Former Israeli U.N. Ambassador Dore Gold
HH: Joined now by Ambassador Dore Gold. He is the former Ambassador of Israel to the United Nations, from 1997-1999. He is now the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affair, which you’ve got to make bookmarked, at www.jcpa.org, and a foreign policy advisor to Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and just a senior Israeli diplomat. Ambassador Gold, welcome.
DG: My pleasure.
HH: Can you give us your assessment, as we close the second week of this war, of conditions currently? What has surprised you? And what do you make of the Rice mission as it unfolds today?
DG: Well, I’ll mention two things in terms of current developments. Israel has been very careful about the use of force, perhaps too careful in the opening two weeks of the war. It has relied, initially, on overwhelming air power, which was effective in Kosovo when you had six weeks to operate or more, and you had the full air power of NATO. In a theater of warfare like Lebanon, where much of the Hezbollah capacity is hardened in deep bunkers, air wars take much longer than perhaps originally thought. Israel has also had to deal with the situation whereby Hezbollah is using the civilian population of Lebanon as a shield, particularly in the Shiite area. And in the Shiite areas, you have arrangements on the ground where Hezbollah would build added rooms to houses that they could store missiles in them. This has made the effort of the Israeli Air Force to take out missiles without causing civilian casualties extremely, extremely difficult. As a result of all this, this war is going to take longer than expected, and perhaps that’s a bit of a surprise to many Israelis.
HH: Now I’ve received an e-mail from a veteran of Israel Defense Force, a friend of mine, Yoni Tidi, who runs a blog. This is no way to fight, he says. I can’t even call it a war, because it reminds me of a circus. Five soldiers wounded just a few meters from the border overnight. After 12 days of combat, we do not really control one meter of Lebanon. What in the world are the leaders of Israel doing? Do you sense that that is a widespread sentiment, Ambassador Gold?
DG: Well, I think everyone’s aware in Israel of the potential strength of the IDF. But we are seeing very small reserve mobilization. We’re seeing battalions being called up, not divisions, not even brigades. And therefore, there is a certain amount of frustration among a lot of the experienced military people. There’s also been a problem in the past. You know, Israel has had what’s called the Lebanon complex. Israelis were very happy to leave Lebanon in the year 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak unilaterally pulled out. And when the war started, you had a lot of politicians saying well, we don’t want to go back into the mud, and get stuck in the mud of Lebanon again. But you know, maybe it’s better to go in, in overwhelming force, for two, three weeks, get the job done, and get out. And perhaps being cautious is just simply taking this much longer. We’re getting the support of the United States. President Bush’s administration understands this is not just a war for the security of Israel’s north. This is the opening round of a war between Iran and the West, and therefore, if Israel manages to set the stage for the defeat of Hezbollah in Lebanon, that won’t only improve Israeli security, but it’ll be a major blow to Iran’s effort to achieve regional hegemony.
HH: Ambassador Gold, if, in fact, a cease fire is imposed or negotiated, or whatever word, before Hezbollah has been crippled, and say with missiles in Tyre still intact, isn’t that a strategic loss for Israel?
DG: Well, I’d prefer to see Israel to be able to completely eliminate the Hezbollah military capacity. Whether we have the time to do that remains a question. I mean, this may take a month, two months. Who knows? But there’s a lot of pressure on the Bush administration to bring to bear pressure on Israel to bring this to an end quicker. If there’s hope of anybody who can get this done later on, it may be, actually, the forces in Lebanon that want to get rid of Hezbollah. Don’t forget, Hezbollah hasn’t just affected Israel. It has robbed Lebanon of its independence. It has introduced large amounts of Iranian forces and advisors who come in to strengthen Hezbollah. And it could be, if Secretary Rice manages to put together a coalition of internal politicians in Lebanon who want to see the Hezbollah removed, but they don’t have the guts alone to do it, and she puts that together with a force that comes into Lebanon, not to protect Israel’s borders…We’ll protect ourselves. But to help the Lebanese army dismantle Hezbollah, then we can have a revolutionary change without having to have Israeli forces go up to Beirut.
HH: I agree with that, but do you believe that that’s actually what’s happening? I see Hosni Mobarek, who’s been rather quiet, now calling for an immediate cease fire, the Saudi plan was premised on an immediate cease fire. That opening, that precious opening that may have been given to Israel by even Arab nations to deal with Hezbollah, may be closing. Has the Israeli government blown an opportunity, Dore Gold?
DG: I hope not. I hope that hasn’t happened, but I do see a potential, if this is handled right. I’m sure the Bush administration is being presented with two models. One model is to do exactly what I said, that is to work with the forces in Lebanon that want to get rid of Hezbollah, and to wed them up with international forces…I’m talking about forces that have the capacity to fight, that will strengthen the backbone of the Lebanese army. The alternative that they may be hearing about is to let Syria back into the back door of Lebanon, and let Syria create a new order there. That would be a disaster. That would be a roll back from President Bush’s great achievement in Lebanon with the cedar revolution, and the beginnings of an Arab democracy there. But I’m sure there are people pushing that line. There are reports this was raised to the administration, and reported in the New York Times today.
HH: Incredibly, Zbiegniew Brzenzski last night on Larry King made the argument that it was a mistake to have routed Syria, and perhaps it ought to be welcomed back. Your reaction, Dore Gold?
DG: Well, there have been two schools of thought in Washington about how to handle the Carter…the regimes of the Arab world. You know, one school of thought, that clearly from what you’re saying, Mr. Brzenzski represents, is the idea that the United States should do business with the tough guys, with the brutal dictatorships of the Middle East, and cut deals with them, because they’re in power. The alternative view is to say wait a minute, these dictatorships have denied the human rights of millions of people. They eventually, their fall, or host terrorist organizations, which is the case in Syria…don’t forget, it was Syria that has allowed Mujahideen to land in Damascus, and take buses to the Iraqi border to join the war against the United States in Iraq. And if you want to support regimes like that, then you’re going to have a very violent Middle East for many decades. If you want to bring about peaceful change, I think that’s the better way to go.
HH: I’m talking with former…Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N., Dore Gold, long-time senior diplomat for Israel, now president of the Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs. You mentioned earlier, Ambassador Gold, the world war with Iran, and I do believe that’s the defining factor here that is too little commented on. Over the weekend, it was revealed that President Ahmadinejead has sent letters to Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, Jacques Chirac, President of France. The German government has completely rejected the Ahmadinejead letter, though not revealing its source. Clearly, he has got a strategic plan for the world, that it does not involve Israel, and it involves its destruction. Should Iran be reprimanded by the U.N. for demanding the elimination of a nation member state within the U.N?
DG: That’s what should happen. I’ll tell you something else. Since he threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and happens to be a Jewish state, he is in violation of the Genocide Convention. You have a lot of people out there who talk about the Genocide Convention in Darfur, and in a variety of conflict areas in Rwanda. Well, here you have a guy, he hasn’t done it yet, doesn’t have nuclear capacity yet, but he’s talking about wiping Israel off the map. And according to the ’48 Genocide Conventions, the U.N. document, incitement of genocide is a violation of the Convention. He should be reprimanded, he should be brought before some kind of international court, if not the International Court in the Hague, and then maybe the International Criminal Court. And the man should be indicted.
HH: Do you believe that Iran is serious about taking steps to destroy Israel? If they had weapons of mass destruction, Dore Gold, do you suppose that they would try and supply them to Hezbollah?
DG: I tend to doubt that a country like Iran would supply weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist organization, unless it was in a very unusual fix. However, let’s be clear about Iran. If all Iran wanted to do was destroy Israel, then they would put all their defense dollars in weapons systems and have a range, from Iran to Israel. That’s a 1,300 kilometer range, Shihab-3 missile. But lo and behold, what we find about Iran, they’re developing a Shihab-4 with 2,000 kilometers. They just bought a missile from North Korea called the BM-25, with a 2,500 kilometer range. So they’re looking to shoot missiles way beyond Israel, right now into NATO members in Europe, and eventually towards the United States. And we know that, because they’re trying to build a space lift capability, which will give them multi-stage rockets that could strike the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. That’s what Iran’s trying to do. I think their short-term goal is to dominate the Persian Gulf, to use the Shiia minorites in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and elsewhere, to upset the balance of power there, and take over these oil producing areas, and then use their nuclear and missile capabilities to deter NATO action against them.
HH: Last week on this program, Mark Steyn, one of the most prolific writers and trenchant observers of international affairs, argued that perhaps the Arab nations are beginning to awaken, that their real threat has never been Israel, but is the renewal of a dominant Iran, that in fact governs them through terror far more than they’ve ever been intimidated by Israel. Do you agree that that might be happening, Dore Gold? And doesn’t that represent, if it is, a revolutionary development in the Middle East?
DG: I think Mark Steyn is absolutely right. I think that if you look at the data from the Iran-Iraq war that raged from 1980-1988, more Arabs died on the battlefield against Persian soldiers than in any Arab-Israeli battlefield. And now, if what I’m speaking about is implemented, you will have a Iran seeking to build a military presence in Lebanon, if we don’t oppose them. You will have a…by the way, based on a Shiite, maybe 50-49% population. You’ll have Iran penetrating Iraq, where the Shiia are a firm majority, they have a base for having a clear strength in that country. In Bahrain, you have 80% Shiites, with a Sunni minority ruling them. There’s an opportunity there for getting some important Arab countries. And of course, the oil producing areas of Saudi Arabia, known as the Eastern Province, there’s a Shiite majority there. They would therefore be able to dismantle Saudi Arabia, and they’d be able to get ahold of its oil fields. That’s the real danger that’s out there. Israel’s an excuse, it’s a red herring, it’s a distraction. It allows Iran to mobilize Arab opinion on their own behalf, and divert attention away from what they’re trying to do.
HH: Now the Shiia are not all behind Iran. Obviously, Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq has been a great force for unification, and for transition to some semblence of democracy there. How strong is the Iranian regime, in your estimate, Ambassador Gold? And can it be toppled short of military means?
DG: Well, let’s begin first of all with their penetration of various countries. I mean, I agree with you that Ali Sistani has been a moderate, and he has tried to minimize the influence of Shiia religion on the politics in Iraq. But there’s also Muqtada al Sadr, who sees himself as a representative of Hezbollah in Iraq. And if Iran is so determined to acquire regional hegemony, they have huge amounts of petro-dollars, they’re willing to put those petro-dollars into selling weapons to their friends, they’re giving weapons to their friends, and strengthening their position in countries like Iraq, to undermine Ali Sistani.
HH: Does that mean, then, that this is inevitably going to end up as the confrontation between Sunni and Shiia that many people have long foreseen, and would bode very, very poorly for that part of the world?
DG: Well, what I think that the Iranian strategy had been…the Iranians recognize that the Shiia are a minority in the Islamic world. The total number of Shiia in the whole Islamic world are maybe 15%. A majority, 85%, are Sunnis. So they will try and reach across the divide to the Sunnis, and get as many of the Sunni countries on their side. Right now, they have had very limited success. Syria is a country with a 60% Sunni majority, and they’re backing Iran, largely through the Alawite sect, which has good relations with the Shiites. But there is a rift here, there is a potential conflict here, and Israel is really a backdrop to a much bigger struggle over oil and dominance in the Middle East.
HH: Now it’s late in Israel, but I do want to cover three more subjects with you, Mr. Ambassador. The first is the Lebanon government, and the various conflicting statements coming out of there. You’ve proposed a hopeful vision that perhaps Lebanon, through this process, becomes strengthened, gets steel, gets assistance to drive Hezbollah from its number. What is the prime minister saying? What about the speaker of the parliament? How do you translate what is being said publicly from the Lebanese officials?
DG: Well, I mean there are leaders, like Jumblatt of the Druse. You do also have Hariri’s son, who has the…his coalition in the Lebanese Parliament, and these people have spoken out against Hezbollah. Now what careful diplomacy requires is to focus on those forces inside of Lebanese society who want to get rid of Hezbollah. We’re not talking about 52 or 53%. We’re probably talking about 80% of Lebanese public. So smart diplomacy, directed, with the backing of Arab states, and armed peace enforcement units, perhaps from Europe, like the French, could tilt the balance inside of Lebanon. You tilt the balance inside of Lebanon against Hezbollah, you solve a lot of problems at once. You strengthen democracy and Israel’s security problem in the south of Lebanon/Northern Israel vanishes.
HH: Can you count on France, or other EU countries, to be tough enough, Ambassador Gold? Would they actually shoot with real rounds at Hezbollah? Or will they become an impediment to Israel striking back when necessary against it?
DG: Well, I am not a believer that the peace enforcing force should be on Israel’s border. I don’t want people protecting Israel. I don’t want them to become a shield for Hezbollah. I would rather see that these European forces strengthen the only army in Lebanon that is going to open fire on Hezbollah. It’s the Lebanese army. But they’ll only do it if they have the full backing of Europeans, Arab states, with America orchestrating this whole move.
HH: All right.Penultimate question. The Wye River negotiations of which you were a participant. Take us back to 1998, if you will. Was the Islamist threat, was the Iranian gambit, were these subjects on the table in those negotiations? Or…they’re only eight years ago. But was it foreseen at that time?
DG: There are two parts…there have been two models in Middle East policy in Washington and Jerusalem as well. Some people have said solve the problem with the Palestinians, and everything else will vanish and go away. I think that was a very widely accepted assumption at the time of the Clinton administration. Some of us who were looking at the intelligence at the time saw the wider trends, saw al Qaeda rising, we saw Hezbollah getting stronger, and we felt that somebody’s missing the boat. There’s a wider conflict here, and Israel’s just a small piece in a much bigger puzzle.
HH: Is the Bush administration realistic about what’s happening there, and not falling into that old trap?
DG: I think they’ve been very good in understanding there’s a wider conflict here, because we’re in a post 9/11 reality. But there are a lot of professionals out there who criticize them, who write op-eds against them, and it’s hard to stay strong, and go up against the old, conventional wisdom.
HH: Last subject, which is Israeli politics and the West Bank. Do you see unilateral disengagement happening anytime soon now?
DG: I think another unilateral disengagement is not in the cards. I think if anything, the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has shown that unilateralism, no matter how much sense it might have made in an Israeli internal debate. It’s just seen as total weakness. It strengthens the terrorists, it brings to power Hamas, and it gives Hezbollah the belief that they can even defeat Israel. What’s important in the future is to recognize that Israel must hold onto what is vital for its security. President Bush wrote a letter to Prime Minister Sharon in 2004, guaranteeing that Israel at the end of the day will achieve defensible borders. In fact, on our website, www.jcpa.org, we have a major study on this subject of defensible borders that we put up, and it has been distributed to people in Congress, and public opinion makers as well in Europe. And I think that’s the key to peace. An Israel that can defend itself will stay stable and secure. An Israel that’s vulnerable will be taken advantage of by our enemies.
HH: This is the first crisis, Dore Gold, in which Israel has found itself without someone at the helm who has got the memory that a Sharon did going back to the very beginning of the state. Does this young government strike you as strong enough and experienced enough to last and to lead effectively?
DG: Well, you know, right now, we’re all trying to unite around the proud leadership of Prime Minister Olmert. I did not vote for Mr. Olmert, but I’m not going to second-guess him in the middle of a war. When this is over, we’ll sit back, we’ll look at who was smart, who made mistakes, and the political system will respond. But at this point, you’ve got to get behind the government of Israel, let them win this war quickly, and create a more stable Middle East, because we have much bigger problems ahead of us.
HH: And a last question. Can any settlement be achieved without the prompt return of the two soldiers kidnapped in the North, and the one in the South?
DG: Israel will struggle, will fight to get its soldiers returned. That isn’t why the war is occurring. It is one of the conditions for ending it. The real…what turned this into a major conflict was the nerve of Hezbollah to open fire on Israeli cities. That is unacceptable. We have to change the situation fundamentally, so this never happens again.
HH: I have to ask one more, then it will be the last. 2,200, 2,400 rockets have rallen on Israel. Is there panic? Is there concern? What is the mood there, Dore Gold?
DG: Israel’s a country with many families that have children in the army, fathers in the army. We have experience in past wars. People know what to do. There’s a lot of physical hardships. A lot of people had to close down businesses, people who can’t maintain a cash flow. And how do they survive? There are people who are in shelters where the air conditioners were never fixed, and it’s hot as hell. It’s summertime now, you know, end of July. These are elements that are difficult for Israelis, but I’ll tell you something. The country is strong, the country wants this war to be won. We had some demonstrations against the war. They were organized by the Israeli Communist Party, with hammer and sickle and all, but the vast majority of the country wants to win.
HH: Ambassador Dore Gold from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, www.jcpa.org, thanks for spending so much time with us late this evening. I look forward to talking with you again soon.
DG: My pleasure.
HH: Thank you.