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Strategic shifts in the Middle East

By Yuval Steinitz
web posted July 8, 2013

The Requisites of Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Over the past few months, since the establishment of the third Israeli government to be headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have spearheaded a serious effort to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I participated in the meetings with President Obama during his visit to Israel last March, and in the subsequent meetings with Secretary Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. I was deeply impressed by their clear support for Israel and their strong desire to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, without preconditions, so as to arrive at a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Israel's position is unequivocal: we want to resume the negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it very clear that he, his cabinet, and the entire government are totally committed to a two-states-for-two-peoples solution. Even if there exist some different opinions within the coalition or the government, every member of the government is formally committed to the prime minister's approach.

We are ready to see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and to make painful concessions once it is clear that we will get real, enduring peace in return. While we do not have preconditions for negotiations, there are two "post-conditions" for an authentic resolution of the conflict: genuine peace for Israel and genuine security for Israel.

Genuine peace means an end to all claims and a sincere recognition of Israel as the homeland and nation-state of the Jewish people. The 1947 United Nations partition resolution does not mention Israel by name because nobody yet knew that Ben-Gurion would give it this name. Instead, the resolution speaks of the establishment of a Jewish state. Over six decades later, the Palestinians may recognize Israel's existence, but this is actually trivial. Even the Iranians recognize Israel's existence; even those who want to destroy you have to recognize your existence since one cannot destroy the nonexistent.

Recognizing Israel's right to exist, however, is something different. It does not mean just recognizing Israel's sheer existence because it is there, because it is too strong to be eliminated. It means recognizing the right of the Jewish people to maintain their own minuscule Jewish state, at the same time that one demands a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people. Only such true recognition of Israel can lead to the end of the conflict, to an acceptance of a real division of the land, one part for the Palestinian people and one part for the Jewish people.

What is the purpose of establishing a Palestinian state? Is it to send Palestinians into the Jewish state? What is meant by the "right of return"? How can one demand to establish a Palestinian nation-state and then say, "But I want to send my people to another state, to live in the Jewish one, not the Palestinian one"? A genuine peace means recognizing Israel as the Jewish state.

As for security, it must mean real security arrangements that one can rely upon despite the general instability of the Middle East. No one can predict with certainty what the situation in the Middle East, or even in the Palestinian arena, will be in another five or ten years. After the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, it was delivered to the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas, yet it soon came under the control of Hamas with strong Iranian backing.

It has always been clear that the Middle East is extremely volatile, and it is even clearer today in the wake of the Arab Spring. Therefore, we need security arrangements that will guarantee our right to defend ourselves regardless of any new, totally unpredictable developments in this region. For example, one vital element is the total demilitarization of the Palestinian state and our capacity to control and maintain this demilitarization under any eventuality.

No Reliance on Foreign Forces

Some people speak about international forces, perhaps in the Jordan Valley or on some hills and border areas, to ensure Israel's future security. I will vehemently oppose any deployment of international forces in place of the Israel Defense Forces. The principle needs to be very clear: the Palestinians should be able to control their lives and we should be able to control our own security because, for us, security means survivability.

Indeed, we have so far had very negative experiences with international forces. This has always been so, but I will focus here only on the past decade. Seven years ago, following the Second Lebanon War, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Massive UNIFIL forces were deployed between the Litani River and the Israeli-Lebanese border to prevent the rearmament of Hizbullah in that area. Today, seven years later, there are 30,000-40,000 Hizbullah missiles and rockets in this supposedly demilitarized area. How many missiles or rockets have been confiscated so far, or even reported, by these massive international forces in southern Lebanon? Zero. After Israel trusted these UN forces, this is an extremely frustrating result.

More or less the same thing happened to us in Gaza. Just eight years ago we withdrew from there, uprooting the entire Jewish presence. It was extremely painful, but we put our hopes in three kinds of foreign forces. To begin with, there were those of the Palestinian Authority. Although there was no written agreement, Abbas declared that once the Israeli withdrawal was complete, he would deploy 30,000 Palestinian policemen in Gaza – which he did. His forces would secure the border zone, and he would take responsibility to ensure that no further hostilities emanated from Gaza.

Secondly, Egyptian forces were deployed on the Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Sinai. As chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time, I opposed this measure and had a bitter debate about it with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but he succeeded in convincing the government and the Knesset to agree to that deployment, and eight hundred Egyptian soldiers were allowed into the corridor, ostensibly to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza.

And thirdly, at the border checkpoint between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah, European inspectors were deployed to ensure that no weapons or terrorists would enter Gaza from Sinai.

What were the results of these arrangements? Since that time, 12,000 rockets have been launched from Gaza at Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba, Kiryat Gat, and, last November, even Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And currently, there are another 10,000 rockets waiting for the next upsurge of terror.

Our experiences, then, in the past decade with Lebanon and with Gaza have been quite negative, and such scenarios must never be repeated in the West Bank. To most Israelis and to the government as well, it is very clear that the only forces we can count on – especially in areas overlooking the center of the country, in immediate proximity to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – are Israeli forces. It is only they who can supervise and enforce any demilitarization.

We are ready for painful concessions and for a two-states-for-two-peoples solution – but only in return for real peace and real security that can be sustained no matter what changes may occur in the Palestinian Authority.

Improving the Palestinian Economy

In addition to trying to get the negotiations back on track, Secretary Kerry is now promoting an effort to help the Palestinian economy and improve the standard of living in the West Bank in the hope of creating a better atmosphere for a fruitful peace process. I am in charge of the economic track on the Israeli side. We are working very closely with Secretary Kerry and with the envoy of the Middle East Quartet, Tony Blair, to advance some projects that can help the Palestinian economy flourish. This could include encouraging tourism into the Palestinian Authority; it could include the understandings I signed almost a year ago with then PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, after clandestine negotiations. Because the Palestinians went unilaterally to the United Nations shortly after these were signed, these understandings were not implemented. We are ready to continue on that path. We are also discussing some significant projects and investments in the PA by international companies.

Although I will not comment on any specific projects, we are willing to discuss all possibilities under two conditions. First, the economic track is not a substitute for political negotiations. We, along with the United States and Europe, are prepared to help the Palestinian economy progress, but not as a means to make political gains. Political issues are for the negotiating table.

Second, we will not be willing to help the Palestinian economy grow if it comes at the expense of our security. When I was finance minister, we took many steps to encourage greater Palestinian economic activity, including removing numerous roadblocks and checkpoints and also easing the movement of Palestinian goods. We look favorably on such measures if they do not damage Israel's security.

Indeed, under Netanyahu's previous government, Israel did much more than previous governments to strengthen the Palestinian economy. This has been reflected in the Palestinian economy's improved performance over the past few years, which was at least partially due to our efforts.

This is not to say that progress on the economic track is contingent upon progress on the political track. We are ready to help the Palestinians promote their economy regardless of whether or not we reach a final status agreement. In fact, we believe this is a win-win situation: if the Palestinian standard of living improves, it will create a better atmosphere and, possibly, greater public backing for peace talks.

But if the Palestinians keep refusing to come to the negotiating table and instead turn to international bodies – as they have already done with the United Nations – this will be a negative development. President Obama has clearly emphasized the need to negotiate while avoiding provocations and unilateral steps, and the need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

So I hope that the Palestinians will show up at the negotiating table. Such negotiations will be difficult because both sides will have to make very significant concessions, and the talks are likely to take time. But there were also many ups and downs in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations between President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin, and fortunately, neither side gave up. In the end, after two years, the leaders succeeded in making the necessary compromises to achieve the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

I am, indeed, concerned that President Abbas appears so reluctant to resume negotiations, and could again opt for unilateral steps in the international arena. This goes completely against the Oslo agreements and the spirit of the peace process, which is a bilateral process. We will have to consider how to react if this happens, but let us try to think positively.

Containing the Syrian Crisis

With regard to the Syrian situation, Israel has a defined policy: we are not going to interfere. We do not want to get involved in this extremely brutal civil war, with close to one hundred thousand, mostly civilian, casualties and already several million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, or Syria itself. This terrible tragedy is another stark reminder of what kind of area we inhabit and what sorts of regimes surround us – and why we have to be very vigilant and very strong if we wish to survive.

Although we do not want to get involved in this conflict, we are very concerned about the possible transfer of specific kinds of highly advanced weapons to terrorist organizations, especially Hizbullah. Because this could happen, particularly as a result of Syria's fragmentation, we are also very concerned about the supply of sophisticated arms to Syria itself. We do not understand Russia's position on this matter. Why provide Bashar Assad's regime with advanced ballistic, anti-aircraft, or anti-ship rockets at this very time? Firstly, it might encourage Assad to continue the war and avoid any compromise with the opposition. Secondly, such weapons could find their way to Hizbullah or other terrorist organizations. Thirdly, with Syria now so dependent on Iranian assistance, some of those weapons could even find their way into Iranian hands, in breach of the weapons embargo on Iran.

We have a good, close dialogue with Russia and hope that such weapons, especially the S-300 anti-aircraft system, will not be supplied to Syria. These are not just defensive weapons: the S-300, in particular, has an offensive capability because of its very long range. Its missiles can intercept aircraft at a distance of almost 125 miles, which means that, if deployed around Damascus, they could intercept Israeli planes, including civilian ones, over Haifa or Tel Aviv. We vehemently oppose the provision of such weapons to Syria.

We also have to keep in mind that the Syrian conflict is not just a local civil war. It is a microcosm of a much wider conflict between Iran's Shiite axis, on the one hand, and the Sunni Arab and Muslim world, on the other, further increasing the dangers and the potential for escalation.

The Iranian Emergency

The Iranian nuclear threat is the most critical issue of our time and has the potential to change the course not only of Middle Eastern history but of global history. In Israel's view, what is now happening in Iran qualifies as an emergency. Iran is getting closer and closer to the nuclear red line depicted by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Time is running out, but the world is quite lethargic in its response.

True, over the past year we have seen – for the first time – effective sanctions on the Iranian economy. The impact is significant; the Iranians are paying a real price for their negative conduct. We appreciate the attempts by the United States and European countries to strengthen these sanctions. I do not envy the Iranian finance minister; according to our estimate, Iran has already lost about $70 billion in revenues over the past twelve months. Some in the United States put the figure closer to $100 billion. For an economy the size of Iran's, with an annual GDP of $400-500 billion, these are heavy losses.

This is important, not least because other countries in the vicinity should recognize that such ill conduct comes at a price. Yet, clearly, the sanctions are not sufficient. The mindset of the current Iranian leadership is that they see themselves as paying a heavy price to gain something worth the cost – a nuclear capability.

Iran has been weakened by sanctions, but at this rate, in a few months or a year, it will have nuclear weapons. And after another year or two, the sanctions will be lifted because they will have been proven useless. So the current Iranian approach, from their standpoint, is quite rational; they are making a sacrifice in order to attain something that is very important to them: becoming a nuclear power.

Our only chance is to convince them that they are actually paying something for nothing. If we can convince them that, come what may, they will not see the fruits of this nuclear project – that they are actually paying something for nothing – they will be forced to reconsider. But that can only be accomplished with a credible military threat that makes it crystal-clear to the Iranians that they will not be able to complete their nuclear project, that they are paying the heavy price of sanctions for nothing in return.

If we want to resolve this enormous problem without the use of military force – and by "we" I am referring generally to the Western world – it needs to be done now. This is our last chance to provide, in addition to sanctions, this missing element of a credible threat.

Iran Is Building a Nuclear Arsenal

Many people, both in Israel and elsewhere in the West, underestimate the Iranian nuclear threat. People talk about Iran attaining "the bomb," but what we should talk about instead is the Iranian nuclear arsenal. If Iran gets "the bomb," it will get many, many nuclear bombs. And here, the parallel between Iran and North Korea is totally misleading. It is bad enough that North Korea, an impoverished country, has probably already produced several nuclear bombs. South Korea and Japan now live under a tangible nuclear threat; Japan has already deployed several missile-defense batteries in the Tokyo area.

Iran, however, is not North Korea. Its ambitions are totally different. North Korea has very local ambitions – the survival of the totalitarian regime, and possibly extorting assistance from the West. But Iran's ambitions are global. Iranian leaders have been talking for fifteen years about the need to change the balance of power between Islam and the Western world. They speak of a new era of global Islamic hegemony spearheaded by Iran.

Even more important is the scale of the nuclear threat. The Iranian nuclear industry already operates on a much larger scale than that of North Korea or even Pakistan. North Korea may be capable of producing one or two bombs annually. Iran's official plan for only Natanz, its main uranium-enrichment site, is to deploy 54,000 centrifuges there for enrichment. There are already 12,000 centrifuges there, but the infrastructure in Natanz was built from the outset to support a total of 54,000.

With this many centrifuges, one can enrich enough fissile material to produce twenty to thirty bombs each year. And that is only for one large site like Natanz. Iran already has several thousand additional centrifuges at Qom, while it builds a heavy water reactor at Arak that is much larger than any nuclear reactor in North Korea.

Although the Iranians have not yet produced their first bomb, their nuclear industry was not built with the aim of making only a few bombs and keeping them in a shelter. Rather, it was designed to produce hundreds of nuclear bombs within a decade or two, bombs that are to be mounted on hundreds of long-range ballistic missiles. This is a threat of a totally different magnitude than that posed by North Korea or even Pakistan.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is important. So are the terrible events in Syria and their impact on Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere. The Arab Spring all around us is important, too. But the key issue, not just for the Middle East but for the world, is the Iranian threat. And time is running out.

The main phase of producing nuclear weapons is enrichment, which entails generating fissile material by either enriching uranium or producing plutonium. The enriched materials then need to be assembled into a bomb. Although this is complicated, it can be done in a very small space – inside a single room.

Enriching uranium or producing plutonium is an industrial project; it requires thousands of centrifuges, as well as reactors. This phase can be easily detected by intelligence agencies or the IAEA. But the next phase – building a bomb – is almost impossible to detect. This is why the red line must be drawn at the enrichment phase, not the final assembly of a first nuclear weapon.

How much time do we have left deal with this threat? A few months. In the next few months, the West will have to decide how to prevent the nuclearization of Iran Otherwise, it will be too late. And to repeat, the only diplomatic approach that will work is one that is accompanied by a credible military threat.

The Iranians understand that they are very vulnerable to a decisive, accurate airstrike by NATO or the United States. That is why a very clear message by the United States and the Western world will be effective. There is a good chance that if the Iranians are issued a credible threat of a military strike, they may reconsider their behavior and opt for a genuine compromise – but the time left to make such a move is quite short. ESR

Prof. Yuval Steinitz is Israel's Minister of International Relations, Intelligence, and Strategic Affairs. He previously served as Minister of Finance. This essay is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on June 4, 2013.





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