It was unclear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was kidding or being serious when, answering questions in the Knesset Monday, he congratulated “the foreign minister and his staff” for their excellent work in broadening and deepening Israel’s international relations. He was straight-faced, seemingly in earnest. But surely not, since he was speaking about himself; Netanyahu is the foreign minister.
What is not up for debate is that under his stewardship, the Israeli government can boast some impressive foreign policy achievements: increasingly warm ties with powerhouses Russia, China, Japan and India, normalization with Turkey, new friendships in Africa and, perhaps most importantly, a noticeable rapprochement with Egypt and with other Arab states that have never formally recognized Israel’s existence.
On the downside, relations with Jerusalem’s traditional key allies — the United States and the European Union — are tense due to substantive disagreements over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dore Gold, a long-time confidant of the prime minister, has become the face of Israel’s foreign policy since he became the director-general of the Foreign Ministry in June 2015. In a wide-ranging interview, the Connecticut-born diplomat laid out his views on the current Palestinian leadership and the logic behind Israel’s strategy vis-a-vis with the Arab world. He also elaborated on Israel’s rejection of the French effort to revive the stalled peace process.
Jerusalem, Gold said, will likely boycott a French-planned international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Paris, if it goes ahead later this year. Such a summit would “undermine the whole peace process,” he argued.
“We weren’t invited for the first round… I doubt we’ll be there for the second one because we have been very clear about our problems with this whole French scheme,” Gold said.
On June 3, France hosted a conference attended by top officials from 28 countries. Israelis and Palestinians were not invited. Paris said at the time that the meeting was merely the “first step” and that it would begin joint work to organize an international conference to be held by the end of the year “and which will unite the entire international community around the Israelis and Palestinians.”
The Israeli government has repeatedly made plain its opposition, arguing that international conferences serve to harden Palestinian negotiating positions and insisting that only direct bilateral talks between Israelis and Palestinians can lead to progress in the stalled peace process.
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Gold doubled down on Israel’s criticism. “The French initiative unfortunately is an alternative to direct negotiations. I’ve seen French statements on that, and it’s undermining the whole peace process that was begun in Madrid,” he said. Gold was referring to a 1991 summit attended by Israel (including then-deputy foreign minister Netanyahu), Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, which marked the first time the parties of the Middle East conflict sat together and held direct negotiations.
The planned Paris summit cannot be seen as a continuation of that historic conference, Gold said, because “Madrid, and afterwards of course the Oslo accords, envisioned specifically direct negotiations without preconditions,” Gold said. “That’s the international consensus, and the French initiative is a deviation.”
While he insisted that bilateral direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority are the only way forward, however, Gold also said he doubted that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is truly interested in reaching an agreement with Israel.
Asked whether he thinks Abbas truly supports a two-state solution, Gold replied: “He has certain maps in his mind that are beyond the maps the people of Israel can accept. He dabbles in the delegitimization of Israel and in the total denial of Jewish history. That raises serious questions whether he can deliver, or wants to deliver, a permanent solution. I’m not sure he wants to”
Gold, who served as an adviser to Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, added: “There are serious questions about [Abbas’s] intentions. Unfortunately, he has fallen into a pattern of behavior of relying on vicious incitement against the people of Israel, which simply cannot be accepted.”
In the 1990s, Gold spent many hours negotiating with Abbas and knows him personally “very well,” he said.
“Maybe there was a time he was appearing on the White House Lawn and he was negotiating with [former Israeli politician] Yossi Beilin, that created the impression of him being very moderate. But his need for using incitement to violence and condoning terrorist acts after the fact just raises serious questions about whether he can ultimately be relied upon to produce a political settlement.”
Gold was reluctant to discuss how Israel is preparing for the period after Abbas, who is 81, leaves the political stage.
“It’s not up to Israel to pick Palestinian leaders,” he said. “However, it is up to Israel to comment if (potential) Palestinian leaders have blood on their hands or have actively been involved in the killing of Israeli citizens. We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said, possibly referring to the potential candidacy of the popular Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in Israeli jail for orchestrating murders during the Second Intifada.
Gold also addressed international criticism of Israel’s policy of expanding Jewish communities outside the pre-1967 lines, rejecting arguments that such settlement activity is rendering a two-state solution impossible.
The international reaction to the “addition of another row of houses in an existing settlement” in the West Bank is “very difficult to understand,” he said. The often-made argument that a growing number of settlers will make a future evacuation of settlements impossible “is not necessarily true,” he also posited, since most of the Jews live in settlement blocs that are expected to be annexed to Israel in a peace deal.
‘Settlements have not blocked a peace deal’
“So it depends on how the cartographers draw the maps. But there’s no reason why you can’t get a significant percentage of the Jews in the West Bank within sovereign Israel in the future. And others may decide to live there [after an agreement and presumable withdrawal]. We may come up with some other arrangements, which I don’t really want to go into at this point. But the addition of Jews is not what’s blocking a peace settlement.”
Israel has uprooted settlements in the past — in Sinai, Gaza, and elsewhere — and could do it again, Gold argued. “But settlements have not blocked a peace settlement. What’s blocking the peace settlement is this Palestinian resorting to violence.”
Gold, who has been heading the Foreign Ministry since June 2015, has held meetings with senior officials from Arab countries, including some that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Like Netanyahu, and in contrast to conventional wisdom, he believes that improving ties with the Arab states could enable a peace deal with the Ramallah, as opposed to the other way around.
“The conventional wisdom for the last few decades has been that a solution to the Palestinian issues will result in improved ties between Israel and the Arab world,” Gold told The Times of Israel last month. “But there is a serious basis for thinking that, actually, the sequence is exactly the opposite — that by improving ties with the Arab states, we set the stage for a future breakthrough with the Palestinians.”
This notion should not be seen “in overly dramatic terms,” he cautioned in this interview, however. No one is suggesting that the Saudis are about to open an embassy in Jerusalem, he stressed. “But what happens is that as Israelis and diplomats from the Arab world interact more intensively — and even as allies — their readiness in the future to use their diplomatic weight should increase,” Gold said.
At recent conference in Abu Dhabi that Gold addressed via satellite, an Emirati official “criticized the Palestinians for running to the Security Council and not going to the General Assembly as the Emirates suggested,” Gold recalled. “If there’s dissonance, it will become expressed; if there’s a suggestion of how to move things forward in a positive way, they’ll make it. And I think slowly but surely it might affect our ability to shape a peace settlement down the road. The Arab world is extremely important for doing precisely that.”
Israel should not “wait for the Palestinians to come along” before seeking a rapprochement with the Arab states, Gold added. “We can develop ties with the Arab states, perhaps at a low level, perhaps under the table, and perhaps certain types of ties that can be more overt. We have the opportunity to explore them.”
In the meantime, are the Arab nations not unfairly taking advantage of Israel, benefiting from clandestine cooperation but refusing to recognize Israel, and in some cases even publicly attacking Israel?
“Obviously, what the Arab world could get from Israel would be considerably greater if they opened up more fully to Israel,” Gold replied. “But we work with them on a level we’re comfortable with, given the nature of our relations. And we’re hopeful this can be transformed in the future. How and where — we’ll see.”
Diplomatic processes are not always a 24-hour affair, he said. Rather, they involve building relationships and trust with individuals over time.
This is how his personal relationship with former top Saudi official Anwar Eshki came about, resulting in a rare joint public appearance in Washington DC last year (just before Gold took up his current government position).
“At the end of the day, they were actually interested in having an open meeting and not just keeping it under the table,” Gold said about this contacts with Eshki. “Sometimes you can see in various contexts that there will be greater readiness in the future. I don’t think we have to be sitting here waiting for another international conference with Arab states and Israel, and that’s the be-all and end-all. [Such major events can be] important, and that’s why we make such efforts with the Arab states. But if we don’t have that big international conference next week, it’s not the end of the world.”