While the war in Gaza was still raging, it was already clear to Avigdor Lieberman that it was going to turn out well. He didn't like the slow pace, the caution or the ambiguous objectives. But it was the evening that Ehud Olmert was hosting six European heads of state in his residence that really made Lieberman lose it. The more ceremonies there are, the worse our situation is, he said, adding that the only political result of Operation Cast Lead was a ceremony.
But the Israel Defense Forces operation had at least one other political result: It did a lot to strengthen Lieberman. The bellicose atmosphere has been good for the strongman of the staunch right. Young voters in particular have given Lieberman an unprecedented level of support in the polls. Sitting in his campaign headquarters in Herzliya Pituah, puffing on a high-quality cigar, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader is worried about the future of his country - but secure about his own future.
Are you satisfied, Mr. Lieberman? We acted just as you wanted us to - with all our might, right up to the end, without mercy.
"In the Gaza operation, the IDF proved itself to be the best army in the Middle East. It returned our national pride to us. But the politicians haven't translated the military achievements into political ones. The soldiers succeeded, but the politicians failed. They didn't let the army complete the operation, so no conclusion was reached.
"What was achieved here? Zip, nada. The strategic objective of the operation should have been the collapse of Hamas. This goal could have been reached not by capturing Gaza and Jabalya, but [simply] by taking over the crossing points and the Philadelphi route. There are enough forces in Gaza that could serve as an alternative to Hamas. When Hamas is dominant, those forces are silent. But if we had closed the Strip in a vice, we would have strangled Hamas."
But Hamas was stricken, Gaza was destroyed, we proved that we can behave just as savagely as Vladimir Putin's Russia.
"When the war between Russia and Georgia ended, no one asked who won and who lost. But here, after the cease-fire, everyone wants to know how it could be that the strongest army in the Middle East was unable to overcome 12,000 terrorists. The result is similar to that of the Second Lebanon War: damage to our deterrent capability. Instead of destroying Hamas, the operation upgraded it, turning it into an important regional player. It's only a matter of time before the government in Ramallah collapses and falls into Hamas hands. Within a year, we'll have an upgraded Hezbollah in Gaza, not a weak Hamas. That Hezbollah will have hundreds of rockets that reach central Tel Aviv. Ultimately, rockets will hit the Kirya [government complex] and Azrieli [towers]."
Do you expect another conflict within the year?
"Without a shadow of a doubt. I think Hamas will aim for a time when it has instruments that will reach Ben-Gurion airport, the Kirya and Dimona."
You were the strategic affairs minister for a year and a half. What do you think is the top strategic threat to Israel?
"Iran, Iran, Iran. Iran threatens us three ways. Once through Hamas and Hezbollah. A second time through preparing global public opinion for the possibility of doing without Israel. A third time with nuclear [weapons development] and ballistic missiles. If we were a normal country, we would stop quarreling over the Palestinian issue and the Golan Heights issue and we would deal with Iran. The day after the new government is elected, it needs to say to the international community, that for now we are not talking about the Syrians or about the Palestinians. All of you together can just go stick it. Until there's a solution to the Iranian problem, we're not dealing with settlements or with settlers or with anything else. Only after the source of the problem - Iran - is resolved will it be possible to discuss the symptoms of the problem in Judea, Samaria and the Golan."
In the United States and even in Israel, there are some who say it's already too late, that we have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran - not to prevent it, but to contain and deter it.
"God forbid. To accept an Iranian nuclear bomb in 2010 is like accepting Hitler's election in 1933. A nuclear Iran is like Hitler with nuclear weapons. It is an absolute strategic threat to Israel."
If the diplomatic restraint fails, should Israel halt Iran by force?
"If we had acted vis-a-vis Iran as we should have between 1996 and 2006, our situation would have been totally different. I would have told the world that we are like Czechoslovakia in 1938. Just like it. And so the choice isn't between a bomb and bombing them. The choice is between being a lonely cowboy and explaining to the West that we are its front line. That if we fall, God forbid, the West will fall too."
And what's the No. 2 threat?
"The extremism among Israeli Arabs. We are losing the Israeli Arabs. We don't know how to support friends among them and restrain enemies. That's why the message they get is that it's worthwhile to be an extremist."
What about the charge that you're racist?
"Our problem is not the Arabs. For years, the Arabs were for the most part just fine. Loyal. During the Yom Kippur War, they sat quietly and were really all right. But we, the Jews, have proven that we are foolish and treacherous. That one can't rely on us and it's not worth being our friends. We abandoned our most loyal allies. We didn't understand that when in Rome, you have to be like the Romans. That in the Middle East you have to act like you're in the Middle East and not like you're in the European Union. There is an elite here that doesn't understand where it is living. It doesn't understand the matter of deterrence and doesn't see the trend of radicalism. The result is that we abandon those who are good and loyal and we placate those who are extremist and threatening. This attitude is screwed up."
You're concerned about violent domestic conflicts that could lead to the deaths of dozens or hundreds?
"Without a doubt. A real intifada, which is liable to be a lot more destructive. 2008 was a record year in terms of Israeli Arabs' participation in hostile activities against the State of Israel. We need to begin equating loyalty with citizenship. Our bill says that when you go to the Interior Ministry to get an identity card you sign a declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel, to the flag, to the national anthem, to the Declaration of Independence, and to Israel being a Jewish and Zionist country. In addition, you commit to perform military service or alternative [national] service."
Your proposal is completely undemocratic. It denies Israeli citizens not only their rights, but also their citizenship.
"Even the Geneva Initiative allows for the revocation of citizenship. One can revoke citizenship as well as moving a population and expelling people."
Are you recommending transfer, Mr. Lieberman?
"First of all, there is a line equating citizenship and loyalty. The second equation is between national security and national service. But there is also a third component. Just as they have the audacity to demand the right of return, there must also be the right of expulsion. For instigators."
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