Israeli Columnist Akiva Eldar on Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East, Iran, Military Censorship in Israel and the Influence of the Israel Lobby in the United States

StoryOctober 08, 2007
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Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist and a senior analyst for the Israeli daily “Haaretz,” calls for a nuclear-free Middle East and questions whether the Israeli lobby in Washington is contributing to the security of Israel. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota has canceled Nobel Peace Prize-winning South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s scheduled appearance next year. School officials say they’re barring Tutu because of previous statements he’s made “against Israeli policy.” Tutu has compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to South Africa under apartheid.

Being able to voice criticism of Israeli government policy is becoming a major issue on university campuses across the United States. It’s also an issue in Congress. We now turn to a well-known Israeli journalist for a sense of what this and other debates look like inside Israel.

Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and senior analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and he is co-author of a new book; it’s critical of Israeli settlement policy. It’s called Lords of the Land: The Settlers and the State of Israel. I interviewed Akiva Eldar last month and asked him how the so-called “Israel lobby” in the United States is perceived in Israel.

AKIVA ELDAR: They are a very important instrument in order to pursue Israel’s policy, but I’m afraid that they’re a little bit behind the Israeli government and the Israeli people. We are in a different mode, which I think takes time for the American Jewish organizations to digest, the fact that we don’t want to keep those territories. And probably the Israeli propaganda was so efficient that it’s very hard now to change the mode and to convince them that it’s a different era now. It’s a different government. We have 70 out of 120 members of the Knesset who support a two-state solution based on the ’67 lines.

And, you know, if for 40 years, you tell the Jewish community that Israel cannot afford to give up the territories, they are important for Israel’s security, just overnight to tell, “Sorry, we were wrong. Now, we don’t need those territories,” it’s probably — I remember, you know, those groups that were taken to the Golan Heights, for instance, we didn’t mention Syria, but the Golan Heights, we told them we can’t live without it, because look at the geography or topography, with us sitting there, and they were shelling the kibbutzim down there, and now, after all this time that they spend going to Capitol Hill and using their leverage to convince the American people not to put any pressure on Israel to give up the Golan Heights, now all of a sudden the Syrians are the good guys and we can get down to business with them? It’s very difficult. I think that we are paying the price of having our PR doing a very good job for many years.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say then the American Jewish organizations are presenting an obstacle to peace?

AKIVA ELDAR: They are, I think, behind the Israeli people, and I think that the bottom line, if you measure this by their results, I don’t think that the mainstream Jewish organizations — there are others like Americans for Peace Now, IPF in America, the Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and other organizations who are doing a good job, and I think that they are getting more and more listeners.

AMY GOODMAN: How — what kind of effect did President Carter’s book have in Israel?

AKIVA ELDAR: You know, this is a kind of over-killing. I think that it’s like Mearsheimer and Walt’s —- the book -—

AMY GOODMAN: On the Israel lobby.

AKIVA ELDAR: On the Israeli lobby. Just to say that Israel and the Jewish lobby controls the United States is overdoing it. They are very powerful, and I think that we, Israel and the Jewish lobby, are playing according to the American rules. You know, when I moved to Washington to be bureau chief of Haaretz, I got a tip from a colleague who said, “If you want to succeed, if you want to understand America, follow the money.” And the Jewish lobby has the money and has the motivation and has the power. And they use this, and Washington, as you know better than me, is a city of power. And if you have the power, nobody is disturbing the Arab lobby to use the same kind of power. There are six million Jews who live in the United States and more or less six million Muslims who live here. And it’s a free country.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think the — would you say that the Israel lobby is more powerful?

AKIVA ELDAR: Because they’re more committed. I think that they are very committed to the — Israel’s security and well-being of the Israelis, and they are motivated to work and to invest.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think they’re making Israel more secure?

AKIVA ELDAR: No. I think that they have good intentions, but you know sometimes where good intentions are taking people.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton’s comments, declaring the Bush administration would support an Israeli attack on Iran. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, Bolton said, “We’re talking about a clear message to Iran. Israel has the right to self-defense, and that includes offensive operations against WMD facilities that pose a threat to Israel. The United States would justify such attacks,” he said.

AKIVA ELDAR: I’m not sure if an attack on Iran is in the cards, simply because I don’t think that the United States and Israel know exactly where they’re hiding the facilities. Iran is a huge country. They have a big desert, and, as far as I understand, both the Israeli and the American intelligence don’t know where they’re hiding this. You can do this —- what we did in -—

AMY GOODMAN: That didn’t stop an attack on Iraq.

AKIVA ELDAR: Exactly, but this was different. You can do this only once. What we did — you mean Israel in ’81 attacking the unit, the Iraqi nuclear facilities in Osirak. The Iranians are not going to repeat the same mistake. They are not putting all their eggs in one basket. They have too many baskets all around. And as far as I know, from my sources, a military attack is not possible.

What is possible is to reach an agreement with Iran and with other Arab countries, because it’s not going stop with Iran. I interviewed King Abdullah of Jordan six months ago, and he said, “In no time, you will see every Arab country with nuclear power, including Jordan.” Now, it starts, of course, with nuclear power for civil use. But you don’t know where it ends and what will happen if there will be a coup d’état in one of those Arab countries in a few years. So the Middle East is going to be nuclearized in no time.

And I think that the solution should be a regional agreement. I wonder why the Arab League didn’t offer to add another paragraph to the initiative from — that started in 2002 and was ratified recently, that the Middle East should be nuclear-free, including Israel. I think this has to be part of a regional agreement.

From talking to Iranians, the message that is coming out of the most liberal Iranians, not only from Ahmadinejad, is that “Why shouldn’t we have what we think the Israelis have, Pakistan and India?” If Iran will agree to stop their nuclear program, that means that they admit that they are pariah, that they are worse than other countries. So I think we need to offer them a ladder, where they can climb down, and this ladder, I believe, is a regional agreement. And, of course, that means that Iran will have to stop putting out clear threats to the very existence of Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying that Israel should give up its nuclear weapons. You have people like Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear whistleblower who’s been re-sentenced again, after serving, oh, many years in jail.

AKIVA ELDAR: As part of a regional peace process, a regional peace agreement. As long as Israel’s existence is under threat, I don’t believe that you can find any Israeli government that will agree to that. But —- actually this has been the Israeli position when Shimon Peres was prime minister. The official Israeli position was that we will join the NPT and any kind of -—

AMY GOODMAN: Nuclear [Non-]Proliferation Treaty.

AKIVA ELDAR: —- Nuclear [Non—]Proliferation Treaty, once the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the Middle East conflict, including the threat from Iran, will be over, not a minute before that, because of the deed of Israel to keep whatever people believe that it keeps in Dimona to deter a war.

AMY GOODMAN: How many nuclear bombs does Israel have?

AKIVA ELDAR: I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: But you know it does have them?

AKIVA ELDAR: That’s according to our policy, I — when I write about this, and this is what I have to do now, is to quote the foreign media. But according to foreign media, Israel has got nuclear power.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that policy.

AKIVA ELDAR: The policy is that we have an Israel military censorship, and there is an agreement between the military censor and the editors of the Israeli papers that when it comes to sensitive issues, we have to submit every story to the censor, such as the last occasion of when the Syrians claimed that the Israelis, the Israeli airplanes, penetrated and attacked some units in Syria, we had to quote The Washington Post, CNN and the Syrian papers.

AMY GOODMAN: And your understanding of what happened there?


AMY GOODMAN: What happened?

AKIVA ELDAR: According to foreign sources —

AMY GOODMAN: You’re in the United States now. Do you still have to abide by —

AKIVA ELDAR: I’m afraid so.


AKIVA ELDAR: You don’t to want put me into trouble, right? I have to go back to Israel. Well, if you offer me asylum, then I will consider it. But my children are waiting for me at home, so I — you’ll have to forgive me.

AMY GOODMAN: So can you explain what happened according to these sources?

AKIVA ELDAR: According to these sources, Israel got information from good sources that Syria is hiding nuclear facilities that were transferred from North Korea. I understand that this happened before the agreement between the United States and North Korea. And since Israel had a clear proof that Syria is hiding this and Israel had the opportunity to send Syria a message, that this is just the beginning, that they can’t do this, that Israel cannot come to terms with the idea that such cooperation will take place, Israeli — the Israeli Air Force attacked those units.

AMY GOODMAN: What would happen if you defied the censor?

AKIVA ELDAR: My editor on my newspaper will be fined. I don’t think that I will go to jail, but there will be a big fine.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of the criticism, when people in the United States criticize the Israeli government or the Israeli military, that they are being anti-Semitic?

AKIVA ELDAR: Look, some people may — if this book Lords of the Land was written by an American journalist, two American journalists, I’m sure that they would be blamed of anti-Semitism, like President Carter was blamed on being anti-Semite. I think that we are doing great damage to anti-Semitism when we use it in the wrong — in the wrong time and in the wrong context, because there is anti-Semitism, and it’s going to be, you know, the cry — the wolf’s cry, once there will be anti-Semitism. And I’m afraid it’s not — you know, at the end, nobody will listen to us. So I would be very much careful not to inflate the use of anti-Semitism whenever there is criticism.

For instance, you know, for many years, people were talking about a Palestinian state and negotiations with the PLO. When I was writing articles in the '80s, in the beginning of the ’80s, in favor of negotiations with the PLO and a two-state solution, some people called me a collaborator with the Palestinians. And if I was not Jewish, they — I'm sure I would be titled anti-Semite.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of the Arab League renewing their peace offer, full peace for full withdrawal? Israel rejected it the first time. What about now?

AKIVA ELDAR: You know, in November, we are going to celebrate 90 years of the Balfour Declaration, which was the first most important document offering a Jewish state to the Jewish people, a state in Israel. I think that the Arab League declaration 90 years later is closing the circle that started, because the Balfour war — the Balfour Declaration started actually another round of violence, because the Arabs didn’t — were not willing to accept the idea of a Jewish state. Ninety years later, the Arabs are completing what Balfour started. And I think that this is the best news that we had in 90 years. And I think it is not only stupid, I think it is criminal to miss this opportunity. And I hope that the generations who will come will not regret this.

AMY GOODMAN: Akiva Eldar, the chief diplomatic columnist and senior analyst for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. He is co-author of a new book published on the 40th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It’s called Lords of the Land: The Settlers and the State of Israel. We interviewed Akiva Eldar when he came into our studio.

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