Contretemps at the UN over Palestinian Statehood
A Round Table Discussion with Emanuele Ottolenghi
by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (October 2011)
High drama occurred both inside and outside the 66th UN General Assembly Sessions on Manhattan’s East side in late September, 2011. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA) filed an application for full membership for the Palestinian "state" with the UN Security Council on September 23rd. The US has publicly announced that it would veto the application. That left the PA the possible alternative of submitting the resolution to a full General Assembly vote where two-thirds of the more than 193 members were favorably disposed to granting full membership. President Obama and Israeli PM Netanyahu found themselves in agreement that such efforts by the PA were unwarranted. Instead, they argued that the two parties, the Palestinians and the Israelis, should return to bi-lateral negotiations. Those negotiations had lain moribund for nearly a year because of Palestinian objections to Israeli settlement construction, refusal to recognize the Jewish State and other demands that threatened the security of Israel’s borders and continued existence.
After a joint statement was issued by Obama and Netanyahu, PA President Abbas persisted in filing the proposed unilateral declaration of independence. International legal experts consider the proposed Palestinian state as not qualified for sovereignty under the 1933 Montevideo Convention defining the conditions for statehood and hence membership at the UN. The Quartet, composed of the Foreign Ministers of the US, Russia, the European Union (EU) and the UN represented by Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had huddled prior to this momentous UN Session hoping to avert a crisis. It issued a statement urging the Palestinians and Israelis to return to negotiations. Following his speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday, September 21st, President Obama held a meeting with Israeli PM Netanyahu issuing a joint statement decrying the PA statehood resolution. Obama subsequently met with President Abbas to no avail. On Friday, September 23rd, PA President Abbas submitted the Palestinians request for full membership to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon followed by a dramatic speech supporting the application for full membership to the Security Council. Abbas in a dramatic moment at the General Assembly podium said:
"Enough, enough, enough 63 years of ongoing tragedy must end."
The application was referred to a special committee of the Security Council which may schedule a vote at which the US may veto the application. The Palestinians requested a vote within two weeks.
These momentous events occurred 64 years after Arabs rejected the offer of a state by the UN as part of the Partition of the Palestine Mandate.
Israeli PM Netanyahu in response to the PA Security Council application for full membership gave a stirring 40 minute speech before the General Assembly outlining the reasons why Israel wanted bi-lateral negotiations to resume premised on Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state and the necessity of obtaining secure and defensible borders under UN Security Council Resolution 242. Netanyahu’s bottom-line argument was:
"The truth is that Israel wants peace with a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians want a state without peace. And the truth is you shouldn’t let that happen."
In a rhetorical flourish, Netanyahu extended a hand to Abbas to meet that day to resolve issues between Israel and the Palestinians. However, it was clear that for all intents and purposes that with the PA's unilateral declaration of independence negotiations under the 1993 Oslo Accords had ended.
President Obama also held separate meetings with Mahmoud Jibril head of the interim Libyan government, which was emblematic of what the White House considers an important victory: the Arab Spring toppling of former Libyan strong man Muammar Gaddafi. President Obama also held a meeting with an increasingly truculent NATO partner and ally of the US in the Middle East, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, just prior to these important UN sessions, had flown to the heartland of the Arab Spring and held public meetings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt; all the while withdrawing his Ambassador to Israel, filing objections to the UN Palmer Uribe Inquiry Report on the May, 2010 Gaza Flotilla incident involving Israeli Naval Commandos and objecting to the assumption of the EU Presidency by the Greco-Cypriot Republic. Moreover, Erdogan threatened to send Turkish naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean to purportedly secure "freedom of navigation," a veiled threat against Israel.
President Ahmadinejad’s speech before the General Assembly prompted a walk out by the US and 30 other nations given his intemperate remarks about 9/11, Israel as a Zionist threat to the world and references to Holocaust denial. Outside the UN buildings, separate protests were held by Iranian opposition groups and Israel supporters drawing attention to the Islamic Republic’s brutal suppression of Iranian opposition and Iran’s nuclear program striving for hegemony in the Muslim world and destruction of the Jewish State. Elsewhere in the UN complex, the Durban III Conference commemorated its tenth anniversary. The Durban Conferences have been used as a platform by Palestinian and Islamic allies to demonize Israel, painting it as a pariah state. Meanwhile, a Durban Watch counter conference was streamed via the internet. It featured a panoply of noted human rights speakers decrying the proceedings of the UN Human Rights Council event across the street.
Against this background “Your Turn” host Mike Bates, of radio station 1330AM WEBY of Pensacola, Florida, Senior Editor Jerry Gordon of the New English Review and Brussels-based Emanuele Ottolenghi, Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies held a radio round table discussion.
Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. This is a special edition today. It is another one of our international round table discussions. There is always something going on in the Middle East and this week is particularly busy so we have in the studio with us to discuss it, Jerry Gordon who is a Senior Editor of The New English Review and its blog, The Iconoclast. Jerry, welcome to Your Turn.
Gordon: Glad to be back.
Bates: And we also have a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Brussels and that is Emanuele Ottolenghi. Emanuele, welcome to Your Turn.
Ottolenghi: Thank you for having me.
Bates: So we've got a lot of activity this week with the Palestinians seeking UN membership. What has prompted this effort, Emanuele?
Ottolenghi: The Palestinians have sought in the last decade by various means to change the balance of power between them and Israel in the way that the negotiations inching towards a Palestinian state are playing out. They have never been in a position where they could impose on Israel the kind of conditions that they want from an agreement. Conditions which could perhaps create at least temporarily a Palestinian state within the Armistice line of 1949, what people frequently refer to as the 1967 borders. Part of this deal would force Israel to accept at least in principle millions of Palestinian refugees and grant them citizenship, something which over time would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Now the Palestinians have never been able to obtain those terms from Israel for understandable reasons. Israel cannot be expected to commit national suicide. However, in order to try and corner Israel through isolation, violence, sanctions, and various other means, the Palestinians have tried in the last decades to improve their standing and get a more advantageous deal out of this. Now they have tried violence from the Second Intifada something that at least for a brief time in 2000 to 2001 did put Israel in a very difficult position. It made it look like such concessions were within reach but then the violence backfired so now the Palestinians are trying tact. They have refused to return to the negotiating table since the election to office of the current Israeli government under the Prime Ministership of Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu. They did that after turning down a very comprehensive peace offer which had been developed and put on the table by the previous Israeli government headed by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Palestinians rejected it, or rather they never responded to the offer, which was given to them in September 2008. They have refused to negotiate in the last two years. Now they are coming to the UN under the pretext that there are no negotiations going on and they are hoping to obtain from the UN something that the Israelis would not concede to. If you allow me the comparison, what they are doing is the same as the proverbial son who kills his parents and then when he is in front of a judge he pleads for leniency for being an orphan. They have refused to negotiate. They have been the principle obstacle to the return of negotiations because of their impossible pre-conditions. Now the Palestinians are going to the UN after two years with the Israelis asking them to return to negotiations. The Palestinians are saying there are no negotiations; please give us a state through the UN process.
Bates: Emanuele, there had been some speculation and expectation that the PA was going to go through the General Assembly first and now they are going to the Security Council first which seems to follow a more normal protocol. I think undoubtedly they would receive majority support in the General Assembly. What's the expectation in the Security Council?
Ottolenghi: There was certainly a procedural question that was in everybody's mind that trying to go straight to the General Assembly without following the normal procedures might have vitiated the General Assembly vote. However, I think that beyond the procedural question there is a substantive one. The Obama Administration has tried to recalibrate US relations with what they call the Muslim world and the Arab world. It has gone out of its way to do so by delivering a number of important policy speeches. The Cairo speech by President Obama comes to mind as well as his decision to stage an important visit to the region very early in his Presidency allowing for an improvement in relations with Turkey. In all matters concerning the Middle East that was what President Obama was seeking. This despite the fact that Turkey has become increasingly a problematic ally for the US. The US has tried to do this under the current Administration. We can debate whether it has been ill advised or not, successful or not. However, it is clear that the Obama Administration has invested significantly in this point. Now the Obama Administration has so far used its veto only once at the Security Council. You may recall a veto was used in conjunction with an earlier attempt by friends of the Palestinians to put through a resolution condemning Israel's settlement activity. If the Obama Administration is forced to use its veto once again on this issue what it comes down to is that despite all of his efforts, President Obama will be presented and described in the Arab world as the President who twice in his tenure used a veto to defend Israel against what Arabs perceive to be their fundamental and undeniable rights. It is a move designed I think, more than anything else, to embarrass the US Administration and to make the case that the Palestinians are trying to make that the US is no longer a reliable mediator. The Palestinians’ bottom line is to undermine 40 years of international diplomacy in the Middle East which were based on UN Security Council Resolution 242: a resolution which sets the parameters for peace making in the region, the principle of land for peace through negotiations. By going to the UN and asking the UN to proclaim a Palestinian state under borders that a Security Council Resolution will define, the PA is trying to alleviate itself from the duty and the burden of negotiations. It is basically trying to push aside America as the principal mediator in that process. Whatever way you look at it beyond the procedural issues this is a clear and clever ploy to corner the US and put the current Administration in a bind. If they stand by their commitment to veto a resolution by the Security Council to recognize Palestine as a state the US standing as a mediator will be further undermined in the public opinion and among the governments in the Arab world. Of course the entire peace process will collapse as a consequence of this.
Gordon: Emanuele, there is a fly in the ointment in all of this. It has to do with whether or not this unilateral declaration of independence really qualifies, what the Palestinians think of as a state, is not a state. Could you address the international legal standards that define a state and how they apply to this situation?
Ottolenghi: Absolutely. There are some very basic principles that are required in international law for a territorial entity to claim to be a state. They include the permanent population of a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Now the Palestinians are basically saying they have a permanent population that is the Palestinian people, those Palestinians who reside within the West Bank, Gaza and the Eastern part of Jerusalem. They also say we have a government that is the PA. We have the capacity to enter into relations with other states. The PA or the PLO has actually been recognized as a state by over 100 countries already. They have ambassadors, they have diplomatic missions in Ramallah and the PLO has diplomatic missions in various countries that are recognized by the local governments as enjoying diplomatic immunity and all the staples of a real embassy. They are saying we have all of this. What we are missing is the recognition of a defined territory and that is what we are aiming to obtain by this Security Council Resolution. The international community finally says the borders or the boundaries of the State of Palestine will be the provisional borders created de facto before the 1967 June War. There is a debate among legal scholars as to whether the PA considering that part of its territory is actually controlled by Hamas in Gaza is still considered under full Palestinian control because of the Oslo Accord. However, the PA is still under Israeli control and there are other factors. The question is whether actually these parameters apply or not, but I would like to emphasize that the issue here is another one. Regardless of what international law says, the history of the Arab/Israeli conflict, especially when it pertains to the Palestinians, shows that the international community for political reasons has been all too willing all too frequently to overlook the terms of reference given by international law to the specific issue and to make exceptions for the Palestinians. The issue of refugees is an example. When it comes to any other conflict in the world that has created in the past or could create a refugee problem, the UN Authority in charge is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR whose purpose has always been and always will be to insure that if refugees cannot return to their homes because of impossible political conditions they will be resettled in other countries. When it comes to the Palestinians the UN created in 1949 a specific agency which is the UN Relief and Works Agency, (UNRWA), which deals only with Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The purpose of that agency is not to help them resettle in host countries; it is to keep them in a permanent state as refugees. Here is one example where there is one rule for the entire world and another rule for the Palestinians. We have witnessed that again recently with the Palmer Uribe Commission of Inquiry that the UN Secretary General initiated in order to investigate the episode of the Flotilla in May, 2010. That was triggered by the episode of the ships that tried to break the blockaded Gaza coast and the Israeli Commandos who boarded one of the ships which resulted in casualties. The use of UN Commissions is an instrument that has been used in the past. It is an instrument that has been established with the agreement and full participation of the aggrieved parties. In this recent case, they are the Israeli and Turkish governments. However, the minute the Palmer Uribe Report was released the Turkish government did not like its findings. It rejected it as null and void and the UN is already back tracking about the Inquiry Report’s validity. I'll give you another very relevant example. The UN certified in 2000 that Israel had complied with its obligations under UN Resolution 425 which had to do with fully withdrawing from Lebanese sovereign territories. When Israel withdrew unilaterally from South Lebanon in 2000 it sought certification that it had complied with its UN obligations. Indeed, the UN said that Israel had withdrawn beyond and behind the international border. However, Hizbullah then created the pretext of the so-called Shebaa Farms episode in order to continue its conflict with Israel. Since then the UN and several members of the international community have partially backtracked by saying that despite the fact that the UN had certified that Israel had complied, perhaps that disputed territory after all was still part of Lebanon. You have a number of examples where the international law is pretty clear and yet when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, the international community is very happy to make an exception, so I don't see why this time it will be any different. The Palestinians control a pretty automatic strong, loyal and docile majority in the UN which is built off the blocks of first the Arab countries, second the 57 Islamic countries members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and third, the non-aligned movement. Together, these countries together make up almost two thirds of the General Assembly. All they need is to swing six or seven countries from Europe and that shouldn't be a problem.
Bates: Emanuele, I want to ask you about a double standard, perhaps the epitome of Chutzpah. We have the PLO envoy to the US, Maen Areikat, who says, that assuming there is a Palestinian state, that there will be no Jews in Palestine. Yet, they are insisting on the right of return of these so called Palestinian refugees into Israel. How can you address that double standard?
Ottolenghi: First of all it is very important to note that Mr. Areikat is not just speaking for himself. Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the PA actually said something very similar just a few months ago when he said that no Israelis would be allowed to live in a future State of Palestine. You know it is a nice way to paper over the difference, Jews or Israelis, but the meaning is the same. The European Union (EU) and the US have made it abundantly clear that it is a top priority and considered to be of national interest that the future State of Palestine is democratic. How can you square the intention and the desire to be a democracy with the announcement that your state will be judenrein as the Nazi propagandists would have put it? You can't and that is at the heart of the problem and this is where the double standard comes in. We are very much prepared in the West to criticize Israel for its actions when it behaves below what we think are standards of democratic behavior. However, we are willing to give a free pass to non-Western countries. Palestine will be the 23rd Arab State when it comes to the same principle. I believe it is a fundamental problem in the West that we fail to recognize that a Palestinian state, if it comes into being, like other Arab countries will not be democratic, will not be tolerant, will not respect minorities. The fact that is it only says that it will not tolerate any Jews in its midst. I think that says something about how they will treat other minorities; whether Christians or women. This is a sign of the kind of society that the Palestinians want to establish once they are sovereign. It will not be democratic. It will not be a society that will respect human rights. It will not be a country that will join the family of democracies. It will also be a country that will seek to fulfill its hostility to its neighbors in ways that only a sovereign state can do. It is a further alarm bell for those who think that by creating a Palestinian state somehow peace will be ushered in the Middle East.
Bates: Peace is not going to be ushered in by the creation of a Palestinian state especially if it is unilaterally declared by the UN. Let me ask you this question from the ‘be careful what you wish for ’department. Let us assume that the Palestinians do get their own state. Could Israel's response to future violence be stronger and more definitive because it would then be an act of war by a sovereign nation versus an act of terrorism by a bunch of malcontents? Could the Palestinians really be digging their own grave by insisting on the legitimacy of sovereignty?
Ottolenghi: There are a lot of unknowns. Israel is in a very difficult situation today because this PA proclamation does not happen in a vacuum. It happens within the broader context of the so- called Arab Spring. A spring that has been rather tumultuous by any standards, given the degree of instability of the region and the fragility of relations that Israel has with its neighbors, first and foremost Egypt. That means Israel's response will have to be very restrained. If violence breaks out as a consequence of UN recognition of a Palestinian state Israel's options would be limited. However, there are many things that Israel can do in response. Israeli leaders have already hinted that the unilateral proclamation of independence that could follow automatically from the recognition of Palestine as a state; means the Oslo accords are null and void.
Bates: Emanuele, we were discussing the various options that Israel would have should violence ensue subsequent to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Can you continue with that thought?
Ottolenghi: The first and most powerful weapon that the Israelis can use is to say well you took a unilateral step which is bound to affect the outcome of the negotiations which were started under the Oslo Accords in 1993. The Oslo Accords are therefore undermined and we declared them null and void. Israel could denounce the accord and stop implementing its own side of the deal. Now among the consequences of that there is one which is extremely significant for the Palestinians. Namely, that a significant part of the PA budget relies on VAT rebates which are collected by Israel and then transferred on a monthly basis to the Palestinian coffers. If Israel decided to stop doing that you would deprive the PA of approximately 100 million dollars a month. If that is coupled with the threat by the US Congress to cut aid to the Palestinians, then it is very likely that the PA within a few months will find it unable to pay salaries, unable to meet its financial obligations. Let us go back to the first question, whether this is an entity that meets the criteria for a viable state. If it became financially insolvent, it would be unable to function and would collapse very quickly. That action is just one of the many things that Israel could do. Israel could cut off the supply of electricity and water for the PA. Israel could block the border crossings. Israel could deny transit to Palestinian officials who currently enjoy VIP status under the Oslo Accord. There are many things that Israel can do and many measures that they can enact to exert pressure on the Palestinians and make their ploy collapse. It is far from certain that the Palestinians are going to reap long term benefits from this action beyond the short term gain of recognition. Certainly, there is the possibility that by becoming a recognized state within the international community the Palestinians could become members of various international organizations and try to corner and pursue Israel through lawfare, within these international contexts.
Gordon: There is another anti-Israel event that occurred at the United Nations, the Durban III Conference. The first one occurred in Durban, South Africa in 2001 with the late PLO leader, Yasser Arafat. The message at each Durban Conference was demonize Israel as a Zionist, racist, apartheid state. In 2009, at the Second Durban conference in Geneva Iran's President Ahmadinejad furthered that message by denying the Holocaust which obviously irritated a number of countries who attended. This year 14 nations have decided not to attend the Third Durban conference, although a number of others have, especially the Scandinavian countries. What is the problem with the Durban III Conference and why is the UN sponsoring this?
Ottolenghi: Let us go back to 2001. The Durban I Conference was meant to be an important landmark in UN Conferences because it was devoted to the issue of racism and xenophobia. Had it been a genuine effort by international communities to come together to address the issues of racism it could have been a positive development. The Durbin I Conference in 2001 was completely hijacked by the Arab agenda of demonizing Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. This turned Israel into a pariah state and used the UN conference in order to restore the "Zionism equals racism" UN Resolution of the mid-1970s, thus returning it to the law books of the international community. That effort succeeded in 2001. By hijacking the agenda it prevented the international community from addressing the real multifarious nature of racism in the world. That includes the sheer and systematic discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in those parts of the Muslim world including the permanence of slavery within parts of the Arab world. That was the stepping stone of the first Durban Conference. The Durban II Conference was an effort to have a review process of what Durban I had produced. It was largely a failure because many of the Western nations, who had failed to walk out of Durban I in 2001, left. The only two countries who walked out in 2001 were Israel and the US. All the European countries stayed to their shame. To their credit at least, most countries of European Union (EU) didn't repeat that in 2009 when Durban II occurred. However, as you mentioned Durban II was used as a platform for spewing more blatant hatred by Ahmadinejad. Now we have the tenth anniversary of Durban I and hate is spewing again on the streets of New York. The plot is the same. Instead of addressing the issue of racism in the world Israel is singled out as the only object of international condemnation. I was reminded by the news recently that the US military "don’t ask don't tell" policy expired in the US. The only country in the Middle East where homosexuals are free to practice their sexuality without fear of retribution or fear of death is Israel. There are homosexuals in Iran and in other parts of the Arab world were death is a reality. This despite the calumny President Ahmadinejad famously uttered at Columbia University in 2007 that there is no such thing as homosexuals in Iran. The reason is that under Shariah they get executed. That is why there are none. Israel is the only country in the region that is tolerant and respectful of differences. It is the supreme and grotesque irony that the moral inversion of the Durban Racism issue illustrates how the UN has turned on its head a conference that was originally established by the international community to condemn racism and create meaningful ways to combat it on a global scale. The review process and tenth Durban Conference commemoration have all turned into excuses and pretexts to target Israel. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is not racist and that truly practices open mindedness and democracy and has established a free and open society where minorities and people that live differently can do so openly without fear of persecution or retribution.
Gordon: You mentioned earlier the Arab Spring. At the UN meetings President Obama is scheduled to meet with the head of the Libyan interim government, Mr. Mahmoud Jibril, ironically, the former Justice Minister for Gaddafi. He has also met with President Mahmoud Abbas of the PA. Was the meeting between President Obama and Libyan interim leader Jibril a positive development of the Arab Spring?
Ottolenghi: I think that it was not a very good thing that President Obama met with Mahmoud Abbas. After all, Mahmoud Abbas has decided to spite the President very publicly by rebuffing the US. Abbas has rejected every single effort of mediation by openly criticizing the US despite the fact that this President has been considerably more understanding of Palestinian demands than his predecessor. The hour of trying to lure the Palestinians with additional offers and freebies is over. In contrast, it is a good thing that the President is meeting Mr. Jibril. The US has put considerable political capital behind the effort to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. We can of course spend a long time discussing whether the effort was ill advised or poorly designed, whether the policy should have been carried out differently. Notwithstanding, the US has invested in regime change in Tripoli. That has happened. There are genuine concerns about where Libya might end up as a consequence of this regime change so it is very important to test this new situation and see with whom we are dealing. There are clearly forces within Libya that are Western friendly. They may not be the ones who will come out on top. However, it is very important for the Western world to support them and prop them up whichever way is possible. We can discuss what has happened in other parts of the Arab world where dictators have been toppled. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is that the record is very poor. The West is very much unprepared to confront this new challenge, at a moment of extreme political and economic weakness and also with some naive illusions about what these revolutions are about. I think that the whole policy has to be very quickly reviewed and re-addressed in order to avoid the dangers after having lived with over five decades of a Middle East ruled by ruthless tyrants. Those tyrants were often goaded with military aid to support some Western policies. Losing that leverage, we may be exchanging them for people who are going to be much worse.
Gordon: In the case of Egypt, which seems to be the fulcrum of the Arab Spring, relations with Israel have deteriorated. The attack on the Israeli Embassy just prior to the arrival of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in Cairo was illustrative of the forces of upheaval in Egypt that have decided the so called ‘cold peace’ between the two countries is over. What is your opinion?
Ottolenghi: The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was pursued by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a conscious strategic choice. Sadat realized that Egypt could never defeat Israel militarily. That the continued devotion of national resources, blood and treasure for Egypt to fight Israel were only to the detriment of Egypt. That if Egypt wanted to develop and survive as a country economically it had to find a way to live with Israel. Egypt reaped incredible strategic economic dividends from the peace over more than 30 intervening years. That interest hasn't changed within the Egyptian military leadership that is de facto controlling the country. We talk about an Arab Spring in Cairo and a revolution. What we really have is by and large a palace coup of officers who have thrown one of their own under the bus and retained power, at least so far. However, the Egyptian military leadership for more than thirty years has done very little if anything to educate its public to come to terms with the existence of Israel and embrace the peace treaty as a good thing. When Egyptians poured into the streets and squares of Cairo to protest the regime, eventually toppling the tyrant, they talked about how their dignity had been taken away from them. They were not only referring to economic conditions or the corruption of the system or the brutality of the police state. They also thought that having been an ally of the US and at peace with Israel was an insult to their dignity. The Egyptian military in charge today looks at this and realizes that as usual the best way to keep power is to scapegoat someone else and Israel is the perfect candidate. The fact of the matter is most of the Egyptian society today has a deep profound problem with Israel. Even rather liberal, open minded, Western oriented politicians in Egypt have said that the treaty should be revised or put to a referendum; they want the terms of that treaty to be changed. They want one of the cornerstones of that treaty, namely the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, to be changed. There are profound risks in this development. We cannot rule out the possibility that when elections come to Egypt in November, forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which are profoundly anti-Semitic would vote to destroy the State of Israel and are ideologically opposed to the continuation of the treaty. If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, either as a majority or at least as part of a coalition government, this is something of great concern not just for Israel but for the US. The alliance with Egypt has been one of the pillars of US foreign policy and stability in the region since 1979. The loss of Egypt and the real distinct possibility that this treaty could collapse will grievously harm American interests in the region. In light of this it is all the more puzzling that the present Administration allowed President Mubarak to be taken out of office so quickly. They did not try to actually help the regime remain in power while transitioning to a more consensual and benign form of government. Ironic, because the Obama Administration tried to do that with Syria which is an avowed enemy of the US.
Gordon: Emanuele, we mentioned President Ahmadinejad of Iran during the Durban III discussion. That addresses something that you are familiar with and have written extensively about, the Iranian nuclear threat. What is the danger of an Iranian nuclear threat?
Ottolenghi: There are two concerns about an Iranian nuclear threat. The first is the fear some people understandably share, the rhetoric of Iranian leaders about wiping Israel off the map could be matched by the reality of an Iranian nuclear arsenal. In other words, despite the great consequences that Iran would incur if it launched the first strike against Israel, what Iran really wants from a nuclear weapon is to carry out some apocalyptic vision for the region. Iran’s wants to be the champion of all the hateful rhetoric against Israel that has been spewed from the region in the last five decades. That is the first fear. The second fear is to some, the less scary. However, it is still a cause of concern that Iran is not mad. They want a nuclear weapon for deterrence purposes. They are rational and they will not use it to launch a first strike. However, that may be, we should always remember that a dictatorship that has the ultimate weapon can use that weapon to increase the level of its mischief. The Soviet Union was probably rational enough when it had nuclear weapons, not launching a first strike against United States or its allies. It used the umbrella of nuclear deterrence to act with impunity in Eastern Europe and then in many other regions of the world. The fact of the matter is an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons, even if it didn't want to launch a first strike, could use the shield of nuclear weapons to dominate the entire region which would have devastating effects on oil prices. It would destabilize the Gulf monarchies. It would affect the global economy and it would ultimately possibly lead to war with Israel and other regional actors regardless of whether Iran launches a first strike. These are two distinct possibilities. That is why Western policy makers have to take this threat very seriously.
Bates: Emanuele, we were discussing what the Iranians would do if they were to achieve a nuclear weapons capability. Can you continue with that thought?
Ottolenghi: Absolutely. The calming thought that some people in the policy making community offer to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is that Iran will act rationally. They do not pursue nuclear weapons in order to trigger an apocalypse although the rhetoric of the regime sometimes suggests otherwise. They really want it as a weapon of deterrence. It is important to emphasize that even if Iran seeks nuclear weapons just for the purpose of deterrence, that in and of itself is already a scenario that is too dangerous, too fraught with dangers for the West to tolerate. Let me just give you two examples. The first is that Iran is one of the biggest sponsors of terrorism in the world and it uses regional proxies to wage war against its enemies through terrorism and guerrilla warfare. It supports proxies in Iraq to kill U.S. troops. It supports the Taliban in Afghanistan to do the same. It supports Hizbullah and Hamas in Lebanon and in Gaza in order to pressure Israel. If Iran had nuclear weapons all of these organizations could significantly escalate their hostile activities because the danger of responding would be very significant and much more significant for their enemies. To make it simple, if you like the way Hamas and Hizbullah behave today you will love it when Iran has nuclear weapons because they will be able to do a lot more mischief with a lot more impunity than they do now. That is the first point. The second point is historical. The US confronted the Soviet Union for over 40 years. We had the Cold War, during which both countries had nuclear arsenals. When the Soviets achieved nuclear capability in 1949, there was a nuclear balance. It is said that it was possible with the Soviet Union; we could do it with Iran too. Think again for two reasons. The first is that historically every country that has achieved nuclear weapons capability has immediately become a lot more aggressive until that fragile balance was reached. The Soviet Union acted very aggressively vis a vis the West in the decade and a half after 1949. This aggressiveness only subsided somewhat after the Cuban Missile crisis, which occurred despite the fact that neither country wanted to go to nuclear war. Despite the fact that neither leader of these countries intended to initiate such crisis. Despite all of this, the US and the Soviet Union almost reached the point of no return during the Cuban Missile crisis. Now, imagine that in the context of the Middle East with Iran and its enemies and adversaries in the region starting with Israel. There are a number of things that are missing from the Soviet American precedent which were mitigating factors. In other words, America and the Soviet Union had diplomatic relations. They had channels of communications both overt and discreet. They knew each other intimately because they had a long history of relations and the two cultures belong roughly to the Western tradition. There are no Israeli Embassies in Tehran or Iranian Embassies in Jerusalem or even Tel Aviv. There are no relations, period. There is no channel of communication, so the possibility that even if there is no intention to commit nuclear war, a potential crisis could get out of hand, escalate. The potential that leaders in the region could misread, miscalculate and misunderstand the actions and intentions of their adversary are enormous. If you take all of this into consideration it is clear that even an Iranian regime that acts rationally, once it has nuclear weapons will become infinitely more dangerous and could destabilize the region and lead to a full war. In the context of the Middle East that would be devastating not just for the people of the region but for the entire world.
Bates: And those are not just the words of Emanuele Ottolenghe. I want to read the words of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Jerry Gordon you'll be pleased to know that this is from your Israpundit blog, November 13, 2008. It was so important I saved it. It is historical so it's still applicable today. It says, "Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the alleged father of the Iranian Nuclear Project when confronted with the prospect of such a nuclear Armageddon scenario with Israel noted that he would willingly sacrifice 10% of Iran's 70 million population to eradicate six million Jews in Israel. Note what he said on Al-Quds Day in December 2001 quoting Rafsanjani, "If one day the world of Islam comes to possess the weapons currently in Israel's possession, meaning nuclear weapons, on that day this method of global arrogance would come to a dead end." This he said is because "the use of a nuclear bomb on Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam."
Gordon: Those are rather callous comments by the former head of the Islamic Republic. Emanuele, given what you've just laid out for us, what are the plausible deterrents on the part of the U.S. and/or Israel and others to forestall, prevent, and otherwise disable the Iranian nuclear threat?
Ottolenghe: The history of counter proliferation doesn't give us much reason to hope. Every time an authoritarian government with enough means at its disposal wanted to achieve nuclear weapons it managed to do so. There is only one exception and that is actually is an interesting one in the context of our conversation, it is Libya. Libya agreed to relinquish its nuclear weapons program in 2004 when it was really very close to achieving a nuclear weapons capability. The calculus that the now deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi made at the time was that he realized that he was going to get much more out of giving up his weapons than by pursuing them. He was rather an exception if you look at the history of Pakistan or North Korea. Usually the trajectory goes in the opposite direction. The Libyan precedent has used in recent years to show how peaceful diplomacy can achieve successes in the counter proliferation arena. Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program in exchange for being accepted into the respectable company of other nations thereby gaining immunity for himself and his regime. Once bombs started falling on his military installations after March 17, 2011, Gadaffi regretted having given up his weapons program. Had he kept it he would still be in power. Leaders in Tehran have looked at this experience and learned a lesson that they will have to tighten their belts and accept the shortcomings of living under a sanctioned regime. Ultimately, the benefits they will reap by having the bomb are considerable and the offer to give up their nuclear program in exchange for guarantees from the West is ultimately not appealing enough. The Gaddafi example teaches the Islamic Republic that the Western leaders' words if your people get onto the street and start protesting are suddenly worth nothing.
Gordon: With that in mind, I'd like to switch to another person who has become truculent recently, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey. He made visits to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya talking encouragingly about the Arab Spring. However, he also proceeded to withdraw his Ambassador from Israel, objected to the Greek Cypriot Republic assuming the rotating presidency of the EU and sent ships to the Eastern Mediterranean to prevent the loss of "navigational freedom." What is going on with him?
Ottolenghe: This is a trend that had started a number of years ago when negotiations within NATO began to replace the former Secretary General who was Dutch and the leading candidate was the former Prime Minister of Denmark. Turkey started kicking and screaming because Denmark was the place where the Mohammed cartoon controversy had erupted. Turkey eventually relented and allowed Mr. Fogh Rasmussen to be elected as Secretary General. NATO had to pay a price and the price was to give a very senior position to a Turkish politician within the NATO structure. The Turks learned a lesson that by being bullies and by screaming and kicking, they can force other countries to submit to their will and so this is one component of their approach: that bullishness in their mind probably pays off. The broader issue is the change in policy direction for Turkey which has been underway for a number of years. We are talking about a country that was formerly the bulwark of Western secularism, a Muslim country that had embraced Western values, had made secularism the principal value of its republicanism. A country that had joined forces with Western Europe and United States and NATO during the cold war when it that was a staunch ally. Turkey was on very friendly terms with Israel. Since the rise to power of Mr. Erdogan and his Islamic party, the AKP, Turkey has taken a different direction. This has been most manifest of course in the deterioration of relations with Israel. It is becoming increasingly evident Mr. Erdogan wants to reassert Turkish hegemony in the region by forging alliances with Islamic movements. The Arab Spring on the one hand and the row with Israel over the Flotilla on the other have given him a wonderful opportunity to both prove his credentials as a champion of the Palestinian cause and prove his Islamic credentials as well. This how he's been exploiting it. He arrived in Cairo and in Tunis welcomed by ecstatic crowds as if he were a rock star. I think this speaks volumes about Turkish ambitions in the region. Given the weaknesses of the West, the strategic importance of Turkey has risen on a number of levels whether it is energy security for Europe or the recent decision by NATO to place a radar station for the missile defense system in Turkey, Turkey feels that it is in a strong enough position to bully everyone that doesn't fall into line. Its decision to target Cyprus has to do with the simmering dispute between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus over the Northern part of the island. Turkey conquered the area with a military invasion in 1974, after which it has ethnically cleansed of the area of Greco-Cypriots. It was turned into a puppet state that is only recognized by Turkey.
Bates: Jerry and Emanuele, thank you both for joining us today on Your Turn.
Gordon: Pleasure to be here.
Ottolenghe: Likewise. Thank you so much.
To listen to the audio recording of this program, please click here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.
To comment on this interview, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish timely and interesting interviews like this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Jerry Gordon, please click here
Jerry Gordon is a also regular contributor to our community blog. To read his entries, please click here.