Ahron Bregman teaches in the War Studies Department at King’s College, London. He specializes in the Arab-Israeli conflict and is the author of several books, including Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947.
Jonathan Mok: What do you think about the confirmation from Olmert’s office regarding peace negotiations between Israel and Syria? Do you believe that the peace talks only repeated themselves on the issues such as Golan Heights and other matters you discussed in your book Elusive Peace: How the Holy Land Defeated America?
Ahron Bregman: Peace negotiations between Israel and Syria continue with the help of Turkey. But it is done at a bureaucratic level and I don’t expect these talks to produce the big breakthrough. A breakthrough could only happen when the top leaders meet and tackle the one, most important, sticking point which is the Syrian demand to have access to the Sea of Galilee and that the future border will run along the water line.
As the lake provides Israel with some 30-35 per cent of her fresh water needs, the Israelis insist on a strip of land, particularly along the north-east section of the Sea of Galilee to remain under their sovereignty which will effectively mean no Syrian access to the precious water. Of course there are other issues to be discussed between Syria and Israel, notably the latter demand that Syria cuts off her links with Iran; but the issue of the border and access to the water is still the most important one. For such a breakthrough both sides will need strong and determined leaders. At the moment, however, on the Israeli side, we have a Prime Minister who is up to his eyes with problems – mainly allegations of apparent corruption. He is thus in no position to take big decisions. Peace with Syria will have to wait.
Jonathan: Shaul Mofaz, the current Israeli Minister of Transportation, warned against the possible strike against Iran. He further warned that the attack would be inevitable. Do you agree that his views represent general positions senior IDF officials have taken, considering that Mofaz once served Minister of Defense?
Ahron: Mofaz’s statements should be regarded in the context of his political campaign to replace Olmert as leader of Kadima and perhaps as the Prime Minister of Israel. Having said that, it would be difficult for Israel to tolerate a nuclear Iran and it will probably try to exert pressure on the international community to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As for an Israeli military strike on Iran – giving his domestic problems, it will be very difficult indeed for Prime Minister Olmert to take such a momentous decision.
Jonathan: If Israel decides to launch attacks, in your estimation, can the Jewish state stand the retaliation from Iran? While Iran has the larger landmass and population, it is believed that Israel has more nuclear weapons than Iran in terms of the number of missiles per population, no? Jimmy Carter claimed that Israel has 160 nuclear missiles. Even Olmert implicitly admitted the existence of the nuclear programme.
Ahron: Yes, Israel will be able to cope with a conventional retaliation. It will hurt, it will be painful and bloody, but the lesson of history is that conventional missile attack has only a limited effect on populations. As for Jimmy Carter’s statement about Israel being a nuclear power – this is quite an extraordinary statement coming from a former President of the United States and, no doubt, will do much to strengthen the belief that Israel is indeed a nuclear power.
Jonathan: I would like to turn to the Israeli politics. Do you believe that the politics and military have become twin-sisters? If so, why you think the military-political complex happened? Why does the public accept a military man, like Sharon or Rubin, to be their leaders?
Ahron:It has always been the case in Israel that former Generals turned politicians. The reason for that is quite simple: Israel’s most acute problems are security and Israelis tend to believe that only leaders with military background could properly deal with such problem. The unsuccessful 2006 war in Lebanon, where both the Prime Minister and his Defence Ministers lacked military experience seems to confirm the need to have the military man at the top. In due course, when Israel lives in peace with her neighbours, we might see more civilians at the helm.
Jonathan: Finally, living in London and teaching at a British university, do you see increasing anti-Semitism on campus, as Melanie Philips of Daily Mail argued in her book, Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within?
Some organizations such as American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League accuse the Teachers’ Union of launching anti-Israeli actions by boycotting Israeli institutions. What is your opinion of cutting off ties with universities such as Haifa and Bar-Ilan?
Ahron: In fact, I detect the opposite trend whereby governments are moving closer to Israel – perhaps the best example being France, but other European governments as well. Look for instance at how European leaders wanted to rub shoulders with Israeli ministers during Israel’s 60th anniversary.
The reason for that seems to be the rise of the Right in Europe and the growing concern – even fear – of Islamic extremism which ironically leads to some strengthening of the Israeli position in the Middle East. Regarding boycotting Israeli academic institutions – it is wrong and it will cause damage to freedom of expression which is at the heart of the academia. The occupation is bad – even evil – but boycotting academic institutions is just not the right method of fighting it.