Prior to an event hosted on the campus of Georgetown University by the Georgetown Israel Alliance, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Gideon Meir, the former Israeli Ambassador to Italy and a member of the negotiating team that drafted Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt after the Camp David Accords in 1978, to discuss the current state of affairs between Israel and the world.
GJIA: What has been your experience of working under multiple Israeli different administrations throughout your career?
GM: To be an ambassador is to be a professional. It means representing your country, no matter what country that may be. Your profession is like that of a lawyer. Lawyers have clients, and diplomats have clients. My client is the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Once there is a government that has been elected to implement its ideology, it does not matter what my own personal political opinion is. A British ambassador once told me, “We diplomats are opinionless.” This is a nice saying, but I would put it a bit differently. I have strong opinions, but my opinions are unimportant when it comes to performing my job. I can represent a right-wing government or a left-wing government because I know how to take policy, wrap it professionally, and sell it to the world. My opinion is totally unimportant in the public sphere, and no one knows it outside of my family.
GJIA: Israel maintains relations with numerous countries around the world, but most news about Israel seems to focus on its domestic situation involving its Arab neighbors and its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. What are some of Israel’s wider economic and cultural interests, and what role does a diplomat play in supporting those interests?
GM: First of all, Israel is interested in continuing to be a strong economic power. We are very proud of our economy and our technological achievement. We are a nation of startups, with over 3,500 new businesses created every year. Where does this technological drive come from? When our young women and men come out from serving in the army, they bring their knowledge to the high-tech community in Israel. So with each new generation, we have new ideas. This is what Israel gives to the world.
Israel also has a thriving culture. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the leading symphonies in the world. The Israeli opera, Israeli theaters, and Israeli authors are all well-known on a global scale. Israel has had ten Nobel laureates, which is incredible in proportion to a country of only eight million people. More books are being printed in Israel than in the entire Islamic world. As an ambassador, I had to promote the excellence of my country so that I could help create jobs in Israel, build our foreign trade, and foster deals with the countries in which I served. Today’s world is based on trade and exchange, and it is the job of an ambassador to sell.
GJIA: What, if anything, is Israel doing to combat rising anti-Semitism in Europe, and in what ways does this represent a threat to Israeli interests?
First and foremost, anti-Semitism has to be combated by the governments of the countries in which it exists. It is not the task of Israel to combat anti-Semitism everywhere. If there is anti-Semitism in a certain country, we expect that the government of that country will fight against that prejudice. Anti-Semitism is obvious and it is basic. It is a problem for every country in which it occurs.
GJIA: Given your involvement in brokering peace between Israel and Egypt, how do you regard the sustainability of peace given the changes in Egyptian leadership following the Arab Spring?
GM: Egypt has been a very important neighbor for Israel historically. A major task for the Egyptian government today is to feed the Egyptian people and to raise the level of economic activity in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood did not do this when [Mohamed] Morsi was president [from 2012-2013]. So with the recent change in leadership [to President Adel Fattah el-Sisi in June 2014], there were and continue to be high expectations in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, for the governing body to be more capable. Egypt’s leadership has to run its country. That said, I believe that the new Egyptian leadership is totally committed to continue the country’s strategic peace with Israel.
Non-Egyptian leaders have made efforts to make peace with Israel following the example of Egyptian ones. [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat came to Israel in 1977 to speak to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and took down the psychological barrier of hatred. He came to Israel and said there would be no more wars, and the Israelis loved him for his courage. King Hussein of Jordan did something similar. In 1997, a Jordanian soldier killed seven Israeli girls at the border between Jordan and Israel. So King Hussein took the Royal Jordanian Air Force and came to the developing Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. During the mourning period, he went to each of the families of the seven victims and knelt down before them—a king kneeling to ordinary people! This gesture was amazing to Israelis, and full of respect. We understood that this was a man who meant business, who was serious about peace. And we loved him for that.
The Palestinians today, unfortunately, have neither an Anwar Sadat nor a King Hussein. Rather than helping to make peace and avoid more wars, [Palestinian President and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman] Mahmoud Abbas is playing games. This is not to say that I do not hold criticisms of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, but rather that, if I were Abbas, I would have come to the negotiating table and talked to the Israeli people, and then either called Netanyahu’s bluff or reached a peace agreement. But Abbas doesn’t have the courage to do it. U.S. President Bill Clinton offered him 97 percent of the contested territories. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert offered him 97 percent of the contested territories. Abbas said no to them. He doesn’t have the courage.
GJIA: What do you think of recent allegations, sparked by an article by Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic, that the quality of relations between Israel and the United States is declining?
GM: The United States and Israel share a strategic relationship. America provides Israel with $3.8 billion every year because having a strong democracy in the Middle East is a basic interest of American foreign policy. If Israel did not exist, the United States would have to invent a country like Israel, because having a strong democracy in this part of the world defends the interests of the Western world and Western values. The first region to be hurt by violence in the Middle East without Israel there as a buffer would be Europe; one must understand that Iranian missiles are aimed at Europe, too, not just at Israel. Israel is very important to the Western world and to American efforts to maintain the United States’ status as a global superpower. America does not provide Israel money as a favor. That is one important thing to note. American soldiers will never fight for Israel. If there is a war, there will only ever be Israelis who will fight, never Americans who will be called to endanger their own lives to protect Israel. This is an important message to the American people. It is Israel’s job alone to protect itself. The $3.8 billion it receives in military aid—which, by the way, is mostly being spent in America to create jobs for Americans—is important because it is going to support American interests. Countries act out of interest.
That said, I am very critical of both the Israeli and American governments. You do not call a prime minister “chickenshit” [as Goldberg quoted an anonymous White House official saying in his article], not in a relationship between two important countries. Likewise, it is a big mistake for Israeli leaders to call [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry and President Obama names. The two administrations can hate each other, but if they cannot work together they should solve their problems with one-another behind closed doors. And, at the end of the day, Israel has to be modest. The United States helped finance Israel’s Iron Dome program, which is vital to its security and wellbeing. However, I do not think the basic relationship will be hurt because there remains a mutual interest here. But the bottom line is that America is the superpower, not Israel. Israel must show modesty to American leaders.
Gideon Meir served as Israel’s Ambassador to Italy from 2006 until 2012, and then as Deputy Director-General for Media and Public Affairs in the Israeli Foreign Ministry until November 2006, and was a member of the negotiating team that drafted Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt after the Camp David Accords in 1978. In July 2012, he was appointed as Director-General for Public Diplomacy in the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Ambassador Meir was interviewed by Jacob Haberman and Ian Philbrick on 6 November 2014 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.