Does Iran Really Want to Nuke Israel? Is Israel Stronger Than Iran? A Top Security Expert Explains

Israel is closer than ever to war with Iran, warns former deputy national security adviser Eran Etzion – an exceptional voice among Israel’s security experts

On one of the days I met with Eran Etzion, an attack in Syria, which was attributed to Israel, reportedly killed more than 50 pro-Iranian militiamen. The target was on the Syria-Iraq border, further and deeper than previous attacks attributed to Israel. For the first time in our talks, which took place during the latter half of June, Etzion, former head of policy planning in the Foreign Ministry and former deputy head of the National Security Council, and one of the Israeli experts who dealt with Iran in a variety of tasks, expressed concern.

Etzion’s views represent a striking and resolute departure from the conventional wisdom of Israel’s diplomatic and security community, whose members generally toe the line asserting that the nuclear agreement signed by President Barack Obama with Iran was a “bad deal.” Instead, Etzion asserts from every platform that President Donald Trump’s brutal abandonment of the agreement is likely to draw Iran closer to a nuclear bomb and has the potential to plunge the region into war. But that’s not where the near and substantial threat lies, he says.

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“The most volatile place at present is Syria, where we are already in a sort of low-intensity war, which can definitely deteriorate further, because what’s separating us from that situation is the Russians. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is constantly harping that our goal is to remove the Iranians from all of Syria, and everyone involved is echoing him. That goal is simply not within our power, and insistence on it is liable to generate a war in what is a very unstable environment, involving Iranians, pro-Iranian militias and Hezbollah, with Turkey also meddling. The end solution will be formulated by the Russians, who boast that they are the actor who speaks to everyone, but who tell one story to the Iranians and a different one to the Israelis. The only sure thing is that the United States is withdrawing its forces. Something dramatic is happening in Syria: For the first time, there is direct military friction between Israel and Iran. There is now a higher probability than ever before of deterioration into an open war, which could take all kinds of different forms.”

In this Dec. 12, 2017, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

Meaning what?

“Meaning that if Hezbollah enters the campaign, the destruction and devastation that will be inflicted on Tel Aviv and on other urban centers in Israel will be on a scale we’ve never before seen. And we have no way to stop it. We have a way to respond, but I don’t know who exactly it will console if Beirut is destroyed in the wake of Tel Aviv being destroyed. And if a war between Israel and Hezbollah is something we haven’t yet experienced, then a direct war between Israel and Iran is something I don’t want to imagine, though unfortunately, in the posts I held I did have to imagine it. The useful reference point is the Iran-Iraq war: Eight years and a million people killed.”

Isn’t Israel stronger than Iran?

“The question is how you measure strength. There’s a key term called ‘strategic depth,’ which the Iranians used not long ago, precisely in the context of this friction. A senior Iranian figure said that Israel should be careful, because it has no strategic depth. You really have to go to the basics and look at the geography, the demography and the history. Israel possesses military power, but Iran has tremendous geography, a population of 80 million and a history going back thousands of years. It’s a civilization. A onetime Canadian ambassador to Israel told me about a meeting that took place between a senior official from the Canadian Department of Global Affairs [its foreign ministry] and the Iranian ambassador to Canada. The Iranian ambassador enters, glances at the carpet in the room and says, ‘Iran is a Persian carpet that has been woven across 5,000 years; Canada is a speck of dust on that carpet.’

“There’s something megalomaniacal in the Iranians’ self-perception, and there’s a sense of historical deprivation. They feel that now, with the Arabs weak and the Middle East breaking apart, they have an opportunity to restore their standing. When they plan their strategic moves, their plans extend to Gibraltar. So it’s not by chance that until now, we were careful not to become entangled with Iran directly, and the smart policy is to go on being careful. I am concerned at what’s happening now, because I see a slackening in that regard.”

All in all, the Israeli public doesn’t appear to share your assessments. Many here feel that Israel is all-powerful and that nothing will happen.

“I disagree completely. If you remember, there was a day when Netanyahu announced a special security cabinet meeting [which turned out to be when he presented intelligence material seized in Iran]. In the hours that passed between that announcement and the declaration, whose import was, ‘Relax, it’s nothing,’ the amount of anxiety and the amount of rumors that circulated here reflected the healthy instinct of the public, which will tell you endlessly how good our situation is but understands very well that we are walking on thin ice.”

Stabbed in the back

Etzion, 51, whose foreign service assignments included serving as consul in San Francisco, and who was slated at one point to become be the number-two officer in the Washington embassy, but was not appointed in the end (a peculiar episode to which we’ll return), began his Foreign Ministry career in 1992, when Uri Savir, the director general, appointed him his assistant after Etzion completed the ministry’s cadets course. He’s cut from the natural cloth of the old foreign affairs and security elite, which in recent years has been under attack by the political arena. He grew up in Rehovot in a Labor Party home and did his army service in Shaldag, the air force’s elite special ops unit. The father of three children, he lives in Moshav Shoresh, west of Jerusalem. In the system, he was always known as a liberal with a left-wing orientation. At the same time, a senior source in the Foreign Ministry who knew his work points out that, “Eran always presented a number of alternatives with arguments for each possible side, whether right-wing or left-wing. He didn’t say that there was only one line to follow, but put forward options across a broad spectrum. He’s a pro.”

“He’s super-intelligent,” Uri Savir, his godfather in the Foreign Ministry, says of him. “When I conducted the negotiations on Oslo and on Syria, he was at my side, and he stood out with his brilliance and his ability to keep a secret. He’s not a yes-man, which didn’t make him popular in our governmental realms.”

None of the dozens of his erstwhile colleagues I spoke to – some of whom liked him enthusiastically, others far less so – doubted his high intelligence, his creativity and his outstanding personal character. But there were some who called him arrogant, even a “politician” and a “meddler.” A former very senior Foreign Ministry source recalled, “When I checked about him, everyone told me he was very political, that he leaked stuff. I was told: to have a person like that in your court is to have a snake in your court. I was warned that he would try to undermine me.”

You were always something of a rugged individualist in the system, right?

“Yes. Sometimes it was part of the mission and sometimes it was part of my personality, and sometimes both. I remember that on the first day of the cadets course, Channel 1 [state TV] came to do a report on us and did a short interview with me. I said something like, ‘Look, I’m here now, yes, but I won’t be here until retirement.’ That’s a mindset that others usually don’t have.”

An effigy of President Donald Trump wrapped in an Israeli flag is set on fire during an anti-Israel rally in Tehran, Iran, June 8, 2018. Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Were you hassled because of your character or your opinions?

“I don’t like self-victimization. I’m not some poor wretch. But I will tell you a story. One day, the Foreign Ministry’s directorate brought in a management guru, someone who advises Putin, presidents, like that. One of the first questions he asked was: How do you spot an agent of change in a bureaucratic organization? It’s very simple – by the number of knives in his back. And then everyone looked at me and burst out laughing. So that’s the answer.”

During his early years in the Foreign Ministry (in about 2000, Etzion went to work for the NSC for several years, before returning to the ministry), Etzion took an active part in negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians. It was a period of great optimism, when ministry officials, as Etzion himself attests, were fantasizing about what the Israeli embassy building in Damascus would look like. In the Netanyahu era, the Palestinian issue gradually faded and Iran took center-stage.

“I dealt with that subject a great deal,” Etzion says, “both in the National Security Council and when I was in the Foreign Ministry. There are things I can’t talk about, but if my wife were sitting here, she would tell you how many sleepless nights I had. And not because I was in the office working. Simply from deep concern.” (Etzion is referring primarily to the 2009-2013 period, when the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was under discussion.)

What frightened you?

“I’ll explain indirectly. It’s a classic issue in which there needs to be close integration between the diplomatic and the military, and I, as a citizen and as a professional, demand that the system give expression to both elements. But the system doesn’t manifest the diplomatic side, and if it does, then it’s done in distorted, unprofessional ways. The political and the diplomatic have become intertwined. The people who deal with this think they understand the diplomatic side, but they don’t, and the public interest suffers. And these are issues of life and death. At a relatively early stage, we in the Foreign Ministry reached the conclusion that there was a high probability of an agreement between the United States and Iran. Long before anyone else said so. Moreover, others said there was no chance of that and no point talking about it. Can you imagine how frustrating it is to understand something but not to get the backing of the political side?”

The “political side” in that period included Benjamin Netanyahu and in large measure Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who pressed for an attack contrary to the opinion of the professional defense hierarchy.

I asked Etzion whom he held in the highest regard among the many prime ministers he’d come into contact with in the course of his different tasks. “There’s a certain difference between the while-it’s-happening and the in-retrospect,” he replied. “While it was happening, probably Ehud Barak. But the in-retrospect is different, and it relates to the way he comported himself as prime minister, but also to things I saw afterward, when he was defense minister. I have a great many fears when it comes to that man.”

What do you fear?

“His judgment. There’s something of a touch of megalomania there.”

Do you say that in the wake of the pressure he exerted for an attack on Iran?

“Yes. I saw him in decision-making meetings. He’s always the smartest person in the room, he always knows that and behaves accordingly, and that’s also the way people behave with him. Including Netanyahu. After a few decades of being treated like that, apparently it does something.”

There’s a consensus in Israel, thanks mainly to Netanyahu, that the nuclear agreement is bad.

“The agreement, in my view, as is the view of the overwhelming majority of experts on the subject, is not bad. Netanyahu labeled it a bad agreement and launched a war around the headline, ‘Better no agreement than a bad agreement.’ But the good agreement, in which Iran abandons its entire nuclear capability and closes all its nuclear studies faculties, etc., just doesn’t exist.”

Does Iran really want to annihilate us, as we are told?

“That’s more a political slogan. They know they can’t, so to think that there is actually an Iranian strategy to destroy Israel is not to give them credit. There are some there who have adopted this rhetoric, but the prevailing opinion among many experts is that even if the Iranians succeed in developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon, there is faint prospect that they will target Israel specifically. In fact, like most of the regimes who aspire to nuclear arms, they have no intention of targeting anyone. They aren’t out to commit suicide.”

What about the other things that don’t appear in the agreement, such as Iranian aggression in the region and funding terrorism?

“There are a number of elements to consider in regard to the Iranian issue. There is the nuclear element and the terror element and there is the element of regional subversion; there’s the element of the missiles and the element of the ideology-theology. There was a theory to the effect that it was possible and right to face up to the Iranians on a broad front and try to conduct negotiations with them. That was known as the ‘grand bargain,’ in which we would bring in all those issues and reach an agreement, in the framework of which we give a bill of legitimacy to the Iranian regime. [The logic of that approach was that] the Iranians’ great fear all these years, and justly so from their viewpoint, is regime change. They already have experience with that, and they’re right.”

Then why does the agreement lack all those issues?

“The idea of the ‘grand bargain’ came up back in the early stages of the European negotiations with the Iranians, in 2003, but at the critical junctures, where it might have been possible to take that direction, both the Israelis and the Americans said no. They said that of all those issues there’s one that is truly critical, which is the nuclear issue, and all the rest can wait.”

Which Israelis?

“Both Netanyahu and other people from within the system. In itself, that’s a reasonable approach. But the problem with it is that after you do what you want, you can’t do an about-face and say, how about the missiles and how about the terrorism, and why aren’t they in the agreement?”

In other words, the 12 demands that [U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo made of Iran with Netanyahu’s vigorous backing, which include that range of issues, are the wisdom of hindsight?

“That’s putting it kindly. It’s a lie. It was originally meant to screw up Obama, when it was clear that he was going for an agreement. And then all the arguments are valid, and the hell with history. Actually, I have a problem with Israeli leaders, both Netanyahu and other prime ministers, who are critical of the Americans’ negotiating skills. Who exactly is the Israeli prime minister or Israeli foreign minister or Israeli defense minister who can boast of an achievement in negotiations? Not one. Not Ehud Barak and not Ehud Olmert and certainly not Netanyahu, who was and remains poor at conducting negotiations. At Wye River Plantation, in his first term [in 1998], he reached agreements and then returned to Israel, panicked in the face of the right wing, and recanted. And during the Obama period, he conducted negotiations with Hillary Clinton. She pressed him to declare a temporary settlement freeze in return for a pretty insane promise [from the American point of view] of another squadron of F-35s. At first he told her yes, and then returned to Israel and backtracked again, because he was afraid of his [electoral] base. That happened again not long ago with the United Nations plan regarding the asylum seekers. In short, in negotiations, he’s a catastrophe. But he and others have no problem criticizing the Americans’ negotiating skills.”

Etzion, who crossed paths with Netanyahu in several of the posts he held, can be highly complimentary in describing his talents (“He’s very sharp, extremely knowledgeable, I also saw how he gradually gained confidence over the years”). However, as he also says he took part in the demonstrations in Petah Tikva, urging the attorney general to indict the prime minister, and now holds quite negative views about the system of the rule of law in Israel and the way the investigative cases against Netanyahu have been handled, it’s hard to label him a fan of the prime minister.

“My first experience with Netanyahu was not a good one,” he recalls. “We met when he was finance minister and I was in the National Security Council. We went to him – myself and another senior NSC official – and he’s sitting there with his feet up and with a cigar, and the whole discussion was like, ‘Okay, how much do you need? Two million? Three million? You’ve got it.’ I don’t think he’s the only one who behaves like that, but it wasn’t especially pleasant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“But what struck me most forcefully about Netanyahu happened in 2011, with the story of the social protest. I went to demonstrate on Saturday evenings, and then I would go to security cabinet meetings and see the effect it had had on him. It simply undermined his sense of being in control. Completely threw him for a loop. And then he started to come up with all kinds of conspiracy theories – that it’s financed and organized – because, after all, there’s no way there could be a civil protest against him. And then he did all the things he did to crush it. Suddenly I understood how little congruence there is between the decision-making process and the public interest and the public will. The two just don’t converge.”

What’s his vision, according to your impression? What does he want?

“I’ll tell you what I think his legacy is, as distinct from his vision. The first thing is the burial of the Oslo accords and the removal of the idea of a Palestinian state from the agenda – which he has in large measure accomplished. The second thing is the replacement of the ‘elites,’ which is also progressing well. And the third thing is the Iranian issue, where he really had incredible luck with Trump. Without Trump, his legacy would be one of a serious failure, from his point of view.”

To Etzion’s credit, it can be said that he’s consistent in his lack of esteem for Israel’s political echelon, and is unsparing in his criticism of all the prime ministers he’s come in contact with. Who was the most problematic of all, in his view? “With regard to Olmert, it’s easy for me to say that I had reservations about him in real time and also in retrospect. He always seemed to me to be too full of himself and not really attentive, quite smug.”

Who was the most cooperative, or the most attentive?

“No one was cooperative and attentive. That’s part of the problem. Because the system doesn’t support cooperativeness and attentiveness. Many times the discussion is just for the record and it’s often a platform for personal or organizational ego fights – army-NSC-Mossad-Shin Bet – and it almost never reaches the level of strategy or policy.”

So in which forum are decisions made?

“Between the prime minister and one or two people who have his trust. Let’s say, with [Ariel] Sharon, it was [attorney Dov] Weissglas. With Olmert, it was Turbo [attorney Yoram Turbowicz, his chief of staff]. With Netanyahu, it’s an interesting question, but I don’t think there’s a specific person today. The prime minister convenes the security cabinet when they already know what the outcome will be. There are also all kinds of forums that prime ministers convene so they can choose who participates and who doesn’t. It’s generally called a ‘security consultation,’ which is usually a code for ‘Let’s talk about diplomatic-policy issues without the Foreign Ministry being present.’”

Why?

“Because they don’t want the Foreign Ministry. They don’t trust it. It’s considered an organization that doesn’t really have anything to contribute to the discussion. The diplomatic realm has effectively been expropriated from the Foreign Ministry in favor of others. The prime minister increasingly carries out diplomatic activity by himself, through what’s known as the Political-Military Affairs Bureau in the Defense Ministry, which has taken control of Israel’s relations with Jordan. The Mossad, which was always somehow in the state’s gray region, now feels more comfortable about entering that realm. Besides that, the Foreign Ministry isn’t trusted not to leak things, it has the image of leaking material – which is in large measure unjustified – and the image of being a left-wing bastion.”

Justly so?

“As with every perception, there’s a grain of truth here, but in the end the professional ethos in the Foreign Ministry is stronger than any tendency. Moderation and statesmanship are translated directly as leftism. I see a steady trend over the years: When the alternatives are between preparing for the next war as though it’s inevitable, and trying to prevent it, including by paying a price and through diplomatic mechanisms and agreements, the default of Israel’s governments across the generations has been to go to war, because it’s a lot cheaper politically. Many times we wage the campaign, pay its price, including victims, and arrive at something that could have been achieved without the bloodshed. That’s true of the Gaza Strip campaigns, with the understandings we reach with Hamas and deny every time we reach them, even though we have reached them. And it’s also true today in Lebanon against Hezbollah, and it’s also true for the offensive line against Iran – though I agree that that’s a far more complicated and complex case. On every front, there’s an agreement we could have entered into but didn’t want to.”

What agreement could be made?

“In Gaza there’s the hudna or the tahadiyeh [traditional Muslim concepts of short- and long-term cease-fire or truce]. In Lebanon, for example, there were periods when Israel demanded that Hezbollah disarm completely as a condition for any agreement, which of course is not going to happen. What is possible, for example, is for Hezbollah to be integrated into the Lebanese army, with its capabilities and political responsibility. In that case, a state army will be formed, not a militia. And we will be able to sign an agreement with that state, with all that this implies. There’s a certain risk involved, but on the other hand, it can help prevent a disaster. In order to try these things you need to have statesmen around the table and you need creativity and you need readiness, and at the very least a genuine discussion – but there’s none of that.”

But people will say to you that we left southern Lebanon and got 100,000 Hezbollah missiles aimed at our soft underbelly; we left Gaza and got ‘Hamastan,’ which is making the lives of the nearby Israeli communities miserable.

“But that’s the difference between unilateral moves and agreements. I remember that when I was in the NSC during the period of the disengagement [from Gaza, in 2005], Sharon called in [NSC head Maj. Gen.] Giora Eiland and said, ‘Listen, I’ve decided that I’m getting out, now tell me how.’ We carried out an unprecedented process, a classic example of policy planning. We sat, we constructed alternatives. In the end we recommended going for an agreement and under no circumstances to leave unilaterally. But Sharon didn’t want to listen. At the suggestion of his advisers, he acted contrary to the recommendation. He feared a precedent of admitting to a withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the implications of that for the West Bank. And for that we are paying a price to this day.”

Whitewashing Trump

Etzion is one of those figures whose American counterparts President Trump is now shooting down (only metaphorically so far). Knowledgeability, judgment and rationality are assets that are rapidly losing value globally in the Trump era. “I speak today with people in the U.S. State Department or in organizations such as the FBI and the CIA. Trump is simply destroying those institutions systematically and violently. People are being kicked our or being made to leave. There are many slots for ambassadors and senior appointees in the State Department that Trump is leaving unfilled.”

Most Israelis believe that Trump is a good president for us.

“Israel is apparently the only country in which Trump could be reelected. That says something sad about us, and it says something sad about the degree to which the government controls the dialogue in Israel. Trump is being whitewashed here in the same measure that Obama was besmirched. Netanyahu and people like Sheldon Adelson wielded very great influence on Trump, and you could see that even before the election.”

An Israeli soldier sits on an APC as it drives near the Israeli side of the border with Syria, May 9, 2018. \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Was Obama a better president for Israel?

“I think he was, but in order to define that you have to ask what Israel is. He was bad for the Netanyahu government, but in my opinion the Netanyahu government doesn’t reflect the Israeli interest. As I see it, Obama’s path – to deal first with the Palestinians and then form a coalition against Iran – is more correct for the Israeli interest. And Obama wasn’t the only one who thought so. My counterpart in the Republican [George W.] Bush administration told me that in the transition period between administrations, Condoleezza Rice told Hillary Clinton: Don’t count on the Gulf states at the expense of the Palestinians, don’t make that mistake. And today Trump and Netanyahu are doing just that.”

Maybe Trump understands something that you and your colleagues, with all your forecasts, papers and talk, don’t understand?

“Trump is marketing himself as a dealmaker, but he’s never made any deal. Either he breaks something that exists, or he comes up with some proposal, but in any case it’s not a negotiating process. What was the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem, for example? At one stage Trump seemingly tried to tell Netanyahu, ‘I’ll exact the price from you,’ but it doesn’t look to me as if he’s going to exact any price at all, certainly not anything that was agreed upon in advance. He is unilateral and anecdotal – he touches something and goes on to the next thing.”

He won’t get back to Iran? He withdrew from the agreement and that’s that?

“He won’t get back. It’s done. Unless he absolutely has to: If Iran really does acquire the bomb and a dilemma arises of what must be done. He talked to North Korea, and that too was only a grazing [on the topic], and I absolutely don’t believe his dumb declaration that the North Korean threat has been removed, because they won’t denuclearize, as has been confirmed by intelligence estimates made public recently. And then he will put forward a diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian issue and will drop that, too. I’m sure that Netanyahu, too, knows that there is no stability in Trump’s policy.”

But around Trump you see quite serious and consistent people who are leaving their mark – conservative Republican hawks, of the Netanyahu type.

“There’s a difference between Trump, who of course doesn’t have a systematic doctrine but has instincts, and John Bolton, for example, the national security adviser. Bolton is a hawk of the old school, in the sense of American global domination. In that sense, Netanyahu is more Bolton. In the end, they are engaged in doing a reduction of Netanyahu’s policy; Netanyahu wants the United States to do the work for us.”

Meaning to attack Iran?

“Yes. And the same is true regarding Syria and the Palestinians.”

And is that likely to happen, do you think?

“No, because the time frames in which Iran thinks, plans and acts are far longer. I think that the Iranian assessment is that the regime in the United States will change long before the regime in Iran. And the minute Trump goes, a new game will begin. And they have patience. I think that in the end some sort of balance will be reached that will not include either an attack on the nuclear facilities, or the production by the Iranians of a bomb. The Iranians are too smart for such a dumb move.”

Change of plan

As he himself predicted, Etzion did not remain in the Foreign Ministry until retirement age. In fact, the episode of his surprising departure, at the end of 2013, is one of the more mysterious episodes in the ministry’s recent history. Etzion was about to become the number-two in the Israel Embassy in Washington. According to sources in the Foreign Ministry, his children were already registered in schools there and he had even chosen a house. But then everything was canceled and Etzion disappeared from the Foreign Ministry.

It’s very difficult to arrive at the truth in this peculiar episode, not least because according to many sources, an agreement was signed between the sides requiring Etzion’s silence on the subject in return for not having measures taken against him (an agreement whose existence Etzion and the Foreign Ministry neither confirm nor deny). Among senior officials in the Foreign Ministry, various explanations have made the rounds, and what they have in common is suspicion of a leak by Etzion.

The Etzion incident occurred against the background of a previous storm in the Foreign Ministry, in which two senior officials were accused (in 2009-2011) of having confirmed to a journalist the existence of a joint U.S.-Israel body for blocking Iran’s nuclear project. In that episode, Alon Bar, the deputy director general for strategic affairs, was subjected to a disciplinary hearing, but the Shin Bet investigation in his case found that he did not provide any classified information and did not harm state security; he was later appointed Israel’s ambassador to Spain. Dan Arbel, a highly regarded diplomat in the ministry, was removed as the charge d’affaires in Washington and was reprimanded in a disciplinary hearing, even though the investigation into his case also turned up no criminal findings attesting to either intentional or unintentional harm to state security.

Most of those who were involved in that episode continue to point a finger at the then-foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as being instrumental in the injustice done to two esteemed diplomats. One of the former Foreign Ministry directors general with whom I spoke did not wish – like the rest of his colleagues – to comment on the subject, but remarked, “The only thing I can say is that it’s very possible that Eran Etzion himself was a victim of the great anxiety about leaks that then reigned in the ministry.”

“Eran is an amazing person – smart, high-quality and judicious,” says Giora Eiland, who brought him into the NSC. “I don’t know the specifics of that incident, but it’s hard for me to believe that he did anything that could be termed as bad for Israel.”

Eran, what happened there?

“I am prohibited [from saying]. I’d be happy to, but I can’t.”

Eran Etzion, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser. Tomer Appelbaum

Were you wronged?

“I don’t want to put myself in that position. I am not a victim.”

It’s not a question of victimhood. When you were taken off the plane, as it were, on the way to a coveted post, were you wronged?

“I don’t know how to answer that. To begin with, I’m obviously not objective. I said at the time that it wasn’t unconnected with processes being undergone by the Israeli society.”

Were you framed for leaking?

“I wouldn’t put it like that, and what was reported on the subject is incorrect. There’s no question of a leak here. But what there is, I am not allowed to say. A great many things came together for me in that episode, and I said I’ll take early retirement, things have run their course and that’s it.”

Did you have a personal dispute with Lieberman, the dominant minister in your final years there?

“I can tell you a story. In fact, two episodes that come to mind. In the first episode, Aharon Abramovich, a wonderful person who was the director general [of the ministry], asked me, as part of the briefings for the incoming minister, to do a presentation on Iran. I had this secret laptop, with a presentation on the Iranian issue. Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. We take our seats in the room, a very small forum, and Abramovich says, Eran will make the presentation. Then Lieberman asks, What do you have here? So I say, It’s the complete mapping of all the possible scenarios on the Iranian issue. And then he says, Not interesting. And that was the end of the meeting. Now, that is a sort of signal, of a message.

“A few weeks later, he reconvenes the small forum of senior Foreign Ministry officials, in a hotel in Mamilla [adjacent to the Old City in Jerusalem]. And then Lieberman says to us: Tell me what Israel’s interest is with regard to Egypt. And I, as the outstanding apprentice who came from the NSC, raise my hand and say, ‘Preserving the peace agreement…. ’ And Lieberman goes into a fit of laughter and says to me, ‘Boy, oh boy, what a leftist you are.’ And all my friends laugh with him. So you understand that you have a choice: Either you conform or you’re tossed to the sidelines. I received the appointment of the charge d’affaires in Washington after I tried to get an ambassadorial post in all kinds of places and was torpedoed each time. And they even tried to torpedo the Washington posting.”

Who are they – Lieberman and Netanyahu?

“I don’t want you to write that.”

From the office of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the following response was received: “We would expect from Mr. Eran Etzion to make it clear under what circumstances, against which background and why he was forced to resign from the Foreign Ministry and only then to hurl mud in every direction. To remove all doubt, we shall emphasize that Etzion was forced to leave the Foreign Ministry in a period in which Lieberman was an MK and the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and was not serving as foreign minister.” (Lieberman is referring to the months in which he suspended himself from the position of foreign minister in the wake of his 2013 trial – and subsequent acquittal – on charges of fraud and breach of trust, in the “ambassador affair.”)

From Prime Minister Netanyahu office, Haaretz received this response: “Eran Etzion attests of himself that he went to demonstrate against the government at a time when he held a senior government post in the Foreign Ministry and in the NSC. To demonstrate against yourself? That says it all about his mendacious and unfounded allegations, which are totally unrelated to reality. It’s regrettable that officials who find themselves inactive outside the system, after not having been found worthy for promotion, are quick to hurl lying garbage with the aim of scrounging a media interview.”

Etzion is currently active in a number of strategic forums and organizations, and provides consultation and training services to various governmental bodies. When I ask him which governmental bodies he works with, he declines to say, because some of them unabashedly want to play down the connection with him because of his left-wing image. He is also involved in a democratic-promotion initiative, about which he doesn’t want to divulge details at this time, but which in his view will reflect the big bang that is already occurring in the political system worldwide.

“I think there is a substantive problem in the political system, not only in Israel but globally,” he says. “The mechanism of representation is broken – they no longer represent us but other things. It sounds trivial, but I saw it up-close. There are two possible answers to the problem. One is to move in the direction of authoritarian leaders of the Trump, Erdogan and Netanyahu type. The other side of the spectrum is citizens who say: We understand that the system doesn’t represent us, but we are not willing to give them that power, we want to take it for ourselves. I think that, in the big picture, we have to reinvent democracy.”

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