Editor’s Note: Yossi Ben-Aharon, 71, served for 30 years in various capacities under both Labor and Likud governments, first in the foreign ministry and later in the Prime Minister’s Office. He spoke candidly with The Jewish Press last week on a wide range of subjects.
Jewish Press: When you look back on your 30 years of involvement in the shaping of Israeli diplomatic and foreign policy, is there any one thing you now wish you?d done differently? Ben-Aharon: When I served under Yitzhak Shamir, I was very taken up with this position and served him totally, without any reservations. But since Shamir was very circumspect and an introvert, I think I should have been more expressive and taken a greater role in the decision-making process. It took me some time to realize that cabinet ministers did not really understand much in foreign policy. Shamir relied primarily on me – and to an extent on Elyakim Rubenstein – in foreign affairs.
Shamir was so hesitant to express himself publicly on important issues because he didn’t want to slip in some kind of remark that might boomerang later. Today, unfortunately so late in time, people say, Oh, Shamir was great, it’s a pity we didn’t appreciate his leadership and wisdom when he was prime minister. Now we can compare him with all those who came after him, and they are miniatures compared to him. He was a small man but really a giant.
Many people believe the Madrid Conference, which took place while Shamir was in office, paved the way for the Oslo disaster. Yes, I am aware of this accusation. I don’t accept this. I participated in every move that took place prior to Madrid. We had very bitter exchanges with then Secretary of State James Baker, the architect of the Madrid conference.
Shamir made it absolutely clear that a) we were willing to reach some kind of understanding along the lines of the autonomy that Menachem Begin devised at Camp David, which meant local authority under overall control of Israel and no foreign sovereignty whatsoever west of the Jordan River; and b) under no condition whatsoever would the PLO be able to set foot on any part of Israel – not only Arafat, but any of the PLO terrorists who were in Tunis.
Baker accepted this and he accepted the condition that although there would be a Palestinian delegation who were pro-PLO, they would be local indigenous Palestinians. Baker accepted Shamir?s conditions and told him that if anyone would say he is PLO, or represents the PLO, or raises the PLO flag, anything of this sort, and you leave the conference room, we, the U.S., will support you. That was the condition of the Madrid conference.
Therefore, this was not the beginning of a process that led to Oslo – contrary to what Yossi Beilin or Geula Cohen says.
You were the expert on Syria and headed the Syrian desk in those years. Is it possible to make peace with Syria?
Why do we need a formal peace treaty with Syria? This talk of peace is something we Israelis have hypnotized ourselves with, that we must achieve peace. Who says we have to achieve peace when there is no peace among the Arabs themselves?
An Arabist in the State Department once told me, “You people are crazy if you think you can make peace with a group of nations that don’t have peace among themselves. The Egyptians want to gobble up the Sudanese, Libya fought with Egypt many times. Look at Iran and Iraq, look at Syria and Iraq. Look at Syria that gobbled Lebanon, look at Jordan where every once in a while there is a confrontation between the Jordanians and the Syrians. So how do you expect to make peace with them?!”