December 13, 2018

Frank talk about Middle East issues

International policy talk met fundraising recently as former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton joined a discussion with Israeli Brig. Gen. Relik Shafir, one of eight Israeli Air Force (IAF) pilots in the 1981 bombing raid of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.

In the moderated conversation at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, the two talked about “The Future of the Strategic Alliance — America, Israel and the Middle East in Turmoil,” while raising money for the Israel Air Force Center (IAFC). 

About 300 people attended, purchasing tickets at $36 apiece. The IAFC, which is based in Herzliya, is a facility for youth educational programs, including for potential IAF recruits, leadership training for IAF officers, and a think tank. The event raised $300,000 for IAFC’s youth leadership center.

Over the course of the evening, Bolton and Shafir opined on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the U.S.-Israel relationship and ISIS, which, Bolton said, does not have “military aspirations beyond its boundaries … [but] wants to create a magnet for radicals from all over the world.”

“We’ve missed the opportunity to do what Winston Churchill said we should’ve done to the Russian Revolution, and strangled the Bolsheviks in their cradle,” Bolton said, referring to Churchill’s statement about how communism could have been quashed by the West in 1919 before it gained strength.

With a crowd at the Orthodox synagogue that was overwhelmingly unhappy with President Barack Obama’s tension-filled relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and given Obama’s recent approval of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, Bolton had an easy time getting applause.

He was met with approval when he said, “I think the president’s been the most hostile American president to the State of Israel since 1948,” the year of modern Israel’s founding. 

On Iran, Bolton said Israel may have missed its opportunity for a pre-emptive strike while his former boss, President George W. Bush, was in the White House. 

“The chances of success were higher, and the perception in Washington would have been better,” he said. “It may already be too late.”

Bolton was Bush’s recess appointee as ambassador to the U.N. from August 2005 until December 2006, when he resigned after it became clear he would not be confirmed by the Senate. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Asked by the moderator, IAFC Executive Director Simcha Salach, what American policy should be toward Syria, Bolton said there shouldn’t be one. 

Why? 

“Because I don’t think Syria exists anymore,” he said, “and I don’t think Iraq exists anymore, either.”

Shafir, who in an interview with the Journal in June, said that only the U.S. Air Force is capable of destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons program, repeated that analysis in discussion with Bolton. He downplayed ISIS’ threat to the wider region and beyond, saying that while it can thrive in a destabilized Iraq and Syria, ultimately, “They control a desert.”

He also made the case for Syrian President Bashar Assad staying in power.

“If we look at President Assad being the ‘devil we know,’ he’s the only one who’s able to hold Syria more or less in cohesiveness.”

Looking ahead, Shafir, who was asked about American leadership, joked about the third Republican debate, which had taken place the night before and which was filled with what some felt were “gotcha” questions. He said that Moses, who was “hard of speaking … would never have made it [if he was] standing at the podium last night getting asked those questions.”

Bolton, though, was quick to respond: “Well, it’s hard to compete with great leaders when you start out with Moses.