By Liron Lavi
November 24, 2021 — On November 21, 2021, the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies teamed up with Haaretz, the leading newspaper in Israel, to host an online conference on Israeli national security challenges. Top experts and leading policymakers from Israel and the U.S. discussed the Iranian threat, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S.-Israel relations.
Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz, former Director of the Mossad Yossi Cohen, former Foreign Minister and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Chairwoman of the Israeli Labor Party and Minister of Transportation Merav Michaeli were among the many high-level speakers at the conference.
“This conference is not just about challenges, it is also about opportunities” proclaimed Gantz in his opening keynote remarks. With the Abraham Accords, he asserted, Israel has strengthened its ties with its neighbors and has “an opportunity now to build trust” with the Palestinians, despite the growing threat from Iran.
The conference featured one-on-one interviews with current and former government leaders, plus three panels of Israeli and American experts from universities, think tanks and civil society organizations.
On the topic of the “shadow war” with Iran and the Iranian nuclear threat, former Director of the Mossad Yossi Cohen — in a rare interview — said he was skeptical the negotiations will result in an agreement because Iran “will not agree to a deal.”
Also commenting on the Iranian challenge, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon claimed that cooperation between Israel, the U.S. and Arab countries is key in curtailing Iranian nuclear capabilities. Merav Michaeli, who is also a member of Israel’s security cabinet, asserted that “this is not an Israeli issue. Iran as a nuclear state is a problem of the world. It should be dealt as an international issue.”
At the panel discussion on this topic, panelists weighed-in on the recent developments in Iran’s nuclear program and its involvement in the region as well as Israel’s responses to these threats.
In light of the renewed negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) Dalia Dassa Kaye, senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and former director of the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, emphasized that as Iran gets closer to nuclear capabilities, it also “has better cards to play” with conventional weapons.
The second part of the conference focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In an interview with Haaretz journalist Amir Tibon, Tzipi Livni warned that Israel is heading toward a “one-state reality” and that a two-state solution is necessary to ensure “a secure Jewish and democratic state.”
The diverse panel on the conflict highlighted different solutions and approaches. Gilead Sher, a former Israeli peace negotiator and former chief of staff to prime minister Ehud Barak, advocated for the two-state solution, while Ameer Fakhoury, director of the research center at Neve Shalom (Wahat al Salam) and an adviser on joint society projects, called on all the parties to “develop our political imagination” and consider a confederal solution. Micah Goodman, author of the best-selling book “Catch 67,” challenged both views. The conflict cannot currently be solved, he argued, so efforts should focus on shrinking rather than ending it.
Turning to the topic of U.S.-Israel relations, Labor party leader Michaeli emphasized that Israel’s new government — and Labor in particular — is firmly committed to enhancing relationships with the Jewish community. She also asserted that there is good communication between Israel’s new government and the Biden Administration and that Israel “should go back to investing in bipartisanship, which was a major asset that we had for many years and was shaken recently.”
The conference’s final panel focused on the key strategic issue of Israel’s relations with the U.S. and was moderated by Nazarian Center Director Professor Dov Waxman. The panelists, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin S. Indyk, former U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler, Shira Efron of the Institute for National Security Studies and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, emphasized the importance of restoring the strong relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
Telhami discussed the changing landscape of American public opinion toward Israel, especially among young Democrats, and Efron pointed to the disparity between Israeli and American Jews with regard to the occupation. “Seventy percent of Israeli Jews do not consider the situation as an occupation,” she proclaimed.
Indyk, in response to Michaeli’s affirmation of close communication between the governments, observed that as the U.S. is shifting its attention to other regions in the world, Israelis are also looking to other global powers, such as China.
In closing keynote remarks, Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated that “Israel and the U.S. are bound together by much more than formal diplomatic relations” and that shared values and democratic institutions unite the two countries. He expressed his commitment to continue acting against the BDS movement, antisemitism and white nationalism — and to advancing the two-state solution.
With an exceptional lineup of speakers and participants and a unique partnership between the Nazarian Center and Haaretz, this informative and thought-provoking conference presented a wide range of perspectives on the most pressing national security challenges Israel is facing today.