by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (October 2010)
The fragile Middle East Peace talks orchestrated by the Obama Administration between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority were at a critical stage when we held an interview with Israeli Consul for Florida and Puerto Rico, Ofer Bavly. We had interviewed his articulate Deputy, Paul Hirschson about the Iranian Nuclear Threat in the May 2010 edition of the New English Review. That threat was graphically in evidence at the Fall UN General Assembly annual meetings in New York with dramatic statements by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, resolute in opposing world concerns about achieving nuclear weapon supremacy in the region. Ahmadinejad rocked the proceedings with his bizarre speech accusing the US of orchestrating 9/11 in defense of Israel. The US, Israeli and more than two dozen delegations walked out of the UN meeting in protest against this artless conspiracy theory perpetrated as a big lie by Ahmadinejad.
Meanwhile, peace talks arranged by the Obama Administration between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority, the first in more than 18 months, are at a fragile point after a series of summits in Washington, Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt and now in Jerusalem. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has thrown down the gauntlet by threatening to walk out on bi-lateral talks should Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu end the 10 month ’freeze’ on settlement construction in the West Bank. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak flew back at the eleventh hour from talks with Pentagon counterparts in Washington to argue for continuation of the ‘freeze’ in Netanyahu Cabinet deliberations.
Bavly, the son of Israeli diplomats, has held a number of diplomatic posts here in the U.S. including stints in Boston, Washington and now Miami. My colleague Mike Bates of 1330AMWEBY and I had met him this April at a Night to Honor Israel event in Northwest Florida sponsored by Christians United for Israel.
This interview with Consul General Bavly occurred against the backdrop of the dramatic UN General Assembly proceedings in New York disrupted by Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
On Sunday, September 26th, the Netanyahu government announced that it was ending the 10 month moratorium on new settlement construction. Netanyahu said: “Israel is ready to pursue continuous contacts in the coming days to find a way to continue peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” He asked for restraint on the scope of new construction in the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas was unusually restrained, suggesting the matter will be discussed at a meeting of the Arab league on October 4th. He said, “Israel has a moratorium for 10 months and it should be extended for three to four months more to give peace a chance.” President Sarkozy of France weighed in demanding that “the settlements must stop.” US Special Envoy Mitchell is scheduled to meet with both Netanyahu and Abbas during a current trip to the Middle East endeavoring to keep the process alive.
Against these developments the interview with Israeli Consul General Bavly seems prescient in assessing the dynamics of a complicated Middle East Peace Process.
Mike Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to “Your Turn”. This is Mike Bates. I have Jerry Gordon with me in the studio. Jerry welcome.
Jerry Gordon: Thank you. Good to be here.
Bates: Jerry Gordon is Senior Editor with the New English Review and its blog, “the Iconoclast”. We have joining us from the Israeli Consul in Miami, Florida, the Consul General Ofer Bavly. Welcome.
Ofer Bavly: Thank you very much, good afternoon Mike and Jerry.
Bates: We appreciate you joining us on the program.
Ofer Bavly: Glad to be here.
Bates: I’d like to begin with what is always a topic that gets brought up whenever we talk to you or anybody else from the Consul General’s office and that is the Israeli situation as it pertains to the nuclear program in Iran. The former U.S. United Nations Ambassador, John Bolton, had said in August that the Israeli’s only had eight days to hit the Iranian Nuclear site or it would be too late. Eight days have passed and no strike. What is the status on that presently?
Bavly: Well, I wouldn’t be as bold as Ambassador Bolton was to set a time frame for what is or isn’t possible and what can be done and when. I will however say that the Iranian Nuclear Program is in fact a clear and present danger. It is imminent. It is a danger to Israel but way beyond Israel I think that it is a danger for the world, for world peace and world stability and certainly world economy. Israel is a close target to Iran but you know what? When you are the close next door neighbor and Iran is working hard to develop a missile that can reach Europe, then I think the Europeans need to be worried and not only Israel. Iran finances, trains and actually commands terror organizations throughout the world. By giving them nuclear technologies, they are putting in peril every single country in the world. So I think that Israel is not the only one that should be worried and certainly the Arab world and Arab moderate regimes are definitely scared today because of Iran.
Gordon: The matter of Iran came up recently during an MSNBC Town Hall program with President Obama. When asked about Iran, he said that the sanctions are working. What reaction do you have to that?
Bavly: I can’t honestly say that I see any real change in Iran’s Nuclear Program in the sense that they have not stopped it. We do not know that they have slowed it down in any way and they have certainly not desisted from their homicidal attempt at building a nuclear bomb. I don’t really know to what extent the sanctions are working but their nuclear program is going on course and in fact accelerating. They are very close to the nuclear threshold and I think that is the point and that is what should worry all of us.
Gordon: A few weeks ago there was a disclosure about a new underground Iranian enrichment facility. The reaction by the US government was, “oh well, they are just tunneling again”. That doesn’t make many of us pleased and I’m sure it doesn’t make you as a representative of the government of the State of Israel who is concerned about protecting its population pleased as well. What is your view?
Bavly: Of course not and we know that Iran is making very serious efforts to bypass the international atomic agency to hide their nuclear program from inspectors. They are closing facilities, closing the doors on the inspectors, not letting them see what’s going on. We know that they have a number of facilities within Iran. Some of them deep underground, as deep as 70 or 80 yards underground. Nobody really knows how many enrichment and weapons development facilities they have. Nor do we know how big they are because they are not letting international inspectors visit those sites. This is surprising given the fact that Iran claims that these are merely peaceful reactors designed to produce electricity yet Iran is one of the world’s biggest producers of oil. You hardly need nuclear power for electricity and if indeed it is for electricity then why hide it and why not let international inspectors visit the facilities? The truth is that Iran is not pursuing electricity, they are pursuing a bomb and I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to find out in the future, in the coming months that there are more facilities being built around Iran because that is what the Iranian regime is trying to do.
Bates: Well, there is no question that the Iranians have said that they intend to wipe Israel off the map and history has shown they will use whatever weapons they have at their disposal to attack not only Israel but the West in general. They have hidden their programs from the international inspectors which obviously indicate they must be hiding something. There was a story today that the Chinese may be building a nuclear power facility in Pakistan, also an Islamic country and not one that is as safe as perhaps Turkey used to be. Is that a concern to Israel?
Bavly: Pakistan is a nuclear power and has been for many years so there is nothing new about that. What is disconcerting is that because of Iran, because of its nuclear program, we may be witnessing the birth of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Now when you take an area of the world, a region as volatile as the Middle East, and insert nuclear technology into the equation and you start a nuclear arms race between regimes which frankly are not the most stable in the world and certainly not the most democratic in the world, then you are actually lighting a flame under a powder keg. I don’t think there is any other way of presenting this. This is not just a metaphor. This is actually what is happening. Arab countries which for 40 years have been saying Israel has a nuclear bomb have never actually believed their own rhetoric. They haven’t tried to develop their own nuclear bomb in response to a supposed Israeli bomb. However, as soon as Iran is on its way to a nuclear weapon, Sunni Arab countries are racing to get their own. Now when you put nuclear weapons in the hands of regimes which are not controlled by democracies and where a military coup is something that happens once in a while, you are doing something extremely dangerous and the danger again, is way beyond the Middle East and beyond Israel.
Gordon: We notice that a fairly substantial arms deal has just been announced by the U.S. under a strategic program with Saudi Arabia. 50 billion dollars in the case of air force and ground technology as well as another 25 billion we understand for a renovation of what passes for the Saudi Navy. We also note that Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak is in Washington trying to perfect additional sales. What is that all about?
Bavly: Well you know Israel is unfortunate enough to be living in a rough neighborhood. When you are surrounded by thugs and terrorist organizations and by countries that do not even recognize your very right to exist, you need to maintain a qualitative edge as far as military preparedness is concerned. Our neighbors are not Switzerland. They are not polite Swedes or Scandinavians. They are ruthless regimes that have waged war time and again against Israel and have declared time and again their willingness and desire to see Israel disappear off the map of the world. They are pursuing their own nuclear or conventional weapons programs and trying to get the edge on us and that in turn, forces Israel to try and maintain a qualitative edge. Because if you don’t defend yourself then you are doomed. Unfortunately for us this is not theory, this is actuality. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is in fact in Washington right now and he will be discussing with his American counterparts the ways in which Israel can defend itself in the future against what is surely a threat to us from different neighboring countries.
Gordon: We’ve just seen the end of a trifecta of Summits between Washington, Sharm el-Sheikh and Jerusalem endeavoring to perfect some sort of a peace settlement between the Palestinian Authority and the Netanyahu government. We are also up against the expiration of the West Bank Settlement Freeze. What do you think the prospects are for either renewal or the end of the freeze?
Bavly: Well, I’ll start off by saying that making peace in the Middle East has never been an easy venture and the fact is that we have been trying to make peace with the Palestinians for almost two decades now since the famous handshake on the White House lawn between President Clinton, Prime Minister Rabin and President Arafat. 17 years and we are still no closer to peace. As complex as it may be and as difficult and daunting as the task may be, Israel is very serious and very honest about wanting to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Now, in order to reach an agreement there are a number of core issues that need to be discussed and they need to be discussed directly between the two sides. The Palestinians left the negotiation table a year and a half ago, only to return, a few weeks ago to Summits in Washington, Sharm el-Sheikh and in Jerusalem. This is the first time that they are actually sitting down to talk to us in 18 months. We are very hopeful that they will not leave the table again. We are not looking for tactics and we are not looking for gambles and we are not looking for a negotiation gambit. We are looking for serious, honest discussion of every single issue that is on the table. We believe that the issues can be resolved if there is good will and if the sides do not abandon the table every time something displeases them. Israel is very serious and will pursue these talks even though the risks are tremendous for us. We are faced with a neighbor that to this day does not accept the existence of Israel, does not even agree to utter the words that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. I’m talking about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who has recently as yesterday mocked Israel’s demand to be recognized as the homeland for the Jewish people and he said, “Well, as far as I’m concerned you can call yourselves the Jewish Zionist Empire.” I don’t think that this is cause for humor or for laughter. This is something very serious. This is the question of Israel being accepted by the countries of the Middle East, as a country that has the right to exist. As long as we are not accepted, certainly we cannot have any real or true peace between us. Once we overcome some of those obstacles then I believe, and I am optimistic, I believe that, a peace accord is possible and can probably be signed within a short number of months, maybe a year as the Obama administration has signaled.
Bates: Well, let’s talk about the Obama administration. This is domestic politics and I know that historically you prefer not to comment on domestic politics as an Ambassador but I’ll ask it in a way that perhaps you do feel comfortable commenting and that is this.
Bavly: You know me already (laughter)
Bates: (laughter)… Well, I’ve asked before and you have declined politely to answer before. By all indications, the ruling Democratic Party may lose the House and perhaps even the Senate with the up-coming November mid-term elections. Now, under our Constitution, it is the Executive Branch that deals with foreign policy so the Legislative Branch doesn’t really have a whole lot of say in it. However is your government following our politics closely and are you looking for perhaps a change in American Israeli relations should the Republicans take over the Legislative Branch of the United States?
Bavly: Well you know, I’ll be honest with you even though I don’t comment on domestic American politics because it really is not proper for me to do so. I will say this, if there is one topic that is truly bipartisan in American politics it is Israel. I really believe that support for the State of Israel and for our right to exist and our right to defend ourselves is an issue that rises above politics. You will find support of Israel on both sides of the aisle, not only in Florida politics where it is really a consensus issue, but also in Washington. There will not be great differences between Democrats and Republicans as far as Israel is concerned. I think that we feel very comfortable with the strategic alliance that exists between the U.S. and Israel. Sure, like any relationship there are ups and downs and if you were to ask my wife she will tell you about it.
Bavly: Between Israel and the United States there are discussions, there are debates and there are issues and there are bound to be many issues on which we will not agree. However, that does not mean that we are in a crisis or in any way not thinking, not on the same page. America and Israel are strong allies regardless of ups and downs that we may have. I think this alliance is based on shared interests, on shared values, on shared beliefs that transcend local politics or even Washington politics and again, this is truly a bipartisan issue on which you will not find differences between the parties.
Bates: Jerry, you have another question for Consul General Ofer Bavly?
Gordon: The E.U. has had an abiding interest of trying to enter into the fray of peacemaking in the Middle East. Do you think that’s realistic?
Bavly: Well, traditionally European countries, and, I know I’m making a generalization here and there are of course exceptions, but traditionally European countries have tried to dictate a certain solution or a certain formula to the sides in the Middle East when trying to mediate or get into the fray as far as the peace process is concerned. The Europeans notoriously see one version or one solution possible and they have always tried to impose that solution on the sides. I think that is what kept them far from the negotiation table because we do not accept dictation from outsiders. I believe and Israel believes, our government certainly believes that solutions to our problems need to be reached directly between the sides. The difference between the Europeans and the American Administrations is that the Americans understand this and they support dialog for dialog’s sake. They support the two sides sitting together, negotiating, hammering out their differences directly in a closed room with American participation certainly, with pressure on both sides to actually sit down and talk. The American Administrations have never tried to dictate a solution to us. They have never tried to tell us what is good for us. The Europeans have, more often than not, tried to tell us what is good for us and that kept them away from the negotiations. Once the Europeans abandon that kind of position and support dialog, because dialog is important, I think they will find that we are more ready to listen to them and to invite them to the table.
Gordon: Thank you Consul General Bavly for another intelligent and articulate presentation of reality in Middle East peace negotiations.
Bavly: Thank you very much. Good afternoon to you, Mike and Jerry.
Bates: Thank you very much for joining us.
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