'Olmert - one of the best PMs we had'

Q&A with Sallai Meridor

Former Israeli Ambassador to the US and Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor answers readers' questions. Meridor is one of the participants in the Presidential Conference, which opens on Tuesday in Jerusalem. Aryeh, LA: Do you think Obama can deliver when it comes to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians? American involvement is necessary, but not sufficient [in itself]. The most critical elements are the will and ability of the parties themselves. Peace between Egypt and Israel was achieved bilaterally between Begin and Sadat because they made a strategic decision for peace. It's possible that America's involvement was critical in closing the deal, and in "selling" it, but without the commitment and daring of [Begin and Sadat], it would not have happened. It was the same with the accord reached between King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Rabin, and the one [reached by] Rabin, Peres and Arafat. By the way, in all those cases America's alliance with Israel encouraged those Arab leaders to move toward accommodation with Israel; [they understood ] from Washington that the road to America goes through Israel. This contradicts the myth that America's close and unique relationship with Israel makes it harder to attain peace. The facts suggest the opposite - the closer the relationship is perceived [to be], the more likely it is that additional Arab leaders would lean towards peace. With regard to the Palestinians, the big question is whether their leadership is really willing and able to make a historic compromise. Their unwillingness to accept [former] prime minister Ehud Olmert's offer, which included most far reaching and unprecedented concessions, should raise serious questions [regarding this]. Are they really ready to accept Israel as a permanent entity, as the state of the Jewish people forever? Are they ready to accept that they will, like Israel, realize their dreams only in part of the land, and that their refugees will be able to settle only in their state and not in Israel? Is their leadership ready to take the risks involved in such a decision? [To] confront extremists and terrorists across the region? As for Israel, when there is a Palestinian partner for peace, I believe that the Israeli public will support a leadership that views the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as critical for the very future of Israel and would therefore justify the most difficult historic and religious compromise, the heartbreaking human suffering involved with uprooting tens of thousands of the best of Israel and putting Israeli society through a major and dangerous crisis. In summary, a US role may be necessary to reach a deal, but it depends mostly on the parties themselves. Dan Cohen, NY: Do you think the fact that Obama won a Nobel peace prize would prevent him from launching a military strike against Iran, or do you believe that if all else fails, he would resort to use of force? I don't know what President Obama will do, but I dare assume that being awarded a Nobel Prize will have no effect on his decision. I certainly hope President Obama will take all actions necessary to protect the world from the dangers [inherent in] Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. In addition to the nightmare of Iranian terror with a nuclear umbrella, the closer Iran gets to a bomb, the higher the risk that this capability would, [either] directly or through proliferation, make its way into the hands of terror organizations. Deterrence will not work on Islamist terrorists who advocate death as the path to heaven, and no defense system can protect every port and every border [and prevent] one shipment of a nuclear device to a major city. It is much preferable that this is resolved peacefully. However, at the end of the day, the bottom line must be prevention, by any means possible. Yossi, Jerusalem: What is your opinion of the nomination of Michael Oren as your successor in Washington? Is he the right man for the job? He's a very good choice. He is committed, knowledgeable, talented and a wonderful human being. Being the choice of the prime minister will help him succeed in his service. I wish him the very best and I am proud of him. Patti Moss: Over and over, I observe that Israel fails in the hasbara war, and seems to have a real disconnect in how to utilize the power of the media. During Cast Lead, and even the Second Lebanon War, Israel allowed Israelis with very limited English (including the IDF spokeswoman) to attempt to explain Israel's position. Many times they came across as halting. However, I saw a profound difference in your delivery of real information in a clear sophisticated way. Does it frustrate you that Israel hamstrings herself over and over by refusing to deal with this limitation, which has now, since Cast Lead, cost Israel very, very much--including the Goldstone Report and the Turkey multi-nation exercise? Why doesn't Israel place the utmost importance on this and come onboard the 21st century? The "Hasbara" front is an important one, [which] has influence on public support for Israel, on the policies of [foreign] governments toward Israel and on the Jewish identity of young Jews in the Diaspora. Part of the problem stems from the special conditions Israel faces as the only country living under existential threat and under constant terror attacks. The world after September 11 understood us [better] than before, and probably better than [it does] today. The American people generally understand us much better than many others. Even though I felt that Israel did better on this front during Cast Lead, there is still much room for improvement. I am sure that my replacement, Michael Oren, will significantly contribute on this front, too. Mati Goldstein, USA: Jewish support for Obama has dropped from 83% to 64%. What do you think the reason for that is? I don't know, but my impression is that this isn't much different from the current general trend in the US. For example, Rasmussen Reports indicate a drop in support among the general public from 65% to 49%, which is, percentage- wise, similar to your figures with regard to the Jewish community. Ehud, Tel Aviv: Do you think Olmert was mistreated by the media/law enforcement agencies when it came to his alleged criminal affairs? I think that Ehud Olmert was one of the best prime ministers Israel ever had. I'm proud to consider him a close friend and I deeply hope he is acquitted on all charges. I pray this for him personally, and for Israel. Our law enforcement agencies are critical to our society and we are all proud that in Israel nobody is above the law. At the same time, we need to carefully examine whether we can better assure the ability of our executive branch to function optimally for the country, without putting it above the law. Steven Peled, Cleveland, Ohio: It has been my experience that a lot of resistance to freeing Jonathan Pollard has come from conservative American politicians as well, when they controlled one or more branches of the American government. My question is, with the more liberal wings of American politics more or less in control of all three branches, are the possibilities better or worse to seek Pollard's release? I'm not sure I understand why Pollard isn't being released after almost 25 years in jail. I did not have the sense that the American position was a matter of general world-view, [whether] conservative or liberal. I pray that good hearts and minds will allow his release soon. A concerned American Jew, Chicago: Do you think there is a growing polarization in America Jewry, in which many are turning to the right while many are losing interest in Israel? I find "being concerned" a justifiable Jewish characteristic. So, as a concerned Israeli Jew, I want to share with you how proud I am of the Chicago Jewish community; [of] their strong Jewish sense of responsibility and love of Israel. I share your concern about polarization among Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora. Having served in Washington until recently, I found the interest in Israel [to be] quite significant, though [it] cannot be taken for granted. The young generation of Jews has not personally experienced the trauma of the Holocaust and the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish state. They do not have any recollection of how it felt to be a Jew in the Diaspora before 1967. The identity of many of them is impacted by globalization, and being Jewish, for more than a few, is not a must but a matter of choice. They are privileged to be able to deal with Israel as a reality and not as a dream. All of the above means to me that we have to be proactive and invest much of our resources in assuring that our young people choose to live as Jews, feel unique, proud and happy about it and have Israel in their hearts, and at the heart of their Jewish identity. Assuring that should be a major joint responsibility and effort of Israel and world Jewry in the first half of the 21st century. An Israeli living in DC: Do you lament the relative lack of ties between American Jews and Israelis living in America? I am for strong relationships between Jews, wherever they live. One should be aware that the Jewish experiences of Israeli and American Jews are not identical. If for many American Jews the community, the synagogue and Tzedaka play a major role in their [feelings of] belonging, for Israeli Jews, the state, the Hebrew language and army service are dominant. In my service in America I did find Israeli Jews involved in Jewish organizations, especially those which are Israel centered. While I wish many Israelis would return home and many American Jews would make aliya, strengthening the ties between the groups in the Diaspora is important. Aharon Morris: Israel is, perhaps for the first time in recent history, at risk of losing its political clout with the vast majority of the United States. Previously uninformed citizens are opening themselves to alternative perspectives on the Israel/Palestine conflict. With the economic situation on the minds of Americans, we are becoming more reluctant to dole out our tax dollars as blindly as we have been known to. What steps do you suggest Israel take to curb the tide of losing favor with US citizens who have grown weary of global conflict in general? We are grateful to the American people for their friendship and support. In my service in America, I have not noticed a decline in the public support of Israel. Israel is viewed as one of the top allies of America in the world, and [is] supported with no comparison to others in the region. At the same time, efforts should be made to cultivate this support and focus on emerging groups in American society, such as those originating from Latin America and Asia, as well as the younger generation of Americans. Simon Brooke, Cape Town, South Africa: Why does Israel see the Diaspora as mainly consisting of Jews from America? Most US Jews are unaffiliated and interest and support from young US Jews is declining, while support from South Africa, Australia and the UK has always been strong. Shouldn't Israel concentrate its aliya and relationship efforts towards these communities? I agree that Israel needs to work with and care for all Jewish communities in the world. The communities you mentioned, as well as other communities in Latin America, North America and Europe, have been unbelievable in their partnership with Israel. At the same time, the Jewish community in the United States has [made] remarkable Jewish achievements, [achievements] almost without precedent in the history of the Jewish people. Their support of Israel has been invaluable. It is true that every Jewish community should count and be counted, and that the communities you mentioned should be deeply appreciated for their service to the Jewish People and Israel. Still, the sovereignty and centrality of Israel and the size and capacity of the American Jewish community add to their responsibility to the future of the entire Jewish people. Jacob, Israel: Which job was more exciting - JA Chairman or Ambassador to the US? Where are you headed next? More exciting? I guess [being] Ambassador to the US. More challenging, and maybe even more meaningful? Probably [being] chairperson of the Jewish Agency for Israel. What's next? I haven't decided yet.