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Interview with David Siegel, consul general

SALVATORE CAPUTO | Assistant Managing Editor | Posted: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 10:00 am

What follows is a transcript of the Jewish News interview with Israeli Consul General David Siegel, conducted by Salvatore Caputo. Based in Los Angeles, Siegel was in the Valley on Jan. 30. The interview was conducted after a meeting with the Hispanic Caucus of the Arizona Legislature, organized by the Arizona region of the Anti-Defamation League.

JEWISH NEWS: We heard with interest this thing about ASU. We're wondering how far that's progressed and whether it's too early to talk about it.

DAVID SIEGEL: Well, we hope it happens, and we're certainly inviting this partnership. ASU has a built-in interest in partnering globally, and they're very interested in Israel, and we hope this all takes place. Now, Ben-Gurion University, which is really an up-and-comer, is very interested in this relationship and we hope that it's going to be a strategic, significant relationship where we can really capitalize on our synergies, both desert countries, both involved in the same technologies of the future — robotics and cyber-security — that we discussed, and environmental challenges from water to alternative energies. It's going to be a great thing. We're very hopeful.

JN: Tell me a little bit about that cyber-security center in Be'ersheva. What is there and how did it evolve?

DS: Well, it's evolved over time. There are some very significant partners there. It's really a public-private partnership which works. The government has invested big resources there, the [Jewish National Fund] and, through the JNF, the American Jewish community has invested enormous resources in Israel's south. We need to remember that Israel's south is 60 percent of the country, and it has 8 percent of the population, so the Tel Aviv region is hyper-dense, one of the densest on Earth, and that has to change. One of the ways of changing that is moving opportunities and infrastructure down south and up north to the Galilee. So this is part of a major, major strategic effort for over a decade now, but we're really seeing it come together now. So [Ben-Gurion University] has quadrupled in size and has one of the largest, if not the largest, engineering department in Israel. And now that we're moving major military bases, 30,000 soldiers will be moving south, many of them will live there. Moving that many people, that means you need new highways, you need new railways and you need new housing projects, and you need culture and entertainment and schools. It really feels like 2014 is like 1948 again, that we're building a country from the bottom up, but that it's all high-tech, with forethought and resources and with significant international partners. Because when you have a global company like IBM — it is placing all of its eggs in one place when it comes to cybersecurity, to protect all its information systems — and then you hear about Lockheed Martin moving in, and T-Mobile through Deutsche Telecom, which is a global, global telecom company, moving in, and Cisco, that is going to be part of the defending the Internet side, and EMC, which is one of the largest cloud storage companies in the world, which already has I think six plants in Israel and they have over 1,000 employees in Israel, when you put all this together in one place — military, the national cybersecurity authority, a major university and all these multinational firms together with hundreds of Israeli startups that are involved in cybersecurity on a day-to-day basis, and by the way, we're building a high school where kids will be studying cybersecurity as their major from very early age, and they'll benefit from being in a place where they can have internships with some of the largest companies in the world — you realize that we're really building the future of Israel and the future of high-tech through this center, so it's very exciting.

JN: And that's the Negev region?

DS: It's the Negev, and by the way, the vision is that this will extend to the entire Negev. This is the capital, this is the hub, but it will extend out to all the communities that have been disadvantaged in our south and will further boost them economically over time.

JN: The other thing, obviously, is the situation you find yourself in with your neighbors. How concerning is what's going on in Egypt at the same time as Syria is [in civil war]?

DS: Well, we are very concerned. We're very concerned.

JN: What can you do?

DS: When you have a shakeup and the dust starts settling, there are good things and bad things that happen in any shakeup. So we can't lose sight of the good things that have happened, and there are many positive things that happened. First of all, the conventional threat to Israel, the standing armies that were an existential threat to Israel, are being degraded. So that is happening. Many of the missiles that were facing Israel, that were targeting Tel Aviv, are now tragically being used elsewhere, but they're being used, so the stockpiles are going down. We expect them to go back up and that the danger will exist, but we're also finding new alliances in the Middle East. Many of the Sunni countries, that are really the majority of the Muslim Arab world, are threatened by the same challenges that Israel faces. Iran is a threat to all of them, so that there is a natural convergence of interests and, without going too far, I'd say that there are very interesting opportunities there. People used to argue that all of the problems of the Middle East are because of Israel and because of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and you can see with your own eyes now that that was simply without basis. The Middle East is a region that will have significant systemic problems for generations to come. And I think the key is to focus on the forces that are constructive forces and to help empower them. Israel has a role to play because we have the know-how and the knowledge of fighting back the desert, of dealing with empowerment of women, of minorities, of creating job opportunities, of innovating and helping the entire Middle East with its water challenges, its food security challenges — they're net importers of food. You know, Egypt is a country of 90 million people that cannot feed itself without importing. Israel can help, through drip irrigation, through a multitude of technologies. We do it in Africa, we do it in Latin America, we do it in Central Asia, we can do it in the Middle East, and we do do it, under the radar, quietly, but a lot more could be done if the politics were removed and people in the Middle East came together to share a vision of the future. That is still very much possible.

JN: Talking about the degrading of the standing armies, it's my understanding that Hezbollah's capabilities are down somewhat, too.

DS: Well, Hezbollah is very challenged now, because they're involved in the butchery in Syria, and they used to be the darling of the Arab world, and now they're enemy number one. So, together with Iran, if you're involved in the kind of conflict in Syria, where over 100,000 people have been brutally killed, that's a very bad thing for them, and they're overextended. They're not only in Lebanon, facing Israel.

[interruption]

So Hezbollah, on the one hand, is a big threat because what they've done is they have around a hundred thousand rockets and missiles facing Israel, and those rockets are getting better and better. Because they're GPS-guided, they can target individual targets in Israel. They can go for a high-rise in Tel Aviv. They can go for a strategic military installation or a power center, an electricity center and so on. So it's very, very dangerous. By the way, they planted those 100,000 rockets inside civilian communities so that they have human shields. The next conflict is going to be a very, very bad conflict, but on the other hand, they are threatened by their overreach in Syria and by the fact that they're very unpopular at home and other groups are rising against them, and this Syrian conflict is spilling over into Lebanon and it's affecting them, and you've seen all these suicide bombings. In a paradoxical way, it's their own tool that's being used against them after all these years. There's historic irony in that. So it's a complex situation, but we still see it as a major, major threat to Israel. Our leaders have been on the record this week talking about 170,000 rockets that can reach Israel's homefront, and that there are more munitions that could be dumped on Israeli cities than ever before, but the good news is that we're developing very rapidly the technologies — together with the United States and the assistance of the administration, of Congress — of developing missile defense systems that don't exist anywhere else in the world. They're going to be very highly critical for the United States because they're battle-tested by Israel. Iron Dome has been a phenomenal success, where it can really locate these rockets when they're fired and take them out of the sky before they hurt people. And that's a very significant thing, but this is going to be an effort that will have to be continued every day.

JN: You had mentioned Azerbaijan [during the briefing with the Hispanic Caucus], and since the Azerbaijani consul came to the Valley has reached out to the Jewish community here, we're wondering how are relations between Israel and Azerbaijan?

DS: They're very, very important allies and friends. We import a lot of oil from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a Shiite country, but it's a modern country. It's a democracy [that is] very, very close to Israel and very close to the United States. They're facing tremendous challenges. They border Russia, Turkey and Iran, but they're very, very brave. It's important for them to reach out to the Jewish community, and we believe it's important for all of us to reach out to them.

JN: There are people that say that Islam is fundamentally anti-Jewish. Can we reach out to Azerbaijan, which is a majority Muslim country and as you say a Shiite country, which is to the right, for the lack of a better term, of Sunni, with any trust?

DS: I think we absolutely can. Islam has been hijacked by extremists and by forces of terrorism and extremism for their own purposes. We don't believe that this should be a religious conflict. It isn't. It shouldn't be turned into one. Israel has many — Azerbaijan is one example — many Muslim friends and allies, and I think we should be very careful in the way we use those terms. We don't want this to turn into a religious issue. Many on the extremist side in the Muslim world want to turn this into a religious war. This was actually the beginnings of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which began by their using Jerusalem as a card, even in the 1920s, to foment riots that killed Jews in prestate Palestine and that brought us to the tragedies that we faced: those that escaped Nazi Germany were turned back [from immigrating into prestate Palestine] because of British laws that were imposed because of Arab pressure and so on. I think we all suffered from that and we should be very, very careful when it comes to those kinds of aspects. This is not a religious conflict. In this case, it's a conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It's a conflict that we have an interest in resolving. We're all on the record on that. Every government in Israel in recent years — including right-wing governments — wants to see a two-state solution where Israel is fully recognized as the national home of the Jewish people and that the Jewish people be recognized as a people. Some deny that, and that should offend each and every one of us. We are a people and we are a religion, and we have the rights to self-determination just like any other people, and in fact, more than other people given the history that we've been through, including the Holocaust. So we need to resolve this conflict, but to resolve this conflict you need a Palestinian leadership that is willing to resolve it, end it, and end claims, end the conflict, recognize Israel like Israel recognizes them, as a two-state process, and respect some of our security concerns that are very, very serious. Given everything we know about the Middle East — one day you see a country, the next day that country is gone or one day you see a border, the next day that border is gone — we need to guarantee that the peace agreement that we sign will be a peace agreement that will protect us not just tomorrow or in 2015 but in 2050 and beyond — way beyond. And for that, we need to be responsible for our own security. We've seen what happens when we give over control to others, be they Arab or European or others, it melts away over time, and the Iranians come in, and they come in with their proxies and they come in with rockets. We don't want to see that repeated in the areas that are now known as the West Bank because they're critical areas right outside of our major cities and our major population centers, so this is very, very serious. We still see incitement. We still see education to hate on the part of the Palestinians, and that has to stop.

JN: How stable is Fatah? Obviously, with all this other chaos going on around you, the Arab leadership of both Gaza and the West Bank has to be of concern.

DS: And it is a concern. We saw what happened in Gaza, where in three hours they were thrown out by Hamas, and they were thrown out brutally and they didn't really put up a fight. After Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005 — Ariel Sharon, may his memory be blessed — we saw what happened. The Palestinian Authority was overthrown, and the next thing we knew, [Gaza] became a major missile platform to be fired at Israel. Again, we don't want that to happen, and we believe very strongly that the Palestinian society and government needs to be as modern as possible, as democratic as possible, with a civil society of teaching tolerance so that we can begin building those pillars of coexistence that will be critical for the future.

JN: One last thing, how badly is Jordan being overtaxed by the Syrian situation? They have a ton of refugees and I don't know what their resources are. How does that affect Israel?

DS: It's a very important issue, and Jordan is a very important ally and partner both to the United States and to Israel. Everything should be done to help Jordan overcome this very difficult process that they're going through with hundreds of thousands of refugees, if not more, from Syria and from other countries. They're a small country, small population, and not that much [in the way of] resources. We think that a lot more needs to be done to help them, and Israel is trying to do that on its part, whether it comes to water issues or natural gas or other things that we can harness to help.