Former security official: Time for reassessment of basic peace-making assumptions

Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war presents a new security threat to Israel’s northern border, says Giora Eiland.

A soldier sleeps in a trench next to an armored vehicle on the Golan Heights. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A soldier sleeps in a trench next to an armored vehicle on the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Former National Security Council head Giora Eiland does not see eye-to-eye with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on many issues.
He thinks it was a mistake for Netanyahu to so publicly and aggressively combat US President Barack Obama over Iran’s nuclear program. He feels that Netanyahu is out of step in continuing to demand that Iran stop all uranium enrichment. And he disagrees that the Lausanne framework agreement between the world powers and Iran endangers the State of Israel.
But on one thing Eiland does agree with the prime minister: there will not be a two-state solution any time soon to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama clobbered Netanyahu shortly after the March election for saying in an interview a day before the voting that a Palestinian state would not emerge during his tenure, and also for arguing that the regional conditions are not currently ripe for such a development.
As a result of that comment, Obama threatened a “reassessment” of US policy toward Israeli-Palestinian peace-making.
Asked in an interview with The Jerusalem Post whether he agreed with Netanyahu’s assessment, Eiland replied, “certainly I agree with it.”
If the question is whether it is possible today to reach a permanent accord with the Palestinians on the basis of the two-state paradigm whose details have been painstakingly worked out – but never agreed upon – over the last two decades, then the answer is no, said Eiland, who served as National Security Adviser from 2004 to 2006, and before that held various senior positions in the army, including head of the Planning Directorate.
But another question must be asked, he said: Are there only two possibilities, the two-state solution or the current situation? And his answer to that question was also an emphatic “no.”
Eiland, who in 2010 penned a paper proffering two out-of-the-box alternatives to the conventional two-state solution, would welcome a reassessment that would revisit all the assumptions over the last 22 years that have ended in the current stalemate.
One of the ideas Eiland spelled out in 2010 was for a Jordanian-Palestinian federation, in which the West Bank and Gaza would be states in an expanded Jordanian kingdom.
Another idea would indeed see the establishment of a Palestinian state, but it would be based on land swaps between Egypt, Israel and a future Palestinian entity that would significantly expand the size of Gaza, allow Israel to retain 12 percent of the West Bank, and provide Egypt with a land link to Jordan.
According to Eiland, it is not the US that – as a manifestation of anger with Israel – should be conducting the reassessment, but rather both Israel and the US, which should discreetly be reexamining together all the long-held assumptions to see whether there was another diplomatic way forward that provided greater maneuverability.
“Someone has to sit for three months and say ‘let’s toss out all the existing assumptions,’” he said.
Among the assumptions Eiland believes should be reworked are that an agreement must be bilateral, or that the solution lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, or that at the end there have to be two states.
The problem, he said, is that he is not certain Netanyahu is built for such a reassessment; he is certain that Netanyahu is unable now to have that kind of true and open dialogue with the current US administration; and he is also sure that US Secretary of State John Kerry is unable to engage in such a rethink today.
For the last two years Kerry has been pushing ahead with the two-state solution, and won’t change course now. “Even if he doesn’t believe it, he is already committed,” he said.
“You can reassess with the Americans once every four years,” Eiland maintained. “Either when a new president is elected, or when there is a new secretary of state. At that time, well before there are any announcements about a two-state solution, you can say, ‘Lets make a reassessment for a period of three months, to analyze all possible options, and only then try to make some decisions.’” This opportunity, he agreed, may present itself in November 2016, after a new US president is elected.
Eiland, who has a penchant for looking at issues from unconventional angles, said one of the reasons for Netanyahu’s adamant opposition to the US on the Iranian deal had to do with relieving US pressure on the Palestinian front.
“Let’s theoretically take an extreme scenario and say Netanyahu had welcomed the agreement – that he said it was wonderful and thanked the US for preventing a nuclear Iran. Then the Americans could have said, ‘Okay, we did our share with the Iranians, it is now your turn to do your part with the Palestinians.’” Since Netanyahu is very far from thanking Washington for its efforts on Iran, Eiland said, “It will therefore be difficult for the Americans to say, ‘Okay, it is now your turn to make concessions because we acted for you.’” While the emerging agreement with Iran is perhaps not something Israel should thank the US for, Eiland – in stark contrast to Netanyahu – believes that for Israel an agreement with Iran is preferable to no accord at all.
“If there is no agreement, it may be that the Iranians will suffer more, economically and otherwise, but it will certainly not improve our situation, because there will be no limitations on anything connected to Iran’s developing of nuclear arms,” he said. The Israeli- Iranian equation was not a zero sum game whereby what is bad for Iran is good for Israel, and vice-versa, he added.
Eiland said that Israel erred in sticking to its maximalist position that Iran should not have the right to enrich any uranium, even after the world – following Obama’s lead – reversed a course it had once set and said that Tehran did indeed have such a right under certain conditions.
Once Obama made that determination, Israel had two options, and chose the wrong one, Eiland maintained.
“The option that Israel picked said the following: We are sticking with our position that it is forbidden for Iran to enrich uranium, and any agreement that gives Iran the right to do so is a bad agreement and we will oppose it.”
While that position might be justified, Eiland continued, it was “not smart,” because “it placed Israel out of sync regarding the accepted position in the world.”
“Israel needed to understand already two years ago that the battle over the enrichment of uranium was lost; and like a defensive battle, sometimes you lose one position, but instead of being stubborn and losing more and more, it is better to withdraw from it and move to another defensive line perhaps further back, and hunker behind it.”
Rather than battling the US on the zero-enrichment point, it would have been wiser, he said, to say to Washington, “Okay, we understand your position on the matter, but now let’s see how we can put enough limitations on Iran to prevent it from using its right to enrich into developing nuclear weapons.”
But rather than taking that approach, Eiland said Israel stuck by its maximalist positions, which were completely disregarded. And that, too, has had negative ramifications.
“People often say mistakenly that while Obama and Netanyahu quarrel often, at the professional level, the relationship is great. That is not correct.
“The relationship is great at the intelligence level, meaning what information is passed, but when you go to conversations on the Iranians, there is a great deal of staff work by professional, technical experts. If up until a few years ago they listened attentively to our advice about what type of agreement it was possible to reach, and all kinds of technical questions, today they don’t listen to our professional experts, because they [Israel’s officials] are obligated to the zero-enrichment line – and that is so far offside that no one listens to it.”
Another error Israel made, Eiland said, was in not – over the years – positively responding to Russian requests to intervene with the US and drawing up a “package” deal whereby Washington would take into account Moscow’s core interests, in exchange for Russian accommodation on Iran.
“That would have helped our interests,” he said.
According to Eiland, the greater the clash between the US and Russia in other areas, and the more tension that exists between the White House and the Kremlin, the more difficult it was for the US to completely isolate the Islamic Republic.
“If Russia is not with them [the US], then China is not with them, and India is partly not with them, and then Iran is not completely isolated either politically or economically,” he said. As a result, Tehran’s ability to withstand pressure is greater if it is not totally isolated.
“For many years, the Americans – and I am talking about way before the crisis in Ukraine – preferred for reasons that are odd and not justified in my eyes to fight with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin about tangential issues and, as a result of that, essentially sacrifice the interest of stopping the Iranian nuclear project,” he said.
The Americans, Eiland continued, fought with Putin for years over human rights in Russia, attacked him for using force in Chechnya, openly supported Georgia in its 2008 war with Russia, and are consistently trying to drag the Baltic states into NATO, essentially – he said – rendering those states “anti-Russian.”
The result of this policy, according to Eiland, was “to create a great deal of anger inside Russia,” and an unwillingness to cooperate with Washington regarding Iran.
“It was more important for the Americans to attack Putin about the lack of democratization in Russia than it apparently was for them to reach a better agreement with Iran,” he said. “And that is unfortunate.”