A conversation with Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz was in Ottawa this week to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Steinitz described Israel’s relationship with Canada’s current government as “very special and quite rare… They act no just out of shared interests but shared values.” He spoke to Maclean’s about this relationship, as well Iran, Syria, and Israel’s current peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What is Israel’s understanding of the status of Iran’s nuclear program?

Iran is already pretty close to the capacity of producing their first bomb. When negotiations begin in 2003, Iran had 160 centrifuges. Today, after ten years of negotiations, the Iranians have almost 20,000 centrifuges. If Iran gets the bomb, we estimate in ten years it will have 100 bombs. And their global ambitions are known. What they have in mind is a historic mission to fix the overall balance of power in the world between Islam and the Western world. And that’s why it’s so dangerous. It could be a global game changer.

Israeli officials and politicians, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, have been saying Iranian nuclear bomb capacity is imminent for almost 20 years. What’s different about the intelligence you have now compared to the intelligence you had in 1995, or even 2009, that was clearly wrong?

The Iranians, according to their own plans, were supposed to produce a bomb many years ago. They had many problems and difficulties that delayed it. [Here, Steinitz smiled. Israel is believed to have been involved in cyber-attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear program, as well as in the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.]

But now, despite all the problems and difficulties, the accidents, they got pretty close. And we believe, by the way, that there is a very reasonable solution to the problem.

What’s that?

Look, if you take the Iranian official statements, what they really want is to have civilian nuclear energy. What the world wants, Israel as well, is to be completely confident that they don’t have the capacity to produce the bomb. These two demands can be easily combined. Let them have nuclear electricity power stations and buy their fuel elsewhere. Why should Iran reject such a reasonable solution?

Israel has responded with skepticism to recent outreach efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. If Israel desires a diplomatic solution, surely this is the first step in that direction?

We are very skeptical because we know Rouhani. And Rouhani was in charge of the negotiations between Iran and Britain and France and Germany in 2003. And then he published a book a few years ago in which he explained how he cheated the West, how he understood that the West wanted to be appeased and wanted to have an immediate diplomatic achievement, and he therefore made some partial, tangible, but not extremely significant concessions and, according to his book, by this he saved the Iranian nuclear project from a possible military attack in 2003, and also from partial economic sanctions.

Is a military strike a viable tactic for delaying or destroying Iran’s nuclear program, and would the outcomes be less bad than Iranian nuclear capacity or even having the bomb?

I want to make it clear that I am not elaborating about what Israel can do or should do militarily. But, generally speaking, the Iranians feel vulnerable to a military attack. They know that no nuclear industry on the face of the earth can be made immune to a massive and accurate air raid, even if it is under ground. And they feel extremely vulnerable, especially in regard to America. Therefore, we say that in addition to the very significant economic sanctions, a credible military threat would add to the chances to convince them, to force them, to give up entirely.

Other countries have nuclear weapons, including your own. Why isn’t containment a viable option for a nuclear-armed Iran?

First of all, we don’t want to elaborate about what Israel is doing or having. We have a very clear policy of ambiguity. You cannot compare Iran to other reasonable democratic governments, like France or the United States or Britain, or even governments like India or Pakistan. If Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, it would be the first time in human history that a religious fanatic regime will obtain nuclear weapons. Secondly, if they will do so, they will totally break the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This may well be the end of the NPT, and many other countries that are committed to the NPT, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and maybe even Turkey and others, will follow.

Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believe that an independent Palestinian state is in Israel’s best interests?

Yes. Prime Minister Netanyahu made it very clear that we are seeking two states for two peoples. And I can tell you we are doing sincere efforts right now with the Palestinians, and most Israelis will support such an agreement, even if it will include some serious and difficult concessions on our side, on two conditions: one, that there will be confidence that what we get in return is genuine peace, a real end to the conflict; and second that we get security. We have taken steps to improve the atmosphere. We took a very difficult decision to release 100 convicted terrorists, mostly murderers. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has paid an enormous political price for this, because most Israelis, including very moderate Israelis on the left, were against it.

I think it’s extremely important that we see some reciprocity. For example, the Palestinian Authority should put a clear-cut end to the horrible anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish incitement on government television and in government schools. The main message that Palestinian kids are getting in school is that sooner or later Israel should be eliminated, Jews are horrible creatures, and so on and so forth.

I’ve encountered equally severe racism among Israeli settlers.

There is a huge difference between some examples of hatred and government policy. And what we are speaking of here is not some slogans here and there in some mosques. We are speaking about a culture of hatred. It reminds me of the Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda prior to the Second World, including the general message that Jews are horrible creatures that corrupt their vicinity, with a very clear message that we have to get rid of — not just of the Jewish state — but the Jews themselves

You can’t seriously be comparing [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas to a Nazi?

Only on one very specific aspect: of allowing and even sponsoring such incitement. There is one big difference between Abbas and even [former Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat. Abbas is very careful not to encourage terrorism. And we appreciate this. But he is responsible for terrible anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement that might encourage people to violence and terrorism. Jewish history has taught us not to underestimate the power of incitement and hatred.

What about the increase of settlers in the West Bank over the last 20 years? I think an objective observer would interpret that as an effort to make the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state more difficult.

I think that this is totally wrong. The Palestinians are using the settlements as an excuse sometimes not to negotiate with Israel and not to promote a peace deal, to incite against Israel in the world. In the Oslo agreement that we signed with the Palestinians, there is no Israeli commitment not to build in the settlements. The issue of the settlements was left to the final status agreement. So it’s unfair in a sense to say, ‘Okay, we had an agreement, but now I incite against you all over the world about this issue.’ If we want to be able to have future agreements, let’s first follow carefully previous agreements.

Secondly, Palestinians know very well that once we have a final status agreement, the settlements won’t be a problem. They know it because they have two examples. One was in Sinai. The same happened in Gaza.

But we’re comparing Gaza, which was ten thousand people—

—Eleven thousand people.

—with many, many times more in the West Bank. And evacuating Gaza was politically difficult. And, arguably, the settler contingent in Israeli politics is getting increasingly more powerful.

Of course there are many difference. And speaking of the West bank, the final border will be very different from that in 1967. This is already clear for the Palestinians and the Arab League. There will be significant territorial changes [including land swaps]. And Israel will preserve most settlement blocs and some territories that are necessary for security.

What possible outcome in Syria is in Israel’s best interests?

There are two threats. One is that Assad will regain power. If this will happen, Syria will become an Iranian protectorate. If a group affiliated with al-Qaeda will get the upper hand, this is also dangerous. I think the best for Syria and the region will be if more moderate powers will have the upper hand. But it’s very unclear at this stage.

Is there anything Israel can do to shape that outcome?

Maybe. But we made a decision, and I think a very wise decision, not to interfere and not to become part of the current turmoil in the Middle East.

For three years, thousands of civilians have been killed and sometimes executed in Syria. You see a regime that is conducting a civil war without even the minimal effort to minimize collateral damage to its own civilians. And the world is doing nothing to stop it. Many Israelis are telling themselves that we have to be very serious about our capacity to defend ourselves. Don’t expect the world, with all the friendships of the United States and Canada and the European countries and other countries like India and China, to help. We Israelis have to bear one thing in mind. We survive only because we are capable of defending ourselves, by ourselves.