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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. We have a glimpse this morning of the world as it looks to one of Israel's military leaders. Moshe Ya'alon was a top Israeli general, now he's the country's defense minister. He's been visiting Washington at a moment of Mideast turmoil and when he sat down with us, Minister Ya'alon said the region has permanently changed. He says chaos in Libya and the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria mean many of the region's nation-states have collapsed.
MOSHE YA'ALON: We have to distinguish between countries like Egypt, with the history, Egypt will stay Egypt. Libya, it was a new creation, Western creation, as a result of World War I. Syria, Iraq - the same artificial nation-states and what we see now is a collapse of this Western idea.
INSKEEP: Does that mean the map is going to change, that those countries...
INSKEEP: The map is going to change?
YA'ALON: Yeah, absolutely. It has been changed already. You can't unify back Syria. Bashar al-Assad is controlling only 25 percent of the Syrian territory. We have to deal with it.
INSKEEP: Iraq is breaking up too, he says. Our talk with Moshe Ya'alon offered a chance to probe the thinking of a hard-line member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Many years ago, the defense minister took part in peace talks with Palestinians. The talks failed. These days, he's profoundly skeptical of agreement with Palestinians and of U.S. negotiations with Iran.
YA'ALON: It's our experience agreements which are not backed by interest are not surviving.
INSKEEP: You're saying if countries' interests do not mesh, any agreement they make is worthless?
YA'ALON: Yeah. They can sign agreements and violate it.
INSKEEP: I want to remind people that as defense minister, you oversaw Israel's military at a time of the operation in Gaza over the summer.
YA'ALON: That's right.
INSKEEP: Many people around the world criticized that operation for going too far, but I know there was also another side of the debate within Israel, that your government was criticized for not going deeper into Gaza, sending more troops, taking sharper measures. Did you go as far you wanted to go?
YA'ALON: Absolutely. We knew exactly what we wanted to achieve and we understood that if you go too far, apart from the dilemma of cost and benefit, no one was going to replace us, neither the Egyptians, Abu Mazen, NATO, whatever.
INSKEEP: Meaning if you wiped out Hamas, say, or knocked them out of control, no one would take charge?
YA'ALON: Yes and so probably we were stuck. So we prefer to reach cease-fire according to our terms.
INSKEEP: Is the reality as you see it that there will have to be another military operation in a couple of years?
YA'ALON: You know, since the creation of the state, we go through wars, hostilities every couple of years. We still fight for our independence. The problem and the challenge for us in the Middle East is there are still too many parties who are not ready to recognize our right to exist as a nation-state of the Jewish people. So probably we will have to go through hostilities, whether it will be generated from Gaza, from the West Bank, it might come from Lebanon, Iran is a hostile country. Many believe that the problem is a settlement. That's not the core issue, it's their reluctance to recognize our right to exist as a Jew state.
INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned settlements. Israel of course has been criticized because Israelis have settled in the West Bank. Prime Minister Netanyahu, when visiting the United States earlier this year, cast that as a question not of national or state rights, but individual rights. Why shouldn't Jews have the right to live where they want to live? Why should they be barred, he was asking, from living in different places, that it was an individual question. If individual Jews - Israelis - have the right to move where they would like on the West Bank, should individual Palestinians including refugees have the right to choose to move back to Israel?
YA'ALON: The issue of refugees is very different. We can't allow refugees to...
INSKEEP: But you say, we're individuals.
YA'ALON: Otherwise, it will keep the conflict forever - forever. But when we talk about the right to live, we do not deny the right of Arabs to live everywhere in the land of Israel. They enjoy political independence, they have their own government, they have their own parliament, their own municipalities. And if we are talking about coexistence, what is better than to live together, enjoying, you know, our prosperity? That was the case even in the Gaza Strip when the Gazans enjoyed working in the Erez industrial zone or in the settlement for their benefit. Their insistence to clear the area from Jews - might call it ethnic cleansing - we don't call to do it with Arabs. We don't want to uproot or to transfer Arabs. Why is it so acceptable regarding the Jews?
INSKEEP: Well, I've heard that argument, it's compelling. You're arguing that Israelis move across into the West Bank, they bring money with them, they build. They may improve the economy. My question is, if a group of Palestinians from whatever direction, whether they claim refugee status or not, simply showed up at the Tel Aviv airport, showed up at a border crossing and said, we want to claim that same individual right, we're ready to move into Israel...
YA'ALON: They can go to live in Nablus, they could go to live in Ramallah.
INSKEEP: That's in the West Bank, but what if what if they want to live in Israel proper?
YA'ALON: No way. Otherwise, we are not going to solve the conflict, we are going to keep it to the end of the days.
INSKEEP: Defense Minister Ya'alon, thank you very much.
YA'ALON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's top defense official, is visiting Washington this week.
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