Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer spoke with Politico’s Susan B. Glasser for over an hour for Monday’s “Global Politico” podcast. According to Dermer, Israel is facing a “window of opportunity” at the moment, in which it can engage with its neighbors to achieve peace – with the Saudis in particular.
“Will the Palestinian leadership cross this historical Rubicon to accept the permanence and legitimacy of a Jewish state? I think that’s a big question mark. I think that many of the governments in the region are prepared to cross that Rubicon. Whether the Palestinians are prepared to do that, I don’t know,” Dermer said.
Glasser notes that Dermer doesn’t mention the two-state solution at all during the interview, depsite this being the stated policy of the Netanyahu government in which he serves.
In her article about the interview, Glasser adds, “notably, neither did Kushner in his Saban Forum appearance, though he did assert that at least peace now is back on the table in a way it was not at the end of the Obama administration.”
Dermer praised Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, saying his “boldness” in carrying out domestic reforms deserves applause. Dermer also noted that Saudi Arabia and Israel are operating on “the enemy-of-my-enemy common ground” as both attempt to block Iranian threats and influence in the region.
Glasser: All right. There’s an awful lot to unpack there, but let’s stick for one second with the question of the involvement of the regional players and the extent to which they have a new or different attitude about Israel as opposed to the shift in the region. So clearly, Jared Kushner and others in the Trump administration have been trying to open up new channels of communication between the Saudis for example and the Israelis. What are concrete examples of how that has changed anything?
I think a lot of us noticed that even in the midst of this internal Saudi shakeup, that Abu Mazen was also summoned to meet with the Saudis in the middle of this, the new crown prince. How has he changed things in a specific way?
Dermer: Well, look, my view of the crown prince is clearly trying to take Saudi Arabia in a different direction. And I think that’s something that everyone should frankly applaud.
It shows a great deal of boldness. You would think that maybe he would sort of sit back and wait to take power and slowly start to consolidate that and then maybe do some things down the road.
But the crown prince has been very bold in his decisions. There was the issue of enabling a—or permitting something that should have happened probably decades ago, women to drive in Saudi Arabia. And I found his speech that he gave recently in Saudi Arabia where he talked about the importance of confronting extremism, he talked about returning to an Islam that existed before 1979, before the radical forces—by the way, in that year both of those radical forces that I spoke about before, the radical Shia branch with the revolution in Iran, also the radical Sunni branch, the attempt to take over the mosque in Mecca and the subsequent events that led to a much broader takeover of the educational system both in Saudi Arabia but around the world.
There were dramatic events that happened in 1979 in I think a negative direction.6:32 And the crown prince was talking about taking it back to a different type of Islam, a moderate Islam that existed before. That’s a very important statement coming from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
But what I found particularly interesting is he said—he talked about how young people are in Saudi Arabia, and he said, “We don’t want to wait 30 years to take on these forces of extremism.
We want to do it right away.” And then he immediately moved to do something within Saudi Arabia and confront corruption and other issues.
So to me looking back from the outside, it’s quite impressive what he’s trying to do. And I hope that he wants—I’ll put it this way. In the struggle between modernity and medievalism, it’s clear to me that the crown prince is on the side of modernity.
Glasser: Right. But how does it affect Israel? For example, many people looked at his actions in Lebanon and their pressure on the Lebanese prime minister to resign and said, “Well, somehow we’re going to get the Israelis to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Is that possible?
Dermer: Look, we have a sovereign nation and we make our own decisions. We are very concerned with what’s going on in Lebanon. We are very concerned, Israel’s very concerned about what’s happening in Syria. Because essentially what you have is an Iranian takeover. They’re trying to build a land bridge from Tehran to Tartus. They obviously control Iran and de facto they’re trying to take control of Iraq. They’re trying to establish this land bridge through Syria. And they also control Lebanon. They’re also working in Yemen, essentially to establish in Yemen through their proxy the Houthis, to establish there a force that can confront Saudi Arabia as Hezbollah did to our north and Lebanon.
They’re trying to Hezbollahize, if you could say that, the Houthis and they’re trying to turn Yemen into a Lebanon for Saudi Arabia. And so this is of great concern for us, and we have very clear lines in Syria, and we intend to enforce them in Syria and Lebanon. And the prime minister has been very vocal about that, that he’s not going to allow for game-changing weapons to get into the hands of Hezbollah.
Glasser: Do you think the chance of conflict in Lebanon is higher today than it was say two years ago?
Dermer: Absolutely. There’s no question. And it’s much higher in Syria. And part of the problem is the nuclear deal that was signed which empowered Iran. Iran was facing massive sanctions pressures and a tiger was unleashed in the region.
That’s what’s happened. I mean, this whole idea that Iran was going to become more moderate and was going to join the community of nations, it led to Iran actually starting to gobble up the nations. And they’ve been empowered throughout the region.
And I think the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is rightly concerned. We are rightly concerned. And the United States should be concerned because for the Iranians, they want Riyadh for breakfast and Jerusalem for lunch, and they want New York for dinner.
Glasser: And you see that basically the risks for Israel have actually gone up as the Assad regime has appeared to come closer to winning the military conflict outright; in many ways, that has raised the concern about Iranian presence either on Israeli borders or closer to it. What do you think are concrete steps that should be taken now?
What are you asking the Trump administration for example to do to ensure that any post-civil war Syria does not impinge upon Israel’s national security?
Dermer: Well, it’s important to understand what is happening in Syria. I mean Assad basically is a vassal of the Iranian regime. And the forces that are on the ground, Shia militias and Hezbollah and they’re the ones—
Glasser: Well, what about Russia?
Dermer: No, Russia is there as well. Russia has a long-term interest in Syria. Israel by and large does not have an issue with those long-term interests that Russia has in Syria.
We have an issue with an Iranian regime that is trying to establish this land bridge, and that openly calls and actively works for Israel’s destruction. And if you ask a hundred Israelis what they want to see in Syria, you’re going to get 150 answers.
Glasser: Okay, what does the prime minister want?
Dermer: But if you ask every single one of those people what they don’t want to see, they will say, “We do not want to see Iran take over Syria.” And Israel will not allow that to happen. We are not going to allow Iran to establish these permanent bases, military bases on land, sea or anywhere else.
We’re not going to allow them to take over because we understand exactly what their goals are, the threat they pose to us, and we have to make sure that we’re doing everything to push them back.
So from our point of view, it’s very important that as you go and try to defeat ISIS in Syria, that you not allow the Iranians essentially to win the spoils of that victory.
That’s the great concern. And we’re working with the administration and we’ve expressed our views to them very clearly. We were very pleased with the speech that the president gave about Iran a few weeks ago.
I said it was my second-best day as ambassador since I served here. Obviously, the question what was the best day, and my best day was when my own prime minister came and spoke about the dangers of the nuclear deal and what Iran posed for the region.
Glasser: And this is his famous visit to Congress?
Dermer: Right. That was—
Glasser: And we will get to that.
Dermer: We can. But we’re very pleased overall with their policy towards Iran. And there is not conceptual gaps between our two governments. Now, the question is how do you translate that policy into specific actions? Whether it’s confronting the IRGC with economic pressures, whether it’s how do you deal with a theater like Syria or a theater like Yemen or a theater like Lebanon.
But there is a completely different view of Iran that this administration has. And right now we are in the process of working with them on how to translate this view into practical policies on the ground.
Glasser: Well, that is a very diplomatically well said way of saying that President Trump has had a lot of very tough rhetoric about Iran, as have many of his key advisors, for example General McMaster has often been quite hawkish on Iran.
But people aren’t exactly quite sure yet what that means in practice. That includes the Iran deal where President Trump has recently decertified, I’m putting quotes around that because it’s kind of a made-up term, but basically refused to tell Congress that Iran follows it.
But the deal itself as you know is at the UN Security Council. So he hasn’t blown up the deal yet either. Should he blow it up? I know that Prime
Minister Netanyahu’s formulation has been “fix it or nix it.” Are we doing either of those right now? And what do you think will end up happening?
Dermer: Well, what the president said in his speech a few weeks ago, when he decertified the deal and the grounds he used was that the relief was not appropriate. The sanctions relief was not appropriate to what Iran was doing.
But we think he definitely made the right decision to not certify the deal. We think this deal poses a grave danger to Israel because it does not block Iran’s path to the bomb; it actually paves it.
All it does is at best delay that for a few years because at a date certain in a few years, all of these restrictions are automatically removed. All of the nuclear restrictions are automatically removed in a few years.
So the statements that were made a couple years ago that says this deal blocks their path just is false. Now, if they wanted to say we believe with a high degree of certainty that it may temporarily block them, well, that would have been one thing. But to say that we blocked the path is not true.
All of those restrictions on enrichment, on the stockpiling, on all of these restrictions on Iran, they’re going to be automatically removed in a few years.
What does that mean? Iran will not have to sneak in or break into the nuclear club. They can just walk into the nuclear club. And while this deal is being enforced right now, Iran is advancing its nuclear weapons program. Right now, Iran is developing—
Glasser: What you’re talking about is ballistic missiles.
Dermer: No, not just. I’ll get to it in a second. You’re right.
They’re actually advancing its ballistic missile program, which is a delivery system for a nuclear device. But they’re doing something else. Iran under the terms of the deal is allowed to do research on more advanced centrifuges.
So a lot of people when they look at the Iranian nuclear deal, they say—and I heard this when this debate came out a few weeks ago about whether the president should decertify or not—they say, “Yeah, we know we got all these other problems with Iran. But at least we have the nuclear issue locked up.
How much worse would it be if we were dealing with all these problems and we still had a nuclear issue?”
Wrong. You have not locked up the nuclear issue. Had Iran’s nuclear weapons program been permanently dismantled, had the centrifuges been removed, had there been no right of enrichment in Iran, Israel would have been the first to support it.
Why would Israel not support a deal that actually blocks Iran’s path to the bomb because we are threatened with annihilation from this regime?
Glasser: But going forward, we’ve got to go forward.