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Q&A With Daniel Ayalon on Israeli Foreign Policy

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GIDEON ROSE: This is Gideon Rose from Foreign Affairs, and we’re delighted to have the opportunity to interview one of the most impressive players in the diplomatic arena and a key player in recent events and future events in the Middle East and beyond.

Minister Ayalon, welcome.

DANNY AYALON: Thank you. Pleasure to be here, Gideon.

ROSE: Let’s get right to it.

It has been — the recent flap in U.S.-Israel relations — has been described as the most serious in decades, past even the Bush 41 flap over settlements and going back into previous decades.

What do you think caused this crisis, and how did it sort of erupt so quickly?

AYALON: Well, it was accidental. There was a glitch. We’re not proud of it, but I wouldn’t go to the extent of describing it as a real crisis. Certainly, there was a lot of misunderstanding here, but I would say now, as real allies and good friends, it’s not that there are no disputes, but I think the way we manage them is the real testament to a true friendship. I think we’re over it.

And the most important thing, even out of this, is to make sure that we know how to manage the ones down the road. Because evidently, I mean, inevitably, there are going to be some ups and downs, but we are working for the same thing, for the same goal.

ROSE: The ones down the road — you’re referring to Iran or a Palestinian track —

AYALON: Both.

ROSE: — or a Syrian track?

AYALON: Basically, the Palestinian track. I think on Iran there is no daylight between us and the administration and certainly the United States in terms of vision and goals and even tactical issues.

On Syria, well, the jury’s still out. I believe Syria right now is really behaving very recklessly in the sense that they subject or submit their own interests to the Iranian ones.

ROSE: Well, let’s turn back to Iran a second and get back to Syria.

With regard to the Palestinian track, certainly it seemed like there was some dramatic tension a few weeks ago. Was that because of a misunderstanding? And if so, what was it that the Americans got so offended by, and what was it that the Israelis got so offended by on the part of the Americans?

AYALON: Well, I think, first of all, we were embarrassed. I mean, the fact that when we had such a great friend, a staunch ally, the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, in Israel, in Jerusalem, of course, this issue of the announcement on building even though we . . . I think it was totally legitimate — we’re talking about Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem which under no circumstances will not be a part of Israel. But to have it done in such a way which was not, of course, coordinated and nobody knew about it in the government. This was an embarrassment to us.

I believe that it was seen by us that after all the apology, which was due and was rightly given by us, we thought this issue was over. And then there was a 24-hour kind of delayed reaction whereby some of us thought that maybe it was, there was a taking advantage of the situation by some to really corner us and put more pressure.

But again, I think now things are back in order.

ROSE: Ehud Yaari said in an interview with Foreign Affairs a month ago that there was no question that this was a deliberate plot by the Obama administration to topple the Israeli government by putting them in an impossible situation. Do you believe that?

AYALON: I think this is nonsense, not at all, not at all. And I think that, you know, we live today, unfortunately, in an era where conspiracies are rampant, but I think this is just total nonsense.

ROSE: So if the American, if that wasn’t the American intention, was their overreaction or their actions in picking it up again after it seemed to have subsided simply incompetence on their part?

AYALON: No. I don’t think so, not at all. I think, again, it was part of the misunderstanding, part of the mishandling. And again, I think mistakes were being done on two sides of the ocean.

The wise thing to do, and I wish and I trust that we all learn out of it the right lessons.

ROSE: To an unsophisticated observer, somebody not steeped in diplomatic niceties, the idea that the crisis was caused by the revelation or discussion or announcement of some things that weren’t in themselves controversial doesn’t really make sense.

So I’m curious: Is there actually, in your opinion, a difference of opinion between the United States and the government of Israel about the future of East Jerusalem or Israeli settlements there?

AYALON: Absolutely. And you know, we’re not trying to hide it. And there’s nothing new, by the way, Gideon.

The fact is that the American policy over the last eight administrations, I believe — you know, it spans over the last 43 years — has not really changed. But as strong allies, we have always managed to isolate this dispute and not let it spill over the gamut of the relationship, which is so strong in the strategic sense, in the economic sense, and every other sense. And we’ll continue to do that and make sure it doesn’t spill over.

The dispute is there. However, I think the most important thing is that we do not argue between ourselves as allies but to put these questions not for Israelis and Americans but for Israelis and Palestinians. And this is what we need to see.

And the United States has always maintained and we appreciated that that any kind of settlement will be homegrown. That is, between the parties it cannot be imposed, no artificial deadlines, no preconditions. I think these are, this is where we have to go back into, I mean, leveling the playing field, but also go back to these very fundamental parameters or principles. This would be helpful for all of us.

ROSE: There’s a widespread sense, I think, both in Israel and the United States, and among both supporters and opponents or critics of the Obama administration, that the Obama administration’s policies toward Israel, toward the Middle East peace process, and so forth, represent some kind of significant change from previous administrations.

You’ve been involved in these negotiations for ages under several different American and Israeli administrations. Do you notice any significant strategic change on the part of the U.S. government?

AYALON: No, not at all, not at all. And we very much appreciate and respect this administration, the president. We have gone, I believe, to a great length in making sure this support is noticeable.

We very much agreed with this engagement policy, including vis-à-vis Iran. Unfortunately, to no avail. It’s because the Iranians did not respond.

And also the Palestinian issue. I mean, we do not see, I mean, there may be new nuances or a different style, but basically, American interests have not changed with the change of administrations.

The same thing with Israel, with the change of Israeli governments, and the strength of the relationship will continue, because this is a natural bond or a natural alliance between Israel and the United States for various — many, many reasons.

ROSE: And yet in an interview with The Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago, you felt obliged to sort of seemingly fire a shot across the bow of administration officials in an interview that was headlined in the paper “Israeli Official Warns Against a U.S. Timeline for Peace.” As if it was important to send the message to the Obama administration that they’d better not be thinking of announcing a unilateral plan, as if they were.

If there really were no disagreement, then why would such a warning be necessary?

AYALON: Well, to the best of my knowledge, and I come back from Washington, there are no, there is no thinking about that. I think it was mostly a speculation of the press.

And since I was asked about this principle of artificial deadlines, I felt obliged to give the Israeli views. And it’s not just the Israeli view; I think it’s just a commonsense that, and, you know, if you and also with the benefit of experience, we should see that any artificial deadlines are not useful in the country. They maybe rise up expectations and then the crisis almost after that is inevitable.

But I think the most important issue here is, Gideon, that what we are now trying to be engaged in at once. I hope the Palestinians will finally step up to the plate and sit with us in something of really of historic proportions.

You know, the creation of a Palestinian state — something that has never been in history — is something that cannot be done just kind of in passing or over a, you know, a dinner conversation. Something of a painstaking and very, very, very difficult process, because we want to make sure that the Palestinian state will not compromise Israeli security.

And what we are dealing with is taking enormous risks. And the Israelis are willing for peace to take enormous risks but not at the expense of our existence.

This is why whatever, you know, what we deal with is so important and so historic. And what we are going to sign is not just a piece of paper, Gideon; it’s, hopefully, going to be the foundation for peaceful coexistence for generations and centuries to come. That’s the most important thing.

ROSE: For people watching this over a longer time span, it seems like certainly there hasn’t been all that much progress.

So let me give you three models of what’s been happening, and you tell me which is the most accurate. Is it gradual slow progress toward the outcome you were just describing, in which, yes, it’s patient; yes, it’s difficult; yes, it’s slow; but eventually things are heading in the right direction and we’ll get there?

Is it what the American movie Groundhog Day portrayed, in which, you know, it’s the same thing over and over again? Or is it something even more cynical like in The Odyssey when Penelope is unraveling her garment every night and then redoing it to bide time while the suitors are waiting?

Is there actually progress toward this outcome, a Palestinian state, a settlement to the conflict, or is it just the same old story?

AYALON: I would urge all objective spectators to look at the facts very, very objectively. And I would say that for the last 17 years, since the Oslo process started with direct talks, a mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel, with the commitment of the Palestinians to stop the terror, where are we now? And also, how have the positions, the initial position of each side evolved to see, you know, really is there a real seriousness here?

And I tell you that the Israeli position today is a far cry from where it was 17 years ago — the extent that all of us now talk about a Palestinian state, talk about settlement issues.

We evacuated; we dismantled, uprooted settlements, 25 of them altogether in an excruciatingly painful process in Israel. We have removed checkpoints. We are taking risks. Many, many, many things I don’t have the time here to mention.

You check the Palestinian position now and 17 years ago, and you do not see a difference whatsoever. They did not budge an inch on the real issues. And to say that they stopped terrorism is not enough, because for stopping terrorism they should not be rewarded. For stopping terrorism, Israel will stop hunting terrorists.

But for real compromise and concessions, political concessions by Israel, we need to see a commensurate action by them where they are dropping their maximalistic views.

ROSE: Do you think that the lack of progress in the Palestinian positions, as you describe it, has anything to do with the dramatic increase in the Israeli settler population over that time frame?

AYALON: Not at all. I think this is just an excuse, and it’s not telling the full story.

I know that the Palestinians complain and say, “Well, listen: in the last 17 years, settlement population has increased.” Yes, it has, but where? I mean, has it been compromising their land reserves? No. The population is concentrated on a very limited area.

I mean, the whole story can be told by the very, I think the figure, which I think everybody should memorize, is that 80 percent of all settlers live on only 8 percent of the land. So it is pretty much almost giving away what the compromise and the solution should be.

So for the Palestinians to put everything on the settlement is just an excuse not to move forward and not to make their own decisions, tough decisions. And maybe they’re not willing; maybe they’re not capable. We just have to remember that the Palestinian Authority, Abbas and Fayyad, they represent only half of the Palestinian people. If you take into consideration Hamas in Gaza, I would say at best it’s half.

And when we want to sign with a Palestinian leader, we want to know that it represents the entire Palestinian people, so we can bring this conflict to a finality, the end of conflict, the end of their claims — not just from the Palestinians in Ramallah but also the Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinians who live in the diaspora as well.

ROSE: Do you think the Israeli policies, in either the past or the present, have any bearing on the internal composition of Palestinian politics that have created, in effect, more support for radical solutions and less support for moderate ones?

AYALON: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so because we see the radicalization of the Palestinian society coming really at junctures where we were the most forthcoming. Just remember 2000 Camp David, when Barak gave his offer supported by President Clinton to Arafat, a very generous offer.

Not only this offer was rejected but the most horrendous terror wave started by the Palestinians, this is the so-called al Aksa intifada, which caused more than 1,000 Israeli dead and 6,000 injured. So I don’t think there’s any bearing, you know, what we do. It’s basically what they think and what they do and what they plan and their vision for peace.

ROSE: Again, let’s go to an untutored observer just sort of watching from a sort of commonsense but not particularly educated background.

If what you say is true about the settlements not being the essence of the problem but serving as a cover for other things and being a stick used to beat you with in the public sphere at home and abroad, why allow an increased settlement population at all? Why not just remove even that particular, relatively insignificant portion of the issue and put the onus on them to live up to… remove them, remove the stick being used to beat you with?

AYALON: I think we made a very, very special gesture with the disengagement — the removal of 21 settlements, Jewish communities, in Gaza; four more in the West Bank in Samaria, northern Samaria, Judean Samaria — and that did not bring a commensurate action of gestures or forthcoming action by the Palestinians.

So it’s obviously not the issue of settlements. We have to understand that before 1967, when we took over some — what is it, 43 years ago? — Judea and Samaria, the West Bank and Gaza, there were no settlements before that. Was there any day without terror? No.

They still, the Palestinian, the PLO was formed in 1965 with a vow to erase Israel from the face of the map from the — and this is the real issue.

Also, if you look honestly, you know, settlements have never been a real obstacle for peace. I think we proved it with Egypt. We had major settlements in Sinai, including the Yamit, which was a major town. We were capable of taking it down for the real thing, for the real peace.

So anyway, trying to corner us into this settlement issue, I think it’s a ploy by the Palestinians, and it doesn’t show a genuine approach by them for solving the conflict.

ROSE: OK. Let’s take everything you’ve said and use that as the basis for moving forward.

If the Palestinians still haven’t gotten the message, still haven’t changed their positions in the ways you want, are you saying that the status quo is acceptable to you until they do that? And if there’s no particular prospect or reason for them to do that in the near term, does the status quo just perpetuate itself forever?

AYALON: No, not at all. I’ve said it before, and I will restate it: the status quo in my mind is a sugarcoated poison pill, and Israel’s interest, vital interest, is to move forward and to bring into finality the conflict.

So we are a normal country with defined borders. But we can do only so much — you know, it takes two to make peace. Unfortunately, it takes only one to wage war.

ROSE: Let me turn to some questions from our readers. Stacy asks, “What about the prospect of a two-state solution disappearing, and that, in fact, it increasingly appears that the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are moving toward a single-state solution, or even a three-state solution, instead?”

AYALON: I don’t see it as viable. I don’t see this as logical. I think it’s an empty threat. Many, you know, by Israelis from some political persuasion, because if you look, you cannot really bring together two ethnic or two nationalities. This is not the right thing to do, but also this is not the ongoing global trend; on the contrary, states or federations or confederations break up to the most basic ethnic elements or national elements.

You look at the former Soviet Union breaking into 15 states, or former Yugoslavia breaking up to five different countries. You see even Czechoslovakia breaking to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and on and on we can talk about examples.

So we, once Israel agreed on a Palestinian state, you know, which means a physical and political separation between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land, I think nobody can put this, you know, turn the clock back.

ROSE: Henry from Tennessee asks, referring to the article by Yaari in a recent issue, whether there’s any possibility of a recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state even without an agreement or prior to an agreement on final-status issues, Jerusalem, refugee rights.

AYALON: Well, all this… I don’t think that you can really have a partial solution without addressing most of the issues. I do understand the importance of maybe, you know, incrementality, or doing it in incremental phases, but we need to make sure that the borders are tied with the security arrangements and refugee issue should be solved, let alone Jerusalem.

ROSE: Let’s turn for a second to Iran. We talked about this before. Do you see any significant difference of opinion between the United States government and the Israeli government on Iran now? And do you expect any to emerge down the road?

AYALON: No, not really. I think we see eye to eye. I think it’s important, and I believe that the Americans are doing a great, great job in trying to coalesce the international community. I have the highest respect for what they do here in New York, especially led by Ambassador Susan Rice, and I believe that we will see sanctions soon and in a timely fashion. This is the most important thing, so we will have enough time to assess whether they are effective or not because the sanctions will not be put for the sake of sanctions but for the sake of getting results and stopping the nuclear armaments of Iran.

ROSE: And if those sanctions do not seem in your judgment to be effective and the prospect of a nuclear Iran moves forward, do you think that preventive war is in order to head off that possibility?

AYALON: Well, I would say that we, collectively, not just Israel — Iran is not an Israeli problem, I mean. We certainly are threatened by them, but we’re not the only ones, maybe not even the first ones. But a nuclear Iran will be such a change of world order that I don’t think, literally, we can live with that — and, again, collectively I’m talking about. So no option should be off the table.

ROSE: What will happen if the governments in the United States and Israel disagree about whether that prospect can be lived with?

AYALON: I do not see this as an option.

ROSE: There have been suggestions that the United States can and should decide this question for itself and impose its own answer, whatever it may be, on its partner, Israel. Do you think this is a question on which Israel has strategic freedom of action?

AYALON: Well, Israel has always retained the right for self-defense. Our friends here in Washington, in America, have always respected that, and I believe will continue, and that’s the most important thing: to coordinate and consult like very good friends and allies.

ROSE: Talking about being good friends and allies, here’s a question from Greg from Real Clear Politics [2]: “Many supporters of Israel in the United States argue,” he writes, “that the partnership not only enhances Israeli security but American security as well. Do you believe this to be the case? And if so, can you highlight some examples?”

AYALON: Well, absolutely. Well, first of all, on the most obvious, I would say, the most obvious facts now are the fact that we cooperate so well on the war on terrorism in terms of methods of operations, in terms of intelligence, in terms of equipment. I think it’s very important strategically. We are looking for the same results all over the globe, not just in the Middle East.

The fact that Israel is the — you know, I’m taking just a total different field now — economically, you know, Israel is the largest trading partner of the United States in the Middle East. We buy; Israel buys more American products and services than any country around us.

So the ties that bind us together are myriad and many. I also believe — and I think this is very important — the fact that we have been attacked for so long is more because what we represent than anything else, and we represent in the area American ideals. We represent American civilization or the Western civilizations. And we are together; in many ways, we are in the trenches, really fighting and defending the values, the way of life that we all cherish.

ROSE: Do you feel that that perception of being together in the trenches, especially with the Americans, do you feel that this opinion is as shared widely in America today as it was several years ago?

AYALON: Absolutely. And you know, we see consistently polls that are being taken here in America, the support for Israel is always overwhelming and is very comforting to us. The fact that I saw an amazing poll just a few months ago where Americans were asked, Who should America go to war for? And the three top countries were Canada, the U.K., and Israel. Not that we ask anything, and I think part of the pride that we have and part of the very, I would say, stable elements in our alliance is that we will never, ever ask for American boys or girls to be put in harm’s way for us.

We are very proud that we can defend ourselves, by ourselves, and we’ll continue to do that.

ROSE: You wrote very recently that Israel has essentially progressed huge amounts since Herzl’s vision and has defeated, first, a military war against it, then an economic war, then a war of terrorism and insurgency, and then, finally, is engaged in a war of lawfare or legitimacy, a struggle for legitimacy.

Does that represent progress, or does it represent a continuous state of opposition? And should we look forward for this conflict continuing decades longer, or are things actually getting better?

AYALON: Well, we can see very, very bright spots: the peace with Egypt, the relations with Egypt, which are a strategic nature. And today we certainly are even converging more in terms of shared interests vis-à-vis Iran and terrorism and Hamas and Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. The peace with Jordan — it’s a long road, many setbacks, but I think the direction is inevitable for, as I said, peaceful coexistence in the region for the benefit of all.

ROSE: Minister, as my father likes to tell me when he disagrees with me, “I hope you’re right.”
Thank you very much for meeting with us. And we will, unfortunately, probably have to be covering this conflict down the road again, and we’d love to have you back at some time.
Thank you.

AYALON: Thank you. Thank you, Gideon.

 

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