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We Cannot Rely On Others
Interview With General Meir Dagan
By Shai Gefen


As one who is strongly opposed to withdrawing from the Golan, you are probably very satisfied by the results of the meeting in Geneva between President Clinton and Syrian President Assad.

I don’t know whether I am satisfied with what happened in Geneva; I am satisfied by the fact that the Golan Heights will not be returned to the Syrians at this point.

What is your analysis of the meeting in Geneva?

I think we are witnessing Syrian obstinacy in standing by their decision of wanting a full withdrawal up to the June 4 lines. This is also influencing the Palestinian issue.

How so?

Up until this point, the stubbornness paid off for Assad. On every point where he patiently persisted, he got what he wanted. He thinks that with a little more pressure he will be able to get more from us. What is the June 4th line we are talking about? The Syrians captured El Chama in ‘54, and what does Assad say now? Wherever a Syrian soldier walked is “holy ground.” What should we say? Where Israeli soldiers walked is not holy ground?

You have to know how to deal with Syrian obduracy and their attempts to push for every last millimeter. The Syrians are famous for their stubbornness, and these were the real results of the negotiations.

What do you think about the fact that the Israeli government submitted to nearly all the Syrian demands?

I really don’t know what the Israeli government did or did not agree to. Our information comes mainly from the media. I am not really a part of the negotiations, so I must say I do not know. I can only tell you that there was a news item speaking about the Israelis’ willingness to concede the Golan Heights, and about the Israelis’ willingness to do business in exchange for El Chama and for the entire Kineret. Since I don’t understand this at all, it’s hard for me to know what really went on. From what various ministers have said, and from the fact that Prime Minister Barak said we have to make tough concessions in the Golan, I assume that in principle he agreed to concede the Golan.

As a general in the Reserves, how do you see giving up the Golan Heights from a security standpoint?

I see this as a blow to the very security of the existence of the State of Israel, so I see every concession on the security lines in the Golan Heights as taking unnecessary chances. We lost six million Jews in the Holocaust. Surely we must know that regarding certain matters we simply cannot take chances. These matters have to do with our security, and with questions regarding our very existence. In matters such as these, we can’t afford to gamble. Therefore, I strictly oppose conceding the Golan Heights, which I consider essential to the security of the State of Israel.

What are the benefits in having the Golan Heights from a security perspective?

The Golan Heights has a number of advantages. I will not list them all now. I will just speak in general terms. First of all, the Heights have a topographical advantage, making them relatively easy to defend with far fewer forces, at least based on current military strengths. Second, sovereignty over the Golan gives you outstanding advantages, so for the Syrians that means the ability to threaten the entire northern Israel. Conversely, if we own it, the Heights enables us to threaten all of Damascus. This is obvious.

Yet our politicians tell us that as soon as we return the Golan Heights, our problems with Syria will be solved and we will have peace?

I think if we look at the type of talks that took place in Shepherdstown between Israel and Syria, we will know just what sort of “peace” this will be like.

Would it be worse than “peace” with Egypt?

Although I do not agree to the terms of our “peace” with Egypt, at least we have a ceasefire with them for the meantime. But there’s a big difference between the two places. With Egypt we have still retained some — though not enough — strategic depth, giving us enough time to mobilize our reserves the moment Egypt makes a move towards us. With the Golan Heights, however, it’s completely different. People don’t realize that the residents of the Golan Heights are closer to Damascus than they are to Tel Aviv. Egypt is 250 kilometers away from us, and Syria is 65 kilometers away. There’s just no comparison between the two. This minute distance would not give us enough time to mobilize our forces in the event of war.

But in talks with the Syrians they speak about foreign forces that will separate them from us. Does this not satisfy you as a military man?

In answer to your question, I always cite two examples. One is that even in ‘67, before the Six-Day War, there were U.N. forces between ourselves and our enemies, and we saw just how much that was worth. Second, people don’t remember that to this very day there are U.N. forces in Lebanon whose job it is to serve as a buffer, and the fact is that they do not prevent even one attack.

What actually happens is that this force ends up being purely cosmetic, preventing us from responding, and enabling terrorists to act. Experience has shown that relying on foreign forces in issues concerning the existence of the State of Israel is problematic right from the start. In addition to Hashem, we Jews can only rely on ourselves. There are no others. We were never saved by others, and we are not likely to be helped by others in the future.

Perhaps Barak’s problem is that he promised to withdraw from Lebanon and linked that with the withdrawal from the Golan Heights?

I don’t get the connection. If there was one thing the State of Israel had to beware of doing, it was making a connection between these two things. It was the Syrians who linked the two together and we played along.

It was a tactical consideration, not based on military strategy. What Barak is doing is providing himself with a good way of selling the whole story to the Israeli public. See, we returned the Golan Heights and thus it’s quiet in Lebanon. I am sure that the only purpose in this is to be better able to sell the idea of withdrawing from the Golan.

In your opinion, is it possible to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon?

Leaving gradually is preferable to any other scenario. People are acting like ostriches. They are sure that if we leave Lebanon, all our problems will be solved. To the best of my knowledge, I think that the Hizballa won’t stop its activities, but will continue to chase after us. Then, instead of the conflict with Hizballa being in Lebanon, far from where Jews live, if we withdraw, we will be bringing the conflict into our own country.

As far as those who claim that withdrawing from Lebanon will mean that our soldiers will no longer be killed there, all I can say is that in addition to the soldiers who will continue to be killed, r’l – because the Hizballa will not cease its activities – citizens will be killed, too. Our leaving Lebanon will not solve Lebanon’s problems.

In my opinion, there are three elements that must be addressed in any long-term solution: First, there must be a change in how we respond militarily in Lebanon. In other words, we must hit the Hizballa in every way that can really hurt them. (I’d rather not be specific in an interview.) Second, we must respond with much more aggressive retaliation to attacks on us. The third thing is to put on pressure, through the U.N. and the U.S., to reach a structured accord with Lebanon in taking out our forces.

At the same time, you must remember that by leaving Lebanon, we have a great moral dilemma. In southern Lebanon there are many people who collaborated with us, as distinct from the rest of Lebanon. We were assisted in the south by Christians, Druzim, and Shiim. We had an understanding with them that derived from common interests, resulting from their knowledge that if they live near the State of Israel and also want secure lives, they must ensure that we too have quiet and peaceful lives. Based on this common interest, and due to the civil war in Lebanon in ‘76, we forged a most unique collaboration. This has lasted over 25 years. Some people in Lebanon have been born into this reality, and now they and their children and parents find themselves and their fates intertwined with that of Israel’s.

Will we abandon them now?

I certainly hope not. I have only one solution to offer, and that is to call upon our moral responsibility to these people. We can’t just stand aside when tomorrow they will begin mass slaughtering there. We wouldn’t be able to forgive ourselves. As Jews we always questioned, justifiably so, how the world could have stood by silently while Jews were being murdered. So here, when we know from the very start what will happen, won’t we do all we can to prevent this from happening?

In addition to everything else, they say that Assad has a great need to remain in Lebanon for economic reasons. Is that true?

Yes, indeed. I think one reason for Assad’s stubbornness in coming to an agreement with Israel is connected with Lebanon. Assad was ready to accept the Golan Heights in exchange for nothing, but when he weighs his two concerns, his interest in Lebanon as opposed to his desire to get the Golan Heights, he prefers Lebanon. As far as he is concerned, that takes precedence.

What interests are you talking about?

Before the economic considerations you mentioned, you have to consider ideology. Syria sees Lebanon as an inseparable part of Syria. In addition, there’s an economic factor in how Syria is squeezing Lebanon. I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of Syrians who work in Lebanon, who certainly contribute a significant portion of Syria’s’ foreign currency, which, economically speaking, isn’t in the best of shape.

Then there’s the geographical angle. Damascus’ only approach to the sea is in Beirut. Lebanon is very important to the Syrians. When they began talking about the Israelis leaving Lebanon, and Syria’s leaving too, Syria was not at all happy about that.

What about Assad’s illness. Is that significant?

Certainly. Though I am not talking about how his illness affects his day to day work, but how it will reduce his life expectancy. The real problem is that we are in a situation in which the minority Elawi rule Syria as a minority, its strength deriving primarily from Assad. Since Assad is 70 years old and isn’t well, I don’t think he’ll make it to 120... he’ll die long before that, but 15 years in the life of a country is very brief. The signature of a president, when we don’t know if his government will stand strong after this leader goes down in history, is very problematic. Everybody knows about the hatred in Syria between the Sunis and the Elawi – and who knows what will happen?

Does the failure of the talks in Geneva, as the headlines put it, put an end to our fears about continued talk about withdrawals?

I have no doubt that when they all return home, they will continue to assess the situation. From my experience I can tell you that the final word has not yet been said. I think they will try to find a compromise. Talk about the closing of the window of opportunity is not serious. They will find a way to get back to the bargaining table.

Perhaps Barak, as well as Assad, who sees the polls taken in Israel, understands that right now it is very hard to pass a resolution regarding a withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

I am not a fan of Barak, and I cannot tell you what he is thinking. I hope that the Israeli public is opposed to withdrawing from the Golan, and that the information about this is correct. You must understand that the differences between the international border to the June 4th lines are, under the best of circumstances, a couple of hundred meters. If the Syrians insist on those hundreds of meters, there’s clearly nothing to talk about, and there is nobody with whom to make peace. If this is the topic of discussion, we know who the other side is.

Obviously, I am talking here from the Syrian’s perspective, too. But from Israel’s perspective, we absolutely cannot give up the Golan. As I said earlier, since I don’t see the failure in Geneva as the end of the story, my friends and I do not expect to sit on the fence and do nothing. This is a fight for the hearts and minds of the public in the state of Israel, and our obligation at every moment is to try to bolster all the reasons for which we must hold on to the Golan.

In recent weeks, anti-Semitism in Syria was mentioned in the papers. Do you regard this as classic anti-Semitism or simply hatred for Zionists?

The term anti-Semitism is right on the mark, for they hate Israel and the Jews. It’s not anti-Semitism in the pure sense of the term, for Arabs are also Semites, but there is definitely a strong hatred for Jews. Syria is not a democratic country. Every newspaper article and every caricature is approved by Syrian security forces. I think that they plagiarize some of the material from Der Sturmer, or at least the caricatures.

You have seen such material?

Every so often. When I want to remember why I am opposed to withdrawing from the Golan Heights, I glance at this poisonous material. Again, this is not some Bedouin group who writes these articles. This is official Syrian policy. This approach reflects not what the journalist wishes to convey, but what the government wants. Here in Israel, you can have an extreme left-wing newspaper, an extreme right-wing paper; one in favor of treaties with the Arabs and the other opposed. People assume that the same thing goes on in Syria, but they are wrong. In Syria you would not have an article of any length on foreign or internal matters without it having passed by the Syrian censors.

I sense that we don’t understand the situation. Many people are ignorant about the Syrian government’s true character. We have not internalized these phenomena sufficiently. This is why I can read in our papers that they “didn’t mean it,” and that it’s the personal opinion of some Syrian journalist or another.

Aside from this, we should know that a great majority of Syria’s leadership is associated with a depraved group involved in drugs and blackmail. I think they too are more interested in Lebanon than in the Golan Heights.

Aside from the Golan, Yerushalayim has also been a topic lately. What do you have to say about this?

Yesterday I saw a survey on television, according to which people are inclined to compromise about Yerushalayim. I am one of those who refuses to compromise, not only on a millimeter but even on a tenth of a millimeter. To me, nothing should be done that endangers the existence of this city and the fact that it is one united city. We must not allow the Palestinians to have Abu Dis or anything surrounding Yerushalayim.

There is a serious concern that the Palestinians will continue in their underground work and will continuously try to establish their independent sovereignty. You must understand that we are creating this problem for ourselves. We must have concrete actions to strengthen our authority over Yerushalayim.

The following question is directed to you, Meir Dagan, as a senior member of the I.D.F. in the ‘50’s, and as a general until the mid-’70’s. There is the feeling that the courage we once had is no more. In your opinion, are people tired?

We never had a situation in which the entire Jewish nation fought a war. The wars were fought by a certain percentage of people who displayed great courage. When you examine the era of retaliatory attacks, was the entire Israeli army involved? Definitely not. I don’t think there is tiredness. I think that there is a great deal of discussion about many questions we once had clear answers to, but today we are unsure of.

Public discussion can be seen as weakness, but to me it is not weakness. I know that some Israelis view it as such, but I am not sure that this is correct. I can only look around me and see that in Rosh Pina, where I live, none of my friends have changed their minds about the land and the state, as well as many other issues.

I do see many changes from views held in earlier years, but I consider that legitimate. There is always a generation gap, but when we are tested, I would like to believe that the Jewish people will prove themselves.

You don’t think people used to be more motivated?

You are a journalist. I suggest you look at the newspapers from right before the Six-Day War. The situation was no better, and the feelings were a lot more despondent. I think that we Jews tend to extremes and look at things pessimistically. Things are not really worse, and the Jewish people are still strong.

I can easily prove this. Take those who live in the “territories.” Today, over 150,000 Jews live there, some of whom were ready to abandon homes and businesses in order to enlist in a Nationalist cause. That in itself is encouraging.

Looking at the other side, at Meretz for example, there are young people who are prepared to fight for what they believe in. I consider these as signs of preparedness for battle for what they believe in. There were always those who ran to America during a war. It’s just that they used to speak less about them, and now it has been emphasized more. There is a debate going on regarding questions about the existence of the Jewish people, but nevertheless, I am sure we will overcome. I am an optimistic Jew and I believe things will work out well in the end.


General Meir Dagan, Bio

Meir Dagan was born in Syria to survivors of the Holocaust. He moved to Eretz Yisroel in the beginning of the ‘50’s. He was drafted to the I.D.F. in the ‘60’s and has fought in every war since then. He served for 32 years in the I.D.F. and for three years he served as head of the Center of Operations in the War on Terror.

In the I.D.F., Meir Dagan served as commander of a company, a division, a brigade, and ultimately an entire corps. All this in addition to important tasks he fulfilled at General Headquarters when he was a general. In the ‘70’s, Dagan commanded the elite divisions that put a stop to the terrorist activities in Gaza. Dagan and his soldiers did the “dirty work,” and he acquired a reputation as an expert in stamping out terror. Today, Meir Dagan lives in Rosh Pina and is in the forefront in the battle against withdrawing from the Golan Heights.

 We Jews can only rely on ourselves. There are no others. We were never saved by others, and we are not likely to be helped by others in the future.

I do not expect to sit on the fence and do nothing. This is a fight for the hearts and minds of the public in the state of Israel, and our obligation at every moment is to try to bolster all the reasons for which we must hold on to the Golan.


We Jews can only rely on ourselves. There are no others. We were never saved by others, and we are not likely to be helped by others in the future.




I do not expect to sit on the fence and do nothing. This is a fight for the hearts and minds of the public in the state of Israel, and our obligation at every moment is to try to bolster all the reasons for which we must hold on to the Golan.


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