didn’t know in 2009?

“What I learned is that the substance of the way the State of Israel is conducted is not appropriate for the challenges of the present and the challenges of the future it faces. We are in a very complex situation. I would even say we are in a difficult situation. In the past we were able to cope with such situations, because we had internal unity and a sense of the rightness of our path, and the governmental systems functioned optimally. Today, in contrast, we suffer from a great many ailments.

The core problem of the State of Israel is that our focus in recent years has been on process and not on result. What interests the public is not what’s important, and what’s important is not interesting. The center has become the margins and the margins the center. Those who bear responsibility have no authority and those with authority have no responsibility. As a result, Israel today can be likened to a ship whose engine is being enmeshed in a thick rope that is not allowing it to move forward. Even though the stormy seas oblige the Israeli ship to speed up, it is not doing so, but instead is slowing down and sputtering. When I see this disparity between the internal treading of water and the ocean of challenges in which we are living, I am worried. Sometimes I am very worried. I am not sure we are prepared for what lies ahead.”

You surprise me. You are not talking about Benjamin Netanyahu and Sara Netanyahu and [former Netanyahu adviser who left under a cloud] Natan Eshel, but about a superficial public discussion, ruinous juridification and bureaucracy that shackles the leader.

“I assume that you will ask me later about Benjamin Netanyahu and Sara Netanyahu and Natan Eshel. After all, those are questions the media like to ask and never stop asking. Everything is personal here. It’s all a matter of being for some people and against others. But if you ask me about the situation up there, on the bridge by the helm, the answer is that it is not good – not because of any specific prime minister or because of any specific bureau chief, but because we have a far deeper problem.

We wanted clean water, fine; we installed a filter in the pipe, fine. But in the end, because there are so many filters, there is no flow in the pipes and no water in the faucet. A situation has emerged in which the political branch is relatively weak, while the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the media are strong. Accordingly, there is no longer a place for ideology and common sense and for the big picture. Instead, we are mostly occupied with details and with the visibility of processes. It’s not the result that is important, but the way you look, even when you don’t arrive at a result.

Believe me, Ari, I don’t care what the politicians think and I don’t care what the bureaucrats think. I am not from either camp. But when I look at what is happening through the prism of the overall public interest, I see that we are far from the point of equilibrium that will serve the state and its citizens. The systems are becoming increasingly ponderous and cumbersome. Sometimes there is no system at all, only the semblance of one. In many cases the people involved are good people, but that makes no difference, because the ice-water that is flowing in the state arteries is paralyzing the national ability to act. The situation is getting worse by the year. We are suffering from a reverse blame-the-messenger syndrome: every hitch brings about the beheading of a top-ranking official, even though in most cases there was nothing he could have done to prevent the hitch. The dichotomy that has been created between authority and responsibility is not allowing the state to function. Instead of letting the chips fall in order to cut trees, we are letting the trees fall in order to cut the chips.”

What you are saying, then, is that juridification is killing us.

“I am not against jurists. I am a lawyer. One of my tasks was to represent the jurists vis-à-vis the government and the government vis-à-vis the jurists. But the juridification really is killing us. I like to say with a sad smile that today it would be impossible to establish the state as it was established on May 14, 1948. On that day, a motion for the agenda was submitted without alternatives. And women were not properly represented. And the decision was made not in Jerusalem but in Tel Aviv. And they took chairs from the cafés on Rothschild Boulevard, without ensuring that the cafés did not get a benefit as a quid pro quo. And the historic ceremony was recorded without a tender having been issued. It was all done quickly and efficiently, because we were focused on the target and wanted to reach the goal. Today we are focused on the process and on the visibility of the process. Common sense no longer rules here, and the leader cannot lead.”

Give me an example.

“Concerning the judicial aspect, I will give you two examples, with a heavy heart. When I was in the center of the lobe of management of Operation Pillar of Defense [carried out in the Gaza Strip in November 2012], I was amazed to see how deeply involved the judicial branch was in the prosecution of the war. I have nothing against the attorney general, but when legal experts and not generals have the last word on the field of battle, we are in a whole different – and disturbing – world.

The Marmara is also an interesting case. I took part in a critical meeting ahead of the arrival of the famous flotilla. In contrast to others, I said: Wait a minute, why shouldn’t we allow this unarmed ship to enter Gaza? I did not anticipate the nine killed, but I didn’t understand why we had to play the bad-guy part for which we were cast by the Turks in that bad movie. I know the prime minister. I saw in his eyes that he grasped the situation. Netanyahu likes to hear out-of-the-box ideas. But the jurists in the meeting argued that from the legal aspect, as long as a closure was in effect, Israel was obliged to enforce it. End of discussion. The political decision-makers don’t think they can make a decision that is contrary to the imperative of the judicial level. The leadership doesn’t feel it can ask the legal expert to solve the problem for him, and instead abides by his directive. We all saw the result. We are still feeling it.”

Okay, but now, with your permission, we will return to the prime minister. How does he function within that chaotic environment? What are Benjamin Netanyahu’s good qualities and his deficiencies? Is he worthy to be prime minister?

“Netanyahu has one great virtue that is very rare in these parts: he has a sense of historical mission and he acts within a historic context. He interacts ceaselessly with the past and with the future. Accordingly, he assesses every action he takes from a historical perspective. Even when he sends a routine letter of thanks, he considers how it will be read in another 100 years and in another 500 years. That quality accords him tremendous strengths and proper perspectives. He has very good time-and-space perception. He also has a rare ability to distinguish wheat from chaff. He is quick on the uptake, possesses unusual concentration and is phenomenal at multitasking. He works hard, diligently and persistently. He is capable of attending a meeting from start to finish and concentrating throughout and taking in every detail.

But it’s precisely those virtues that make the disparity between the ability to comprehend and the ability to act so flagrant. I think it stems from the fact that Bibi assumes he could be a better finance minister than the finance minister, a better health minister than the health minister, a better spokesman than the spokesman and a better cabinet secretary than the cabinet secretary. So he doesn’t delegate powers, and finds himself occupied with things he should not be occupied with. He lacks self-discipline in that sense.”

Isn’t he overly suspicious?

“The problem is not suspiciousness. Netanyahu has an overdose of a sense of sectarianism. I understand where it comes from, but I regret its existence, because in the end it hurts him and is no longer relevant to his status as a third-time prime minister. If there is one trait in him that I would change, it would be the “they” versus “us” state of mind. I tried quite a few times, but failed.”

Is he not a coward?

“Netanyahu thinks four times before taking action. His life experience taught him that haste is of the devil. Given that he is now in his third term as prime minister, maybe we should conclude there is logic to his cautious approach. As you undoubtedly remember, we had prime ministers who thought less before acting, with commensurate results.”

The feeling one gets is that he is bad at choosing people and doesn’t know how to work with people and manage them. Prime Ministers who were far less talented than he succeeded by forging work and loyalty circles of a kind Netanyahu is unable to create.

“Netanyahu is a very instrumental person by character. There is no back-patting and shoulder-slapping with him, no buddy-buddy approach and no small talk. I actually respect that. He is not sentimental about people, but he is reverent toward the mission. He treats people like tools in a toolbox needed to execute the mission. It would be good to intensify human and social gestures in him. A little sense of humor wouldn’t hurt, either. But those are truly trivial matters compared to the enormity of the deeds and the events. You say he doesn’t care about people, but I tell you that he truly does care about the state. He is not cynical. He understands the responsibility that devolves on him when he is ensconced where he is: in the cockpit of the State of Israel.”

And Sara? And Natan Eshel? And all that jazz? Isn’t Netanyahu’s working environment too tempestuous to allow him to work?

“I was able to complete four years and three months in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. I attribute that success to the fact that I decided not to engage in petty politics, intrigues, noise and whisperings. My conduct was focused on a goal-function I set myself: to serve the state, to serve the people who are leading the state, to uphold the law. When you are occupied with the big things, all the small matters of Natan Eshel and the rest of it are dwarfed. It might sound bombastic, but that’s the secret. The fact that you don’t get confused and that you are engaged with what is truly important, helps you go home peacefully.”

Let’s go from one landmine to the next: Sara. Does the prime minister’s wife influence the prime minister in regard to issues of substance, too, or only in personal matters?

“I don’t know. The prime minister doesn’t work an 8-to-5 day. He doesn’t drop his pen when the regular office hours end. As a result, his life milieu and his family milieu intersect with the work milieu. In my work with him, I focused on the elements of reality that I was able to change. All the rest I accepted with love, tranquility and equanimity.”

Natan Eshel. The fact that you acted against Eshel angered Netanyahu.

“Was the prime minister angry at me at a particular stage in the Eshel affair? He was. There’s no doubt of it. In my opinion, he was angry because he did not see the whole picture. Unworthy things were done in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, and in physical proximity to the prime minister. There is no place for behavior of that kind and for acts of this kind – certainly not in that setting. Accordingly, when I was apprised of the situation, I did what a decent civil servant is supposed to do. I consulted with the outgoing attorney general and I placed the event on the desk of the incoming attorney general. Having done that, I stepped back and allowed the process to play itself out without my intervention. In retrospect, the findings are clear and the picture is clear. Looking back, I would not have behaved differently. I believe that today the prime minister also understands that I acted exactly as I was obliged to.”

You are making things easy for yourself. The problem is that there was an all-out war in Netanyahu’s bureau between the Eshel camp and the Hauser camp. Thus, when Hauser set in motion a criminal process against Eshel, the prime minister suspected a conspiracy and was furious that the cabinet secretary – you – did not inform him before going to the attorney general.

“It’s a pity to go back to this spilt milk. The practical result was that it turned out that the deeds done by Natan Eshel were unworthy and that the people who warned about them did the right thing. The immediate approach to the attorney general was an act that was called for, and he himself undertook to update the prime minister. For me to have done that would have been to obstruct the investigation.”

The picture that comes across in the media is of an unfit, unprofessional and nonfunctioning Prime Minister’s Bureau. A bureau rife with rifts and intrigues and pettiness. Is that an accurate picture, or is it an outgrowth of the demonization of Netanyahu and his administration by hostile media elements?

“Since Natan Eshel’s removal, Netanyahu’s bureau has operated in an orderly, systematic manner, without noise and scandals. It is no less professional than the bureaus of other prime ministers, who took on legendary status. I have no doubt that there are elements who are trying to truncate Netanyahu’s term, and they have no problem flaying the prime minister through the bodies of others.”

Now we can move to what’s important. The second Netanyahu government was in power for four years, but the general feeling is that it achieved nothing. That it was occupied exclusively with surviving, surviving, surviving.

“I believe that in the perspective of time it will be apparent that Israel’s 32nd government was one of the country’s better governments. True, it did not achieve a breakthrough to peace – but neither did its predecessors. Neither the Barak government nor the Olmert government brought peace. On the other hand, in contrast to its predecessors, the Netanyahu government did not become entangled in unnecessary wars. There was no intifada and there was no Second Lebanon War and there was no Operation Cast Lead. Few Israelis were killed, and few Palestinians, too. The government was established as a unity government, and it coped responsibly with a global economic crisis and with regional changes unprecedented for 100 years. It fielded the team of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman, and that team worked in extraordinary harmony and moved the ball well on a tough, challenging strategic field.

The result was security stability, economic stability and political stability as well. Economically, the major achievement was to preserve high growth and almost full employment, such as could hardly be seen in other Western countries. In state policy, the achievement was to posit the Bar-Ilan formula [the two-state solution] at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its resolution. Strategically, the achievement was to muster national and international attention for addressing the Iranian challenge. I am not saying there were no failures. I am not arguing that everything was perfect. But it seems to me that the public is not aware that it owes a great deal to the way in which Netanyahu and the Netanyahu government conducted the affairs of state from 2009 to 2013.”

You attach much importance to the leadership group of six amid which Netanyahu worked. Was that small group of ministers really as impressive as you claim?

“Definitely. First of all, there was more than 100 years of experience around the table. And there was give and take. There was a substantive, untainted, deep discussion about the most important issues, those that seal our fate. There were no leaks from that forum. There were no immaterial interests or immaterial motives or petty politics. Take Benny Begin as an example. There were those who ridiculed him for being a minister without portfolio, a status that is ostensibly a waste of the state budget. But the truth is that Benny Begin was one of the people who wielded the greatest influence on Israeli policy and on conduct when times were tough. He provided clarity of thought and clarity of conscience. He is well-informed, a wide reader and a master of detail, and he astounded professionals with his level of knowledge. His was a rare contribution. The prime minister had the highest regard for Benny Begin and was very close to him. But the others also played significant parts. Each of them contributed in his way, and in sum they created an environment of decision-making that did not exist in previous governments. We can only hope that it will exist in the present government and in the future, too.

It’s true there were some who smoked cigars whose smoke caused others great suffering. But it is clear that today, when the prime minister is sitting with inexperienced ministers who also seem to be political rivals, that it is difficult to achieve the same culture of discussion and quality of discussion that existed with the group of six.”

But in practice, it was the Netanyahu-Barak duo that did the navigating. Wasn’t that a dangerous duo of uninhibited warmongers?

“I discovered that Ehud Barak takes an innate joy in flirting with the impossible. That trait, which made him an admired commander of [the elite reconnaissance unit] Sayeret Matkal, helps him cope with complex situations, but hinders him in dealing with simple, clear situations. The prime minister was aware of that duality and constituted a counterpoise to Barak with his very strong inner equilibrium. But in general, an unjustified halo was attached to the Netanyahu-Barak duo, as a concept. Having observed the decision-making process intensively and intimately, I can tell you that Israel enjoyed the broad shoulders of six people, only two of whom are still members of the security cabinet.”

You spoke about the successes of the second Netanyahu government. What were the failures?

“In my opinion, there were two cardinal failures. One was political. In the previous Knesset, a unique situation was created in which the main opposition party, Kadima, was effectively a spinoff of Likud. This being so, I thought that Netanyahu should have been a kind of big eagle who unites the two parties under his broad wings, as Menachem Begin united the Liberal Party and Herut to create Gahal. Regrettably, the prime minister flinched from undertaking that big move and preferred to try time and again to split Kadima. I think that was a missed opportunity. Many things would look different today if Israel had a large, broad national-liberal government which would accord it both stability and governability, as well as far better, businesslike management.

The second mistake relates to the diplomatic process. In the first months of the Netanyahu government, there was uncertainty about whether to embark on a course leading to a permanent settlement [with the Palestinians] while setting a high Israeli bar, or to set out on a track of a long-term interim agreement. I was in a minority position of preferring the latter. Ehud Barak also considered the idea. Regrettably, a different decision was made. We found ourselves playing the game of the final-status agreement even though it was clear to almost all the actors that it was impossible to achieve a final-status agreement.”

If so, let’s go back. The government is established on March 31, 2009. On May 19, a traumatic meeting takes place between the newly elected U.S. president, Barack Obama, and the newly elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama delivers his Cairo speech on June 4. Ten days later, on June 14, Netanyahu delivers the Bar-Ilan University speech. What happened between those four dates, and was the Bar-Ilan speech a product of powerful American pressure on Bibi?

“The period you are referring to was an amazing one. Within a very short time, we had to formulate a budget, prepare the first meeting with Obama and shape Israel’s new foreign policy. It was like installing two engines on a plane in mid-flight. For three months I slept less than three hours a night. I didn’t believe it was happening to me. I was astounded to discover how the adrenaline of coping with an impossible mission allows you to function in impossible conditions.

The Bar-Ilan speech was a watershed. Both the left wing and the international community failed to give Netanyahu sufficient credit for it, but the speech of June 2009 brought about a historic turning point. For the first time, a Jabotinsky-school prime minister adopted the idea of a historic compromise based on a two-state solution. A few months earlier, that same prime minister was elected on the basis of a different world view. Nor did the prime minister present this world view in his first visit to the Obama White House. Within a short time, a dramatic shift occurred here, which was the result of our dialogue with the U.S. administration and of the political circumstances we faced. But Netanyahu did not just bend in the wind. He placed on the table a formula that did in fact accept the two-state idea, but transformed it into a more correct idea of two nation-states. Netanyahu agreed to enter into a framework of dividing the country on condition that that division would be redefined in a manner reflecting Israel’s vital interests.

By demanding that the State of Israel be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people and that the Palestinian state be demilitarized and that the United States commit itself to those two principles, the prime minister jumped into the pool of the political process, but at the same time tried to change the structure of the pool fundamentally.”

But in practice, nothing has happened to this day. A peace agreement has not been signed, a boundary line has not been demarcated, not one settlement has been evacuated. True, the Palestinians played a dirty game, and the Americans made serious mistakes, but the feeling that was created is that Netanyahu is not Menachem Begin but Yitzhak Shamir: he did not really intend, and does not really intend, to make peace, and he will not do so.

“First of all, I have to say that I do not think “Shamir” is a dirty word. Shamir was one of the most significant prime ministers we have had. He changed the face of the country by channeling the mass emigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel instead of to America. He shaped the map of settlement in Judea and Samaria, yet in his period Israel enjoyed its greatest flowering of foreign relations. Shamir also made every effort to maintain a unity government and to preserve an internal consensus. You can like him or not like him, but you can only salute his determination and view his achievements realistically. But is Netanyahu Shamir? Netanyahu tried with all his might to set a political process in motion, but he had red lines on which he insisted, even at the price of the continuation of the status quo. The historic revolution that has been occurring in the Arab world in the past few years proved that those red lines remain valuable even in the post-Shamir era.”

Let me rephrase: Isn’t it true to say that people like Shamir, Netanyahu and Hauser find themselves torn between a world that demands peace and a Middle East that does not allow peace, and therefore are compelled to sing the “Song of Peace” without truly believing that peace is achievable?

“Netanyahu is not playing tricks. He does not have a plan of deceit. Under certain conditions, he will take action. But he is doubtful about the possibility that those conditions will be met. Look at the changes that are going on around us. The Middle East is not going forward, but backward. There are more poor people around us and more fundamentalists, while humanistic and liberal values are disappearing. Neither the West nor the Israeli left always wants to see those processes for what they are. Netanyahu of the past few years was different. He was disillusioned. He did not allow what is desirable to blur the way in which he saw the reality of the situation. In that sense, he really is closer to Shamir.”

Let me tell you what I think. In the political-security arena, my assessment is that Netanyahu is quite hawkish. He has no trust in the Palestinians and he is apprehensive about the unstable situation that is liable to arise in the wake of Israeli territorial withdrawals. But he does not possess a deep emotional commitment to the patriarchal patrimony, the settlers and the settlements. Therefore, if the right opportunity were to arise, he might turn his back on the settlement project.

“Netanyahu is Herzlian. If you read his father’s monumental article about Herzl, you will see that the paramount issue is the charter, the international recognition of the Jewish people’s historic rights. You will not find any excess admiration there for the Mapai [Labor forerunner] approach of “another dunam and another tree.” The clods of earth of Nahalal [in the Jezreel Valley] and the clods of earth of Yitzhar [a settlement in Samaria] are not part of the prime minister’s emotional core. In that sense, he is a successor to Jabotinsky and a successor to Begin. Don’t forget that on both occasions when settlements were evacuated – in Sinai and in the Gaza Strip – it was Likud that evacuated them. It was actually Yigal Allon [a leading Labor Party figure] who abstained in the vote for the peace treaty with Egypt, because of his commitment to the settlements. Netanyahu does not intend to do in Judea and Samaria what Begin and Ariel Sharon did in Yamit [in northern Sinai] and Gush Katif [in the Gaza Strip], respectively, but he is thinking about the situation creatively.”

Let me guess what kind of creativity you’re talking about. In his speech to the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu said an amazing thing, which few people took note of. He said that in peacetime, there will be settlements that will remain across the Israeli border. That means that he does not intend to evacuate settlements, but believes it will be possible to leave many of them in the territory of the Palestinian state.

“Your ear was always sharply attuned to small-and-big things. What he said speaks for itself. Netanyahu believes that no simplistic solution is possible.”

You yourself are not of the Jabotinsky school. There is some sort of deep element of Mapai hawkishness in you, maximalist and activist. Are you personally willing to evacuate settlements in return for peace?

“I think we need to free ourselves of the fantasy of evacuating 150,000 people from their homes in the 21st century. I am against a population transfer, whether Jewish or Arab. I do not understand my friends on the left who talk offhandedly about a brutal and totalistic act of this kind without being aware of its flagrant immorality. There are a number of aspects here. Historically: Our connection to Judea and Samaria does not resemble the French ties to Algeria or the British ties to the Falkland Islands. We are talking about the formative territory of the Jewish people and of Jewish civilization, from which the State of Israel arose.
Humanly: This is a third generation, which people want to uproot from their father’s house and from the land of their grandparents.

Demographically: We are not talking about the 3,000 evacuees of Yamit or the 8,000 of Gush Katif, but about 150,000 human beings. Nowhere in the world today is there a demand to expel 150,000 people from their homes or to try to correct one injustice with another. Economically: This is a move that would cost tens of billions, which the Israeli economy could probably not sustain. Nationally: It is a move that will split Israeli society.

For all these reasons, I think the time has come to understand that there will not be mass evacuation of settlers here, nor need there be. The solution – if there is one – has to be a creative one that will distinguish between residency and sovereignty. It is inconceivable that Jews will be prohibited from continuing to live in the places where they have been living for close to half a century in a land that is the cradle of our civilization.”

I am trying to draw a line between the points you made and to understand your approach. What you are saying, actually, is that there will not be peace in this generation and that there must not be a unilateral withdrawal, and therefore the solution is a long-term interim agreement that will make possible the establishment of a Palestinian state within temporary boundaries without settlements being evacuated or settlers uprooted from their homes.

“If a solution is achievable in our bad neighborhood, it has to be done in stages and proceed within a framework of trial and error. The situation, which is changing radically, necessitates long-term reversible interim agreements, which will oblige us to make wrenching decisions only if and when they prove themselves.”

And Netanyahu? Does he espouse the same worldview as you?

“I had quite a few conversations with the prime minister on this subject, which I will keep to myself. I will tell you this: Netanyahu understands that things have changed in the past 20 years and that the solution of 2023 will not be the solution of 1993.”

Are you sometimes concerned that Netanyahu is perhaps too much of a pragmatist? That maybe he will agree to concessions you would never accept?

“There is an emotional and moral disparity between Netanyahu and me concerning the settlements, but he too understands the realistic tangled complexity entailed in trying to evacuate settlements. The longest meter in the world is the one that divides the prime minister from the person sitting opposite him. Because when all is said and done, I was only the adviser, while he is the leader who bears the responsibility. I would suggest alternatives and recommend alternatives, and then I would leave the room and he would remain alone with the need to make the decision. That is an abyssal difference. Because Netanyahu sees two things: the responsibility to steer this ship to a safe haven, and the desire to be remembered in history as the person who steered the ship to a safe haven. I can’t judge precisely where these large and powerful motivations will take the prime minister.”

Mr. Hauser, I have something unpleasant to say to you. You, the intelligent and sophisticated people of the right, are leading the State of Israel to the abyss. You will cause us to be treated like a leper state, like South Africa was. You will cause Zionism to be buried in the hills of Judea and Samaria. Your insistence on not truly dividing the Land of Israel is endangering the State of Israel in a way that no left-wing post-Zionist is.

“And I have something unpleasant to say to you, Mr. Shavit. After all, you and your friends said the same thing before the Gaza disengagement. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to listen to you and conducted an experiment in human lives in Gaza. Many good people assured us that the removal of the Jewish presence would lead the Gaza Strip to become a new Hong Kong or Singapore. But what is happening in practice? After we withdrew we were barraged with missiles. After we attacked in order to stop the missiles, we were assaulted with the Goldstone Report. We almost ended up in The Hague. And the Netanyahu government had to cope with that situation of post-Goldstone and almost Hague, without anyone in the world or on the left giving it credit for doing so. We conducted the experiment you demanded of us, and the experiment failed and no one resigned or assumed responsibility. So now you are suggesting that we do for the periphery of Judea and Samaria what we did for the Gaza periphery? I have news for you: Kfar Sava, Ra’anana and Ramat Hasharon will not stand up to what Yad Mordechai, Zikim and Sderot are standing up to. It won’t work.

Besides Gaza there was also Syria. In my time I still attended closed meetings in which our “good boys” talked about Bashar Assad being a credible partner and how we could strike a deal with him and give him the Golan Heights and bring him all the way to Lake Kinneret. That was not 30 years ago, it was less than three years ago. But with the same speed that films change in the Gat movie theater, Syria changed, too. If we had given it the Golan Heights in 2010, in 2013 we would have had Al-Qaida in Kibbutz Ein Gev. But nothing. Silence. No one was wrong, no one recanted. With the exception of one article by you, none of the advocates of the baseless peace with Assad said, “Oops, I was wrong.”

So, when you combine the dubious experiment in Gaza with the near-accident on the Golan Heights, you arrive at the conclusion that conservatism has its logic. In this Middle East, caution and skepticism are not deficiencies but virtues. We have to address the dangers you mention. We have to take into account the pressure of the international community and the meaning of ruling over another nation in Judea and Samaria. But the reality of recent years spoke a rightward language. The reality proved that the skeptical approach to our neighborhood was more justified than the optimistic one. There is a substitution of roles here that is like poetic justice. In this century the right wing is presenting a rational approach, while the left is clinging to a faith-based approach, and maybe even a messianic one.”

According to the prime minister you worked with, the major challenge in the neighborhood is that of Iran. Don’t you think he exaggerated? That he was obsessive? Don’t you find his Auschwitz analogies repellent?

“There are some who fear that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon they will drop it on Tel Aviv. But Iranian nuclear weapons have two additional implications that are not talked about. On the one hand, that situation would put an end to any prospect of peace in the Middle East. With the revolving nuclear sword of Iran hovering above, no moderate Arab who is considering a compromise with us will go ahead. On the other hand, Iranian nuclear weapons would spark a nuclear arms race in our unstable region. That will have dramatic implications for Israel’s defense budget and for Israel’s credit rating and for our ability to maintain a high-tech country here that celebrates its cornucopia in the cafés near my home.

Accordingly, it is precisely the members of the peace camp, who tend to spurn the Iranian threat, who need to understand that it is the greatest threat to peace. Businessmen who don’t want to be bugged about the Iranian threat need to understand that it is the greatest threat to their business. Obsession? Some people are obsessed with Iran and some people are obsessed with peace, and possibly both types need Ritalin. But what the prime minister did in the past four and a half years is to use all the tools at his disposal to generate attentiveness in Israel and globally to a fateful issue that in the past was not taken seriously. And the prime minister succeeded. He placed the issue of the Iranian nuclear project at the center of the international agenda.”

He succeeded and succeeded but failed. Iran now has 12,000 centrifuges and eight tons of enriched uranium and an emerging plutonium track. It’s too late. It is no longer possible to stop the threat, which Netanyahu views as existential in character.

“Next question, Ari.”

Let’s put things into a broader context. One of the traits you share with Netanyahu is pessimism. You both think the reality that surrounds Israel is cruel and dangerous. You both think Israeli society is not sufficiently aware of the dangers and the threats that confront it. You both entertain doubts about Israel’s staying power in a crunch.

“Consider what happened since our last meeting. Egypt trembled, Morsi fell and a new sushi place opened on Ibn Gvirol Street [in Tel Aviv]. Maybe we have no other choice, but we are conducting ourselves with some sort of collective autism. Volcanoes erupt, the heavens are fissured and we continue to work in the garden with a pioneer hat and a pitchfork.

You’re right: from time to time I conjure up an image of my grandfather sitting in a café in Lille, France in July 1939 and thinking that there are problems in the world, but in the end all will be well. But the truth is that all was not well. On September the first, the world fissured. Yes, I am taking into account that dramatic things can happen here, too. No one knows when and no one knows how, but things could happen.

Iran is only one scene in a quite depressing play. There is also a missile threat: 100,000 rockets and missiles are aimed at us. And there is a cyber threat, which did not exist 10 years ago. There is a basic problem stemming from the fact that new combat technology is spreading across the Middle East at a faster rate than democracy and humanism. And when you see all these processes, which are leading us to a more dangerous place, not a safer one, you ask yourself what will happen when the war comes to Tel Aviv. After all, we have had a war in the north and a war in the south but no real war in Tel Aviv. In the north and the south summud exists [a Palestinian term meaning “steadfastness”]. Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and the town of Kiryat Shmona have been living the frontier experience for decades. But Tel Aviv lives in a bubble. Here they count bars, not bombs. What will happen on the day after hundreds of missiles strike Tel Aviv?

Since 1993, the dominant thinking in Israel has said that this country cannot exist without peace. I reject that. If we can achieve peace – excellent. But we have to deploy for the possibility that we will be compelled to live here without peace. Regrettably, at the moment we are not properly deployed for that. We want to live like every other Western society, but we face threats to which no other Western society is exposed. The situation of the “villa in the jungle” is becoming more and more complex. More and more of a challenge. We possess power. We possess deterrent capability. Israel need not despair. But the chaos around us is liable to strike at us, and we tend to ignore that possibility. Both as a state and as a society, we are immersed in repression. So, I entered the Prime Minister’s Bureau pessimistic and came out no less worried.”

And now, with the Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett government ruling in Israel, are you more optimistic or more pessimistic? Does 33rd government look promising or dangerous to you?

“Unfortunately, the present government will cope with an even steeper escarpment than its predecessor. The horizon is becoming increasingly dark; our best friends are increasingly divorced from the Middle East reality; the economic challenge is becoming more serious; the tolerance of the media discourse is decreasing; and the bureaucracy is growing ever more ramified and tangled. The result is that it is more difficult to make decisions, while the decisions that need to be made become more difficult. I can promise you that it won’t be easy. We haven’t yet reached the bottom of the barrel.

Still, when I fall into a pessimistic mood, I like to take out the minutes of the first cabinet meeting in Israel, which was held on Sunday, May 16, 1948. Ben-Gurion stood and gave a dry and monotonous report about the difficult situation of the State of Israel on all the war fronts. The other ministers followed suit. Gush Etzion had fallen, the weapons that were supposed to arrive hadn’t arrived, the world stood idly by. But there was no panic in that meeting. There was composure and considered judgment. When I read that very moving text, I say: We have already been in tougher situations. And I say that if we are able to behave today as they did in 1948, maybe things will be good, after all. Maybe.”

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