Elisabeth Braw wrote this article for Metro www.metro.lu.
Israel is worried. The protests have already led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Israel's closest Arab ally. Metro met Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, for an exclusive interview at his office in Jerusalem. Islamists may hijack the uprising, he cautions, creating a number of new Iran-like regimes.
In his office Ayalon, a charismatic former ambassador to the United States and a member of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, has a rose that Jewish settlers made from rockets fired from Gaza. "Like turning the other cheek", Metro's reporter suggested. "We don't have any cheeks left to turn", responded Ayalon.
In mid-March Israel began shelling Gaza in response to attacks by militants; at least eight people have been killed. On March 23 at some 30 people were injured when a bomb went off in Jerusalem,
Are the Arab uprisings good news or bad news for Israel?
The main question is whether these uprisings will be good for Arab societies. Israel has stated that we wish well to all countries and peoples around us. We also wish for them to establish human rights and democracy. If this is the result Israel will benefit from it, and so will Europe and the entire world. There was a report by the UNDP a year and a half ago on all the Arab societies in the Middle East showing how dysfunctional those societies are, showing the lack of justice and human rights there. It showed miserable conditions for the Arabs. In a way, the uprisings are justifiable, given the conditions people were living under. Our only concern is that Islamist extremists will hijack the uprisings. We don't want to see Iran 1979 all over again. That was also a spontaneous revolution, but it was hijacked by extremists, who happened to be very organized but also used all kinds of back tactics. The world can't afford another Iran.
On the other hand, some of the rulers now being ousted were good friends of Israel.
They were good friends of the international community. Hosni Mubarak was welcome in the capitals of Europe. And Muammar Gaddafi was very welcome in the capitals of Europe, too. But we shouldn't look back. Yes, Mubarak played a major role in defending the interests of the international community, in working with Israel and fighting terrorism and also with fighting the extreme ideology Tehran exports. In that sense, he was very instrumental and responsible. Whoever replaces him in this transition period, if he or she has Egypt's interest in mind, will continue Mubarak's foreign policy. Our relations with Egypt were just one part of Mubarak's policy. We very humbly say that we don't interfere in other countries domestic affairs, nor do we want them to interfere with ours, except to say that we hope for a non-violent transformation to a stable and healthy society.
What if these countries elect extremist leaders?
A very, very central element in democracies is the rule of law. Racist, extremist and violent parties should be banned. In Israel the Supreme Court banned some parties from running in the election. If we want to see normal and healthy societies in the Arab world, there should be limits for extremists so they can't take power. Elections are very important, but they should come at the end of a democratization process so that people are well-educated and informed and have many parties to choose from. If they only have two choices, a dictator and extremist Islamists, that's a very bad choice.
So you worry that if elections were to be held in Egypt tomorrow, the Muslim Brotherhood would win?
Nobody can predict the election results. But it's important that the winner doesn't support violence, racist supremacy or anything that can destabilize the entire region. We saw what happened in Iran. The ayatollahs won the leadership, but that was in one election. We don't want a situation of one man, one vote - one time. Iranian elections are not democratic, because the ayatollahs can control who runs, and rig the result. We saw the result in the summer of 2009, with the uprising in Tehran where people protested against the rigging of the elections. We don't want to see the model of Iran replicated.
Is it in Israel's interest to see Colonel Gaddafi stay or go?
There's no doubt in my mind that Gaddafi is not just a dictator but a murderer who has used his military to kill his own people. By any moral yardstick he should not just go but also face a criminal court. But it's also important that whoever replaces Gaddafi is not al Qaeda and not the ayatollahs in Tehran or their proxies.
How can that be prevented?
The entire international community, but first and foremost Europe, which is the closest to Libya, have to embark on a special Marshall Plan for the Middle East - a moral and political Marshall Plan. If we could somehow put together the resources that exist in the Arab world - mainly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, which sit on trillions upon trillions of petrodollars - and invest in an infrastructure that creates job and growth, together with political direction to build a civil society with democratic institutions. That will be the real answer in the long term, and we shouldn't lose any time doing it.
What's the most serious threat to Israel right now?
Iran. The Iranian regime is most dangerous, irresponsible and extreme in the Middle East, and it's already destabilizing the entire region. Iranian proxies are taking over in Lebanon. Lebanon used to be a Christian country, but no longer. Now it's ruled by Hezbollah, which represents Iran. Iran is also undermining the Palestinian Authority through Hamas. They Iranians are active in many other countries, too; Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, even Latin America. If you take this extreme ideology, combined with Iran's acts of terrorism, for example bombing Israeli embassies in Latin America, and marry it with the nuclear weapons Iran is trying to develop, it will be devastating to the entire world. Iran with nuclear weapons would control the flow oil and dictate oil prices, and would try to change the regimes in the Middle East. Iran would like to see a Middle East in their own mold, with extreme Shiite hegemony, which would only serves a springboard to expand Iranian influence to Europe.
So, under the current regime Iran will infiltrate Europe?
Absolutely. They're already doing it. But the Iranian regime is also very vulnerable, politically, economically and socially. And it's not set in stone that Iran will be able to develop nuclear weapons. The international community has the means to stop it from doing so. We've already started, with UN Security Council resolution 1929 from last June. On top of this there are sanctions by many countries. The Iranian regime is beginning to feel the crunch. They've paid a price for their aggressiveness and now they're beginning to pay the price. We've not exhausted all the means. More can be done. I believe with more pressure on them, they'll have to face the dilemma: continue to defy the international community or face the consequences.
But Iran says, "our nuclear program is only for civilian purposes, and anyway, why shouldn't we be allowed to develop nuclear weapons when Israel has them." What's your response?
It's very bizarre that they embark on such an expensive project of developing supposedly civilian energy when they have so much cheap energy. They have the third largest energy reserves in the region. They've already been proven wrong by the IAEA monitors, who document that the Iranians have a clandestine and illegal nuclear weapons program. Comparing Israel to Iran is certainly not in place. It's like comparing apples and oranges. Israel has never made any threats against any other country, whereas the Iranian regime openly talks about destroying another state. Israel has also stated that it will never be the first to introduce military weapons in the Middle East. And we're a democracy with checks and balances and a very responsible society. None of that exists in Iran.
Wouldn't it be Israel's interest to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for better relations with its neighbors? Then Iran couldn't argue that it needs nuclear weapons because Israel has them.
You're making an assertion that I can't be part of regarding Israel's nuclear capabilities. We do have what we call the ambiguity. [Israel won't confirm nor deny that it has nuclear weapons]. This is the main basis for our security. We're one small country surrounded by 22 Arab countries. Many of them see us as enemies. We're also outnumbered, 40 to 1, in armed forces. The ambiguity is our main instrument of deterrence. If Israel is stripped of abilities to defend itself it will create instability, since our enemies will be tempted to attack us. Israel would be very much in favor of a Middle Eastern nuclear-free zone, but this can be done only when there are no threats against us.
Would you welcome an uprising in Iran?
What we saw in the summer of 2009 was very authentic, and we saw the brutality with which the regime responded and is still responding. On a daily basis, they hang political prisoners under different pretexts like drug trafficking, prostitution and imaginary crimes. For the well-being of the Iranian people it would be very important to have a new regime with freedom and rule of law. Just as the world supports the people of Egypt, they should support the people of Iran.
The United States recently vetoed the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel's settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, even though President Obama is personally opposed to the settlements. Is he a reliable ally of Israel?
He has always been a reliable ally of Israel. The relations between Israel and the United States are very strong. It's a natural bond based on common values and interests. I feel the same way about Europe. We are very similar and share the same values and culture. Sometimes I feel that the fact that we haven't been welcomed or accepted here in the Middle East, even though it's our historical homeland, is based on the fact that we represent Europe and European civilization. Israel and Europe are in the same boat when it comes to threats.
We face the nuclear threat from Iran, and Europe is in the same boat. It's no coincidence that Iran's nuclear delivery systems [rocket launchers] are designed to cover the entire European continent. Then there's terrorism, like we saw on the London tube, Madrid and Bali. Unfortunately it's all coming from the same ideology and the same thinking. There are also current threats of instability, as both Israel and Europe will see floods of refugees.
In short, Israel is disliked by its neighbors because of its European values?
Absolutely. Many pundits will say that. I'm not saying that the Palestinian conflict isn't part of the problem, but there's no linkage between that and instability in the Middle East. The latest events prove that. The people in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen didn't shout anything against the Palestinian conflict. The uprisings are about domestic problems. Most of the deaths in the Middle East in the past 63 years, since Israel was created in its own homeland, have nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians. Over 99% of the deaths occurred in other conflicts, such as the Iran-Iraq war and Syria's invasion in Lebanon and the wars in Yemen and Sudan. So, there's a clash between civilizations. But it's not politically correct to mention this.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay recently condemned the continued Israeli settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories. What's your response?
Israel has not built new settlements. There are 300,000 Israelis who legally live in these areas. The West Bank - Judea and Samaria - is the cradle of our [Jewish] civilization. Archaeologists can attest to that. But we do recognize that there are other people there. The settlement issue can only be resolved in direct negotiations between us and the Palestinians. We've waited for them for the past two years and made a lot of gestures towards them, including freezing settlement construction for 10 months. Unfortunately this didn't bring them to the table. I can only conclude that the settlements are an excuse for them not to negotiate. Nobody is asking the Palestinians what they're willing to give up. Their position is to make maximal demands with minimal concessions. This is not a responsible way of governing.
Wouldn't you say this good moment in time to negotiate, given that the Palestinians have a working and peaceful administration under Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad instead of Yassir Arafat?
Any time is a good time, but we don't want the Palestinians to use the settlements as an excuse.
You're active in Nefesh B Nefesh, an organization that helps Jews immigrate to Israel. How many more such immigrants can Israel absorb?
Israel now has a population of 7.5 million. 87% of Israelis live on 40% of the land. The Negev in the south of Israel is only sparsely populated, so we can absorb many, many more immigrants. It will bring growth and prosperity.
How many more? One million?
We can easily absorb another six-seven million.
Will they all live in Negev?
And Galilee. We have a lot of room.
Your party introduced the "loyalty oath," a new law that requires new non-Jewish citizens to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state. How is Israel better off with this law in place?
The loyalty oath doesn't really represent what my party wants to do. We want to improve national solidarity and level the playing the field so that everyone in Israel has the same rights but also some sort of obligations, whether it's military service or community service. We also want to normalize the legal code, making it identical to the legal code in other democratic countries, like the United States and European countries. Today we don't have loyalty oath in public jobs. Every public servant in the US has to sign a loyalty agreement, and we want to do the same. Israeli public servants are attacking and defaming Israel. Of course they're allowed to do it, but they can't enjoy a salary from the government while attacking it. It's not about demographic background; the rule will apply to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
If you lived in a country that required a loyalty oath to a different religion, would you give this oath?
The United Nations recognizes us as a Jewish state. That doesn't mean any religious connotation. Judaism is also a nationality, an ethnicity and a way of life. Being a Jewish state doesn't mean that non-Jews can't live here with full rights and opportunities. We Jews, of all people, understand that there's no dissonance between loyalty to the state and loyalty to the religion. Unfortunately we have lived in exile for 2,000 years. As Jews, we lived in Christian and Muslim countries, and we always pledged allegiance to the country.