‘I do see some hope’
July 23, 2002
Israel is fighting a war not just on behalf of Israelis, but on behalf of Americans and others in the free world.
That’s the view of retired Israeli General Eitan Ben-Eliahu, who is giving a free lecture on the Middle East at the Aspen Institute at 6:30 this evening in Paepcke Auditorium.
“We are doing something on behalf of the U.S. and the free world, and we need support,” said Ben-Eliahu. “Try to imagine the Middle East without Israel. I would say that the U.S. would then have to fight even more crucially in the Middle East to protect the free world’s interest. The conflict in Israel is only a small part of the movement of the Islamic world toward the West. And we are the fault line to stop it.
“If we lose this fight and Israel is in a fragile and dangerous state, this will reflect on Europe and the U.S.”
Ben-Eliahu’s perspective on the fighting in Israel comes from his personal history.
He was born in Jerusalem in 1944. At age 20, he graduated from the Israeli Air Force Academy.
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From 1973 to 1976, he was a Phantom fighter jet squadron commander, and this time period includes the Yom Kippur war.
He then became an F-15 squadron commander and was eventually promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He was appointed the director of operations for the Israeli Air Force before becoming the commander of the nation’s air force in 1996.
Along the way, he earned a B.A. and a master’s degree and also completed the Advanced Management Program at Harvard.
Today, he is president of and general partner in a venture capital company called East West Ventures.
There is little doubt that Ben-Eliahu is a warrior for Israel.
Yet he’s also proud of the peace arrangements his country has worked out with Jordan and Egypt. And he is optimistic that a secure and prosperous Israel can be forged on the anvil of the current battles being waged in the streets of the Middle East.
“If you give up, this is the worst thing that you can do,” he said in a recent interview. “One should stay and be an optimist and fight for it. And, yes, I do see some hope.”
Ben-Eliahu said he is hopeful that if Israel does give up some of the land it now occupies, a peace can be forged with the Palestinian people.
“We are talking about giving back a piece of land,” he said. “Now, you have to make sure that when Israelis give it up, they will have more security, not less.”
Ben-Eliahu plans to tell tonight’s audience that as bad as things are in Israel today, they could be worse.
“I’m going to talk on the intensive conflict we face right now, yet there is a shadow of two higher possibilities of conflict,” he said. “One is a regional violence and the second is weapons of mass destruction. And each of these levels is the threat that Israel has to deal with.”
And yet, Ben-Eliahu also thinks that peace in the region can be achieved.
“We removed settlements from the Sinai to achieve peace with President Sadat,” he said. “And we have executed a unique unilateral withdrawal from Jordan. And we were ready to make compromise with the Syrians. And we are willing to make a compromise with the Palestinians.”
But has Israel done enough to achieve peace in the Middle East?
“After all these attacks, I think that no one can argue that we have not done the most we could do,” Ben-Eliahu said. “We have gone a long way to show what we want.
“And I want to make it clear that this is not a matter of justice and morals,” he added. “Israel has a full right to exist peacefully and securely. We have never taken this country from anyone. Morally, it is very clear that we have the right to our state and the right to live in peace.”
Does he think that a broad, lasting peace will ever come to Israel?
“I am definitely not naive, but I am optimistic,” he said. “We have to make it clear to the other side that we do have a vision and that both sides have to compromise. As long as they refuse, we do have to lean on our sword. We have no choice. You have to be strong. You have to be secure. You have to keep your deterrence credibility. Otherwise, it is very, very difficult to live in this region. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t strive for peace or take risks.”
Another avenue Ben-Eliahu thinks is important is an effort to bring peace through economic prosperity. He is chairman of the Koret Israel Economic Development Fund, which is seeking to create and strengthen small businesses through small loans.
He believes that small businesses serving both Israelis and Palestinians will continue to grow even if a two-state compromise is ultimately achieved.
“The economy will remain combined to the benefits of both people,” he said.
So Ben-Eliahu remains a warrior. But he also believes in a lasting and prosperous peace, and the many, many small steps that have to be taken to get there.
“The majority of Palestinians know we have to make an agreement,” he said. “The road is long, but we will get there.”
Ben-Eliahu’s lecture tonight at 6:30 is free and open to the public. The Aspen Institute’s free summer lecture series has been drawing large crowds this summer, and getting there early for a seat is recommended.
Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.