The Diplomatic View from Inside Netanyahu’s National Security Council
An interview with Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman
In this fascinating and revealing interview, Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman discusses his six-year tenure as deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. He addresses Prime Minister Netanyahu’s far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, Israeli preparations for an attack on Iran, US clandestine surveillance, and Israeli ties with Arab countries. Dr. Lerman joined the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in October 2015.
This interview was conducted by Ariel Kahane (@arik3000), the diplomatic correspondent of Makor Rishon newspaper, and published on February 12, 2016. The original Hebrew can be read here.
Just a few days into his position as deputy National Security Advisor, Eran Lerman was almost fired. The year was 2009. Lerman—a reserve colonel with a doctorate in political science, and a valued and longstanding member of the intelligence community—was invited by Prof. Uzi Arad to take part in the revamped and expanded National Security Council (NSC).
Lerman answered the challenge. But shortly before leaving the American Jewish Committee for his new position, he had given a farewell interview to a media outlet in which he described his views, including a critical reference to government attitudes towards non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in America. His new boss’s boss—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—was very unhappy with such openness in senior members of the NSC staff. He made his displeasure known, and dispensed similar criticism to Uzi Arad for a different interview.
After being reprimanded, Lerman understood that the rules of the game had changed, and from that day to this has maintained media silence. He has spoken extensively with European diplomats, American colleagues, Jewish leaders, and acquaintances in Arab countries, but with very few limited exceptions, he has refrained from communicating with the Israeli public.
Now, four months after leaving his post, Lerman talks for the first time about the many dramatic events in which he has been involved. Lerman is the only senior figure who has been at Netanyahu’s side almost without pause since his return to power.
He has seen up close how the prime minister fought against the developing agreement with Iran, avoided a ground war during Operation Pillar of Defense, was drawn into such a conflict during Operation Protective Edge, stood up to pressure from Obama, decided to apologize to Erdogan, and expressed a willingness to offer the Palestinians extensive concessions. There have been three NSC heads over this period—Uzi Arad, Yaakov Amidror, and Yossi Cohen—while Lerman has remained close to the prime minister throughout. Now, freed from the bonds of silence imposed by his position, Lerman takes us inside the decision-making process, and even offers the occasional critique.
To my surprise, Lerman is willing to speak about highly sensitive subjects, such as the common interests shared by Israel and several Arab states, or the clandestine American surveillance of senior Israeli leaders. When I ask him how it is possible to hold secret discussions when everything you say might be recorded, and whether the constant fear of being listened to doesn’t eventually lead to madness, he answers:
“It’s not madness, it’s just the way things are. It’s a fish bowl; it always was. But fortunately, we’re not too bad at information security ourselves. When we want to make decisions, we know how to do it without everything being revealed. The prime minister is enveloped in layer upon layer of information, some of which I don’t always know, thankfully. He knows very well when conversations and actions are known to others and when they are truly confidential. Some decisions are made precisely so that everyone will know about them.”
We wanted to act against Iran on an issue critical to national security, and the whole world knew about it in real time. Is that not appalling?
“At the end of the day, the fact that everyone knew didn’t harm Israel’s interests. I can tell you that it was very much in the Americans’ interests that our ability to act against Iran was credible. As a consequence, two or three important countries that were initially unwilling to agree to sanctions against Iran were persuaded that without sanctions, Israel would go crazy. It wasn’t exactly a case of ‘hold me back,’ but there was a clear message of ‘If you don’t act, then we will.’”
Isolation for the Masses
Lerman, 59, lives in Re’ut, and is a father of three. In addition to Hebrew and English, he also speaks some Dutch, his wife’s mother tongue, and Arabic, a language that someone with his career path has to understand. He served in the IDF for 25 years, mainly in the Intelligence Corps. He left in 2001, and a short time later was appointed head of the Israeli office of the American Jewish Committee, a powerful Jewish voice in the United States and beyond. Like many others, he has no doubt that the Jewish-American arena is critical to Israel’s security.
We met twice at Shalem College, where Lerman recently began teaching. Lerman also has joined the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, as a senior research associate. Were it not for the pressures of time, we could have talked for far more than the three hours we spent together; six years of being present at the most sensitive security crossroads have given him a wealth of stories, insights, and conclusions. But before we got into details, I asked him to give me an overview, a kind of satellite photo of Israel and its place in the world as can only be seen from a great height.
“On both sides of the political spectrum, as well as in the media, there is a tendency to emphasize the threat and the sense of isolation,” Lerman says. “They give the impression that Israel stands alone in the world, that we have enemies on all sides, that BDS will shortly crush us, the Americans will abandon us, the Europeans will break us, and so on. What I’ve seen in recent years is that, while those elements do exist, they’re not dominant. The foundations of Israel’s relations with the United States are very strong, and just two weeks ago we saw the formation of a new pact with Greece and Cyprus—two European countries that two decades ago would not have considered approaching Israel.
“By the way, this is an example of a strange phenomenon: good news makes absolutely no waves in the Israeli public sphere. The paradox is that it’s very convenient for the Left to denounce the prime minister for supposedly leading Israel into a dead end in the international arena; while for certain groups on the Right, it’s convenient to say, ‘The whole world is against us anyway, so let’s just ignore what it has to say.’ Both these positions are misguided.”
Over the years you were there, the years of Netanyahu’s rule, has our international situation improved or deteriorated?
“In most of the world, the situation has improved. In Europe it has deteriorated, but not to such a degree that I’d go pulling my hair out in despair. There’s a problem in northwest Europe, but that’s not the entire universe. In the Israeli media there’s a tendency to view London and the Scandinavian countries as the foundations of the world order, and to ignore such ‘trivial’ issues as our relations with the United States, the breakthrough with a little country called India, which has a population of over a billion, our relations in the eastern Mediterranean, relations with the Arab world, connections with China and Russia, and a number of other minor facts of this kind.”
Northwest Europe might not be the whole world, but it’s where a third of our exports go.
“And they’ll continue to do so. For the foreseeable future, I don’t see a significant threat to most Israeli exports. Even the labeling of goods is not being implemented, or is being only partially implemented, or doesn’t have any effect on anyone.”
Are Netanyahu and his work underappreciated in the media?
“In terms of foreign relations, yes.”
It’s claimed that he’s passive, only responds but doesn’t initiate, and so leads us into a dead end.
“It’s not true that Netanyahu leads us into a dead end. Our situation is good. We are under threat, and we need to be careful, to maneuver, to act wisely, and to invest far greater efforts and resources into foreign policy than the Ministry of Finance currently allows. We’re not immune to harm, but hard work brings results. For example, for three years running, we fought against the Egyptian initiative to launch a discussion of Israel’s nuclear capabilities at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). How many times in history has Israel been victorious in UN forums, especially on topics like this one? On the most recent occasion, we even won by a two-figure margin, and that’s no fluke. The prime minister works the phones, and the Foreign Ministry staff work like crazy, and we prepare materials and arguments, and there’s lots and lots of hard work.
“As for the claim about passivity, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a compliment. Grandiose attempts like the First Lebanon War and the Oslo Accords, which sought to redesign the Middle East and everything around it… Leave me out of it. Give me nine years of Yitzhak Shamir [who was also accused of being passive – AK] in exchange for those two adventures. I think Shamir was given a country in a very problematic situation, and handed it over to Rabin in excellent condition. We don’t know how history will judge the current prime minister, but if it weighs factors such as the economic situation, the depth of relations with important countries around the world, and so on, then the data are good.
“You don’t always have to pursue initiatives. The Geneva Initiative, for example, is an abomination. You run ahead, give the other side most of what it wants, and then try to establish whether it’s willing to give you the minimal things you’re interested in. That’s not the way to do things.
“Naftali Bennett, from one side, and Ofer Shelah from the other, are critical of the conceptual and practical ossification they perceive as afflicting the senior ranks of the security and foreign affairs establishment, in particular the prime minister. Bennett, for example, calls for an extensive military operation in Gaza, while the defense establishment opposes such a move.
“It’s true that we need to complete the formulation of a new national security concept. Ben-Gurion’s approach in 1953 was amazing for its time, but today there are many elements I’d formulate differently. Our current set of relations with our neighbors also demands a new conceptual approach. So in principle, I do accept that there is a need to reappraise and rethink, and there’s quite a lot of work being done in that area in the NSC.
“As to Gaza, having thought about this a great deal, including during several arguments with Roni Bart [NSC divisional head who resigned and claimed that Netanyahu was not interested in hearing alternative ideas – AK], I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the position taken by the defense establishment. I’m not saying that because I’m inflexible, but because I’ve given it a great deal of thought. It would be a mistake to get ourselves into a situation in which we end up retaking control of Gaza.”
Even at the cost of a large-scale operation every two years, against a growing system of rockets and tunnels?
“Today Hamas is much worse off than it was in the past. It’s true that they are preparing for the next war, and there’s no reason the think they won’t start one, but the fact that Hamas says, ‘We need to kill the Zionists, but not this week,’ that’s the best deterrence we can achieve. The IDF’s approach to the Gaza question reflects a great deal of forethought.”
Has Netanyahu made decisions that you thought were incorrect, and that were due to political considerations?
“I witnessed very few cases in which I could say, ‘I can’t understand this decision, unless it’s for political reasons.’ There were some, but very few.”
How few? One in ten? One in fifty?
“Somewhere in between. Most of the time, I could fully understand the reasoning behind decisions, and see how they aligned with our broader foreign policy. This was also true of the construction of settlements.”
Here Lerman, as someone who was there behind the scenes, answers a question that troubles many in Israel and abroad: Why does Netanyahu allow construction in the settlements while at the same time making repeated declarations that he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state? The Americans and the Europeans see this policy as being inherently conflicted, and even as some kind of strategic con: If Netanyahu were truly interested in the two-state solution, they ask, why would he permit massive construction in an area which, according to him, will be abandoned in the future?
Lerman’s answer offers a significant explanation for the prime minister’s behavior, one never heard before from an official representative of Israel. Netanyahu, he says, is in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state, as is Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. “Yaalon’s book is called A Short Long Way. Where do you think this route leads? The principle of negotiations toward a two-state solution is universally accepted and difficult to roll back, and I don’t think it should be.
“But logically, working backwards from the future, it’s clear that any repartition of this land will be dependent at least to some extent on the understanding and agreement of the settler mainstream. Something that won’t be a complete disruption, a total withdrawal, that would alienate at least 30 or 40 percent of our people—this will be a very different thing, not like what happened in Gaza and Yamit. This alternative would mean civil war. If, however, you reach some messy compromise, say, and then want to isolate the hilltop youth, you’d need the mainstream settlers on your side. And they won’t be on your side if you batter them constantly.”
And the left doesn’t understand this?
“The Israeli left, in part, proposes a scenario that just can't be implemented. There’s no way you can send the IDF to forcibly remove 250,000 people; that’s just not possible. Anyone who’s talking in such terms is just absolving herself or himself from the duty of thinking about how it might be done. On the other hand, everyone has to understand that it’s impossible to reach a viable agreement without some degree of uprooting.
“This all requires a Palestinian side that’s willing to agree to an ugly compromise, which we don’t currently have, but if someday we do have to take those painful steps, then we won’t be able to go against the 30 or 40 percent of Israelis who support the settler mainstream. In the meantime, we have to live a normal and healthy life with them, which explains why construction in the settlements continues. When you look at where it’s going on, you can show the Europeans that in the last 15 years, we have done next to nothing that actually reduces the chances of reaching that ugly compromise.”
In other words, the prime minister authorizes construction only in places that won’t interfere with the future establishment of a Palestinian state, as he once said in a closed forum.
“As I understand it, that’s not far from the truth.”
Lerman, with intimate knowledge of the positions Netanyahu presented to John Kerry, confirms here for the first time that the reports of wide-ranging Israeli concessions were true. “Netanyahu was prepared to take dramatic and far-reaching steps, if he had a partner. In 2011 he told Congress that Israel would agree to very painful concessions, on two conditions: real security arrangements, and Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. He kept that promise in his negotiations with Kerry.”
In this context, Lerman refers to last year’s article in Walla! by Amir Tibon, which published a joint investigation with American journalist Ben Birnbaum on the collapse of negotiations in March 2014. Tibon and Birnbaum revealed that Netanyahu had been prepared to carry out very large withdrawals from Judea and Samaria if his terms were met, but the process died because Abu Mazen did not respond to Kerry’s proposed outline of a deal. “The article was excellent, and I have nothing to add,” says Lerman.
Lerman is angry with Kerry, who was aware of the positions Netanyahu had expressed in confidence and yet publicly blamed Israel for the breakdown. “I’m not one of those who think that Obama is innately hostile,” he says. ”The president thought there was an opportunity, because Abu Mazen is a reasonable man who opposes terror, and Netanyahu has enough political power. When it didn’t happen, he was frustrated. But I do ask myself why John Kerry had to pull that ugly stunt with the ‘poof’ speech.” Lerman is referring to the secretary of state’s comment to the Senate that the sides were about to reach an agreement, “but then 700 units were approved in Jerusalem and then ‘poof’—that was sort of the moment.”
“Kerry knows the truth,” says Lerman. “He knows that he was pacing around here like a caged lion, and that the Palestinians were the ones who got up and left. I was given an order—and my friends at the Foreign Ministry were angry with me because I did what they believed should have been their duty; perhaps they are right—to share with the international community a paper called “Dirasa (study) number 15,“ written by Saeb Erekat before Obama’s meeting with Abu Mazen at the White House [at which Abbas was presented with Kerry’s proposal – AK]. The paper contains an entire strategy of making a pact with Hamas and appeals to international bodies, and was written with the clear advance knowledge that the Palestinian Authority would say no to the Americans, or at least wouldn’t say yes.”
Against this backdrop, many in Israel and in the international community suggested that Israel reveal Netanyahu’s proposed concessions in order to gain credit in the diplomatic arena. Lerman reveals that in this matter, politics also played a role: “When it became clear to Netanyahu that he had no partner, he had no interest in publicly raising proposals that had no possible political benefit.”
So the prime minister doesn’t want to reveal what concessions he offered because he’s worried about losing his political base on the right?
“He’s worried about losing it for nothing. I’ve heard him quote Joe Biden: ‘Don’t get crucified on a small cross.’ It’s true that for someone in my position it would be easier if I could run around waving a document of concessions, but there’s also weakness in that. In our history with our neighbors, we have something called ‘pocket deposits’ that are immediately cashed [i.e., every Israeli concession becomes the starting point for the next round of negotiations – AK]. We have extensive experience with these kinds of deposits. At these levels, the decision makers are influenced not only by political considerations, but also by future consequences and public perceptions.”
Clinton Played the Sax; Obama Whispers
On several occasions in recent years, the American administration has chosen to enter into confrontation with Netanyahu’s government. Lerman refers to “two serious mistakes” made by Obama, as well as several examples of problematic actions taken and unfortunate statements made. The most serious error was the endangerment of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity: In May 2010, the 189 signatory countries to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty met for their five-year "RevCon" (review conference) at the United Nations and reached an unprecedented decision calling for a regional conference that would lead to the creation of a weapon-free zone.
For Israel’s leaders, Lerman reveals, the shock was twofold. Not only did the Americans not defend Israel, as they had always done, but they also broke with declared tradition. “This was a really problematic decision regarding what we refer to as ‘Dimona,‘” Lerman says. “There was a mishap at that meeting of the IAEA, and it took a long time for the scars to heal. As is their way, the Arabs put forward a motion that would lead to an international conference on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East, and the Americans didn’t meet their obligations to us to block it.”
Because they screwed up, or because they didn’t want to?
“Somewhere in between. I’m not sure of the extent to which this was a decision by Obama, or whether he was just presented with a fait accompli. Incidentally, in the Review Conference of 2015, this ended up being handled very differently, and Israel was demonstrably grateful afterwards.”
Obama’s second major mistake, according to Lerman, was the decision to renounce the “Bush Letter,” a list of major assurances that George Bush Jr. made to Ariel Sharon in the context of the plan for the withdrawal from Gaza. “That’s simply inexcusable. A president can’t discard a previous president’s written promises, even if he disagrees with them. That really gave us cause for distrust.”
The built-up anger of the Israeli leadership towards the US president, according to Lerman, also stems from his obvious yet sophisticated attempts to influence Israeli public opinion. “With Obama, it’s impossible to point to a concrete case of intervention, like that of Bill Clinton during the 1996 elections in Israel, when he came and played the saxophone in a high school in support of Shimon Peres. That was really obvious and transparent. In the Obama administration, there was a general atmosphere of being against the prime minister and the Israeli right, as part of a larger effort to influence the internal balance. Obama’s appeal to youth to apply pressure on the government left a bad taste [during a speech at the Jerusalem International Conference Center during his March 2013 visit to Israel – AK]. That had the tone of a political intervention.
“Obama—and this is another difference from Clinton—doesn’t work from the gut. Everything’s rational with him. He has a good sense of humor, but he’s cold and calculating. His interactions with other foreign leaders are difficult too. The British had kittens when he removed the statue of Churchill from the Oval Office. His first meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron was a disaster. He just doesn’t have a warm personality.”
According to Lerman, American attempts to influence Israeli politics also involve J Street, the leftwing Jewish-American organization. “There’s no doubt they have the backing of the administration. These are the same people who are Obama’s power base, the wing of the Democratic Party that he represents. The president takes a favorable view of anyone trying to change the political climate, in American Jewry and in Israel. Netanyahu has great admiration for Obama as a political operator, but this is where the fracture between them lies. The prime minister thinks that Obama supports the positions taken by the Israeli opposition, while Obama, unsurprisingly, thinks or even knows that in 2012, our preference was for a different president to be elected.”
Is it true that Netanyahu supported Romney?
A broad smile and some hesitation precedes Lerman’s response. “Ah… Where I used to work there were people who thought that Romney had a chance.”
Did you hear that from the prime minister himself?
Should I ask you whether the person who thought Romney would win is now serving as Israel’s ambassador to Washington?
With a bemused smile: “Please don’t.”
The complex and tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu formed the backdrop to the latest and greatest confrontation between the two, over the nuclear agreement with Iran. Obama threw his full weight behind the agreement, while Netanyahu pulled out all the stops to oppose it. While many in Israel see the end result as a failure by Netanyahu, Lerman thinks the struggle actually “underlined the power of the leader of a small state in the Eastern Mediterranean, who was the only one to dig in his heels against the agreement.
“The nuclear deal taught us some interesting things about our place in the American system. The fact of the matter is that a serving president of the United States, in his second term, and on a central issue for him, chose to avoid a vote in Congress, and instead deployed a filibuster to prevent the vote, because he doesn’t have 50 senators who’ll support him, never mind 67. All this because of the stand taken by this one leader. For me, this tells us that Israel’s power is not insignificant.
“There are threats to every one of the pillars of our system of support in the United States, but in the meantime, they are all solid and stable. If we tried really hard, we might be able to damage them, but I’ve seen the other side of the coin: the reserves of American support for Israel are immense. The opinion polls showed that the American public consistently opposed the Iranian nuclear agreement, by two to one.”
The Imam of the NSC
The reestablishment of the National Security Council into which Lerman was recruited was not readily accepted by the security and foreign policy establishments. Although Israel’s various wars had underlined the need for such a body, the security bodies that had enjoyed direct access to the prime minister—the IDF, the Shin Bet, and the Mossad—didn’t like being elbowed out of the way by their younger brother. And the founder of the new NSC, Prof. Uzi Arad, didn’t shy away from tough confrontations with anyone who tried to undermine him. “You could certainly describe Uzi as not being a particularly easy individual to deal with—he’ll tell you that himself—but he absolutely put himself on the line for the NSC,” Lerman says.
Arad’s clashes, both within the prime minister’s office and with external bodies, ended in a strange and unpleasant episode. In February 2011, on his return from a flight to the United States with Netanyahu, Arad was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport by the Shin Bet. His interrogators accused him of leaking information about Israel’s nuclear capabilities, accusations he adamantly denied. A twenty-year friendship with Netanyahu ended with a public repudiation in Yediot Ahronot, in which Arad claimed that the prime minister had in fact recruited the Shin Bet to fabricate a case against him.
Lerman, who was close to these events, is circumspect. “At a certain stage, the Americans asked me where my boss was. I told them he was like the ‘hidden imam,’ both present and absent simultaneously, but in occultation. It’s a really sad story. I only know a part of what happened.”
Was Arad’s battle with other Israeli bodies connected to the circumstances of his departure?
“I hope not, and I prefer not to think along those lines.”
Another body that felt harmed by the promotion of the NSC was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To this day, its senior officials claim that the NSC has become the real foreign ministry, leaving them with mere crumbs. “They haven’t read the map right,” Lerman says about this. “Once the NSC became the liaising body, the Foreign Ministry had far greater influence on the picture presented to the prime minister. Instead of whining, they should be happy.
“It’s also important to understand that the prime minister can’t sit in endless preparatory discussions; his time is one of his most precious resources. Someone else has to coordinate between the various systems, and that’s the job of the NSC. In my opinion, the decision-making is better now.”
When it comes to criticism by Foreign Ministry staff of Israel’s diplomatic system, however, Lerman agrees with them. “The situation today is that there is no Foreign Minister, the foreign aid we give is absurd in comparison to our financial situation, and our budget for PR efforts is pathetic. These are all problems that need solving.”
In your opinion, would it be better to do without two F-35s and invest the money in those issues instead?
“Yes. Israel can’t abandon the struggle in the international arena. There’s much to be done, and more needs to be invested in this area.
“There are also a lot of other areas that have an effect. For example, the government decision to allow non-Orthodox Jewish groups to pray at a designated segment of the Western Wall is connected to our most important strategic alliance, with organized Jewry in the United States.
“Most American Jews, and the activists of most Jewish institutions, are either Reform or Conservative. If Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay [who referred to Reform Jews as “not Jewish,” before recanting – AK] doesn’t understand this, someone needs to explain to him that the stance of American Jewry on Israel has been one of our key national security resources since before the establishment of the state.”
When the foreign minister is also the prime minister, how does this ministry not receive a bigger budget?
“I have learned that the professional civil service—and in the case of the Ministry of Finance, these are young people—is impressively powerful. In general, everyone understands the need, but when it comes to the question of how much money will be budgeted for joint projects with Germany in Africa, you really have to sweat blood.”
In the summer of 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu took an unusual decision: to cooperate with the Palmer Committee established by the UN secretary-general to investigate the Marmara affair. Israel generally boycotts UN investigations because their conclusions are predetermined. In this case, after some preparatory work and coordination with the Americans, a precise formulation of the committee’s mandate, and a careful review of its proposed membership, Netanyahu decided to deviate from this policy and take a chance.
This decision attracted harsh criticism from both right and left, and was portrayed as a surrender to international pressure. The concern was that the Palmer Report would become a second Goldstone Report, eroding the IDF’s freedom of action, and possibly even ruling the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip to be illegal.
The Palmer Committee carried out its investigations for more than a year. Israel was represented by Yossi Ciechanover, who had been a member of the Turkel Commission that investigated the same affair, and who subsequently became the mediator between Israel and Turkey. Lerman had a key role in following the discussions, and as the months passed, tensions grew. He describes the publication of the committee’s findings as one of the most satisfying events in all his years at the NSC.
“We made immense efforts to provide Ciechanover and the other investigators with information that explained our side of things and our reasoning. We had indications of the direction in which the committee was heading, but the moment I read the UN secretary-general’s report containing an unequivocal statement that Israel is fully within her rights to impose a blockade on Gaza—that was one of the most impressive moments for me. While we were criticized in other aspects, and even justifiably so, it’s no small thing for the United Nations to make such a ruling. There were other dramatic moments too, but I can’t talk about those.”
On the subject of the Marmara, do you think the prime minister was right to apologize to Erdogan?
“We didn’t apologize for the blockade, but for operational mistakes that were indeed made, and sometimes apologizing is the right thing to do. But we shouldn’t have apologized without first making fully sure of what we’d get in return. What happened was that all kinds of things emerged, and the whole episode got dragged out. The Turkish condition of removing the blockade of Gaza turned out to be a real stumbling block. It was really important to the Americans that there be an apology, and it’s worth remembering that Obama was here at the time [the phone call from Netanyahu to Erdogan was made with Obama present, during a presidential visit to Israel – AK].
"Obama and some of the senior US officials had bought into the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood and Erdogan represented some kind of weakened version of the Islamist virus that we could work with to develop a resistance to totalitarian Islamism. Obama apparently thought that the Turks were the future, a cornerstone of regional stability, and that they would halt al-Qaida and the rest of the crazies. That turned out to be an illusion, both about Turkey and about the Muslim Brotherhood. The problem was that the step taken was not properly worked out, either on our side or the Americans’. They were optimistic about Turkey.”
So in retrospect, was it a mistake to apologize?
“The way the apology was made weakened our position and didn’t achieve the goal. That’s a fact. At the same time, we created a regional system surrounding Turkey [a reference to relations with Greece, Cyprus, and previously Bulgaria and other countries – AK]. This is not an anti-Turkish system, and Turkey can join it in the future if it changes its approach. The Turks are at a crossroads – not because of us, but because they shot down a Russian plane, and now their hands are shaking a little.
“Erdogan came to power with a dream of zero problems with the neighbors, and he’s ending up with zero neighbors and lots of problems. He’s engaged in a full-on confrontation with the Russians and the Iranians, his dirty games in Syria are coming to light, and the West’s patience is wearing thin. On his visit to Turkey, Biden gave Erdogan two very public kicks to the teeth. In the end, Erdogan is capricious and an anti-Semite.”
No More Fluffy Pink Clouds
Israel has established a regional alliance with Greece and Cyprus, and has common interests with several of its Arab neighbors. Like the prime minister and other senior Israeli officials, Lerman only offers vague information about this, and refuses to name names. “These Arab states are in a dangerous situation,” he says. “So while we’re being accused of grabbing 13-year-old Palestinian kids, killing them, and putting knives in their hands, as the Palestinian narrative has it, the Egyptian ambassador has come back to Israel after three years’ absence.”
Have you met or talked with colleagues from other Arab countries apart from Egypt and Jordan?
“No comment, but I have participated in back-door channels, as part of informal talks. There are several options for talking with Arab countries with which we don’t have formal relations. Minister Yuval Steinitz has just visited an Arab county, we opened an office at the United Nations’ International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi, and there are rumors that other countries are interested in changing their attitude towards Israel. These are things that have happened since I left office, so I don’t know the precise details.”
In recent years, foreign reports have attributed several air strikes in Sudanese territory to Israel: in some cases against weapons convoys bound for Hamas and Hezbollah; in other cases against ammunition production facilities. Lerman notes that according to reports from a Sudanese news agency, Khartoum is interested in improving relations with Israel. “In addition, notice how in recent weeks we’ve been hearing more positive noises from Abu Mazen. Might his change in direction be connected with the fact that the Saudis have ramped up their struggle against Iran? Abu Mazen knows full well that if he goes off a bridge tomorrow, it will be the Iranians and their proxies who will replace him.”
Still, what should Israeli citizens know about our common interests with Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States?
“Blessings are often best left in disguise,” Lerman says with a big smile. “Anyone who knows the region can clearly see the state of affairs. We’re in a new world in which Syria doesn’t exist, Lebanon is a fiction, Jordan is Israel’s ally, and Egypt is a partner. When I entered the job in 2009, none of this existed. The Arab states were not then in such a state of existential anxiety about Iran, and there was a fluffy pink cloud of faith that everyone could rely on the United States. Today, the Saudis and Egypt are the main players in a camp with a very different set of priorities from the traditional Arab stance towards Israel. They have three concerns far greater than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Iran, ISIS, and the Muslim Brotherhood. In this reality, Israel is in the ‘assets’ column.
“I’ll give you an example. Last summer, Mohammad bin Salman visited Cairo; he’s the Saudi deputy crown prince and defense minister, and the country’s most important person today. His meetings in Egypt resulted in a six-part announcement regarding all kinds of threats in the region, and various kinds of partnerships and cooperation. But not a word about the Palestinian issue, not even lip service. And this was the most important meeting between the two countries in recent times.”
Sisi’s Egypt, says Lerman, no longer looks to the United States. “The toppling of Mubarak left a heavy mark. The Egyptians concluded that the Obama administration and the US ambassador in Cairo systematically acted in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. They don’t have any faith in the Americans.”
Before he heads off to give a lecture to soldiers of the 8200 signals intelligence unit, Lerman sums up: “We need to be very patient. Our struggles are not hopeless. We are a sovereign people that has exercised its right to self-definition in its homeland. Whenever I have the opportunity, I explain how even the Jewish calendar is indicative of the connection between the Jewish People and its land. Today we are engaged in a struggle over our story, our justifications, and our future. That requires a lot of hard work, but it’s not impossible.
“I think that because of the refugee crisis, the terror attacks, and everything else, the internal balances in Europe are undergoing a change. For many years, the issue of security, which for us is at the heart of Israeliness, was reviled by Europeans. That’s going to change now, because of the crises that European countries are experiencing. They are being forced to look at things in a way closer to our own. In terms of Israel’s standing, the regional and global states of affairs are having a large and highly positive effect.”