Differing Perspectives on Iran and the Middle East Peace Process: Is there a Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations?
February 6, 2014
DAVID SPEEDIE: Good evening. I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Council. And, I'm delighted to have as my guest this evening Professor Dov Waxman, a new friend.
For a young man, Dov is a well-traveled man. He is professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center at CUNY, City University of New York. But he has also been a visiting research associate at St. John's College, Oxford, at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He has been a visiting fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Middle East Technical University in Ankara, and a visiting fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. I don't know how you packed all that in.
And our congratulations are in order, because in the fall he will go off to become co-director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development at Northeastern University. So, I am delighted to have you, Dov, before you embark on this.
The proceedings this evening will be that Dov and I will talk for about 20 minutes, and then open it up to the floor for questions on a number of really interesting topics around this general question of convergent and divergent U.S. and Israeli views on important matters, such as the Middle East peace process and Iran.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Let's begin with the current state of affairs, Dov. You've written about the obvious tensions that exist at the leadership level. Clearly, there have been more robustly warm moments in U.S./Israeli relations than those that exist between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. But your conclusion is that there is more to it than that.
DOV WAXMAN: Yes. The personal relationship between the Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama has been much discussed since both men came into office. Clearly, although there have been efforts to improve the relationship—last year President Obama went to Israel on a well-received visit—I think that helped their personal relationship somewhat. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that neither man really appears to like the other very much and I don't think they trust each other very much, which is even more crucial in this respect.
So clearly, I think on a personal level, there's a poor relationship there. But I think the issues between the United States and Israel may even go beyond this issue of personalities. It's easy to ascribe this to Obama's coolness or Bibi's temperament. But I think there are deeper issues at stake, which are affecting the relationship.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Obviously, one immediately would conclude that there are more generally-shared interests than differences at the highest level of policy. They're both on the same page as far as concern over Iran going nuclear, they're both very much concerned with Islamist terrorism in the greater Middle East, the stability for the region, support for moderate regimes such as Jordan, and so on and so forth.
So what's going on here? How does Israel see the way that the United States conducts policy in this that causes concern for Israel and vice versa?
DOV WAXMAN: Well, I think it is important to acknowledge, first of all, that they do share, broadly speaking, common goals in the region—the ones you mentioned, particularly, in terms of preventing Iran from going nuclear, and generally countering Iran's regional influence. Now they are increasingly concerned about countering al-Qaeda and jihadist groups in the region, and, supporting these pro-Western regimes such as Jordan's, so they do have these common interests. But I think what we are seeing increasingly is disagreements and maybe fundamental disagreements over how to achieve these common goals. While they share these interests, both sides believe that the policies the other is pursuing in pursuit of those interests are actually undermining their own interests.
So, I think part of what's happening is that, on the Israeli side, there is a perception—and I want to emphasize that is just a "perception," rather than necessarily the reality—that the Obama administration's policies in the region are undermining Israel, particularly because they are perceived to be weak. The Obama administration is seen as being timid in its approach to the region, particularly in its willingness or apparent willingness to use military force. The perception was that, when it came to enforcing Obama's "red line" over Syria, for instance, that it climbed down quite quickly. And that signaled to, perhaps, Iran, that the United States under Obama is not willing to use its military force. That's one concern.
And, more generally, there is a kind of feeling that the Obama administration is looking for a way out of the region—its much-discussed pivot towards the Asia Pacific region—and there is a fear in Israel that the Obama administration is beginning to, or at least wants to, disengage and that's going to leave Israel isolated. So, I think there's that general concern about Obama administration's policy.
And, on the Obama administration's side, there is a concern that Israel really doesn't have a strategy, doesn't even have a coherent problem, that it's all domestic politics and that even when the Obama administration is making efforts to help Israel, as it believes it's doing right now with regards to the Palestinians and the peace process, what it's getting in return is a kind of very disdainful and even disrespectful attitude.
And there's a sense, I think—this was voiced by the former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates—that the Netanyahu government, and Netanyahu himself, is ungrateful for the American support that the Obama administration has given Israel and that this is affecting the American interests as well.
So I think there are these general perceptions that neither side is really receptive enough to the concerns of the other and is in some ways, through its policies and through its actions, undermining those interests.
Of course, in addition to those general concerns there's also very specific disagreements when it comes to the two main issues that the United States and Israel deal with, which is Iran and the nuclear issue, and the Palestinian issue.
DAVID SPEEDIE: We'll get to those in a moment, but first a follow-up on the pivot to Asia question that you mentioned, because of course pivot to something means pivot away from something also, and that clearly is what Netanyahu's Israeli government is concerned about.
For those of us who have at times been critical of the Obama administration, on the other hand, you think, what a world. I think it was Senator Sam Nunn who said we had moved from an age of great danger but relative stability, to one of lesser global danger, global threat, nuclear annihilation, but much less stability.
And the other quote I remember from the Cold War was—I can't remember who said it—someone said, "The old North Star of the Cold War—that's guiding us in our policy." Clearly there are so many issues—obviously from instability in the Far East, Asia, between China and Japan, South Korea; now, instability in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, etc, etc, etc. In spite of all of this, Kerry is really apparently making sincere and significant efforts to to restart the peace process. This just isn't enough, or it's not convincing?
DOV WAXMAN: Well, I think there are two things. I think, with regards to the pivot, and the shift—I mean this is more of a long-term concern that not only is held in Israel and Jerusalem, but is also held by other longstanding American allies in the region, particularly the Saudis.
It's understandable. The United States has been hugely preoccupied for the last decade in the Middle East and often to the detriment of its attention elsewhere. And it has seen China increase its influence in the other parts of the world while the United States has been so preoccupied in the Middle East. So, in a sense a rebalancing, a pivot is necessary, and I think something that people in Washington, both parties actually, would support.
But from the Israeli point of view, America's role in the Middle East, America's dominance in the Middle East is and has been a vital aspect of Israel's national security. So any diminution of American influence in the region—and I think there was a general feeling that this happened under the Obama administration, though others would argue it started before it and is not largely because of the policies of the Obama administration—but American influence has weakened in the region and this is seen with great concern.
With regards to the peace process, this is partly the frustration, I think, within the Netanyahu government, at least. Nobody will question Secretary of State Kerry's energy and his dogged pursuit of the peace process. I think what people question is why he's clocking up the air miles, more than 10 visits to the region, when nobody on either side expects that this is really likely to yield any agreement.
So, I think partly there is a kind of skepticism about, given the low likelihood of achieving success, why is Secretary of State Kerry so invested on this issue and why not on perhaps other issues on the region that maybe Israel feels, particularly when it comes to Iran, should be the focus
DAVID SPEEDIE: On to Iran in a moment, but if I am sitting in Foggy Bottom or on Pennsylvania Avenue, my thing would be, "We're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't." We're either going to be criticized for not paying attention and not trying to follow up the various efforts that we made for peace in the Middle East, or we're doing it at the wrong time in the wrong way at the neglect of other things. This seems like a lose-lose situation.
DOV WAXMAN: It is. This is in the Middle East and certainly when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
But I think it is important to point out that the attitude I'm describing is one that's held by, I think, Prime Minister Netanyahu, although he has been careful not to express this too much, but certainly his Israeli Defense Minister Ya'alon and others on the right in the Netanyahu government. But this is not a view that is held across the board in Israel. There are certainly many in Israel, including some of the more centrist members of the Netanyahu government, who welcome Kerry's involvement.
The Israeli government is not—what we would say in international relations—a unitary actor. There are different factions. There are different individuals. And I think many in Israel absolutely thank Kerry for his tireless efforts and believe that now is the time. In fact, maybe this is the last time to try to broker a two-state solution.
On the other hand, there are those who have the view that it's not just that now is not the right time, but they don't really don't want there to be a Palestinian state. So obviously they are going to resent whatever they see as Kerry raising this issue and trying to promote one when they believe that establishing a Palestinian state is not in Israel's interest.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Okay, onto Iran. Clearly Prime Minister Netanyahu has indulged in some fairly intemperate language, as he believes that the Geneva P5+1 talks were a historic mistake. Of Rouhani, who some of us heard with a degree of interest and optimism last year around the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu said, "Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing."That's a nice aphorism, but this doesn't seem to advance from our point of view the engagement of Israel in this process at any point. If the P5+1 reach an agreement with Iran, what then? What happens in Israel?
DOV WAXMAN: Well, it's a very big "if," first of all. There's obviously an opportunity here. Personally I'm still skeptical about whether they're going to be able to achieve a permanent agreement.
But if one is achieved, the real question is, can a permanent agreement be achieved that will be acceptable to Israel? It's going to be hard enough to achieve an agreement between Iran and the United States that's mutually acceptable to both those two countries. But one that is also going to be acceptable to Israel—that's the question.
I think the key issue here in terms of the details of what a comprehensive agreement would look like concerns whether Iran is going to be allowed some kind of enrichment capability. For the Iranians, that is clearly absolutely essential.
DAVID SPEEDIE: And that's allowed under NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty].
DOV WAXMAN: And it's allowed under NPT. I think there is no way they are going to accept an agreement that requires their complete dismantling of the program that they've sunk billions and billions of dollars into, not to mention a vast amount of their own national prestige and domestic support. So I think it is just inconceivable that they would accept an agreement that didn't provide them with some enrichment capability.
And the United States has expressed a willingness to accept that—a low level of enrichment capability as long as it is very, very tightly monitored. So we're talking basically something like 3.5 to 5 percent enrichment capability.
Now, at the moment, the Israeli government's stated position is that there must be no capability at all, no enrichment capability, a complete dismantling of Iran's nuclear program. So the question is, will the Israelis climb down from that position? Will they be willing to accept? And this is tricky, because on the one hand, as you note, Iran is allowed, according to the terms of the NPT, to enrich uranium for civilian purposes as long as it adheres to the terms of the treaty and perhaps signs the additional protocol, which allows very intrusive monitoring.
The problem is the new generation of centrifuges that the Iranians are installing, allow it potentially to turn out low-grade enriched uranium quite quickly, within months, into the military-grade nuclear weapons-capable uranium. So the Israelis are concerned, and I think understandably concerned, that even any kind of enrichment capability will give Iran a short breakout capacity. In other words, in a matter of months the Iranians will be able to come to the threshold of a nuclear weapon.
And the question then is, will the Americans be able to detect that? There's not a huge reason to have a whole lot of confidence in the American intelligence agencies' ability to detect an Iranian breakout. The Americans didn't know that the Syrians were building a nuclear reactor. They previously didn't know how close, many years ago, Iraq had come. They'd been caught blindsided by the North Koreans on more than one occasion. And just recently, the Pentagon itself said that they're not confident in their abilities to detect secret Iranian activities in this respect.
So, the question is, can Israel be assured enough that, with a civilian and low-level enrichment capability, it will be so tightly monitored that there is no way that the Iranians will be able to achieve this breakout capacity? Personally, I can't imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, given his very hawkish statements on Iran; given the fact that he personally sees this as his mission in life not to make peace with the Palestinians, but to save Israel from a nuclear Iran; that Prime Minister Netanyahu would himself, accept this.
But I do think that many within the Israeli security establishment will accept this and will recognize that really this is the only kind of agreement that's feasible. Therefore, if it doesn't agree to this, the only option is for Israel to carry out a unilateral military strike, which, with the exception, perhaps, of Prime Minister Netanyahu and maybe a few other individuals, nobody in the Israeli political establishment wants.
So, at the end of the day, if an agreement is reached, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu is deeply unhappy with it, there may be very little he can do. And this is partly why he's made these statements, because from Israel's position, they're not in these negotiations, obviously. They're observing these negotiations but they feel that the outcome of these negotiations will have a critical, even existential significance for Israel's future.
So I think that explains some of the intemperate reactions that come out of Jerusalem from time to time.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Setting aside the point that, I think I'm right in saying, 18 other countries around the world are engaged in some form of enrichment under NPT, and setting aside that Iran has agreed in the past to fairly intrusive inspections by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and additional protocol and so on and so forth, what would you say to the remark that Iran may be many things, but it's not suicidal and it knows that Israel has used this term "existential threat"?
Clearly we would not allow an attack on Israel to go unpunished. From our point of view, when you say Netanyahu is not concerned about the Middle East peace process, but in protecting Israel against Iran, it seems to be, at best, an incomplete agenda.
DOV WAXMAN: Yes, I would agree that it is an incomplete agenda. I think on the question of whether Iran is an existential threat—that seems to be Netanyahu's personal view. Again, many within the Israeli security establishment certainly regard an Iranian nuclear weapon or potential as a major threat to Israel's national security interest, but not a threat to the very existence of Israel.
I think part of this goes beyond the question of whether Iran would actually use a bomb. I think nobody really expects that.
But part of the issue here is that, was the purpose of the Zionist movement to create a state in which the Jews living there would then be living under the cloud of nuclear annihilation? And to live under that circumstance—even though that is, in fact, what Americans have lived under during the Cold War, of course—there is a concern whether this will be corrosive to everything that the Zionist movement worked for. Will it encourage, for instance, a brain drain of young Israelis to leave the country? How will this situation affect life in Israel? That's one concern, of course.
Another concern, a very real one, is the concern about nuclear proliferation, that this will start a kind of chain reaction across the region and whether it will embolden Iran's allies, like Hezbollah.
So I think, short of the existential threat, there's clearly a number of lesser but very serious threats that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose to Israel.
I think the question, though, is—and we don't know—is there a change in Tehran's calculations? Are they beginning to believe, perhaps, that pursuing the nuclear option, which I think is clear is what they have been doing, may in fact now, because of the sanctions and because of the concerns about the impact of sanctions upon domestic support within Iran, will that undermine the security of the regime? Or would having a nuclear weapon guarantee it?
In other words, is a nuclear weapon going to be the insurance policy for the Islamic Republic, as I think they believed it was? Or, will in fact, ending sanctions, bringing about some sort of diplomatic rapprochement with the West, would that actually be better for the long-term survival of the Islamic Republic?
Now that we have Rouhani's election, I think there is much more questioning as to that. And, I think, for Israel, if the Iranians do decide that actually their interest is best served by an agreement with the West then that's ultimately in Israel's best interest as well.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Just one final question—and I know it's probably a difficult question to answer briefly.
You've given a lot of thought to the question of the conflicting loyalties of American Jews. Obviously, the U.S./Israel relationship, in many ways, is as close as any. There's a significant and powerful Israeli lobby in Congress, and in the public arena as well.
But, as you say, on the matter of Iran, for example, we may on the one hand applaud an end to 30-plus years of tensions with Iran on the nuclear question, as Americans, but if one is an American Jew with the concern of the state of Israel at heart . . . You've written and thought a lot about this conflict. So could you give us an executive summary answer?
DOV WAXMAN: Sure, I'll try.
Obviously, any serious disagreement between an American government and an Israeli government can create some discomfort for many—not all American Jews, but for those who feel an attachment to Israel, who feel a concern for Israel.
Obviously, to the extent to which the U.S. and Israel are working together, and their interests are aligned and they're getting along, that's a much more comfortable situation than one in which there are these public disagreements, especially, right now. In the public debate over Iran, for instance, there are those who are saying that Israel is going to push the United States into war with Iran. Now nobody in the Obama administration is saying this, although they have kind of suggested that those who are seeking new sanctions in the Senate, which are pro-Israel groups, are war-mongering.
So there is some pretty heated rhetoric and that is an uncomfortable situation for many American Jews. Although I think it's important to note that, at least according to opinion polls, the majority of American Jews support the Obama administration—obviously, the vast majority voted for him—and support his diplomatic diplomacy toward Iran, and generally his Middle East policy.
The real issue here is the pro-Israel lobby, specifically the center and right wing groups within it. There isn't a single lobby any longer—there are all sorts of different groups. Some groups on the left have been backing the Obama administration and opposing the Netanyahu government on Iran.
But AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee], in particular, has staked out quite a strong position—a critical position, obviously with the support of the Netanyahu government—in opposition to the Obama administration policy. Particularly, recently they are pushing a bill that would ratchet up sanctions on Iran at a time when obviously the focus is on trying to secure diplomatic agreement.
So this is raising lots of questions, not only this confrontation between AIPAC and the Obama administration, which AIPAC has lost, I think it's clear.
For all the power of the Israeli lobby, it has actually lost this battle. But also the gap between the groups like AIPAC and the American Jewish population—because as I said, AIPAC has been pushing for these sanctions as have other mainstream American Jewish organizations that have also lobbied in support of these sanctions.
There isn't a poll done on what American Jews think on this particular bill, but as I said, the American Jewish population as a whole does support and has supported the Obama administration's policy toward Iran.
So there's also a gap between the majority of the American Jewish population, at least, and the positions of some of these pro-Israel organizations. And that also creates tension.
QUESTION: James Starkman.
Dov, I think you put your finger right on the key question in your statement about the probability of the sincerity of Iran in the interest of Iran in pursuing this opening.The two canaries in the coal mine that I see are, number one, the election of Rouhani among multiple candidates. The Iranian people seem to be behind pursuing this opening. And, number two, the fact that the Supreme Leader also made an unequivocal statement that nuclear generation for wartime purposes is against their ideology and their religion. I wonder if there are any other canaries that you could point out?
DOV WAXMAN: Well, I think the one I would note that might signal a potential shift in Iran isn't so much the fact that Rouhani was elected, but that Rouhani was allowed to run. I think it's the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei made the decision that he would allow Rouhani to run. Now, Rouhani is not a great reformist. He is somebody from within the regime who supports the principles of the regime. But clearly that does signal that within Khamenei, and within his circle, they allowed him to run, they didn't interfere with the election results, unlike in 2009 when there was mass electoral fraud. So they allowed him to run and they allowed him to actually be elected. Both of which, in Iran today, we can't take that for granted.
So, I think it does signal potentially a reassessment within Tehran that, at the very least, the very kind of confrontational approach and rhetoric of Rouhani's predecessor, Ahmadinejad, was not working for them and they needed to try a different tactic.
Now, the issue is, and only time will tell, is that merely a public relations exercise? Basically, is it merely that Rouhani is kind of nicer window dressing and there really isn't any sort of strategic change? The policy is the same. Namely, as you said, the policy is to essentially pursue a nuclear weapons capability, not outright, but short of that, while continuing to take the time and negotiate. Is that still the policy or has the real decision maker, Khamenei, come to believe that domestic discontent in Iran, particularly because of the decline in the Iranian economy, poses a greater threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic than does Western intervention?
I believe that their view in the past was that the threat of external, ie. American intervention, was the biggest danger to the survival of the Islamic Republic and therefore, a nuclear weapon or potential was an insurance policy to prevent that.
Now, he may believe, looking at what's happening across the Middle East—unrest, popular mobilization—looking at what happened with the Green Movement in 2009, that perhaps domestic discontent, the Iranian street, if you like, is the greater danger. Therefore, he has to change and that pursuing a nuclear option and jeopardizing the Iranian economy is actually going to undermine the survival of the Islamic Republic.
I'm not sure and we can't know, but there are signals. Not only interestingly enough, in terms of—I don't know if I would call them canaries—but there are very interesting, very recent signs of a signaling between Israel and Iran, not just between United States and Iran, but between Israel and Iran.
Just recently, the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif gave a television interview to German television where he said, if the Israelis and Palestinians make an agreement, it's not going to be for us to challenge that. Basically—I'm paraphrasing—we will accept an agreement that Israel and the Palestinians make. Now that in itself is important.
Also quite recently, the Israeli defense minister appeared in the same room in the front row in the Munich Security Conference while the Iranians were there.
Again, there was another meeting, an energy meeting in Abu Dhabi recently; the Israeli energy minister and Israeli delegation attended. The Kuwaitis, by the way, boycotted that meeting. The Iranians showed up. They again were in the same room as the Israelis.
These are small things but they may signal a willingness for some kind of cooling of hostilities. There was a kind of shadow war between Israel and Iran that has been going on and there may be a signaling on both sides that they need to have some sort of improvement in the relations.
But it's also important to bear in mind here that on Syria, the Iranians and Israelis aren't necessarily on opposite sides.
DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm very glad you raised that. There was a piece posted on Gary Sick's Gulf/2000 today by Meir Javedanfar, "Iran, Israel, and the Politics of Gesture," and he mentioned precisely these two occasions that you have mentioned.
QUESTION: Allen Young.
I wonder if you could address the second issue in the title of your speech, which is the Middle Eastern peace process, specifically Palestine/Israel. You indicated it is probably unlikely that they will arrive at an agreement but I wonder if you could elaborate further on your assessment.
And secondly, assuming that the parties can agree, how likely is it that the Palestinian authority could persuade the Arab population to agree? How likely is it that Netanyahu could survive the political opposition in Israel to such a settlement?
DOV WAXMAN: That's a big question, which I am going to try and answer briefly. This will be difficult but I'll try my best.
I think it's likely, if I was to make a prediction, that there will be some kind of framework. It's clear that in the next few weeks Kerry is going to present some sort of framework agreement and I think the likelihood will be that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are going to want to appear to be the rejectionist party. So they are both going to say, "yes, but . . ." They're both going to attach numerous reservations to it and this will allow them to appear that they all support the peace process. It will allow Secretary Kerry to get some success, some sort of achievement for all of the air miles he has racked up and allow for the peace process to continue. But I don't think it is going to result in any permanent comprehensive agreement.
Even this framework agreement, though, is going to be a challenge. Because although I think Prime Minister Netanyahu recognizes that he cannot say no, he'll basically accept it with numerous reservations. And similarly, President Abbas can't say no. Even this is going to create huge potential issues for both of them.
There's a very good chance that if, let's say when, Prime Minister Netanyahu accepts this framework agreement, that will lead to the break-up his coalition. Essentially the most right-wing party, The Jewish Home party, will bolt the coalition. They are adamantly opposed to any kind of concessions. And he'll also have a major problem within his own party. He's really, perhaps, the most centrist member of his own party now. So that might force a new government in Israel. Netanyahu can easily have that if he wants, but it will cause domestic unrest within his government.
On the Palestinian side, depending on what the framework agreement involves, the leaks that are coming out are, from a Palestinian point of view, very, very problematic. Kerry's positions or the positions that he's assuming are those that are much closer to the positions of Israel. Especially, just to take one issue—the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. This is something that Netanyahu has elevated. He didn't come up with the demand, but he has elevated that demand. And this is now something that Kerry has endorsed and the Palestinians have said, "no way."
Similarly on the right of return, Kerry has said no right of return for Palestinian refugees to a future Palestinian state. Again that's something that, for all Palestinians, some acknowledgment of a right of return is essential.
So, I think if Abbas were to accept a framework agreement—he already has a major legitimacy issue, so it would deepen his legitimacy issue.
And the question of whether that would lead to a crisis in Ramallah, I'm not sure. I think Palestinians have long since given up, in a sense, on expecting an outcome that they would deem acceptable from an American brokered peace process.
QUESTION: Michael Schmerin.
You referred to the Middle East peace process as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If that was to be resolved tomorrow, by some miracle, would that change the Middle East, which is in tremendous turmoil? I would posit that possibly the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is probably number four or five on the list of serious issues now that supersede that. So, would it matter, and if it would, how would it change the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon?
DOV WAXMAN: I certainly don't think it's the most important issue in the Middle East right now. I don't think anybody would be under that impression. But would it change dynamics in the region? Absolutely. It's not the most important.
What's happening in Syria, the Iranian nuclear issue, what's happening in Egypt—there's many other issues that are significant and are of great importance but that doesn't mean to say that even if it is not a complete game-changer in the region, and I don't think anybody expects that, that it wouldn't improve and lead in time to have knock-on benefits on those other issues.
So if we take the Iranian nuclear issue, one of the concerns here is that on Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel have basically a common interest. They both are very worried about Iran's growing influence. They are both worried about the United States' diminishing influence in the region. But there is a very great limit to how much the Saudis are willing to work with Israel in any respect, as long as the Palestinian issue is unresolved.
So it won't solve the Iranian issue. It won't solve the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but it can help in that respect.
Even on the Syrian question—that's certainly independent of the peace process and I think in many ways the biggest problem now. But if we take one of the concerns that the war in Syria is having on Jordan, for instance, well, one of the concerns here is that not only are you having a growing Syrian refugee population in Jordan, who may become radicalized, but a continuation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the possibility of renewed violence could have a knock-on affect on Jordan's stability—50 percent of the Jordanian population are of Palestinian origin. So in terms of if we're concerned about Jordan's long-term stability, which we are, then again there is the Israeli/Palestinian issue.
So it exacerbates other issues, and sometimes it makes bringing together coalitions to resolve or to deal with some of those issues harder.
It's not a panacea. Nobody believes, I think, that solve that issue and the Middle East is going to look like Western Europe anytime soon. But it's certainly something, Successive U.S. commanders who work in the region who deal with Arab leaders say it certainly makes America's job, American diplomacy that much harder. And it certainly doesn't help America's image in the region.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
Two questions. First you addressed the issue of the level or the quality of fissionable material, but there is another part of this equation that you left out, which is the ability to weaponize it, to deliver it. You can't just use the post office for that sort of thing.
The second question is that in your canvass of the Iranian and U.S. peace process, you didn't address the issue of the Europeans or the Russians and surely they are part of this equation, as well.
DOV WAXMAN: In terms of the first part, Iran has an active ballistic missile program and one of the concerns here is that the current nuclear negotiations aren't addressing that. We don't really know. This is one of the IAEA's longstanding demands to reveal exactly what work has been done on weaponization. There are suspicions and the Iranians have not resolved those suspicions. So we don't know.
But we do know that Iran has a ballistic missile program and we do know that Iranian missiles can reach Israel. They can't reach the United States. So it's not that Iran wouldn't have any potential ability to deliver nuclear weapons, because it has this missile program.
On the question of the Russian and European role, I think the reason I emphasize the American role is because the American role is the central one here. Certainly when it comes to sanctions and maintaining sanctions, it's vital, particularly, to maintain European support. One of the reasons why this bill in Congress to ratchet up the sanctions is so unhelpful, in my opinion, is that it could, if it were passed, undermine the international support for the sanctions effort. Particularly in Europe, that has worked.
So, the Europeans need to see that the United States is willing to take "yes" for an answer. They need to see that when the Americans sit down and negotiate with the Iranians, they are actually interested in agreement, because American sanctions alone hasn't brought Iran to the negotiating table. It's the international sanctions, particularly Europe, India, China. So that is vital and obviously they have a crucial role to play.
With regards to the Russians, it's not clear how much leverage the Russians have with regards to Iran. Clearly, we see with Syria that they have a lot of leverage. The Iranians have basically turned down Russian offers to ship their enriched uranium out of Iran to Russia. The Russians obviously would like to position themselves as key players in this. I'm not sure how much leverage they actually have with regards to Iran.
DAVID SPEEDIE: The whole question of shipping Iranian material, of course, is fraught. Over the course of history, it's not just Russia who's had this on and off again.
QUESTION: Esther Shamash.
On the question of whether there is a crisis, insofar as there is a crisis in U.S. and Israeli relations, what is the likelihood of that becoming really bad? And were it to become really bad in an imaginary scenario where Israel actually finds itself isolated, how do you see that playing out in the domestic Israeli politics? Would it make Israel a crazy dangerous country, or the opposite?
DOV WAXMAN: At the moment, what I've been describing is tensions that I would say fall short of a full-blown crisis. But I think we can see potentially on both the Iranian issue and the Palestinian issue the potential for a real crisis.
In the case of the Iranian issue, if a comprehensive agreement is reached, and the Israelis are not happy with this agreement, which, as I have said, is quite likely, then we're going to have a crisis.
And then an even worse crisis would obviously be if the Israeli reaction to a comprehensive agreement that they're not happy with is to carry out a unilateral military strike. That would be a game-changer. I don't think it's going to happen. I don't think Israel would do that against U.S. wishes. But that would be the worst crisis in the history of the U.S./Israeli relations.
But, even short of that, an agreement, or even if there is no agreement and a renewal of the interim agreement, I think we can see where this is heading. I think a crisis is somewhere down the line and not very far down the line.
On the Palestinian issue, I don't think there will be a crisis over the framework agreement, because I think Netanyahu is too shrewd. I think he'll maneuver in such a way that he will be seen to go along with Kerry even though effectively, he won't have to really make any major concessions.
But if the Palestinians, after this, decide to go back to the United Nations, which I think is likely, and decide right now, "We've given this American peace process a try. It's clear that it's not going to get us anywhere. And we are going to do what many within Ramallah have been calling for, which is to go and pursue this international strategy of getting full membership." Then what will the United States do? Will the Obama administration veto the admission of Palestine against the wishes of their European allies? Because the European countries will be backing that. If the Obama administration doesn't veto it, then that will be another crisis.
I think eventually the longer the Israeli/Palestinian conflict goes unresolved, the more pressure will be building on the United States to either put forward their own agreement—a comprehensive agreement—and say to both parties, "Are you going to sign here?" or, support, as I said, Palestinian efforts to gain membership in the United Nations.
There's a long way between this and Israel finding itself completely isolated. There's still wall-to-wall support in Congress, there's still a very influential pro-Israel lobby in the United States, American public opinion still supports Israel, although there is a growing partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans on this. So I think the United States is going to support Israel for a long time to come and that will remain strong.
Aside from the United States, though, you can see the diplomatic dangers of economic isolation, growing boycott, sanctions, divestments we're seeing. And I do think those are concerns. They're growing concerns in Israel, particularly coming from Europe.
The danger for the United States is, will it find itself in a position where it is Israel's only major international ally? I don't think that will lead the United States to abandon Israel, but I think it will lead to a growing debate in the United States over the cost of U.S. support for Israel.
And the longer the Israeli/Palestinian conflict goes on, the more that a two-state solution appears out of reach. That debate is already there, but it's going to grow, and I think the contours of that will be increasingly one where Democrats will be more critical and Republicans more sympathetic. In other words, it's going to become part of the partisan debate in Washington and that won't be good for Israel, obviously.
QUESTION: Catherine Dumait Harper. Thank you very much for a wonderful presentation. Two questions very quickly.
The first one has to do with the idea of sanctions against Israel, which is becoming a more and more common idea, even in this country.
Also, could you touch upon the role of the Saudis? The Saudis are very much against Iran, and they will never recognize Israel, but the two countries seem to be now in agreement on exactly the same topic, the same issue. So I would like you to touch upon that and also the relationship between the United States and the Saudis.
DOV WAXMAN: On the question of sanctions, we're a long way from any sort of sanctions, actual government sanctions. I don't think that is ever likely to happen in the United States, given the support in Congress and I don't think it is likely to happen from Europe either.
What we are seeing is boycotts and divestment. These are divestment initiatives not aimed at divesting from all Israeli companies, but from companies that do business or have plants in the occupied territories. What's been in the news is the SodaStream factory, which is based in one Israeli settlement. I think those efforts will continue. That is something that will continue to happen as long as the conflict goes unresolved.
I think that's something that is going to have an economic impact, especially coming from Europe. Here, it's much smaller scale. Europe is Israel's largest trading partner and it's in Europe that these attempts at boycott and divestment are much stronger and are gaining pace. I think we're likely to see that continuing.
Now there is a big debate within the Israeli government: How serious an economic threat is this? Those on the right kind of dismiss it. They say, "We can live with this." After all Israel has had a much longer boycott from the Arab world in the past that it lived with. I think if it comes from Europe, it will have serious impact and that is something that the more centrist ministers in the government are saying.
With regards to Saudi Arabia, one thing I would note, other than the fact that the Saudis and Israel see, basically, eye-to-eye on Iran, they also have shared concerns about the Obama administration's policies. Neither were, for instance, happy about the support for the overthrow of Mubarak. They generally feel that the Obama administration is being weak and indecisive in the region.
But one thing that's significant that the Saudis have done, which is very helpful, is that they have reiterated their commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative, which is, basically, a proposal made by the Arab League, initiated by the Saudis. Now it's backed up again by them, saying that in return for a comprehensive Israel/Palestinian agreement, the entire Arab League, the entire Arab world would establish full diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel. That's important. It's something that the current Israeli government has largely dismissed and ignored. But it says to Israelis and it says to the Israeli business community that there's real prospects here, not necessarily Israelis holidaying in Riyadh, but Israeli businessmen going there.
That's one reason, the negative, why the Israeli business community are concerned about Israel's economic isolation, sanctions, divestment. The other, the positive, they see the Saudis and other Gulf states say, "If you can resolve this issue we're open for business." That means that there is an important constituency in Israel—the business community—which is calling for the Netanyahu government to be more proactive than it has been on the peace process.
DAVID SPEEDIE: If I could just finish, Dov, by pressing you a little bit on Syria because you made a few very interesting comments en passant [in passing]. One being that Israel sees U.S. policy on Syria inter alia [among other things] as being weak, vacillating, whatever. On the other hand, I think you said Israel and Iran may not be that far apart in their view of what may happen in Syria. It's always seemed to me that Israel must have some pause when it thinks of a force the size of Syria in the way it is likely to develop, or has seemed to be likely to develop, with some of the key actors in the so-called opposition.
DOV WAXMAN: That's exactly right. Israel has been uncharacteristically quiet on Syria. They can't keep quiet with regards to the peace process with Israeli ministers and on the nuclear issue with Iran, but on Syria they are really pretty tight-lipped.
But I think, reading between the lines, their position has evolved somewhat from initially being quite supportive of the idea of a post-Assad Syria—Assad is not exactly a great friend to Israel—to growing concerns now that Syria is going to become, or is already, a magnet and a haven for Jihadists, and specifically al-Qaeda.
Just recently, an al-Qaeda plot to carry out an attack in Israel was interrupted by the Israelis. This is supposedly coming from al-Qaeda central, based in Pakistan, that they are focusing on Israel now, which is a new thing. And, of course, these Sunni jihadists have a loathing for the Persian Shiite Iranians, as well the Israeli Jews. It's the classic "the enemy of my enemy."
In that respect, the rise both in Syria and now in western Iraq is a concern that both countries have. There may be some feeling that it might be better to have Assad stay, from the Israeli point of view, to have some control, than have the danger of Syria turning into a failed state, and a haven for jihadists. And clearly, Iran is absolutely invested in the survival of the Assad regime.
DAVID SPEEDIE: You created a new aphorism—"the enemy of my enemy is my enemy."
Dov, you have covered in one brief hour an amazing amount of territory. I think the best compliment I can make is that you have neither filled us with cockeyed-optimism or plunged us into despair. So we wish you tremendous success in your new leadership venture at Northeastern, and thank you for being with us this evening.
DOV WAXMAN: Thank you.