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Change They Can Believe In?

Ido Aharoni, photo by Asiya KhakiIdo Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, an imposing figure in a serious gray suit, sauntered onto the stage of the Event Oval at The Diana Center and smiled. Before he began his far-ranging lecture, “Israel & Its Neighbors,” about Israel’s quest for peace amid raging regional changes, he asked a question. “Hands up if you know who Ido was?” he demanded, with a discernible twinkle in his eye. “Ido of the Bible was a seer, not a prophet. A seer is an unsuccessful prophet, so take everything I say today with a grain of salt.” The audience chuckled. The crowd included a sprinkling of alumnae of every age group and a sizeable contingent of students who participate in one of the four Israel groups at Barnard-Columbia and who came despite the crush of midterms.

The consul called this a pivotal moment in Israel’s history, but stressed that it’s not the first. “If you google the phrase, ‘Israel at crossroads,’” he said, “you’ll find multiple references from the 1940s through today. Yet, here we are again with Israel at a crossroads. I can’t tell you how many challenges Israel is facing today.”

Israeli views toward negotiations with the Palestinians shifted sharply 12 years ago, according to Aharoni. At the time, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak failed to agree on a two-state plan proposed at Camp David by then President Bill Clinton. “It was an ambitious, far-reaching plan for both sides to consider,” said Aharoni. “And despite the fact that he was taking a considerable risk, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said yes to 97 percent of the territorial concessions. The Palestinians, headed by Arafat said, no.”

“Shortly thereafter,” he continued, “the Palestinians waged war ... known as the Second Intifada.... [and] made a strategic decision to target Israeli citizens.” Aharoni explained that in reaction to the sharp increase in suicide attacks against civilians earlier in this century, the Israeli government developed several strategies. The tactics included building the controversial security fence between Israel and the West Bank, and disengaging from Gaza. Aharoni said that Israel told the Palestinians: “Your dream is a reality. Here’s Gaza. Turn it into an oasis.” Instead, Gaza served as a launching pad for attacks on Israel.

This response, coupled with the Palestinian rejection of Clinton’s proposal in 2000 and the rejection of another peace proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, “had a profound psychological effect on Israel,” according to Aharoni. “Israelis care deeply about peace, but with the current Palestinian leadership, there is no deal,” he said. “It would be accurate to say that the majority of Israelis believe that the unfinished business between Israelis and Palestinians is not the Six-Day War. The unfinished business is the 1948 war. It’s not a war about land; it’s a war about the right to exist.”

Aharoni dived into the second subject of the evening: the sweeping political transformations of many Arab neighbors. “The media has defined it as an Arab Spring,” said Aharoni. “I feel very uncomfortable with that term. It implies that it’s seasonal, and I’m not so sure. I’m fairly confident that we’re looking at a majorpolitical shift.”

The revolutions need to be assessed on a country-by-country basis, he asserted. In Egypt, where the median age is young and the illiteracy rate is fairly high, “we are looking at deeper problems than elections,” he said.

On the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and the Israeli strategy to prevent that scenario, he commented, “You don’t need a PhD in psychology to understand Ahmadinejad. He means what he says. And this is what he says: ‘Israel should be wiped off the map.’”

“So, I ask the world: What will happen if Iran acquires nuclear capabilities?” he queried in a bracing tone. “One thing is for sure. It will inspire a nuclear arms race, and some will end up in terrorist hands.” A nuclear Iran, contended Aharoni, would “pose a threat to everything we value.” Aharoni grew even more animated, asserting, “It’s not Iran versus Israel. It is Iran versus the West.”

—by Elicia Brown ’90

Photograph by Asiya Khaki