Consul speaks on challenges Israel faces

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

As Israel nears its 60th anniversary as an independent modern nation-state, it faces both challenges and opportunities in a transformed Middle East, in which Arab states are no longer the major influences on events, according to Dr. Andy David, deputy consul general of Israel to the Midwest. In a major address convened and coordinated by the Jewish Community Relations Council, and co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, NA’AMAT USA and the St. Louis Chapter of Hadassah, David maintained that “four non-Arab states — the United States, Turkey, Iran and Israel — are the major influences on the Middle East,” and that the age of the dominance of the politics and diplomacy of the region by Egypt or other Arab states is essentially over.

Dr. Andy David began his appointment as deputy consul general of Israel to the Midwest in August 2004, based at the Israel Consulate in Chicago. Since initiating his diplomatic career in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1998, David has held numerous domestic positions, including: Commonwealth of Independent States Coordinator; head of the Euro-Asia Department and deputy head of mission in Azerbaijan, and vice consul and deputy head of mission in Hong Kong. He is about to complete his duties as deputy consul general of Israel to the Midwest. Leonard Frankel, president of the JCRC, welcomed David to St. Louis for his final visit in his present capacity, and expressed the strong support the St. Louis Jewish community continues to have for the State of Israel.

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In his remarks, David said, “We can ask as Israel reaches its 60th year, what is our position today, and how does it differ from 60, or even 10, 15 or 20 years ago? In the recent past, when people thought about the Middle East, it was in terms of 22 members of the League of Arab states with a total population of about 300 million people. It was a region dominated politically and strategically and economically by such Arab countries as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. In 1960, no one could imagine discussing the Middle East without mentioning Egypt, which was then headed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Yet in 2003, the Egyptian foreign minister went to the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem, and was pelted with shoes, a grave insult in the Arab world which never would have happened in Nasser’s day.”

David added, “Egypt is no longer the dominating political force in the Arab world and the Middle East. Egypt once considered Sudan, its neighbor to be part of its sphere of influence. Now as the genocide happens in Darfur, Egypt cannot influence events in Sudan to stop the killing. The fact that Hamas felt it could get away with blowing up the barrier between Gaza and Egypt shows how weak Egypt is considered by its neighbors.

“Syria, which under the late President Hafez Assad had some power and influence, is a shadow of its former self under his son, Bashar Assad. Syria depends on its alliances with Syria and Hezbollah and Iran, and Iran is not as powerful as the Soviet Union was when it backed Syria. Jordan’s economy is only one-tenth that of Israel, and is today at the center of two areas of chaos — Iraq, which has spilled 500,000 refugees into Jordan and the West Bank.”

David added that the influence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States is much weaker than it was during the 1973 oil embargo. “We can summarize the current situation as one of ‘strong Arab weakness,’ a real setback to their once dominant position.”

David said that the four non-Arab states which most affect events in the Middle East are: the United States, which changed the region with its invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein; Turkey, which has a powerful army and a strongly secularist tradition which it guards; Iran, which is attempting to export a radical Islamist theocracy in the region and the State of Israel, which has an increasingly strong economy and the best prepared military in the region.

“It would be an insult to call either a Turk or an Iranian an ‘Arab.’ Turks are Turks and Iranians are Persians, and are not regarded as Arabs, nor do the Arabs regard them as Arabs.”

David said that Israel agreed with the need to topple Saddam Hussein from power, but “all along we have felt that Iran poses the greatest threat to Israel and the stability of the region.” He added that when Saddam was in power, his regime served as “the guardian of the gates of the Arab East to keep out the Shia groups from Iran. Now that he is gone, that situation no longer holds true.”

David took note of the success of President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in getting not only Israel and the Palestinian Authority together at Annapolis, but also the Egyptians, Gulf States, the Saudis and even Syria to send representatives. “The Saudis did agree to come under pressure, but they would still not shake our hands,” David said. “Perhaps that will come later.”

David maintained that there is a growing awarness among more moderate Arab regimes like those of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, along with the Mahmoud Abbas Fatah faction of the Palestinian Authority that they have more to gain in a tacit alliance against the radical regimes in Iran and Syria, than being allied with dangerous non-state actors such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islmaic Jihad.

“Israel has four advantages over its neighbors,” David said. “The first is economic power; Israel’s GDP per capita at $20,000 is more than twice that of Saudi Arabia, under $10,000. Israel also posseses the military power and the military deterrant power edge in the region, which continues even after the war in Lebanon in 2006.”

David said that Israel’s advantages in terms of military and economic power had given its leaders, such as the former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the feeling they could make major changes in the region with unilateral action, such as the decision to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon under former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and from all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip under Sharon. David cautioned that uniltateral action in the absence of any concessions by the Arabs has its limitations and risks.

“What is certain is that the old paradigm of a Middle East dominated by Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia has been replaced by a new paradigm in which the more moderate or pragmatic among the Arab states, such as Egypt, Jordan, the Lebanese and Palestinian moderates; Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the United Arab Emerites are lining up with Israel against the Islamist extremists. “There is still a lot of suspicion and a long history of distrust, but there are encouraging signs that the diplomatic and strategic landscape has significantly shifted in recent years. This is a hopeful development.”

David offered a similar address to the Cardozo Society, a group of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals organized by the Jewish Federation, at an event co-sponsored by the JCRC, and hosted by the Clayton-based law firm of Husch Blackwell Sanders LLC (formerly Husch Eppengerger).

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