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Q&A: Gen. Uzi Dayan

Israel’s lead security negotiator talks about the end of Oslo and the future of annexation

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Uzi Dayan in the Judean desert overlooking the Jordan Valley, January 2014. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
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In another country, in another life, Uzi Dayan would be a professor of systems engineering at MIT. In Israel during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, he is Moshe Dayan’s smart nephew, who proved his courage as commander of the legendary Sayeret Matkal before serving as head of the IDF’s Central Command and then as Deputy Commander of the IDF.

As national security adviser to Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, Dayan got a firsthand look at how political decisions are made in modern Israel, which left him with a bad taste in his mouth. Heading up Israeli negotiating teams on security-related issues with the Palestinians, the Jordanians, and the Syrians over the past 20 years has also given him a long-term firsthand acquaintance with Israel’s prospective partners for peace.

Dayan’s firmly held perspective—that the Oslo peace process is dead and that any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will be a unilateral one—may come as a surprise to Secretary of State John Kerry, and to most people in the West who read daily newspaper stories about the ups and downs of something called “the peace process.” But his view is in fact shared by majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians who, according to recent polls presented at the Herzliya Conference, continue to believe in a two-state solution but are unable to agree on the minimal contours of what such a solution might look like.

As a result, both Israelis and Palestinians favor unilateral moves: Palestinians want to gain recognition for a Palestinian state with their preferred borders through international bodies like the United Nations, while Israelis of wildly differing political persuasions want to set the borders of their own state by withdrawing from outlying settlements on the West Bank and annexing major settlement blocs close to Israel and the Jordan Valley.

The unilateral actions that Israelis and Palestinians are likely to take in the coming months will make it clear that Oslo was, in some deep sense, misguided—a Protestant marriage between Jews and Muslims that made sense to a Western audience but ultimately failed to serve the deeper needs of either side. What will be left, on the Palestinian side, will be the work of convincing Western donors to continue to pay the salaries of a PA government that will be dominated by Hamas, while Israeli politicians try to find other words for “annexation.”

I spoke with Uzi Dayan in Tablet’s conference room, where I offered my guest vodka and a large bloc of halvah. He declined the vodka, while cutting the halvah into tiny squares, which he ate one by one with a knife. By the end of the interview, about a third of the halvah was gone.

The United States has learned an important lesson from Israel, it seems: wildly unequal prisoner swaps.

Israel can learn from the United States, I guess, how to release one prisoner for five bastards and not a thousand bastards. I’m now writing the counter-terrorism doctrine of Israel, and one of the recommendations is going to be that we shouldn’t let terrorists develop the expectation to get so many prisoners for kidnapped soldiers.

The United States announced that it intends to keep doing business with the Palestinian Authority despite the merger agreement with Hamas. How upset, actually, is the Israeli government about the American posture?

I remember in 2009, John Kerry said to Qatar that you can’t have it both ways: You can’t want to be friends of the United States of America and at the same time finance Hamas. Now who is financing Hamas?

For Israel, it’s not something that we are glad about, but if you ask me what Israel is going to do about it, the answer is that Israel is not going to do anything special. We offered Abu Mazen a two-states for two-peoples process, and he ran away at the critical moment of truth. I’m not surprised by that. I was the head of the security committees for the negotiating processes with the Palestinians, the Jordanians, and the Syrians, so I know Abu Mazen pretty well. He thinks that terrorism is not the right way. But he’s not strong enough to dismantle terrorism. And at the same time, he has escaped from this process many times, at least three, four times, whenever it gets serious. The reason that he runs away is that he is not ready to sign an end-of-conflict agreement.

Abu Mazen can go and cry to the U.N., but he is not ready to really solve the issue, because from the best of my understanding, and I’ve spent lots of time with him on it, he believes that he can’t sign an agreement that says, for example, no right of return, because he is then giving up on the dream of the Palestinian diaspora. He won’t sign a paper with an arrangement in Jerusalem, because he will feel like he is giving to the Jews what Saladin freed in 1187. And so on.

After Arafat died I spent about four months in the West Bank and Gaza with all of his close advisers and the leaders of Fatah. I met with everybody—Dahlan, Rajoub, Abbas, Tirawi, Habash, Nafal, Abbas Zaki, and dozens of others. The conclusion that I came to is that there is no Palestinian leader who will ever sign anything that looks like what Israelis and Americans imagine to be an end-of-conflict agreement. Arafat was the only man who could have signed it, but he decided not to. The Oslo process was a well-intentioned moment in history that was over by the year 2000.

There wasn’t such a moment, by the way. I advised Barak not to go to Camp David, and I said, “Arafat will never sign a ‘no more conflict, end of claims’ agreement.”

Barak told me that his goal was to make Arafat take off the mask—

—to expose his real face. It wasn’t his goal. He was hoping that he will sign. I said, “He will never do it.” He said, “You don’t know that.” I said, “True, but you don’t know whether he’s going to sign it.” And he said, “It depends on my partner, on Arafat.” I said, “He won’t sign, and what are we going to do if he won’t sign?” He said, “Then I don’t have a choice, and I have to expose his real face and tell everybody we tried.”

‘There is another problem with annexation, and this is, when you annex something, at the same time you make clear what you don’t annex.’

And you know what I told him? I said, “Look out. You think that this is a good plan, but the guinea pigs in your laboratory won’t cheer when your experiment doesn’t succeed and the whole lab goes in flames. That’s what’s going to happen.” And that’s what happened. So, you are right that there is no Palestinian leader today who will sign a peace agreement that will mean the end of our conflict.

But the public discussion is always about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

You know why? The problem is that for the Israelis, for example, to make a huge territorial compromise and to give up most of the land, you need to have a goal like real peace, OK? And that’s also true for the Palestinians. If you say “interim agreement,” everybody will laugh at you. Politically, you can’t go for something that is less than a perfect agreement. So, the only way to deal with it is to continue to talk about a full agreement but to know that by the end of the day, you will get something that is less than that.

One outcome of Oslo is that the West is now conditioned to the idea that the Palestinian Authority will not spend money to make any kind of large-scale improvements in the lives of their people—they’re off the hook. The Palestinians are the world’s problem now. The world is conditioned to the idea that the Palestinians will not move off of a set of core demands. They’re conditioned to the idea that the peace process has to be played out as a public-relations gesture every year or two in front of the cameras.  Meanwhile, Israel sits as the occupying power in the West Bank, year after year, and it’s awful—except it’s still better, year after year, than the alternatives. But if you look at what Israeli negotiating positions were in 1994, if you look at what they are now, over those 20 years there’s been quite a slide, right?

A slide in what?

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Q&A: Gen. Uzi Dayan

Israel’s lead security negotiator talks about the end of Oslo and the future of annexation