A group of experts and former Israeli officials discussed Israel’s current challenges and opportunities and the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
On September 23, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a panel discussion, “Peace and War: The View from Israel” with Amos Yadlin, Director of the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv and former chief of Israeli military intelligence; Gilead Sher, Head of the Center for Negotiations, the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv and former Israeli Chief Peace Negotiator; and Michael Doran, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center, Brookings Institution. Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar at the Wilson Center, moderated the event. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, provided opening remarks.
Miller described the current situation in the Middle East as a complex, “head-spinning series of events,” referring to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the potential dialogue between the United States and Iran, and the political instability across the region, particularly in Egypt. Miller discussed the United States’ major concerns in the region and pointed to the fact that they align with Israel’s key foreign policy concerns. He asked each panelist to describe the situation in Israel from their perspective.
Yadlin described Israel’s four major political concerns: establishing a non-nuclear Iran; pursuing a peaceful solution in Syria; supporting a stable and democratic Egypt; and continuing negotiations with Palestinians. However, he reiterated that the Israeli prime minister’s main priority is Iran. He outlined the answers to four issues regarding Iran: 1) Israel could carry out a surgical operation targeting Iran’s nuclear sites; 2) Iran with a bomb is more dangerous than Israel bombing Iran; 3) There may exist an alternative avenue that could be pursued; and 4) Israel must ensure it has the support of the United States in whatever endeavor it pursues. Yadlin viewed the recent election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a positive sign and an indicator that U.S. sanctions against Iran have been successful. Regarding negotiations with Palestinians, Yadlin believes that the chance of achieving peace or resolving the conflict in the next nine months is very low, but he hopes that a plan for an interim agreement can be developed.
Sher echoed the point that there are low odds for coming to a conclusive agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Although surveys of Palestinians and Israelis show support on both sides for a two-state solution, most people also feel that it is unattainable. Sher advocated dialogue and a gradual approach, but cautioned that all parties must recalibrate their expectations and focus on what is attainable—instead of a two-state solution, he said that a two-state “reality” is what can be reached. He believes that it is necessary to set clear objectives and modest benchmarks, and that even a partial agreement on the issues of borders, settlements, statehood, security, water, and the economy, among other issues, is better than no agreement at all. One step he proposed was for Israel to make an effort to identify moderate Arab partners in the region, and to have an internal, Israeli-Jewish discourse to reflect on what Zionism means in the modern context.
Doran stated that the United States’ priority in the region is Iran, but that because of the United States’ geographic detachment, Iran does not seem to pose an imminent concern for the American public. He also agreed with the opinion that in order to deter Iran from developing its nuclear capabilities further, there must be a credible threat of a military response from the United States or its allies. Doran also pointed to the ability of European powers to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.
By Samaa Ahmed, Middle East Program
- Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar
- Head of the Center for Negotiations, the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv and former Israeli Chief Peace Negotiator
- Roger Hertog Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center, Brookings Institution