December 27, 2007
Since August, Assaf Shariv has been Israel’s consul general in New York, replacing Aryeh Mekel, who became spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At 35, Shariv is the youngest person ever to serve in the position.
Shariv is the former director of media and public affairs to Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon. He was an attorney at the Tel Aviv firm of Weissglass-Almagor and became an adviser in Sharon’s office in 2002. Shariv is married to Tzili, also an attorney, and is the father of Uri, three, and Mika, born in June.
During a visit to the New Jersey Jewish News offices in Whippany on Dec. 17, Shariv was interviewed by editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carroll and staff reporter Robert Wiener. A condensed and edited version of their conversation follows:
NJJN: Many people in the Orthodox community — and not just the Orthodox community — are troubled about Jerusalem and the idea that you can divide Jerusalem. What kind of position does that put you in as a diplomat? Do you find yourself getting angry receptions at Orthodox synagogues?
Shariv: You cannot believe it. I get 150 to 200 e-mails a day that say, “Don’t divide Jerusalem.” But Jerusalem was not on the table at Annapolis…. Nobody talked about Jerusalem. I’m not saying that potentially nobody will speak about Jerusalem. But not for now…. It’s not like something is going to happen in Jerusalem in the coming year. There is a new approach. That’s what Annapolis was all about.
NJJN: How would you define what’s new about this new process, as opposed to past attempts?
Shariv: The road map is a performance-based plan…. After you complete the first phase [ending terrorism], you go to the second phase, which is a temporary state with temporary borders. Then you go to the final status agreement. This had a lot of logic, in our opinion. The Palestinians agreed to that also. The approach before was that if we will have peace, the terror will stop. People will say, “We don’t have to fight anymore.”
There are two approaches to the Palestinian state. We are saying to the Palestinians, “You want a Palestinian state? First of all, take care of Gaza. Dismantle Hamas. If you don’t want that, you don’t want the road map.”
NJJN: How is it possible to dismantle Hamas? It already kicked the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza.
Shariv: In Gaza, if the Palestinians won’t do it, unfortunately, I think the day of Israeli military operations in Gaza is very close. It is unfortunate, because every day we suffer. Sderot is the biggest example.
NJJN: What about the new outpost settlements that are being built?
Shariv: There are no new settlements. There was one neighborhood inside Jerusalem [Har Homa, where 300 new housing units are planned], but what can you do? Ma’ale Adumim, Beitar, Gush Etzion, Ariel — all sides know they will remain in Israel’s hands.
NJJN: Is it defensible to give what looks like a wink and a nod to the “hilltop youth,” who are building unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, at a time you are supposed to be building goodwill gestures?
Shariv: The hilltop kids, listen: You are talking about an illegal outpost. Take all the illegal outposts. It is less than 1,000 people. When we decided to withdraw from Gaza, we evacuated 10,000 people. Once we can solve the real problem, we will take [the outpost settlers] away. But they are illegal, and I believe in law and order. That’s what concerns me.
And remember, you can dismantle an outpost. When Palestinians do not act in good faith people die. Look what happened to Ido Zoldan. [Zoldan was a 29-year-old father of two from the settlement of Shavei Shom who was shot and killed by a Palestinian cell in November.]
NJJN: What do you see happening with Hizbulla?
Shariv: Another happy issue. They are arming themselves every day. The Syrian border is open, and they get weapons all the time. They have problems, but I think they’ve got their weapons capabilities from before the [2006 second Lebanon] war. They had suffered a huge loss in the war and I don’t think they want to have a second round anytime soon. I think the United Nations is doing a better job than what was done before in southern Lebanon, but they can’t act.
The Iranian threat
NJJN: How did your job change when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate [saying Iran gave up its nuclear weapons programs in 2003] came out?
Shariv: Obviously, it shocked me and it shocked everybody in Israel…. All of us in Israel think completely different. We think they didn’t change their intentions and they are still trying to possess a nuclear weapon. We think they are still very close to crossing the threshold. We think that will happen in 2009 or 2010.
NJJN: Given the American intelligence community and its track record of intelligence information, misinformation, and disinformation on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, do you have any faith in them?
Shariv: This is what I want to say about intelligence: You never get it right. Intelligence is a very important issue…Nobody knows exactly what was the hardcore evidence, but our intelligence guys know. There was great cooperation [between the United States and Israel], but the Iranians are still trying to enrich uranium. The only reason to enrich uranium is if you want alternative energy…. Why does Iran need alternative energy? They have more oil than anything else.
NJJN: What has changed in terms of what you can expect from the United States in terms of carrots and sticks on Iran?
Shariv: We want the United States to keep on what she has been doing recently, which is with the superpowers, the sanctions, because we think, and the NIE report thinks the same, that the sanctions in Iran worked…. We want sanctions. We’re not saying, “Let’s go to war.”
Beyond the conflict
Assaf Shariv, Israel’s new consul general in New York, says the “day of Israeli military operations in Gaza is very close.”
NJJN: What does Prime Minister Olmert say is your most important role in this job?
Shariv: My goal is trying to reach the younger generation. At 35, I am the youngest consul general ever, and I am trying to reach people my age because the leaders of the organizations don’t need me. They go to Israel. They donate to Israel. The problem is with their grandsons.
NJJN: What do you want from them? What are you asking for?
Shariv: To go to Israel for one year…. When you look at people who are 20, who are juniors in college, what do they know about Israel? They know there is a conflict with the Palestinians. It is always in the news about someone who gets killed or there was a bus explosion or something. They don’t know about the good stuff…. I want them to think about Israel as something that sounds a bit cliched: Israel beyond the conflict. When you live in Tel Aviv, you don’t feel the conflict. There is good nightlife, the beach, everything is very nice.