Deputy PM: Israel Must Cede Land to Remain Jewish and Democratic

'Israel's interests make it imperative to approve the freeze; anyone who is opposed must ask what the alternative is,' Dan Meridor tells Haaretz.

On Saturday night, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor attended the meeting of the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described to them the package of incentives being offered to Israel by the American administration in return for extending the construction freeze in the settlements for three months.

Dan Meridor- Moti Kimche
Moti Kimche

When Defense Minister Ehud Barak testified before the Turkel committee (charged with investigating Israel's raid on the Turkish flotilla heading for Gaza ), he described Meridor as "a minister without a portfolio, but with a great deal of common sense." Meridor is considered the most left-leaning minister among the seven - sometimes even more than Barak himself. Meridor supports extending the freeze, calls for a withdrawal from most areas of the West Bank, is fighting against the amendment to the "loyalty law," and is pushing for resumption of peace negotiations with Syria as well. However the extent of his influence on Prime Minister Netanyahu is not clear.

What is your opinion about the American proposal to extend the freeze by 90 days?

I think that the American offer is reasonable. The freeze is not the main thing, rather the negotiations, which are an Israeli interest of the top order. It is clear to all of us that the present situation cannot remain as it is. There has been no terror in the past year and a half, and the Palestinian economy is experiencing unprecedented growth, so that there is a relatively comfortable feeling. But it's an illusion to think that the situation can remain as it is. This is not a normal situation. Israel has an interest in creating a border, with Israel on the one side and the Palestinian state on the other.

Do you believe there will be a majority in the cabinet in favor of extending the freeze?

I don't want to prophesy, but Israel's interests make it imperative to approve it. Anyone who is opposed must ask what the alternative is. In the opposition, it is possible to oppose the government and not propose solutions - but when you are in the government, it is not possible to make do with a vote about possible dangers. Instead you have to examine what will happen if we do not agree to the American move. Especially when the Palestinian tendency toward unilateral steps is continuing.

What should the future border look like?

I haven't drawn a map, and I don't know from what percentage of the territory it will be necessary to withdraw. It would also not be right to go into this topic in a newspaper interview. I think the new border has to be based on the principle of the security fence route and the settlement blocs. That is what we have to aspire to. In addition, we are insisting that Jerusalem remain the capital of Israel and are opposed to the right of return to Israel [of the Arab refugees], and of course [will insist on] security arrangements.

Will this government be able to evacuate the settlements?

No one doubts that if a Palestinain state is established, the present border will change. That is a difficult decision, but only someone who understands the danger in the continuation of the present situation can understand why we have to take risks like that.

What is the danger?

A situation where there is no partition and there is one state is possible, according to the doctrine of the Herut movement, only on condition that everyone has equal rights. [Former Prime Minister] Menachem Begin said that 'any Arab who wants citizenship will get it, otherwise we will be like Rhodesia.' Is that the Zionist enterprise? Every person can judge for himself. I've reached the painful conclusion that keeping all the territory means a binational state that will endanger the Zionist enterprise. If we have to give up some of the territory or give up the Jewish and democratic character [of the state] - I prefer to give up some of the territory. It is impossible to ignore reality. It's not certain that we'll be able to achieve an agreement, but at least every reasonable effort must be made in this direction.

Will negotiations on the borders not mean that the coalition has to change?

The government will enter negotiations and present its positions, and I hope that all its members will accept the policy that is decided on by the majority. This policy has wider support than merely in the government. Kadima also supports it as does a large section of the public.

There is tremendous public support with respect to the general lines of a Palestinian state, settlement blocs remaining in Israel's hands and a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. From day one I thought that Kadima should have joined the government and certainly after the speech [Netanyahu gave at] Bar-Ilan [University]. There is no reason why it shouldn't join and also no reason why anyone should leave. I am in favor of additions to the government and against leaving it. But what must direct us is the national interest - that is why we formed the government.

Are the Palestinians at all interested in reaching an agreement with Netanyahu?

You need two to tango. The previous government tried in earnest to reach an agreement and offered unprecedented concessions, but the Palestinians did not respond to the offer. It is a difficult question: Do the Palestinians want an agreement, or international imposition of an agreement? ... We have a real interest in renewing the talks.

The Palestinians must understand that they will not have a state unless they agree to a compromise, such as by giving up the dream of the right of return. It is important that the Americans should make it clear to them that there is no 'bypass route' - only the direct negotiations route. Therefore, the U.S. commitment to veto a declaration of Palestinian independence in the UN Security Council is of importance.

Channel 1 will tonight [Monday] broadcast Benny Ori's film, "The Underground in the Tunnel of Time" about the expulsion of members of the Etzel and Lehi pre-state underground movements to the British detention camps in Africa in the 1940s. Your father, Eliahu Meridor who was Etzel commander in Jerusalem, was interned for two years in camps in Eritrea and Sudan. Are these stories that you remember from your childhood?

My father was one of the 251 fighters of the Etzel and Lehi that the British expelled from Palestine in October 1944. First they were sent to Eritrea and then to Sudan, and later also for interrogation to the headquarters of British Intelligence in Cairo. They returned to Israel after the state was established. This is a story of courage, of the struggle to expel the British from the land. It was part of our family history and I heard about it as a boy, both from my father and from his friends.

Quite a few of the Etzel and Lehi members, including those who were expelled to Africa, found themselves in politics. Their sons and daughters as well - like Limor Livnat, Tzipi Livni and you.

A very small proportion of the people who were there went into politics. Those were people with a Zionist awareness and a willingness to fight. Therefore, they took part in the revolt against the British, and their homes were homes where the national and public interest was of importance.

Seventy years have elapsed since then. Some remained in the same camp and others changed their opinions. One can reach different conclusions from that same system of values. The struggle today is not over the establishment of the state, but rather over the character of the state.