The Israel Challenge?

Speaking at the Nixon Center, Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor analyzed Israel’s current political and economic orientation in the broader Middle East.

On Thursday, August 23, 2007, The Nixon Center hosted a luncheon discussion on the challenges facing Israel. Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor offered his perspective on Israel's current political and economic orientation in the larger Middle East. Geoffrey Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Studies at The Nixon Center, moderated the talk.

The ambassador found The Nixon Center a fitting setting to comment on foreign-policy challenges facing Israel, and its "special relationship" with the United States: President Nixon was the first U.S. president to visit the nation of Israel.

Meridor outlined six elements of Israel's approach to confronting challenges, such as external security threats, and their impact on its foreign policy. These elements include: maintaining and strengthening Israel's ability to defend against and deter adversaries; the well-being of Israel's economic base (8 percent of GDP comes from Israel's defense industry); its international position vis-à-vis alliances; its Jewish majority population; its relationship to the Jewish diaspora; and the small nation's sense of purpose. According to Meridor, all contribute to Israel's "national strength."

The ambassador admitted that Israel cannot bear isolation, especially in a region where Israel feels it is on the "frontlines" of liberal democracy. Meridor fears that the current instability emanating from the Middle East in the form of fanaticism, terrorism and nuclear proliferation could amount to what he called a "nightmare scenario."

Asymmetric conflict has made deterrence an irrelevant strategy. The ambassador suggested that this view has played a role in Israel's decision to disengage from Gaza, which has had both positive and negative consequences for Israel's international image and defensive positioning.

Even so, the most daunting challenge facing Israel flows from Iranian nuclear ambitions, according to Meridor. The ambassador stated that Iran is operating in five theaters: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Gaza (through Hamas) and Lebanon (through Hizballah). But this activity is overshadowed by the larger threat of Iran's nuclear program. Short of military action, only a "strong, determined world position" on both economic and diplomatic measures could induce the Islamic Republic to change its course-yet the United States seems to be the only other state convinced of this.

The issue is not about buying more time, according to Meridor. "Time is not an asset in itself", he said; the value of time depends on how it is used. And the window of opportunity for avoiding a military confrontation is closing. The Iranian nuclear program is creating a "coalition of fear" among Western democracies, but the appropriate response would be to build a "coalition of peace", according to the ambassador.

Assessing the red lines for Iran, the ambassador made it clear that Iran must understand that "any action necessary" will be taken to prevent the country from achieving nuclear-weapons capabilities. A critical threshold in Israel's decision-making would hinge upon Iran's mastering of enrichment technologies. Although diplomacy is preferable, the military option will remain on the table.

Nonetheless, Meridor has hope that other areas of concern can be addressed in the meantime, allowing for decreased tensions in the region, particularly with the Palestinians. The ambassador admitted that this relationship has been negative, but reiterated that a two-state solution is not completely out of the question-even though Hamas has control of Gaza and is viewed as an "arm of Tehran" by Israel. Meridor believes that, in the long run, negotiating with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is the only viable option. He said that Israel must make a "strategic choice" to compromise-more now than ever before. The ambassador noted that the Palestinians would also have to make what he called "difficult choices."

The ambassador commented on a number of other challenges Israel faces. For instance, Gaza remains a problematic issue. As Israel seeks to isolate Hamas, the government is simultaneously lending some humanitarian aid to civilians within the territory. In regards to last summer's war with Hizballah, Meridor said, "the jury is still out", and while Hizballah was hit hard, it was not a decisive victory. He also suggested that this was not just a loss for Israel, but also for the entire international community because groups like Hizballah,which function as a state-within-a-state, undermine the nation-state- based world order.

The ambassador also commented on President Bush's call for an international summit in the fall on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.Currently, Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab states that have agreed to attend. Although there is a dearth of Arab participation, Israel holds that multilateral talks are promising. However, the bilateral track has proven to be more successful in obtaining past peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and Israel will continue to pursue this type of engagement.

Addressing concerns about the Sudanese illegal immigrants slated to be deported, the ambassador said they were turned away because they were not fleeing directly from Darfur and because they first came through Egypt. Meridor also suggested that these individuals were actually migrant workers entering Israel for economic reasons, not refugees seeking political asylum. He also cited fears that these individuals may have ties to terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda.

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