JANA WENDT: Dr Ephraim Sneh, welcome to Dateline.

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Does your withdrawal from Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip indicate that you have a new-found confidence in the Palestinian Authority`s capacity to maintain security?

EPHRAIM SNEH, ISRAELI TRANSPORT MINISTER: Well, we have to try. And this is, I would say, an experiment. We redeployed our troops in Gaza and around Bethlehem and in Bethlehem. We allowed Palestinian security organisation to take over, to do what they can do to stop terror activities, and if it succeeds, we can expand this arrangement to other parts of the West Bank. So this is the first phase of, I hope, a process which may lead to a full ceasefire and from the ceasefire we can proceed to negotiation about what would happen in the future.

JANA WENDT: Already Hamas and Islamic Jihad have said that they will continue their attacks against Israelis. Why do you expect the Palestinian Authority to prevent those attacks when they have not done so in the past?

EPHRAIM SNEH: Because I hope that after two years of fighting, two years of terror and violence, they finally understand at last that this way, this strategy of terror, would bring them no benefit, no achievements. No national objective would be achieved, just suffering and misery for the civilian population, and nothing, nothing is gained. The Fatah…the leadership of the Palestinian Authority understand it, but the Hamas, as you mentioned, the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, the extremist Islamist organisation, they – when they feel that there is a chance of progress, they try to disrupt this agreement, and I`m afraid they will try by more and more terror operations to spoil it.

JANA WENDT: But there are some reports that Palestinian factions of all colours are talking about whether tactics like suicide bombing do in fact further their cause. What sense do you get about what`s really happening inside the Palestinian camp?

EPHRAIM SNEH: There is a debate there because there is no agreement between the various factions, as you said. There are those who are more pragmatic, who understand that violence will lead them to nowhere but to disaster, a devastated economy and an impoverished society and they say, “OK, let`s stop and change the strategy and go back to the negotiation table.”

JANA WENDT: Dr Sneh, if I could move on to Iraq. Prime Minister Sharon recently described Saddam Hussein as perhaps the greatest danger to Israel. Do you agree with that judgment?

EPHRAIM SNEH: Well, Saddam Hussein has a proven record. He launched 39 missiles to the heart of Israel, to the midst of the civilian population, the most densely populated areas in Israel, in the Gulf War, without any provocation from our side. He has repeatedly said that he will liberate Palestine and he has a record of using a chemical weapon against his own people in the north. On top of it, we know that he, in the third time, started to build military nuclear capacity. He did it in `81. He did it in the late `80s, and now, he tries again to procure and to develop and to produce a nuclear bomb. I agree with the Prime Minister that maybe he is not the first. Maybe he is the second after Iran, but he is – he may be an existential threat to the state of Israel.

JANA WENDT: Last time around, in `91, Israel was constrained from striking back. This time, I take it, you don`t have the same constraints on you. You will strike back if there is an attack by Iraq on Israel?

EPHRAIM SNEH: I have no intention to declare, to threaten, or even to answer hypothetical questions. I can mention only two facts. One, that Israel now is better protected against chemical and biological weapons. We have the only successful and operative anti-ballistic missile defence system, which we developed and we produced by ourselves. This is the Arrow system, the Arrow missile, which gives good protection against ballistic missiles. And our other military capabilities today are better than what we had in `91. We are able to defend ourselves.

JANA WENDT: As you well know, according to an assessment given to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Israel`s response to any strike by Iraq may well be nuclear. Now, I will ask you that for the form of it – do you want to rule that out?

EPHRAIM SNEH: You know, this document, which I am very familiar with, was not written by us. It was written by somebody in the States, and I cannot refer to it. I cannot refer to it.

JANA WENDT: Is there any comment that you can make? Can you rule out the possibility of a nuclear response by Israel?

EPHRAIM SNEH: Everything which I would say would be either stupid or irresponsible. And I don`t have the privilege to say stupid or irresponsible things.

JANA WENDT: Well, let me ask you this. Would the defeat of Saddam Hussein, a key backer of the Palestinians, force or accelerate a settlement of your dispute with the Palestinians?

EPHRAIM SNEH: I don`t want to make this connection, because – I don`t believe that the backing of Saddam Hussein is very helpful to the Palestinians. I think that their alliance with Arafat and Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War brought him great damage, and to see how reckless it was on the part of Arafat, the result of it was the eviction of 300,000 Palestinians from Kuwait, and they became miserable refugees. So this connection is not in favour of the Palestinians, and they should distance themselves from Saddam Hussein, no matter if there is a war or there is not. But I don`t think there is a direct connection between the two. We have to solve this problem separately.

JANA WENDT: Dr Ephraim Sneh, we must leave it there. We very much appreciate your time.

Ephraim Sneh Interview