Growing tensions between Israel and Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel's approach to the war in Ukraine, the alleged persecution of Christians in the Holy Land, the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Georgia and Israel - at the end of the two-and-a-half-year diplomatic mission in Georgia, Israeli Ambassador Ran Gidor spoke about these and other issues in an exclusive interview with InterPressNews.
Ran Gidor, Ambassador of Israel to Georgia, thank you so much for speaking to us! Let’s talk about the growing tensions between Israel and Iran. Recently, your foreign minister Yair Lapid urged the citizens in Turkey to leave “as soon as possible” over the threats that Iranian operatives are actively planning attacks on Israelis in Istanbul against a backdrop of Tehran suspecting Israel poisoned two Iranian scientists to death. Several days ago, your Prime Minister said that Iran is dangerously close to producing nuclear weapons. Naftali Bennett called on the West to join Israel and ramp up pressure against Iran’s nuclear program. The talks to revive the 2015 nuclear accord have stalled in recent months. At the beginning of this month, the Israeli military held a wide-ranging exercise to train for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. What is the possibility of returning to the 2015 nuclear accord? And how is it possible to avoid any further escalation?
It's important to remind ourselves that Iran is not the exclusive problem of Israel. Iran is the problem of the international community at large. Let's remember what happened in 1979 when the Iranian mob attacked the US Embassy in Tehran and kept American diplomats and their families hostage for over a year. And, of course, since then, there have been periodic clashes between Iran and many Western countries. All over the Middle East, there are countries, Muslim countries, not just Israel, the Jewish state, but Muslim countries, moderate countries, and Sunni countries, that are absolutely terrified of the prospects of Iran acquiring a weapon of mass destruction. So it's not a coincidence that Israel has been holding intense talks with our like-minded neighbors like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and others, in order to form a kind of axis of peace-loving moderate nations in the Middle East in order to deal with the Iranian threat. Now, what is the Iranian threat? The Iranian threat is twofold. First of all, as you mentioned, it's the nuclear option. Iran has been lying to the international community and to the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for over 30 years. And, in fact, only two weeks ago, the director of the IAEA repeated it. He's not an Israeli diplomat. He's an international diplomat, and head of a respected UN agency. And he said that Iran has failed to provide credible explanations for why there are traces of radioactive material in various sites around Iran. And it's just the latest example. Iran has been consistently trying to mask and conceal its operations to acquire a nuclear weapon. Now, for a country that is, first, a dictatorship and secondly, controlled by extremist religious authorities, it's simply inconceivable that such a regime would have in its hands a weapon of mass destruction. The second threat that is posed by Iran is terrorism. Iran is the world's number one exporter of terrorism. You see Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization listed by countries all over the world as a terrorist organization active in Lebanon. Iran is also supporting the Houthis in Yemen. Iran is supporting terrorist organizations in Syria, Iraq, in many other countries. I would like to mention to our Georgian friends and audience that in Tbilisi, exactly ten years ago in 2012, the Iranians tried to assassinate one of my predecessors, the Israeli ambassador in Tbilisi. They placed a bomb under the ambassador's car. The same year, the Iranians tried to hurt Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, Mumbai, Baku, in Bangkok, and many other places. So I'm sorry, this was a very long answer to your question, but every country in the world, every peace-loving country in the world needs to worry about Iran. It's not just our exclusive concern in Israel.
Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel criticized your country for refusing to provide minimal defensive assistance against Russia and for not accepting wounded Ukrainian soldiers for rehabilitation. He thanked the Israeli public for support, but said the Israeli government must decide whether it wants to join ‘the right side’ like other democracies in the world. The Ukrainian envoy said: “the Israeli government actions do not match the rhetoric”.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Israeli policy obviously stands in contrast to that of the US and many European countries, which have provided lethal weaponry to Kyiv. I just would like to remind you of an extract from the speech by President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Knesset earlier in March: “Ukrainians have made their choice 80 years ago. They rescued Jews. That is why the Righteous Among the Nations are among us. People of Israel, now you have such a choice.” Can you better explain Israel’s approach to this ongoing war? Why does Israel refuse to send defensive equipment to Ukraine? Are you afraid of sparking a crisis with Russia? Do you help Ukraine as much as you can?
First of all, I think that the last question you posed is relevant to virtually every country in the world. Are we doing everything we can? There's always something more than we could do. And even the rich, big superpowers like the United States, which has been doing a lot to support Ukraine, there's always a little bit more that you can do. So, yes, we all need to do much more. The Israeli government, primarily, my foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, has condemned the Russian aggressive invasion of Ukraine. We are not afraid to mention our word in our public statements. Russia is the aggressor, and this is a criminal operation, a criminal invasion against a country that had done nothing to justify such treatment. Now, as for humanitarian assistance, Israel is the only country that launched a field operation inside Ukraine. Already during the second month of the war, we sent a whole field hospital fully equipped with Israeli doctors, surgeons, and nurses to operate inside Ukrainian territory. No other country in the world has done that. We are also sending a lot of other equipment of various descriptions, including some of what can be described as defensive. It's not defensive weapons, it's defensive equipment.
Now, it's not a secret and our Prime Minister has said as much that we have a delicate balance to preserve. Why? First of all, because there are still hundreds of thousands of Jews living both in Russia and Ukraine. And as the Jewish state, we are obliged to look after the welfare of our brothers and sisters, Russian Jews, and Ukrainian Jews. In order to be able to do that, we need to keep good relations with both governments. And since the beginning of the war, thousands of Russian and Ukrainian Jews had already moved to Israel and claimed Israeli citizenship. The second reason concerns your previous question. Because of the civil war that has been raging in Syria for the past decade, three countries got involved in what is happening in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. We are very concerned about the situation in Syria because Syria has been one of our main enemies since the day when Israel was created in 1948. Since the Russian air force is controlling Syrian airspace, then effectively, we are bordering on Russia. Our Northern border, the Israeli-Syrian border is, in effect, de-facto the border of Israel with Russia. And Iran has been trying to use Syrian airspace in order to smuggle advanced weaponry into the arms of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is an internationally listed terrorist organization. Therefore, we need to be able to operate effectively in Syria, especially in Syrian airspace, in order to stop the Iranians from transferring the kind of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which would threaten the Israeli civilian population. And this is why we need to maintain some kind of delicate balance.
However, our Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, was the first foreign leader that went to Moscow and Kyiv, and mediated between the two leaders and since then, our Prime Minister has kept up his mediation efforts. I was in Israel some time ago with Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili and at that meeting, our Prime Minister briefed Prime Minister Garibashvili about exactly what we've been doing in terms of mediation, in terms of tangible support for Ukraine, and joining the international sanctions regime. We are doing a lot, but we cannot discuss it in public because it is very sensitive and could be challenged in a court of law. So I hope that your audience will believe me when I say that I'm not just saying this as a diplomat. I know what I'm talking about. Israel is doing a lot to help Ukraine and a lot in terms of sanctions. But this is not something we can discuss publicly with the media.
Now, let’s switch to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which unfortunately seems to be never-ending. Not long ago, an independent commission of inquiry set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council after the 2021 Gaza war said that Israel must do more than ending the occupation of the land Palestinians want for a state. It cited evidence saying Israel has "no intention of ending the occupation" and is pursuing "complete control" over what it calls the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem. The report accuses your country of affording "different civil status, rights and legal protection" for Arab minorities. Earlier, Tor Wennesland, the top UN official, condemned Israel’s continued settlement activities, the evictions, and the demolitions of Palestinian-owned structures, which is a clear violation of International law. Besides, in February 2022, Amnesty International, an influential INGO focused on human rights, accused your country of subjecting Palestinians to a system of apartheid founded on policies of "segregation, dispossession, and exclusion" that it said amounted to crimes against humanity. What’s your comment about all of these?
It's very difficult to give a concise short answer to such a long list of accusations. What I can say is the following: First of all, the Human Rights Council in Geneva is a joke. It's not a serious organization. Until a few years ago, Libya was chairing the Human Rights Council. So you can imagine if Libya, under Qaddafi, one of the worst, most atrocious murderous regimes in the world, was chairing the Human Rights Council in Geneva. If you look at who is a member of the Human Rights Council, you will see that those countries that are subjecting their own citizens to human rights violations are sitting in judgment on Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. I don't want to take up too much of your time, but I would challenge anyone watching this interview to look at the list of those countries. Not all of them. Some respectable Western democracies are also at the Human Rights Council, but many of those countries that are passing judgment on Israel, would your viewers like to go and live in those countries or in Israel, the human rights violator supposedly?
Look, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been going on for over one century, long before the state of Israel was actually established in 1948.
Sadly, the peace process that we had in the early 90s has collapsed. The main problem is not the settlements and not any kind of action that the Israeli government or the Israeli Army is taking. The problem is the fact that there's a complete lack of trust and confidence between us and the Palestinians. After more than 100 years of conflict, we don't trust one another and we don't talk to one another. And this is why the situation on the ground, the status quo is continuing as it is. However, opinion polls repeatedly, consistently prove that the vast majority of the Israeli public is interested in achieving a compromise with the Palestinians. So it's not the case that we are waking up in the morning thinking about how are we going to make the life of millions of Palestinians even more miserable today. That is not the case. It's never black and white, it's shades of gray. And if Israel had been guilty of all the things that you listed, then how come we are embraced by the greatest democracies in the world, the same democracies that don't hesitate to criticize other countries for human rights violations. Sometimes they criticize us. Every country deserves some criticism. No country is perfect. But if you were guilty, even of 5% of the things that you mention, I can guarantee that we wouldn't have such a close, intimate relationships with the US, EU, Australia, Canada, and a long list of many other countries. Now going back to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, even if you discard the list of nations that accused Israel, if you look at who wrote that report that you mentioned, the Commission of inquiry, the Human Rights Council selected international jurists and academics who had been on record for years criticizing Israel. They had actually published books and articles criticizing Israel. So the Human Rights Council in Geneva didn't select people who were neutral or objective, but people who are already famous for criticizing Israel and seeing only the Palestinian point of view. If this was a criminal case in the court of law, would this be considered a fair trial? I don't think so. And finally, there's the permanent agenda for the Human Rights Council. There are dozens and dozens of agenda items. And every year the Human Rights Council convince the Plenary and they discuss according to those fixed permanent agenda items. Only one country in the world has its own agenda item- Israel. Agenda item number seven. There's no agenda item to discuss the situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Nagorno Karabakh, the terrible atrocities that have been going on in Syria, Africa, Iraq, Lebanon, in Yemen. No, only Israel has its own private agenda item number seven, where every year all the families of undemocratic nations get together and they throw rubbish at Israel. So I'm not saying for a moment that we're perfect. There's a lot that can be done in order to make our coexistence with the Palestinians more humane and we take on board a lot of the criticism that is leveled at us. However, the Human Rights Council in Geneva is far from being an objective, fair judge of the standards of behavior and the standards of international law that are required and expected from Western democracy.
You referred to the United Nations Council as a joke. But what can you tell me about Amnesty International, which also has serious accusations against your country, and probably it is the first case when this organization voices such kind of harsh criticism against Israel. So, do you refer to Amnesty International as a joke as well? How can you assess this organization and its work?
I have a lot of respect for Amnesty International, and I have a lot of respect for the very important work that this organization has been doing all over the world. However, that particular report that you mentioned was published by a specific office, one office, one branch of Amnesty International, which again, if you look at the record of previous publications by the people in that particular office, you will see that for years and years and years, they've been taking a one-sided view of the very complex situation in the Middle East. Now, you are absolutely right for Amnesty International to accuse a Western democracy, a liberal democracy, of being in an apartheid state is unprecedented. So what's happened since that report came out a few months ago? Did the US government, UK government, Georgian government, French government, or German government? Did any of them say, look what Amnesty is saying? Not All the countries that we all look up to as pillars of human rights and democracy, none of them have taken this report seriously because it's flawed. Now, as for apartheid, the population of Israel is almost 10 million people. A quarter of the population, almost 25% are Arabs, Israeli Arabs.
I've been a diplomat for 27 years. Many of my colleagues - Israeli ambassadors - are Arabs. We have Arabs in the Parliament. We have Arab judges. We have an Arab Justice in the Supreme Court. Is this an apartheid state? This is shocking for me to realize that a respectable international organization is wasting its credibility by making such outrageous accusations.
The thirteen Christian Patriarchs and heads of the Churches of Jerusalem, including the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, have accused radical Israeli groups of threatening the presence of Christians in the holy city. They claimed that the declared commitment by the Israeli government to uphold the safety of Christians and the freedom of worship was being “betrayed” by local politicians, law enforcement agencies, and officials in Israel who refuse to curb the actions of radical groups "intimidating" Christians and "desecrating and vandalizing" holy sites. Two months ago, a bipartisan group of "deeply concerned" House lawmakers warned U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the rise in attacks targeting the Christian community in Jerusalem, urging him to work with Israel to uphold its stated commitment to the freedom of religion. How much does Israel defend the freedom of religion? Do you confirm those claims by the church leaders that there are systematic attempts against Christians to be driven out of Jerusalem?
Unfortunately, Israel, like any other country, has extremists. We do have extremists. We do have racists, we do have xenophobes. Who doesn't? Georgia has plenty of them. And there have been cases of vandalism against Christian churches and against Muslim mosques. Those cases are being investigated by police. And I'm not just dismissing it. They're being investigated. People have been charged, and people have gone to prison over that. So it's not a way of whitewashing those crimes. Again, I don't want to pretend that we are perfect. A lot more can be done, both in terms of education and in terms of law enforcement, but to claim that there's a systematic campaign to drive Christians out of the Holy Land or the Holy city of Jerusalem is absolutely preposterous. And again, in Georgia, there are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Georgians who have traveled to my country to Israel on pilgrimage. Some of them are very senior. I've met senior politicians in Georgia, both from this government and the previous government, church leaders from the Patriarchate, and members of Parliament all went to Israel on a pilgrimage to visit the Holy places in Jerusalem. Not one of them complained about any kind of persecution or vandalism or any kind of attempt to limit or prevent the Christian worshiping in Jerusalem. So what I object in your question is the word systemic.
Yes, we have had such cases in Georgia. Unfortunately, there have been incidents of anti-Semitism, but no one is saying that in Georgia there is a systematic well-organized anti-Semitic campaign in order to drive Jews out of this country. This would be preposterous.
To clarify, the word “systemic” is not mine, it is the word used by the church leaders. You said that those radical groups are being held accountable by Israeli law enforcement agencies, but the letter from the bipartisan group of Congressmen clearly said: "the actions of radical groups who are able to act with impunity directly threaten the religious freedom of the Christian community in Jerusalem." So, do you confirm that there is no impunity for such kinds of radicals as US lawmakers' statement says quite a different thing?
You know, we have a lot of respect for the United States of America and both houses, Congress and Senate. America is our greatest ally and always has been, and we take their criticism on board. And as I said before, there have been cases of extremism and vandalism. I'm not denying it, but this kind of criticism, the one you quoted from the bipartisan group, I think is wildly exaggerated. And if there had been impunity for vandalism, we wouldn't have found so many of these perpetrators in prison. Now it's not a matter of expressing an opinion whether you believe my opinion or whether bipartisan groups. It's an empirical fact. All you need to do is Google it up and see how many of them ended up in prison. So there's zero impunity, zero tolerance. And I would ask once again, any one of your viewers or readers, if he or she had to choose which country in the Middle East to go to in order to worship freely, your Christian, Yazidi or Muslim faith, which countries would you choose - Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Israel?! Israel, for all its flaws and we do have flaws, is still the only tolerant multifaceted democracy in the Middle East.
This month marks the 30th anniversary of Georgia-Israel diplomatic relations. How would you assess the bilateral ties between the countries in political, economic, cultural, and especially military terms? In which area do you see the most chances of enhancing cooperation?
This is a very good question, but actually, this is the hardest question you've asked me so far because
I've been a diplomat for 27 years, and the more time I spend trying to promote diplomatic relations between Israel and other countries, the more I wonder what constitutes a good relationship or a bad relationship. In respect of Israel and Georgia, we've always had fantastic relations. What does it mean? It means that the majority of Georgia and public opinion have a very favorable view of Israel. Israel is very popular in Georgia. Georgia is extremely popular in Israel. We also have in Israel out of a population of 10 million Israelis, over 100,000 Israeli citizens are of Georgian origin. So it means proximity of the mentality and a sense of humor in language. Until the breakout of the pandemic, we also had 42 direct flights every week. And there were 200,000 Israeli tourists coming to Georgia in 2019, which represents the single biggest group of foreign tourists coming into Georgia from any country. We always flag up the fact that we've had 26 centuries of friendship and coexistence, but I think what is missing is more of a forward-looking perspective. Unfortunately, our bilateral trade is very, very low, about $40 million a year. This is a drop in the ocean, and there's not much investment, Israeli investment coming to Georgia here and there. There are a few exceptions, but generally speaking, for two nations that enjoy such long-lasting friendship, you would have thought that there would be more contact in terms of commercial trade, bilateral investment, and academic cooperation. Even cultural cooperation, there's been a lot, but most of it has focused on the classics, both sides. Not enough, I think, has been done in order to familiarize the younger generation of Georgians and younger generation of Israelis with each other's culture, each other's social issues, and concerns. People in their 20s don't necessarily read Shota Rustaveli, they read something else, if at all, or they don't listen to 19th-century Georgian opera.
They listen to a KayaKata, right? So we need to try to hook up and connect with a younger generation who, five or ten years from now will be opinion shapers, leaders, and politicians. We've been trying to do that with the Israeli embassy. But I think much more can be done.
The same goes, of course, for the efforts of the Georgian Embassy in Israel. It's not enough to say, oh, we've been friends for 2600 years. When you're a young person in your 20s, you don't worry about what happened before, you worry about what will happen in the future. And here, the potential hasn't been utilized sufficiently. And I hope that in the next few years, both our governments will lay down the infrastructure that would allow the private sector to fill in the gaps and drive our bilateral relations forward.
I just would like to hear a couple of words about the military cooperation between Georgia and Israel and the prospect of deepening existing cooperation.
There is military cooperation on a very small scale, not for political reasons, but for other reasons. First of all, Georgia is a developing country, and Israeli military gear is very expensive. So most of the military gear that we produce, Georgia simply cannot afford it. And we are not a donor country like America or Germany. We can't just give Georgia, like 200 tanks as a present.
Georgia, unfortunately, can't afford most of our military technology. The other reason is that Georgia has been aspiring to join NATO for three decades now, which means that the Georgian military and defense establishment is trying to harmonize everything from the military manuals to the type of weaponry to what NATO is using. Israel is not a NATO member, so that forms a kind of obstacle. And I perfectly understand why the Georgian military establishment would prefer to turn to even a small NATO member like the Netherlands in order to make sure that in the future, if and when Georgia joins NATO, there will already be perfect adaptability between what you've been doing here and what NATO has been doing.
Georgia’s western partners in the European Union and the United States are repeatedly indicating Georgia’s democratic backsliding. Lately, the European Parliament adopted a critical resolution of the current Georgian government. It called for imposing personal sanctions against Bidzina Ivanishvili, former Georgian PM. I would like to hear your assessment about the state of democracy in Georgia. Besides, I would like to know what Israel thinks about the idea of imposing personal sanctions against Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Against the background of all the previous questions that you've asked me, it's clear that democracy is not a binary situation. Democracy is a spectrum. And on the one end of the scale, you have countries that are famous for the human rights observance, and democratic rule of law, like Scandinavian countries, for example. On the other end of the scale, you've got countries that are undoubtedly and undeniably non-democratic, like North Korea and most other countries are somewhere in between. On the spectrum, I think Georgia is a flawed democracy, as is Israel and many countries in the world. We need to look, for example, at what happened on Capitol Hill in Washington on the 6 January last year. So even America that we all look up to as a symbol of democracy has its issues. So the very fact that democracy in Georgia is not perfect, that in itself is perfectly understandable. And it's going up and down. It has been going up and down for 30 years. Georgia had some violent incidents and it had some peaceful transition of power. I will say the following: this is my second diplomatic posting in Georgia. I was here for three years in the late 90s, between 97 and 2000. And now again for two and a half years. So in total, five and a half years. And despite recent disappointments on certain levels, when I look at the sheer journey that Georgia has transversed since independence until today, this is absolutely astonishing. And I still think that Georgia forms an example for many other countries, especially in this region, about what can be achieved in a pluralistic society. A lot has to be fixed. But again, I'm not taking the kind of judgmental, moral high ground preaching in Georgia because my country is not perfect. No country is perfect. As for the European Parliament resolution, I don't think it's my position as a foreign diplomat to express an opinion on this. This is a highly contentious issue, and I think Georgia is a mature enough democracy in order to resolve this amongst yourselves. You are not a society of children and we are the experienced adults preaching to you how to solve your political issues. Georgian society has proven resilience time and again since getting independence, and I'm sure you'll be able to sort this issue out yourself.
And the very last question. You are about to complete your diplomatic mission here in Georgia. I’d like to know what professional advice would you give to your successor?
What professional advice? First of all, it's very important to have a strong liver in Georgia because as a foreign diplomat, you are invited to “Supras” very often, which are dangerous for us because all these Khachapuri will kill you. And quite a few foreign diplomats have had heart attacks in Georgia. And, of course, the wine - the fact that Georgia is a nation of wine growers, wine producers, and wine lovers. And almost every Georgian friend that I have take pride in the family history associated with winemaking. So you need to have a very strong liver in order to appreciate this and make Georgian friends. But on a more serious level, I think it's not our place to criticize and judge.
We can form some private opinions, but we also have to remember that we are guests in your country, guests for a limited period of time. So before we express any kind of absolute opinion, we need to be more humble and more modest and get to the bottom of the issue. Learn, hear many views and talk not only to politicians and academics, but talk to taxi drivers, talk to people in the bazaar, talk to neighbors in order to try and understand the mentality of ordinary Georgian people. Only then you can hope to form some kind of comprehensive opinion and understanding of the situation in a society that is as ancient and as complex as Georgian society.
Ambassador Ran Gidor, thank you very much for being with us. It was very good to talk to you!