Top Israeli and U.S. officials spoke on Sunday at the Haaretz-UCLA conference on Israeli National Security. They included Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The conference, a joint initiative of Haaretz English Edition and UCLA’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, focused on the most prominent challenges that Israel is currently facing in the national security arena – from the Iranian nuclear threat to the relationship with the United States – in addition to the conflict with the Palestinians and Israel's new ties with Arab countries.
Yossi Cohen, who recently stepped down as head of the Mossad espionage agency and led Israel’s covert war against Iran, said in an interview with Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn that Israel “should be able” to act alone against Iran’s nuclear program, as it did in the past against the nuclear programs of Syria and Iraq. “I assume it’s going to be complicated militarily, but not impossible” for Israel to take such action, he said (Watch the full interview).
In a keynote address, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that he is now “more optimistic than ever” in light of Israel’s close relations with Arab countries in the region. The defense minister also spoke about his visit to Ramallah in August in which he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Gantz called on the international community to invest in the Palestinian economy to promote prosperity and stability (Watch full address).
Israeli Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli,who is also chairwoman of the Labor Party, said the new Israeli government enjoys “good communications” with the Biden administration at all levels and called President Joe Biden a “strong supporter” of Israel. The Labor Party, she said, is committed to enacting the 2016 Western Wall compromise that was to upgrade and govern the egalitarian prayer space at the holy Jewish site (Watch full interview).
In a keynote closing address, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez emphasized the importance of bipartisan support for Israel in Washington. “Our nations are bound together by more than official diplomatic relations and national security interests. It is our shared values and vibrant democratic institutions that ultimately unite us.” Menendez congratulated the Israeli government for its recent passage of a state budget, the first to be passed by the Knesset since 2018.
Menendez warned of political actors in the United States on both sides of the partisan divide who are trying to harm the alliance with Israel. “The U.S.-Israel relationship is strong and will continue to be strong,” he declared, “even if some try to claim otherwise.”
The senator added that it was “deeply distressing” in May to see the magnitude of rocket fire launched at Israel from Gaza during the war that Israel fought with Hamas. But he drew optimism from Israel’s increasing security coordination with neighboring countries such as Egypt and Jordan. The United States can and should do more to encourage such cooperation between Israel and the Arab countries that have signed peace agreements over the years, he added.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's appearance at the conference follows her recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, one of the countries that recently signed normalization agreements with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords.
Israel’s peace with the UAE is going to be "a warm peace," to a greater extent than prior peace agreements, she said. In the course of her visit to the UAE, Livni said she heard interest from senior officials regarding cooperation with Israel in fields such as health, science and technology and not only security cooperation with regard to Iran.
When it comes to relations with the Palestinians, however, Livni warned that, despite the change in leadership in Israel with the formation of the government headed by Naftali Bennett, the country is still heading toward a "one-state reality," which she said would endanger the country’s Jewish and democratic character. “We are in a car and the driver is no longer Netanyahu, which is fine with me, but where is this car heading?” she asked (Watch full interview).
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In a panel discussion on the U.S.-Israel relationship hosted by Prof. Dov Waxman, the director of Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, speakers from both countries emphasized the growing challenges to the strategic relationship. In analyzing current attitudes towards Israel in the American Jewish community, Shira Efron, a special adviser on Israel with the Rand Corporation, said among “younger people, you see more liberal and progressive views and less affinity to Israel.” Participants on this panel were invited to this specific discussion and were not consulted on the conference’s wider lineup of speakers (Watch full panel).
In a panel on approaches to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was moderated by Haaretz journalist Noa Landau, a former Israeli peace negotiator, Gilead Sher, asserted that despite the failure of prior negotiations, the two-state solution remains the best option for solving the conflict. “We have to deal with the core issues, and maybe later, after we have a partition of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea into two nation-states, we can proceed toward a structure more like confederation, or other ideas.”
Sher, who was chief of staff to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was joined in the discussion by author Micah Goodman, who has been promoting a concept that current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has adopted of "shrinking" the conflict. For his part, Ameer Fakhoury, who directs the research center at Neve Shalom (Wahat al-Salam) and is an adviser to joint civil society projects, touted an Israeli-Palestinian confederation as an alternative to the two-state solution – in the spirit of "two states one homeland."