Daniel Ayalon is the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for Israel and a member of the Knesset for the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party. He served as Israeli Ambassador to the United States from 2002 until 2006. In 2009, Mr. Ayalon was appointed as the Deputy Foreign Minister in Binyamin Netanyahu’s newly elected government. His professionalism has been recognized by the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, which has described Daniel Ayalon as “one of the most impressive players in the diplomatic arena.” He often publishes articles in Western media, including Foreign Policy magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Ayalon visited Georgia for several days in late-May when Tabula interviewed the Israeli diplomat about the situation in the Middle East, Israeli-Georgia relations and various other aspects of foreign policy.
Yesterday, six world powers resumed talks with Iran in Baghdad over Iran’s contested nuclear program. What are your expectations from the next round of negotiations and, in general, what is your attitude towards nuclear diplomacy?
First, it is very important to remember that the threat of Iran is universal. So the conflict is not just between Iran and Jerusalem; it’s between Iran and the entire international community, including all the Arab community in the Middle East. The threat that Iran has breached all its international obligations under NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty], under Security Council resolutions, is obvious. The threat that they have a very advanced nuclear military program is also obvious. It’s not just us or IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] reports; it’s everybody’s reports. And this is why they are put under the sanctions, because everybody understands that they are deceiving everyone. So, given this background, it is important that today or tomorrow – so far we do not see any details from Baghdad – but it is important that if a deal is going to be struck, the deal will be a good deal which will ensure security and a good deal meaning no enrichment, no building of centrifuges by Iran and, of course, removing all the illegally acquired fissile materials by Iran and very robust monitoring mechanism. Short of this, it is no deal.
In the worst-case scenario and further escalation of conflict between Israel and Iran, what could be possible consequences for the South Caucasus region and, particularly, for Georgia?
I think that Georgia is not at all involved. I do not really like to hypothesize about worst-case scenarios, but I would say that we should all listen to what the President of the United States, President Obama, said: Nuclear Iran is a threat to the national security of the United States. He also said that no options are off the table. That means all options are available, and I think people of Ayatollahs should not miscalculate.
Some analysts argue that a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear sites would be counterproductive. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU are already crippling the Iranian economy; the rial has lost forty percent of its value; the Ayatollah is gradually losing his grip on power, and discontent is growing even among his traditionally loyal Revolutionary Guards. A preemptive strike could save the face of the regime and provide an opportunity to consolidate the population against the West. Apart from that, it would not be sufficient and would only postpone the problem. What is your take on such arguments?
I would say that the political solution, a peaceful resolution of the Iranian threat, is the preferred one by everyone, of course. But, at the same time, nobody in their right mind or even in the worst-case scenario can imagine a nuclear Iran. This is an absolute no-no – and nuclear Iran is not just acquiring, but also developing and should not develop a nuclear weapon. We have to remember that Iran is so very aggressive and so radical, as it is now in political agitation, in political murders and assassinations, terrorism, all over the world, not just in the Middle East, also in Latin America, also in Africa. So, nuclear Iran is not even questionable. And I do believe that we can reach this [peaceful solution] collectively with the international community without resorting to anything other than politics [a political solution] because Iran is very vulnerable. We have to remember that this regime is very vulnerable when it comes to politics. You just mentioned the economic problems, social unrest and their main goal – and this is why they came to Baghdad, and before that last month [were] in Istanbul, because they know that their political survival is at stake with all these sanctions. So this is exactly where the international community should take advantage of the situation and not compromise, but make demands. You cannot compromise with somebody [who is] a criminal, you know. They have to stop their crimes; they have to behave according to the international norms and according to their obligations. I believe this is achievable because, as I mentioned, now the main goal of the Ayatollahs is to lift the sanctions. And they are very afraid before the 1st July sanctions, which would be additional sanctions with full oil embargo. This can really kill their economy and make a lot of problems for them. So now it’s time to put all the pressure on and get a good deal. I believe it is possible if all of us internationally are determined, understanding the situation and knowing that it is not for Iran now to make demands or to negotiate. It’s time for Iran to accept international norms and demands.
From your perspective, is Iran a rational actor?
I would say there are two parts. They are not very rational when it comes to the ideology and their vision. They have a very extreme – I would say apocalyptic – vision, unfortunately. You can read that from the teaching of [Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, [Iran president Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad and all those. But when it comes to their own political survival, they are not irrational and yield to pressure. They did it already – in 2003 when they suspended enrichment, when they perceived a threat after the Iraq War, when they were flung by both Iraq and Afghanistan borders. And they backed down. When the international community is firm, they back down. If you recall, just a few months ago they threatened the United States not to send warships into the Hormuz Strait. The U.S. sent [warships] and [Iran] backed down. [Iran] also threatened that, if sanctions are put on Iran, they will block the strait. The international community, especially the U.S., told them that this is a casus belli, and they backed down. They also threatened Saudi Arabia not to increase production of oil in order to compensate for Iranian shortage. The Saudis continued, and they backed down. I believe that with the firm, unrelenting and uncompromising position, they will back down.
Current Israeli policy towards the Iranian nuclear threat is under heavy criticism by former intelligence service chiefs Yuval Diskin and Meir Dagan. They accuse the country’s political leaders, Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, of exaggerating the possible threat and making decisions based on “messianic beliefs” and, therefore, the political leaders should not be trusted to lead policy on Iran. What is your response to such criticism?
I find it quite amusing. You know, Israel – like Georgia – is a very open society. Everybody can say whatever they want, and I take it seriously. They [Diskin and Dagan] have been away from their jobs for a year or two years. They can whatever they want, and I judge only by situation. Israel and leaders of Israel will act responsibly according to the development on the ground. One thing I think everybody understands, including Mr. Dagan and Diskin, is that Iran cannot be nuclear, full stop. So Iran cannot be nuclear.
There are rumors, especially in Western media, that the Obama Administration might support letting Iran continue enriching uranium up to five percent purity, the upper range for civilian uses. If Iran agrees to other UN restrictions, how firm is Israel in its position to reject and oppose such a deal?
Very firm. I don’t think we can allow them to enrich. They lost any rights if they had to enrich; after all the deception and all these nuclear and military programs and ambitions, they have. Also, once you enrich to five percent or three-and-a-half percent, you have to remember most of the efforts are done. Three-and-a-half percent is already seventy percent of the way to nuclear grade. And also it’s much more difficult to monitor if they do more than that. I think it should be very clear cut. And, as I mentioned before, Iran is in no position to negotiate.
The first presidential elections after the Arab Spring are taking place in Egypt. None of the top contenders are very keen on Israel. What kind of relations do you expect in the near future between Israel and Egypt and other Arab countries?
I expect the continued relations of mutual respect and of responsible conduct. That is very important, both for Israel and Egypt, but also for the region. To continue and have peaceful relationships between Egypt, as the leader still of the Arab world, and Israel, I think that would be very beneficial also for Egypt. We have to remember that problems in Egypt are mainly of an economic nature and, for Egypt, stability is important – as it is for us. There are a lot of problems in the Middle East from Egypt’s point of view: their Western border with Libya, very problematic; their Southern border with Sudan, very problematic. Only to their East and North, Israel is a dependable, stable, friendly country. So I believe that right now it’s difficult to judge the rhetoric. You know during a campaign rhetoric sometimes tends to become kind of inflamed. But I believe that, again, whoever is elected in Egypt will continue the peace and relations with Israel as it’s critically important for everyone.
After recent agreement that allowed the Kadima party to enter the governing coalition, Premier Netanyahu has more room to negotiate on the peace process with the Palestinian side. For the first time in an official document, Premier Netanyahu affirmed his position for a two-state solution in a letter to Mahmud Abass. Can we expect a turning point in the stagnated process?
I would say it is very important to remember that the impasse in the process with the Palestinians is not because of Israel; it’s because of the Palestinian policy, Palestinian leadership. The changes in the Israeli government are inconsequential when it comes to any breakthrough with the Palestinians because any move should come from Palestinian leadership. We are still waiting for them to come to the negotiating table and discuss everything without any preconditions. We are willing to go far towards them, as we have been proving for at least twenty years, or nineteen years since Oslo. Unfortunately, we see in the Palestinian leadership that, instead of looking for some creative ways to move forward, they are very much entrenched in their position. In all their rhetoric, instead of trying to move [toward] political cooperation, they continue to attack us all the time politically – whether it’s in the UN, whether it’s in other UN agencies, incitement on the ground, in their schools. This is not how you want to really make peace, because peace is not just a piece of paper or an agreement between rulers; it should be a really historic reconciliation between peoples with coexistence. They need to change their attitude. So, it has nothing to do with the Israeli government or the composition of the Israeli government. We want to see some breakthrough in the Palestinian camp and, of course, we remember that their internal situation is also very problematic. With Hamas and Gaza against Fatah and Ramallah, it makes it very difficult to move forward. But we will continue to try and look for every avenue possible to move forward with the Palestinians because it is also our interest.
According to reports, Turkey has blocked Israel’s participation in the Chicago NATO Summit due to the Israeli raid on the Freedom Flotilla in 2010. How do you interpret this incident and could it worsen relations between the two countries?
First of all, we have to remember that this “Freedom Flotilla” was a terror flotilla and they were armed, they were attacking, they were aggressive and, by the way, they were violating all international laws. There was an international commission that was nominated or appointed by the Secretary-General of the UN, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, and we have accepted their findings. In the committee, one of the members was a senior Turk diplomat. The findings showed pretty much that Israel has the right to self-defense in the case of the flotilla. We offered the Turks that both of us will implement the conclusions of this committee together. So far, the Turks have rejected it. We will wait and see again here in Turkey. I believe, at the end of the day, that reason will prevail and common sense will prevail and also the interests will prevail. Of course, we are very disappointed about their behavior at the NATO Summit. I think they cannot hijack the entire interests of NATO member states because of their narrow political agenda. I think it doesn’t show forthcoming [behavior]; it doesn’t show good diplomacy. It was not just against Israel, it was also against other members of NATO. So, hopefully at the end of the day, there would be some kind of accommodation. We are ready to move forward. We are waiting for answers from Ankara.
Speaking in general terms, what lessons from the Israeli experience could be helpful for Georgia?
First of all, I want to say that this is my second time in Georgia. But this time I took my time – five days – and I had a chance to visit your beautiful country and I found it most exciting – people and development of the country. The geopolitical situation in the Caucasus is, of course, very complex. We understand that. We understand also the challenges to the national interests and security of Georgia. But I believe that the continued economic development with continued orientation to the West is the best policy for Georgia. Of course, Israel is a very friendly country. We had some talks in the Foreign Ministry and we talked about intensifying our economic cooperation, tourism, scientific research, investments, bilateral trade, academic cooperation. There is a lot of room for us to work together and I think that the lesson is – you know we have had a very, very unstable situation around us from the day we were established in 1948 – we always had to defend ourselves, but at the same time we didn’t just defend ourselves, we always invested in the future. Even in very bad times, we invested in the future. The result is that today we are an OECD country [with a] stable economy, great research and academic institutions, high-tech, and all that. I think that Georgia has all the ingredients to be also a high-tech centre here, and we will be happy to cooperate with you.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 103, published 4 June 2012.