American Jewish Committee Head David Harris: Peace Depends on Gaza Residents
Interview by Ivan Dikov
David Harris is the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a non-partisan US advocacy organization, founded in 1906. In 2004, David Harris was awarded the Presidential Medal by Bulgaria's President Georgi Parvanov in Sofia for "developing relations between the Republic of Bulgaria and the United States and for strengthening religious, ethnic and racial harmony".
You recently led a delegation of the American Jewish Committee to Israeli regions bordering the Gaza Strip, which have been targeted by Hamas rocket fire. What was your impression of the situation on the ground?
I was impressed by the strength of Israel's political leadership, military doctrine, and home front. The three top politicians, though of different political parties, presented a united front and demonstrated a firm grasp of the issues from the outset.
The military preparation was superb and the advance intelligence-gathering was truly impressive. And the home front was well-organized and strongly supportive of Israel's armed forces, while bearing the brunt of the missile attacks from Gaza.
I must add a word that doesn't often get noted in the media. While in Ashkelon, a city within range of missiles from Gaza, we visited a hospital. There we met an Israeli civilian injured by a Hamas missile.
In the next room, we saw an Israeli solider recovering from injuries sustained in the battle. And in the third room, we spoke with two Arab men from Gaza who had been hurt in clashes and were brought to Israel for treatment. They received top-quality care, exactly as their neighbors did. That was quite a sight and spoke to Israel's humanistic values.
How lasting do you think the present ceasefire would be? What is needed, in your view, to turn it into a permanent truce? Should Israeli forces retreat, as Hamas has demanded, and leave Gaza once again in the hands of the more radical Palestinian groups?
When dealing with a terrorist group like Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, it is impossible to predict how long the cease-fire will hold. In fact, there have already been several breaches by Hamas.
In the short term, what is needed is far better surveillance of the Gaza-Egyptian border, the route for smuggling weapons to Hamas that originate in Iran and Syria. Also, Hamas must be convinced that Israel will not hesitate to use force again if Hamas strikes at Israeli towns and villages.
In the longer run, it is up to the residents of Gaza if they want to follow the dead-end strategy of the Hamas leadership or support a different regime that offers better prospects for peace and prosperity.
How do you believe the likely outcome of the coming Knesset elections scheduled for February 10, 2009, would affect Israel's security strategy towards the Palestinians and in the wider region?
Any new Israeli government will be a coalition of political parties. In Israel's history, no single party has ever captured a majority of the vote. In fact, the three major parties contending for the leadership post have differences, of course, but not as great as was once the case.
They all recognize the major security threats to Israel, beginning with Iran and its allies, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah. And they have all stressed their commitment to the peace process, recognizing that a two-state settlement is the most desirable outcome of any negotiating process.
Most of all, the upcoming elections remind us that Israel is a vibrant democracy, with free and fair elections and smooth transfers of power. For the Middle East, that is all too rare.
The so called Middle East Peace Process has become an invariable news topic, much like the Global Warming. People all over the world receive news about tragic deaths of Israelis and Palestinians every day. What do you think is necessary to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Are the Israelis and Arabs doomed to fight forever?
No, absolutely not. Israelis and Arabs are not doomed to fight forever. Thankfully, Israel has already achieved peace with two of its principal neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. It also has ties, whether open or not, with several other Arab countries.
A growing number of Arab countries have come to understand that Israel is a permanent part of the region.
Moreover, they recognize that the real threat to their well-being comes from Iran and its hegemonic ambitions. In that struggle, Israel is an ally against Tehran.
And there are those Arab leaders who now understand that their 60-year war with Israel has foolishly diverted precious resources from social and economic development. As a result, they have lagged behind other parts of the world. It's time for change, they believe.
But the key question will be whether credible Palestinian leaders have the courage and will to negotiate in good faith with Israel to achieve an accord that represents an end, once and for all, to the conflict. Israel has indicated its willingness to do so and spoken of painful territorial compromises. Will Palestinians grab Israel's extended hand and launch a new era of coexistence?
A book by two of the most prominent US international relations scholars, John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard University), called "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy", a New York Times bestseller published in 2007, has sparked a heated controversy by claiming an "Israel lobby" was steering US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction, much to America's detriment. Does such a coherent "Israel lobby" actually exist in the USA? How significant is the role of the "Israel lobby", however loose or coherent it might be, in determining US foreign policy in the Middle East?
Lobbying is a time-honored tradition in Washington. Every interest group lobbies.
In the case of the Middle East, there are all kinds of lobbies. In the Jewish community alone, there are many groups, with a very wide range of perspectives.
The two major flaws in the thesis of the book's authors are: (a) They fail to acknowledge that America is a pro-Israel country, above all, because the vast majority of Americans of all faiths are pro-Israel, and (b) They hint that there is something conspiratorial and anti-American about those many and diverse groups that support Israel, when, in fact, most Americans believe that supporting Israel reflects the highest democratic ideals of our nation.
You are among the VIP guests at Barack Obama's inauguration. Is the election of the first black US President representative of any fundamental changes in American society, or should it just be seen as a regular victory for the Democrats over the Republicans? I.e. does Obama stand for change or continuity in the American tradition?
The election of Barack Obama represents a new historical era for the United States. Not only does it entail generational change, but also the election of the first African-American president. For a country scarred by the legacy of slavery and segregation, this is a major step forward.
That said, Obama did not run as an African-American candidate, but as an American candidate who believes that fundamental change is needed. He has daunting political, security and economic challenges before him. He has assembled a strong team and also has supportive majorities in both houses of Congress. The American people wish him well. Everyone has a stake in his success.
Israel is America's principal ally in the Middle East. Key Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are also closely allied with the USA. Who do you think the Obama Administration is likely to throw its weight behind in the region? Can it be expected that it would be less supportive of Israel than the Bush Administration has been?
Obama has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to the special ties that bind Israel and the United States. At the same time, like his predecessors, he grasps the key point that this is not a zero-sum equation, where friendship with Israel means distance from Arab countries.
To the contrary, Washington has always tried to maintain close ties with Israel, as well as important Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf nations. I expect that policy to continue. I would add that such a policy also enhances America's chances to advance the peace process. Having the trust of all the key players, which is not beyond America's grasp, is an essential element in the equation.
Keeping in mind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fragile situation in the wider Middle East, what do you believe would be the best course of action for the Obama Administration in Iraq?
The major question today is not whether America should have entered Iraq. That will be for historians to decide. Rather, it is how to exit Iraq in such a way that the country can be stabilized and become a force for moderation in the region, and not fall into Iran's orbit.
That means a measured withdrawal of American troops over the next few years, as power transfers to Iraqi forces. Obama was adamantly opposed to the war that began in 2003, but he does not want Iraq to revert back to its despotic and obstructionist ways, so I believe he will move cautiously, not precipitously.
In your view, what would be the main advantages and disadvantages of Hilary Clinton as the next US Secretary of State? Do you believe she has what it takes to be successful at disentangling complex foreign policy issues such as those faced by America in the Middle East?
I have much confidence in Hillary Clinton as our new Secretary of State. She has the required skills for this demanding position. She understands the interplay of global security, foreign policy, and international economics. She has traveled the world. As we say, she will hit the ground running.
In its history so far, Israel has carried out two preemptive strikes against nuclear facilities of aspiring nuclear powers - against Saddam Husein's Iraq in June, 1981 (Operation Opera), and against Syria in September, 2007 (Operation Orchard). What do you believe would be the best policy for America towards an Iran aiming to obtain nuclear weapons, which could be used to threaten Israel? Would a preemptive US or Israeli strike on Iranian facilities be a justified and productive policy option? Or should the US go for a grand bargain with a nuclear Iran, not unlike the Bush Administration recently did with India?
The Obama administration has said that it will explore diplomatic options for dealing with Iran and its ominous nuclear program. My impression is that dialogue will be accompanied by further economic sanctions to convey to Tehran that it cannot extend talks ad infinitum and cost-free.
No doubt, Washington will turn to our European friends and say: You want us to engage the Iranian regime. We are prepared to do so. But we want you to stiffen your sanctions against Iran to assure a strong and united front.
Will Europe agree? That could be an early test of the transatlantic relationship.
Will Iran be open to a grand bargain? That's hard to say, but it is worth exploring, as long as Tehran is not allowed to drag out the talks until one day it announces that it is ending them and reveals to the world that it is in possession of sufficient highly-enriched uranium for the production of several nuclear bombs.
Thus, the U.S. should continue to say that all options remain on the table for dealing with Iran.
The American Jewish Committee is a major organization focusing on combating anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. The fiery anti-Israel rhetoric of Iran's President Ahmadinejad is perhaps the most blatant manifestation of anti-Jewish sentiments in the recent years. In what contexts (political, economic, religious) and why does anti-Semitism still remain an issue in the contemporary world?
Countless books have been written on the subject. It is very hard to condense theories about anti-Semitism, which has been called the world's most enduring social pathology, into a few sentences.
At the end of the day, anti-Semitism is an irrational force. Jews as a collective body become a convenient scapegoat for whatever the ills of the day are.
If you don't like capitalism, blame the Jews. If you don't like socialism, blame the Jews. If you don't like communism, blame the Jews. If modernity makes you nervous, blame the Jews. If you're uneasy about globalization, blame the Jews. And so on.
In today's world, we at AJC have three major concerns.
First, there are those within Islam who incite hatred by preaching raw, unadulterated anti-Semitism. They invoke their religion to justify their toxic views.
Second, there are those who demonize and delegitimize Israel, calling for a world without it. Uniquely denying Jews the right to self-determination, while endorsing it for others, can be viewed as a form of anti-Semitism.
And third, the rise of extremism in some European countries, often as a reaction to rising immigration, raises concerns about either blatant or latent anti-Semitism in these ranks.
In recent years, notable progress has been achieved in the struggle against anti-Semitism. Still more needs to be done. Fighting anti-Semitism should not be viewed as a Jewish challenge alone. Rather, it ought to be seen as the responsibility for all who care about the values of democracy, mutual respect, and human dignity.
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