Ari Shavit
Haaretz (Interview)
February 22, 2010 - 1:00am

Benjamin Netanyahu, a year into your term, observers seem to agree: You're an impressive survivor, but just a survivor. The government you lead has no vision, no destination. It's not going anywhere.

"That is completely and utterly unfounded. My vision is of an Israel that is a world technological superpower, anchored in values, reaching peace from strength. To this end, we are working to jump-start the economy, to augment our security and to strengthen Israel through inculcating basic national values. I see all this as part of an economic, educational and cultural revolution that is just beginning.

"Your criticism partly stems from the fact both Palestinians and Syrians have adopted a strategy of unwillingness to negotiate. They present us with extremist preconditions that they did not present to earlier Israeli governments. I don't know any other government in the world that would enter negotiations under conditions that determine in advance how they should conclude. The critics expect us to accept the Palestinian and Syrian dictates; they describe the acceptance of those dictate as a vision. I don't see it as a vision. The vision is to empower Israel economically, militarily and culturally so as to enable it to make true peace with its neighbors. Not peace on paper, rather peace that will last.

"It will take time for the Palestinians and Syrians to retreat from the positions they have taken. I think the Palestinians, at least, may be backing down. There are signs that negotiations with them will begin in the foreseeable future."

Today, the cabinet met in Tel Hai to launch a program involving restoration of historical sites. Many see this plan as ridiculous and anachronistic. They say it's irrelevant to the present-day problems facing Israel.

"Yigal Alon once said that a people that doesn't know its past cannot be certain of its future. In the storm that is sweeping societies and states across the globe, a process of cultural superficiality is taking place: The dominant global culture is endangering the cultures of smaller nations. Our problem is particularly acute. We are living in this country because we are linked to it; we were exiled, and we have returned. There's no people that needs to deepen its roots in its land more than we do. That is why I believe national security doesn't only depend on military and economic might, but also on enhancing the young generation's knowledge of our past, and strengthening its connection to our land. These are the values I was raised on. These are values familiar to any Israeli over the age of 40. And they are the values that must be renewed today.

"David Ben-Gurion believed the foundation of our nation-building involved studying the Bible, walking the land and preserving archaeological sties. These values have been eroded over the last 30 years, and we are trying to stop that process. Among other things, this involves preserving our cultural treasure troves: Hebrew songs, Jewish and Hebrew writings, films, plays that have been videoed, photographic archives. These assets are being depleted, lost. I don't think it's ridiculous or anachronistic to try and save them. I don't think there's a contradiction between being open to the world, and preserving our culture and imparting it to our youth. The Americans know how to appreciate the Lincoln Memorial, the Gettysburg National Cemetery and the Alamo site in Texas, but this does not affect their openness to technological innovation.

"I'll give you an example. [Tel Aviv's] Rothschild Boulevard is a thriving street of cafes and bars, of innovative street shows and 'White Night' festivals. I think it's wonderful. But at No. 16 Rothschild Boulevard, there's a peeling old hall where Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the State of Israel. Why not renovate and reopen it? Why not allow the young people who are out having fun on the boulevard to go inside and see what it represents? I'm certain they would like that. This is why I see the resolution we made today as one of the most important in many years."

Which of the sites slated for renovation are you particularly fond of?

"Tel Hai, obviously. My father arrived at Rosh Pina in 1920, and in 1923 he broke his arm playing soccer. He was treated in the beautiful old hospital in Safed by the same physician who treated Trumpeldor, and he and others told my father of the famous words that Trumpeldor uttered before he died - probably based on the Latin phrase: dolce et decorum est pro patria mori. I think the spirit of sacrifice embodied by Tel Hai is still just as vital today, not so that we will die, but so that we can live."

There's another plan you are going to present to the cabinet this week - not about historical legacies but about transportation. You intend to pave roads and build railroad tracks on an unprecedented scale. Why spend money that we don't have on asphalt and concrete?

"It's not that much money. We're talking about some NIS 30 billion over 10 to 15 years. In terms of our gross national product, this is quite manageable. The country has been concentrated for 60 years between Gedera and Hadera, with one main transportation corridor 'copied' along Highway No. 6. The Negev and the Galilee are off the map. Both economically and in terms of the expansion of the population and closing gaps, there's tremendous importance to integrating the north and south in the transportation network.

"The United States carried out a similar revolution twice: first in the 19th century, with trains, and then in the 1950s, with highways. This is why you can hit the road in Boston and reach Los Angeles without stopping at a single traffic light. In Israel, you can't go from Kiryat Shmona to Tel Aviv without waiting at lights. This is what we're going to change. We won't just bring the center to the north: We'll bring the north to the center.

"We'll increase local tourism, increase employment, but most importantly, we'll facilitate social mobility. Look at the revolution happening in Yokneam and Or Akiva, which were seen as God-forsaken places until they started blooming thanks to nearby highways, rail lines or intersections. Together with the Israel Land Administration reform and the reforms in planning and construction, the new routes will encourage faster growth, open up opportunities and free us from being stuck between Gedera and Hadera."

Wouldn't it be better to invest the money in education? NIS 30 billion could revolutionize elementary, high school and university education.

"We'll be investing in education, too. But it's important to understand that investing in transportation infrastructure creates growth. We believe it will contribute enormous resources and add some 2 percent to annual growth, creating new budget sources to fund education, health and welfare for the elderly. Investment in roads is a prime growth engine. Together with our other recent moves, it will help increase the size of the national pie, which we can then divide up according to different needs: security, education and society. At the end of the day, in one year we've done more to promote our vision than many other governments."

I won't ask you about Dubai, of course. But I'll ask you this: Would you say that today you still have the same faith in the Mossad and its chief?

"I won't comment on journalistic speculation, even from such an esteemed journalist as Ari Shavit."


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