Ambassador Stephenson on his Trip to Israel

Thomas Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)

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As I write, I am flying back from four days in Israel during which time I participated in a series of meetings with current, and several former, senior military, intelligence, and government leaders. None of the meetings were for attribution, but I thought it would be interesting to address the questions posed (How does the government shutdown impact US foreign policy and US credibility abroad? How significant is the recent shift in US-Iran relations? What do you expect will result from the recent agreement between Secretary Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and the Assad regime regarding the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons?) in the context of Israel’s precarious position with regard to most of the issues raised, and the gist of what we heard and observed regarding these issues while there.

There was concern expressed about the impact on Israel and our other trading partners of our government shutdown and potential debt default (fortunately, an agreement to kick the can down the road a few months was reached the day after our meetings concluded). Several of the people with whom we met expressed concern about the potential impact of shutdown and sequestration on our military capabilities, the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and the extent to which world financial markets and international trade have been roiled by our failure to find a solution. There is no doubt relief in many corners of the world that we have at least an interim solution.

Israel has three main concerns regarding their security today. Interestingly, there was little or no discussion about our efforts to revive talks between Israel and the Palestinians. While the Israelis remain concerned about the Palestinian terrorist threat, particularly from Hamas, they don’t view solving the Palestinian dilemma as mission critical to solving the major problems in the Middle East. For the most part, cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces are satisfactory. Israelis remain skeptical that Palestine is anywhere close to being ready to become a state, a skepticism that only grows as they watch states like Egypt and Syria fail around them. What little we heard about the negotiations was more focused on the need for an enhanced working agreement as opposed to a fully fledged peace agreement or two state solution.

Security concern number one, in ascending order, is Egypt. Here, not surprisingly, they are relieved that Morsi and the Islamic Brotherhood are gone and believe they and their friendly Arab neighbors are much better off with the military and General Sisi in control. The Israelis are quite critical of our reluctance or failure to support the overthrow of the Brotherhood and our subsequently announced reduction of aid to Egypt. They fear we are becoming irrelevant in Egypt which isn’t good for us or them.

Concern number two is the situation in Syria. Their view is that we lucked into the agreement on chemical weapons, but don’t view the agreement as having a major impact on their security, even in the unlikely event that it is successful. The Israelis don’t believe the Syrians would use chemical weapons on them unless they thought Israel was about to invade. Syria right now isn’t a big problem for them as Assad has his total concentration on defeating the rebels and preserving his rein. A partitioned Syria is also not a bad outcome for Israel, but longer term, some of those with whom we visited believe that the rapidly increasing Al-Qaeda presence in the Syrian conflict spells future trouble for Israel.

By far Israel’s number one security concern is Iran and its Shia proxies. The Israelis are petrified that we will be out negotiated and maneuvered by the Iranians and that the outcome will be a disaster for them. We heard a very consistent and aggressive message. Iran cannot be allowed to have any enrichment capability that can become weaponized. There is no “right of enrichment”. Other countries without an enrichment capability are provided nuclear fuel for power generation by those who do have the capability. It must not be a discussion about the extent to which Iran should be allowed to enrich. Iran must dismantle their current capabilities, allow existing enriched uranium to be extracted from the country, and not be allowed to develop plutonium as a nuclear fuel alternative.

The Israeli solution for dealing with Iran is to increase the sanctions and demonstrate greater resolve to exercise the military option if needed. They believe the sanctions have been far more devastating to the Iranian economy than we hear about at home, and that this is the time to put more, not less, economic pressure on Iran. They do not trust Rouhani at all, based on his historic behavior, and believe his most important assignment is to get relief from the sanctions without having to give up Iran’s ability to achieve nuclear weapons capability. Israel’s concerns about our negotiating resolve appear well founded based on the opening round of discussions in the last few days. I have to admit it gives one a different perspective when you are on the ground in Israel surrounded by mortal enemies well within rocket range, as opposed to being protected by two large oceans. It is a very dangerous time for Israel, and we should not let our desire to make a deal cause us to fall into the trap of negotiating with ourselves. The starting point for negotiations shouldn’t be the current state of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but zero enrichment capabilities. That won’t be easy to achieve, and, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be the direction in which we are headed.

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