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Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 01:39 am

Firsthand report: Iran is Israel’s primary concern

Last month in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the Palestinian city of Ramallah, I met with high-level Israeli, Palestinian and American officials to discuss regional issues, and a range of Israeli foreign policy and domestic matters. For a number of years, as a member of the leadership of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, I have been visiting Israel on a nearly annual basis. Our goal is to see, at first hand, the changes occurring in the Middle East, and to return to the U.S. with an understanding of events which we can then explain to those who have not been watching the issues so closely. We also spoke with several leading journalists and scholars, to learn their points of view.

The number one issue in the minds of all Israelis is the threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weaponry, which many believe is an existential threat to the State of Israel, according to Kevin Flowers, CNN bureau chief in Jerusalem, and Aluf Benn, of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Israelis believe that when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls for the destruction of Israel, he means it! Often unreported in the Western press is his outspoken denial of the Holocaust.

Both members of the Israeli cabinet and supporters of the Opposition concurred in expressing concern that the remainder of the world considers Ahmadinejad’s comments hyperbole. Israelis take him seriously, having lived through the wars and rocket attacks backed by Iran, acting through its surrogate, Hezbulla, and more recently the rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli towns such as Sderot. Military planning is in high gear – but people are buying apartments and moving into new offices, real estate sales and prices are booming and people walk the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at all hours of the day. The shops and restaurants are filled and Israelis don’t seem to be worried – and we heard of no serious push to attack Iran. There is a willingness to let diplomacy take its course – with a background sense that the present government of Iran is so anti-Israel and anti-Semitic that Israel’s best course is to lay low and let the U.S. and the European Union handle the negotiations if any. Many in Israeli leadership appeared to be of the opinion that a nuclear Iran represents as much of a threat to the West as to Israel.

A matter of much more optimistic discussion was the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians, and ways to improve relations among the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in the region. Most agree that there has been no recent progress in achieving meaningful negotiations. Part of the issue is the fact that both the U.S. and Israel have had recent elections and changes of leadership, and the players are not sure about each other.

We visited Ramallah, which functions as the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority (although the hope of the Palestinians is to have their capital in Jerusalem). Although no one claimed significant progress, Salim Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, stated that he believed the political process among the United States, the PA and Israel would lead to peace. He pointed out that the West Bank economy is currently growing at an official rate of 7 percent, and actually growing at close to 12 percent this year. As economic progress is occurring, “the street is beginning to develop a sense of empowerment.” As the economy improves, so does the attitude of the citizenry. Mohammed Mustafa, director of the Palestine Investment Fund, projects investment of $800 million in West Bank development, which he feels can be leveraged to $4 billion, with 100,000 new jobs in the short or medium term.

Unfortunately, there is no movement on Gaza; Hamas is perceived by almost all the players as intransigent and still unwilling to accept the presence of a Jewish state in the region. Not even the most optimistic of those we met with could foresee any movement on this front.

Dr. Stephen Stone, a Springfield dermatologist, is a vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
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