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Leader: Israel gives hope to world

When Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu ousted Labor's Shimon Peres to become Israel's prime minister in 1996, their starkly different views about how to pursue peace with the Palestinians mirrored deeply divided Israelis. The conservative, native-born Netanyahu, 48, insists only he can forge real peace, though his "peace with security" campaign theme has produced little of either. The Poland-born Peres, 74, who helped found the Jewish state, won a Nobel Peace Prize as an architect of the 1993 Oslo accords with the PLO. He warns that the window of opportunity for achieving a lasting peace is rapidly closing. Here, Netanyahu talks about the nation's past struggles, current woes and quest for security.

Q. Why is the world fascinated with Israel's anniversary?

A. It's because the story of Israel is a great example for all of humanity. It's the odyssey of a people who had been on the brink of extinction 50 years ago, who mobilized their collective will, established their independence in their ancient homeland, built one of the finest armies in the world, revived an ancient language, built one of the most advanced economies and technologies in the world and are making peace despite all the difficulties with their neighbors.

It is a tremendous story of achievement and struggle despite overwhelming odds, and it is a story that is perhaps the greatest success of the 20th century. Communism has come and gone. Fascism has come and gone. So many other "isms" have come and gone. Zionism has come and stayed. It is not only a success for the Jewish people and for the friends of Israel, but I think it gives hope to all of humanity, because it says that all of us can overcome these difficulties.

If the Jewish people can cross this river from catastrophe to salvation _ they now have a state of their own, they now control their own destiny _ this tells all of mankind that we can indeed shape our future and provide hope for all humanity.

Q. If Israel can have its own state, why not let the Palestinians do the same?

A. I'm against a state because a state involves no limitation on powers. The term "state" invokes in people's minds no limitations on powers; that is, unbridled self-determination.

But I think there should be a Palestinian entity that should not be able to import weapons, should not be able to make pacts with Iraq or with Iran that could endanger Israel, should not be able to control the airspace above our airfields or dig down into the aquifers that provide Israel with water and take away the water. In other words, it should have all the powers to run the lives of Palestinians but not to threaten ours.

Q. Where Shimon Peres envisions a new Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu sees a new Middle East of missiles. Who's right?

A. What is important to understand is that Israel is a tiny country. It's one of the smallest countries in the world, facing one of the biggest if not the biggest security threat from its neighborhood, including just recently the potential bombing of our cities by Iraqi non-conventional missiles.

As far as the longer-term interests, I think that we'll complete the circle of peace around us with the Palestinians, with the Syrians and with the Lebanese. But agreements will be struck that will not remove from the Middle East the dangers of such regimes as Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf, who are arming themselves as best as they can with missiles and non-conventional weapons.

Q. Peace talks have been in a stalemate since Israel's January 1997 handover of most of Hebron to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Who's to blame? Likud, Labor or the PLO?

A. This is precisely what we showed in Hebron. The Labor Party, the Labor government could not redeploy (withdraw) from Hebron. They would have had, I suspect, a civil confrontation on their hands. They didn't redeploy. We did. We did other things that they didn't do, including releasing terrorists that they (the Labor government) promised to release but didn't carry out, not because we liked it but because we were faithful to those commitments.

And we remain faithful to the Oslo accords that stipulate not only Israeli actions but Palestinian actions that have not been carried out. Arafat has not fought terror. He has not dismantled the terrorist infrastructure. And we want a deal of land for something, not land for nothing, which is what I insist on, which is why the peace process has been stalled for a year.

Q. With such deep lack of trust, how can this peace succeed?

A. I don't think it's in the interest of the Palestinians to turn back the clock. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot have additional land from us in the name of peace and not give back peace in return. They cannot say, "Give us land," and then turn these lands into safe havens for Hamas terrorists or bases for intifada violence. They have to understand that Israel will not play that game, and I think they do understand it. And therefore I think that at the end of the day both they and we will find a way to move this process forward peacefully.

Q. The U.S. proposes that Israel withdraw from about 13.1 percent of the West Bank in the next troop pullbacks. Israel's government offers 9 percent, and Arafat wants at least twice that. Why not compromise on 13 percent or even more?

A. The reason Israel lived in a state of war up to 1967 was because it was indefensible. It had no West Bank at all. It had no margins at all. It was all of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide. The Arabs could look at the middle of this tiny Israel and see the Mediterranean beyond, and they thought of slicing it into two and finishing it. That's why we never could create a peace.

I would say that the peace process began on June 12, 1967, after the Six-Day War when the Arab world realized that the possibility of a successful conquest of the state of Israel, of the Jewish state, had been eliminated. That opened up the way for the peace treaty first with Egypt, then with Jordan, the first peace agreement with the Palestinians, and I believe the peace treaties that will follow.

If in the course of making peace with the Palestinians we go back to the indefensible pre-'67 boundaries, we will unravel all the progress that has been made toward peace. In our area, the only ability to secure the peace is to be able to defend it. And for that, Israel needs a minimum amount of territorial defenses.

Q. Do you ever get discouraged pursuing your goals or fighting critics?

A. I'm neither pessimistic nor optimistic. I'm realistic. And I don't intend to get into these strong shifts of mood. I never get euphoric when things look good and I never get depressed when we encounter difficulties. . . .

What is often not understood (abroad) is one other small fact that startles most people. There is no occupation left _ "occupation" in quotes. The Palestinian Authority now governs 100 percent of the Palestinians in Gaza and 98 percent of the Palestinians in the West Bank. The area that is contested between Israelis and Palestinians is empty of Palestinians, miles and miles empty of a single Palestinian. But it is land that is vital to protect Israel against external assault or the threat of terrorism.

Q. If Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion were alive today, would he think there was much to celebrate, given that religious and secular Jews seem more at war than ever?

A. I think that we don't really have a simple answer to the separation of church and state in Israel, for the simple reason that the definition of what is Jewish and who is a Jew is very hard to parse out. It's both nation and religion, and because of that duality all prime ministers . . . have followed Ben-Gurion's wisdom. He basically said there is no way to reconcile the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minority's desire to have Israel run by Halachic rule (Jewish religious law) and the secular majority's obstinate refusal to do so. So essentially, what we've done is strike a series of ad hoc compromises since the birth of the state, and we continue in that tradition.