Jerusalem – With peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority underway after years of impasse, the eyes of the world are once again intensely fixated on the Holy Land. Though a degree of optimism is percolating at the prospect of final status negotiations for a two-state solution, outside of Jerusalem the State of Israel is facing potential armed conflict on nearly every one of its borders.
In such a hostile neighbourhood, it is often difficult to determine the Israeli government’s official position on the myriad regional issues affecting the Jewish State. The reality is that hot button topics such as the Syrian civil war, Iran’s nuclear weapons program and Hizbullah’s involvement in propping up Assad, are all so interconnected that the Israeli government refuses to comment for fear of complicating the situation.
With this perpetually messy Middle Eastern picture in mind, a visit to the Prime Minister’s Office in downtown Jerusalem for an interview with Benjamin Netanyahu’s international spokesman, Mark Regev, provides much-needed insight into Israel’s coldly calculated diplomatic positions.
Though the formal announcement of resumed peace talks with the Palestinian Authority would be made by U.S. Secretary State John Kerry the day after this interview was conducted, Mr. Regev – Israel’s foremost government representative, public face, and official defender of the State of Israel – offered insight on nearly every issue affecting Israel today.
Robert Onley: Mark, thank you for this opportunity. My title for this interview is: “Fortress Israel in the Collapsing Middle East.” The big picture is this: when you look on a map of the region, all the countries around Israel are swallowed up in instability, but at the center of them all is Israel: secure, solid, and stable.
Mark Regev: More than that, what you’re seeing now in the region is unprecedented violence, tyranny, extremism, fanaticism, and Israel stands out as a stable, prosperous, free democratic country. For many years people brought a theory that the reason there’s problems in the Middle East is because of Israel or because of the Israel-Palestinian issue. Obviously we want peace with the Palestinians, we really want peace — we yearn for peace with the Palestinians. But those theories that the reason — in that large expanse of land, from Morocco on the Atlantic shore through to Afghanistan — the reason there’s instability, has got nothing to do with Israel. Unfortunately, you have a whole series of failed states, failed political systems, failed economies, and I think finally more people are beginning to understand, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said when he spoke at the U.S. Congress in 2012, “Israel’s not what’s wrong about the Middle East, Israel’s what’s right about the Middle East.”’
Robert: Given negative global attitudes and opinions about Israel, and looking at current events with near total instability around the region, what do you feel is your primary responsibility as the Prime Minister’s spokesman?
Mark: First of all, Israel must defend our country against those who would seek to harm us, and today that’s first and foremost the Iranian nuclear threat. Though there are other threats closer to our borders, whether it’s the terrible situation in Syria, or Hizbullah or Hamas, so [we must] obviously protect our people, that’s the first obligation of any country, to protect our people. Unfortunately there are very real threats out there, they are threats that you cannot ignore. At the same time, you want to see [if] it is possible to achieve peace with your neighbours and always to extend the hand for peace and negotiations and to try to move on, to build a better region for all its inhabitants. Thirdly, while doing that, while acting to defend and protect your people, while trying to achieve a new set of peaceful relations, you’ve got to build your country.
And here it is that Israel has much that we can be proud of, because if you look at Israel’s history, in many ways it’s an amazing success story. Today Israel is relatively prosperous, Israel is strong and secure, we can be proud of our democracy here, there are many things that we can look back and say, ‘these have been important achievements’. That doesn’t mean we should be complacent about the challenges we face internally — we have some serious challenges, but we can, I think, from the experience of the last few decades, look to the future with confidence that we can deal with the challenges that we have.
Robert: In your interviews, often TV hosts can get combative with you. You’re very good at adapting to what they’re proposing and giving them an alternative. To what extent do you feel your job is to correct the global narrative about Israel, rather than establish it?
Mark: My job is to be Israel’s voice as best as I can. And the job of journalists is often to ask you difficult questions, and for me, it is a matter of great pride to be able to represent my country. It’s not a job that you take for granted, it’s a job that you feel has importance. I enjoy it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.
Robert: Turning to Iran, you mentioned that it’s the greatest threat facing Israel. During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent appearance on CBS he suggested that Israel might be ready to stop Iran. What is Israel’s greatest fear if it feels forced to conduct unilateral air strikes?
Mark: I’m not going to go into operational details, but I can say the following: in the past the Jewish people were defenseless against threats, and we paid a price, a very severe price for being defenseless. Today we have an independent, sovereign state and the ability to defend ourselves, and that’s something that we take very seriously. We also take seriously the threats coming from Iran. Every time an Iranian leader opens his mouth, and because it’s Iran it’s always a ‘him’ and never a ‘her’ because that’s the nature of the Iranian regime, they say, “Israel has to be wiped off the map” or that, “Israel is a cancer that must be removed.”
Israel would be irresponsible not to take those threats seriously. The marriage between that very extreme regime [in Iran] and the world’s most dangerous weapons is something that we have to avoid at all costs. Now Israel would like to see a peaceful solution, but one way or another, we cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. We are very serious about that. Deadly serious.
Robert: Shifting to settlements and the two-state solution in its broadest term. Many Western commentators make the claim that Israel’s settlements are the primary roadblock to peace. If you could set the record straight: what is the truth about Israel’s settlement policy? What is it about the realities of the West Bank that these commentators might be misunderstanding?
Mark: The issue of the settlements has to be resolved in peace talks with the Palestinians. The issue of settlements, along with all the other issues that we have disagreements on, [negotiations are] the place where they should be resolved. What’s clearly not true, is those who say that the reason there isn’t peace is because of settlements. The best example of that is Gaza, where Israel took down all of the settlements and evacuated them. Did we get peace in return? On the contrary. In fact, if you want to look back even further, those people who say its all about the settlements, well, before 1967, was there peace? The answer is clear: no.
Prime Minister Netanyahu often says, “Some people have historic memory that goes back to breakfast.” Only someone who really didn’t have any historical knowledge could say that the settlements are the reason there’s no peace. I’d even go further: some people say that the reason there is no peace is because there’s no Palestinian state. But we [Israel] have been ready for a Palestinian state and peace and reconciliation for decades. Back in the 1930’s we were ready for two states for two peoples. [We were ready] when the UN put partition on the table in the late 1940’s. The problem is not the Palestinian state — we’re ready for that. The problem is: are our neighbours ready to accept the Jewish State in any borders? Because if they are, we can have peace tomorrow.
Robert: Some of Israel’s strongest supporters are evangelical Christians, particularly from the United States and Canada. Across the Arab region we see Christian minorities being persecuted, alongside many religious minorities. In the West Bank, the Israel Defense Forces [have] bases to protect Jewish and other minorities. One challenge that some people fear in the two-state solution is how religious minorities might be affected. What is Israel’s policy toward the religious minorities that might end up inside potential Palestinian borders?
Mark: I can say the following. Inside Israel, [the] freedom of religion and the protection of the holy sites of all faiths is an integral part of our politics. In other words, we enshrine freedom of religion in our political system. Now, you are correct that in other parts of the region this is not the case, and in fact we’ve seen in some places growing intolerance, growing forces that oppose religious minorities [and] that want to see the Middle East just in one colour. That’s an issue: it’s an issue in the larger Muslim world, [and] it’s an issue in the Arab world. Of course, Israel has and will continue to be a bastion for religious freedom and hope our example can be of influence and an example to other countries in the region.
We’re aware of the threats. You’ve got to remember, we’ve also gone through it ourselves. There were thriving Jewish communities across the greater Middle East, in Iraq, in Syria, in Morocco, in Egypt… today what were once thriving communities [are] today, very, very small numbers of Jews in Arab countries, and they left, in part, also, because of intolerance and persecution.
Robert: The Israeli government will not comment on what’s going on in Egypt…
Mark: No, but Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel is saying the following: in relations with Egypt, the central issue is maintaining the peace, we have a peace treaty with Egypt, we want to see that treaty honoured, maintained, and that’s our focus.
Robert: Briefly, could you comment on the relationship with the now ousted Morsi government? What is the difference between the two regimes?
Mark: I don’t want to go into anything that could be perceived as interfering in internal Egyptian affairs, except to say to all Egyptians: Israel believes that peace has been good for both our countries, that peace has been a cornerstone for stability in our region, and that we have to protect the peace and maintain the peace.
Robert: Turning to Syria, how would you characterize Israel’s relationship with Assad prior to the civil war?
Mark: Assad was, and is, one of the few Arab leaders that was formally in the Iranian orbit. The Syrian Regime under Assad and his father was a bastion of support for Hamas and Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad, the most radical and extreme anti-Israel groups. Assad never was, never has been, someone that we could look on as a stabilizing or moderate influence.
Robert: What would Israel’s position be with respect to potential Western or NATO intervention in Syria?
Mark: We’re being very careful not to give public advice. We think that a public position by Israel would be detrimental. We will respect the decisions made in Washington and other Western capitals. For obvious reasons, we have very special concerns, specifically the large stockpile of weapons that are in Syria, and to ensure that in the framework of a fragmenting Syria those weapons don’t get into the hands of some very dangerous actors, first and foremost, Hizbullah.
Robert: Speaking of weapons and Syria’s relationship with Russia in particular: how would you describe Israel’s broader relationship with Russia, in the context of what’s happening in Syria and Iran and the nuclear issue?
Mark: We have a dialogue with Russia, the Prime Minister recently just met with [Russian President] Putin in Russia, and the Russians are aware of our concerns.
Robert: One issue that’s not on the front burner at all, is Israel’s recent discovery of enormous natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean. Does Israel foresee potential conflict over these reserves?
Mark: No. There’s no reason to have conflict over the reserves. It’s interesting, because for the first 65 years of our independence, we were sure that we were a country that was not blessed with the abundant energy supplies that our neighbours had, and the fact that 65 years after our independence we’ve discovered large energy reserves is a miracle. It’s a good thing.
What’s especially good is that for 65 years we’ve developed a country on the basis that we don’t have natural energy reserves, and so we had to invest in our people, in our education, we had to be competitive, we had to be good without natural energy reserves. Now today we’ve got natural energy reserves and so that’s like the icing on the cake. Who would’ve thought ten or twenty years ago that Israel would be becoming an exporter of energy? That’s the reality, and that’s important for Israel.
You’ve got to remember that the Israeli taxpayer has burdens that no other taxpayer on this planet has, a defence burden that cannot be ignored. Energy exports will make us have the ability to earn revenues that will allow Israel to do things for our people that they deserve, whether its reduced taxation, more money for social services, increasing funding for education and so forth, it’s a good thing. And it could also be a vehicle for regional cooperation.
Robert: Do you foresee that these energy revenues could be part of some sort of peace agreement with the Palestinians?
Mark: We’re open to have gas cooperation with different countries in the region.
Robert: After the recent [Israeli military] operation in the Gaza Strip, and seven years ago Israel’s war with Hizbullah in the north, plus instability in Syria today: does the prospect of a multi-front war function into decision making in Israel?
Mark: Obviously, we’ve been attacked by Hizbullah in the north, Hamas in the south, and we are aware that they could do both at the same time. It’s the job of our defence establishment to prepare for worst case scenarios, they would be irresponsible if they didn’t make such preparations, and it’s the job of other people to work for the best case scenarios, which is: can we have peace and stability and work with our neighbours more effectively?
That’s our challenge: to prepare for the worst, and to work for the best. That’s why we’re 100% behind the recent American effort to try to get the peace process back on track with the Palestinians, we hope the Palestinians will be ready to talk peace. We’re aware of the threats out there, whether its Hamas or Hizbullah, and we have to make sure that we can deal with those threats if need be.
Robert: Canada has been one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in recent years, what does that mean for Israel in the world today and for Israel going forward?
Mark: Canada has always been a good friend of Israel and today more so than ever. Prime Minister Netanyahu considers Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, not only a good friend of Israel, but a good personal friend. There’s no doubt that Canada has taken a moral leadership [position] that we appreciate and [that] we think is an example for others. Sometimes you go to an international forum and there’s the standard anti-Israel resolution, not balanced, supported by the Arab countries and some of their automatic allies, [and] Canada will stand up and say, “This is wrong and we refuse to support it”. In Canada you see moral leadership, standing up for the truth, and Israel appreciates it greatly.
(Special thanks to Mark Regev, David Baker, Jacob Waks and John Hansen for facilitating the interview.)