Israel's Ambassador to Bulgaria Noah Gal Gendler: Israelis Feel the Positive Attitude of the Bulgarian People
Interview of Novintie.com (Sofia News Agency) with Noah Gal Gendler, Ambassador of the State of Israel to Bulgaria
Ambassador Noah Gal Gendler was approached by Novinite.com over the recent visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to Bulgaria, during which Peres declared that direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could be expected shortly, and described Bulgaria as “the most suitable” place to hold such talks.
Peres's visit itself was preceded by a visit in Bulgaria by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in July 2010.
During his recent visit to Bulgaria Israeli President Shimon Peres made several very interesting statements. He sounded very optimistic about the prospects for starting direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations shortly, and he also promised peace in the Middle East. Do the people and the government of Israel share this optimism?
First of all, we must not confuse the mechanism with the essence of the problem. As far as the essence is concerned, we need time and negotiations, and it's a long way to go.
But as far as the mechanism for solving the conflict is concerned, everybody in Israel believes that direct negotiations should begin very soon, no later than September.
If negotiations don't begin by then, then we will face some difficulties, especially with respect to the freeze on the building of settlements, which, as you know, has been a temporary step made by the Israeli government, and cannot continue for good. Especially if the other side does not show any response.
According to a recent statement of EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, the Palestinians have expressed readiness for starting direct talks. Do you have indications for that?
No. We expect them to do so but we don't feel that they wish to do so. The Palestinians understand that they have no other choice because if you don't negotiate with somebody, you continue to be their enemy talking indirectly to them, and trying to achieve everything without even speaking to them. It is impossible.
President Peres described Bulgaria as perhaps the most suitable country to host direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Why do you think that is? What makes Bulgaria so suitable for that? Why do you think Bulgaria has managed to maintain good relations with both Israelis and Palestinians?
First of all, I agree that Bulgaria is a very good place for such negotiations for various reasons – good relations with Israelis and Palestinians, its proximity to the Middle East, etc, etc.
I cannot talk about Bulgaria's relations with the Palestinian people but I know about the Jews and Israel, and we feel a very positive attitude on part of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people towards us.
Of course, this is very important when somebody discusses involvement in negotiations. This is the main reason. If the Palestinians feel the same way about Bulgaria, and if there is a necessity to have a place to negotiate, then Bulgaria might be a good idea.
Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli President Peres visited Bulgaria one after another within a month. Was there any kind of a coordination between these visits – perhaps in setting the stage for holding direct talks in Bulgaria?
No, not really. Since the Borisov government came to power in Bulgaria about a year ago, we can see very many activities between Bulgaria and Israel, including visits of prime ministers, ministers, and presidents.
This is an ongoing process to exchange views, to have high-level visits, delegations, etc, with the idea that at the end of the day this will increase immensely our cooperation.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict contains a myriad of complicated issues. In order to have direct talks with the Palestinians, what would Israel be willing to offer to put on the table as compromise, and what do you expect the Palestinians to offer in return? Where would you expect each side to make concessions, to put it this way?
There need to be no compromises just in order to have direct negotiations. Again, the fact that our government froze the building of the settlements in the West Bank is a gesture of good will. But it has nothing to do with direct negotiations.
This a precondition – you cannot negotiate peace without direct talks. When we sit around the table, each side will have to compromise, this is clear. But it is too early to decide on that now.
Why should we commit to any obligations now? And then they will take these obligations, and they will say, “Let's start the negotiations from here, with your obligations.” It is not logical to negotiate this way.
What about the fact that Hamas is basically in control of the Gaza Strip, and appears to be unwilling to compromise – perhaps unlike the political forces in control of the West Bank? Do you expect the control of Hamas in Gaza to complicate the direct negotiations?
This, of course, is a very good question. I am not sure if I can answer. If Mahmoud Abbas is brave enough to negotiate peace with Isreal, to strike a deal without the permission and consent of Hamas, that will be excellent.
But I am not sure if he is strong enough and willing to do so. At least this is our intention.
We cannot negotiate with Hamas. Hamas doesn't recognize the state of Israel, its right to exist, etc. It is a terrorist organization, everybody knows what they are involved in.
But Mahmoud Abbas is a partner. Whether he is ready to go all the way, half of the way, or part of the way, I cannot answer. I am not sure if anybody can answer that question.
Do you think Israel should have handled in a different way the situation with the flotilla that was headed for Gaza in May – given the international reaction to the operation of the Israeli security forces that was generally unfavorable to Israel?
It was unfavorable to Israel at the very beginning. At the later stage now it is clear that it was a provocation, and had nothing to do with humanitarian assistance. But you are right. We have done some investigating or checking committees that will come with results.
My opinion is that most recommendations will be relevant for the army, i.e. he way the army handled the case. Not the case itself. The case itself is clear. A clear provocation by IHH, which is a terrorist organization with connections to Al Qaeda, Hamas, and others.
But of course, from an operational point of view, things can be handled a different way.
The Palestinian leaders argue that they base their claims in the disputes with Israel on international law such as UN resolutions. Do you think this is a fair representation of the situation?
You can listen to Palestinian leaders but you have to look at the reality. The reality is that since 1947 the partition plan of the UN has been rejected by the Palestinians. Not us, they rejected it. They could have had a bigger state than they will now at the end of the peace process. So we are not to blame.
Building upon that, Israel appears to be basing its claims and actions first and foremost on security issues. If claims related to security and to international law are compared, which do you think should prevail?
There is no contradiction between security and international law. Israel is a democracy, international law is important to us. We adhere to it, we stick to it. If sometimes we make mistakes, we fix our mistakes.
You cannot say this about the Palestinians, you cannot say this about many other states in the Middle East.
Our security is of prime concern, there is no doubt. Maybe you as a Bulgarian coming from the Balkans, you can understand our region, our neighborhood, it is not a picnic. If we don't take care of our security, nobody will do it for us.
The peace process in the Middle East is connected with wider issues outside the so called Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One thorny issue has been the nuclear program of Iran. How likely is that Israel – with or without the USA – might decide to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities?
Everybody understands that Iran today is not Israel's problem, it is an international problem. The free world, the international community should take care about this problem.
At the very beginning, 10 years ago, 8 years ago, we had difficulties convincing people and nations that Iran is not our problem.
Today this matter is settled. Everybody understands, even the people in Bulgaria understand that if a country wants to develop or develops missiles with the range of 3 000 km – and Israel is only one thousand kilometers far away – it has some other ideas about international relations, this is not just about Israel.
The Iranian nuclear program is indeed an international concern, but at the end of the day, nations such as Denmark, Holland, Germany etc, won't take military action even they feel threatened. But what about Israel given its specific situation in the Middle East? There has been a lot of the talk in the US recently that America and/or Israel should consider a preventive strike on Iran.
To the best of my knowledge, nobody is talking about a preventive strike, everybody is talking about sanctions. And sanctions might work. If countries like the ones you mentioned would adhere to the sanctions, they definitely will have an impact on Iran. We don't know what the results will be, but we must at least give that a try.
During his visit to Sofia, President Peres said there were no words to describe Israeli’s gratitude to the Bulgarian people for saving the Bulgarian Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps in 1943. Just how significant is this historical fact for the development of the bilateral relations? Don't you think Bulgarians might be “overusing” it in order to get favorable attention from Israel?
First of all, Bulgaria should be very proud of this historical fact. It is not only that we Israelis agree with it, we are ready to promote it, and to help people learn about the attitude of the Bulgarian civil society during the Second World War.
It is a very rare case, it is a very unique case, you have to be proud of it, everybody should know about it. It should be used as a manifestation for the bravery of simple people.
Everybody will tell you about it – I will tell you, President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu will tell you, and we will mention it time and again, of course as long as we don't forget the destruction of the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, and the responsibility of some Bulgarian officials for that.
Now, as I understand, the Bulgarian people are very proud of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews. Why not? It is a win-win-win situation. Everybody wins in it.
This is why when President Peres was awarded the Stara Planina order by President Parvanov, he stated that he should be giving the order to the Bulgarian head of state rather than receiving it. This was not a showoff, he meant it. Every Israeli feels this way.
I am not of Bulgarian origin. My parents are from a different part of the world. But immediately after I landed in Bulgaria, I felt this atmosphere.
The rescue of the Bulgarian Jews is a very, very rare and unique story of a small nation not in the western part of Europe. Just look at the way people acted. If you look at the people who participated in that, you see the clergy, the intellectuals, you see the simple people, it is very, very moving, a very, very unique case.
During their meeting in Sofia PM Borisov and President Peres agreed that agriculture and IT are the economic sectors with the greatest potential for the development of the Bulgarian-Israeli relations. Could you cite specific examples of bilateral cooperation in these fields?
This is true, but it actually went a bit further. President Peres suggested to Prime Minister Borisov that Isreal and Bulgaria can cooperate in establishing a new kind of a venture or a project “Food for Peace”.
In it, Bulgaria will provide its vacant land and water, and Israel will bring its technologies in agriculture. We will establish a kind of a center here in Bulgaria, and maybe in some other countries around the world.
President Peres even suggested to become the solicitor of this project by going to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, IMF President Strauss-Kahn, to the FAO, IFAD, etc.
I don't know yet what the operational steps in the future will be but this is an idea that was put on the table, and for me, and for the others, it was extremely interesting to consider.
What are the general trends of Israeli investments in Bulgaria?
We are one of the top five investors in this country. You don't see it in the statistics because most of our companies are registered in Poland, in Czech Republic, in Holland, in Britain, everywhere. But we have easily invested here EUR 1.5 B.
Most of the investments are in the field of real estate and construction. We are talking about shopping malls, logistic parks, business parks, and of course residential property.
But there are recently Israeli companies entering the hi-tech field in Bulgaria, establishing ventures here, and also some very serious companies that are interested in becoming involved in future infrastructure projects in Bulgaria.
For that matter, we will have a visit of our minister for national infrastructure with a very big delegation at the end of October.
You know that Israel did not suffer very much from the world economic crisis. Our economy grew by 5% this first half of 2010. This has been explored by two US journalists in a book called “The Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle” that was recently published in Bulgaria.
Israelis feel they can continue their activities in Bulgaria and Central Europe. It is a very good opportunity for us.
Many people in Bulgaria hope the country can benefit from Israel's falling out with Turkey by attracting Israeli tourists that usually go to Turkey. Is that really the case?
That is true. When the crisis deepened with Turkey, Israelis felt that they are not safe in Turkey, and they are looking for different destinations.
It is a rare case to find 550 000 people that became free overnight looking for a new destination. And Bulgaria should definitely be one of the destinations. In 2009, there were about 110 00 Israeli tourists, but Bulgaria can double this figure in 2010.
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