Middle East


The Middle East peace process, which has long been on the state of suspended animation, is now in a kind of multisided stalemate, the quartet of 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 that President Mahmoud Abbas says is the best they can possibly do does not yet satisfy the quartet's terms.

And that's just the barrier to getting back to Syria's 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 Israel's ambassador to the United States. Welcome to the program.

Mr. SALLAI MERIDOR (Israeli Ambassador to the United States): Thank you and thank you for having me.

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?

Mr. 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 open a (unintelligible) government that recognizes the right to Israel to exist, that renounces terrorism and violence, and that is committed to adhering to previous agreements, including the Road Map.

These are so natural principles that are the foundation for peace.

SIEGEL: But you said today that that implies you're capable of hearing something else tomorrow and taking a different view of Hamas?

Mr. MERIDOR: Our - not only our hearts in the 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 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.

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?

Mr. MERIDOR: Those declarations, if multiplied or if coupled by action, will definitely count for much.

SIEGEL: Another very important question: Iran. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has 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 use. Is that Israel's view of the situation as well?

Mr. 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 or grandchildren, where Iran to be able to - able to have a nuclear weapon with what they may do directly with - the impact, indirectly, and with proliferation, which will let many, many genies out of many, many bottles. So we'll have a different world, and we should do everything possible to avoid it. Now, is there time? You ask me, is there time?

SIEGEL: As Nicholas Burn says, be patient.

Mr. MERIDOR: There is limited time. And the question is what will be done with the time? And if the world community would act responsibly and seriously and determinedly by diplomatic ways, by economic pressure on Iran, by explaining to Iranian people the wrongdoing of the government, there is a chance that the Iranian leadership will have to reconsider their position.

SIEGEL: And is the implications there that Israel, if Israel felt failed by the world in confronting Iran, that Israel would take action on its own?

Mr. MERIDOR: I think it's critical that the Iranians know that they should not be allowed to have nuclear weapon, and that all options are on the table.

SIEGEL: Because the Iranians say you may not own up to it publicly, but everyone knows you have nuclear weapons in Israel. What's different from them?

Mr. MERIDOR: Well, this is a clear propaganda campaign by the Iranians. Israel has very clear policy, responsible with regards to this matter. The Iranians want to probably take the focus from where it 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.

SIEGEL: Well, Ambassador Sallai Meridor of Israel, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. MERIDOR: I thank you very much for having me.

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