Interview with Ambassador Arthur Koll

Ambassador Arthur Koll is the former Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he served as the head of the Media and Public Affairs Division. Previously, he was Israeli Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro. Before that, Ambassador Koll served as Consul of the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta. He was also an instructor at the National Defense College in Israel. PPR spoke to him about Israeli foreign affairs, his career and the US-Israel relationship.

Interview conducted and transcribed by Michaela Palmer.

Penn Political Review: My first question has to do with the US. What are your thoughts on what the Trump administration’s Israel policy will look like?

Arthur Koll: It’s an excellent question and I’m not sure I or many other observers outside Israel and in Israel have an answer to that because, first of all, Israel and the Palestinian issue, Israel and the Middle East were not mentioned a lot during these elections. It was a minor issue. Which is something that we are happy about – not everything revolves around Israel. And the president-elect did make certain comments during the year about Israel and his views about the conflict but they were not very clear and I think that the assumption is that president-elect Trump has not yet figured out exactly what his priorities are in general and where within those priorities tackling the Israeli-Palestinian issue will be. Is it high on the priority list? Is it lower? His hands are full with a lot of developments in the international arena. Certain comments that he’s made sounded very assuring as to his overall view and commitment towards Israel. So it is very safe to say that the continuous strategic partnership between the United States and Israel is going to continue and maybe even strengthen. Trump, too, looks at Israel as a strategic ally in a problematic region. He would like to strengthen that. In addition, the fact that both houses of Congress are Republican and both houses were a pillar of support for Israel traditionally, bipartisan support is also assuring continuous strategic cooperation.

But when it comes specifically to how exactly he wants to tackle the Palestinian conflict that is still a little bit of an unknown. I think it is very important to see who will be the Secretary of State. That will give us a very clear hint or at least a beginning of an idea of the administration’s view on how important, how urgent it is and what their views are on the Palestinian issue… And I think that if I look at the wider picture, the president-elect is going to inherit a very problematic Middle East in general, with ISIS in Iraq, with ISIS in Syria, with the Russians involved so strongly in Syria, with very significant clashes and violence in Yemen, in Libya. And terror in Europe, instigated by ISIS and ISIS supporters. All of that is something that is also connected to the Israeli-Palestinian issue because you cannot isolate one part of the Middle East from the rest. As long as the rest of the Middle East is really chaotic, that has an effect on their ability to move forward Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and hopefully agreement. Another thing which Israel relates to is the fact that in the view of the more moderate Sunnis in the Middle East, the view is that under Obama, America got distanced from the region and lost some of its leading role that it traditionally had globally but specifically in the Middle East and they are not happy about it because that means there is more of a place for more extreme elements like Iran, like Hezbollah, like Assad. So it is very interesting to see whether the US will reclaim its leading role in the Middle East and how it will manifest itself. I’m not event talking about the other challenges in front of Trump. He has a lot on his table. And we don’t have an answer for every question yet. I don’t think he has an answer yet for all of these questions.

PPR: You mentioned Russia briefly. Can you talk a little bit about your view of the Russian-Israeli relationship, especially given Russia’s involvement with Iran in Syria?

AK: It’s important to say that the bilateral relations in almost all fields between the two countries are good. We have good relations. It’s important for us. Russia is an important power in general but definitely in our region. We also have interests in strengthening the economic ties, the cultural ties, the diplomatic ties with Russia. And that has been accomplished to a significant degree so far. Russia’s strong involvement militarily in Syria is relatively new. There are potential complications for Israel because of it. I think it is no secret that the Israeli Air Force monitors what is going on in Syria. Its main objective is to make sure that arms – dangerous, sophisticated arms – are not moving from the battlefield in Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon and later on to be used against us. That could change the balance of power in the region. If the Israeli Air Force is operating there and monitoring the situation and suddenly you have the Russian Air Force flying there as well and you have anti-air craft equipment… not deliberately, but accidents can occur. And therefore, there has been an acute need to coordinate the activities of the two air forces so that there won’t be a misunderstanding – one using force against the other with very significant consequences. There are general positive relations between the two countries, but this new development of Russia being very active militarily in Syria is a complication that necessitates coordination and I think both we and the Russians understand it and we are trying to do our best. But it is something that we have to keep an eye on on a regular basis.

PPR: How directly threatened is Israel by Syria right now?

AK: What is happening in Syria and even further on in Europe and with ISIS in the Sinai, in Egypt… the Egyptian regime has found it very difficult to take full control of that region which also borders Israel in the south. And even Libya which for all real purposes is not a real state but these days is controlled by gangs and ISIS and anti-ISIS forces… all of that is a matter of concern because even if so far we have managed quite successfully to keep that chaotic situation from infiltrating Israel, the tension exists and there were already incidents during which rockets or shells fell in Israel in the Golan Heights as a result of clashes between Syrian forces and militias. It is not theoretical – it happens from time to time and if we are not careful and if they are not careful it can develop into something much more significant. So, that is very immediate. The second element which has to be mentioned is that on the one hand in Syria what you have is Assad’s forces – the regime – supported by Hezbollah and Iran and this creates an axis of very radical, very hostile forces towards the west in general and Israel in particular. So, what we do not want to see is this axis taking control of or winning the war. But on the other hand, we also don’t want to see ISIS winning the war. So, it is a clash between two evils, which we are trying to watch from the side and not get involved in but it is not a clear situation where you have a positive force fighting a negative force where you can very easily take a side. These are unfortunately the realities in this zoo which is now the Arab Middle East.

PPR: What about the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians would need to change for some kind of solution or peace negotiations to proceed?

AK: I think there are a few elements – basic things that need to change, with the hope that they will eventually lead to the renewal of negotiations. And when I say negotiations I don’t mean negotiations for the sake of negotiations but hopefully reaching a compromise agreement. Basically, there is no trust between the sides. The Israelis look at the Palestinian scene and what they see is problematic, to say it mildly. In Gaza, Hamas is in control. It is also very active underground in the West Bank itself in the area which is under the control of the PLO and President Abbas. So there is not one clear body who you can talk to because the Palestinians are split. So even if we talk to the PLO, Hamas is not committed – by anything. That’s not something that is assured. Then you have President Abbas – he’s old, he’s tired. He’s losing control. The fact that he’s still in power is very much due to the fact that there is no clear contender that has taken over. There is no process of doing that. There is a struggle going on between a number of candidates who would like to replace him… He’s not liked by the Palestinian people, he’s not trusted by the international community, he’s not trusted by Israel – he’s weak. So, I think what we would like to see is a stronger leader of the Palestinians. If possible, also taking control of Gaza which is now controlled by Hamas. It is a long shot but that would be good. And to bring back trust between the parties. Now there is no trust.

There is an intifada going on with individuals going around with knives or deliberately bumping into Israelis with cars at junctions and bus stations, for which we and they pay a toll. That has to be stopped… On the ideological level, the Israelis find it difficult to trust the Palestinian leadership that in its vision for a solution, still cannot accept recognizing Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. Our vision is a two-state solution. What is a two-state solution? A two-state solution means that once we reach it, we recognize Palestine as the national homeland of the Palestinian people. I think it goes without saying. But they are not willing to recognize Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people which should also be natural… There is no mutuality here in the vision when it comes to a solution. So here we have quite a lot of things to fix before trust can be built and I have to say that on the Israeli side, leadership also has to be a little bit more clear on its vision and to match its actions with the vision. Because on one hand, Prime Minister Netanyahu says continuously – and I think he’s committed to it – [that he wants a] two-state solution but within his coalition and even within his own party, the Likud Party, there are those who reject that vision. They would like to see some other kind of other solution. The actions on the ground therefore have to follow the possibility of reaching a two-state solution. I think as long as Netanyahu doesn’t make this vision not only his position but an accepted coalition and government position, and acts accordingly, that is also something that should be remedied.

PPR: Do you think Netanyahu and Likud have taken Israel in the right direction over the past several years while he’s been in office? Do you think they’ve made mistakes?

AK: When you talk about taking the country in the right direction, there are so many spheres so we can’t go into all of them. I think Netanyahu made some mistakes. His comments regarding the Israeli Arab population during the electoral campaigns did not contribute to coherence and better understanding within Israeli society itself. He tried to remedy that, he apologized, but that is not enough. He needs to be more vocal and more active in unifying the society in Israel, which is quite divided. People talk about a divided America now, but the Israeli society is also divided and the leader has an obligation to be the leader of all the society. Rather than deepen the rifts, heal the wounds… There are different rifts within Israeli society, like in any society. About 20% of Israeli society is made of Arabs. They are part and parcel of our society; they are integrated very well. They see themselves as Israelis – as Arabs or Palestinians maybe as well – but they don’t want to see even in a future agreement any other future for them but to continue to be part of the Israeli society. A more embracing attitude needs to be applied towards them by whoever is in power. I think that is something that hasn’t happened probably yet and there is some way for Netanyahu to go to reach that. Then there is of course a divide between right and left and a divide between secular and ultra-Orthodox. There are big economic gaps – between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. I think Israel is second to America in the OECD countries where the gap is so big between the rich and the poor. Which is of course bad and Israel traditionally had a society with an understanding of social justice and helping the needy and a more equal society and we are getting further and further away from it. It is a challenge and even though the country as a whole has moved dramatically forward in its education and technology and economy… this movement forward created some gaps that now need to be tackled. If not, the consequences won’t be good.

PPR: What do you think of Israel’s treatment at the United Nations?

AK: It’s terrible. I think that the UN, not only now, but for decades has been hijacked by the Muslim countries, dealing with Israel without any proportion to other issues and conflicts around the world, problems that the UN needs to deal with. But look at the percentage of resolutions adopted in the UN concerning Israel or condemning Israel compared to so many terrible conflicts with huge numbers of casualties, with unbelievable cruelty. If someone came from outer space and looked only at what the UN is dealing with and the resolutions it passes, they would come to the conclusion that this is the only conflict going on in the world. In our vicinity, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are butchered with almost no UN attention. What is happening in Iraq – no UN attention. What is happened in Libya – no UN attention. I could go on and on and on showing a lack of any logic or fairness by the UN. And unfortunately, that’s very bad not only for the UN and Israel, but it’s bad for the international community. The UN, in principle, has a very important role. By acting so unfairly towards Israel and so obsessively towards Israel, it is not dealing with or capable of contributing more positively to global issues it should deal with.

PPR: Is there any solution?

AK: I think there is a solution. Unfortunately, I don’t think the UN is part of the solution. The solution needs to be looked for elsewhere. Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt. It was not achieved through the good auspices of the UN. Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan. It was not reached through the good auspices of the UN. I am optimistic that Israel will reach the most important agreement, which is a compromise agreement with the Palestinians. And I don’t think that will be reached through the good auspices of the UN. I just hope that the UN is not going to get in the way.

PPR: You served as ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro for several years. Can you talk about what you did to build relationships in those countries and what Israeli policy towards Serbia and Montenegro is?

AK: I served as ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro for four years during fascinating years – not many years after the collapse of Yugoslavia into different states and not long after I arrived in Belgrade, Kosovo declared its independence. It is an area of conflict still today – not a military conflict, but the potential still exists. Coming from Israel it’s interesting to look at a different area of conflict, other than the one I’m used to, of course, and build relations. I’m very proud that during my term as ambassador in Belgrade, we advanced our relations very significantly including the erasing of visa requirements between the countries to promote tourism and business. We signed agreements in the fields of homeland security and agriculture. Israeli investment in those countries is quite significant and grew. From an economic point of view, both these countries look at Israel as a model for themselves. As small countries, if Israel managed to – within a reality of conflict – develop itself the way it has scientifically, technologically, economically – they look at Israel as a model to try to follow. It’s easier to follow a small country’s model if you are a small country. The relations are good and developing. I personally had very positive experiences there and there is a similarly in mentality between Israelis and Europeans in the Balkans.
This interview has been condensed and contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.