Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post (Interview)
February 8, 2012 - 1:00am

If Washington feels a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is possible in the near future it will become actively involved in securing an agreement even during an election year, former ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor said Tuesday.

Senior Israeli officials have said in recent weeks they did not feel Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was interested in serious negotiations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu now because of the assumption that US President Barack Obama could not press Netanyahu to make concessions during an election year.

But Meridor, speaking to journalists at a “newsmakers forum” sponsored by the Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem institution, said if the US felt the “parameters” were in place for the sides to make concessions, the issue would “be on the table even in an election year.” Meridor, who said he felt Netanyahu has made concessions to the Palestinians, albeit “probably too late,” stated that after watching Abbas walk away from a deal put on the table by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, it is hard “not to have doubts about whether he [Abbas] is ready to make concessions.” Meridor was ambassador to Washington from 2006-2009, during Olmert’s tenure as prime minister.

In addition, Meridor said one key element is absent in the peacemaking equation today – because of the changes in the region – is the ability of the Arab world to constructively get involved. If it emerges that “what the two sides can give each other is not enough, and you need a third party to bring their assets to the table, I’m afraid that is less likely today,” Meridor said.

During the early days of the Obama administration, the White House thought Israel’s confidence in making a deal with the Palestinians could be enhanced by prospects of normalization with the Arab world. The chances of normalization now, however, are less likely than they were when this idea was raised in 2009.

Regarding the US presidential campaign, Meridor said it was paramount for Israel to stay out of the US elections, even though voters in America do take into consideration the US-Israeli relationship when going to the polls.

Whether these voters are numbered in the thousands or hundreds of thousands is not important, the former ambassador said, because the reality in the US is that a few thousand votes one way or the other in five key states could make a difference.

Likewise, Meridor said, the state of the US-Israel relationship is very much on the minds of Israeli voters when they go to the polls.

“Some would argue that political players in both countries use this as an element in the campaign,” he said.

Asserting that bi-partisan support of the American people for Israel is a vital aspect of Israel’s security and wellbeing, Meridor said Israel should make every effort not to play – or be perceived as playing – a role in US politics during an election year.

Meridor declined to comment when asked whether he thought Netanyahu, on his trip to Washington next month for the AIPAC annual conference, during which he is also expected to meet Obama, should also meet with the Republican presidential candidates.

Regarding Iran, Meridor said Israel and Washington share the same perception of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, including the “increasing likelihood that over time there would be a marriage between terrorism and nuclear [arms].” He quoted one “very, very senior” American official recently telling a high-level Israeli official that if terrorists put a nuclear device on a boat headed for a port, it was as likely the target would be a US port, as an Israeli one.

Meridor said the gaps in Israel and US assessments of the timeline when Iran will have nuclear capabilities have narrowed considerably, and if while he was ambassador there was a one-to-three year difference, now the differences in those assessments are just a matter of months.

But, he said, that was “only part of the picture,” hinting that there is a difference in where each country places its “red line” – the point past which the nuclear situation in Iran is deemed unacceptable. He indicated the Israeli red line is when the Iranians cross the nuclear threshold, while the US position is when they begin assembling a nuclear device.

Another issue regarding Iran has to do with the question about how certain the US and Israel are of the each other’s actions. Meridor said that past history, specifically the nuclearization of Pakistan and North Korea, has led some in Israel to conclude that even if the US is completely genuine when it says it will not allow Iran to get nuclear capacity, “many times in life you end up not doing what you might want to do.”

Meridor, quoting Obama’s comments Sunday that Israel and the US were in “lockstep” regarding Iran, said it takes an “unbelievably high level of trust, intimacy and sensitivity to be able to work together on such an issue. That is a major challenge at a very critical moment and facing a very critical threat.”

Asked if he believed that level of trust and intimacy existed between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office, Meridor said he had no inside information. But, he said, “the gravity [of a situation] in many cases brings leaders to do more than they would do otherwise.” Meridor said the mechanisms and networks exist for this high degree of intimacy, “and it is up to the leaders to make it happen.”


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