Israeli Ambassador Gideon Meir makes no apology for his government's hard-handed approach towards the Palestinians. He tells Kurt Sansone that Israelis are fed up with ceding land for peace and getting war in return.
The impression I got was that the Pope received a lukewarm reception during his visit to Israel this week. Is this correct?
He did not get a lukewarm reception. There were voices of disappointment about his statements on the holocaust and the country which he came from but the reception was very, very warm.
The Israeli government has worked for three months for this visit. We declined other visits because we wanted to concentrate on the Pope's.
What were the Israelis expecting the Pope to say on the holocaust?
To start with, the government did not criticise the Pope. There were people who did. I think Israelis were expecting to hear the Pope express greater regret for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. In our eyes the Catholic Church did not play a major role in saving the Jews during the holocaust. However, these were not government statements but voices I read about in the newspapers.
The Pope has called for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Is this the policy of the new Israeli government?
This has nothing to do with the Pope. There is a new government that was elected by the Israeli people and it is the people who have made it clear that they are fed up. For 16 years we made concessions, giving up land for peace and peace did not come. The key word is negotiation. This means that the two parties talk and both make concessions. But what do we have until now? Israel gave up land and in return all it got was more war, more terror.
We withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 and we got Iran on our borders through Hizbollah, which is its proxy. In 2005 we pulled out of Gaza and we got Iran there through its other proxy, Hamas.
We Israelis have concluded that we want a different approach and are re-thinking government policy in this regard.
The Palestinians would possibly use the same argument you are making since they have nothing to show for all the talks that have been going on.
The Palestinians cannot make that argument because they are using terror to kill our women and children. They bombarded us day in, day out for eight whole years and the international community, the Europeans, were quiet. Unfortunately, when Jews are being killed it does not matter to the world. You don't care about Jews being killed, this is our feeling.
It could also be a simplistic justification on your part.
It is the reality of the international community. Look at the UN conference on racism, Durban II, held recently. The only countries to withdraw from the conference were Italy, Germany and Holland. The rest remained there and it was as if Israel was the only human rights violator of the world. It cannot be like this. Is this correct?
Where is your voice about Iran? Women are being killed, there are no gay rights in Iran, the regime commits atrocities and why don't I hear the voice of Europe? What about the lack of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, why is there no criticism? Is Israel the only problem?
For eight years 9,200 missiles were fired into Israeli towns and cities. Where was Europe's voice?
How do you expect the Palestinians to change their ways when their infrastructure is a disaster, their economy is in tatters, the social system is broken down...
Their economy is in tatters because they use the money to buy arms. The money Europe gives the Palestinians, your taxpayers' money, does not go into public infrastructure and aid for the people.
What about when Israel bombs Palestinian schools and public buildings?
Schools? What are you talking about? This is Hamas-land. Where did all the money you Europeans are putting into Hamas-land go? We bombarded the places from where rockets were fired into Israel. Do not care about the poor Palestinians. They are poor because their leadership wants to make them poor.
Isn't the Israeli blockade of Gaza causing hardship?
Israel is out of Gaza. If you're a journalist get your facts right. Israel is out of Gaza, we dismantled all the settlements in Gaza. They can build a Palestinian state in Gaza. They have all the means but they use the money to build the infrastructure for terror.
However, Israel controls access in and out of Gaza.
Israel does not control Gaza. Israel controls Israel and the Palestinians should control Palestine.
Are you saying there is no economic blockade on Gaza?
They have a border with Egypt. What do they want from us? We are out of Gaza. It is no longer our responsibility.
The borders are still controlled by Israel.
We don't want Israelis to go to Gaza and we don't want the people of Gaza to come to Israel. We are bombarded every day from Gaza.
Even the Pope called for an end to the Gaza blockade.
Don't include the Pope in the conflict of the Middle East. The Pope is a religious figure.
He spoke about the matter during his visit to Israel this week.
I am talking about my people. They need to be protected. It is about time that Europe cares about the Jewish people. The fact is that the Palestinians suffer because of their leadership and the Arab world does not want to invest money to help the Palestinians.
I told Foreign Minister Tonio Borg that the Arab world does not want a solution to the conflict. They want to keep it going. If they wanted to stop it they could have put in a lot of money and effort into the refugee problem and it would have been solved years ago.
However, they are not interested because it is very sexy to keep the debate focused solely on Israel and not revolve the world discussion on the violation of human rights in their own countries. Let us not forget that Syria, Iran and other countries are not democracies. They are run by tyrants.
We have to protect our people and provide security.
Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that the Palestinians are not yet ready to govern themselves. How can this condescending tone lead to a solution?
The solution needs to be reached by the two sides. It cannot be found when only one side grants concessions.
Isn't the language used by Mr Netanyahu wrong?
The Palestinians use the language of terror. When they stop terror there will be peace. As long as they continue with terror we will have to protect ourselves. We have suffered for 2,000 years. We want to live in peace with our Palestinian neighbours but it is about time they understand that they are hostages to their own leadership.
What is Israel expecting from the Palestinians to be able to re-start the peace process?
I expect them to stop terror completely. In the West Bank there isn't as big a problem as the Gaza strip. I also expect them to start investing in infrastructure to create prosperity for their people.
Israel controls the cross-border commercial activity and trade. How can you expect them to have a functional economy in this way?
We don't control Gaza.
Is there free-flowing trade across the border?
No. How can that be when there is terror in Gaza? How can there be free trade? We are out of Gaza and now it is up to Hamas, which is ruling Gaza to decide whether they want to invest in the welfare of their people or whether they want to spend European money on weapons. All your questions are directed towards the wrong address. There is only one address for these questions and that is Hamas.
Is peace possible under the current right-wing coalition government, which includes political parties that are opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state?
You should also direct this question to Hamas. Do they want to live in peace with Israel? Do they recognise Israel? Will they recognise the previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians?
All the questions are valid but they have to be asked to the Palestinians not to me.
If Hamas does agree to your terms, will peace still be possible under the current coalition government?
Yes. If Hamas accepts the three conditions of the international community than it becomes a partner and peace is possible.
The coalition is so stretched from the left of the political spectrum to the ultra-orthodox right that it seems impossible for peace to be achieved by the current government.
The problem is not the coalition. The coalition is a result of the lack of security of the Israeli people and the lack of understanding by the international community. Real peace must come when terrorism is pushed aside.
I read a leading columnist in one of the London newspapers who put a pertinent question: 'not all Muslims are terrorists, but how come is it that all terrorists are Muslim?'
It is not a question of poverty. It is a question of extremism in the Muslim world today. These extremists are not only against Israel. Al-Qaeda and Iran are opposed to the values of the Western world, the values cherished by you Maltese.
Doesn't poverty contribute to push people towards the cause of extremists?
No, because the people who blew up the London trains did not come from poor backgrounds. It is not a question of poverty. There must be a reason why all the children of Hamas leaders are educated in schools abroad.
Could it be a question of oppression then?
If you are referring to the oppression by Hamas, yes, I would agree. It is an unfair question though. You are asking me questions that are part of the indoctrination of the Hamas propaganda machinery. Unfortunately, many Maltese people are exposed to this propaganda.
Doesn't Israel have a much stronger and sophisticated propaganda machine in the international media?
I was in charge of Israel's public relations machinery for six years and I could not compete with the Arab world. I was always against 22 Arab ambassadors. We cannot compete with their machinery because we don't lie. The Palestinians' propaganda machinery is a factory of lies and we cannot compete with an industry of lies because we tell the truth. We are a democracy.
Has Israel always told the truth?
Always. It is a characteristic of our PR machinery. I do not lie to a journalist.
What about hiding facts?
We never lie and when we make mistakes we always come out and apologise. You will never see an Arab functionary apologise for some mistake because they have an industry of lies. It is a well-oiled propaganda industry.
Let us put Hamas aside for the moment. Concretely what does the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have to show his people after all these years of talks and promises of a Palestinian state?
Abu Mazen is something else. He is a decent leader. But your question implies that the entire problem of the peace process falls on the shoulder of Israel. This is not the case.
The implication is that both sides have their faults.
Ask Abu Mazen what concessions he made until now to Israel. We gave up land and we are willing to have a two-state solution, which is a huge concession by Israel. Did we get more security? No. Mention just one concession granted by the Palestinians...
It is my job to ask questions not answer them.
The onus is not on our shoulders but on the Palestinian leaders.
Five months after the attack on Gaza, what has Israel achieved?
First of all we raised awareness in the international community about the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and pushed them to stop this from happening. Secondly, Hamas learnt a very strong lesson that they have to stop the firing of rockets into Israel because we will not tolerate it.
Was the job complete?
I would not say it was job complete because we did not want to go deeper into Gaza. We decided to stop.
Coincidentally the attacks stopped just before US President Barack Obama took office.
That is just the perception of the media.
It is a fact.
Maybe it is a fact but it had nothing to do with our actions. It was pure coincidence.
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