'Iran still wants Israel wiped out, Rouhani just like Ahmadinejad' - Israeli deputy FM

Does Israel feel alone now that Iran has started talking to the US after decades of diplomatic blockade? Will Obama pay less attention now to Israel's calls to bomb Iran's nuclear infrastructure? Will Israel go ahead with a strike single-handedly? Detailed answers on these questions and more from our guest Zeev Elkin, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Our guest today is Israel’s deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin. Thank you very much for being on this program. Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the United States doesn't seem to have produced the desired result for Israel. So is America less of a friend now?

Zeev Elkin: I have to say this was a very interesting visit. I accompanied the Prime Minister. We visited New York and Washington. It is too early to talk about specific results at this point. Israel’s goal was very simple: we wanted to discuss some issues with our American friends and allies and, in addressing the UN General Assembly, to show the whole world a simple truth, to present Israel’s fact-based position regarding Iran’s nuclear program. A week before our visit, there was an atmosphere of euphoria. All the Iranian President had to do was to say a few words, and the whole world immediately forgot that the concept of Iranian democracy is quite unusual. They elect a President from a list of candidates approved by spiritual leaders. Many candidates are basically barred from running. The world seemed to have forgotten about Iran’s military nuclear program, which is still under way, and this is not just Israel saying so. The IAEA and other international agencies gathering intelligence on this program say so. So, what the Israeli prime minister did is basically he put a mirror in front of the whole world. We’ll have to wait and see what kind of effect this may have.

SS: We've all heard Mr Netanyahu's speech at the United Nations and he clearly said in that speech that Israel will stand alone against Iran if it has to. Considering how isolated Israel is in the region nowadays, loneliness probably is the word to describe it. Do you feel alone now?

ZE: No, of course, we don’t feel alone. We’ve got a lot of friends and allies, including the United States and many of the European nations, and countries in other parts of the world. The Israeli prime minister made one very simple point: he said that our experience with Syria demonstrated that for our talks with Iran to be successful, two conditions must be met. First, we need to continue putting pressure on Iran. This happens through sanctions. Without this pressure, Rouhani wouldn’t have won the election. Without this pressure, the Iranian leadership wouldn’t say they’re ready for talks with the West. They wouldn’t have said they’re open to new ideas – if there are new ideas. Second, our experience with Syria has made it very clear that the Iranian leadership realizes: if there is no progress in talks, the world will never put up with Iran having nuclear weapons. Neither the world nor Israel will ever put up with that. If there is no other solution available, Israel will have to act on its own and take the necessary steps to make sure Iran does not have nuclear weapons. That is what this statement was about. Netanyahu said, basically, even if the world is hesitant, we can’t afford to make a mistake here, because Israel is the country Iran threatens to wipe out. The Iranian leadership openly says so. In this sense, there is no difference between Rouhani and Ahmadinejad. Before his visit to New York, Rouhani publicly declared that their goal is to annihilate Israel. So, in this situation Israel definitely cannot risk the security of its citizens, and in fact the security of people living in this entire region, because our neighbors fear Iran’s nuclear program just as much as we do. More than once, they have told us at unofficial meetings that it is Iran, not Israel, that they regard as the greatest threat to their countries. Arab countries think Iran is a much bigger threat than Israel, so, quite unexpectedly, Israel and a number of countries in the region share a common agenda today. We share the same understanding that Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict pose the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East. So, instead of saying Israel is isolated, I would say that, on the contrary, Israel managed to tear down the wall of isolation that traditionally has surrounded Israel. As regards Egypt, we have a working relationship with the new Egyptian leadership. In a sense, we can say that our relationship is improving over what we had during President Morsi’s time, the time of Islamist rule in Egypt. We do have some difficulties in our relationship with Turkey, but that’s because of Erdogan’s geopolitical choice. He made a decision that, instead of being a part of Europe, Turkey should become a key player in the Middle East. And the best way to do that is to win allies by playing the anti-Israeli card. We’ll have to wait and see whether this approach works. Generally, Israel is alarmed, of course, by the growing Islamist influence in the Middle East. We were one of the first countries in the world to raise the alarm – in fact, Russia was another country to do the same. Israel and Russia shared the same view from the early days of the so-called Arab Spring. We predicted that it would turn into a severe Islamic winter, and this is what is happening today, even though the latest developments in Egypt in recent months give us hope that may be the tide has turned and this onslaught by radical Islamists all over the Middle East has been stopped and we may see some reversal here. This will very much depend on how efficient the new Egyptian leadership turns out to be, and how much support it receives from other nations, and whether it can demonstrate to the people of Egypt that it can deal with domestic issues better than the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi.

SS: The nuclear Iran alert, the constant alerts, scaring Israelis with this, is seen by some critics as an attempt to distract attention from domestic issues. Not to lose your people's confidence, Israel will have to strike Iran at some point. When will it happen, in your estimation?

ZE: At this point, it is hard to tell how events will unfold. This will very much depend on whether the Iranian leadership really has decided to strike a deal … not just some semblance of a deal in order to continue developing its military nuclear program while at the same time making the West lift the sanctions that really put pressure on the Iranian economy … but a real deal, where Iran will really make a strategic decision to terminate its military nuclear program. You don’t need to enrich uranium for a peaceful nuclear program. There are dozens of countries all over the world which build nuclear power plants without enriching uranium themselves, without building underground uranium enrichment facilities, without building a plutonium reactor. All these things point to the fact that Iran’s nuclear program is for military purposes, and this has nothing to do with the peaceful use of nuclear energy the Iranian President talked about. So it’s all a matter of whether the Iranian leadership really means all those things that Rouhani said in his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York. If what he wants is peaceful nuclear energy and good relations with Iran’s neighbors in the region and the nations of European civilization, the door is open, and there will be no need for Israel to take any drastic measures.

SS:But what if Iran doesn't stop peaceful enrichment? When will Israel strike?

ZE: The formula here is very simple. You have to understand what happened over the past year. After the Israeli prime minister showed very clearly where the red line of uranium enrichment is, the line beyond which it will be impossible to stop Iran’s pursuit of an atomic bomb, because all the other parts of the project, like designing a delivery vehicle, or building a device capable of initiating a nuclear explosion, can be carried out in secret and cannot be monitored. Iran has changed its strategy. Instead of stockpiling enriched uranium as before, crossing the red line and forcing Israel to take action, Iran now uses a different approach. They develop their technology so that when the Iranian leadership decides that the time has come Iran can achieve the required enrichment level very quickly. With the technology available to Iran today, unless all enriched uranium is removed from Iran and unless the enrichment process is stopped, including even 3.5 percent enrichment, all the Iranian proposals, including the latest ones, mean nothing. Iran will still have a way, once the political decision has been made, to get weapon-grade enriched uranium in just a few weeks. Once Iran has all the necessary technology to produce a delivery vehicle and an explosive device, Iran can get enough enriched uranium in a matter of weeks. The only way to prevent this from happening is to stop uranium enrichment altogether, including even low-enriched uranium and to remove the existing stockpile of enriched uranium from Iranian territory. Anything less will be a half-measure that will not take us anywhere.

SS:You're obviously very worried about a nuclear Iran. But what about Israel itself? You know, on the sidelines, everyone is convinced that Israel has a nuclear bomb. For example, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates you have around 80 warheads already.

ZE: I have no comment on your question. All I can say is that the IAEA is sponsoring talks about an international conference on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East. The biggest reason why this conference has not yet taken place is because Arab nations have taken a tough stance, saying they are not willing to compromise. Israel’s position, on the other hand, is flexible. But unfortunately, due to the tough stance taken by Arab countries, the US and Russia have so far been unable to organize such a conference.

SS:So let me just be clear. You choose to stick to the deliberate ambiguity as far as the nuclear issue goes? Not saying yes and not saying no – ever since 1965?

ZE: I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything different from Israel’s usual policy on this issue. I hate to disappoint you but you are not getting a scoop from me.

SS:What future do you envision for the so-called “territories,” the West Bank? You do not believe Palestinians deserve a state?

ZE: As you know, the matter of the Palestinian state is a controversial issue in Israel. Our prime minister believes that the Palestinian state could be created, while some members of his party, even the majority of them, including me, are quite skeptical about it. But in order to understand this dispute, you need to understand the actual situation Israel has been in for the past twenty years. It’s been twenty years since the peace process started after the Oslo Accords were signed and the Palestinian Autonomy was formed. I’ll give you a few figures. The number of Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorists over these years is fifty percent higher than the number of people we lost in the 45 years prior to that. Palestinian terrorists have killed 2,500 Israelis since the nation of Israel was founded, and 1,500 of them were killed in the past 20 years, even though we’ve been constantly involved in the peace process and have signed the Oslo Accords. These numbers speak for themselves and explain why Israelis are so skeptical about making concessions again and again, while all we get from the Palestinians in return is the ever-increasing number of terrorist attacks.

There’s one more thing that can help us understand why a part of the Israeli society is skeptical about the creation of the Palestinian state. Some time ago, we withdrew our troops from the Gaza Strip and went back to the internationally recognized borders. The Palestinian dream came true. We went back to the 1967 borders. But what came out of it is the Gaza Strip turned into a stronghold of radical Islamic terrorism. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a coup and the official leadership of the Palestinian Autonomy was expelled. The Gaza Strip essentially became a launching site for rocket attacks on Israel. So now one-third and even half of the population of Israel wake up every morning in fear that their homes or their yards may be hit by a rocket or that their kids may go to school and be killed by a rocket on the way to school or at school. So this is the situation one-third to half the population of Israel has been living in since we left the Gaza Strip.

SS:But what would happen to Gaza if it were up to you?

ZE: I cannot tell you right now what should happen in the Gaza Strip because Israel has left the Gaza Strip and is no longer responsible for this territory. But I know exactly what should not happen there. The Gaza Strip should not be a launching site for rocket attacks on Israeli women, children, and civilians. The Palestinian leadership is responsible for this. This is why Israel is not willing to repeat this experiment in Judea and Samaria.

SS:However, where do you go from here? Palestinians already have a small, but still important right to self-govern. What do you do then, do you just cancel it?

ZE: Actually, in a sense the Palestinians are now responsible for themselves. The Israeli prime minister is ready to sign an agreement with them. All he’s asking is two simple things. First, he’s asking for security guarantees. In other words, the treaty should not jeopardize the security of his people, and second, he is asking the Palestinians to end the conflict. But the conflict cannot end until the Palestinian leaders recognize the very existence of the Jewish state in this region irrespective of the borders. Until they do so, any treaty would only fuel more conflict. Yassir Arafat, Abu Mazen and other Palestinian leaders openly declared that they would take one step at a time: first, they take what Israel is ready to give voluntarily and then the conflict will continue so they get more territory. So, Israel is not willing to be the sucker of the Middle East and to make long-term concessions, sacrificing the security of its own citizens, only to find out in the end that the conflict isn’t over, that it’s going on as before, except that Israel is now in a much worse position. So, answering your question, in a sense it's now the Palestinians who have to choose. If they do seek self-determination and want to become an independent state, they have a real partner, which is, moreover, a very practical one as it has the backing of both the left and part of the right. But as you can see, not only do they hesitate to jump at this opportunity now, they openly declare that they won't be interested in a peaceful agreement with Israel if under this agreement they have to end the conflict and put up with the existence of a Jewish state in this region.

SS:The current Israeli government is said to be the most pro-settler one in history. You yourself are a settler on occupied territory. How is the settlers’ mentality different from the rest of Israelis’?

ZE: I don't think that the mindset of the so-called settlers is any different from that of the native Israeli people. About 10 per cent of the Israelis now live outside the borders set in 1967, and it is not some small group of radical people. The Knesset speaker — who is a Russian speaking politician like me — lives across the border. Our former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman — who, I think, is our future foreign minister, too — lives in a settlement neighboring my place. And it's not typical of Israel only. There are a lot of similar scenarios in other regions, which do not face much opposition from the international community for some reason. Let’s just remember the situation in Cyprus — half of its territory is controlled by Turkey. Although the international community doesn't admit that, it cooperates actively with the Turkish government of this part of Cyprus and invests a lot there, including money from the European budget. Israeli settlers live on the land that was inhabited by our ancestors 1,000 and even a few thousand years ago. There is a hill next to my house where even without digging you can find plenty of archaeological artefacts from the time when this territory was the very heart of the Jewish state. As I have already said, we were not the reason the state of Palestine wasn’t established — the Arabs were the ones who rejected the UN's decision of 1947 and started a war aimed at destroying Israel. The same thing happened in 1967. This territory was captured by Israel, and that was not because Israel took up arms, but because Jordan declared war on Israel, although Israel went to great lengths to persuade Jordan not to join the war of 1967 using all possible diplomatic means. Before this territory had been, by the way, occupied by the Jordanian military, so according to international law - at least that is how many internationally recognized lawyers put it — Israeli settlements on these territories do not violate any laws.

SS:There is an Israeli organization called “Breaking the Silence.” They collect and publish stories of Israeli Defense Force soldiers on their routine service in the occupied territories. Their accounts are pretty disturbing: Palestinians being harassed, mistreated, intimidated on a daily basis – and for no reason, except demonstrating the IDF's power over them. How do you expect to solve anything with the Palestinians with such treatment?

ZE: I suggest that you should come and visit me in the so-called settlement, which is located not far from the Israeli military, and let's just carry out an experiment: we will go to a neighboring Arab village and ask local kids, women or the youth if they shun coming to the settlement I live in or moving around the territory where Israeli soldiers are present. You will see that they don't. They are absolutely fine coming over to our villages, they visit our shops, they work on this territory and feel completely secure and safe from harassment by the Israeli soldiers you mentioned. And let’s conduct a reverse experiment. Let’s ask the Israelis living in the settlements, my children, if they’re ready to take the risk of going to a nearby Arab village and what would happen if they did. The answer will be a simple no, and it’s no surprise – in the past, such endeavors ended in lynch trials. In the best-case scenario, the Israelis who happened to venture into Arab villages got captured and then freed after lengthy and difficult negotiations. In the worst-case scenario, they ended up dead. The most recent incident took place just several weeks ago. Two young men worked in a store, which was, by the way, situated within the internationally recognized Israeli borders, and the Arab man invited his Israeli colleague to visit his home in an Arab village. The end of this story is a tragic one – the Israeli man was killed, and his Arab “colleague”, so to speak, was planning to demand the release of some Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the body of a young man he had been working with for a long time and invited into his house. That’s what’s really happening where I live, and it differs significantly from the reports made by various international organizations or mass media. Please, come and film this and see for yourselves that what we often read in the papers is a long way from reality.

SS:What's going on right now on the Israeli-Syrian border? Is Israel accepting refugees from Syria?

ZE: We are very concerned with the situation on the Israeli-Syrian border. Unfortunately, the general instability in Syria affects Israel as well; there are many militant groups active on this border now. At times, the clashes between them result in Israeli territory being under accidental or deliberate fire. Israel is following a very cautious policy and trying to stay out of the Syrian conflict, but we offer help when we can. For example, when Syrian people living near Israeli borders are wounded and need medical assistance, they are taken to Israeli hospitals. Currently there are a number of Syrians in Israeli hospitals in the north. However, Israel’s policy of non-interference has a certain red line – we will definitely not be idly standing by if there is a possibility of Syria’s chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. We hope that the Russian-American plan to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal will facilitate stability in Syria and in the whole region. The danger of terrorists or pro-Assad organizations like Hezbollah or the anti-Assad organizations with links to Al-Qaeda getting hold of chemical weapons is very serious, and not only for Israel – these chemical weapons might resurface anywhere in the world. The second unacceptable thing is using the situation in Syria as a cover for supplying Lebanon and such organizations as Hezbollah with state-of-the-art weapons, which could tip the existing balance of power. The attempts to smuggle some high-quality weapons – made in Russia or other countries – from Syria to Lebanon have happened before, and if something like that happens now, we would be forced to take action. In all other cases Israel opts for non-interference and providing medical assistance to the civilian population of Syria living close to Israeli border.