Exclusive Interview: Sharon Warns that Israel May 'Take Steps' Against Arafat

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon talks exclusively with Lally Weymouth about Israel's next steps. Reuters
With a U.S.-brokered ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians hanging in the balance, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flies to Washington this week to meet with President Bush. Secretary of State Colin Powell, mean- whiles heads for the Mideast. For Sharon, the trip caps a remarkable turnaround in his political fortunes. After Israel's controversial 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was masterminded by Sharon—then the Defense minister— his popularity in Israel hit an all-time low and he was persona non grata in Washington. Now, at 73, Sharon enjoys an approval rating of almost 70 percent. Senior U.S. officials are quick to praise his restraint in the face of persistent Palestinian terror attacks—including the lolling of two Israeli soldiers on Friday by a suicide bomber—and his willingness to sign on to the ceasefire. But Sharon, sitting in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem prior to his trip, warned that the violence is pushing Israelis to the breaking point. While angry crowds of hard-liners—once his loyal followers—demonstrated outside his office, urging him to attack the Palestinian Authority,Sharon talked at length with NEWSWEEK'S Lally Weymouth. Weymouth, who has been reporting from the region since 1981, also conducted an exclusive interview with Jibril Rajoub, a top security aide to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat (following story). Excerpts: WEYMOUTH: You just spoke with President Bush by phone. How did it go?

SHARON: He was very friendly, as usual. He calls me Ariel and I call him George. I [told him] I don't see even the slightest sign that there is a change on the part of Arafat. On the contrary, the situation has become worse. Al- though he has mil control, Arafat has not given instructions to stop incitement or to rearrest terrorists engaged in planning attacks. Since Arafat accepted the Tenet document [a ceasefire framework brokered by CIA Director George Tenet] a few days ago, we have suffered 230 terrorist attacks, four Israeli citizens have been killed and another 10 wounded. Israel is showing restraint, but people cannot accept it. We are not going to move forward [with the peace plan of a commission headed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell], which we accepted, unless there is a full cessation of hostilities.

If the situation is not tolerable, will the government endorse a military operation against the Palestinian Authority?

Israel is still committed to the Mitchell and Tenet agree- ments, but we reserve our right of self-defense. Arafatis playing with terror. It won't take too long before Israel will have to take steps. It's impossible to continue this way.

What are your options?

They have a military industry that works. They make a tremendous effort to smuggle weapons. They buy weapons from everywhere.

They're manufacturing weapons?

Yes, mortars, [An aide comes in and shows Sharon a note; the primeminister says that another Israeli has been wounded.] It is a soldier wounded by a bomb put by the side of the road. It happens daily...Arafat is behind the terror.

Is Arafat a partner for peace?

Arafat rales a coalition of terror. His security organizations are involved in terror. Some of them, including the presidential guard, are now coordinating with Hizbullah, which has start- ed to operate inside Israel.

Has the Bush administration been supportive of Israel?

Yes. But they are Americans and have their own interests. Their main interest is stability—but it's also our interest. They would like to avoid escalation, but so would I. They don't want a war to develop here. But there is not going to be a war.

Egypt, Jordan and the other Arab states are not interested in war? Will there be a war of attrition between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

That's, of course, the dangerous thing. I am ready to make painful compromises for a true peace. But I will not make any compromises that endanger the security of the Israeli people.

Did [former prime minister Ehud] Barak's offer at Camp David prove that Arafat is not interested in peace?

One of the reasons for the present problem is the fact that Arafat got used to negotiating under terror. He would like to negotiate under terror now.

Do you still accept Oslo (the peace process launched in 1993], or is it dead?

Oslo didn't bring peace. It didn't bring security.

So what now?

First of all, it should be quiet. Nothing will move forward until that point. Arafat knows it, [but] he still thinks he can manipulate us. But I know Arafat, and Arafat knows me. He will not be able to do it. For Arafat, the fact that I managed to form a national-unity government is something he hates. He would like to play between Jews.
Is the Palestinian Authority rearresting any of the terrorists that it freed from jails?
They are not doing anything. There is no ceasefire. [U.S. envoy William] Burns was so happy that Arafat accepted the Tenet agreement. I told [U.S. officials], the world is celebrating but we are at funerals.

Do you need Europe and the United States to pressure Arafat?

The most important is the United States. I am not underestimating Europe, but the attitude of Europe is unbalanced. If we are ready to have a daily casualty list and [continue to] show restraint, we might be loved. That is very nice, but that is something that one cannot accept. We tried. We really tried.

It sounds as if you have made up your mind to do something.

We have to do something.
Is there a future Palestinian leader who can replace Arafat?
Everyone will have one day another future leader.
Some people say it will be worse when Arafat's era ends because there will be chaos.
What is it now?
People argue that with Arafat in charge, there is someone to make a deal with.
The people responsible for that terrible mistake, the Oslo agreement, would like to justify what they have done. If it wasn't Arafat, somebody else would be there.

Is Israel better off with Arafat or without? Would it be easier without him?

If he were not here, it would be easier. Israel should not take steps [against Arafat personally]; it is not up to us to decide who leads the Palestinians. But more and more of our intelligence people believe he is an obstacle to peace... I think Arafat is an obstacle.

Do you think that he should be put on the U.S. terrorism list?

I think that some of his organizations should be put there—like the Tanzim and Fatah, Arafat's party. They announced they murdered women on Monday.

Can you make a deal with Arafat? I don't think you can make a deal with a terrorist organization.

Why do you think Arafat is out of the country at such a crucial time for the ceasefire?

When he leaves, it's like an early warning. He leaves behind instructions. He prefers to have terror intensified when he is not in the country.

What are your intentions regarding a freeze on settlements?

There will be no construction of new communities, but the government will provide for the current needs of the exist Ing communities.

The Palestinians say a ceasefire must be linked to political goals. What would you do for them if they observed the ceasefire?

If it were completely quiet, we would give them[tax] revenues ... and freeze settlement construction beyond existing built-up areas.

Is there a "new Sharon"?

No, I didn't change. Maybe I learned some things.

Do you think it was a mistake not to have retaliated after the discotheque bombing, which killed 21 Israelis?

I think I made the right decision. It was not easy.

What is the best way to quell the violence and reach an arrangement with the Palestinians?

For years many leaders of this country tried to persuade us that there is only a political solution. They were completely mistaken. Others thought that there was only a military solution. I think they also were wrong. There should be a combination of political and military steps.

Can you say what those military steps would be?

No, I don't think so. I put them under the term the right of self-defense.

If you defend yourself, do you shoot at people who shoot at you?

Who said that the right of self-defense speaks only about sitting and defending yourself? These are steps you have to take in order to provide security to your people... Nothing positive will happen here unless the world puts heavy pressure upon Arafat to stop terror, violence and Incitement.
What is the political-military option?
I am not going into details. I am expecting that he will understand...that we will have to take steps in order to solve the problem. It cannot go on like this.

Will you take the steps soon?

When they will be needed.