Washington: 'Iran is greatest threat to Middle East we want to see'

Condoleezza Rice speaks to The Jerusalem Post.

Rice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Rice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The visit US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made to Israel this week was her ninth of the past year, but it was the first one in which she was accompanied by US President George W. Bush. That presidential traveling companion underscored the progress she has made not only in nudging Israelis and Palestinians to tackle the issues that confront them, but the extent to which she has pulled the administration along on a journey aiming at peace in the Holy Land. While bringing the weight of the office of the president lends momentum and momentousness to the process, basic as well as core issues still divide the parties, and the influence of Iran weighs heavily in the region, as Rice acknowledged in an interview with The Jerusalem Post and Ynet the day before her departure for Israel. Still, with her characteristic poise and unflappable demeanor, seated in the ornate antechamber of her office at the State Department, she declared that, despite the violence in Gaza and the rise of Hamas, now was the time to be supportive of the Palestinians and the push toward peace. On that path, she staked out an American position deeply at odds with Israel over settlement activity in Jerusalem, suggesting that a new phase of the process she has sought to move forward has begun. The following are edited excerpts from the full interview: You still speak about a majority of Israelis supporting the peace process and a two-state solution. At the same time, they are being pounded by rockets on a daily basis. What should Israel do? If it initiates a major military operation in Gaza, would that help the spirit of Annapolis? We believe very strongly that Israel should not be subjected to rocket attacks out of Gaza. And the problem is that Gaza, right now, is under the control of Hamas, which is not supportive of the peace process. This says to me that there's ever more reason to be supportive of those Palestinians who do not believe in terror and violence as a way to get to a two-state solution. Because the best armor that they have against Hamas, the best that they can give to the Palestinian people, is to give them a vision of a peaceful relationship with Israel. So, while I think that the rockets in Gaza have to be dealt with, and Palestinians should be doing everything that they can to stop them, I also believe that it is not an argument for avoiding the peace process. In fact, I think you could say that it's an argument for intensifying the peace process. With what's happening in Gaza, Israel has been saying, basically, that if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas so much as flirts with Hamas, that would be the end of any sort of peace process. Does the United States share that position? I would just quote what President Abbas himself has said, which is that he believes in Palestinian unity. We all believe in Palestinian unity. But Hamas has rejected the agreements that the Palestinians have made with Israel. They continue to hold to violence as an option. Hamas had an unauthorized coup d'état against legitimate Palestinian institutions in Gaza. And [the president] has been very clear that unless Hamas plans to have a different program, the possibilities of reconciliation are not there, and so I think that [Israel's stance is] a position that we find totally defensible... The issue is the kind of efforts to bring Hamas and Fatah back together in some sort of unity government... And I just don't see any evidence that that is the intention of Mahmoud Abbas... Or I should say it's not the intention of Hamas, because I think Abbas would be open to Palestinian unity on terms that he's laid out. Can you see any evidence of change underway in Gaza, due to the difficulties suffered by the population? Let me first say that I do think we have to be concerned about innocent people in Gaza and the humanitarian circumstances there, because it should not be because you have the bad fortune to be trapped in Gaza with Hamas in charge that you can't get food or medicine. And so we've been working very closely with the UN and with Israel to ensure that not be the case. On the other hand, Hamas, which has taken responsibility for Gaza by having taken all of the authority, can't deliver. And why can they not deliver? Because they're isolated from the international community; they're outside the Arab consensus. I was just asked by an Arab TV station whether I think it's right for the world to try to isolate Hamas. Well, Hamas has isolated itself, by not being prepared to renounce violence, and not prepared to live up to the agreements that Palestinian leaders have signed. What about the performance of the Egyptians? We think that Egypt has to do more. Those tunnels need to be dealt with. We have had an army corps of engineers in Egypt, and the Egyptians have said that they want some technical help. We're prepared to give it, but it's also the will [on their part that] is very important here. Is there a lack of will? I don't think that there's any argument suggesting that Egypt has a national interest in a strengthened Hamas in Gaza. But it requires dealing with what has been a very tough problem - the tunnels. The two leaders who are willing to go forward with the process - Olmert and Abbas - are both weak. Under such circumstances, how can the core issues be raised? This time last year, nobody dreamed they'd actually both commit to final status negotiations, to try to complete them in 2008. So when asked what makes us believe they can move forward, I say I have already seen these two leaders move forward despite all of the difficulties. I don't see either Prime Minister Olmert or Abbas as weak. I see them as having certain assets and having certain challenges in their political lives. What are their assets? First of all, commitment. Secondly, I know what polls are saying, but I think Israelis and Palestinians don't want to live in this condition of perpetual conflict any longer. I think that Palestinians and Israelis both understand that there is a window that is closing because extremists, now with more international flavor thanks to the Iranians, are penetrating into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I also believe both of them have a strong relationship with the US and with the first president to call for a Palestinian state, but also one who has been unequivocally, undeniably committed to the defense of Israel. What are the practical implications of the letter that the president wrote [to Ariel Sharon] in 2004? Do you agree with the Israeli position that it was an acknowledgment that Israel would have sovereignty over certain settlement blocs? And in terms of the roadmap call for a freeze in settlement activity, does that include east Jerusalem settlements as well? The US doesn't make a distinction. The roadmap obligations are on settlement activity generally. Again, are you saying that east Jerusalem settlements also need to be halted? Well, for instance, Har Homa is a settlement that the US has opposed from the very beginning. What about the neighborhoods of Gilo and Ramot? Are these also considered settlements? The important point here is that one reason we need to have an agreement is so that we can stop having this discussion about what belongs in Israel and what doesn't. It's very clear, and that's what [Bush's] letter [to Sharon] addressed, that there have been important changes since the 1949 armistice and since the events of 1967. And those are going to have to be accommodated in an agreement, but there needs to be an agreement. The president's acknowledgement that these changes have taken place and need to be accommodated is the president's acknowledgement of that … This president also said it needs to be mutually agreed so the negotiation, the agreement itself, will finally resolve these issues and we can stop having the discussion about what's a settlement and what isn't. What is the main purpose of the president's visit to the Middle East? The Iranian issue? We have a large agenda in the Middle East: peace, Gulf security, our relations with our allies, the importance of the democracy agenda. In this context, how do you perceive the recent incident in the Gulf between Iranian boats and the US Navy? Iran should not engage in such provocations and it needs to stop. The US is going to defend its interests and those of its allies. The president has made that very clear. Now, as to Iran as a subject: yes, there will be discussions on it in Israel, in the Gulf and all around, because Iran is the single greatest threat to the kind of Middle East we all want to see. It's a supporter of terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories. It has nuclear ambitions. Here let me just say one thing about the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate]. There is nothing in it that suggests Iran is not dangerous. The NIE talks about one of the three elements of a nuclear program, which is weaponization. Enrichment and reprocessing, which can lead to fissile materials, continues. The effort to get ever longer ranges of ballistic missiles continues. And what even the halt to weaponization says to me is that this is a state that, after denying for years that it had a covert military program, in fact, as our intelligence says, had one. Now, did they halt it? Perhaps; if they halted it, they did it apparently because of international pressure, which says to me you want to keep up international pressure. And it also says that Iran has a lot of answers to give to the world about what the state of that program was when they supposedly halted it. Nobody seems to be talking about the UN Security Council resolution any more. With all the campaigning for the next presidential election, everybody seems to have forgotten about the nuclear issue. Well, we haven't forgotten. In fact, I expect to talk soon to my foreign minister colleagues about moving forward on the next Security Council resolution. Any timetable? No, but I would hope not terribly long. Look, it's no secret that we and the Russians and, to a certain extent, the Chinese have slightly different tactical views of the timing and nature of a resolution. But we do not differ on the fact that the Security Council track needs to keep moving if the Iranians refuse to suspend their enrichment and reprocessing. One effect of the NIE is the sense in Israel that it is now on its own, and that the military option is off the table. Do you understand that feeling - that Israel feels alone? Is this sense appropriate? I don't think it's appropriate. I can certainly understand that people who have not read the NIE in its entirety, and see headlines about Iran's having stopped weaponization, might question whether the US now considers Iran less of a threat. And what I would underscore is that the US does consider Iran a threat - the single greatest threat in the region. It is a state that is supporting terrorists; a state that is continuing to try and destabilize fragile young democracies; a state that does have nuclear ambitions; and a state that, in terms of the weaponization, was only prevailed upon to suspend or to halt that weaponization because there's been intense pressure from the international community. This tells the US that intense pressure has got to continue. And the world will make a very big mistake if it thinks that Iran is not a danger. What is your message to Israel in the event that it is now preparing to confront that danger alone? Israel is an American ally. The president has made clear that we have a stake in Israel's security and defense. This is similar for our Gulf allies with whom we've had security relations for decades. The US takes those obligations and responsibilities very, very seriously.