The war in Lebanon
Daniel Bleiberg, Beverly Hills, USA: First of all, do you believe that the diplomatic results of the war in Lebanon were favorable for Israel or not? If Security Council Resolution 1701 is implemented and succeeds, do you think this could pave the way for peace with Lebanon? Also, what happened with the campaign to normalize relations with Muslim nations such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Qatar that you worked so intensively last year? Did these efforts fall apart under Tzipi Livni?
Silvan Shalom: The diplomatic results were not favorable to Israel. Israel did not achieve any of its declared war objectives: freeing Israel's kidnapped soldiers, disarming Hizbullah, and removing all long-range and short-mid range missiles from Lebanon.
It is of the utmost importance that Israel remain in control of its foreign and domestic affairs. Israel lost an opportunity and credibility when its national security was placed in the hands of the United Nations.
Israel's exit strategy illustrated poor judgment and it weakened the State of Israel. Israel should have remained in control of its own national security, which would mean leading diplomatic efforts, preparing the cease-fire agreement, and determining necessary demands to place upon the government of Lebanon.
The government should have built a coalition of nations willing to assist in the implementation of such an agreement. Building such a coalition could have helped Israel enormously in relationship-building with international communities. Israel quite possibly could have taken advantage in a positive way, of Saudi Arabia's disdain for Hizbullah, and involved the Saudi government, even if behind the scenes.
"These elements should bear the responsibility for their irresponsible actions and they alone should end the crisis they have created," was a statement by a Saudi government official.
"A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside (Lebanon) and those behind them without recourse to the legal authorities and consulting and coordinating with Arab nations," a statement carried by Saudi Arabia's official news agency SPA read.
The possibilities were endless. The coalition could have enhanced world perceptions of Israel, in terms of showcasing our willingness to participate in the global community in a self-determined, yet diplomatic way. In this case, Israel's exit would not have been a failure. A cease-fire agreement may have taken longer to reach, but the benefits would have paid off, both in perceived strength of the current government by Israel's aggressors, and in implementation of demands placed on the Lebanese government.
If Israel's current government acted in such a manner with its exit plan, then I do believe a peace with Lebanon would have been possible in the near future. Since that type of exit plan was not constructed, it is difficult to determine if a peace with Lebanon is on the horizon. Israel, now, can only place its hopes for a peace with Lebanon in the hands of the United Nations and its team of peacekeepers.
To answer the last part of your question: Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with four Arab states: Mauritania, Egypt, Jordan, as well as Turkey, which has a Muslim majority. In fact, the Embassy of Jordan was reopened as a result of my efforts as foreign minister. I take great satisfaction in the exhaustive work I, as foreign minister, and my staff at the Foreign Ministry, did in normalizing relations between Israel and various moderate Arab nations.
I thought then, and I continue to believe that positive relationships with moderate Arab nations would be mutually beneficial. While I was foreign minister I held talks with the Pakistani foreign minister.
It was during these talks that I came to better understand that Pakistan seeks relations with Israel for a few reasons: to boost its own national security; to have economic contacts with Israel; to benefit from Israel's advanced technology; and according to Pakistan's foreign minister, building relations with Israel would help Pakistanis all over the world. "There are 80 million Pakistanis living abroad and after the incidents of 9/11 and 7/7, the lives of ordinary Pakistanis abroad became too difficult. We want to address this. We want to portray the soft image of Pakistan," he said.
I, as foreign minister, also held high-level public meetings with Bahrain, Qatar, Indonesia, Morocco, Tunisia, and other northern Africa countries. Bahrain, Qatar and Tunisia agreed to ease their economic policies toward Israel.
In reaction, some Arab nations grew concerned, while other Arab nations, like Kuwait, began, slowly, to reconsider their policies toward Israel. Ahmed al-Jarallah, editor in chief of the Arab Times, wrote in an editorial, "After a long time, we have finally decided to leave the Palestinian cause to Palestinians, because it is they who are really concerned with this issue." Another journalist from Al Seyassa, which is a daily newspaper out of Kuwait, wrote, "Normalizing ties with Israel is an important event, and its positive effect will permeate every aspect of the Arab political, economic, cultural and social life."
Today Israel is governed by a new political party, which consists of a variety of different foreign policy principles. It is true that the current government is not doing enough, not at all. The existing government must bring back the policy of continued steady dialogues with moderate Arab nations. I, along with my staff, achieved too much successful and groundbreaking work for it to be abandoned.
James Mukanga, Kampala, Uganda: Don't you think that the magnitude of the Israeli response to Hizbullah's abduction of two IDF soldiers constitutes a deterrent in itself, regardless of what many commentators may say?
Israel's interests were not to destroy civilian homes, or economic infrastructure, and it definitely was not to accumulate civilian casualties. An inexperienced and indecisive government failed to make the necessary strategic decisions for a successful outcome.
The war is deemed a failure for the simple fact that the government of Israel failed to obtain the demands set out at the beginning of the war... The United Nations cease-fire resolution does not include the return of Israel's kidnapped soldiers, Hizbullah fighters are filtering back to the south and will almost certainly reestablish their strength while the Lebanese army turns away, and as for reestablishing Israeli deterrence, Israel is weaker today than prior to entering into combat with Hizbullah, primarily from the impressions on the Arab world regarding Israel's exit.
Israelis, almost the entire war, were supportive of the government's efforts against Hizbullah. Two million Israeli residents from the North left their homes, or lived in shelters for more than a month. The citizens of Israel were willing to live through hard times in order to do their part in supporting the government in successfully fulfilling its objectives. Yet, the current government was not up for the task, and failed the citizens so willing to stand by their government.
It seems the positive aspects to a disappointing end are the changes beginning to take place in Israeli society. Citizens are taking accountability in their voting standards, and beginning to voice their demands unto the government of Israel. As changes in the sociopolitical environment take place, Israelis will find themselves and their leadership more ideologically and strategically self-determined. Israel will grow in many ways from this failed effort against Hizbullah.
Jody Smith, Dallas, USA: Why do you object to starting negotiations with Syria now?
Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizbullah are not marginal fringe groups. Iran and Syria are sovereign states, Hamas was elected into the government of the Palestinian Authority, and Hizbullah holds 25 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament and two ministerial portfolios.
Syria, as a result of its active participation with, and its instruction to Hamas and Hizbullah, poses an enormous threat to the Western world. When you also consider its deep-rooted political connection and unity with Iran, it is imperative Israel prepares itself for additional security threats made by Syria.
Traditionally, representatives of two sovereign nations sit down at a negotiation table after a conflict has finished. Until that time, it is customary that representatives of each country maintain dialogues with various nations through their respective prime minister or president and Defense Ministry or Department of Defense. At this point, the quartet (Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizbullah) are not at a place where they believe they are finished. Therefore, negotiations with them would be premature.
Yet, with our eyes wide open, Israel should give the time and encouragement to Syria to reevaluate and finally decide, which international partnerships are most beneficial for Syria's long-term goals. Israel hopes for a peaceful outcome, always. However, the outcome will ultimately be the choice of Syria.
Veronika, Frankfurt, Germany: Kofi Annan continues to blame Israel for anything possible. How do you see the chances of an Israeli referendum about the UN membership? Do you find it really necessary in the present situation to stay in the UN?
Whether the United Nations is as we would hope it to be or not, it still remains an important stage for Israel to speak to and work with other UN members of foreign nations, and participate in valuable international diplomatic efforts.
What Israel does need to evaluate is, how much of Israel's foreign and domestic policy decisions will be handed willingly to the UN to influence or mandate upon. This determination is one Israel must consider seriously. Israel as a sovereign nation knows the best course of action for its country.
We must lead our nation and if necessary ask other nations to assist us diplomatically. We must be a self-determined nation. Only in the gravest of times, when events would be beyond our control, should Israel ask for UN assistance.
Stan Sidorovsky, Philadelphia, USA: Why in your opinion does Israel ALWAYS lose media wars? Is it the case again with Lebanon II. Is this phenomenon in your opinion related to the unprofessionalism of Foreign Ministry staff?
The issues you have raised are very important. In times of crisis, like for example war, it is absolutely necessary that Israel be properly understood in the media. Israel must maintain and create new strategies in order to reach every layer of the international media. It is not enough for Israel to pursue dialogue with the international public and media outlets only during times of obvious need. Media and public relations must be adamantly pursued on a daily basis; a clear understanding of Israel's logic must be kept up with and expressed daily. All of Israel's leadership - political, military, and intellectual - must understand it is a mandatory aspect of their profession.
When I served as foreign minister, I dedicated a consistent amount of time, and a fair amount of human resources and financing to develop Israel's public and media relations abroad. Those three things - time, human resources, and financing - are the key. As a result I was able to create new programs, positions, and departments to assist in public relations efforts abroad, such as creating a specific department for PR to the Arab world.
Alex Braun, Cancun, Mexico: Will the current fight escalate (with Lebanon, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas) to an all-out strategic war? If so, will Israel emerge victorious from it?
Israel will be victorious against future aggressors. However, in the immediate future Israel must contend with a serious analysis of what went wrong in all areas of fighting Hizbullah, and fix all problems uncovered both strategically and practically. All nations at one point or another have had to deal with the consequences of poor leadership. What Israel must uncover now is, how much of Israel's failures in fighting Hizbullah are a symptom of our leadership, and how much is a result of other factors.
John Cox, Sydney, Australia: Which do you think is the best way to investigate the war? What type of commission could best prepare for the future?
The best way to investigate the war would be for all political parties in the government and in opposition to vote on a pool of qualified and appropriate individuals from various professional fields. The committee would be formed and appointed by the government and parliament, but would remain independent from government influence after its creation.
Each appointed person to this committee would receive necessary background checks for temporary security clearance, and would, after successful completion, be full access to all requested materials. The commission, after a designated period of time, would then state its findings and recommendations in an open floor presentation to the government. Shortly thereafter, a full report of the commission's findings and recommendations should be openly published.
The Iranian threat
Tidi Benbenisti, Johannesburg, South Africa: Is Israel within its rights (as a sovereign state) to pursue a preemptive strike against Iran, considering its president has consistently called for the destruction of the state of Israel?
Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself by all means necessary. However, it is in Israel's best interest to involve the international community, or at a minimum a few influential specific nations. It is important the world maintains an awareness, an understanding, that Iran holding in its possession nuclear weapons will not just wipe Israel off the map, but would change the world order as we understand it.
Iran is a nation which is proudly at the forefront of global terrorism, aids Hizbullah in Lebanon, al- Qaida, and Palestinian terror organizations, and is largely behind attacks on US armed forces in Iraq. If Iran obtained nuclear power, it would not only establish itself as a superpower on a global level, but would also assist the country in establishing its domestic regime. Israel should place itself at the forefront of the Iran conflict. Yet, Israel should also encourage decisive international efforts, as this involves security interests on an international scale.
However, if diplomatic efforts, sanctions, power plays, and intelligence exchanges are exhausted, and no positive outcome is evident, then Israel must participate, if not lead, in the last steps to stop Iran's completion of nuclear armament.
Alan Katz, Melville, UK: Do you agree that the obstacle to peace is radical Islamic anti-Semitism? And if so, how can Israel ever have peace?
To a degree, yes. Radical Islamic thought consists of the basic concept that the world is divided into two parts, the world of Islam and the world of heresy; the goal, therefore, of radical Islamic organizations are expressed in the exporting of Islamic law and religion to the entire world.
Unfortunately, the methods are typically ones of coercion, fear, propaganda and violence. However, an equally significant rationale, which I believe is a great indicator for reasons of such widespread global terrorism by radical Islamic groups, is that Islam makes up 1.3 billion people on this planet, which comes out to 21% of the world's population.
Yet, in this year's UNDP study of educational and economic status of religious societies, Christian societies are the most advanced societies in the world with regard to education, health, and economic wealth; whereas Muslim societies are the most backward in these three categories. There was a time when the Islamic civilization was considered to be the most advanced and progressive civilization in the world. I tend to believe radical Islam has a demand to regain its position of respect and power.
Until the international communities, along with Israel, are able to assuage the needs of radical Islam mentioned above, radical Islamic organizations will continue to pose immediate security threats to Israel and international societies. Peace and quiet can then only be maintained through deterrence.
David Matz, Wilmette, USA: With Russia and China opposing UN sanctions, how can "diplomacy" work in Iran, or is this a blessing in disguise and should military action be taken sooner rather than later? Should US do it or should Israel do it, or together? Will military action be effective without Iranian regime change? How can regime change happen in Iran? What will be immediate and mid-term challenges in the region if there were military action against Iran?
Effective diplomacy with Iran should always exist as a hopeful possibility. At the moment, diplomacy will not involve Israel, and probably will not involve Israel in the future. Diplomacy is a matter for international organizations and individual foreign leaders. It is in the best interest of the entire free world to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. Therefore, each nation should assist in the most pragmatic ways possible. It is not logical for Israel to be involved in the negotiation aspects taking place at the moment.
It terms of military action against Iran, Israel is currently refiguring its strategic posture in terms of its security in the region. We are not in a place to consider military action at the moment. We will currently deal with flaws inside of our system, which have damaged our security preparedness. Israel will be prepared if, or when, the day comes again that Israel must actively protect its national security.
Lastly, I tend to believe regime change could exist in Iran only when the Ayatollah Khamenei is gone. At that time, it would be up to the Iranians, and the encouragement of the international communities to see positive change in the region come to life.
The future of the Likud
Sasha, Toronto, Canada: Are you sure Binyamin Netanyahu's leadership would defeat Kadima-Labor? Will you run in the next primaries?
I will run in Israel's next primary elections. I have too much to accomplish, and too many policy issues to tackle not to run again. The Likud party, and the citizens of Israel face complex challenges both internally and externally. It would be irresponsible of me not to continue as a civil servant when so much is yet to be done.
As far as which political figure could defeat Kadima in the next elections, it is impossible to answer that at the moment. As a result of various failures on the part of the current government there continues to be talks of early, very early, elections. Yet, Israel could remain with our current government one year, two years, two terms... Right now it is difficult to say what the outcome of an election in Israel would be. When the ramifications from the failures of Israel's war against Hizbullah are dealt with properly, and the dust settles, there will be more political clarity in terms of declaring new elections or not.
Likud MKs are taking every opportunity to decisively and actively lead the nation of Israel while in the opposition. I do believe time in opposition can only benefit the Likud Party in terms of shifting public confidence.
Aharon Martin, Chicago, USA: What is the Likud's political stance regarding the city of Hebron with the Cave of Machpela, and the settlement of Kiryat Arba? Can we expect these areas to be evacuated in a theoretical peace agreement with the PA?
Currently, the stance regarding the Cave of Machpela and Kiryat Arba remains the same as it did in May 2006. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to unilaterally set Israel's final borders connected the Jewish neighborhoods of Hebron to Kiryat Arba. The two communities would be set inside of Israel's borders. The holy site will be included in the section that Israel keeps.
Jewish holy sites should always remain in Israel's borders. One, for preservation's sake, and two, they remain the strongest example of Jewish history and religious life in the land of Israel.
I must add, however, it is my ambition and political responsibility to hold a mirror up to the existing majority government. I will exercise all that my political position allows in an effort to halt unilateral steps in the West Bank. The recent evidence should showcase to the world that a lasting peace can only be achieved through diplomatic agreements, which include conditions of reform.
Rebecca, Wellington, New Zealand: Assuming there is a serious Palestinian partner, which part of the West Bank, specifically, is the Likud willing to give up for a peace treaty?
When Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Washington, DC, in May of this year, he asked for financial assistance for his West Bank withdrawal plan, which would include an evacuation of 50,000 to 100,000 Israeli settlers from 90% to 95% of the West Bank and major portions of Jerusalem.
Yet, with that said, it is of my opinion that Israel must put aside considerations of unilateral disengagement from the West Bank until the ramifications of Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza are weighed, measured, and managed.
Since Israel withdrew from Gaza, terror organizations, such as al-Qaida and Hizbullah grew substantially in both numbers and armament. Assassinations have been attempted by Hamas against Fatah's intelligence chief, as well as Jordan's ambassador; rocket and mortar attacks into Israeli towns have grown in quantity and Hamas has claimed a victory in the Palestinian elections, and is now the ruling party, etc...
All hopes the international community may have had of building economic infrastructure in Gaza, and assisting in generating a thriving self-sufficient people were dashed the moment the well-known terrorist organization, Hamas, was elected to the Palestinian government. The withdrawal from Gaza has unleashed madness. Therefore, it is my opinion that Israel cease talks on unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.
Israel must understand unilateral disengagement does not work for the betterment of Israel, as well as international communities. It is our responsibility to ourselves and to the world as a whole that we understand the failure of a unilateral withdrawal, and maintain no further dialogue until the Palestinian people are no longer governed by Hamas, and are actively pursuing considerable democratic reforms.
Israel has exhausted all other methods for peace. Yet, through trial and error, it is obvious that only through a moderate Palestinian government in place, and significant democratic reforms achieved can peace become a reality. The responsibility of pursuing peace through a two-state solution should rest strictly with the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people elected Hamas; they must now have the courage to elect a democratic moderate visionary. Until then, Israel will have to maintain security by continuing to thwart all forms of terrorism.
Meir Smullen, Beit Shemesh, Israel: With all the talk of trying to topple the government, I calculate that only if at least 10 Kadima MKs were to suddenly return to the Likud could this be done. Is the Likud trying to coax Kadima people who have a conscience and regret leaving back to the Likud in order to save the country?
Good question! I believe the next year will be a fascinating period in the political history of the State of Israel. The disengagement grabbed a hold of everyone in Israel, and changed the political landscape dramatically.
It would be odd for Kadima members, formerly of Likud, to return to the Likud party. That action would destabilize the Likud Party's identity, and it would also shame or take credibility away from whichever politician would attempt to make the transition. Therefore, I do not believe that type of action would occur.
If Kadima continues to fail its countrymen in domestic and international affairs, and as a result Kadima falls, it will be fascinating and exciting to watch how the phoenix rises from the ashes. Perhaps new parties will be formed, perhaps new leaders will emerge; the sky is the limit at the potential of possibilities.
Aaron Evan, Israel: Given the rise of Moshe Feiglin to 13% or 3rd place in the last Likud primaries, what is your take on this phenomenon?
Feiglin's ambitions were less about serving the public and more about personal political gain... It should be clearly understood that the Likud Party is a conservative party, which is made up of a variety of moderates, moderate conservatives, and conservatives. The Likud Party should never be confused with extreme leadership or principles.
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