One of Israel’s Most Highly Decorated War Heroes Talks Peace
By Abigail Adams
NORTHAMPTON – On Feb. 6, approximately 200 individuals filled the sanctuary in Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton to hear former IDF General and current member of the Knesset Amram Mitzna speak in an event sponsored by the Western Massachusetts chapter of J Street, the left-wing Israel lobby group that describes itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace. Mitzna joined with J Street’s president Jeremy Ben Ami in a tour, that included events in Washington D.C., New Haven and Boston, to launch J Street’s “The 2 Campaign,” a grassroots effort to build support for the two-state solution and Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Mitzna served for three decades in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Mitzna enlisted in the IDF in 1963 and fought in the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon War. His valor earned him the rank of Major General in 1986 and, one year later, he was appointed commander of IDF’s Central Command, responsible for the West Bank at the outbreak of the first intifada.
He served as head of the IDF’s Planning Branch, responsible for developing strategy, from 1990 until his retirement from the military in 1993 and his entrance into politics as mayor of Haifa. In the midst of the second intifada in 2003, Mitzna entered the 16th Knesset as the Labor party and opposition leader with a platform built on negotiating with Yasser Arafat and swapping land for peace. Due to infighting, Mitzna resigned as head of the Labor party shortly into his term and left the Knesset in 2005 to return to local politics.
In 2013, Mitzna reemerged on the national stage as a member of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party. Despite his shifting political allegiance, Mitzna’s stance on negotiations has remained constant. Since 2003, he has aggressively advocated for a two-state solution that would involve an approximate return to the 1967 borders and a withdrawal from West Bank settlements and the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
The Jewish Ledger spoke with Mitzna about his party’s position, his personal vision and the political and security climate surrounding the proposed peace talks.
Q: You have often been quoted as saying that your experience as commander of the Central Command during the first intifada contributed to your political position in negotiating with the Palestinian Authority. What specifically about that experience influenced your position and what’s your current attitude towards the proposed bilateral negotiations?
A: I found out that there’s no way to end this conflict by using military power. The first intifada led us to the Oslo agreement, because it was not just me who thought this. It was also Yitzhak Rabin, who was then the Minister of Defense. After the first intifada we understood that it was an uprising. It was not just small groups that were taking an active role. It was the population – they were against the idea that they would be ruled by Israelis. So, I came to the conclusion that using military power will leave us nowhere. We can, for a few years or more, stabilize the situation. But, it is like a boiling pot on the fire that you have to always keep the cover on. You use a lot of energy to keep the cover on the pot.
The first intifada was years ago. Since then the Oslo agreement was signed and since then we’ve experienced a lot of terror. We’ve gone through the second intifada, which we used a lot of power to suppress. But now, with Arafat gone, Abu Mazen’s [PA leader Mahmoud Abbas] strategy is completely different. Abu Mazen has said many times that terror is not serving the Palestinian people and he is struggling against terror. The Palestinian Authority is cooperating with our military and police forces to stop terror. Not because they have fallen in love with us, but mainly because they understand that it’s counterproductive and competing with their forces against our forces will lead them nowhere.
So nowadays we’re going through a very critical period of time. A lot of energy was put into the negotiations – by us, by the Palestinians and by the administration here.
Therefore, I feel that it is a critical moment, and since we are building up hopes, a failure would bring us to a completely new situation, which would be very harmful to both Israelis and Palestinians.
Q: Secretary of State John Kerry has made an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement one of his top initiatives. How is Kerry’s initiative different from those of the past? What are the possibilities for success and what are the major obstacles that could result in their failure?
A: It is a unique situation because this administration has almost another three years in power, which is enough time to continue to push. When Clinton came to us with his initiative, it was only a few months before leaving office. So now there is enough time, and, since it is a second term, the administration doesn’t have to calculate the political outcome.
I think that most leaders, even Netanyahu, who is not too willing to make concessions, understand their responsibility. He understands that if [the negotiations] fail then it will start the blaming game. And who is to be blamed? It’s almost sure to be Israel. We saw a lot of signs in the last few months of what kind of isolation might happen if this negotiation stops. We have to understand that there is a lot of fruit and a lot of things that we can get once an agreement is signed or in progress – economically-wise, security-wise.
There is an Arab initiative calling on Arab nations to set relations with Israel once the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is over. So this is the situation. It’s very interesting that most Israelis agree that the only alternative is a two-state solution. Most Israelis also agree that it is in Israel’s interest to achieve the situation where there is an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. But the majority of Israelis do not feel or do not assess that this is possible. This is today the main dilemma. We know what the structure of the agreement will be approximately. We understand that it is the only alternative. We know that it is in Israel’s interest and that we should do it – not because the international world is pushing us and not because we owe something to the Palestinians. No, this is a clear and vital interest in Israel to go through a political separation between us and the Palestinians.
The big question is that most of the people have lost hope that it is possible. First, some people think that it [the settlements] is irreversible and we will not be able to relocate all of the settlers in the West Bank. Some people think that politically it’s almost impossible to reach an agreement. Some people will say that there’s no one to trust on the other side, so with whom are we signing?
But, if it’s agreed that it is a vital interest for the state of Israel, then we should do it even if there is no one to speak with on the other side. Because if not, you give your enemy the right to veto your vital interest. So this is the situation.
Q: What can we expect to see in Kerry’s ‘framework agreement’ for bilateral negotiations?
A: I expect that this paper will not speak with general words. It will be more specific. Again, it is and probably will be a paper of principles but with more detail. Let me give you an example. You can say, in principle, that there will be a border between the state of Israel and the Palestinians. This is a very general announcement that says nothing. But you can also say that the future border will be based on the ’67 line with a 5% swap of land. There you can be very specific without drawing a line.
Q: What is the current climate in the Knesset towards negotiations?
A: I assess that in the Knesset there is a majority to back the peace agreement but not in the coalition. Once the paper that Kerry presents is adopted by Netanyahu, then the right-wing parties with Naftali Bennett [leader of Bayit Yehudi] will leave the coalition. I think that once the paper is more specific, not general, Netanyahu will have to reshuffle the coalition. If there is not progress, the party that I belong to [Hatnua], maybe also Yair Lapid [leader of Yesh Atid] will leave. If there is progress, then the right-wing parties will have to leave. So there is room for a new government again without going to elections.
The most difficulty is where the Likud party will be. Most of the members of the Knesset that are from Likud are more to the right than Netanyahu himself, so it is a very complicated situation and I cannot tell you where we are going. I can assume that Netanyahu, like all the right-wing Prime Ministers until now, once they were sitting in the chair of the prime minister they understood their responsibility. It forced them to leave behind all their ideologies and to be more realistic.
It was the same with Begin, Shamir, Sharon, and Olmert. It was understood that once you have the responsibility you can’t go on saying we want this or we don’t want that. Hopefully, Netanyahu’s responsibility will overcome Netanyahu the ideologist. This is what I hope, but I can’t tell you what will happen.
Q: What role does Hamas have in the negotiations? How will the situation in Gaza impact the peace agreement?
A: Hamas is not playing any role, even if Hamas is ruling the Gaza Strip. Speaking about responsibility, Hamas understands that they must chase and stop the small and extreme organizations in Gaza that are launching missiles into Israel. So, they understand responsibility, but they are not part of the negotiations. It is another issue – are we dealing with one Palestinian state or two Palestinian states? What I suggest is that if and when an agreement is signed with the PA then the citizens of the Gaza Strip will attempt to also join, because it will bring them the prosperity and they will be able to focus on their domestic problems, which are high. Hamas is against recognizing Israel. They are willing to have a long-term ceasefire agreement but they will never recognize the Jewish state as a state.
Q: The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has recently had some high-profile victories. As someone who has called for an end to the settlements since before the BDS movement existed, what is your take on the movement? Is it helping or hurting the negotiations?
A: It is hurting, although it’s still not so significant. It is, however, a clue to what will be in the future. I think that we have to fight against this movement and this idea, because by boycotting and isolating Israel they will achieve nothing. I think that there is enough debate inside Israel between the population and the political parties about what we should do and what kind of an Israel do we want. The last thing we need is someone from the outside telling us what to do and pushing us with threats of a boycott. Israel cannot survive being isolated and hopefully it will not become something that will really threaten the ability of us in Israel to serve our people.
Q: How is the chaos in Syria and warning signs of destabilization in Lebanon affecting Israel’s security and negotiations with the Palestinian Authority?
A: It seems to me that the instability in Lebanon, in Syria, in Egypt is not playing against Israel. Today, most of the Arab countries, not just the ones surrounding Israel, are more occupied with their domestic problems than their traditional enemy, the Jews. Because they are in an alternative conflict, they are not a military threat to Israel.
If you look at the Syrian army, there is no army that is able to threaten Israel. In Egypt, it is a completely different situation. The current administration is fighting against the extreme Islamists, which is playing for our side. Never before has the agreement between Israel and Egypt been so useful. They’re fighting terrorism in the Sinai and blocking the Gaza Strip because they feel that Hamas is helping the Muslim Brotherhood. I know some people will say that it is an unstable Middle East and let’s wait. I say the opposite. Because it is an unstable situation in each of these countries, they are occupied with their own problems. It is a window of opportunity that we have to use. It is not just that they’re occupied with their own problems; in a lot of ways Israel and some of the Arab countries have the same interests in fighting against extreme Islam that is attempting to rule over their countries.
Years ago we were threatened by a big Egyptian military force. We were certain about the Eastern Front-Syria, Jordan and Iraq-but they don’t exist now. So yes, we might face terrorism and terror is problematic, but it is not the same threat as regular armies lining the borders. So, I think it is an opportunity rather than a dangerous situation.