Likud minister Yuval Steinitz, who holds the long title of minister of intelligence, international relations and strategic affairs, sits at the Prime Minister's Office. Perhaps the perspective from there is different than from anywhere else. All attempts to challenge him with questions about his previous capacity as finance minister or to divert his focus from the Iranian threat to other issues failed miserably. His focus never wavered, and he was determined to convince the people that Israel is in danger and that time is running out.
Next week, Steinitz will be representing Israel at the opening ceremony of the United Nations General Assembly, after which he will meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Steinitz reveals what he plans to say to the U.N. chief: "Israel's chief existential threat, currently taking shape, is the Iranian threat. It is a threat not only against Israel, but also against Europe, the U.S., and the entire world. This is the main issue that will determine the future of the world in the next five years. It is a hallowed mission to stop Iran's nuclearization. The American president has made it clear that Iran must be stopped before it gains nuclear capability, and it is important to understand that this declaration was made by the leader of the free world."
Q: How can the agreement between Russia and Syria be leveraged to change the existing situation with Iran?
"The deal was only agreed upon when there was a real military threat. The sanctions, the international pressure and the threats of toppling the regime or going to the Hague International Court [of Justice] didn't change a thing for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad -- only the threat of a military strike. There is a conclusion that we need to draw from this about Iran: the sanctions are important, but they are not enough. The threat against Iran exists, but it is not palpable or significant enough. In Syria's case, before the Americans started deploying aircraft carriers and openly declared their intention to strike, nothing changed. The Iranians don't perceive the phrase 'all options are on the table' as a real threat. I am convinced that if three aircraft carriers were deployed, together with an American declaration that if the Iranians fail to honor the Security Council resolutions the U.S. will attack by 2013, they would have acted differently. Today, the Iranians feel that they have plenty of room to maneuver, and that is the most dangerous thing."
Steinitz explains that the fact that the world stood idly by while Assad massacred the Syrian people should serve as a warning for what could happen with Iran. "In Syria, so far, some 120,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians. In this massacre, Assad is using civilian aircraft to bomb the population. After 3 million Syrian refugees have been forced out of their homes, what has the world done to stop this slaughter? What has the international community done to ensure that the killing stops? Nothing! We must learn an important lesson from that -- no one will come to the aid of those who are being slaughtered. This message is very clear to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that is why he keeps repeating the saying 'if I am not for me, who will be for me?' In our region, it is always preferable to be a wolf and not a lamb. We are a tiny country in the heart of this hostile region and it is important to understand that no one will come to our rescue if, heaven forbid, we lose the ability to defend ourselves. That is why it is imperative that we do everything in our power to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons."
Q: How long should we wait? Is there still time for diplomacy with the Iranians?
"There is no more time for negotiations. The Iranians have been negotiating for four years. Over the last 18 months, there has been some progress in imposing sanctions that have pressured the Iranian leadership. The sanctions are estimated to have cost the Iranian economy about $100 billion just over the last 18 months. Since the entire scope of the Iranian economy is about $450 billion, this signifies a massive blow. Their economy is on the verge of collapse, but they still keep advancing their nuclear program."
"[Iranian President Hasan] Rouhani has launched a charm offensive on the West, but he plans to charm his way to a nuclear weapon. While he sends letters to [U.S. President Barack] Obama and wishes the Jews a happy new year, the centrifuges continue to spin. Not only has the [nuclear] project not stopped, it is galloping forward."
"If the Iranians continue to advance, they will have nuclear capability within six months. Time has run out and the West, chiefly the U.S., must clarify to the Iranians that they have two options: either abandon their nuclear aspirations and save their economy or continue with the nuclear project and risk a real military attack that will destroy the nuclear project and humiliate them. There is no middle ground."
Steinitz suggests that the solution may ultimately emerge from the Iranian people themselves, who crave a better economic situation. "There is an internal debate within Iran and it should be intensified. The people in Iran have said their piece: If they have to choose between a bomb and saving the economy, they prefer to save the economy. Now an ultimatum must be set, accompanied by a timetable: If you don't honor the Security Council resolution by a certain time, we will attack."
Over the last two months, Steinitz has met with the foreign ministers of three key European countries: Germany, France and Britain. "All the meetings focused on the Iranian issue," he recounts. "If the world fails to maintain a clear, unified front in the face of Iran, they will try to disintegrate the sanctions."
The minister notes that at this point the Iranians have yet to cross the red line set by Netanyahu, but they are constantly trying to erase it. "They have turned the question of how much material they have enriched to 20% irrelevant. They have added so many centrifuges, and even installed second and third generation centrifuges, which are several times more efficient than the old ones. In the past they had to enrich the material from 3.5% to 20%, and that is a process that takes time, and only then from 20% to 90%. Today they can jump directly from 3.5% to 90%, which is fissile, weapons-grade material. The timetable today is much shorter."
Q: Can Israel attack Iran on its own?
"Israel can make any decision it wants. I don't want to expand on the topic. The prime minister has stated, and this has been backed by Obama, that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any possible threat. This is a powerful statement that clarifies that Israel is a sovereign nation that can defend itself."
Q: Perhaps this was just an empty threat? After all, Israel is dependent on the U.S. in every regard.
"When Obama declares that Israel is capable of defending itself by itself against any possible threat, it means that the U.S. understands this and supports it, and will not interfere if the need should arise."
Q: Obama has said that he does not want to be the world's policeman. Does this strengthen or weaken Israel?
"I don't know what that means -- the world's policeman. I know that over the last 100 years, the U.S., to its credit, has become the leader of the free world and the main defender of democracy and freedom in the world. Looking to the future, in any foreseeable scenario I don't see a possible substitute for the U.S. in that role. I don't think that Obama was trying to shirk that responsibility, and I don't think that the U.S. can avoid filling that role. It is the role that it played in both world wars. The U.S. is the one that led the free world and rescued it from the menacing shadow of the Soviet Union all the way to its disintegration. That same U.S. needs to lead the world in its mission against the ayatollahs -- the fanatic, extremist religious regime -- and their quest for nuclear weapons."
Q: But as an expert on the U.S., you know how tired the American public has grown of waging wars overseas.
"Yes, but I am also very familiar with the history of the U.S. It has characterized its national security and foreign policies for over 100 years. There are always waves of isolationism and interference, this is not a new thing. Even during the world wars, it took the U.S. time to step in, but in the end it stepped in."
My enemy's friend
The recent events on the Syrian front highlighted the Kremlin's impressive achievement juxtaposed against the White House's backing down. Steinitz believes that despite the fact that Russia is friendly with Israel's most bitter enemies, we must not ignore the important role currently being filled by the Russians in the burning Middle East.
Q: What is the nature of Israel's relationship with Russia, and how do you see Russian involvement versus American involvement?
"Our relations with Russia are good, despite our disagreements over the supply of weapons -- on the topic of the Yakhont missiles [sold] to Assad, for example, and the support that Russia sometimes gives Iran. But Russia is an important superpower and it would be unwise to ignore it. We have diverse diplomatic and economic relations with Russia. We make sure to maintain a high level of dialogue with Russia, even if we don't always agree on every issue."
Q: Is this not a case of 'my enemy's friend is my enemy'?
"No. Russia is trying to maintain good relations with Israel. It is an important interest for both sides. The Russian proposal on Syrian chemical weapons led to a situation where Russia must now prove its ability to bring something to the international arena. Let's look at the bright side: This is the first time that Russia is intervening on an international issue that is threatening the security of the region, and ultimately the entire world. This is the first time that Russia is presenting itself as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Instead of just providing support to regimes like Assad's, it is saying 'we will support you, but we will not tolerate chemical weapons. Disarm yourself immediately.'"
While the move aimed at ridding the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons is encouraging, Steinitz is treating the initiative with caution, understanding that Assad has a plethora of tricks up his sleeve that he has not used yet. "Assad has a lot of options to hide some of his chemical weapons. He can make some kind of provocation and maybe allow the opposition to get its hands on some of the weapons, and then, when the opposition uses them to attack, claim that the agreement is nullified. On the other hand, if this situation works, then Russia will have contributed to solving a problem that poses a threat to us and other neighbors as well. Anyone who uses chemical weapons on his own citizens could one day use them on his neighbors in a moment of crisis or panic."
Q: Does Israel's red line -- that if dangerous weapons fall into the hands of terror organizations it will take military action -- still exist, regardless of the agreement between Russia and the U.S.?
"We have very clear red lines. We will take action to prevent the transfer of weapons. This agreement will not stop decisions made by the State of Israel."
Q: Morally speaking, is the agreement with Syria acceptable?
"The fact that Assad is handing over his weapons doesn't exonerate him from murder or the use of chemical weapons. A murderer who hands over his gun does not erase his crime. We have to take action and say: 'anyone who purposely uses chemical weapons on his citizens cannot escape punishment.' We need to take Assad to the international court in Hague. No legitimization can allow him to remain in power. There is a type of global hypocrisy at play here, as well as the ineffectiveness of the international community. Again it brings me to what I said before -- the world doesn't want to pay the cost. It has other problems, and at a time of need will not come to our defense."
Q: But the main dramatic change in the world is surrounding us, isn't it?
"We are witnessing the extermination of the old Middle East. The order is completely shaken up. The old Middle East is dead, and the new Middle East is not yet here. This extreme instability could last another year, or even a few more years, and we don't know how the new Middle East order will look as it rises from the chaos and bloodshed and smoke. That is why we must continue to act with forethought. The prime minister deserves good marks for instating responsible and thought-out policies over the last two and a half years. It is in this way that we have managed to distance ourselves and avoid the threats that were used to provoke us. We succeeded in staying out of this chaos that is now an inter-Arab problem -- it is not ours."
Q: What about Egypt?
"The Egyptian army is still the biggest and most powerful army among the Arab nations, so it is important for us to preserve the peace agreement with Egypt. The most important thing now is not to interfere in Egypt and to help the country achieve diplomatic, political and economic stability. A stable Egypt, and order in Sinai, is in our best interest, so as to prevent the area from turning into 'Fatah land' the way it was in Lebanon back in the day. We are now in a unique situation where we are explaining to the Americans and to the Europeans that now is not the time to strike Egypt or apply pressure, but to show understanding for the events unfolding there. There was concern in Egypt that the country could get on an Islamist track and even possibly turn into another Iran. No one wants that, so I hope that Egypt is now on track to becoming more stable."