Peace, When the Time Comes

Meir Sheetrit is not good with dates. He will run for prime minister, but doesn't know when. The justice minister supports evacuating outposts at an accelerated pace, but declines to say whether he means weeks or months. He is very interested in conducting peace negotiations, but has no problem waiting 20 years until the Arabs sober up and respond to Israel's outstretched hand.

He is now celebrating his 58th birthday, and has spent more than half of those years in politics. In 1973, when he was 25, he was elected mayor of Yavneh. Since 1981 he has been in the Knesset and later in the cabinet. He was among the founders of Kadima, but Ehud Olmert shunted him to the Housing and Construction Ministry, consoling him with a cabinet seat, but without the right to vote. He returned to the Justice Ministry, from which Ariel Sharon had removed him, and received a cabinet upgrade thanks to Haim Ramon's long tongue.

If Ramon is acquitted, Sheetrit will most likely have to leave the Justice Ministry and give up the right to vote in the cabinet. The interview with Sheetrit took place in the shadow of the public debate over MK Avigdor Lieberman's initiative to change the system of government in Israel. Sheetrit does not miss the opportunity to take aim with one stone at three birds - Olmert, Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Just spin

Netanyahu said you don't change systems of government like you change your socks.

"He's absolutely right, so why did he support changing the system? To me, this whole issue is not important. It's basically a preliminary proposal that doesn't have a chance, I repeat, no chance, of becoming actual Knesset legislation. When I was approached to discuss Lieberman's bill in the ministerial legislative committee, I told them my condition for doing so was that the sponsoring MK tell the plenum that the bill will undergo only a preliminary reading and will not be sent to the Knesset until it receives government approval. The significance of this is that the bill will not progress. I oppose this law, but I have no problem with making a gesture to Lieberman and passing the bill in a preliminary hearing."

You say this whole effort by Lieberman is just a shady deal?

"Right. It's a gesture the prime minister made in an attempt to bring Lieberman into the coalition, and Lieberman managed to turn it into some spin. I can show you dozens of bills that passed a preliminary reading and then died painlessly in the Knesset. Sometimes the government wants to meet an MK halfway and lets him make a declaration. Write down in your notebook that changing the system of government cannot be done through a private member's bill.

"Lieberman's bill uses an improper method. I would never agree to a voting method with two ballots. I plan to work on preparing a government-sponsored bill by talking to the Knesset factions and reaching a consensus, without destroying what already exists. I supported the direct election of the prime minister, and I think we must switch to regional voting and raise the minimum vote threshold required to enter the Knesset. Several years ago, I submitted a proposal to raise the minimum threshold to 5 percent. I came up against the ultra-Orthodox and I fell because of the opposition of Labor Party members, led by Haim Ramon."

How can you sit in a government with a party leader who advocates transfer? What kind of message would that send to Israeli Arabs?

"Our system creates strange affiliations. I'm not comparing the two, but if he were to accept our basic guidelines, it would be like Hamas recognizing the State of Israel and then we would be willing to talk to him. If Lieberman wants to join the coalition, he will have to accept the government's basic guidelines. He will not be able to raise his proposal for transfer. He will be the one who will have to explain to the public, not me, why he is joining a government whose basic guidelines include evacuating outposts and territorial concessions."

Aren't you attributing excessive importance to the basic guidelines? Kadima committed to shaping Israel's borders and Olmert has declared a prime minister need not have an agenda. Do you agree with him?

"The prime minister's main job is presenting us with a timetable for achieving peace. That is the state's guarantee for future generations. We are investing so much effort in war and rightly so, given the threats around us. Let us invest that effort in achieving peace. I believe the other side is also tired of wars. There is no such thing as a government without a diplomatic agenda. I told Sharon and I say to Olmert: You have an opportunity to make history or be history."

Are you worried about Kadima's standing in the polls?

"If Kadima wants to remain the ruling party, it must strive for peace. That is the primary objective for which it was founded. If you were to ask if that is the agenda we have taken upon ourselves, the answer would be no. The unilateral withdrawal plan is not part of Kadima's platform. It is not written down anywhere. It was an idea of the prime minister that he presented during the election campaign, and even then I opposed it. In the meantime he has retracted it.

"What is unilateral withdrawal anyway? From where will we withdraw? From the Jordan Valley? Find me one supporter of the unilateral withdrawal plan who is suggesting we leave the Jordan Valley. Have you seen the plan? Neither I nor anyone else in Kadima has seen it. If there is a plan, let them put it on the table. I'm telling you there never was a unilateral withdrawal plan. You don't embark on a political process in a confidential manner.

"If the Palestinians were to develop Gaza and all live their lives peacefully, it would have been possible to embark on another disengagement. But in light of their unruly behavior, what is the logic in giving them more land and creating a threat to the entire Dan region? I don't understand why this proposal even came up. They said we would remove residents and leave the army standing. Does anyone really believe it is possible to uproot 60,000 to 80,000 people without a peace agreement? In their dreams. On the other hand, if we reach a peace agreement it will be easier for them. They also realize Israel will not remain in all parts of Judea and Samaria."

But a large share of the public voted for Kadima because of the unilateral withdrawal plan.

"On the contrary, we lost votes because of it. Many people are willing to concede land, but not unilaterally. Sharon unequivocally opposed another unilateral withdrawal. If we say we are following in his path, it is impossible to talk about the withdrawal."

What do you propose instead?

"Kadima committed to reaching an arrangement and shaping Israel's borders. We should wait until we have a Palestinian partner, and we will help them establish a stable and thriving state. They don't want to? So they'll remain as they are. I propose that Olmert initiate a process in collaboration with the Americans and talk to the Arabs about the Saudi initiative. I believe he realizes he must embark on a political process. I hope he will work toward achieving permanent peace. It is our foremost obligation. I support peace because only then will the fig leaf of security cease to hide our nakedness when it comes to social affairs. Crime, distress, poverty and hopelessness are more serious than any external enemy. Until then there will be only whitewashing when it comes to this matter. They extort a few agreements, allocate a bit for children. But it's not serious."

The Saudi initiative offers peace in return for withdrawal from all the territories, including the Golan Heights. Olmert said that as long as he is prime minister, we will not leave the Golan.

"I'm sure it is possible to reach peace with all the Arab countries. If Assad changes his position and stops supporting terrorism, I'm willing to negotiate with him over the Golan Heights, as Rabin, Peres, Barak and Netanyahu did. I'm not sure it was impossible to reach an agreement with Syria during the elder Assad's tenure."

Are you suggesting waiting until the Palestinians become partners and meanwhile letting Sderot absorb more Qassams each day and the Gaza Strip turn into a giant arms warehouse?

"Jerusalem suffered a thousand times more than Sderot. The military system is built to deal with every situation. If there is no choice, we will operate in Gaza. If they want peace, that's great. If they want war, they will get the mother of all wars. You have to talk to the Arabs in language they understand."

Responsible for all decisions

Do you have any idea where Olmert is leading the country? Are you party to the diplomatic decision-making process?

"As a member of the government I am responsible for all the decisions, but that doesn't mean I am party to all of them. For example, during the Lebanon war, despite my experience, I was not a member of the committee of seven and therefore I wasn't involved in all the decisions. I think this process was improper, because every cross-border operation requires a cabinet decision. I did not have the right to vote in the cabinet, but I was the only minister who opposed a ground operation."

Olmert did not become prime minister by virtue of his abilities. He was drawn in by the circumstances. Do you plan to run against him for the leadership of Kadima?

"I certainly strive to be prime minister one day. In the 1999 primaries Sharon got 52 percent, Olmert got 24 percent and I got 22 percent, just 2 percent less than him, despite my support for Oslo. I had only one MK behind me, Michael Eitan, as opposed to Olmert, who was the mayor of Jerusalem and won the support of Moshe Arens, Tzipi Livni and Gideon Ezra. I'm not in a rush. Arik became prime minister at age 73."

As justice minister and as a politician who sees how his colleagues get entangled in criminal actions, can you say Israel is a country of law and order?

"Politicians should serve as examples as far as their behavior is concerned, and that's why I'm concerned by the norms of public figures and by the level of lawfulness in the state. There is a sense of lawlessness, as if everyone does as they please. Everyone - the police, the state prosecutor's office and the courts - has good intentions, but the system is blocked. When an average of five years elapses between the offense and the trial and verdict, there is no deterrence or law enforcement. It is as they say, crime pays."