(May 1, 2018 / JNS) The seventh annual Jerusalem Post Conference, held on Sunday in New York City, gathered together a number of Israeli and American political figures who discussed Iran, Israel and Syria, among a host of other topics.
Israeli Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz called U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem a “brave and just decision,” and he asked the Trump administration to allow former convicted American spy Jonathan Pollard to come to Israel for the embassy’s opening.
Israeli officials at the conference said Trump is “seriously considering” changing Pollard’s parole conditions and allowing him to travel to Israel, where he was granted citizenship in 1995.
Discussing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreeing to work together towards denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, Katz said the advancement shows that “President Trump’s tough policy doctrine, which combines sanctions and a willingness to use force, is paying off, and we hope that it will succeed.”
He added, “It seems that when it comes to determined dictatorships, the tough approach is much more effective than engagement and compromise.”
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said about the potential of North Korea denuclearizing: “I hope we see the same regarding Iran.”
He told the audience Israel has only three problems—“Iran, Iran, Iran”—and noted that Iran is attempting to destabilize the entire Middle East region by supporting and creating proxies around the Jewish state, such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
“All of them would not survive one week without Iranian support,” he said, adding that more than 85 percent of Hezbollah’s budget comes from Tehran.
Lieberman, who recently returned from Washington, where he met with National Security Adviser John Bolton and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, said that the United States has not asked Israel for any advice on whether to cancel the Iran nuclear deal or not.
He acknowledged that “it’s really not our business. It is an American decision,” though said about Israel’s position, “We think that it is a very, very bad deal. It’s a huge mistake, and from our point of view, there is no reason to have this deal.”
When the conversation turned to Russia and Syria, Lieberman was clear that Israel will “respond very forcefully” if Russian air-defense systems are used against Israeli aircraft by troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his government. His comments came after senior Russian officials admitted last week that Russia was considering supplying the Assad regime with air-defense systems following U.S.-led strikes against military sites, which took place in response to chemical-weapons attacks earlier in April that killed dozens of Syrians.
Addressing the number of Palestinian riots that have taken place at the Israel-Gaza border in recent weeks, Lieberman said that Hamas is to blame for the violence and Palestinian casualties, not Israel. The defense minister insisted that Israeli is doing the “minimum” required to protect its security and sovereignty, and slammed the terrorist group for investing $260 million in tunnels and manufacturing missiles instead of on infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.
“What we have during these demonstrations are only Hamas operatives and their families, and they send women and children as a human shield. We didn’t see real [civilians] from the Gaza Strip. All responsibility falls on [Hamas],” he said. “All the demonstrations are [accompanied by] two slogans: to destroy the State of Israel and the right of return. … We did not see even one slogan, one statement about co-existing with the State of Israel or living in peace with Israel.”
Support for Jewish state strong and bipartisan
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) did not shy away from criticizing Trump. Commenting to JNS on the president’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Cardin said he wished the president had done it in a way that “could have been more effective moving forward in the peace process by engaging our partners in the region, particularly the moderate Arab states, and working with leaders of countries that want to have a good relationship with Israel but don’t today.”
He went on to explain that “Mr. Trump has a different way of doing business. I don’t support the way he brings issues up and the way that he challenges people around the world. He’s abrupt, he’s not diplomatic … He many times turns very sharp words against our closest allies and embraces dictators and despots around the world, so he has a very inconsistent commitment toward American values and foreign policy, and that is very troublesome.”
He also told JNS that despite efforts by some to make Israel a “political wedge issue,” U.S. support for the Jewish state is strong and bipartisan.
While on stage, the senator called on Assad to face the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes. He spoke about a hopeful resolution to the Syrian civil war and said America must “have Israel’s back” to make sure Iran does not get a long-term foothold on Israel’s northern border.
On the topic of the Iran nuclear deal, Cardin said U.S. withdrawal from the accord would only wind up isolating the United States, and not Iran.
‘What we could do with Syria, we can’t do with Iran’
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explained that Israel is not as capable to attack Iran’s nuclear program as the Israeli Air Force was when it destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007—an attack that Israel only recently acknowledged publicly.
“What we could do with Syria, we can’t do with Iran,” said Olmert. “In Syria, it was relatively close. There was one construction—one atomic reactor—and once you destroyed it, you destroyed their capabilities until they decide to build a new one, which is a matter of years. In Iran, things are building in a very different way. The distance is much farther, and the construction of their capabilities is spread in different sites, most of it underground.”
When asked about current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging Trump to throw out or fix the Iran deal by May 12, he said: “President Trump thinks it’s a ridiculous agreement. I am not so certain that he is right.”
“It’s better than what was before. It’s worse than what may have been achieved. So if there is an alternative that can be accomplished soon, then I’ll definitely support those who want to change the agreement. If not, I don’t suggest anyone should rush to cancel this agreement without finding an alternative that is effective and useful.”
As one of the final political figures to take the stage at the conference, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called for the renegotiation of a decade-long defense agreement between Israel and the United States. He said the $38 billion in defense funding to Israel through 2028 does not provide enough defense aid to the Jewish state as it faces missile threats from Iran and its proxies.
“This is a moment of historical significance,” he said about the Iranian threat. “We’re trying to change what I do believe could be a disaster in the Middle East—a nuclear arms race.”
Graham applauded Trump for acknowledging the Iran nuclear accord as a “lousy deal,” pointing out that allowing Iran the right to enrich uranium while telling the Arab Gulf states they cannot do the same is “the dumbest thing in the world.”
When it came to Trump’s policy on Syria, the senator acknowledged that “this is one area where I think Trump needs to up his game. We don’t have a strategy to deal with the Iranian influence in Syria. If we leave too soon, ISIS will come back.”
Speaking directly to the president, Graham said, “President Trump, stay until you get the job done. Do not give Damascus to the Iranians. Do not let Syria become Lebanon on steroids. I hope President Trump will allow no-fly zones to exist in Syria. This is a very big thing, Mr. President; we can’t get this one wrong.”