[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]
When the Kentucky and Southern Indiana chapter of the World Affairs Council of America (WACA) invited Israel’s Consul General in Philadelphia, Daniel Kutner, to Louisville to speak on Tuesday, June 1, they expected a quiet presentation about Israel’s challenges and opportunities on the road to peace.
On Sunday, May 30, all of that changed as six vessels in a “Flotilla of Peace” embarked on a journey to Gaza with a goal of either breaking the Gaza blockade or provoking an incident that would bring pressure on Israel to remove it.
Israel issued multiple warnings that the ships would be boarded if they approached the blockade. The country also offered to divert the ships to Ashdod where the cargo could be inspected under the activists’ supervision and all non-military aid would be transferred to Gaza, and the ships’ passengers would be allowed to enter Gaza.
Early on Monday morning, May 31, they got their wish. Israeli soldiers intercepted the six vessels. On five of them, the mission was accomplished peacefully. The ships were boarded and escorted to Ashdod without incident. On the sixth ship, however, a terrorist ambush was prepared and the Israeli soldiers were attacked with metal rods, knives and other weapons as they were lowered onto the ship.
To defend themselves, the Israelis fought back. In the end, the Israelis took control of the ship, but the toll they paid was very high. Nine of the attackers were killed and many were injured, including seven Israelis.
As much of the world reacted with outrage at Israeli actions, Kutner arrived in Louisville do deliver his speech. WACA changed the venue from a law office downtown to the Jewish Community Center out of concern for security and to enable more people to hear the consul’s remarks.
Protestors lined the sidewalk in front of the JCC, and some came into the lecture, at one point interrupting the consul general with heckling. The hecklers were escorted from the room. Others who disagreed remained and asked challenging questions.
There were also many present who expressed their support and concern for Israel.
Kutner addressed them all and put the issues into perspective with an overview of the political situation in the region.
The Middle East, Kutner explained, is divided into two camps: a radical contingent, led by Iran, that wants confrontation with the West; and a pragmatic contingent that wants to be part of the global economy and wants contact with the West.
At this juncture, the radicals are aggressively pushing their agenda and the pragmatists are on the defensive, Kutner observed.
Kutner provided an in depth analysis of the geopolitical alliances in the region, stressing that Iran is the main area of concern. Iran exerts its influence with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza with financial and military support. But it is also at work within countries like Yemen, where there is a growing Shiite community that looks to Iran as a model for a strict Islamist society.
The most vulnerable are the small moderate countries, like those on the Persian Gulf. Kutner described them as fragile countries that can’t confront Iran on their own and must rely on foreign powers for their defense. Today that power is the United States. Those states must now decide if the U.S. is there to stay and will help defend them or if it is more practical for them to accommodate to Iran.
Larger Arab countries with significant Shiite minorities are also feeling Iran’s influence. Morocco broke relations with Iran, Kutner said, because of Iran’s interference with its internal affairs, and Egypt, which broke with Iran following the murder of Anwar Sadat, has not restored those relations.
Iran is a threat to Israel, but it is also a threat to its Arab neighbors. It is increasingly using its influence to push for overturning unIslamic regimes.
“Lebanon used to be an oasis,” Kutner said, where there was a balance of power among Christians and Moslems and where “East and West met to do business.” Today, the Iranian supported Shia “have found a new voice in Hezbollah,” the radical militant jihadist group that now has a more powerful military presence than the Lebanese army and is trying to impose its perspective on the rest of Lebanon.
Hezbollah has been rearmed by Iran and has a stockpile of more than 30,000 rockets; however, after the experience of the Second Lebanon War, they are reluctant to start new attacks on Israel. For now, they are concentrating on increasing their strength within Lebanon so when they are ready to attack, they will be able to do so with impunity.
In the Palestinian territories, Kutner explained, Fatah understands that it needs to forge an agreement with Israel, but it is losing followers and its appeal to the masses. It is being replaced by the Islamist movement and Hamas, Iran’s proxy, is challenging Palestinian leadership.
Hamas took Gaza by force, Kutner stated, and rules with an iron fist, silencing opposition and quashing differing ideas.
Challenging the Palestinian supporters in the room, he said, “I haven’t seen the defenders of the Palestinians’ human rights speak out about that. As long as Hamas is a threat to the Palestinian Authority, there will be a cloud over any negotiations.”
Hamas, too, is supported militarily and financially by Iran.
Iran has another goal, too, to become a nuclear power. Iran has been developing its uranium enrichment capability, Kutner explained, and today, it has about two tons of low-level enriched uranium, suitable for powering nuclear reactors.
If Iran takes that stockpile and reprocesses it with the same equipment they have today, the consul general continued, it would have enough material to make two bombs.
On top of that, Iran already has rockets powerful enough to reach Israel and other countries in the region, and it is currently working on a two-stage rocket that could be launched without much preparation. These rockets would have the capability to reach southern Europe and Russia. “This will be the reality in a very few years,” he said.
With this understanding of the regional situation, Kutner obersved, “Our little conflict [between Israel and the Palestinians] is not the most important or most dangerous or bloodiest in the Middle East.”
He reminded the audience that during the Iran/Iraq war, there were millions of casualties. He also pointed to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For Israel, settling the conflict with the Palestinians is important, he said, and recited a litany of actions Israel has taken to move toward that goal.
Israel withdrew unconditionally from Gaza. The government has accepted that a two-state will include some territorial concessions. It has accepted a freeze on construction in the West Bank and agreed to indirect negotiations.
But, Kutner said, the Palestinian Authority today would be hard pressed to agree to the needed hard decisions. How can the they talk about compromise on Jerusalem or refugee issues when Hamas is controlling Gaza so completely and insisting that Israel must be destroyed.
At this point, a few protesters in the room interrupted the consul general’s remarks with calls to free Gaza. Kutner replied that he agrees. Gaza needs to be freed from Hamas. For true peace there must be two states existing side by side and not one. “There is little prospect for peace,” he concluded, “as long as Hamas and Iran are allowed to interfere.”
During an extended question and answer period, Kutner was asked specifically about the violence at the blockade. He called the incident a sad story and said, “I regret the loss of life as a result of the violence of the ‘peace activists.’” The flotilla, he said, had little to do with peace and humanitarian aid.
The population of Gaza, he asserted, has no lack of humanitarian aid. Israel sends 15,000 tons of aid into Gaza every week. Over the last 18 months, that has amounted to approximately one ton of aid per person. There is no lack of food or medicine in Gaza, he insisted, and Gaza gets its water and electricity from Israel, too.
Israel’s blockade, he explained, is not against Gaza. It is against Hamas. It is designed to keep the tools of war out of the hands of this militant group that wants to destroy Israel.
The purpose of this flotilla, Kutner said, was to put pressure on Israel and to support Hamas. The Turks behind this operation, he continued, are Hamas sympathizers, so they rejected Israel’s offer to take the aid to Gaza through the port of Ashdod and to allow the organizers and their followers to oversee the processing of their cargo and to enter Gaza with it.
Their goal was not to get aid to Gaza, he continued. It was to create an international incident, which would put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade.
When their ships were boarded, they didn’t resist peacefully, Kutner stated. They used iron bars and knives in an attempt to kill the soldiers. The Israelis didn’t expect a full assault from peace activists and the commanders had to allow the soldiers to defend themselves.
He challenged those concerned with human rights to look closely at Iran where homosexuals and religious minorities are persecuted. The Baha’i community there isn’t even recognized as a religion, so they are not even allowed to practice their faith. And adultery in Iran is a capital crime punishable by stoning.
When asked about allowing an international investigation of Israel’s actions with respect to the flotilla along the lines of the Goldstone Report about the Gaza War, Kutner stated, Israel doesn’t agree with the Goldstone Report, which is factually faulty and denies Israel the right to defend itself.
After years of bombardment, he explained, during which Israel tried in every way to stop the rocket attacks, when those attacks increase, Israel had no alternative but to enter Gaza.
In answer to other questions, Kutner had words of praise for the Palestinian leaders in the West Bank. They are doing good things, he said, and they understand that to achieve Palestinian goals, they must negotiate.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayad, he said, is building Palestinian capability and preparing his people to function without Israel. In the West Bank, Kutner said, the Palestinian economy grew seven percent in the last year. With Israel’s cooperation, they are attracting foreign investment.
Israel, he said, wants “our own small piece of land” with good relations with the neighboring states, and a time when the defense budget does not take such a big part of the national budget.