Yoram Ettinger responds to penetrating questions
by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (February 2013)
Mike Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. This is Mike Bates. With me in the studio is Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog, the Iconoclast. He is also the author of the book, The West Speaks. Jerry Gordon, welcome to Your Turn.
Bates: Ambassador Ettinger, let’s begin with the recent Israeli elections for the Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu may be about to announce a new coalition government. What can you tell us about how Israeli law frames the composition of their parliament and what surprises occurred among the contending parties in the elections?
Ettinger: Unlike the American system, in Israel we follow the proportional system which means many parties running – as many, in fact, as 34 parties ran this time for both the Legislature and the Executive. Each party gets in accordance with its proportional number of votes provided they pass the threshold of two percent of the votes cast on Election Day. The party which manages to establish a controlling coalition namely a majority in the Legislature also becomes the so-called Executive. Admittedly in my humble mind this is a highly dysfunctional, maybe overly democratic system which gives rise to many small and medium size parties and no large size party.
Bates: And does the party that got the majority typically always put together the coalition?
Ettinger: Usually that is the case but at a very high price. Namely in order to coalesce a coalition they need to succumb to demands by their potential partners and those demands basically means pork barrel programs. Those demands mean that the coalition is at the mercy of its components and it takes some time. Sometimes one party can defect from the coalition to bring down the government. Hence the term of governments in Israel rarely reaches a full term, namely four years. Usually we are talking about shorter term governments which means heavy expenditure for the taxpayer which is a high price to pay for again, a very open democratic system as we have in Israel.
Gordon: Ambassador, who are the new political figures in the pending coalition and what impact will that have on relations with Washington, both the Obama Administration and Congress?
Ettinger: We have two new so called significant actors and I say so-called because they are not that significant. They are small parties or medium size parties who hold the major leverage over the future of the Israeli Government. One is headed by a person named Yair Lapid who was until recently a media star in Israel. The other one is headed by a person called Naftali Bennett. Bennett, who was born by the way in the U.S., is a very successful high tech entrepreneur. He served as Chief of Staff of Prime Minister Netanyahu years ago. Both are basically holding major cards in their hands and Prime Minister Netanyahu has to accommodate them if he wishes to be the next Prime Minister of Israel. The more relevant development as far as the U.S. is concerned is that the January 22nd election in Israel, once again introduced an Israeli hawkish majority. The hawkish block is by far the largest one in our Legislature. We have a unicameral legislature called the Knesset. The second smaller block by far is the Center and then very small relatively speaking is the Left in Israel. The interesting thing by the way is Left in Hebrew is pronounced “small” and which in English means I guess, little. So the Left in Israel is again very small as far as representation. That means that there is a very wide coalition which opposes the repartitioning of Jerusalem. This is a very wide coalition in Israel which supports continued, sustained Israeli control of the major blocks of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria otherwise known as the West Bank. There is a significant majority at the Knesset which opposes any negotiation with the terrorists. A significant majority which considers the preemption of an Iranian nuclear threat top priority for Israel. It seems to me that that also sends a major message to the White House in Washington.
Gordon: One of the issues raised in the recent Knesset General Election was the possible annexation of Area C in Judea and Samaria. How would that action by Israel provide security and could it work with an Arab minority population in Area C?
Ettinger: Area C in Judea and Samaria or the West Bank is the area controlled exclusively by Israel. Area B is jointly controlled by Israel and the Palestinian Authority and Area A is controlled exclusively by the Palestinian Authority. All of those three areas are under the umbrella of the Israeli control or supervision in the West Bank. Area C which is exclusively controlled by Israel consists of roughly 60% of the area with approximately 70 to 100,000 Arabs. It has a very significant Jewish majority and there is a growing segment in the population within the Israeli legislature supporting annexation of the area. I personally doubt whether Prime Minister Netanyahu would undertake such a step. Certainly if he has the guts, the backbone to do the right thing and annex the area he would benefit from a very significant majority in the Knesset. That would resonate among the Israeli population in defiance of what I would expect to be global opposition to such a step.
Bates: What do you think would be the global response to an annexation?
Ettinger: The global response is known because we have been there before but we should take it in perspective going back to 1948. The founding father of the state first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion was pressured brutally by the U.S.A. to refrain from declaring independence. When the war broke out and independence was declared. He was pressured again brutally by the U.S. to end the so-called Occupation of the Negev which is two-thirds of Israel. He turned it down. He was pressured to refrain from annexing Western Jerusalem. Western Jerusalem, he defied as well. He was pressured to refrain from building in Jerusalem which he ignored completely and built and expanded the boundaries of Israel. As we know, relations between U.S. and Israel have not been damaged by that, in fact, in my mind, only enhanced because why would the U.S. pursue enhanced cooperation with a weak partner? The U.S. is very wise to respect a partner which stands on its own, in its own right, even willing sometimes to defy the US. The US knows this is exactly the partner that it needs on a rainy day in the Middle East. The same thing happened in 1967 when Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol annexed Eastern Jerusalem. He reunited the whole of Jerusalem in defiance of US, European, Global UN pressure, threats, punishments, etc. The same thing happened when Prime Minister Menachem Begin applied the Israeli law to the Golan Heights in Northern Israel on the Syrian frontier. Once again, we were threatened. Joint exercises with the U.S. were aborted, shipment of military systems by the US was suspended, and threats of further punishment were enunciated. Prime Minister Begin literally told the American Ambassador that no one should expect Israel to be impressed by such punishments. After all Israel, a Jewish nation. The Jewish people went through a Holocaust. After all, what is brutal pressure compared to a holocaust? Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had the same experience with his policy. I mentioned all of that because obviously it’s much more pleasant to be spared pressure. However, we should realize that the Jewish state standing up for its rights with principle driven policies only enhances respect towards the Jewish state at the expense of short term popularity.
Bates: Ambassador Ettinger, let’s discuss briefly the Senate confirmation hearings for Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and the Presidential Assistant for Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security, John Brennan as Director of Central Intelligence. Chuck Hagel’s appointment particularly is getting a lot of reaction that is not necessarily good in the United States Senate. Would these appointments to very important posts in the Administration hamper relations between Washington and Jerusalem?
Ettinger: It seems to me that the focus should not be US – Israel relations but rather vital American interests. From that perspective, sufficed to suggest that even, even the liberal Washington Post does not consider Chuck Hagel to be worthy of the post of Secretary of Defense suggesting that Chuck Hagel is left of the President and outside the US mainstream. The reason the Washington Post does not consider Chuck Hagel to be a worthy candidate happens to be his position towards Iran. Chuck Hagel according to his track record is willing to coexist with a nuclear Iran thus opposing possible military preemption. Most importantly Chuck Hagel would subordinate the independence of US National Security action to multinational consensus at the UN. If that is not enough to discredit him then Chuck Hagel, along with John Kerry who is already Secretary of State, were two members of a small group of Senators who was supported Assad the father and Assad the son until very recently. They were frequent visitors to Damascus. They claimed that the Assads were constructive peaceful leaders. They both tried to pressure Israel to give away the Golan Heights. I think that tells us a lot about the capabilities or qualifications of Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon.
Gordon: Israel undertook a spectacular air raid into Syria to interdict a convoy of advanced Russian made mobile anti-aircraft missile systems. A military research and development center near Damascus containing stocks of dangerous chemical and biological weapons was also targeted. Why did Israel undertake those missions and did it notify in advance both Washington and Moscow?
Ettinger: The Israeli action was carried out in order to minimize the insanity in the Middle East. To have terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, gaining control of chemical military systems, or advanced missiles would only add fuel to the fire in the Middle East at the expense of American and Western interests. It would also be at the expense of the interests of American-Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, etc. All of them oppose Syria and Hezbollah. Away from the limelight they applauded the Israeli operation. This is not the first time that Israel acts as the most effective beach head for American and free world interests in the Middle East. We did it back in 1967. 1967 was not only a major victory in a preemptive war with Egypt and Syria. Israel’s action by defeating Egypt aborted a major Egyptian surge through Yemen into Saudi Arabia. This could have toppled the pro-American Saudi regime, dealing America a major blow. The same thing took place when Israel defied the world and took out the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor in 1981. Once again it didn’t only serve Israeli interests; it served American and global free world interests. The US condemned us, I would even say viciously. After that operation it took the US ten years when in 1991 after the Gulf War, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said publicly, “thank you Israel for bombing the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor in 1981 which spared the U.S. a nuclear confrontation in 1991.”
Bates: I think that happens a lot. We hear of public condemnation but private applause. Ambassador did Israel notify Washington and/or Moscow in advance of those raids into Syria?
Ettinger: I don’t know. I’m not in the loop to know that much but the proof is in the pudding. The fact is that the US did not condemn us as it used to do on prior occasions leads me to suggest that either the White House is smart enough to know that the Israeli operation was a great service to American interest or maybe it was pre-coordinated with America. Either way, I think the operation was very good for the US as well as for Israel.
Gordon: Ambassador, we were talking about the IAF raid in Syria. In the wake of that the buzz in Israel was about possible retaliation from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Would the Israeli Anti-Missile Shield that defended Israeli population centers during the November 2012 Rocket War with Gaza be able to withstand an onslaught of up to tens of thousands of rockets and missiles from Hezbollah and Syria?
Ettinger: From 1948, when Israel was established, we haven’t had a single day without direct threats from our Arab neighbors and as recent as 1979 also from Muslim non-Arab Iran. Therefore there is nothing new as far as a threat to Israel. We have developed very advanced air defense anti-missile shield systems which we hope would work on a critical D-Day. So far, we have been well served by our military capabilities. There is no reason to assume that we won’t be able to face the challenges in the future whether it’s Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or any other Arab or Muslim force.
Bates: Let’s discuss briefly what is going on in Egypt right now. The Presidency of Mohamed Morsi is being protested in Cairo and there is the possibility that the leadership in Egypt could collapse or at the very least that the Camp David Accords with Israel may no longer be honored. What is the situation right now between Israel and Egypt?
Ettinger: Well, it’s certainly a possibility. It was a possibility under Mubarak who was not exactly a leader who promoted war and peace with Israel. It was a cold peace under Mubarak and it now becomes now worse under the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. That is something that is part of the Middle East reality which by the way sheds light on the security requirements for Israel. Unlike peace accords between Western countries or even the US and the USSR in the cold war days, here in the Middle East any agreement is provisional by definition. Any agreement is subject to unpredictable violations. Any agreement is impacted by very routine change of regimes which brings about changes in policies. Any agreement is subjected to the Middle East atmosphere of considering agreements as tactical rather than strategic steps. Namely agreements which are good for the short run but are not going to be respected or complied with in the long run. This is the intra-Muslim reality; the intra-Arab reality as we see today on the Arab street. Why should anyone assume that Arab countries would treat the so-called infidel Jewish state any better than they treat one another? That requires and behooves Israel to establish a high threshold of security which is the essence of the need for Israel to control the mountain regions of Judea and Samaria.
Bates: Ambassador Ettinger, this admittedly is a question that would probably be better asked of Barack Obama but I don’t have him on the telephone (laughs), I have you on the telephone so I’ll ask you. In light of the tenuous situation in Egypt and the Egyptian hostility towards Israel, why is the Obama administration proceeding with new military shipments of F-16 fighter jets and M1A1 tanks to the Egyptian military?
Ettinger: I think it’s another erroneous policy by this administration. There was one erroneous policy when President Obama provided a tailwind to the Muslim Brotherhood turning his back on Mubarak and in a way facilitating the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is similar to what Jimmy Carter did to the Shah of Iran when he turned his back on the Shah providing tailwind to the so-called Old Man in Exile in Paris, otherwise known as Khomeini. Before we knew it, Iran was transformed from the number one ally of the US to the number one enemy of the US in the Middle East. There is a similar development took place in Egypt. It is a major mistake to provide the Muslim Brotherhood regime with the most advanced military systems. The Muslim Brotherhood is an anti-American, anti-free world organization. It is a transnational Muslim organization which strives for the strategic long term goal of spreading Islam not only in the Middle East and not only in Muslim countries but also in what they call Dar al Harb which means basically the rest of the world.
Gordon: Ambassador, the Egyptian economy is in dire straits. Could that lead the Morsi regime in Cairo to seek financial aid from the Islamic Regime in Tehran given President Ahmadinejad’s recent visit?
Ettinger: From day one, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has established close relations with Iran irrespective of their major gaps as far as Islam is concerned. The one is Sunni Islam and the other is Shiite, but geo-strategically, geopolitically they do share a certain common ground. Egypt could seek help from Iran, however, financial assistance could also be provided by the U.S. My point is that at this stage Egypt does not need more planes, more night navigation systems and more missiles. They need bread and butter and to provide Egypt with one and a half billion dollars of financial economic aid which makes much more sense than providing them as the US does now with one and a half billion dollars of military systems. This would only fuel the terrorist zeal of the Muslim Brotherhood and would not put the Egyptian house which needs bread and butter in order.
Bates: Ambassador, in light of the economic situation in Iran as a result of the world sanctions is Tehran in a position to offer much help to Egypt?
Ettinger: Well, Tehran is now burdened by a very weak economy. There is no doubt that economic sanctions have taken a major toll of the Iranian economy. Unfortunately, the economic sanctions have left no dent as far as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power. The Islamic regime in Iran represents a minority. They oppress the majority and other minorities in Iran. They are not that concerned about the standard of living in Iran which is typical of tyrants in that part of the world. It seems to me that we should not think about Iran as an economic power. We should be concerned about Iran as a nuclear power which could cause the meltdown of the pro-American regimes in the Gulf. It would cause havoc as far as supply and price of oil. It would be a major tailwind to anti-American elements in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico. It would be a bonanza for the sleeper terrorist cells in the US. This could precipitate nuclear proliferation throughout the world, all of which would be at the expense of American interests.
Gordon: Ambassador, on Israel’s right flank Jordan is under duress given the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood there and a significant majority Palestinian population. How does that threaten King Abdullah II and what would happen if the Hashemite regime fell?
Ettinger: The Hashemites in Jordan have always been members of a weaker Arab club who are the followers rather than the leaders. They have always been concerned for their survival. The events in Syria constitutes a major threat to Jordan especially if we see as I expect, another regime in Damascus possibly with a major representation or even domination by the Muslim Brotherhood. That would provide a tailwind to the surge of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt through Syria into Jordan where the Muslim Brotherhood is very active. This is a constant potential threat to the Hashemites. When one adds to that the havoc in Iraq which since the US evacuation has become potentially another Afghanistan in the Persian Gulf bordering Jordan. We are talking about a very deadly threat, a lethal threat to the Hashemites who by the way represent a Bedouin minority in Jordan. Even among the Bedouins they are only a minority in Jordan. That obviously would be an opportunity for Islamic terrorism in the Middle East that could potentially establish a terrorist belt from Iran through Iraq into Jordan threatening the stability of the Persian Gulf at the expense of American interests. This would obviously also threaten the Eastern Front of Israel which once again, sheds light on the critical importance of the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, to Israel’s security.
Bates: If the Assad regime collapses do you see that weakening Iranian influence?
Ettinger: Possibly, but not necessarily. Iran as we see today through its relations with Egypt could perform very pragmatically in order to advance its goals. Since no one expects a democratic power to take over Syria, the question is which terrorist will dominate Syria? When it comes to terrorism, there is plenty of potential common ground between the future terror regime in Damascus, Iran and in the Middle East. Alliances are very shifty and if we see a future alliance between Iran and a new regime in Damascus, it will be just another example of how shifty, unpredictable and precarious is Middle Eastern reality.
Gordon: Ambassador, in 2013 we may witness the rise of Israel as a major energy provider with development of offshore natural gas fields and onshore shale oil deposits. Was that an example of an American – Israeli partnership and what does it mean for Israel and the world energy markets?
Ettinger: There has been significant drilling for natural gas and increasingly now oil off shore of Israel. This would not have been possible without the involvement of American oil companies, most prominently Noble Energy from Houston, Texas. Obviously this enhances the national security, the economy of Israel as well as the potential cooperation between the US and Israel. At the same time it constitutes another target for Muslim terrorists in our area.
Gordon: You have written about the good news for Israel regarding recent population trends released by the Central Statistics Bureau. What was that good news and does it augur well for Israel’s future?
Ettinger: I’ll share with you and the listeners a few bullets. In 2013 the Jewish fertility rate in Israel, namely the number of live births per woman, exceeds any Arab country other than Yemen, Iraq and Jordan which are declining very rapidly. The Jewish fertility rate in Israel is three children per woman and trending up. It is by far the highest fertility rate anywhere in the free world, higher than most of the world today. We are talking about high fertility rate among Jews in Israel not primarily among religious Jews but especially in recent years among secular Jews. The reason for the surge of Jewish fertility as to do with high levels of optimism, patriotism, a sense of collective responsibility and most importantly the high regard of secular and religious Israeli Jews. High regard towards tradition and religion. For example, when Passover occurs, it is not only religious Jews who sit around the table in family gathering retelling the stories of the Exodus; most Jews in Israel do that. When it comes to fasting on Yom Kippur, Atonement Day, once again most Israelis fast irrespective of whether they are secular or religious. Obviously the more regard you have for your roots the more you want those roots to be sustained. How else can you sustain them but by producing more children who will sustain and cultivate those roots. To put it in actual mathematical numbers the annual number of Jewish births has surged by 62 percent dramatically between 1995 and 2013 (from 80,000 to 130,000 a year). At the same time the annual number of Arab births in the West Bank and in Israel itself has remained about the same due largely to modernization.
Bates: Thank you Ambassador Ettinger for joining this Middle East Round Table discussion with Jerry and me.
Ettinger: Thank you for inviting me.
Israeli Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger publishes The Ettinger Report and is Director of The Second Initiative. Ambassador Ettinger is a noted lecturer, writer and analyst of Israel and US relations. A graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso, he also received a Masters degree from UCLA. Ettinger has been a consultant to Israel’s Cabinet Members, to Israeli legislators and to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on US-Israel bilateral relations, US policy and Mideast politics. He has briefed US legislators and their staffs. Ettinger has frequently been interviewed on Israeli TV and radio and published in Israel’s dailies, as well as US media. He is Executive Director of “Second Thought – A U.S. Israel Initiative,” dedicated to generate out-of-the-box thinking on US-Israel relations, Middle East politics, the Palestinian issue, Jewish-Arab demographics, Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. His columns appear frequently in Israel Hayom and USA Today.