Interview: Ehud Ya’ari
One of Israel’s most respected Middle East experts, Ehud Ya’ari has long been a television commentator on Israel’s Channel 2. He is associate editor of The Jerusalem Reportand Lafer International Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The 63-year-old author of eight books on the Arab-Israel conflict, including Intifada (Simon & Schuster), coauthored with the late military correspondent Ze’ev Schiff, is in demand as a lecturer.
Q. Is the nuclear threat from Iran truly an existential danger to Israel? How does it compare to the situation that preceded the war in 1967?
A. It’s an existential threat of a different type, much more acute than the one Israel faced in ’67. In acquiring nuclear weapons—which I don’t think is going to happen tomorrow, or even next month or next year—the Iranians would create a new Middle East reality in which Israel would be greatly disadvantaged. Were worse to come to worst, Israel has very good answers to the possibility of the Iranians [getting] their bomb. Meanwhile, I am a great believer in the capability of the international community to bring about effective pressures and sanctions to convince them to stop or freeze their activities short of the nuclear threshold.
Q. Can Iran be stopped?
A. I do not believe they have taken the final historic decision to go for this weapon, though the Iranians are determined to get as close as possible to a bomb—not an easy project. It’s…hard to secure the right materials in the right quantities and quality, weaponizing it, casting it into a workable missile warhead, being able to deliver the missile accurately. I have high regard for Iran’s scientific capabilities, yet there are some important elements still missing in their nuclear puzzle.
Q.Yet they are trying to do so full speed ahead?
A. I do not doubt their determination but I believe Iran’s leaders are debating whether to…stop short and make a deal, which would mean driving a hard bargain—even if they intend to cheat against the Americans and everyone else. What’s happening now is an attempt by world powers, led by the U.S., to determine the possible price…for such a freeze. One major consideration for [the Iranians] is that they fully realize an Iranian bomb would encourage a Sunni Arab bomb…. Egypt has renewed its own nuclear program, which had been frozen for 30 years. The Iranians must take Arab reactions into account. Lots of other players in the neighborhood, some with primitive nuclear devices, is not the environment in which Iran’s mullahs…wish to exist.
Q. Which of Israel’s enemies presents the greatest threat?
A. The main challenge comes from the Palestinians. Although [the conflict] has a military dimension, the real nature is a political one. They keep collapsing into our unwilling arms. In such a total collapse, the Palestinians are edging toward concluding that they are not really interested in statehood in the ’67 boundaries or similar. The Egyptians would not “catch” Gaza and will not let them collapse in their direction. Jordan will not, either, so their collapse into anarchy is our No. 1 threat.
Q. Next on the danger list?
A. The Arab states made a policy decision 30 years ago to opt out of confrontation with Israel. The huge Arab armies have consistently abided by this decision since the Yom Kippur War [in 1973]. Only the small actors are still engaged: Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Palestinians. As Iran begins carving out a new regional role, possibly armed with nuclear weapons and missiles, this changes the equation. They can introduce many disadvantages for Israel…. While Iran is not especially expansionist, it does use…Hezbollah as its long extended arm. [Hezbollah] can be contained mainly through its growing immersion into Lebanese politics, and I do see relative quiet on our northern border for [now]. Al-Qaeda has never seen Israel as a prime target.
Q. Some Arab leaders whisper occasionally about a thaw, or even peace with Israel, but can any one of them survive the radical Arab street should they act on these ideas?
A. Some Arabs have opted for a cold peace: Egypt following the Yom Kippur War, for example. Syria would love a similar cold peace, but the question is whether the price would be acceptable to Israel. We can’t afford to give up the Golan Heights and have Syria remain in an intimate military alliance with Iran, maintain its ambitions to control Lebanon and support Palestinian extremists. A so-called peace of that kind would be a nonstarter for Israel.
Q. You have met many Arab leaders over the years. Who was most stereotype-shattering?
A. President Sadat was surprisingly accessible. He gave me his home phone number, which rang in his bedroom and was often picked up by his wife. He was extremely warm and outgoing and surprised me with his determination to pursue peace despite all odds—not because he loved Israel, but strictly due to domestic considerations. At the opposite extreme was Yasser Arafat…a true evil genius. I was frequently surprised by his cynicism and, often, brutality to his own people. For example, he sent a delegation of some of his top people…to the initiation ceremony of the Geneva peace process. On the day they returned, he dispatched other people to stone [the delegation] and beat them up as they crossed back into Palestinian Authority-controlled territory. I went to Ramallah to ask him: ‘How could you possibly do that?’ He looked me in the eye, with a glimmer of humor, and said, ‘These are my children and these also are my children.’
Q. Few Israelis saw value in last summer’s release of a Lebanese terrorist as well as four other militants for the remains of two soldiers. What is your take?
A. We had no choice. The deal was carried out for the sake of the families who, yes, already knew their loved ones were dead. Yet we could not as a state have two more families coping with a Ron Arad-type mystery. We owed it to them to close the file forever. And if the price was to release one bloody murderer after 30 years in prison to become a national hero in Lebanon, then so be it.
Q. Was it seen as a moment of weakness for Israel?
A. We don’t want to follow the rules of the Middle East. If the Arabs choose to interpret this exchange as weakness, I couldn’t care less. [The released prisoner Samir] Kuntar even admitted publicly that Israel is really something for sparing no effort to bring its sons home. It was the right thing to do.
Q. As zero hour approaches for the American presidential elections, what observations can you offer?
A. Here’s what I hope and expect from the next president, be it McCain or Obama. I want him to understand that a final-status deal between Israel and the Palestinians is impossible at this moment and for as far as I can see. [The question is] whether the Americans are willing to lead the effort to secure some kind of comprehensive, solid arrangement that may be less than full peace, yet with continuing negotiations toward final status. We need an armistice, not simply a cease-fire, a new political regime. This cannot be done without the U.S., not by Israel, the Palestinians, the other Arabs or the European Union.
Q. What could break the logjam?
A. Israel’s No. 1 priority today is to corner the Palestinians into declaring a Palestinian state within provisional boundaries—an interim arrangement more than a full peace agreement. If this does not happen, I think you will hear the whistle of the two-state solution leaving the station. I would not give the Palestinians a state for free, but I don’t want the concept to fade away. Most of them today have lost interest and certainly enthusiasm for the two-state solution, and this is dangerous. We are not interested in a one-state solution with the Palestinians inside, which would lead us next to a three-state formula involving a combination of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan bound together loosely somehow in a loving embrace of a Palestinian state sandwiched between them.