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N°62 - Deuxième trimestre 2003

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  S.E.M. / H.E. Nissim Zvili

Israel: Pursuing a Necessary Peace

In light of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s vow since the Aqaba Summit to push forward an historic peace plan that calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, H.E. Nissim Zvili, the Ambassador of Israel to France, analyzes the forces behind the drive to reach a regional peace that meets the desires of both Israelis and Arabs.


The Diplomatic Letter: Mr. Ambassador: In winning the 28 January 2003 legislative elections, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon become the first Israeli leader in twenty-one years to be reelected as head of government. To what do you attribute this victory? Is it a reflection of the lively debate in Israel on the issues of national identity and the unique stakes of turning your country into a multicultural society?

H.E.N.Z.:
Ariel Sharon’s reelection is indeed a very interesting event, as it is the outcome of a variety of factors that have arisen in Israeli political life in recent years. It is due, first and foremost, to the Israeli people’s profound disappointment over the younger generation’s inability to step up and meet its responsibilities. After two prime ministers who belonged to the younger generation couldn’t assume to take on the great responsibility this post entails, the Israeli people decided to turn the job over to the older generation. Ariel Sharon is also seen as a political leader who is deeply committed to defending the State of Israel and yet remains pragmatic. Ariel Sharon, and his ideas, currently represent the middle ground in Israeli society. Mr. Sharon came to power the first time in elections that were called after a no-confidence vote for his predecessor Ehud Barak. He has since taken a brand-new approach to the fight against terrorism, to the possibility of reaching an understanding with the Palestinians, and to the future of the State of Israel. He is now the political leader who best represents the concerns of the Israeli people, who do not want to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any way that could endanger their security. Ariel Sharon gives the impression he is ready to fight to ensure the security and future of the State of Israel, while still heeding Israeli society’s deepest fears, which are tied to its long past of exile and suffering. He has won the support of part of the Israeli left, which, it must be said, was nowhere to be found in the last elections. He has also proved to be sufficiently pragmatic. His political stance has enabled him to move toward a solution acceptable to both the Palestinians and the Israelis. In the same way Menachem Begin fought to reach a peace agreement with Egypt, Mr. Sharon has defended the idea of creating a Palestinian State within his own party, where he too is in the minority. The right finally acknowledged this necessity in 2002. As a man of the left, I believe this was a remarkable step forward. Let me just remind you that the Oslo Accords were passed in the Knesset by just one single vote (61 for, 59 against). And while their implementation has been a failure, their basic principles still hold true, and are serving as the foundation of the new road map.  Israel society has come to a consensus on these premises, or at least over two-thirds of Israel’s Jewish citizens. This consensus is a sign of the growing maturity of Israeli society. It is the outcome of an historic process that will eventually lead us to share these 35,000 km2 among two peoples.
There is no debate on national identity inside Israel. Our national identity has always been a very strong element, and is the sole property of neither the left nor the right. It is a concept that enjoys a wide consensus and excludes any notion of separation between church and state. All Israelis - laymen and atheists included - agree that without their religious roots, the Jewish people would never have existed or survived. The State of Israel makes up a whole: a religion, a state, a nation, and a people. France, in contrast, though a lay country, did not separate church and state until just one century ago.
Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is the subject of one of the most important debates in Israeli history. The founders of the State of Israel believed it was necessary to fuse the traditions and cultures of nearly one hundred different countries, and meld them into one culture: Israeli culture. But while all Israelis do share certain basic elements, such as the Hebrew language, this fusion is simply impossible. It is a terrible mistake to believe that a Yemeni Jew, with his age-old traditions and cultural riches, could agree to assimilate the culture of a Polish Jew, for instance, or any other culture imposed upon him by the state. Ten or fifteen years after the generation led by David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, we had an intellectual revolution that replaced the notion of integration with this new concept. Today, Israelis love the idea of integrating all the different cultures, such as the culture recently brought to us by nearly one million  Russian immigrants.

T.D.L.: The Israeli economy, particularly hard hit by the dire global economic situation and the worsening regional climate, is experiencing one of its worst crises ever. What can be done to shore up the Israeli economy, which depends very heavily on foreign trade? How will the Israeli government go about reflating the economy? The austerity package put forward by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drawn the ire of labor unions. Could you outline the means the Israeli government will put into action to stabilize the budget deficit? Does it plan to launch specific measures aimed at curbing rising unemployment?

H.E.N.Z.:
Let me start by underscoring that the Israeli economy has stood up quite well over the past two and half years of warfare. It is also true that we are facing a severe economic crisis, and that we are forced to invest in security. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has done more than just damage the economy, it has also affected Israeli society. This is especially true for the most underprivileged Israelis, who are paying the heaviest price. The standard of living in Israel has dropped between 4 and 5% over the past two or three years. We are starting to see deeply entrenched poverty. A 75% drop in tourism, the loss of the Arab market, the backlash from the bursting of the high-tech bubble, and the drop in foreign direct investment due to regional tensions,  should have made us lose nearly 20% of our economic capacity. But closer analysis shows that we have, in fact, lost only 4 to 5% of this capacity. We managed to minimize the damage by finding new openings in markets in India, Singapore, and South Korea, for instance. In addition, we have continued investing in research and development. Despite the recession and the pumped up security budget to counter the Intifada and terrorism, every year Israel  invests some $5 billion, nearly $1,000 per inhabitant, in universities, research centers, and industrial hatcheries. These investments show that the Israeli economy is standing up quite well. The Israeli Pavilion displayed incredible innovations at this year’s Paris Air Show, right alongside those of the United States, France, and Japan.
Our ability to keep developing was born out of necessity. Our needs include not only security, but also fighting the advance of the desert, for instance. This has led us to develop the world’s most advanced irrigation system, based on the drip irrigation. This system has enabled us to save thousands of farmers, most notably in Africa. We are able to meet our needs in the health arena as well. The Israeli economy will be able to rebound extremely quickly, once the regional situation has been stabilized. Do not forget that we went from a 6% increase, to a 1% decline in 2003. A total reversal is also possible, given our economy’s vast potential and vitality.
The economic program put forward by Israeli Minister of Economy and Finance Benjamin Netanyahu has won the support of the Knesset, and should help spur Israel’s economic growth. It could prove to be very difficult going at first, however, especially at the poorest levels of society, due to cutbacks in the national budget and weaker domestic demand. Furthermore, the government’s economic program does not include measures for fighting the rise in unemployment, which already affects 10.8% of the active labor force and is expected to get even worse. That is the program’s real weakness. When austerity measures are too tight, it is only natural for people to voice a reaction. That said, the Israeli people are now ready to join in the national effort to overcome this crisis. I hope they will have enough patience to wait until a new political process can be launched, a key element in this highly delicate situation. We will have to wait until 2004 to see the real results of this new plan.

T.D.L.: The fall of the Hussein regime upset the geopolitical layout in the Middle East, opening a brand-new chapter in the region’s history. What are your thoughts on the new regional order forged by the U.S. intervention in the Middle East? Is there good reason to hope a “pax americana” will restore regional stability? Will the reopening of the Mosul-Haifa pipeline have an impact on your country, on a geostrategic level?

H.E.N.Z.:
First of all, a distinction must be made between the short term and the long term. In the long term, I think it is still very hard to say what the effects of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq are going to be. The current situation does not surprise me. There are a number of very grave points: the United States has been unable to convince world opinion that this war was justified; an Arab country was once again humiliated by a foreign power; and finally, the controversy between Europeans and Americans is still raging, and could prove to be quite tricky for the “free world.” Moreover, the U.S. plan to bring democracy to Arab countries shows a good degree of naiveness. It is a mistake to believe that imposing democracy on Arab countries will lead to the creation of free and democratic regimes. This process will take a good deal of advance preparation. These countries lack the necessary maturity, and could instead topple into the arms of highly dangerous Islamist regimes, as we saw when Islamists made inroads in Algeria ten years ago, and again last year in Morocco. Moreover, I am not sure we are really ready to face this possibility. This is why I am not very enthusiastic about this plan. We cannot discount the differences in our mindsets, and simply change them overnight.
In the short term, the situation is far more promising. I think the countries in our region have come to understand that the rules of the game have changed. This could prompt the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and work instead toward a political agreement. This could also push Israel to pursue an agreement, since the direct threat has been removed. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still the key conflict in this region. We must do whatever is necessary to resolve it. In other words, we must create a brand-new climate. From this perspective, the situation in the wake of the U.S. intervention would seem to be an opportunity for the Middle East. Those who slam the door on it, without first reaching a political agreement, will be shouldering a tremendous responsibility for the future of their people. We have reached the moment when courageous decisions must be made: we can go back to terrorism and violence, or we can push forward toward peace.
As for the Mosul-Haifa pipeline, Israel must be content with playing a modest role in the region, and not try to impose itself, but instead try to fit in. The Israeli companies trying to elbow their way into the Iraqi reconstruction process are showing great immaturity. Even if we do have the ability, we must take political considerations into account. Until just recently, we were still at war. These things require preparation. Wisdom and intelligence are the key words for understanding the mindset in Arab countries. We have yet to build the kind of ties that now link France and Germany.

T.D.L.: Has the inclusion of a moderate Islamist element in Turkey’s new government altered strategic relations between Ankara and Jerusalem? Do you think this alliance could be further strengthened, without harming future negotiations with Syria? How do you feel about other regional powers bolstering their military capabilities, such as Iran? Will this affect Israeli security policy, which is currently undergoing a major realignment?

H.E.N.Z.:
Turkey presents a very interesting case, as it plays a key role in the region. Despite its vast size, Turkey has managed to maintain its political balance by building a system that blends democracy and military influence. Up until now, this balance has safeguarded the country’s integrity, even with the arrival of an Islamist government considered to be moderate. This new situation has not changed Israeli-Turkish relations in any way whatsoever. To the contrary, our economic ties continue to grow. We import drinking water from Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists visit this country every year. Entire Turkish cities, such as Antalya, live off this tourism. We have developed shared interests, especially over the past ten years. And so there is no reason for our ties to deteriorate.  Syria and Turkey, for their part, have managed to strike a fairly good balance in their relations over the past three or four years. It is not in the interest of either country to upset this balance.  
The region is facing two major problems: the democratization of regimes and peoples; the proliferation of weapons. When the two collide it can be very dangerous, since these countries do not have a democratic tradition. As far as Iran is concerned, it is very important to understand that Iran is not Iraq. I cannot imagine a country making the decision to intervene in Iran at this time. But I also believe that Iran’s leaders  understand the risk they are running. They would be well advised to meet the demands of international authorities, reigning in their nuclear capabilities and using them solely for civil ends. It would be preferable, especially after what happened in Iraq, if we were sure that Iran does not possess any weapons of mass destruction and is not capable of producing any. For Iran is another major regional power, and it is being led by a fanatical regime. I doubt that the reform movement that sprung up a few years ago is ready to spark a revolution at this time, despite the positive signs we are seeing, especially from young people and women. When we consider the Iranian regime’s declarations about Zionism and what our country represents, the State of Israel has good reason to be concerned about the Shahab-3 missiles Iran has developed. We would prefer, however, to let international authorities address this problem.

T.D.L.: By declaring he is ready to open negotiations “without preliminary conditions” with all Arab countries, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to moving into a new phase marked by diplomatic openness. During the Arab Summit in Beirut, Crown Prince Abdallah proposed making  global peace with Israel. Do you think this has prompted Arab states to change their attitude about their neighbor? Was the May 2003 meeting in Paris between the foreign affairs ministers of Israel and Qatar a sign that a peace agreement may be signed sometime in the near future?

H.E.N.Z.:
In Arab countries, there is a vast difference between positions taken by political leaders, and those held by the general public. Let’s take Egypt as an example. In 1979, Anwar al-Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel. A recent poll, however, shows that 80% of Egyptians oppose the existence of the State of Israel. The situation is much the same in Jordan, without even mentioning the countries that haven’t signed peace agreements. This is hardly new, but it has gotten worse these past few years. The position taken by Arab political leaders has made little headway with public opinion. According to Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, we are not likely to see a profound change in this attitude as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues. This explanation may well be right, but I am not entirely convinced. We know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key problem in the Middle East. Perhaps finding a solution to this problem would create a whole new climate. In the meantime, Israel is simply ignoring this situation, as there is no longer any real threat in its immediate vicinity. This is enabling it to try and push forward to resolve these conflicts. This growing trend in Arab public opinion is, nevertheless, very troubling. Admittedly, we have never been welcome in this region. Generation after generation of Arabs have been brought up on principles that incite them to hate Israel, to refuse to recognize its existence, and to call for its destruction. If something needs to be changed in the relations between Israel and Arab countries, then we need to start by changing people’s attitudes.
What’s more, the attempt to establish economic ties with Egypt has more or less failed. Our ties with Jordan are better, but remain weak. We are talking about a form of cooperation in the best interest of both peoples. We must be ready, all the same, to sign a peace agreement and to open diplomatic relations with any Arab country that so desires. The signs of warming between Israel and certain Arab countries are, nonetheless, tied to the new situation created by the U.S. intervention in Iraq. In any case, the tiny countries of the Gulf can only win by improving their relations with Israel.

T.D.L.: In view of Israel’s great geopolitical and strategic weight, does the government have much room to maneuver as it strives to reach an agreement with Syria over the boundaries in the Golan Heights? Do you believe this can really be done? Three years after Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon, what must be done to ensure security in this high-tension zone? Is the water problem a key stake in the Israeli-Arab conflict?

H.E.N.Z.:
An agreement with Syria and ensuring the safety of southern Lebanon - from which Israel has pulled out completely, in accordance with the terms of the U.N. resolution - are part of a bigger whole. Syria has promised to pull out of Lebanon entirely in 2004. If Lebanon does manage to become a free country, and not succumb to possible pressure from Syria, it will be happy to sign a peace agreement with Israel. This will be a friendly peace, a real peace, because Lebanon is one of the countries closest to Israel, in terms of its culture and societal structure. But Lebanon must first heighten its ability to ensure the security of its borders, especially the ones it shares with the State of Israel. It must shield itself against Hezbollah and Syria as well. It must also beef up its economy, and adjust it to the global economy. But two obstacles are keeping it from moving in this direction. First there is Hezbollah, which wields a great deal of influence, especially in southern Lebanon. We are well aware of its capacity to inflict harm, with some 6,000 to 7,500 rockets aimed at Israel. Secondly, Syria is ready to use this force against Israel, if a conflict does erupt. If Syria would stop supporting Hezbollah, and allow the Lebanese Army to take up positions up and down the Israeli-Lebanese border, the problem would be resolved. The solution to the problems at the northern border is thus part of a bigger whole, which includes Syria, Lebanon, and Hezbollah. And while the U.S. did pressure Syria into shutting down various terrorist  headquarters in Damascus, these movements continue to operate, since we know that Hamas members in the Gaza Strip still receive their orders from Damascus. But we must also ask ourselves if Bashar al-Assad is really capable of running his country. Iranian influence is another key factor. Iran supplied Hezbollah with all of its weapons, via Damascus. It is in Iran’s interest, much like Syria, to maintain a certain amount of tension at Israel’s northern borders. If we want to fight Hezbollah in a truly effective manner, then  Iran - and above all Syria - must take political decisions to that end.
With regard to the region’s water problem, it must be resolved within the framework of a regional agreement that includes not only Lebanon and Syria, but also the Palestinian Authority, or the Palestinian State when it is created, as well as Jordan. Every year, under the terms of our peace agreement, Israel supplies Aman with 50 million m3 of water drawn from Lake Kinneret. Israelis and Palestinians share the subterranean waters in the West Bank. Israel has also launched programs to desalinate 250 million m3 of water. We import water from Turkey as well, by tanker. If we achieve regional peace, this water could be imported through a direct pipeline running through Syria, which holds nearly 50 million m3, while hundreds of m3 of Turkish water flow straight into the sea. So this problem is not a key issue, since the solution depends on the various actors’ determination to establish a regional peace that will enable them to expand their joint cooperation.

T.D.L.: On 17 May 2003, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held their first talks in Jerusalem, marking the relaunching of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. With Yasser Arafat now widely discredited in the eyes of Israelis, has the nomination of Abu Mazen as Palestinian Prime Minister, a man Israeli authorities consider a “moderate,” augur well for pushing forward with the peace process and finally bringing it to a successful conclusion?

H.E.N.Z.:
The first question we must ask ourselves is whether the Palestinians truly want to reach an agreement. In Israel, we are convinced - the right and the left alike - that Yasser Arafat made the strategic decision to turn back to terrorism and violence some years ago. In our view, he is the one responsible for the situation that has unfolded in the Middle East. This opinion is shared by the United States, but not the European Union. This situation has plunged the Palestinian people into a state of misery and incredible suffering. There have been victims on our side as well, along with an economic recession. We hope that the majority of the Palestinian people have come to the same conclusion we have: that a political agreement is absolutely necessary, along with major concessions. One and a half years ago, Mahmoud Abbas openly criticized the Palestinian Authority for encouraging terrorism and violence. While he has the means to curb the violence, with the thousands of armed troops working under the Palestinian Authority, he has yet to take the decision to do so. We understand the Palestinians, and their desire to prevent a civil war. This is why we are giving them the time they need to negotiate an agreement with the terrorist movements, which will allow them to comply with the road map. But since Mahmoud Abbas took over as prime minister, the agreement has yet to be concluded. What’s more, the Palestinians still have not answered Israel’s proposal that they take over  responsibility for guaranteeing security in certain regions. If Israeli forces do pull out, and the Palestinian Authority is not ready to assume this responsibility, then the terrorist organizations we have tried to wipe out, by destroying their networks and infrastructures, are going to quickly regroup, and we will be right back where we started. But the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in moving backwards, as they themselves must fight this same terrorism.
We must also ask ourselves if Mahmoud Abbas has enough authority to enforce this policy. He is facing very strong opposition, as did David Ben-Gurion when he forced Israel’s far-right factions to accept the U.N. partition plan. Ben-Gurion succeeded because he understood that unless he imposed his authority, he would not be able to build the State of Israel. While Yasser Arafat is certainly able to do damage, we must understand that, from a psychological perspective, it is difficult for him to accept the idea that Mahmoud Abbas is going to succeed where he himself failed. He must be convinced that the interests of his people are more important, as he remains a key symbol in view of the role he played in forging the identity of the Palestinian people. He must now use this power to help his people achieve independence, which is exactly the mandate he was given when he was elected.
The Oslo Accords gave Palestinian forces responsibility for ensuring law and order in all Palestinian cities. We took the first steps toward economic cooperation and development, but three terrorist attacks were all it took to bring this new impetus to a halt. Yasser Arafat, the President of the Palestinian Authority, decided to combat Hamas and the Islamic Jihad by arresting between 600 and 700 of the network’s leaders. In doing so, he showed that he can be even more effective than us at fighting this terrorism. But then he did an about-face, and freed these very same people, sparking a new outbreak of violence. But today, in stark contrast with what happened in 1995, both peoples have incorporated the principles of the Oslo Accords. They are now aware of the great difficulty of implementing an agreement of this kind, and of the painful concessions that will have to be made. The equation for striking a permanent agreement has become very clear: the Israeli people must choose between territories and peace; the Palestinian people must chose between the right to return and independence. Jerusalem and the various territorial issues are, of course, important, but they can be resolved.

T.D.L.: Do you think that convening an international conference could help to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does Europe have a role to play in bringing this situation to an end?

H.E.N.Z.:
Israelis and Palestinians know each other inside out: we are old enemies, and old friends. All the elements of this conflict, along with all the positions, are already well known. I am well acquainted with Saeb Erakat’s views, as well as those of Nabil Shaath. We concluded the Oslo Accords without international intervention, because it was simply not needed. Outside intervention always brings new interests into play, interests extraneous to our two peoples. We know exactly what type of framework this peace agreement must have, to serve the best interests of both peoples. An international conference will not help them come together. Certain forms of international pressure, on the other hand, could help move them in that direction. But it must be acknowledged that imposing an outside solution will never resolve this conflict. There is thus an enormous difference with the peace agreement signed by Egypt and Israel, which was reached by these countries’ leaders even though the two peoples did not really support it. Israelis and Palestinians live together. Both peoples must be convinced that this is indeed an acceptable and viable solution, which will not be undermined by new developments.  
Europe can play a role in resolving this conflict, but it will have to start by taking a much more balanced approach. Europe, and France in particular, must understand that this is a very complex conflict that will be difficult to resolve, and that there is no easy answer. We are not always in the wrong in this conflict, and the Palestinians are not always in the right. And vice versa. Europe could perhaps exert more sway than the U.S. over  Arab countries, especially the Palestinians. There is, indeed, a perception in Arab countries that the U.S. defends the interests of Israelis more than those of Palestinians. Europe could use its influence to stop terrorism, for instance. The U.S., for its part, could convince Israel to put a freeze on settlements. Both could help to bring the two sides closer, by using their influence and serving as mediators, but not by trying to force a solution on us.

T.D.L.: Recent differences of opinion led to a cooling in Franco-Israeli relations. The scientific and technical cooperation agreement signed on 30 April 2003 appears to have given bilateral ties a fresh boost. How would you describe recent developments in bilateral relations? Apart from its symbolic value, what impressed you the most in the “12 Hours for French-Israeli Friendship” held on 23 June 2003?

H.E.N.Z.:
Eight months ago, the Israeli and French Foreign Affairs Ministers, Shimon Perez and Dominique de Villepin, decided it was in the best interest of both countries to improve bilateral relations. First and foremost, they wanted to improve France’s image in Israel as well as Israel’s image in France, and make a clear distinction between France’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our bilateral relations. We have seen periods when our interests converged, and other periods when they diverged. We will never forget that France supported us during the most critical periods in Israel’s creation, and that it is thanks to France - and not the United States - that we now have deterrent power. I remember the first Mysteres, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Fouga Magisteres, and later the Mirages that helped us create the Israeli Air Force. And while France only offered us political support back then, it was clear proof of the French people’s solidarity with the creation of the State of Israel. France was virtually the only Western country that supported Israel in the time of its creation. But France must also acknowledge that we both share the same democratic values and respect for freedoms. Our two countries have, indeed, signed a scientific cooperation agreement. I believe that all these factors constitute a political base that takes account of our shared international interests. Both France and Europe, like us, want to bring stability to the Middle East. We may not always agree on the way to go about this, but we do share the same goal: peace. This is why we are trying to improve bilateral relations. To that end, we have set up a high-level council with the main objective of bringing our civil societies even closer. In this same spirit, a meeting recently brought together some thirty Israeli mayors and their French counterparts, which helped reenergize decentralized cooperation. Every French minister I have ever met has shown a real desire to improve bilateral relations, even in the most sensitive arenas. The French Foreign Office is also showing a new determination to stress openness and  dialogue. Dominique de Villepin’s trip to Jerusalem was an extremely important event. It was the very first time a French Foreign Minister visited the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Mount Scopus, which France had refused to recognize until that time. These initial signs augur well for stepping up relations between the two countries at the political level, even if French public opinion has undeniably been poisoned by the media’s coverage of the past three years of Intifada.
In terms of the “12 Hours for French-Israeli Friendship” conference, the choice of name deserves particular attention, as we had always spoken of “12 Hours for Israel.” I was surprised by the depth and force of the words of France’s political leaders, whether they leaned to the right or to the left. Without automatically justifying what is going on in Israel, they were able to express the strong friendship that exists between our two countries, which in my view is the most important thing. I am here to do my utmost to further bolster this friendship, because in my opinion it well and truly exists. We must, nonetheless, keep pushing forward to renew and to rebuild it.
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