While several Middle Eastern nations have become riddled with internal violence, Alan Elsner sees an opportunity for Israel to reach a two-state solution and improve its own security, vis-a-vis Iran.
Elsner, vice president of communications for J Street, said two of Israel’s most belligerent foes, Hamas and Hezbollah, are in a weakened state as a result of the violence. If the Jewish state can seize the initiative, reach the long-elusive settlement with Palestinian Authority, it could be free to make deals with other Arab states equally as concerned by Iran’s nuclear program.
“This is a very good moment for Israel to move forward with the Palestinians,” Elsner said. “Both those entities [Hamas and Hezbollah] are not in a position to stir up as much mischief as maybe they would have in the past.”
Elsner will be the guest speaker at a J Street Pittsburgh program, Tuesday, Jan. 14, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. His topic is, “Is the Two-State Solution Good for Israel’s Security.”
Elsner, a longtime Reuters correspondent who was based in Jerusalem, said political reverses in Lebanon and Egypt have put Hamas and Hezbollah on the defensive.
“Right now the strategic position of both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza has been weakened, for different reasons,” he said in an interview with the Chronicle. “Hezbollah is very tied down in the Syrian civil war and is facing its own pressures in Lebanon by people who take exception to Hezbollah’s role in Syria. So I think Hezbollah is definitely on the defensive and is not in a position to do much beyond its borders. It doesn’t have the bandwidth to continue to be involved in Syria, tamp down whatever opposition is rising to them in Lebanon and start messing around with Israel.
“With regard to Hamas,” he continued, “they’ve obviously lost their key patron in the Arab world with the fall of [former Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi and they are facing a much determined and hostile regime in Cairo that is really making life much more difficult for them than it has been for a long, long time.”
Not that the two terrorist groups, each with extensive rocket arsenals, can’t continue to cause trouble, he said, but it’s not the same type of trouble.
“In terms of physical damage or casualties, they really have very little ability to do anything,” said Elsner, whose sister and her family live near Beer Sheva, within range of Hamas rocket fire.
“You have to distinguish between threats to Israel that threaten Israel’s existence or Israel’s basic strategic security, and threats which could produce some casualties — which would be tragic — and could produce some psychological trauma — which is also serious — and could produce some material damage — which is also serious — but do not in themselves constitute an existential threat to Israel.”
If Israel manages to reach a peace deal, the prize, Elsner said, could be a more isolated Iran.
“If you could get to a two-state solution, that would, I think, improve Israel’s strategic position considerably vis-a-vis the Iranians because it would open the way to clear strategic cooperation between Israel and some of the Sunni states in the Arab world who share an interest with Israel in opposing Iranian expansionism.
“So I think that solving the two-state solution helps Israel considerably strategically against Iran by opening those paths to clear cooperation; that’s number 1,” he continued. “Number 2, solving a two-state
solution removes this jihadist excuse for stirring up radicalism and anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment around the world because they use the Palestinian situation quite cynically as a recruiting tool.”
Elsner rejected the notion that Israel cannot pursue the peace track with the Palestinians while it is concerned with Iran.
“I don’t think that that’s a legitimate argument,” he said. “I don’t think that it’s going to be accepted by Secretary [of State John] Kerry. These are two important issues and both of them need to be resolved, but using one as an excuse to deflect progress on the other is to me not legitimate.”
In addition to his work at J Street and Reuters, Elsner was executive director for the Americas while at The Israel Project.
Despite accusations in some quarters that J Street is too critical of Israel, Elsner defended the organization, saying its membership is growing and its last conference, which attracted nearly 3,000 participants, also drew leaders of three Israeli political parties and members of the government, including the current justice minister, Tzipi Livni.
J Street remains a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, he maintained.
“We don’t do a loyalty test; neither do we control what people say and what they applaud [at J Street conferences], but this is an organization that is strongly motivated by love of Israel.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)