On February 15, Jonathan Schanzer, the editor of inFocus, interviewed Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor. Ambassador Meridor was appointed in 2006 by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He served as the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization from 1999-2005. Ambassador Meridor has also served as an advisor to the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel.
iF: As we celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, please tell us about the state of the American-Israeli relationship.
SM: It is extraordinarily good. I have followed this relationship for decades. I have been engaged with some aspects of this relationship for all of my life.
I was extremely happy to learn that I would be the ambassador here, where the ties are amazing, in terms of the closeness, the sharing of values and interests, and the intensity of exchanges in so many areas.
When you look at it on a macro level, when you look at the challenges facing America and Israel today, you will see a major overlap. When you look at it at the micro level, the number of contacts on a daily basis between our different agencies, from intelligence and defense to policy and economy, I would not be surprised if there are thousands of contacts a day between Americans and Israelis on a variety of issues.
When you poll Israelis, you find that this relationship is immensely appreciated by Israeli society. This is one of the most important assets to Israelis. And I am happy to see in America from public opinion polls that most Americans-a really impressive majority on a bi-partisan basis-see Israel as a close ally, if not the closest ally of the United States.
iF: ARE ISRAEL AND AMERICA BOTH FIGHTING THE SAME ENEMY IN THE FORM OF RADICAL ISLAM? HOW IS THIS DISCUSSED BETWEEN THE AMERICAN AND ISRAELI ADMINISTRATIONS?
SM: If you took a group of American strategists and asked them independently, “name the most important challenge for America,” then asked the same thing to a separate group of Israelis, you would see that most people in both groups would identify many of the same issues.
Unquestionably, when you look at the major challenges facing both America and Israel, we are protecting our societies from an increase in terror largely from Muslim extremists. Then you go beyond that to the threat of nuclear weapons, in the hands of state and non-state actors. These are things that we would really not want our children to confront.
The sharing of intelligence is very intense between Israel and the United States. This includes analyzing the meaning of the knowledge you have and developing policies together.
iF: CRITICS CHARGE THAT THE SO-CALLED “ISRAEL LOBBY” IS TOO STRONG, OR THAT IT HAS TOO MUCH INFLUENCE. HOW DO YOU RESPOND?
SM: The reality is that Israel and its relationship here has been appreciated by a very wide spectrum in America. When you ask the American people, who is the most important strategic ally for America, the answer is Israel. If you ask people about their feelings about Israel, it is extremely positive. Israel is up there with Great Britain, Australia, and Canada, and no others come close. To suggest that this is some manipulative effort from one group or another is, to me, ridiculous.
I am not saying that lies cannot be dangerous. We have seen in our history, and the world has seen, how sometimes people who are not presenting the truth cause major damage.
But the truth of the matter is, American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC] has as much power as other groups in America. The Christian, Jewish, and non-denominational groups who share the same sentiments about Israel are really representative of both the interests and the widespread views of America.
iF: WHAT ABOUT THE ROLE OF THE ARAB LOBBY? WITH THE INCREASE IN THE PRICE OF OIL, AND INTENSE FOCUS ON ARAB AFFAIRS, HOW HAS THIS AFFECTED YOUR JOB?
SM: To give you the short answer, it has no affect at all.
To give you a longer answer, the issue of dependence on oil, both from a strategic and environmental standpoint, is extremely undesirable, to use a diplomatic term. I would even add that it is dangerous to all of us. This needs to count as a very high priority for both our countries. We need to make every reasonable effort to reduce the level of dependency on this resource.
I am very proud to say that Israel was the pioneer in solar energy and is selling the products of this development in the United States. Israel is now dedicating more and more of its entrepreneurship, know-how, and scientific base to look for oil substitutes from bio-fuels to batteries. We are even considering a major project in Israel that would, if launched, make Israel the first in the world to move in a serious way from automobiles using oil to automobiles using batteries, charged at night. This could help to free us from the tyranny of oil and make the world around us a cleaner place.
iF: MANY PEOPLE ARGUE THAT THE UNITED NATIONS HAS DONE MORE HARM THAN GOOD TO ISRAEL OVER THE YEARS. DO YOU AGREE?
SM: Asking this question goes beyond the United Nations. In a way we were all born in Auschwitz. What continues to frame our thinking is the memory of the Jewish people abandoned, and the entire world knowing, or knowing enough, and turning the other way. There were a few that took a stand. We will never forget them, but they were too few. If you want to really understand Israeli identity, there is something very strong that tells us that we should always be able to defend ourselves.
Many international forums have not done enough to convince us that the world has changed. I think that if you ask our U.N. ambassador, he would say that there is improvement. However, there is a long, long way for us to go to convince decent people that their criticisms of Israel are not impartial, or apply double standards.
America is a country that is not only driven by yesterday’s interest or today’s earning. This country is significantly driven by values with a responsibility to mankind. This is one reason for the importance of the relationship between the United States and Israel, and an example of how fortunate the world is to have the United States.
I don’t want to think how the world would look without the United States. From World War I, to World War II, to bringing down the tyranny of communism, to the threats we face today, America doesn’t just stand for itself, it stands for the world. I think Americans can and should be proud that they are serving such a role for humanity.
iF: DO YOU SEE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM?
SM: If you apply a double standard, if you are a treating the Jewish people and the Jewish state differently than you would any other nation or state, then you are discriminating. What drives this behavior? I think it’s reasonable to assume there are elements that are anti-Semites, and who find it easier to direct their anti-Semitism to the one clear address of the Jewish people. This does not suggest that every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite. But this does suggest that many anti-Semites express this through anti-Zionism.
iF: WE KNOW THAT IRAN CONSTITUTES A POTENTIAL EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO ISRAEL. WHAT ABOUT TERRORISM?
SM: Terror could become existential, too. If terror can hit enough times at the heart of your nation, the heart of your society, your central nervous system, and hit enough people, it may become existential. Just imagine, if we were to have Hizbullah attacking us by terror in the north, with Hamas from Gaza, and God-forbid, the same situation in the West Bank. In that case, 95 percent of the Israeli population would be under constant terror threat by rocket fire. Given the size of Israel, conventional weapons under these conditions can become an existential threat. This was the situation in 1967 before Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan.
Of course, non-conventional weapons can also be an existential threat. When [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, said that Israel would not be able to survive a large-scale non-conventional attack, we listened very carefully. Non-conventional weapons could become, especially considering the size of Israel, an existential threat.
Finally, the most major threat is nuclear terror. This is why Iran is such a threat if it acquires nuclear weapons. If you look at their modus operandi, of acting through proxies like Hamas or Hizbullah, and think about those terrorist groups with nuclear capacity, it would be a world nightmare. So this combination, either directly from Iran, or with nuclear capacity falling into the hands of terrorist organizations, non-state actors, and proxies, this is nothing short of a nightmare.
iF: IS IRAN THE PRIMARY CONCERN FOR ISRAEL RIGHT NOW?
SM: I would say that the primary concern for Israel right now is to ensure that Iran does not get nuclear weapons, because of its dangerous nature, and its combination of religious fanaticism and terror-mastering.
We hope very much to work with Arab countries that share with us the threat of Iran, and are hopefully interested, as much as we are, to resolve the conflict between us and the Palestinians. We hope they will move from just sharing a threat – from sitting on the fence, if you will – to becoming more proactive. They could really work with us, in those two areas.
On the Iranian front, they could help America if they were to bring their financial leverage to bear. They could also help the Palestinian Authority and Israel by contributing to peace, talking differently to their societies, changing their schoolbooks, and supporting the moderates in the Palestinian camp. They could also unequivocally oppose Hamas and other terrorists, and encourage both sides to compromise.
iF: DOES ISRAEL AGREE WITH THE U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE (NIE) ON THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM RELEASED LAST YEAR?
SM: By all accounts, including the NIE, Iran is closer to the bomb. It is clear by the NIE that they were on the way, they were already working on it, and no one knows if they stopped. No one denies that Iran continues to enrich uranium, and they may be a hundred times more advanced today than a few years ago. And you have in recent weeks, more missile testing. No one in his right mind will say that Iran is not closer to nuclear capacity than before. This is a development that has historic consequences. This is why everyone should make every effort to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons.
iF: AFTER 60 YEARS, SOME PEOPLE QUESTION WHETHER THE ZIONIST SPIRIT IS STILL ALIVE IN ISRAEL. IS POST-ZIONISM STILL AN ISSUE, OR DO YOU BELIEVE THAT WAS MERELY A TEMPORARY TREND?
SM: If anybody needs proof for what runs in our veins, in our hearts, and in our minds, they should look to how our younger generation responded to the call of war in 2006.
Twenty years after people were talking about post-Zionism and fatigue, young people were rushing from their classrooms, leaving their laptops, and reporting to their units at the level of close to 100 percent. They volunteered and some gave their lives. Volunteers rushed from the center of Israel to the north to help. If anyone had questions about the inner compass of the Israelis, the last war was a very powerful indication of this.
This is also true for how our society dealt with the second intifada. For four years, there was an unprecedented wave of terror attacks in malls, bus stations, restaurants, discos, and cafes. Yet, the level of resilience and perseverance and mutual responsibility was extraordinary.
Is there a challenge? Yes there is a great challenge. We cannot close our eyes. We cannot go to sleep. We have to be on our toes 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, we always have to use one of our hands to defend ourselves, otherwise we will not survive. There is a story among historians that there is almost a natural behavior in society that the third generation gets fatigue. We cannot afford fatigue in any generation.
We invest in our youth, time and again, and we prove to them time and again that we are not missing any opportunities for peace. Even when the odds are not positive, we make the effort because they may be the ones to be asked to sacrifice their lives for Israel, which is an unbelievable level of commitment.
iF: WHAT ELSE SHOULD THE READERS OF INFOCUS KNOW ABOUT THE STATE OF ISRAEL AS IT TURNS 60 THIS YEAR?
SM: Israel is an incredible success story by every measure. There is no parallel or precedent in the history of mankind. If you look at where we were after 2,000 years of exile, after the Holocaust, and where we are today, it is almost a miracle. If you look at our population growth, we were maybe 60,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Now we’re close to 6 million Jews in the land of Israel after 60 years. This is unique for most societies, this positive growth rate. And we will continue to grow and maintain a free, open, and equal society with strong families, which is a unique phenomenon everyone can be proud of.
Look at our economy and our achievements. We had a GDP of $3 billion 60 years ago. Now we have a GDP of $170 billion. Israeli achievements are seen in every area of high tech. Israelis created the first cellular phone, the first voice mail, AOL instant messaging, and the USB computer key. So many things are Israeli-made and Israeli-developed. If you go to a pharmacy or hospital, so many people are cured with Israeli developments.
We are extremely thankful to America for being such a great partner to this historic achievement, and we only hope Americans feel as much pride in what they have achieved as Israelis feel for their achievements.