As an old saying or curse goes, “May you live in interesting times,” and these are, for better or for worse, very interesting times, especially in Israel. Consider the past month or so. Israel celebrated its 70th birthday. The U.S. opened an embassy in Jerusalem. Guatemala did the same. The U.S. withdrew from the Iran deal. Iran, from Syria, attacked Israel and missed. Israel attacked Iran in Syria and hit. Hamas instigated a series of deadly riots on the Gaza border, resulting in the IDF killing dozens of Hamas operatives trying to breach Israel’s border fence. Then Hamas and other Islamic militant groups fired mortars and rockets at Israel, causing damage to property, but thankfully not people. These are certainly, for lack of a better word, interesting times.
To help us better understand what exactly is going on, we have with us Peter Lerner, an internationally recognized analyst and communicator.
israel360/JewishBoston: You just published in Haaretz an article that suggests Israel should engage with Hamas to avoid war. How controversial is that idea and approach in Israel right now?
Peter Lerner: Well, I would say, first of all, from the reactions I’ve had to the post or to the article, it seems to be very controversial. And understandably, but because somebody’s saying, “Let’s sit down and try and think of a way to talk with a terrorist organization,” is a bit out there. And definitely in the Israeli dialogue, and not only in Israel, ’cause I’ve had comments from across the globe, but I do think that this time and where we are in this period of time and the nature of security and the situation and the developments just over the last two and a half months around the Gaza Strip and the reality with Abu Mazen and his health, which is failing in the West Bank and Yudan Shomron means that we need to be…I would say…I’m serving in the military for such a long time, it was always leading from the front and I think we have to set down a vision on what we want to do with the Gaza Strip. They’re not going to disappear on one hand. And on the other hand, we have 17 years of people living under the direct threat of rockets and mortars, so we can’t ignore them, and we’ve been ignoring them since 2007. So I think it’s time to do some engagement either with diplomacy, with third parties, mediators. There needs to be something that has to shift on the ground, and I think it’s in Israel’s best security interest to do so.
i360/JB: The international outcry against Israel regarding the actions on the Gaza border has been very severe, blaming the IDF for the casualties, but not mentioning the rioters planting bombs, the Molotov cocktails, trying to breach the border, flying kites with explosives that have created significant environmental damage to farmland and wildlife. What are Israel’s rights here? And what is the IDF’s responsibility to minimize loss of life, even during a violent riot?
Peter Lerner: I think from my experience, what I’ve seen and how the IDF conducts itself in these types of situations, the standing orders are to limit the use of lethal force, only when it’s absolutely necessary. And the developments that have evolved over the last two-and-a-half months on the border with Gaza have been one where the fence is there, but that fence, the fence that the Palestinians are trying to tear down, that is the last line of defense between them and 4,000 Israelis living within a 3-kilometer radius. So as such, there is a need for defense of that border, especially on the level of the hostilities that are taking place on the other side of the fence. I don’t see that Israel has any real other option today on the ground. And I don’t envy any of the soldiers that are confronted with the challenge, and the commanders that have to decide what to do. Now, the reality of battlefield, of the arena, is a really complex one. But there is really no alternative to defending that line of defense. Because if the fence is torn down as they wish to do so, then it jeopardizes the lives of thousands of Israelis, and that’s just unacceptable.
i360/JB: Speaking of terrorist groups, what’s your take on the reports that Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, might abandon Syrian bases near the Israeli border?
Peter Lerner: So this is a recent development, but if I take you back, perhaps, to August 2017. Prime Minister Netanyahu sat down with Putin in Sochi during the summer holidays. What Netanyahu actually asked back then was that Russia be involved in preventing Iranian presence in Syria. Putin, at the time, said, “I’m not getting involved, but I won’t get in your way if you want to deal with it.” And basically since then, we’ve seen repeated rumors of the IDF conducting strikes within Syria against Iranian forces or proxies or positions. And of course, last month, that was the highlight of that when we had a huge exchange on over 50 targets of Iranian interests in Syria. And I think that the world has come to realize that an Iranian presence in Syria is bad. So, I definitely think the types of things that we’ve just seen over the last couple of days, coming out of France and Germany and the UK, with Netanyahu’s visit there, I think definitely we are seeing more awareness on behalf of the world powers that Iran is a negative presence in Syria and therefore it needs to be dealt with.
Peter Lerner: I don’t necessarily believe that there will be actually something done, unless there is this looming threat of mysterious explosions that take place. So, as long as those continue, I expect that…if there is a process where Iran rolls back to the 70-kilometer line from the border with Israel, which actually was requested last year, that might be a good thing. But I think the statements that are now coming out from Israel is, “We’re not willing to have any sort of Iranian military presence in Syria whatsoever.” And therefore I think for this foreseeable future, we will continue to have these types of mysterious explosions.
i360/JB: Let’s say that the rumors that these mysterious explosions that took place at Iranian installations in Syria could have potentially been caused by Israeli air strikes. If, let’s say, that were the case, Israel, if it was Israel, really did some damage to Iran, and this proxy war that has been going on between Israel and Iran for a long time evolved into a direct confrontation. How did this change the power equation, if there ever was such a thing, between the two countries? And what was the lesson that Iran got from this, assuming, again, that it was Israel?
Peter Lerner: We know for sure that some of it, at least, was Israel, because Israel made an announcement, the IDF made an announcement outlining the types of positions and components of the Iranian presence in Syria and the targets that were just taken out. So, at least we know some of it. I think what we can learn from, first of all, is the fact that Iran still were not set up in the magnitude that they wanted to be in Syria. So, we didn’t see a substantial response from them. And it goes to show us that the level of operational capability that the IDF, on one hand, and the depth of intelligence on the other hand. So I would say Iran learnt that basically they were taking a shower in front of us, and they are completely exposed in a way where the IDF can, if it chooses to do so, based on instruction of the government, conduct military operations against their presence. So, of course, from their perspective, they have to think twice. Are they going to continue with this endeavor? If so, what will they have to do to try and conceal it? And if they fail in concealing it, to what extent are they willing to pay time and time again? I think it is in Israel’s interest that Iran stays 2,000 kilometers away from Israel and not be just over the border fence.
i360/JB: This spring was one of great significance for Israel. The United States opened an embassy in Jerusalem, then Guatemala did the same. As an Israeli, what does this mean to you?
Peter Lerner: It did give a great sense of recognition and pride. I lived a lot of my younger years in Jerusalem so I always felt a deep connection with Jerusalem as our capital, and everything seemed to, from my perspective, even as a young child, evolve around Jerusalem anyway. So, I can’t say from a personal perspective that it made much difference, but of course, the declaration and the action, I think it goes to show lots of developing friendships, which I think, of course, are good. But from my perspective, we need to be cautious about the way it’s embraced, and I think the idea is that the relationships that Israel has with the world need to be across the board and can’t be politically party focused. And I think there is some danger in the way some of those developments are happening. From my perspective, it was a great sense of pride to see huge celebrations in Israel and in Jerusalem, but of course, that was tarnished with what was going on on the border with Gaza on the same day. So, we have to keep that in mind, and that’s why I think we need to be a bit cautious of how we celebrate and channel that energy, so that it doesn’t actually end up as a very extremely controversial point.
i360/JB: Five other countries have said they’re planning on doing the same, in terms of moving their embassies in the very near future. Do you think we’re going to see this trend continue?
Peter Lerner: I’m not certain. I think that there is perhaps some hope, and I’m sure that the minister of foreign affairs in the prime minister’s office will be trying to convince more and more countries to come. I don’t necessarily believe that that will actually happen with haste. And again, I think the reality and the security situation and the public standing of what’s going on here means that people are gonna be a bit more cautious I think.
i360/JB: Does this international recognition of the status of Jerusalem alter the peace process going forward, as Palestinian leaders have suggested?
Peter Lerner: Peace process? What peace process? This is why I think we are at the crossroads of an interesting period where the prospects of peace and who do we do peace with? With Mahmoud Abbas, who is 83 years old with a failing health situation? He has actually been good for Israel’s security, not out of the love of Israel, but out of the interest of the Palestinian Authority. But whoever replaces him or succeeds him is unclear that he will continue the same policies that Mazen himself conducted with regard to security coordination and combating Hamas. So that’s on one hand of the situation. So if there’s no prospects of a peace process, then there really isn’t anything in the way of moving forward with these types of things. And that’s why I would say, yeah, perhaps there’s an opportunity, but is it going to be building walls instead of bridges? And I think we need to try and seek for the bridges.
i360/JB: A few Middle East analysts have half jokingly referred to Israel as “the first Sunni Jewish country in the Middle East.” What are we seeing in terms of the thaw between Israel and Saudi Arabia and some other countries in the region?
Peter Lerner: I think we’re living in unbelievable times in that regard. I think there’s so much going on, and the reality where Israel versus Iran and Saudi Arabia versus Iran, means that Israel and Saudi Arabia are versus Iran together, is a really interesting thing. And when the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said last year that he would be willing to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia, I think that just goes to show where things can actually move for. I do think, however, that until there is some sort of progress or process or even an implication of some sort of peace process, there will always be this sticking point in taking the relationship to the next level. I think when we look at our neighbors, like Jordan and Egypt, and we see negotiated agreements of peace that have actually developed, I think that is what is actually required in our neighborhood with the Palestinians, but there’s nobody ready to move forward with that. And that, I think, from an international, and definitely regional perspective, is always going to be something that impedes on the possibility to move forward, but it’s not only Saudi Arabia, it’s other Gulf states. And there are opportunities and there are understandings, and there are commercial dealings, mostly indirectly, but it does happen. And I think that that is actually a reality that can be good and nurtured, and perhaps lay the grounds for a more substantial relationship in the future.
i360/JB: Is there the possibility that a country like Saudi Arabia could decide, listen, this Palestinian issue is not going to be resolved any time soon, yet our strategic and economic relationship with Israel needs to continue to grow. Let’s just put aside the Palestinian thing and completely normalize relations with Israel. Is that a possibility? Or do you think that for the street, they need to hold onto the idea that until the conflict is solved, real peace is not possible?
Peter Lerner: No, I think that it will actually be limited in scope because of the prospects or non-prospects of peace. I think in order for it to move forward in any sort of type of development of substantial relationship, there are things that we will be able to talk about that will share both Israel’s and perhaps Saudi Arabia’s interests, but not necessarily actually develop beyond that.
i360/JB: Looking to the very near future, the summer tends to be the time when tensions flare up, and they already have, between Hamas and Israel in the south. Do you see the possibility looming of a larger conflict between Israel and Hamas this summer?
Peter Lerner: I think we’re the closest we’ve ever been in the last four years to a new confrontation, a new war with Hamas and the Gaza Strip. The nature of how the IDF is defending its borders, and how they are responding afterwards with huge volleys of rockets and mortar fire against Israeli communities in Southern Israel. And we are living in a time where the dynamics of escalation are ever prominent, and that means that one action leads to another reaction, and that could actually deteriorate into another war. I think everybody…well, there’s no real interest on either side, as we saw in the attempts to try and create some sort of ceasefire last week and prevented an escalation, but all it takes is for a mortar bomb to land on a kindergarten when it’s full of people. And that, I think, is really the challenge. When you throw something up in the air and you hope it lands on somebody, but it lands on a kindergarten or it does huge damage, or Israel responds and conducts a strike and that strike causes deaths that were not planned, because this is the nature of the battlefield because the terrorist organizations and our enemies as a whole always seem to position themselves within the civilian arena, within densely populated areas. So there’s a chance that an action can lead to a reaction that can lead to another reaction, and therefore we will find ourselves possibly in that type of conflict. Nobody really wants it. We love our summer holidays here in Israel. We have lovely beaches and restaurants and what have you. But I think the military need to be prepared for that reality and from my experience that is what they’re probably doing.