Israeli deputy consul general discusses fire, peace prospects

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Shahar Arieli, Israel’s deputy consul general for the Midwest, said that his nation learned some important lessons from the deadly forest fire in the Mount Carmel region, and was grateful for the emergency aid provided by the United States and several other nations. He also expressed cautious optimism on the prospects for renewed peace talks with the Palestinians in the wake of the U.S. decision to drop efforts for Israel to agree to a 90-day freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

Arieli spoke with the St. Louis Jewish Light last week during his first visit to St. Louis since he joined the Midwest Consulate General office, based in Chicago, last July. Arieli is a graduate of Tel Aviv University Law School, and had worked as a trial lawyer in the private sector and for the Israeli Public Defenders Office before starting a career with the Foreign Ministry, where he held numerous posts.

The devastating and deadly forest fire in the Mount Carmel region of Israel seemed to reveal some real weaknesses in Israel’s preparedness to provide an effective first response to this kind of disaster. What lessons has Israel learned and how will it be better prepared to meet future emergencies of this kind?

For sure, we are now in the process of re-evaluating how Israel should deal with such fires, and our fire services. One of the lessons is that political problems should be put aside when we are facing such catastrophes. We got so much support and assistance from abroad, it was very positive in this regard. Even countries with which we had serious political problems like Turkey came to our assistance. Also, Russia responded (with a large fire-fighting airplane), and the Palestinian Authority responded with three fire engines. We also appreciate the help from the United States, Bulgaria, Greece and Britain and France. As to our own ability to fight forest fires, to be sure there has to be a lot of re-thinking to better prepare for future disasters of this kind. This is important, because fires happen with troubling regularity.

Israel responded so strongly to the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Southeast Asia and other disasters, and had to reverse roles by appealing to other nations to help in fighting the fire.

It was our turn to receive help, and we were not embarrassed to ask for help. And the international help made a difference in bringing the fire under control. It was the changing factor in containing the fire.

Can Israel build upon the good will with Turkey and the Palestinians in the aftermath of their important assistance in responding to the fire?

Let’s say it was an important reminder of the things that unite us, instead of the things that divide us. Maybe now, there can be some new beginnings.

Shifting to the Israel-Palestinian peace process, it has been reported that U.S. diplomats have said that the Obama administration will no longer seek a 90-day “freeze” on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Does this development doom the peace process, or does it provide new flexibility and avenues for moving forward with talks?

It has become quite clear that the emphasis the Palestinians tried to put on the settlements as a condition to proceed with the negotiations was not constructive. I think, by now, we have come to understand the truth. And the truth is during the previous 10-month freeze, nothing went forward because the Palestinians were still reluctant to resume negotiations. It was only during the last month that there was any movement. Also, the Palestinians received from us two peace propositions in 2000 and in 2008, and these very serious proposals were presented while limited construction of settlements was going on. So the settlement issue was something artificial. It is still clear that for peace there has to be concessions from both sides. We are ready to make substantial concessions as we have offered many times in the past. The Palestinians have to be ready to make concessions as well, and any agreement would have to include an ‘end of conflict’ understanding to that it will be a real and lasting peace. So, it is not about settlements. It is about a willingness to make compromises towards a lasting agreement.

Do you read anything negative towards Israel in the U.S. decision to drop the settlements issue?

There has been very good cooperation between the United States and Israel. Both capitals (Washington and Jerusalem) are now in the process of trying to figure out how we can continue going forward.