An Interview With Ambassador (RET.) Yoram Ettinger
Sara Lehmann, The Jewish Press, New York
Widely recognized as an expert on Mideast politics and U.S.-Israel relations, Ambassador Yoram Ettinger advocates for Israel on both sides of the Atlantic, advising members of the Israeli Cabinet and Knesset and regularly briefing American legislators.
Ettinger has served as minister for congressional affairs at Israel’s Embassy in Washington and as consul general of Israel to the Southwestern U.S. He’s had numerous op-eds published in Israel and America and is frequently interviewed on Israeli and American TV and radio.
The Jewish Press: The recent midterm elections ushered in record Republican wins in congress. How do you think these new right-leaning legislators will affect the US-Israel relationship?
Ettinger: I think the Republican wins will further boost pro-Israel sentiments on Capitol Hill. There will be an increased number of legislators who are more traditional, more pro-military, more anti-UN and more patriotic than their predecessors. While American Jews are very important for Israel, it has always been Christian support that has made the big difference in this country. You can see it on Capitol Hill where the vast majority, maybe even all, pro-Israel initiatives have been introduced by non-Jewish legislators with the Jews joining. This deep affinity toward Israel goes back to the founding fathers of this country, most of whom followed Judeo-Christian values, at the center of which is the Jewish Bible. For most Christians in this country, Israel stands for deep ideas and values which are at the foundation of this country.
How concerned are you that the tea party movement, largely credited with energizing the rightward tilt in the elections, might advocate slashing foreign aid to Israel in their pursuit of fiscal reductions?
The vast majority of Christians in America, not necessarily only evangelicals or conservatives, do not regard Israel as a classic foreign policy issue but rather as a domestic issue, morally as well as strategically. As far as the attitude toward foreign aid, I believe we have outgrown foreign aid. I am proud to say I played maybe even a key role of ridding Israel of non-military foreign aid, which used to be $1.2 billion. There is no more non-military foreign aid today. The Jewish state should not be on the list of recipients of foreign aid, which looks to most Americans like social security overseas. Israel is the number two hi-tech empire in the world after America and prides itself on $220 billion in growth of domestic product. We don’t need aid, we need more trade. We are partners with the U.S. and our relationship should be a two-way street.
How much do you think Israel can rely on its friends in Congress to prevent the Palestinians from unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state in the UN?
It was Congress that put an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola and Nicaragua and cut ties with the white regime in South Africa. If Congress can end wars and relationships with other countries, certainly it can stop an attempt to refrain from a veto in the security council, either by directing the president to veto a UN resolution or through the power of the purse. I would like to emphasize this not because such a vote would bode well for Israel – such a vote would bode well for America. A Palestinian state would doom the existence of the pro-American Hashemite regime in Jordan, constitute a tailwind to the pro-Saddam elements in Iraq, provide a foothold for the Russians, Chinese, North Koreans and Iranians, and add another anti-American vote at the UN. Certainly when you look at the subversive, non-compliant terrorist track record of Abbas and the PLO, you know what to expect of an independent state which will be ruled by them. Therefore a vote that would veto any such resolution at the UN would not be for Israel; it would be for the sake of America. And Congress can bring it about.
So you think it comes down to Congress offsetting pressure from the Obama administration?
Well, it comes down to Israel approaching Congress and leveraging its support because certainly we cannot count on the current White House. This is a White House that, from the beginning, has sent messages that it doesn’t want to confront the bad guys; they want to engage bad guys. They don’t want to follow unilateral action; they want to follow multilateral action. This administration views the UN as the quarterback of international relations, wants to be more European, succumbs to the whims of the State Department, and claims Islam has always been a part of the American story. All of this is not good for U.S.-Israel relations or for American interests.
American legislators do not represent Israel. They represent the best interests of this country. When I came to Congress and debated the disengagement [in 2005], I did not talk about the Israeli perspective. Likewise when I talk about the Golan Heights. America should not endorse Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights because it would not bode well for the Americans. It would enable the Syrians to attempt to reannex what they call Southern Syria, otherwise known as Jordan, and that adversely affects American interests. If there are some misguided Israeli politicians who assume that a freeze or a disengagement or a Palestinian state could somehow moderate the area, this does not mean American legislators should follow the Israeli example. They should examine the impact on American interests.
It seems as though you’re engaged in damage control among American legislators for Israeli missteps. Shouldn’t you direct your efforts instead toward Israeli policy makers?
I spend all my time doing that with Israeli movers and shakers. I come five or six times a year to America to share my views with American legislators and Jews and non-Jews, but the crux of my efforts are in Israel. The effort now should be how to prevent a Palestinian state. You cannot have a viable Jewish state without the full control of the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, not only for security requirements but most importantly for the moral high ground. For the Jewish state to negotiate away its own cradle of history is to forsake its future. No nation can negotiate away its cradle of history, its roots, and expect to blossom in the future.
Yet Oslo, the disengagement and the freeze were all Israeli initiatives which were adopted by America.
Certainly the onus is on Israel in general and on the Israeli government in particular. Unfortunately, since 1992 Israeli prime ministers have not followed in the footsteps of prior ones. Previous Israeli prime ministers knew that one does not have to succumb to American pressure in order to enhance Israel’s national security, not even to enhance U.S.-Israel relations. We’ve seen it with Ben Gurion, who stood up to George Marshall’s order to refrain from constructing in Jerusalem and declaring it the capital of Israel. Ben Gurion’s response was to double and triple the efforts of construction in Jerusalem, declare Jerusalem the capital, and transfer the Israeli government agencies there from Tel Aviv. When President Nixon sent Golda Meir the Rogers Plan, which called for the repartitioning of Jerusalem, her response was to build four new neighborhoods in Jerusalem. In 1981, Begin bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor despite his knowledge that the Americans would oppose the action. Everyone condemned Israel for a few months, and then it dawned on the world that it was the most humane action to take. Current Israeli leaders should refer back to the real leaders who were in Israel from 1948-1992. Those leaders didn’t think about whether or not they would get a photo-op with the American president; they focused on Israel’s long-term national security interests.
What would you tell American Jewish leaders who, though largely toeing the Israeli government’s line, have recently suggested that dividing Jerusalem is perhaps a red line on which Diaspora Jews should have a say?
Jews in America are Americans. The worst thing for anti-Semitism and for U.S.-American relations is for American Jews to support issues that are good for Israel and bad for America. If American Jews are determined to have an effective role, the minimum they should do is to learn from past mistakes. American Jews supported Oslo. What has Oslo done to Israel, to the U.S., to the Middle East? The bottom line is we have seen unprecedented terrorism, unprecedented hate education, unprecedented non-compliance and therefore unprecedented support for the bad guys in the Middle East undermining the good guys. Do American Jews want to repeat it? When it comes to Jerusalem the same thing applies. Why should Jerusalem be the red line? Why shouldn’t Judea and Samaria be the red line? Why shouldn’t the Golan Heights be the red line? Is the survival of Israel not a red line? For American Jews the red line should be American interests. And to be able to articulate American interests, American Jews should not parrot the voices coming out of Israel. American Jews should study the facts.
Can you comment on the renewed effort by Netanyahu to push for a military option against Iran?
Anyone who contemplates an option against Iran which is not preemptive is erring in the most devastating, reckless manner. Israel cannot afford to live under a nuclear Iranian cloud or any nuclear cloud. It would slow aliyah to a halt, as well as investments in Israel. It would cause a flood of Israelis to exit the country and trigger a sense of pessimism in the future of Israel. The entire Israeli effort has to be focused only on one option – and that is preemption, assuming America will not preempt. The Obama worldview does not lend itself to preemption. I would be much happier if Israel does it, because Israel needs a serious restoration of its posture of deterrence. Since Oslo we have dramatically diminished that posture of deterrence.
Preemption against Iran would be a major signal that Israel has reasserted itself, has freed itself from the suicidal Oslo state of mind.