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Peace talks prospects almost nil, says Israeli security specialist

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SIMON APFEL

Is the two-state solution viable? Behind closed doors, is it still being seriously considered?

Personally, I believe this should be the solution to the conflict. So do many others, perhaps most others. Currently, however, the level of disagreement and distrust between the two sides is so high, the chances of bringing them both to the table are almost nil. But who knows what will happen in the future, or what the new peace plan the Americans are putting together will bring about?

How might the so-called “deal of the century” that America is cooking up be different to previous peace plans?

I don’t know – no one knows much about the plan outside President Trump’s inner circle. But, from snippets of information that have been relayed, I understand the new plan will give other Arab Middle Eastern countries a bigger share in implementation. More importantly, they will have a bigger role in convincing Palestinians to come to the negotiating table. They will also have a role in convincing Israel that an agreement will have implications not just for relations with Palestinians, but for relations with other countries in the region.

In some sense, Trump is clearly pro-Israel. Do you think he is good for Israel?

It doesn’t matter what I think. He is the president of US, and Israel needs to work with him. I didn’t like it when Israelis criticised Barack Obama when he was president, and I don’t like it when they criticise Trump now.

How do you break the cycle of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Obviously we have an imperfect partner for peace on other side, but is there anything Israel can do, unilaterally, to arrest the current trend?

Today we have real conflict only with Gaza. There are sporadic terrorist attacks in the West Bank, but it’s generally calm. Will it remain that way? I don’t know. Gaza is out of Israel’s control. We fully retreated in 2005. It’s a foreign, hostile territory that we have to deal with as we would deal with any other hostile country.

Every few years, there seems to be a war breaking out between Israel and Gaza. Is there any way to stop this?

I wouldn’t call these wars. The other side doesn’t have tanks, helicopters, artillery, and so on. These are operations. They are big operations, and from time to time, they are needed. I hope the duration between the operations will be longer in the future. But we don’t have a good solution to Gaza. Within 400 square kilometres, there are almost two million people, and they can’t leave the country. They don’t have industry, they don’t have any good economic prospects, even the greenhouses that were left behind when Israel pulled out were destroyed. It’s a bad place to live, but it’s not our responsibility any more.

Removing the blockade would help stimulate the economy, but would it come at a security risk?

If Gaza wasn’t controlled by Hamas – whose primary focus is to build its military capabilities rather than protect its people’s well-being – it would be a different story. It’s important to know that the Israeli blockade was put in place only after Hamas came to power and made its intentions towards Israel known publicly loudly and clearly – that it aims to destroy Israel. We are doing what is needed to limit Hamas’s ability to do this.

What is the biggest threat to Israel’s national security?

No question, it’s Iran, and its attempts to build nuclear capability. This is something Israel won’t allow to happen.

Are you for or against the Iran nuclear deal?

I think it’s a bad deal. I believe the Americans had the opportunity to make a better deal, only history will determine why they didn’t succeed.

Is no deal better than a bad deal?

No question – the deal gave Iran something it can’t get for itself – legitimacy. The deal gives it the legitimacy to continue its long-range missile programme, and to develop the next generation of centrifuges. When the deal expires, it gives it the legitimacy to continue its nuclear project.

Former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other prominent members of Israel’s intelligence and national security establishment came out in support of the agreement. They argued that, in the absence of a renewed deal, in 10 years’ time, Iran can restart the nuclear programme, but in the meantime, Israel can focus on other hostile fronts – Hezbollah for example.

My view is different. The deal should have curbed the missile programme and centrifuges. You must realise that once these centrifuges are developed, Iran will be able to enrich uranium 20 times faster.

Why do you think Iran hates Israel? What’s at the root of this antagonism?

It’s a combination of ideology. First, it’s a religious belief that Jews shouldn’t have an independent state in the Middle East. Second, it’s a strategic calculation that Israel is the only country strong enough to contain Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. By the way, because of the Iranian threat, Arab Sunni countries understand more and more that Israel is an ally, not an enemy.

Would those reasons apply equally to Saudi Arabia, with whom Israel has (albeit unofficial) burgeoning diplomatic ties and various backchannel agreements?

Saudis aren’t trying to be the superpower in the Middle East, to take control of other countries. If you look at the status quo, the current arms race in the region, it was initiated by Iran. The Saudis are trying to buy friends in the region, but this is more of a defensive stance in response to Iran.

Is Hezbollah Israel’s most dangerous enemy at the moment?

Hezbollah is an extension of Iran, and with 130 000 rockets and missiles stationed right on Israel’s border, it constitutes an enormous threat. Iran is also seeking to build an independent war machine in Syria. Israel is doing whatever it takes to stop this from materialising.

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