A week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to deliver his controversial 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress, Dore Gold received a phone call. Gold, a longtime Netanyahu adviser and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, was asked to come in and help write the speech.
The main objective of the speech, Gold says, was to “put the Iran story front and center” at a time when the world’s attention was focused on ISIS, and while world powers were negotiating a nuclear agreement.
“If you compare ISIS, with all its brutality, to Iran, a country with 80 million people that’s on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons, there is no question from the Israeli view where the real danger arises,” he says.
“I don’t think he was trying to get in the middle of a U.S. domestic debate,” he adds, “but he did feel his primary responsibility, which was to warn the world that this agreement was going to be a disaster for our collective security.”
In the following interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk, Gold, who was appointed director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June 2015, recounts Netanyahu’s rise as a public figure; describes preparing for Netanyahu’s first meeting with Yasser Arafat; and defends Netanyahu from criticism that he had stoked right-wing anger in the months leading up to the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli.
This is an edited transcript of the interview, which was conducted on Aug. 24, 2015.
The prime minister arrives at Congress for the speech in March 2015. Were you there?
I was called in the week before to help with the writing of the speech. … I think there was a tremendous awareness that we did not want to get drawn into domestic politics in the United States, and we did not want to get involved in anything personal with President Obama. That was something that came out when there were just three or four of us in the prime minister’s study.
But there were structural elements of the U.S. government that we couldn’t ignore. The U.S. Constitution calls for separation of powers. Congress has a voice in big decisions on U.S. foreign policy, like signing treaties, like declaring war. And if the speaker of the House has asked the prime minister of Israel to address Congress on such an important issue, probably the most important negotiation initiative since the SALT treaties back in the ’70s, he’s got to come forward and say his view, particularly if it affects the future destiny of his country.
What are the stakes in this speech in all terms: your domestic politics, our domestic politics, the world, the existential crisis to Israel and the world?
First of all, no one is focused on this issue, on Iran. You have to remember the Middle East at that time is ISIS. And what is ISIS? ISIS is a brutal, horrible terrorist organization with pickup trucks and with an account on YouTube. They managed to put themselves on the world stage.
But if you compare ISIS, with all its brutality, to Iran, a country with 80 million people that’s on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons, there is no question from the Israeli view where the real danger arises. We end up having to deal with ISIS, but Iran is the main story. And so, first of all, the prime minister has to put the Iran story front and center, where it’s not. That’s what the speech is really about. And then he has to also point out how he understands the fundamental problematic elements of the impending agreement. And finally, he has to add another element. He has to show that Israel is not in a position of Dr. No, that it actually has some tangible advice that it’s giving to the U.S. Congress, the administration and the world about how to make an impaired agreement better. And that’s what the prime minister tried to do. …
He is looking at, first of all, the agreement that he understood that the P5+1 [the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia — plus Germany] were advancing. And there were certain fundamentals there that he immediately understood that he zeroed in on in his speech.
The sunset clause. What is the sunset clause? It’s the notion that an arms control agreement you’re making with Iran is like a carton of milk. You know, it has a date on it — expires by Feb. 3 or whatever the case may be. And that seemed rather shocking to us. You could say that an agreement maybe has to be revisited or the negotiation reopened if the Iranians exhibit good behavior. But if the Iranians are still invading their neighbors, if they’re still supporting insurgency operations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, how can you say that at that point in time, at a fixed point in time, the agreement expires, and all nuclear limitations on Iran are removed?
That seems rather hazardous, and I think that’s something the prime minister focused on and actually suggested: You want to take limitations off the Iranian nuclear program 10 to 15 years from now? Have them meet specific criteria, which he suggested in his speech. …
Was he surprised by the response, the brouhaha in America?
I think there were certain surprises. … The speech ignited a lot of sentiments that were partisan in the United States, which Israel didn’t want.
When he spoke in Congress back in 2011, I remember the beginning of his speech, he talked about the basis of Israel’s support in the United States is bipartisan. … He’s assumed to be somehow affiliated symbolically with the Republican Party, because he’s politically conservative, but he always sought good relations with leading Democrats. Maybe 10 years ago, I remember Sen. John Kerry coming to Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Netanyahu and Kerry go out to dinner in a restaurant to commiserate and speak about personal matters, politics, diplomacy. That’s part of what he always did. He always reached out to both.
So I don’t think he was trying to get in the middle of a U.S. domestic debate, but he did feel his primary responsibility, which was to warn the world that this agreement was going to be a disaster for our collective security.
… From Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perspective, was the relationship with Obama already broken, or was that in the future?
I was at the first meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, before each was elected. There was a visit here of Sen. Obama as a candidate, and we actually met with Prime Minister Netanyahu. …
Before that, they had met at Reagan National Airport, another meeting I was at. What I sensed were two individuals who come from different parts of the political spectrum, one very liberal in his foreign policy assumptions; the other conservative, national security-oriented. But at the same time you saw people who could appreciate one another, who understood each other as skilled politicians. …
How formative do you [think Netanyahu’s military experiences were]?
They inform a lot statements he would make … in smaller circles. For example, when you throw up a flare, … the flare becomes a way of discerning where your adversaries are located and where your own troops are located, so you don’t make mistakes. Now, that can be an analogy to political life. It can be an analogy to diplomatic life. …
But he was a person who wasn’t locked into just the military experience. He’s a man who was very much affected also by his father, who was a historian, and he had tremendous appreciation for seeing the world in historical trends, and not just looking at a flash of reality at present.
Everybody says to know him, you had to had to know the dad. … Who was he, do you think, to young Benjamin?
Well, at least what I think he did was he informed his son of the importance of history, that when you’re in political life, when you’re the prime minister of a country, you have historical responsibilities. And there may be events developing that are of a historical nature, and you shouldn’t be the one who misses them. You shouldn’t be the one who’s overlooking the dangers that are lurking just beyond the ridge.
I think it helped equip Prime Minister Netanyahu with the ability to discern what are the real concerns of the state of Israel, not to just look at tactical issues of a terrorist attack here or there, but to see the big trends, the broad brush. I think that’s one of the reasons why he became so appreciated abroad as well. …
Let’s talk about Netanyahu’s time in America. Marvin Kalb [names him as one of] the five best diplomatic envoys he’s ever come across as a reporter. … What was made him so good at it?
Also the medium was changing as he came on the world stage. … It’s the early 1980s. That’s when there’s this thirst to know about the Middle East. Prime Minister Netanyahu was a voracious reader. He had been understanding intelligence trends in his army position, and he could incorporate everything to make a very powerful presentation, because he was extremely handsome and persuasive. I think that’s why he made such a dent. He actually redefined the nature of diplomacy.
A great diplomat in maybe the 1950s would write a brilliant cable, a summary of American consciousness sent to London, so they should understand the trends of what’s going on. The new diplomat that basically Prime Minister Netanyahu is the first example of has to go on American television and persuade tens of millions of viewers of the rightness, the correctness of Israel’s position. And that’s a new diplomacy, and he’s really a paradigm creator in doing that. …
And there was another challenge, too: What has been Israel’s TV nemesis has been the extensive coverage of the Palestinian issue in terms of the details of some kind of suffering that a Palestinian village might have endured. It could be that suffering wasn’t caused by Israel, but the assumption was that Israel is somehow behind it.
So you had this terrible imagery, let’s say, during the Intifada of 1987 or subsequently in later wars, and what Prime Minister Netanyahu showed so skillfully was how he could use his own powers of presentation to nullify a terrible image, because he would explain the logic. He would explain, “We didn’t cause this particular event,” or he would say, “Israel’s self-defense is what is being criticized while the world is ignoring the offense that brought it about.” He would use very crisp analytical models to bring forward Israel’s position, and despite the fact that it was his words versus imagery, his words many times succeeded. …
When did you meet him?
I met him first in 1989. He came back from the U.N. He was deputy foreign minister, and [then-Secretary of State] James Baker had just given a rather controversial speech at AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee], and I came for my first meeting with him, and he handed me the speech. He says, “Would you sit at the typewriter and write me an analysis of it?”
This is Netanyahu himself?
Yes. I said: “All right. Well, here we go, baptism by fire.” And I sat and analyzed it for him. And then our relationship grew, particularly when I became a kind of envoy for him to the Jordanians, and I brokered the first meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu — he’s head of the opposition at the time — and King Hussein and his brother, Prince Hassan, who were the heads of the Jordanian state. …
When he was at the U.N., Israel was really taking its lumps a lot of the time. Is there a memorable moment for you where he stood up to it and faced them down?
Well, I remember the whole incident when he served at the U.N. … where it was discovered that the secretary general of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, was an SS officer.
There’s a certain amount of diplomatic stepping around a difficult issue that people do. There’s a point in time where you have to just bang your fist on the table and go, “Unacceptable.” And he was a U.N. ambassador who was in that category. He said certain things were unacceptable, including the continued service of Waldheim.
So when he decides to come and get involved in Israeli politics and remake the Likud Party, do you come with him?
No. I had known about him, and I had my own separate intellectual odyssey, having served in a left-of-center think tank in Tel Aviv. Slowly but surely our relationship builds, largely through my diplomatic contacts as a person from academia in the Arab world. I discover, for example, that while the world is all excited about the PLO-Israel relationship known as the Oslo Agreements, there are people in the Middle East who don’t like that agreement. There are people who don’t trust the PLO, particularly the Jordanians, so our relationship with Jordan grows in that period of time.
And that is when my relationship with the prime minister also grows, because he needs to have an alternative to the Oslo Accords, and at the time we thought it might be by working with Jordan. It becomes more complicated subsequently, but certainly I was anxious to help him out of what I thought was going to be a very dangerous diplomatic approach, because I knew that Yasser Arafat was not Nelson Mandela. He had not changed, and he was unreformed.
What didn’t he like about — and I suppose you, too — the Oslo Accords when they were first announced to the Israeli people?
What struck us was that fundamentals that were part of Israel’s national security doctrine seemed to have been swept aside. For example, in 1967, Israel captured the West Bank. The international community understood that that was a war of self-defense. How do we know that? Because the Soviets tried to have us branded as the aggressors, and they failed in the General Assembly and in the Security Council.
If it was a war of self-defense, there was an international legal notion that Israel was entitled to new boundaries. They were called “secure boundaries” in Resolution 242 of the Security Council, and later “defensible borders.” That meant that we’re not going to the prewar lines.
But it seemed that this accord was leading us down back to the ’67 lines. That was something which all of us regarded as dangerous without even knowing whether we would have rockets launched from Gaza on Ashkelon or whether we would have suicide-bombing initiatives coming out of West Bank cities into the heart of Tel Aviv. We didn’t know that yet, but we understood that it seemed that too many of our fundamentals had been thrown aside, and we felt that Israel as a country, in a very dangerous neighborhood, it was fragile, and it had to be protected. I think that’s why we looked for an alternative.
Yet here’s Yitzhak Rabin, the hero of that war. … [When he signed the Oslo Accords], how disappointing was that to you guys?
… To the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, and to his credit, he gave a speech, his last speech in the Knesset in 1995, a month before he was assassinated. In haunting fashion, Rabin lays out the future border of Israel. He says Jerusalem must remain united under Israel’s sovereignty. He says that the security line of Israel must be in the Jordan Valley in the widest sense of that term. That means not just a couple of soldiers on the water with the desert behind them, but they’re going to need a good couple of kilometers to create a defensible system at the Jordan Valley, which would help prevent land invasion by Iraqi expeditionary forces and Jordan if it’s swept up into a coalition.
He made it very clear, Israel is not returning to the 1967 lines. I read that; I said: “That’s amazing. I can sign on to Rabin’s speech. I have no problem with his doctrine.” But a month later he’s killed. And most people assume that Rabin was willing to give up everything. It isn’t true. …
A lot of people we talk to say Netanyahu stoked the right wing right before the prime minister was killed, not that he made [Yigal] Amir pull the trigger, but that there was a lot that he was asked to step back from. … What is the answer about the role Benjamin Netanyahu played in those early days to those crowds that were increasingly becoming more intense?
I think the country’s political system was super-heated. It was like a car riding on a highway that had no water left in the radiator. You could look at the temperature gauge, and it’s all the way in the hot.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, as a candidate back then, was careful, but anything he would say could trigger the radical-right parts of the population. But he was not responsible in any way, shape or form for the environment that created the assassination of Rabin. That’s just an unfair charge used by people who want to shut down any kind of criticism from the conservative side of the Israel political spectrum. It’s baseless, it’s unwarranted, and it’s anti-democratic. …
… People in the Likud said he said: “No meetings, no talk, no anything. I want to close it down. This is not a time for politics. This is a time for something else.” Does that comport with what you remember?
Yeah, I think so. And later, as I became re-engaged with him, it was to look for political alternatives beyond what seemed to be this Oslo process, which we thought was not just going nowhere; it was going to go to a very dangerous outcome for the state of Israel.
Was there anything you could do about Oslo? …
Well, a new Israeli government is obligated to carry out signed agreements, and I think he saw his responsibility as to carry out the Oslo Agreements. However, he wanted to put an overlay on Oslo, which was based on the concept of reciprocity, that Oslo should not just be a statement saying Israel is automatically going to withdraw from all these territories, and it doesn’t matter what the Palestinians do. If they fulfill their end of the bargain, we will fulfill our end of the bargain.
That was the language which the prime minister made clear to Arafat in multiple messages. It was also a message, which made perfect diplomatic sense, and therefore a good secretary of state like Warren Christopher immediately picked up on it and incorporated it into U.S.-Israeli documents.
It was up to us, therefore, to demonstrate to the American team whether Arafat was fulfilling his commitments or not fulfilling his commitments. And we weren’t looking to trip up Arafat; we were looking to get the job done. But if he wasn’t going to fulfill his agreements, we’re not just going to get up and leave strategic territories and leave the people of Israel in a more perilous position.
Let’s back up just one second. Everybody says [Shimon] Peres should have called a snap election right away and ridden the sadness of Rabin’s assassination, and [he] probably would have gotten elected. Do you disagree with that?
Look, it was a very close race, and Peres had been in Israeli national politics since the 1970s, and we were now in the 1990s. That’s 20 years [as] a national political figure. Prime Minister Netanyahu had been ambassador to the U.N. in the 1980s, and now he was entering national politics, and it required enormous persuasion for the people of Israel to try and give him a chance.
The thing I think that clinched it, and the real test of Oslo, where Oslo failed, was the upsurge in suicide-bombing attacks in the heart of our cities. The minimal expectation that the people have of their government is to provide security, and in February through March in 1996, over 90 Israelis died from suicide-bombing attacks right here in Jerusalem, right here in the street outside. …
I will never forget this in Tel Aviv once, there was a horrible terrorist bombing, a suicide-bombing attack in a bus near Dizengoff Center. I drove by about three days afterward, and somebody had written graffiti on the wall, and they wrote, “The Likud was right.” That meant not just “I told you so”; that meant that we had a responsibility to make a messed-up situation better, to clean it up, and to come up with a responsible form of diplomacy, which is what Prime Minister Netanyahu tried.
Now, in the face of this, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, who loves Yitzhak Rabin, who comes to the funeral, and the day before he flies he utters this amazing phrase, and he loves him, and he wants to make sure Peres is —
— elected. He’s doing everything he can. … How are you guys feeling about the role of Clinton in imposing himself as the president of the United States? … Here he is using all of his political capital to bury you guys.
I can’t speak for the prime minister, but I understood that the moment that President Clinton spread his arms out at the White House lawn, one hand going over Yitzhak Rabin and the other hand going over Yasser Arafat, he took possession of the Oslo peace process. His personal career, his place in history was determined by its success.
So when we came by with bad news about Oslo, it was inconsistent with the zeitgeist of Washington in the 1990s. If we said, “Listen, we’ve got news for you: Arafat is still deep in terrorism,” it was a problem.
There was something called the “green light.” It was an intelligence assessment given in March 1997, and it was based on a meeting that Arafat had with the heads of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and it must have had tons of intelligence resources on it.
The head of military intelligence came to us and said, “Arafat has given a green light for the resumption of terrorist attacks against Israel.” Now, it’s a very sophisticated green light, because Arafat assumes that Israel is listening to everything. So it’s the kind of thing you signal your ally with your eye and this and that, but it was interpreted responsibly as a green light. We brought the green light to the Oval Office in Washington, and I remember President Clinton’s face when he saw the documentation. He was not happy. …
What do you mean you brought it? You went there?
We brought the intelligence material to the Oval Office, and we presented it to President Clinton.
It was the prime minister who came to Washington, and we had our intelligence people come in and present it. We always kept open channels. … It’s very hard when there are preconceptions, if it’s believed in Washington that the PLO is replicating the ANC [African National Congress] in South Africa, that Yasser Arafat is just another version of Nelson Mandela, who’s setting aside the old ideology of armed struggle and is ready to become part of a democratic movement. That was simply not true. There was no evidence of that. I wish it had been the case.
But the more we saw how Arafat continued to communicate with organizations like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, let people out of prison who were involved in terrorist attacks, which is an easy way to monitor is he going to impose a new arrangement in the territory against the spread of terrorism or is he going to simply allow it under his watchful eye, we felt that he was backing terrorism, unquestionably, and using the terrorism as a political lever to gain more Israeli concessions. We were not going to negotiate under such conditions.
… And on election night — what’s the saying? Do you know this saying? — you go to bed with Peres, and they wake up with Netanyahu?
Yeah. I left the fairgrounds in northern Tel Aviv, where the Likud was meeting, when it seemed that the exit polls were completely in Peres’ advantage. That was at 10:00 at night. By midnight I was out of there. I went back to Jerusalem, went to bed exhausted by 1:00 or 2:00.
About 3:30 a good friend of mine calls me from Tel Aviv: “Dore, get back here. Bibi won.” I walk into his suite at about 5:30 in the morning, and basically I didn’t leave it. He said: “You, you, you, all three or four of us were there. You’re the core team.” And that’s how it officially started.
So he’s prime minister of Israel, and I know there’s a million other issues he’s dealing with, but we’re on the peace process. Clinton is in Washington, and it’s time to meet. … Are you with him when he goes to Washington?
Absolutely, but even before that we’re sitting together, we realize that somebody has to go see Arafat. Here’s the Likud government, now elected. Someone has to go to the Gaza Strip. And I had already met with Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]. I’d already called him the night the election results were confirmed. So I had a kind of relationship, but the prime minister looked around and basically looked at me and said, “You’re going down to Gaza.” …
We all go off in the limousine of Mohammed Dahlan, the head of internal security, to Arafat’s house. We sit in the house waiting for Arafat. I’m sitting with all of the top PLO leaders, and we’re making small talk, but I happen to have a very serious message to them, because we know that their policies led to the death of Israelis, so you can’t just be chummy. But at one point they try and break the ice and say, “Well, the last time we met with representatives of Likud was on the outskirts of Beirut,” referring to Ariel Sharon’s war against the PLO in 1982. I let that pass, and Arafat came in and sat down wearing this heavy army coat in maybe 100-degree temperatures in the Gaza Strip in his house without air conditioning.
The first time you’d ever met him?
The first time I’d ever met him. And I gave him a prepared document, which laid out our terms, which referred really to security issues. And when you did it, you had to keep in mind the faces of those who had died from terrorist attacks, because you had to make sure your entire inner conviction was reflected in the message you were giving. … Many Israelis have died in those suicide-bombing attacks, and we felt since they emanated from territory under his jurisdiction, he was responsible, and we had to create a new security situation. That was the tension of the moment, which we felt. …
There was also negotiating the terms of the first Arafat-Netanyahu meeting. One of the things, for example, is that the Oslo Accords, to Rabin’s credit, said there will be no governmental activity of the PLO inside the city of Jerusalem. But over the years, they started putting in people. … They started putting in Palestinian Authority offices.
So the terms that I presented to Abu Mazen [before] the first meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat was that all of those offices in Jerusalem that were illegal be closed, and to Abu Mazen’s credit, he closed them all. And then we moved toward the meeting.
When was the meeting in relation to the Clinton meeting?
I don’t recall, but it’s all roughly the same time.
How was that first meeting between Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu? And where was it?
It was at the Erez Crossing, which is the crossing point between the Gaza Strip and sovereign Israel. It’s like a military position. We had a table, some light food and drink, and the two gentlemen sat across from each other. Their teams are next to each other and going through fundamental issues that we had worked out ahead of time.
Netanyahu, the kind of guy who — at that moment, how is he? What is he like, especially given the way you laid down the first cards with Arafat? Did he continue the “We’re here to do business”?
I think that was his view. He’s a guy to this day who wakes up in the morning or in the middle of the night and understands his responsibility to protect the people of Israel. … You’re involved in real responsibility for life and death of your people, and in those kind of circumstances you have to keep your eye on the ball all the time. And the ball involves, how do you protect Israelis from such a murky diplomatic deal?
… So Rabin and Arafat have had this dance, and now it’s Netanyahu, the new guy, the tough guy. … How is Arafat?
Both Arafat and Abu Mazen want the new Likud government to accept the PLO. I even remember at one point — I just can’t give you the exact visualization — Abu Mazen saying to me, “And write down PLO,” like it was very important for him to see us recognize it and not just fake it while we’ll go to do business with Jordanians, because after all, the Jordanians used to control the West Bank, prior to ’67.
Did he write down “PLO”?
It was in the agreements that we had signed. It wasn’t such a big deal, but you could see the concern of Abu Mazen that we weren’t going to agree that they were the real responsible partner. I think that was part of where they were at in these early contacts.
What was it like to go to the White House and confront President Bill Clinton and his national security guys, and presumably the secretary of state?
… The Israeli approach was: “We’re going to fulfill our obligations, but we’re just going to insist that the other side fulfill its obligations, and if there’s no reciprocity, there’s no moving forward.” That’s the essence of what we were doing.
It could be that some people on the U.S. side didn’t trust us. They thought we wanted to kill the agreement, because we were ideologically committed to retaining all the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. That was unfair, because the Likud Party historically had made peace treaties in the past. The most noteworthy one was the peace treaty with Anwar Sadat and the Arab Republic of Egypt, where we gave up the whole Sinai Peninsula. So to say that we were specialists in obstruction was a misrepresentation of our position. It worked well in Israeli internal politics, but it wasn’t the truth.
Had you ever met Clinton?
I had met President Clinton when he came to Jerusalem after the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh [in Egypt], where he brought together the Arab representatives with Prime Minister Peres. …
In the case of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Clinton, these are great communicators. They’re also professional politicians. President Clinton knows Israeli internal politics. Prime Minister Netanyahu has many friends in the American political system. They have to learn to work together.
It isn’t simple, because there are those who are whispering in President Clinton’s ear, “Just put pressure on Israel, or [put] pressure on Netanyahu, and then you’ll make him into what you had hoped Rabin would become.”
I think that was part of the problem. You have to just talk to your other partner. You have to be honest. You have to say, “I can do this; I cannot do that.” But you can’t try and railroad Israel into doing things that Israel feels is dangerous. And Israel has to tell the truth about what it can do and what it can’t do. It’s not always easy to maintain that line of communication. …
Somebody told us that the prime minister, feeling pressure from Clinton and knowing that he has to do the right thing by Oslo but having his own misgivings and, as you say, his own requirements, decides to give a gift. The gift is [the 1997 Hebron Protocol, after which Palestinians took control of most of the city of Hebron] and then more. … In the process, his coalition, the right wing, deserts him, leaves him high and dry, and the left and Clinton and others, the Europeans, do not give the necessary props, applause, whatever is necessary. Understanding there’s lots of other variables at work here, but in effect at least in the foreign policy realm, it accelerates his descent into defeat. Is that the way you remember it?
Well, the diplomatic moment where this is relevant is in 1998 at the Wye Plantation outside of Washington. And the Wye Agreement was a huge agreement, much bigger than Hebron. Hebron was an agreement which basically reflected something that already appeared in Oslo. It was improved by Prime Minister Netanyahu; it was made more secure.
But when you get to Wye, Wye is an agreement over the large part of the West Bank. At that point the prime minister’s conservative base folds, and some people on the conservative right work with the Israeli left to bring down Prime Minister Netanyahu, which leads to early elections, which leads to the rise of Ehud Barak as the next prime minister. …
In this moment, he shakes Arafat’s hand publicly. It seems like an unbelievable thing to do. Was it for him? Did he discuss it? Was there wrangling? Was it back and forth?
I’m not aware of it, but there was a lot of belief in that period that trust and interpersonal confidence are tremendously important factors in diplomacy, and I think way overrated from my perspective. …
Diplomacy is not a function of moods. It’s not a function of creating a nice environment. It’s a function of national interests, and it will move forward if both sides see that their national interests are served, and diplomacy will go nowhere if both sides are convinced that their national interests are undermined by the continuing negotiations. …
If I’m Bibi Netanyahu, and I’m now a private citizen, and I’m watching Camp David, … what am I thinking when it all falls apart?
I think it means there was a huge miscalculation on the Israeli side, on the administration side at the time. When you’re involved in negotiations, one of the critical questions you have to answer is, do I have bridgeable differences between the two sides? That’s an intelligence question; it’s a diplomatic question, political question: Can I actually get these two sides to agree?
Part of the big mistakes in those who handle the peace process over the years is they think, oh, yeah, we can make this work. Sometimes it’s because you have back-channel diplomacy that tests the waters. It’s at a five-star hotel in Stockholm or in another European city, where everyone is very comfortable, and everyone is willing to say, “Sure, take this; I’ll give you that.” And then when the real test comes, those concessions aren’t there. …
One person we talked to said Prime Minister Netanyahu [came out of his first meeting with President Obama], and he was unhappy that it hadn’t gone the way he had hoped it would go; that they had tried to strong-arm him, and that he wasn’t going to take that. That wasn’t the way he thought the prime minister of their ally in the Middle East should be treated, and it was clear that Obama, his aspect was different than the prime minister expected.
Perhaps. But I can just tell you one other thing that got me ordered in a different direction. About the same time as this meeting was going on, I received a message from an old U.N. friend that someone wanted to see me in London. … I flew to London, and I had the meeting, and I won’t disclose who it was with, but let’s just say it was a member of the royal family of the countries of the Persian Gulf.
What I heard was a perspective very different from everything coming out of Washington. … There was one issue and one issue alone that was possessing our Arab neighbors, and that was Iran. … I felt that some people were missing the boat in the West, because they put too much stress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue while not taking into account how important the Iranian threat was for our Arab neighbors. …
When the president goes to Cairo for the speech, and you heard him speak, what did you think?
Well, everybody that was in my entourage focused on the whole notion that the state of Israel rose as a response to the Holocaust. That was something that was unacceptable.
Because Israel has an eternity to it that goes far back before the 20th century, the 19th century, and even earlier. All we have to do is know that there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem already at the time of the American Civil War. All we have to know is that we had a civilization here that was destroyed by the Romans. You can now find the catapult, the Ballista, used to fight the Jewish resistance at the time of the 1st century, 70 A.D. Our history is all over this city and all over the country. Therefore, an explanation that sees us as a bunch of Europeans who are looking for a refuge from the Nazis is a partial and not terribly accurate understanding of the soul of this country.
Does it surprise you that the president of the United States would make that error?
It surprised me that they have a speechwriter who would be allowed to write that kind of document, because I think Sen. Obama was presented with the four dimensions of Israel, but someone decided to take this partial approach in a presidential speech, and it didn’t earn him confidence with the people of Israel. …
When the Arab Spring happens, the president of the United States three months later gives a speech from the State Department. It not only is ecstatically happy about what they perceive as a potential explosion of democracy all over the region, but it also folds in this idea of let’s return to the ’67 borders.
Lines. They’re not borders — lines.
Lines. … Take me there, and give me your impressions of the events and the meaning of those events to you guys.
I was a private citizen at the time. I was running a think tank called the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. We were having a board meeting to approve my new budget, so my board had all come in, and I’m sitting with them. My secretary comes rushing in, and she goes, “Dore, the prime minister is on the phone.” I leave the room; I say, “Excuse me.” I get on the phone. He goes, “Dore, where are you?,” as if I still work for him. I go, “Yeah, I’m in the office. I have a board meeting.” He says, “I need you to come here right now.” …
I walk into his office where his desk is, and he’s surrounded by his top advisers. He’s on a speakerphone to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While I won’t go into what was said in detail, I’ll just say roughly, he had been advised that the president’s speech at the State Department was about to occur and that it contained reference to the ’67 lines, and he was not happy.
There was an exchange between the secretary of state and the prime minister, but this was a fundamental change in U.S. policy. … This has been a cornerstone of U.S.-Israeli diplomacy for years, and now all of a sudden talk about the ’67 lines, even with a little land swap, it is a fundamental shift in policy. That’s why it strikes so hard in Jerusalem. …
[When Netanyahu and Obama met on May 20, 2011, it was reported] that the prime minister was lecturing the president of the United States about Israel’s security, and the way we hear it, Bill Daley, the chief of staff of the president, is whispering sotto voce, “Hey, who does this guy think he is, lecturing the president of the United States?” …
What if a newspaper writes, “Prime Minister Netanyahu Rebukes the President”? They put that in their headline, and then they create an atmosphere. Maybe there’s a newspaper interested in creating that atmosphere, and then you have to live with those results.
So it’s a very complicated visit, especially if you’re at the end of the day keeping in mind that the U.S. and Israel allies are facing a dangerous world and have to work together. If you want to keep that in mind, you’ve got to correct all of the either misimpressions or interpretations that have been given to your candid diplomacy.
Was there bad blood at the end of that?
I think there was a period where both sides needed to go in the corner and breathe, but at the same time everybody knows that the U.S. and Israel have to come back together again. Keep that in mind. Nobody is approaching this relationship or their interactions with the view that that’s it, we’re getting a divorce. That’s not in the cards. …
In order to effect what the prime minister wants in the year 2012, how important is plausible military action [against Iran], and at least the conversation about it, the threat about it by both him and the United States? He’s lobbying for sanctions; he’s lobbying for lots of things.
Well, first of all, the sanctions regime fundamentally changes in 2012. We’re moving to biting sanctions.
Crippling sanctions, as Hillary said, right?
Once you are affecting the ability of Iranian companies to pay for services internationally, to receive money, to transfer funds through SWIFT accounts, you basically cripple the Iranian economy, and that’s what happens in 2012. And I think that’s the origin of the Iranian decision to come to negotiate with the West.
Would that have happened without the credible threat of military action?
Well, that’s a question about Europeans, whether Europeans would have gone along with this if they didn’t think that there’s going to be military action. I don’t know about that. But I know that these crippling sanctions were what ultimately brought the Iranians to their knees. Then the question, of course, is, was the price sufficient to justify taking them off, or should the West have gone further with its demands?
During 2012, the way the story goes is Netanyahu steps in with his old friend, Mitt Romney, and supports him against President Obama.
I think if you did a Google search for Romney and Netanyahu and limit it to the [election year] 2012, you will not find a Netanyahu statement supporting the candidacy of Mitt Romney for president of the United States. It has become a popular myth that Israel is somehow working for Romney’s election. There’s just no evidence of it. It’s just something people say at dinner conversation, and it became very widespread, but it’s not true.
I interviewed a woman yesterday who said it as if it was absolute. …
No. The prime minister of Israel may have met with Romney, which that’s allowed. Israeli prime ministers meet with presidential candidates, and I remember such meetings in the past, but he did not endorse the Republican candidate, whatever various smart commentators like to suggest.
The fall of 2013 comes along, and the word comes out that the United States has been secretly negotiating with Iran. How does the prime minister [feel, and] how do you feel, about the secret negotiations with Iran by the United States?
Well, I’m not with him at the time. I’m aware of the big picture over time, and the big picture is that I think Israel assumed, first, that the United States wanted to dismantle the nuclear infrastructure of Iran. …
One could have reasonably suggested that just as the United States sought the dismantlement of the entire nuclear infrastructure of Libya under [Muammar] Qaddafi, it sought the dismantlement of the nuclear program of South Africa, that it would seek the dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program. It made sense. Then if they wanted to reassemble and run for a bomb, you’d have a lead time of four or five years. That was the policy that we all understood.
Then that suddenly changed to, well, you know what? Let’s give for the Iranian sense of dignity a little enrichment program. They may not need it. Most countries that have domestic nuclear programs for the production of electricity do not enrich their own uranium fuel; they import it. But you know what? Let them have something symbolic: 1,000 centrifuges.
So that was the next change: 1,000 suddenly became 4,500 centrifuges, and when you get to the final agreement at Vienna, it’s now up to 6,000 centrifuges. I inquired into a little tidbit of nuclear history: Pakistan has a nuclear weapons program based on the enrichment of uranium. In fact, it was the Pakistani centrifuge that became the basis for the Iranian program, A.Q. Khan, [Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear scientist considered the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program]. How many centrifuges do the Pakistani have in their nuclear program as they made the last surge to an atomic bomb? The answer to my rhetorical question is 3,000 centrifuges. …
Suddenly, what was supposed to be symbolic became something far more significant, and elements in this program that we thought were going to be completely eliminated — the president even questioned why the Iranians need them at the Fordow plant [in Qom] — those elements were retained, and this became a source of concern as Israel followed this whole negotiating process between the P5+1 and the Iranians. …
As an experienced negotiator, is this how you would have negotiated the deal? …
There’s always a fundamental question that people miss, and the fundamental question with Iran is this: Is Iran on the cusp of some kind of transformation from being this state that supports expansionism and terror around the Middle East to a state that wants to become part of the family of nations? Because if that transformation is occurring, one can come to Israel and say, “Look, we worked out this deal; it’s a different Iran.” And that would put us in a hard position to say, “No,” even if we found all the flaws in the agreement.
But the problem is there’s not one shred of evidence that that transformation in Iran is occurring. I wish it was. … If I look at 2015 as a year that the agreement is concluded, from Israel’s perspective, what happens in 2015? Hezbollah, which is basically an arm of the Iranian security services, starts building a new front against Israel in the Golan Heights. Iran isn’t showing moderation. We’re seeing that the Iranians are determined to transfer state-of-the-art Soviet weaponry that was in the arsenal of the Syrian army to Hezbollah. What kind of weapons? Well, there’s a cruise missile called the Yakhont, which travels at supersonic speeds in ranges of 200 to 300 kilometers, which can hit our ships, can hit the Sixth Fleet if it decides to, and it can hit our gas platforms in the eastern Mediterranean. This is what they’re transferring in 2015, the year of negotiations, SA-22s, which are advanced air defense missiles, to Hezbollah, a terrorist organization.
Finally, the most offensive thing they’re doing, you know that there are tens of thousands, maybe up to 100,000 Hezbollah rockets supplied by Iran in Lebanon. The problem with these rockets is they’re terribly inaccurate. During the 2006 Lebanon War, many of those rockets just hit empty fields in the Galilee. What Hezbollah needs from Iran, and what Iran supplied this year, were kits for improving the accuracy of Hezbollah rockets, so now they could hit apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, or they could hit other elements of our vital national infrastructure.
Suddenly the threat from Hezbollah and Lebanon becomes far more serious from the Israeli view. And all this appears when? In 2015, the year of negotiation, the year when one expects that Iran and its proxies are becoming more moderate.
Finally, what do we see? We see that Iran is active all over the Middle East region. It’s not just our problem. Gen. David Petraeus — there’s an interview in 2015 in The Washington Post, and he says that the real danger to Iraq, it doesn’t come from ISIS; it comes from the Shia militias under the command of Iran. And then we find out about the civil war in Yemen with weapon ships coming out of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf and arriving to ports in the Red Sea.
The Middle East looks very different, and Iran is already behaving like a regional superpower. What will happen when it gets nuclear weapons? This is what we begin to ask ourselves. And this is the setting for this negotiation, and finally the Vienna Agreement between the P5+1 countries and Tehran.
… When is it over for Netanyahu? When is it not to his advantage to keep arguing about this and to move on?
One of the problems with the agreement is that in the eyes of some beholders, it legitimizes Iran as a normal country in the world community, while Iran is maintaining the right to wage warfare against the state of Israel and other American allies in the Middle East. So we can’t stay silent under those conditions.
Our Arab partners maybe should speak up and say something about it, but that’s not their style. They operate in a much more discreet manner, and many times they say to Israel, “You speak up.” But I think we have to tell the truth about Iran, as long as Iran is doing the things it’s doing and threatening the countries of this region. …
There are fears within some communities, one of them being a good percentage of the Jewish community in America, that by continuing to fight Obama on this, it’s isolating Israel in a way that there are ramifications [that are] long term. If you can just speak to that point and those worries.
Countries have to learn how to disagree. It’s not easy. We’re democracies. Democracies have disagreements inside them. …
As I’ve said from the beginning of this interview, the U.S. and Israel are allies. We are destined to be allies. The real source of our alliance are the American people and the Israeli people, who are at the root of this. We’ll get past this current situation, but we have a responsibility to tell the truth about the Middle East. And even if the agreement is eventually approved in the future, we will monitor what the Iranians are doing. And when the Iranians invade their neighbors, we’ll let you know. We’ll be there serving as a kind of cornerstone for Western security in the Middle East. That’s our job, and ultimately our job is to protect our people, which is what we are committed to doing.
… What does the Six-Day War mean to the future prime minister, to Israelis? How would you explain that to an American audience?
The Six-Day War created much of Israel’s political consciousness, because what happened in the Six-Day War was that Israel was in a state of tension with its neighbors, but not war. Suddenly, in a very short period of time, in May 1967, Egypt amasses its army on Israel’s southern border. It closes the freedom of navigation from Eilat down to the Red Sea through Sharm el-Sheikh, and it tells the U.N. peacekeepers who are sitting in Egyptian territory to leave so that the Egyptian army can have a clear shot at the Israeli border, and U Thant, the secretary general, pulls out the U.N. troops. That sets the stage for the war.
In the meantime, armies from all over the Middle East start massing on Israel’s borders. One-third of the ground forces of Iraq cross the Jordanian kingdom and begin to deploy near the Jordan River. It looks like the whole Arab world is about to invade Israel, and at the last minute, Israel pulls off an air attack and destroys the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and then its ground forces move in to neutralize the Arab land armies.
That’s the story of the Six-Day War. It shows you have to be alert; you have to have good intelligence; and if your country is threatened you have to respond quickly. And I think from that experience, Israel’s national security doctrine emerged.
* * *
This article was originally published on PBS FRONTLINE http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/dore-gold-you-cant-try-and-railroad-israel/