Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives for a Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Jan. 15, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives for a Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Jan. 15, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
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‘There is no value in agreements with Iran’

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen sits down with JNS to discuss aid to Ukraine, the Iranian threat, Israel-Saudi normalization and more.

The rebellion in Russia over the weekend caught Israeli officials by surprise; there was much discussion regarding how the crisis might affect the Jewish state.

According to Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, the consensus was that it wouldn’t.

“This is an internal issue within Russia; we do not interfere in things that are happening within Russia”, Cohen told JNS.

However, he added, there could be indirect effects.

“We are mainly preparing for a scenario in which immigration to Israel increases. There are also currently several tens of thousands of Israelis in Russia for work or vacation purposes, so we may have to increase the number of flights to allow them to return to Israel, if necessary,” he said.

Q: So, there was no fear that the events in Russia might affect Israel?

A: I don’t think so. The events happened so fast. What we were really busy with was to check the immediate consequences for Israel, the envoys, the Israelis and the Jewish community. We updated scenarios on the matter.

Q: Some officials in Ukraine and in the West criticized Israel’s approach, or even “neutrality” when it comes to the war in Ukraine.

A: The Israeli approach is based on support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. I was the first foreign minister in the Middle East to come to Ukraine to strengthen them and to express support. There is very significant humanitarian aid from Israel to Ukraine. But we are also maintaining our relationship with Russia, since we have several important strategic issues in common with them and there is also a very large Jewish community in Russia.

Q: The head of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s office, Andrey Yermak, criticized the Israeli prime minister for not coming to Ukraine. 

A: I think that a visit is definitely a real possibility.

Q: And what about giving Ukraine defensive weapons?

A: There are discussions taking place in Israel, but for now there is no change in policy—we will not transfer defensive weapons.

Q: Some say the time has come for you to do so, to “jump on the train.”

A: Despite the complexity of the Russia-Ukraine issue, Israel expresses its support for Ukraine very clearly. IDF soldiers and Ukrainian soldiers have been sitting in Poland for the last few weeks to build a missile-drone warning system to save the lives of Ukrainian citizens.

The Iran threat

Minister Cohen noted the strategic benefit to Israel of Russia’s cooperation with the Islamic Republic with regard to the Ukraine war.

“The whole world is exposed to the fact that Iranian weapons are killing Ukrainian citizens, and this increases the world’s desire to take measures against Iran,” he said.

Q: But How much do you talk with Russia about Iran?

A: We explain the danger posed by the Iranians to every country that is in contact with Iran. We convey the same message: They are the number one financiers of terrorism. A nuclear Iran is not only a danger to Israel but also to the world.

Q: Is the new nuclear agreement, which is being discussed between the United States and Iran, worse than the original 2015 JCPOA agreement?

A: We think that there is no value in agreements with Iran. Its desire to obtain nuclear weapons is intended to [allow it to] continue [to increase] regional instability, to continue to violate human rights. We made it clear, unlike the previous government: We will not accept any agreement.

Q: Does Israel have the ability to prevent a U.S.-Iran agreement?

A: The Biden administration has made it a goal from the beginning to get the nuclear agreement moving. They think that the diplomatic solution is the best solution. We argued that it would not achieve anything.

I believe that if there was a solution, it would include [former U.S. secretary of state] Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands. Such an agreement would need to prevent Iran from both obtaining nuclear weapons and spreading terrorism. Then it would be different.

Q: How much does the relationship between Iran and the Gulf bother you?

A: It’s all a show. Any exchange of ambassadors between these countries and Iran is only for outside observers. Inside there is tension, the hatred and fear are very great. I’m sure the Iranians are not happy with our presence in the region, for example my visits to Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. But we are increasing our presence in Central Asia, and thanks to the Abraham Accords also in western Iran.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Following the deadly June 20 terror attack near Eli in Samaria, Israeli pictures of Israeli Jews rioting in Palestinian villages were broadcast around the world. I asked the minister how many phone calls and explanations he had had to make about these images.

“I didn’t get many calls. But did have to make some explanations, saying that Israel is a state of law and order. We condemn any violence—verbal or physical violence. I know there is enormous pain over the murder of innocents, but do not take the law into your own hands,” he said.

Q: It seems America’s patience is starting to run out.

A: I would be happy if the Americans would condemn the Palestinian Authority policy of incentivizing the murder of Jews. They encourage the murder of Jews.

Q: What do you think about U.S. ambassador Thomas Nides’s tweet regarding the “victims of the last 48 hours”?

A: I know Tom Nides. He loves the State of Israel. It is clear to me that he had no intention of comparing the terrorists who were killed in an [IDF] operation and those innocent civilians [killed by terrorists]. I met with him the next day—and he clarified his words and also issued a corrected tweet.

Q: Some of the Israeli government’s decisions regarding the settlements, and comments made by ministers—it seems they hurt relations with the United States.

A: I think that the relationship between us and the United States is a solid one, but sometimes there are disputes. It is legitimate to have disputes. We build in Judea and Samaria—even the previous government did so. But at the same time, I also suggest that the government maintain a good dialogue [with the U.S. administration].

Saudi Arabia

Though not yet in office for half a year, Cohen has already visited 21 countries. Despite much talk about the possibility that Saudi Arabia might normalize relations with the Jewish state, the kingdom was not among them.

Q: The Saudis issued us a red card—no entry for Israeli diplomats to their Expo2030 event, no direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia during the Hajj?

A: There is something that has been happening since the establishment of the Israeli government: there is a dialogue through the Americans regarding the possibility of a normalization and peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis currently mainly want from the United States assistance against the Iranian threat.

Q: So we are not part of this negotiation

A: The leading party at the talks is the Americans. The Saudis want, through the promotion of normalization with Israel, to receive from the United States a protective umbrella against Iran.

Q: Do the Americans check with us what our red lines are?

A: We clarify what our red lines are. And one of them is that no [Middle Eastern] country should acquire nuclear capabilities. I think we have a window of opportunity [regarding normalization with the Saudis] until March next year. Then the U.S. elections will come.

Israel-Diaspora relations

Q: Let’s talk about the government’s relations with Jews in the United States.

A: The relationship with the Jewish community is good. I meet with them. Unfortunately, under the auspices of the protest against judicial reform, there has also been an attempt by elements in the Israeli opposition, including [Yesh Atid chairman Yair] Lapid, to damage the relationship. I’ve also been in the opposition, but it never occurred to me to harm Israel.

Q: What do you think about the statements by members of your government (Minister Amichai Chikli) that J Street is hostile towards Israel?

A: I respect all the Jewish communities and organizations in the United States. But I think that supporting organizations like Breaking the Silence and others is unreasonable. It’s important for me to meet with all the communities, and keep in touch, and that’s what will happen in September when I will visit the United States.

Q: And the last question, about Israelis entering the US without a VISA.

A: Progress on the matter is according to plan. In two weeks the pilot will begin, and Israeli citizens will be able to benefit from a visa exemption. Ambassador Nides is the effective factor, and this is his main legacy, the visa exemption.

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

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