There is absolutely no reason why Israel cannot have diplomatic relations with all the countries of the Gulf: Israel’s Ambassador to Norway Raphael Schutz
Israel’s Ambassador to Norway Raphael Schutz, in an Exclusive interview with The Oslo Times International News Network’s Editor-in-Chief Hatef Mokhtar, spoke about Israel, the Human Rights situation in Israel, the conspiracies against Israel and a whole lot more.
The Excerpts below, give us an interesting insight into Israel, from ambassador Schutz, who is known as one of the heavyweights within his country’s diplomatic corps:
As my first question, can you tell us a little about yourself?
It’s my pleasure. My name is Raphael Schutz and I was born in Israel, back in 1957. My parents came to the area before the establishment of Israel as refugees fleeing from the Nazis during the Holocaust in Germany. So, my parents and grandparents were born in Germany. I am telling you this because I feel it is important to understand the context of Israelis dealing with their heritage in Europe in the Second World War, and especially the Holocaust.
For the past 32 years I have been a career diplomat, and I have served mainly in Spanish speaking countries. As a matter of fact, Norway is the first non-Spanish speaking country in which I have served. I have served in Chile, Columbia and Spain before and filled a number of functions in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Here I am in Norway, since September 1 2014, which makes it five months.
I believe that we have plenty of issues that we can work on. Today, as I see it, there is potential, that didn’t exist before, in developing relations, mainly in the economic sphere. Suddenly, in a way, our economies have become complimentary. Norway is a known power in the context of oil and gas, which for Israel in the past has not been relevant because we did not have reservoirs and we used to buy everything we needed. However, in recent years we also found reservoirs of oil and gas in the continental shelf of the Mediterranean and this made the Norwegian experience very relevant to us, so this is the first point.
The second point is that Israel is very strong in terms of high technology and innovation. In a world where the price of energy is going down, I believe innovation becomes even more important in the sense that you should find new ways, cheaper ways to produce your energy.
This is where, I believe, the strong points of Norway’s and Israel’s economies meet. And I would very much like to see how we can work on that for the benefit of our two societies.
My next question is from Norway regarding the Middle East, and it is a privilege to have you on our special edition of The Oslo Times. There are many human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and other independent media criticizing the role of Israel regarding human rights issues especially with what occurred in Gaza. What is your response to those organizations?
Well, I would say this is a very wide discussion and it is not only about what happened in Gaza last summer or this or that concrete event. I would say first that stating the obvious is also needed in the sense that the human rights cause is very noble and it should be fought for by everyone. Then I would state another point which is, Israel is not perfect. Israel sometimes also commits errors and should not be immune to legitimate criticism. But, having said that, and this is the main point, there is a campaign – a very systematic campaign – abusing and politicizing the issue of human rights for the sake of bashing Israel, delegitimizing it, demonizing it, doubting its rights to self defend itself or even to exist.
You mentioned the Human Rights Watch. I can give you two very interesting examples:
One is the person who created Human Rights Watch in the United States, who today is an elderly person in his eighties. His name, if I am not mistaken, is Robert L. Bernstein. He, himself – the creator and founder of Human Rights Watch – has said that the policy led by Human Rights Watch towards Israel was an abuse and politicization of the issue of human rights. This is a criticism that comes from the founder of Human Rights Watch, towards the organization which he created.
Secondly, it is a known fact that Human Rights Watch in the past mobilized, raised funds for its activities in Israel regarding the Israeli and Palestinian issue, from Saudi Arabia. It relied on funds raised by Saudi Arabia to criticize Israel. Now each decent person will tell you that the Israeli record on human rights is a thousand times better than the Saudi one.
So here again you see the hypocrisy of Human Rights Watch and other organizations that also follow this path in not taking into consideration any context when they lash out on Israel in a politicized, biased, one-sided manner. To conclude this issue I would say we should very careful of this tendency of politicizing the issue of human rights and completely refrain from it because at the end of the day we really need to work for real human rights.
Today Israel is attacked by thousands of missiles from the Gaza Strip – attacks by a terrorist organization Hamas, which does not hesitate to operate from the center of the Palestinian civil population. All the moral responsibility for the pain and the outcome of this activity should be put on the shoulders of this organization and not only on Israel which is not doing anything apart from exercising its basic legitimate right to defend the lives of its civilian population.
Much of the civilized world would tend to say that Hamas is not a terrorist group and are only defending themselves. What do you have to say about such claims?
Well, on the contrary, from what I know, many European countries and the EU itself recognize Hamas as a terrorist group. There are only two European countries that do not accept this definition and these countries are Norway and Switzerland. But, the 28 member states of the European Union and the United States consider Hamas as a terrorist organization.
I would send the people who argue otherwise to read the Hamas constitution’s public charter and see how explicitly it calls to extinguish the Jewish presence and destroy the State of Israel. And, you should judge Hamas according to its actions.
And by the way, when I say that they are a terrorist organization they are not only acting against Israel. They are acting against the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip itself. They are imposing radical Islam there. If you do not follow their line you face a lot of danger. If you are not a Muslim – even more so. There are so many Christians who had to flee from the Gaza Strip after Hamas took control.
So basically, Hamas is a ruthless terrorist group, according to every criteria. They execute people, they shove them from high buildings, and they behead people the same way ISIS does. They are doing all of this and much more.
There have been speculations that ISIS intelligence is being supported by Israel. What do you have to say about this?
This is absurd. One of the issues is that the Middle East is a perfect ground for conspiracy theories. The truth is that in the Middle East, frequently we cannot choose between good and bad.Sometimes we have to choose between bad and what’s worse. So when talking about Syria, for example, of course we are not great admirers of the Assad regime, which is responsible for the massacre of hundreds and thousands of people in the last year.
By the way, if you check, and this brings me back to the human rights issue, if you check how much energy and time did the Human Rights UN Council in Geneva dedicate in the last years to the genocide happening in Syria and in comparison how much time it dedicated to Israel, you will find that it was occupied with Israel far more than Syria. This is again an example of the political abuse of the issue of human rights for the sake of promoting an anti-Israeli agenda, wherever the anti-Israel campaigners can do it.
Now coming to Iran, we know that the Iranian government follows a radical system and according to various sources the Iranian government is supporting the terrorists in Afghanistan, in Lebanon and in parts of Palestine. How do you see the new government led by President Hassan Rouhani in comparison to the government led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Has something changed there, or are they the same?
Well, I think this new administration is mainly more intelligent in style. They are more pleasant in the forms in which they communicate. They smile more. But I would say in substance there is very little difference.
What is the difference between the two Presidents?
Basically, style. Rouhani does not openly deny the Holocaust while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did. But I just heard that this weekend as an answer to the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad, Iran is going to organize a competition of Holocaust denials. So, even on the issue of style there is very little difference but there are more important issues. I mean if you check the record, the number of executions under the Rouhani government is on the rise all the time. The persecution of homosexuals, of women, of everybody – it is terrible, what’s going on there. And the record of Iran on human rights is only deteriorating. So the fact now that we have Rouhani instead of Ahmadinejad is quite meaningless I would say.
Coming to Israel’s diplomatic relationship with the Muslim world, can you tell us about the kind of relationship you share with your neighbors?
We are a nation of almost nine million people, out of which 78 per cent are Jewish. We are surrounded by Arab and Muslim countries. It is essential for us to be accepted in our region. In contrary of what some may say we are not colonists in our country, we are natives.
There have always been Jews in the territory where Israel exists. But, because a large majority of the population in this region is Muslim. It is, I believe, the primary interest of Israel, to get the legitimization and acceptance of as many Muslim countries as possible.
This is what we are looking for. Unfortunately I can say that now we have diplomatic relations in the Arab world only with Egypt and Jordan, from among our neighbors. But of course we have diplomatic relations with some countries with Muslim populations that are not immediately in our region like Albania, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and of course with Turkey. Although we do have diplomatic problems with Turkey we still have low level diplomatic relations. But, I believe there is absolutely no reason why Israel cannot have full, normal diplomatic relations with all the countries of the Gulf, all the countries of the Maghreb, and a lot of other Muslim countries. I refer also to Asian countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. We have absolutely no reason not to have diplomatic relations with these countries and this is what we are looking for.
Now coming to freedom of expression, and the attack in France. This attack was brutally, extensively and intensively condemned by the international community and freelance journalists. What are your views on the attack? And what is your message to those people working for the freedom of expression as the Ambassador of Israel?
Well, when talking about the attack of course one can only condemn them in the strongest terms as a crime – a terrorist, murderous attack against the freedom of speech. And I should say there can be no reservations attached to this kind of condemnation. Regarding the concept of the freedom of speech, we know that it is not unlimited. On one hand, for example, there are many countries where Holocaust denial is considered against the law. So I would say this is an example that freedom of speech also has its limitations. Now you can have a discussion as to what extent publishing cartoons against Muhammad is in good taste, or should it happen, or shouldn’t it happen, but this is with the discussion about the limits of the freedom of speech which exists in almost every country, in every country with laws that limit you. You cannot say everything. There are certain things that if you say them you could land in trouble.
My question here is do you support the cartoon or not?
This is a very sensitive issue and it hurts the feeling of Muslim believers. I understand that, but at the same time, I see, very frequently, terrible cartoons against Israel and against Jews being published by the media. They offend me and they offend other Jews, so we accept that as part of the world in which we live.
So do you believe this is part of the freedom of expression, when everyone has a right to make such a cartoon?
Yes, but sometimes I believe that things that appear in the media are not legitimate and I will protest them.
I will say yes there is a right of speech but if you, for example, will present a Jew or Israeli in a cartoon with stereotypes we have known in the past, that are openly anti-Semantic, I will tell the person that published it: look you are crossing a thin line here because you are adhering to anti-Semantic stereotypes. Now, nothing can justify what we have seen in Charlie Hebdo. On the other hand I believe that if some people had raised their voices and said what Charlie Hebdo publishes is offensive to us and to our beliefs, this is also legitimate to say.
It is a complex issue. You cannot say that I agree to everything that Charlie Hebdo publishes.
Now coming to my last two questions, what does Human Rights mean to you?
To me, Human Rights is the right of every individual to have a decent life, and the right of collectives to define themselves the way they feel. And I will add to this, as long as it does not hurt the right of other groups to do the same.
Can you tell me a little about your views on the Supreme leader of Iran?
I believe he is a very radical person. He controls the country in accordance to his radical ideas. His country operates far beyond the lines of international legitimacy.
How do you see the relationship between Hezbollah and Israel in the future?
This is very difficult to answer. Hezbollah, as we understand it, is a two-headed entity. One is a political party in Lebanon and the other one is a proxy getting instructions from Iran. And keeping this in mind it is very difficult to envision positive relations between Israel and Hezbollah in the future.
However, we would very much like to have a peaceful relationship with Lebanon in the future. We don’t have any territorial dispute. Israel came out of Lebanon, but as long as we or Lebanon experience an abnormal situation, where a political party has an army bigger and stronger than a nation itself, then we are likely to face problems. The bigger army, Hezbollah, is not subordinate to the Lebanese government but rather to the Iranian government.
How do you view Israel’s strategic relationship with the U.S.?
These are two countries with a very close relationship which goes beyond circumstances. We may have ups and downs, where we disagree on a few things, but when we talk about Israel and the United States we are not only talking about a long term strategic relations, we are speaking about something that is by far deeper than that. We are talking about two nations – one of course very big and the other very small – which share the same values, which believe in the same things, which believe in freedom, democracy, pluralism, in an open society. This is why Israel enjoys a high level of support in U.S. public opinion and also at the political level which crosses parties to be bipartisan and is not conditional on this or other circumstances.
Do you have a message to give to our readership or is there anything you want to share?
If this message is for Norway, then I think we need to work on the relations between our two societies, far beyond the issues of Israel and the Middle East, which is overly discussed in Norwegian public opinion. And regarding the Middle East, I would say it is very important to avoid simplistic judgments based on good and bad, strong and weak, black and white, etc. If someone wants to establish an opinion they should learn the issues, learn that it is not about Israel and Palestine but about Israel’s place in the Middle East and then form their opinion.
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