Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan said Israel should seize the current moment of regional unrest to “reassert our presence in the Middle East” and called the restarting of peace negotiations with the Palestinians a “vital necessity.”
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“The best use of our time is not to sit and wait, but rather, we should take initiative and seek opportunities,” Dagan said during a panel discussion at the fifth Presidential Conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday. “The interests of Israel, the Gulf countries, and even the Palestinians, to a certain extent, and even Egypt lie together.”
Dagan said conflicts between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and the removal of Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi have created a “unique opportunity for Israel to seek different alliances.”
With regard to the crisis in Syria, former Ambassador to the U.S. Itamar Rabinovich argued that Israel’s ability to influence regional events is constrained. “We have no real sway in Arab politics, and in most cases our intervention - whether verbal or otherwise - may very well end up being counterproductive,” Rabinovich said.
Meanwhile, former American Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer spoke of “conflict fatigue” in the United States.
“We have had 150,000 boots on the ground in this region over the last 12 years, and we have an American public that wants to know to what degree concrete, achievable American interests are at stake,” he said. “The United States is being very cautious with respect to Syria, and I think we’re likely to see the continuation of that caution going forward.”
Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations, called Bashar Assad a “puppet of Iran” and voiced his concern that a future Syrian regime could be even more closely aligned with Iran. “Whatever happens in Syria, we have one principle interest which would guide us and that is to see that Iran’s position in the Levant is weakened,” Gold said.
The panelists also discussed the victory of perceived moderate Hassan Rowhani in Iran’s recent presidential elections. Sima Shine, head of strategic affairs at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said it is too early to tell what kind of partner he will be to the West.
“He is beginning to talk about lifting censorship and allowing women and minorities more freedom,” Shine said. “But the economy is in a terrible situation. It’s only going to get more difficult for Iran.”
Gold questioned the extent to which the new president will be able to impose his will. “In Iran, the real power to make decisions on issues like nuclear weapons lies in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” he said. “The president can be influential, but he can’t make the ultimate decision.”
On the issue of Israel’s security, Gold said that pulling out of the Jordan River valley would amount to a “national disaster.”
“At this point, considering we have uncertainty and a new round of threats, it becomes incumbent on Israel to guarantee its future, to make sure it continues to adopt a principle of defensive borders,” Gold said.
Dagan countered: “If the political need will be as such that the Jordan Valley will not be in Israeli hands, I think the IDF will have a unique ability to protect Israel on those borders.” He added: “I don’t like every aspect of the Arab Peace Initiative, but as a starting point to sit down and discuss, it is a vital necessity for Israel to do it.”
Referring to recent statements by Minister Naftali Bennett, among others, Rabinovitch said: “It’s damaging for senior Israeli politicians to say time and again that that the two-state solution is dead. Saying that the time is not right now for a final status agreement is not the same as saying the two-state solution is dead.”
Kurtzer argued that indeed the time is right and cautioned that continued settlement construction “complicates the very agreement that you say you seek with the Arab world.”
“We have a saying,” Kurtzer continued. “If you’re digging yourself into a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging.”