This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When you are asked to explain and analyze a situation all tangled up in religion, geopolitics and thousands of years of symbolic history, it helps to have good analogies and examples at hand to make your case.
Roey Gilad, Israel’s consul general in the Midwest, came adequately armed to an interview during his visit to St. Louis last week.
At various points, during questions about prospects for Middle East peace, President Barack Obama’s recent visit to the region, the threats from Iran, Syria and Egypt and other issues, his answers included examples ranging from Swiss cheese to Noah’s ark to building a bridge to dancing the tango to selling a used car to the give and take that couples must go through during divorce proceedings.
His basic message:
The special relationship between Israel and the United States can help his nation negotiate the fragile journey toward peace with the Palestinians and to a solution from the threats from instability in nations like Iran, Syria and Egypt that leave Israel in a state of constant insecurity.
Even as he spoke with the Beacon at a hotel in Clayton, thousands of Palestinians were protesting in the West Bank, raising fears of a new intifada. Gilad emphasized Israel’s embrace of a two-state solution, but he also emphasized how difficult it is for both sides to come up with a formula so that each gets part of what it wants and part of what it needs.
Gilad arrived in Chicago last year to take up his first U.S. posting during a 25-year career in the Israeli foreign service. He previously has served in Kenya, Jordan and the United Kingdom as well as spending time at the Israeli National Defense College. As Israel’s highest-ranking official in the Midwest, he is responsible for 11 states.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the prospects for a two-state solution with the Palestinians bringing lasting peace?
Gilad: We basically understand there needs to be a solution, known as the two-state solution. But whenever you go to even sell your car, you need a partner. If you have no partner, or someone who does not speak the same language, there is only so much you can achieve.
We are facing two coalitions: one in Gaza, the coalition of the unwilling, and the other in Ramallah, the coalition of the unable. We want to divorce our partner. Our partner is becoming aggressive. Yet we cannot divorce, and this is tragic. You need someone you can negotiate with. We would like to divorce the Palestinians, give them part of the assets and agree about the separation, but it’s a no go, mainly because of the lack of a partner.
You remember Noah’s ark, where he had two of everything. The Palestinians have two leaders, they have two security apparatuses, they have two visions of the fuure. Most Israelis are concerned, and yet, we don’t have any high hopes that any breakthroughs are coming very soon. But if there is a breakthrough, rest assured there will be nobody happier than the Israeli people.
The reality is that we have an unstable region with unstable partners, and we are mainly concentrating on crisis management. After that comes crisis resolution. We want to keep the violence very low to make sure that from an economic point of view, the Palestinians will enjoy as much as possible. On top of that, we need the right infrastructure. Making peace is like building a bridge over a river. As long as the river is still changing its course, you can’t build the bridge. It will fall apart.
The two-state solution is not lacking challenges. It was defined once by Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin in 1993 as being like Swiss cheese. There is some cheese, but there are many holes. Security is the biggest hole, but there will be other holes as well. Still, we don’t know any other solution that will be adequate.
Talk about the nuclear threat from Iran and how it might be resolved.
Gilad: Our main concern is Iran, obviously. Every three months, the international nuclear energy association is publishing a report that shows clearly they are targeting the bomb, but they are keeping some distance to avoid crossing a certain line. But they keep at a distance where they can actually reach a bomb in a few weeks.
To build a bomb, you need 250 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. According to the report, they had produced 236 kilograms, but then they realized they were coming so close to the threshold, and they did not want to make the international community upset, so they recovered 100 kilograms of that and used it for other means.
So they dance a tango – they come closer, then they move away. And these reports are only about the nuclear sites we know of. Imagine what is happening if they have some clandestine sites. From what we know, the picture is worrying, and the question is whether we know everything. I have doubts.
The Iranians are trying to buy some time. They are going to have elections for president in June. The main question is: Is Iran a reasonable player or an ideological player? If they are ideological, they cannot be deterred and will do everything they can to a hold of the bomb. If they are a reasonable player, they can be deterred, and sooner or later they will find a way to make an elegant U-turn.
To deter them, we believe the correct sanctions are taking place now, but they need to be accompanied with reliable military options, so the Iranians know there are military options. Currently, they don’t believe there is an American military option. They know there is an Israeli military option, but our ability is much smaller. Our bunker busters don’t reach as deep as the American bunker busters, and the Iranians know it.
The Arab Spring, hailed by many for increasing democracy in your region, also has resulted in increased instability. You must be looking over your shoulder in all directions.
Gilad: You see what is happening in Syria and what is happening in Egypt. No one knows what will happen in the future in Jordan. We had a little stability in the Mideast in the past. Now, we have some democracy and no stability.
Syria is the second challenge on our list of challenges. Syria is falling apart. I think this process is going to take a very long time. Nobody is willing to put their guns down. If they do, they will be slaughtered, tens of thousands of them. That is why they are fighting with their backs against the wall. They have no motivation to give up and put their weapons down.
Our main concern is (Syria's) arsenal of chemical weapons. The rest is a domestic Syrian issue. But if those stockpiles find their way to Hezbollah or other elements that are very anti-Israel, this is where we become concerned.
I do not think Egypt is in the same category of challenges. They need to be judged by the walk and not by the talk. The talk is unpleasant. They are governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not believe there is room for a non-Muslim state in the Middle East. But the walk is more positive. President Mohammed Morsi has to make up his mind if he is in the Muslim Brotherhood or is president of Egypt because there is a contradiction between the two.
As president of Egypt, he has to feed every morning 85 million Egyptians, while their economy is very down. There is no income whatsoever. He is leaning very strongly on America’s annual support of $1.5 billion. He can’t do anything if he doesn’t get that money. His economy will fall apart. But one of the preconditions of that support is that Egypt will stay committed to the Camp David peace accords of 1979.
So if he will not make an ideological compromise, he will not succeed. If he does make that ideological compromise, he might have to resign. If you ask me if he will be able to face his challenges successfully or not, I don’t know. It’s too early to say.
How did President Obama’s recent visit to the region play among Israelis?
Gilad: We would describe the Israeli-American relationship as a special relationship, quote unquote. It is special because unlike other bilateral relationships, it is much wider than only interests. In the case of America and Israel, there is common heritage of pioneers pushing against the frontier. There is the story of the exodus from Egypt, which is so central in our heritage, and there is also the very important history of America of the people on the Mayflower. Crossing the ocean for them was like crossing the desert. Moses is not only a great leader for us but was a leader for the people who started this great nation.
It’s not only a common heritage but also common values of democracy, human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, freedom of speech. In the Middle East you will not find another partner like Israel who shares these same values. Across the world you will find only a few countries who share the same agenda.
Israel and the United States are becoming stronger and stronger economic allies. Israel is heavily invested in the United States, and the United States is heavily invested in Israel. Monsanto in the past few years has completed the acquisition of three Israeli high-tech companies. That’s the best you can get in bilateral relations.
There is also the strong presence of the Jewish community in America. They are only 2 percent of the American community, but they have a lot of presence in political, economic, social and academic life.
All of this was expressed in the visit of President Obama. One could see the depth and the width of the relationship. I basically identified with everything he said about having prosperity, development and achievements. At the same time, we need to achieve peace with our neighbors. I think the Israeli people would agree with him.
In the past 65 years, we have achieved a lot – economic stability, prosperity, you name it. Israel is the magnificent city on the hill. We cannot do everything to influence the Middle East so that everyone will do well. But we need to do our utmost to make peace with the Palestinians. If not, our prosperity will not be complete. I think that was the message President Obama brought, and I think this message was welcomed by most Israelis.
In your first posting to the U.S., what has impressed you most?
Gilad: The terrain is friendly to us. In Jordan, the atmosphere was not friendly. I think here, the atmosphere is friendly. Sometimes we have challenges, but at the end of the day, I think most Americans have a lot of understanding and appreciation and sympathy for all of the very many challenges that Israelis face.
Basically, some of those challenges are being shared by you. There are challenges of terror. There are nuclear challenges like the one you are facing now from North Korea. We feel that we have a partner, a real partner that understands our needs. Unfortunately, this is not the situation all around the world. Some of my colleagues among Israeli diplomats are posted in places where there is zero understanding of our agenda. Here, I am happy to say, that is not the case.
I am impressed by the warmth and the depth of the support from the American people in general, not only from the Jewish community but from the African-American community, from the Latino community, from different churches. I really can’t complain when I did most of my career in places where we had less sympathy toward our agenda and our beliefs