newsIsrael at War

Former Israeli FM: Peace with Saudi Arabia is still possible

Eli Cohen told JNS, “One of our enemies’ reasons for launching the war was to prevent an agreement with Saudi Arabia, but the war produced the opposite result.”

Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at the ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
Then-Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at the ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

The year 2023 began with the hope that a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would soon be reached. It ended with the atrocities of Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre and the ensuing war.

Last week, in the midst of the war, the Israeli cabinet was reshuffled. Israel Katz was appointed foreign minister and his predecessor Eli Cohen was shifted to energy minister.

JNS recently spoke with Cohen about his tenure as foreign minister during one of Israel’s most difficult conflicts.

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JNS: Is the world still supporting us on the war in Gaza?

Cohen: We are three months into the war and are receiving international support. The number of Western countries calling for a total ceasefire can be counted on one hand. The moderate Arab states also want to see an Israeli victory over Hamas. And you must remember: This is not a war only against Hamas; this is a war against all Iranian proxies in the region. That’s why I’m satisfied with the international support. Anyone who has seen the atrocities of Hamas understands that these atrocities must not happen again; that Hamas is a cancer that needs to be eradicated; and that it is important for us to win.

JNS: Still, the world wants us to talk about the day after, which Israel isn’t talking about.

Cohen: The world supports us on the two goals we set for ourselves: the return of all the hostages and the destruction of Hamas. So, it’s true that we’re being asked to behave in a humanitarian manner according to international law and bring in more humanitarian aid; but the world understands the situation.

JNS: What does the world want to see in Gaza the day after?

Cohen: I’m more interested in what Israel wants to see. I told everyone I met: “We need to liberate Gaza from Hamas.” The defeat of Hamas will create a better future for those living in Gaza and this will increase regional stability. That is why Israel first needs to fight Hamas. Then we would like Israel to have security control over Gaza, but we have no intention of controlling civilian life there.

I think that in the interim period a multinational coalition will be formed with the U.S., Europe and moderate Muslim countries that will work for the benefit of the civilian population of Gaza. We will not agree to the body that controls Gaza and lives by our side continuing to pursue the goal of destroying the State of Israel. And, of course, we will not agree to them continuing to pay salaries to those who kill Jews and engage in incitement against Israel.

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In recent weeks, Cohen met several times with the French foreign minister, who along with U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein is trying to broker a diplomatic solution to the presence of Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border.

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JNS: Is there a chance for a diplomatic solution to the Lebanon issue?

Cohen: I can tell you that I received messages that the Lebanese government does not want a war with Israel. Israel is not looking for war either; only security for its people. But the problem is that the dominant party in Lebanon is Hezbollah and it receives its instructions from Tehran and not from Beirut. This is an example of the Iranian cancer and we need to act against it and its methods.

JNS: Do you think Israel’s message is clear that it’s either a diplomatic solution or war?

Cohen: I think the Israeli message is clear enough: The residents of the north must return to their homes and feel safe. There are two ways to accomplish this—a diplomatic solution or military action. They and we are working to exhaust the diplomatic solution. But this window is closing and, if such a solution is not found, all options are on the table.

JNS: Under the current Israeli government, Iran has come closer than ever to a nuclear bomb. Is this a failure of the government?

Cohen: I think that if our government hadn’t taken action over the last decade, Iran would already have a nuclear bomb. It’s important for there be an international fight against Iran to prevent it from getting the bomb.

JNS: Do you feel the world is getting fatigued on this issue?

Cohen: I think the world sees the Houthis as an extension of Iran. They are now blocking a major maritime route. Iran is causing problems in many countries. If it could have, it would already have struck the Gulf states. I think the world understands that the Iranian issue is a global problem and therefore an international coalition needs to increase the pace of the fight against it.

JNS: What’s your agenda in your new job as energy minister?

Cohen: In the Middle East and in Europe, the energy issue is very important. Israel’s natural gas discoveries are an important source of our economic growth; but they are also a means to increase regional stability. Energy can be used as political leverage. As a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, Europe’s desire to diversify energy sources has increased. So, we are working on several projects in this direction.

JNS: How do you sum up your year as foreign minister?

Cohen: It was mainly the war. There is a saying, “A person who works on Friday will be able to eat on Shabbat.” In the nine months leading up to the war, I visited more than 30 countries and we saw that, from the beginning of the war, there was huge support for Israel that had never been seen before. Senior officials from around the world came here to embrace Israel. There were a number of anti-Israel elements in the European Union that tried to harm us and we managed to thwart it. All of this was the result of a long-term investment.

One of our enemies’ reasons for launching the war was to prevent an agreement with Saudi Arabia. But the war produced the opposite result, because Saudi Arabia understands that it needs a coalition against Iran. That’s why I’m optimistic that, after the war, we will be able to renew peace talks, because an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia also symbolizes peace between the Muslim world and the Jewish world.

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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