Recently, I attended Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir at NYU. Alon Ben-Meir and H.E. Ron Prosor, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations (U.N.) had quite a lively discussion about Israel and other world issues.
In June 2011, Ambassador Prosor became Israel’s permanent representative to the U.N. He previously served as Ambassador to the UK, as well as Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Dr. Alon Ben-Meir specializes in peace negotiations between Israel and Arab states and is a senior fellow in my program at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He regularly hosts Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir with world policy makers.
The first thing I noticed after I sat down was the Israeli secret service guy with the earpiece who walked past me and gave me the once over. There were actually several positioned near the stage once Ambassador Prosor arrived. I guess one can never be too careful.
Dr. Ben-Meir started the evening by asking if the Israeli/Palestinian discussions were moving forward or stuck. Ambassador Prosor stated that when you do not hear anything, it means that the talks are serious. He also said that though he could not give specifics on the negotiations, many issues on table this round. To achieve comprehensive peace, an end to “claim of return” needs to happen. Unfortunately, each piece of the negotiation depends on something else and both sides typically are not entirely willing to give up concessions.
Ambassador Prosor noted that the conflict is an open subject in Israel; “sometimes the stress of the situation gives people heart attacks,” but ultimately leads to a positive outcome. He believes that it is important to prepare the population for new ideas. Prosor also stated that 70 percent of the Israeli population would vote in a referendum for peace. He suggested that a peace agreement would look similar to the previous Clinton parameters, but whether that would be acceptable to Palestinians is debatable. Moreover, whether right or wrong, Prosor alleged that one main obstacle to peace is a lack of open debate on the Palestinian side. My question is how do you change the debate or dialog of a situation that has dragged on for so long with two sides unwilling to compromise?
Dr. Ben-Meir suggested that continuing to invoke the past does not lead forward.
His commentary and questions were great; he challenged the Ambassador on certain answers and it was definitely a two-sided conversation. In my experience, often Ambassadors get off easy in these settings and are allowed to deflect or talk around issues. Hosts are polite, accept answers given and move on, not Ben-Meir. In many cases, he respectfully disagreed. He repeated several times that he respects the Ambassador and Israel but invited him to NYU to have a noteworthy conversation.
Ambassador Prosor considers the view of Israel in the Arab world okay for the moment but offered that more work remains. In his view, Palestinians have a right to self-determination, but Palestinians do not believe the same about Israelis. He wants an independent Palestine, but not inside of Israel because the number of Palestinians would outnumber Israelis. Israel must have a sustainable Jewish majority for survival.
The two men also disagreed over historical events, such as specifics of the partition of land in the 1940s, but agreed that unilateral actions will not solve current problems.
The conversation shifted to the settlements, which Dr. Ben-Meir described as poisoning the well. He asked why Palestinians should be hopeful this time. Ambassador Prosor does not view the settlements as a major hurdle to peace and both agreed that a need for reciprocity and a gradual withdrawal from Gaza exists. The two also briefly discussed a three-state solution with regard to Gaza.
Ambassador Prosor spoke a little about working at the United Nations, one of the funniest statements he made –- “everything they do is half a miracle.” Then the conversation turned to the recent talks between the U.S. and Iran.
Prosor said the semantics look different today regarding Iran. Currently, 70 percent of its population is less than 35 years of age and open to change. Previously, Iran was focused on nuclear weapons that it must now forfeit in order to fix its economy. After years of no communication between the U.S. and Iran, the countries, now have direct contact. As the U.S. tries to sort out what Iranian leaders really want, it agreed to unfreeze 8 out of 25 billion in assets in good faith. Ambassador Prosor believes that the Gulf States view Iran as competition in the free market and are unhappy with this new open discourse. The decisions made now set a precedent for what will happen in the future. Iran admitted to cheating before but will now be transparent about weapons, so what does that mean in the future? It implies trust and understanding that Iran may cheat in the future. Both men view this new U.S./Iran relationship as misguided.
The final topic touched on was the situation in Syria. Prosor said the use of chemical weapons on civilians was just an addition to other ongoing horrible crimes carried out by the regime against its population. According to international law, the international community cannot intervene on a humanitarian level at this point. As an Israeli with a father who fled Germany, Ambassador Prosor has a difficult time with the fact that the international community has not done more to assist the people of Syria. Dr. Ben-Meir characterized the situation as international moral bankruptcy.