It’s 4 p.m. on Wednesday, and Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold looks like he’s been working hard.
He doesn’t look tired in a gloomy, depressed, emotionally drained way, but more like someone who could use a good night’s sleep. And as he sits down for an interview with The Jerusalem Post after coming directly from the Prime Minister’s Office, where just a few hours earlier the security cabinet ratified the rapprochement deal with Turkey, Gold was bracing for another night of little sleep.
The long-awaited Quartet report on the Middle East, a report that upon release will demand much of his attention and intense involvement, was – he said – supposed to be released a few hours hence, at 4 a.m.
“We keep getting different reports [about the exact release time], but it affects my sleep schedule and my work schedule,” he said.
In the end the report was not put out overnight, so – at least on that issue – Gold got a respite. But such a respite is rare these days, as the pace on Israel’s diplomatic front right now is frenetic.
“I think this has probably been the busiest season for Israel’s foreign policy in decades,” Gold said, opting to sit in a padded wooden chair in his office, rather than in one of the softer, more comfortable- looking seats.
On the shelves in another part of his spacious office, near his desk and away from where he meets visitors, is an interesting array of pictures. There is the obligatory portrait of President Reuven Rivlin, and another one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he has worked with in various capacities since 1988. And then there is a picture of Jordan’s King Hussein, adorned in a checkered redand- white keffiyeh.
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“That was a gift from him when I went to the UN,” Gold said. “I was an envoy to him.” So if Gold says that this is the busiest season diplomatically for Israel in decades, he knows of what he speaks.
On this particular day there are three pressing issues on the agenda. The first is the Turkish deal, which just happened; the second is the Quartet report, which was about to happen; and the third was Netanyahu’s visit to Africa, which Gold has had a prominent role designing, and which will happen next week.
And in between there is all the regular diplomatic business: the strategic dialogue with the US in June, the first one since 2012; free trade agreement negotiations with South Korea, India and China; and visits to the Persian Gulf.
Gold made reference a couple of times during the 45-minute interview to trips to the Persian Gulf and countries with which Israel doesn’t have diplomatic ties.
When asked which countries, Gold replied, “I can’t say, that is about as much flesh as I can show.”
When reminded that “we have to ask,” Gold chuckled and shot back: “And I have to tease.”
BUT ALL of this – the covert trips to Arab countries to discuss common interests, the very high-profile trip Netanyahu will make Monday to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia – is part of what Gold said is Israel’s “enormous strategic interest in diversifying its foreign policy contacts.”
To illustrate this, he drew on his experience as ambassador to the UN from 1997 to 1999. Gold said that he watched carefully then how the Palestinians some of them only symbolic but others that impacted on Israel’s vital interests – through the world body.
First, he said, they would mobilize the 22 members of the Arab League, and then they would move on to the Islamic countries, giving the Palestinians at the very beginning 57 out of the 193 nations in the world body.
From then it was on to the Non-Aligned Movement countries, and once they secured that bloc of votes, the tally was up to 120.
“So once you get the African countries reopening to Israel, you have a chance of getting maybe 55 countries to break away from that old, anti-Israel line of the NAM, and that strengthens Israel’s international position enormously,” Gold explained.
This will take time, he acknowledged, but the process is under way, a process that will be aided by Netanyahu’s trip.
One glaring example of this change already taking place came at last September’s vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency against an Egyptian resolution calling for international monitoring of Israel’s nuclear facilities. Four African countries – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Togo – voted with Israel against the resolution, which failed 61-43.
Another 17 African countries abstained, eight absented themselves from the vote, and only seven sub-Saharan African countries voted against Israel.
Netanyahu’s trip to Africa, the first by a sitting prime minister since Yitzhak Shamir went to East Africa in 1987, is also significant because the continent is a “big theater of operations” for Islamic jihadist organizations such as Boko Haram in West Africa, al-Shabaab in East Africa, and an al-Qaida affiliate in the Maghreb in the northern part of Africa.
“There are very serious threats to international security,” Gold said, adding that “many countries in Africa are seeking Israeli advice.”
In addition, Gold pointed out that there is also Iranian penetration into Africa. “Iran has been seeking to build up its position on the Red Sea. Since they are not going to do that by having special relations in the Arabian Peninsula, their option is to go in through the Horn of Africa. So building new friendships in Africa is going to have strategic implications for the State of Israel.”
SOMETHING ELSE that will have significant strategic implications for Israel, as well as for the region, is the agreement with Turkey, with Gold going so far as saying that through that agreement “we are actually creating the cornerstone for regional stability in the future.”
This is not, he said, because all of a sudden there is an ideological compatibility between the two countries. “They still have their worldview, and we still have our worldview.
But what we have is a convergence of strategic interests.”
And those interests include keeping Iran from regional hegemony, and beating back Islamic State.
Gold said that this rapprochement is reminiscent of European politics after the Napoleonic Wars, when there were some countries in Europe that were monarchies, and others that were republics. Despite the differences, they developed a common concept regarding how to defend the balance of power on the Continent.
“Right now we are in chaos in the Middle East, and what we have to do is begin to put together a concept of how we can stabilize this region,” he said. And this agreement, even though it did not include the release of the two Israelis held in Gaza or the return of the bodies of two IDF soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge, moves a step forward toward stabilizing the region, he argued.
Gold dismissed the notion that Israel, by allowing Turkey now to build infrastructure projects in Gaza, was tying its own hands operationally in the event of future military activity there. For instance, he was asked, what happens if in the next round of Gaza fighting Hamas sets up its headquarters in the new Turkish-built hospital? “We are countries that know how to communicate with one another on sensitive security issues,” he replied.
Which touches on another issue: with cooperation against terrorism one of the selling points of the agreement, how comfortable will Israel now feel sharing sensitive intelligence information with Turkey, a country whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not hidden his affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood, and whose rhetoric against Israel has been downright incendiary.
“We work with a number of our neighbors, and we learn to build relationships in which both sides see that their interests are addressed,” he said. “We have cooperated with countries with which we did not previously have diplomatic relations, and we share information. Part of the skill of our security services is to know how and when to share information.”
Regarding what the accord will do to Israel’s relationship with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Russia – four countries with a fraught relationship with Turkey with which Israel has strong ties – Gold said that Israel kept all of its neighbors abreast of how the negotiations were moving ahead.
“They all have formal relations with Turkey,” he said. “They have their concerns.
Nonetheless, we think it is important for the stability of the Middle East that this relationship move forward.”
ONE THING that will not add to the stability of the Middle East, Gold intimated, is if the long-awaited Quartet document places the blame for current diplomatic impasse with the Palestinians squarely on Israel’s shoulders.
“The Quartet report is an effort to look at the situation on the ground and see what can be done to preserve the option of a two-state solution,” he said. “The report’s importance is it produces a new international narrative on why we are not solving this conflict.”
From Israel’s perspective, he said, there are two factors that have clearly held up progress. The first is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s adamant refusal to negotiate with the current Israeli leadership, and the second is the unending Palestinian incitement and terrorism.
As to the first issue, the lack of a willingness to negotiate, Gold said very simply that “you can’t have a negotiated solution if there are no negotiations.” And the French initiative, he said referring to the French plan for an international peace conference at the end of the year, “is not a substitute” for direct talks.
The second issue that would feature in the document, were Gold writing it, would be the relentless Palestinian incitement and violence since the Oslo I Accord in 1993.
Oslo, he said, was predicated on the assumption that the parties were putting their hostile relationship behind them.
Despite this, Palestinian violence continued, just taking different forms: first suicide bombings, then rockets from Gaza, and currently a rash of stabbing attacks.
“Violence seems to have become much more prevalent despite the peace process, and if you want to have a meaningful move toward a negotiated solution, you have to get the violence under control, and you have to get the incitement halted,” he stated.
Gold, however, does not live under a rock, and he hears the international chorus saying that the diplomatic process is not moving because of Israel’s settlement policies.
First of all, he replied, Israel has not built any new settlements in years, making a distinction between building in existing settlements and creating new ones.
And second, he added, “there is enormous evidence out there that this was never the dominant subject for the Palestinians. It is a good subject for them to use because of the attitudes of parts of the international community. But you know what, Yasser Arafat agreed to the Oslo agreements even though there was no settlement freeze. That was one of the first revelations I had when I walked into the job of policy adviser [to Netanyahu] in 1996 and saw classified documents.”
Still, wouldn’t a settlement freeze, or at least a commitment to build only in settlements up to the security fence, defang various international initiatives on the table? Gold took issue with this logic, saying there was something “very twisted” about it.
“Settlements were never a violation of the terms of the Oslo agreements,” he pointed out. “They may have been raised at one time or another, but the process went on despite that. So if Israel is being asked to make concessions in areas that are outside its legal responsibilities in the peace process, in exchange for Palestinian adherence to what are its commitments to the peace process – for example, rejecting violence – then that is not an exchange that will get us very far.
That actually brings the whole process into a deeper black hole than it is now.”
Sometimes, Gold said, “you have to weather the storm and not get panicked about all the talk in the UN General Assembly or the UN Human Rights Council or at the EU. Sometimes some of those bodies are just plain wrong.”
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