Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer joined me to open the show today:
HH: So pleased to begin the program today on the day after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s amazing speech to the United States Congress. I’m joined by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to the program, great to have you on.
RD: Good to be with you, Hugh.
HH: First of all, I imagine that the reception accorded the Prime Minister was not a surprise to you. But I hope it was gratifying. It seems as though he swept most of the country in front of him.
RD: It was a very, very powerful speech at a critical time. And the Prime Minister spoke about an issue which as you know is the most important issue for Israel, and I think the most important issue for the world, and that is to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. And I think that the reception that the Prime Minister received yesterday in Congress for his speech, I think, speaks for itself.
HH: Now this afternoon at the New York Times, Peter Baker, who’s a very fine correspondent, wrote this. “While Netanyahu condemned President Obama’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran as dangerous lenient, one word was missing from his expansive speech – zero. It is a word he likes to use, one he has used before to describe his bottom line when it comes to an acceptable Iranian nuclear program, zero capability whatsoever. But its absence from Mr. Netanyahu’s carefully-prepared text was no accident, according to the Israeli camp, and it signaled a shift in position, however slight. Rather than insist that Iran be left with no centrifuges, and that it be barred from any enrichment of uranium as he has in the past, Mr. Netanyahu signaled that he could live with a modest capability, just not one as robust as Mr. Obama would permit.” Mr. Ambassador, is that correct?
RD: Well look, we do not have a seat at the negotiating table right now. The P5 + 1, the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, are making decisions that could affect the future of Israel. We we’re not at the negotiating table. Obviously, the position that Israel has always maintained is that Iran does not need any centrifuges. They don’t need any enriched uranium. They don’t need a heavy water facility. They don’t need an underground bunker to enrich uranium. They don’t need any of those to have a peaceful program. What the Prime Minister was doing was speaking to the leaders of the world and making very clear at a minimum what they should do. And he said there were two things. One was to have a much longer breakout time than the year that they’re talking about now, and the second thing, which was really new, Hugh, that the Prime Minister had not said before, which is to link any restrictions that are placed on Iran’s nuclear program, to link the lifting of those restrictions to change in behavior on the part of the Iranian regime, that if you make a deal which has restrictions, all these special restrictions for ten years, you should not lift those restrictions in ten years unless Iran has stopped its aggression in the region, stopped sponsoring terrorism around the world, and stop threatening to destroy the state of Israel. That should be, I think, very clear, or else what happens is Iran can get to the bomb not simply by violating the deal, but by in keeping the deal. And that’s what makes this deal so bad, and that’s why the Prime Minister put that statement forward. That was a statement that was made to the leading powers of the world who are negotiating things that could affect the future of Israel, and also the peace and security of the world.
HH: But it’s also true that the New York Times is a microphone to those same leaders, and that Peter Baker is writing that Israel is willing to accept some Iranian enrichment, some centrifuges. That throws a lot of the supporters of the Prime Minister’s position into confusion. Was that intended? I mean, are you, is the Prime Minister…
RD: No, you shouldn’t be in any confusion. Israel’s position on that issue has not changed. What the Prime Minister is talking about, and it was a line in the speech, and he said well, if you do these two things, which is to extend the breakout time and also to ensure that these restrictions are not removed until Iran changes behavior, then we’re not going to like this deal. But at least Israel and the Arab states could live with it. Without that, he said at the very least, you need two things. Then you’re talking about is a completely different deal. And that’s why the Prime Minister very carefully chose the words that he chose. Again, Hugh, he is not actually doing the negotiations. He believes that the leading powers of the world, this P5 + 1 can be much tougher, can really increase the pressure, and get a much better deal. That was his statement yesterday.
HH: And Mr. Ambassador, you just said and the Arab states. I heard that implication in the speech yesterday that perhaps he was speaking on behalf of other countries in the region who did not have his access to the United States Congress. Is that correct? Has Israel discussed this with, for example, Egypt’s President al-Sisi or Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman?
RD: Well, I’m not going to speak about specific countries. I can tell you that we have very strong contacts throughout the Arab world. Some are known, some are not known. And Israelis and Arabs are actually on the same page when it comes to the Iranian issue. And when the Israelis and Arabs are on the same page, Hugh, that’s sort of the, that probably should, people should understand that that’s the ultimate no spin zone, no pun intended. That doesn’t happen that often, maybe once in a century, where you get Israelis and Arabs on the same page. And on this issue, they are. And I think there was actually some articles that were written in papers for the Middle East complimenting the Prime Minister on his speech. And I think that was very, very telling, because my guess is the concerns that the Prime Minister, it’s more than a guess, the concerns the Prime Minister raised yesterday are concerns that they have as well. They may do it silently, but the Prime Minister felt the responsibility to speak up. Look, Hugh, we are a people who are in living memory of a Holocaust, and attempt to annihilate us. We see the leader of Iran openly calling for Israel’s annihilation and working day after day to annihilate Israel. They have three terror tentacles, Iran, around Israel with Hezbollah in Lebanon, through Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and now trying to set up shop for a third front against Israel on the Golan in the Syrian Golan. And so this is a regime that is calling and working for the destruction of Israel, and the Prime Minister said that the days when the Jewish people will be passive in the face of its genocidal enemies, those days are over. And he was very clear yesterday.
HH: I heard that loud and clear as well. I heard that. We played it a few times, and I discussed the speech with Peter Robinson, President Reagan’s speechwriter at the time of the Tear Down This Wall in great length yesterday. It was a powerful address. But I am surprised to see the very next day a walk back, in essence, saying we can accept some centrifuges. And how many is too many, Mr. Ambassador?
RD: That’s not what the Prime Minister said yesterday. He just said very clearly extend the breakout time. Don’t leave them with this vast nuclear infrastructure. He didn’t tell them what to leave them with. He just said you can’t do this deal, and explained why it’s a very bad deal. But he didn’t change Israel’s position that they don’t need any of this stuff to have a peaceful program. Look, there are 17 countries around the world who don’t enrich uranium on their soil, 17 countries who have nuclear power and peaceful nuclear energy. And Iran is awash with oil and gas. There’s no possible reason why they need it. But that wasn’t the focus of what the Prime Minister was speaking about yesterday. He was making very clear what the two major concessions are, the two major problems, and he told and expressed his hope that people would do what they had to do to make a much better deal, a deal that Israel may not like, but a deal that Israel could live with.
HH: So I’m going to go back, though, and I don’t mean to be undiplomatic with an ambassador, but I want to go to the Peter Baker thing, because it’s very expressed. He says, “Rather than insist that Iran be left with no centrifuges, and that it be barred from any enrichment of uranium as he has in the past, Mr. Netanyahu signaled that he could live with a modest capability, just not one as robust as Mr. Obama would permit.” That sounds half-pregnant to me, Mr. Ambassador.
RD: I told you, Hugh, I’ll say it again. Israel has not changed its position regarding what Iran needs. They don’t need any of this infrastructure to have a peaceful program. And the Prime Minister was addressing his remarks specifically to that audience of decision makers, and to do whatever they can do to make a much better deal. Israel always has to look at all the alternatives that it may face. And what the Prime Minister was expressing was his concern that these two concessions are going to lead to an awful deal, and he would like to see a much better deal. He didn’t say it’s a perfect deal, he didn’t say it’s a great deal. But Israel’s position regarding Iran is that they don’t need any of that nuclear infrastructure whatsoever, and that position hasn’t changed.
HH: Let me turn to the other issue that he raised yesterday. ISIS fights with butcher knives and captured weapons. Is he agreeing with the President that they’re the JV’s?
RD: No. He thinks they’re a force that people should be very, very concerned with. But there are two separate things you always have to look at – intentions and capability. When it comes to the intentions of ISIS, that’s clear. They’re the same thing as Iran. As he said, this is a battle that’s taking place between two sides of the militant, a people who want to establish a militant Islamic empire, you know, as he called it, the deadly Game Of Thrones between the two of them.
RD: But there’s a very big difference when you have ISIS, that has pickup trucks, it has knives, it has these captured weapons, and represents a threat as they rampage through Syria and Iraq with an Iran that has a huge army, that has, is building ICBM’s, and is developing nuclear weapons. I mean, if tomorrow ISIS was on the cusp of building nuclear weapons, they would be just as dangerous. And you have to question what are their capabilities.
HH: And a very quick question, Mr. Ambassador, he mentioned Khomeinist ideology. What is the tap root of this Islamist ideology and ISIS? I know what it is in Iran. It’s Khomeinist ideology. What is it in ISIS?
RD: Well, ISIS goes back to, you know, a view of the world that wants to take it back to the 7th Century. So they may believe they want to take the world back to the 7th Century, and Iran may take it back to a hidden imam from the 10th Century or 9th Century. Maybe they’ll meet somewhere in the 8th Century, but Hugh, for you and me, there’s no place there, for us, not for America, for Israel, not for Jews, not for Christians, and not for Muslims who don’t support their fanatic creed, who don’t want to fight, like Erdogan.
HH: Ambassador Ron Dermer, always a pleasure to speak with you, thanks for spending time with us today on the day after a magnificent speech. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
End of interview.