Ephraim Sneh served as a career officer in the IDF until 1987, reaching the rank of Brigadier-General. He has held a variety of important positions in the army, including Commander of the Medical Teams during the Entebbe Rescue Operation in 1976 and Commander of the Security Zone in South Lebanon in the early 1980’s. A member of the Labor Party, Ephraim Sneh was first elected to Knesset in 1992 and has served as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and has held various Ministries, including Health and Transportation. What follows is an edited transcript of our talk.
What are Israel’s goals after the war in Lebanon?
The most urgent goal is to make sure that Israel wins in the next round with Iran. You see, the war in Lebanon was basically a confrontation with Iran, as Hezbollah is a division of Iran which deployed itself in Lebanon.
Now, I think that Israel won this round, but it was not a smashing victory, so we have to win the next round in an unquestionable way. It will not be easy, as what we found was that in this war the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were under-equipped, under-trained and unprepared. Few read the English version of my book, Navigating Perilous Waters, but I wrote that the mass of firepower that Hezbollah accumulated in south Lebanon was so huge – so powerful – that there was no chance that they could resist the temptation to use it. And use it they did.
The second goal is to ‘close’ the Palestinian side of the conflict. We would do this through agreement and negotiation. This can be done before the end of this decade.
How is that?
There is a strong Palestinian political force which is waiting for our hand. And if we are speaking now in Israel about an Inquiry Commission to investigate what went wrong in Lebanon, I think we should establish another Inquiry Commission about Palestine. There are a few questions to be answered. Why didn’t we take advantage of the demise of Yassir Arafat? Why did we hand over Gaza as a gift to Hamas and not to the moderates? Why, since Taba in January, 2001, has there been no serious attempt to negotiate with the Palestinians? Why after five months of this government in power- the most moderate government Israel has had in the last several years – has there not been a single meeting with Abu Mazen?
There is also a third goal, and that is to retrieve the Israeli welfare state which was destroyed – more destroyed than we imagined.
One of the reasons the atmosphere in Israel now is so full of gloom and malaise is that there are many people who feel that this government has abandoned them. A Jewish state without social solidarity is not a Jewish state.
This brings to mind the platform that Amir Peretz ran on – ending poverty. Do you think Labor is neglecting this issue or has been stalled?
Personally, I am frustrated that we, in Labor, didn’t do enough, although it’s true that we had only a few months in power before the war started.
However, I don’t think that we have neglected poverty. In the coalition agreement, we raised the minimum wage. We also succeeded in allocating 400 million shekels for new medicine for the elderly, and this is only in May, June and July. In less than three months, we succeeded in fulfilling many of our campaign promises to the really poor groups in society.
I would say the momentum of what we believe will be the social revolution is contained because of the war, but we will not allow regression.
What about the specter of privatized health care and cuts in the education budget?
Well, I think one of our most important achievements has been that the Minister of Education Yuli Tamir succeeded in maintaining most of her education budget against the cuts proposed by the Minister of Finance.
As for the privatization of healthcare services, it is an issue that we decided to take all measures to prevent. I tell you here, it will not happen. What our opponents propose – you discover this when you read the text of their proposal – they do just to annoy us, because it’s in total contradiction to everything we believe. We’re against privatization of social services, period.
Writers in Ha’aretz and other places have suggested a more diplomatic approach to Syria. What do you think should be done?
Well, I think perhaps the best approach is what I call the small deal: Syria will seal its border with Iraq, and will help the United States fight the insurgency in Iraq, which is very important for the United States. They will expel Khaled Mashal, the exiled leader of Hamas, and will shut down the headquarters of Hamas in Damascus. They will stop replenishing Hezbollah’s weaponry in Lebanon.
If Syria starts doing this, then she should be treated like Libya after President Moammar Quaddafi dismantled his nuclear project. Everything opens up for Syria then: investment, tourism and commerce.
Of course, there is only, at best, a ten percent chance that it would work. I am not very hopeful about it, but in the Middle East you have to try.
I should say that the Golan Heights are not in this deal. I’m against giving Syria strategic assets just for good behavior. The trade of the Golan is totally different. It requires a profound, sustained change in the policy and philosophy of the Syrian regime.
Increasingly, it seems that Israel’s electoral system is dysfunctional – right now you have a ruling party with 30 seats, and it forces you to make huge coalitions. Should Israel ditch the proportional system?
No, because I don’t think there’s a better system, and because we cannot stop the will of the people. The problem in Israel is not the electoral system, as many people tend to think. It’s the fact that we are split along various lines – you have non-religious and Orthodox, and among the Orthodox you have Sephardic and Ashkenazi. It’s the people who are split. Don’t blame the system! The system reflects the fragmentation of the people. I hear all the crazy ideas of would-be dictators that want presidential systems. It is not for the Jews. For the goyim, it might be alright.