Sallai Meridor recently arrived in Washington to serve as Israel's ambassador to the United States. His tenure begins at an important juncture: The Middle East peace process is in a multi-sided stalemate. And the region is adjusting to the news that Iran has defied the United Nations in enriching uranium.
Asked if Israel — a country that many believe already has nuclear weapons of its own — would act unilaterally if Iran persists with its development plans, Meridor takes a different tack.
"I think it's critical that the Iranians know that they should not be allowed to have [a] nuclear weapon," the ambassador says, "and that all options are on the table."
If Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear weapon, Meridor says, "it would be a mortal threat to the world, and the world should get their act together to stop it now."
Robert Siegel talks with Meridor.
A transcript of the interview follows:
ROBERT SIEGEL: The Middle East peace process, which has long been in a state of suspended animation, is now in a kind of multisided stalemate. The quartet, which is made up of the U.S., the European Union, the U.N. and Russia, reminded the Palestinians last night that their government must renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept previous agreements and obligations. The Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, which won the last parliamentary election, does not meet those requirements.
A Palestinian government of national unity that includes Hamas that was brokered by Saudi Arabia – and the President Mahmoud Abbas says is the best they can possibly do – does not yet satisfy the quartet's terms. And that is just the barrier to getting back to serious negotiations. The issues that Israel and the Palestinians would actually negotiate are no easier today than they were a few years ago.
Joining us to talk about those and other issues is Sallai Meridor, who recently arrived in Washington to serve as Israeli's ambassador to the United States. Welcome to the program.
AMBASSADOR SALLAI MERIDOR: Thank you. And thank you for having me.
MR. SIEGEL: First off, is there any declaration or commitment that Hamas could say or make that would satisfy Israel that a Palestinian government, including Hamas, could be a partner for peace, or does Hamas being Hamas preclude that.
AMB. MERIDOR: Well, Hamas is today a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of the state of Israel. What it would take for us to be able to move forward is to have a Palestinian government that recognizes the right of Israel to exist, that renounces terrorism and violence, and that is committed to adhering to previous agreements, including the roadmap. These are so natural principles that are the foundation for peace.
MR. SIEGEL: But you said today that that implies that you are capable of hearing something else tomorrow and taking a different view from that.
AMB. MERIDOR: Not only our hearts and hands, but our ears are constantly open. There is nothing Israel wants more than peace. And we will be tuned to any potential change in our enemies and in their views. So far, as we know, Hamas is committed to the opposite of peace. There is nothing Israel [is] more interested in than moving forward towards peace. And what we are trying to do is to bring about a situation that we have a Palestinian interlocutor who is as committed to peace and to compromise as Israel is.
MR. SIEGEL: But if there were a declaration from Hamas that we recognize Israel, we acknowledge past agreements, we renounce violence — those declarations would count for something.
AMB. MERIDOR: Those declarations, if multiplied or if coupled by action will definitely count for much.
MR. SIEGEL: Another very important question: Iran. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said here yesterday that he came back from Jerusalem convinced that Israel and U.S. see the Iranian nuclear issue the same way. And he says there is time for diplomacy and sanctions; we should be patient. Iran won't have nuclear weapons for some years. Is that Israel's view of the situation as well?
AMB. MERIDOR: We see the Iranian threat as the most serious threat to the world. It's to Israel, yes, because it threatens Israel's very existence and deny our right to exist. It's to the region, because they would like to dominate the entire Middle East. But it's beyond that. I think that it will be a different world for our children and grandchildren were Iran to be able to – able to have nuclear weapon with what they may do directly, with the impact indirectly, and with proliferation which would get many, many genies out of many, many bottles.
MR. SIEGEL: But –
AMB. MERIDOR: So we'll have a different world, and we should do everything possible to avoid it. Now, is there time? You asked me, is there time?
MR. SIEGEL: Nicholas Burns says be patient.
AMB. MERIDOR: There is limited time, and the question is, what will be done with the time. And if the world community will act responsibly and seriously, and determinately by diplomatic ways, by economic pressure on Iran, but explaining to the Iranian people the wrong doing of the government, there is a chance that the Iranian leadership will have to reconsider their position.
MR. SIEGEL: And is the implication there that Israel, if Israel felt failed by the world in confronting Iran, that Israel would take action on its own?
AMB. MERIDOR: I think it's critical that the Iranians know that they should not be allowed to have [a] nuclear weapon, and that all options are on the table.
MR. SIEGEL: Of course, the Iranians say, you may not own up to it publicly, but everyone knows you have nuclear weapons in Israel, what's different for them?
AMB. MERIDOR: Well, this is a clear propaganda campaign by the Iranian. Israel has a very clear policy, responsible with regard to this matter. The Iranians want to probably take the focus from where is. The issue is very clear: If Iran had nuclear bomb and nuclear military capacity, it would be a mortal threat to the world, and the world should get their act together to stop it now.
MR. SIEGEL: Well, Ambassador Sallai Meridor of Israel, thank you very much for talking with us today.
AMB. MERIDOR: I thank you very much for having me.
Transcript by: Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.