Q & A with… Dr. Raanan Gissin: Fmr. aide to Israel’s PMs calls Israel a “country for all seasons”

Dr. Raanan Gissin

By Cindy Mindell ~

One of Israel’s leading senior political advisors, Dr. Raanan Gissin began his career in public affairs in 1979 as a strategic analyst for the Israel Defense Forces, where he was responsible for the foreign press during the war in Lebanon, the Palestinian uprising of the late ‘80s, and the Gulf War. He went on to become a special advisor at the Madrid Peace Conference and in subsequent negotiations with Arab and Palestinian delegations in Washington, D.C. In 1996, Gissin was appointed spokesman of the newly created Ministry of National Infrastructure headed by Ariel Sharon. During Sharon’s terms as Infrastructure Minister, Foreign Minister, and Prime Minister, Gissin served as his spokesman and closest senior advisor on public diplomacy and media. Today, he is one of Israel’s leading spokesmen for the foreign press and the international community on security, strategic issues, terror, the Iranian and radical Islamic threats, the political-economy of globalization, and the peace process.
Gissin will present “Resolve, Courage, and Perseverance: An Insider’s Look at Israel’s Current Struggles for Peace and Security” on Sunday, Apr. 29 in Stamford in a talk co-sponsored by Stamford Board of Rabbis and Israel Bonds.
Gissin spoke with the Ledger about how Israel can navigate threats from within and without.

Q: You have a long perspective on Israeli society and politics. How would you describe the country’s disposition today?
A: I think of Israel as a “country for all seasons.” We survived the “Arab Spring,” Israeli Summer of social protests, which is still ongoing, and the economic autumn that has affected much of the world. A major question now is how the situation in Syria will affect Israel. It will be a bleeding wound for a long time. Assad won’t go away because of military support from Russia and popular support from the minority groups in Syria who signed up with him out of fear that the Shiites will take over the country.
The other big threat is the Iranian winter. Emphasizing the nuclear issue is the way to mobilize people, but the real threat is not the bomb. The only solution to the Iranian problem is to change the regime. Some analysts suggest importing the Arab Spring into Iran so that the regime becomes preoccupied with an uprising inside the country. That could give the world a reprieve from the nuclear threat and from what Iran is doing to the countries in the region by exporting and supporting radical Islamic groups.
The governments concerned about Iran have sufficient resources to make that happen without having to announce it. There are more options other than attacking or ignoring. Between now and the next U.S. presidential election, a period during which the Iranians believe there will be no U.S. action, there’s a lot that can be done to undermine the situation. The economic pressure, the full-court pressure, must continue and must target every aspect of the regime.
Israel has great allies in opposing Iran. The Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf, all of which don’t want to see Iran as a nuclear country and understand that Iran is threatening a hostile takeover and advocating aggressive policies, have quietly offered to assist. But this has to be managed very carefully. If the U.S. fails to provide leadership, many of those leaders in the region will try to bribe the Iranians or make a deal with them, which would be dangerous for the Sunni regimes in the arc around the Gulf. There is a potential Sunni coalition with Western countries that would be damaged.

Q: What do you see as the biggest internal challenge to Israel?  
A: I see it as the challenge of adulthood. Israel is a country about to celebrate 64 years, and for a person at that age, the questions that come up are who am I, what is my character, and who should I be?
Early in the country’s history, immigrants and refugees came from many different countries and cultures and had to build something together in less than 100 years. Not all differences had to or should be erased, but these differences lead to tension and crisis, cantankerous rivalries in the family. Israel is still a tribal society. In Israel, you have to belong to a tribe or family and that’s where you gain your sense of identity. My biggest concern is, how do we create the commonality we need without killing each other?
The first requirement is leadership – not just in the economy, but in bringing the parts together and creating something authentically Israeli. That can overcome any potential “war of the Jews.”
If there is something that worries me, it is the possibility that the self-destructive mechanism that is built into our psyche, hatred, might be activated. Sixty years ago, we were a smaller society with just 600,000 inhabitants. Today we have seven million people, 5.7 million Jews, the largest Jewish community in the world. The various traditions come to a head in a very small country. In Israel you can’t move much and you have to learn to live with your neighbors. We can solve the conflict with surrounding countries, but how do we learn to live with each other? That takes education and leadership. The prime minister today and in the next 15 years will have to resolve this issue in order to ensure the democratic and Jewish character of Israel over time. Unlike in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, we have the resources to do so and we need to allocate them. It’s starting to dawn on people that we have to provide those resources. There is an increase in investment in education, but it won’t happen overnight.

Q: How do you remain hopeful about Israel?
A: I’ve lived in Israel all my life and have seen many of the troubled times and have seen the changes. We learn how to swim or we sink like a stone. My roots are in Israel; my family goes back five generations, so we were there from the beginning. We’re the generation imbued with the mission that the Holocaust will never happen again, so we’ve created a good army and are capable of defending ourselves. Our gross domestic product is bigger than the combined GDP of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries; it was $200 billion in 2010. After the global economic crisis, our banking system did not collapse and our economy was still growing at one to two percent and unemployment was down. Now our economy is growing at five percent and we’re even seeing aliyah from the U.S.; young couples moving to Israel to find work. We put a premium on human capital, which is why we’re leading in high-tech, startups, and computer technology. We’re not only a startup nation but I call us a “surfing nation:” in the global economic tsunami, we’ve ended up on top of the waves.

“Resolve, Courage, and Perseverance: An Insider’s Look at Israel’s Current Struggles for Peace and Security” with Dr. Raanan Gissin: Sunday, Apr. 29, 7 p.m., Congregation Agudath Sholom, 301 Strawberry Hill Ave., Stamford | Info: (203) 358-2200

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