Amongst the impressive items which populate Dr Liel’s CV, the one that stands out the most is his position as the Israeli ambassador to South Africa during the turbulent post-apartheid years between 1992-1994.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Liel following some public pronouncements from him supporting Obama’s new vision for the Middle East. I started with a question about how South Africa has changed since his first visit here as a diplomat in 1986.
Liel painted two contrasting pictures of South Africa, one as the diplomat in 1986 and the other as an ordinary visitor in 2004. Liel says that his visits in 1999 and 2004 were like coming to two different counties. The change is immediately apparent at the airports. “The way they look at you, treat you, look at your documents is completely different”. In 1986, even with a diplomatic passport, he still faced a rigid atmosphere with officials that looked like soldiers on alert all of the time. In 2004 he witnessed a different and relaxed atmosphere with young women and men, not necessarily concentrating on what they have to do, taking the place of the once rigid and alert soldiers. He witnessed a country that now saw itself as a part of Africa, with the black population more involved in place of a country whose vision was to become more like Europe.
Dr. Liel has an impressive record in the Foreign Ministry where as director general he led an unofficial negotiation track with the Syrians.
Liel, a strong critic of the Bush Administration, laments the policy of looking at the Middle East as a region of terrorists and allies – “Cowboys and Indians”. Israel were the good guys and Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah the bad. The approach was to help good guys beat the bad guys.
Dr. Liel doesn’t see Hamas, Hizballah and co. as good guys, but he thinks the Bush administration should have learned from Israel’s historical approach which was to see itself surrounded by enemies where everyone is a bad guy until they will one day become convinced that they are good guys.
Liel thinks it’s essential to have an American administration willing to give everyone a chance and engage, even if he is a terrorist and doesn’t like you. Challenged on this approach he readily admits that he doesn’t know if it will succeed – “but I know the Bush approach failed.”
Perhaps incorrectly awarding credit to Obama when it ought to go to Bush for his drive towards freedom in the Middle East, Liel claims that the recent results of the elections in Lebanon where Hizballah was defeated in parliamentary elections, coupled with the recent protests in Iran, is a result of the impact that Obama is having by helping the moderates.
I asked Dr. Liel if he includes the evacuation of Gaza as part of what he describes as a “movement backwards away from peace” during the Bush era. He candidly replied that, although, technically there was progress, the fact that Hamas took over is indeed a big step backwards. “Having the Palestinian people divided into two geographic entities that don’t see eye-to-eye makes peace more difficult to achieve.”
Dr. Liel concedes that it is difficult to determine who is responsible for what during the Bush era but remains adamant that the US, as the only super-power, was the key player and needs to accept overall responsibility.
I explained to Dr. Liel that the Jewish South African community officially backed a two-state solution and the initial rejectionist approach of Netanyahu put us in a position where at best, support for a solution that Israel was rejecting was the most we could hope to extract from the South African government.
Dr. Liel was amused at how things have changed. When he was ambassador, the official Jewish leadership vehemently objected to the Oslo process and tried to convince Israel that what they were doing was wrong. But times have changed. Liel went on... “In the last 15 years since Oslo, every Prime Minister, including those elected by Likud, have supported the 2 state solution, including Netanyahu himself. What Bibi did after he was elected 6 months ago was to change the position of Israel. And he is entitled to do that as the elected Prime Minister. But it was a new thing for the region that Israel went back to objecting to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
We spoke only a couple of days after Netanyahu’s speech at the Bar Ilan University and Liel was surprisingly upbeat about what he heard. Although he agrees that at a practical level the speech doesn’t change the situation on the ground, he said that he saw in Netanyahu’s speech “Obama’s vision from Bibi’s mouth”. (For those that might not know, in the speech, Netanyahu once again endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state albeit a demilitarized one.)
Analysing Netanyahu’s body language he said that it was easy to see that this was not Netanyahu’s dream. Liel, somewhat morosely, acknowledged that it doesn’t look very promising, or perhaps even possible, to create a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future as long as the Palestinian people are divided. Liel thinks there is a long way to go until the gaps between Israel and a united leadership of the Palestinian people can be breached. “As long as Hamas is such a negative force, I don’t think any Prime Minister in Israel, left or right, can sign a deal with a leadership that represents only half the people.” “No leader”, he continued, “can sign a deal with a state in the West Bank when you have an Iranian proxy in Gaza.” Again, there is some ire for the Bush administration – “the situation is very sad and maybe also the result of the 8 years of Bush when he insisted on deepening the rift between Hamas and Fatah by supporting Fatah and punishing Hamas.”
Responding to my question on whether the Palestinians can ever build the institutions requisite to a fully functioning state, Liel dismissed it and explained that this isn’t just a matter of building institutions; it’s a broader matter of rebuilding nations.
So how, I asked, does Israel work at changing the landscape? Do we continue to isolate Hamas, or do we engage?
Dr. Liel’s response was a yes and a no. “We can never tell what can bring about the change. There certainly has to be a change in attitude from Hamas. They have to recognise Israel. I cannot tell what can bring about a change in the position. Half a year ago we attacked Gaza and it didn’t change their position. We don’t know what will bring about the change but the change will come. It will, most likely, be a combination of pressure and attempts to engage. Everybody will have to change a little bit before this landscape is altered.”
SA and the Palestinians
I asked Dr. Liel about the role South Africa can play in the peace process and he replied, almost instantly, that there is no chance that South Africa can play a role because of their strong ties with the Palestinians. The mediator needs to be as neutral and as balanced as possible. Both sides need a mediator that they can trust and at the moment the Obama administration is the only mediator that can offer carrots, sticks, and most importantly, trust.
Dr. Liel shared a small anecdote from his second visit to South Africa, as Barak’s foreign policy advisor in 1999. The South African elections had just taken place and President Mbeki had just been elected South Africa’s second democratic president. At the time, Liel attended a meeting between former president Nelson Mandela and Prime Minister Ehud Barak. At the meeting, Mandela offered his good services (Liel is not certain whether this offer went beyond his personal effort) but Prime Minister Barak diplomatically responded that if there is a role South Africa can play then it’s between Israel and Syria. Mandela acted on his offer and went to speak to Hafez-al-Assad – but he didn’t get very far. The prevailing attitude in Israel is if we can gain from the South African experience, it’s on the Syrian and not the Palestinian track.
Dr. Liel has a history of involvement in unofficial “track 2” negotiations with the Syrians, particularly when he served as the director general of the foreign affairs ministry. In this unofficial capacity, he has come to believe that the distance between the Israelis and Syrians can be overcome if official talks, with US backing, are to resume.
Liel thinks Syria holds the key to any possible progress towards peace in the near future. He believes that Syria has a stable leadership and wants to rejoin the moderate camp in the Middle East to get closer to the West. “We were speaking to them in the last few years, still there is an alliance with Iran and Syria is very dependent on Iran, but we have the feeling that this dependence worries people in Syria – people in Syria are worried that they are losing their independence. This provides a possibility to move forward.”
Signing a deal with Syria will dramatically affect the situation with the Palestinians and will weaken the Hamas leadership, some of whom sit in Damascus because, Liel explains, “you can’t sign an agreement and continue to host terrorists sitting in your capital city”.
Liel says that Washington is the key to a deal with Syria. “If Washington strengthens the dialogue, if we see an American ambassador in Damascus, then we may see renewed peace talks. The time is right to move on the Syrian track; not the Palestinians one.”
The obvious question was how Israel can be sure that the next generation of Syrian leaders will honour an agreement with Israel. Arab leaders lack legitimacy because they are not elected; they inherit power or win it through violence. Israel is expected to give up something tangible, and we have to live in hope that new Syrian leaders will honour a piece of paper with a peace agreement.
Dr. Liel believes that the Syrians have shown the required stability to gain our trust. “When I was a child, at school we were taught you can’t sign an agreement because in the Arab world, one day you are dealing with one leader and then the next day his cousin stabs him in the back and takes over.”
But Liel continues, “we’ve seen leaders who have been in power for almost 20 years and the Prime Minister, during this time, that was assassinated was our own! So what we say about the lack of stability could be said by Arabs about us.” Liel realised he was pushing this comparison too far and retracted somewhat, but still, sticking to the point, continued, “Look, with us they can know that they are dealing with a real democracy that will honour any official agreements, but they will say, one day you are dealing with an Olmert and the next day you have a guy like Netanyahu who is exactly the opposite.”
Liel argues that the Syrians have a good record of respecting agreements they have signed with Israel and that they look much more stable now than ever before. He emphasised that expectations change, “In Netanyahu’s first term he said ‘no peace with Arabs until they are all democracies.’ But we have given up on that and understand that it’s not for us to decide who the Arab leaders should be. Basher Assad is in his 8th year in office, he is a very experienced president and as far as we can guess he is quite popular. He is much more outspoken, gives more interviews, he is more exposed. We don’t foresee any dangers about the control of his country.”