February 19, 2020

Israel’s foreign ministry director Dore Gold gets grilled in Los Angeles

While protests over Israel’s homegrown terrorism problem put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on the defensive at home, the Jewish state’s diplomatic corps went on a U.S. offensive to try to thwart approval of the pending Iran deal. 

Last weekend’s spokesman-in-chief was newly appointed Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and longtime foreign policy adviser whom Netanyahu named director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May. Gold is American-born (Hartford, Conn.), yeshiva-educated and holds a doctorate in political science and Middle Eastern studies from Columbia University. He is also the best-selling author of “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism” (2003).

Gold jetted from New York to Los Angeles to try to convince American Jews that the P5+1 Iran deal awaiting congressional approval could be “disastrous” for Israel — and the world. 

His weeklong jaunt included a joint speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations with Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence, now the director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. 

In Los Angeles, he delivered public talks at Orthodox shul Young Israel of Century City and Beth Jacob Congregation, as well as at the conservative-leaning Conservative synagogue, Sinai Temple.

And when entrepreneur Dan Adler challenged Gold to confront an audience of American Jews who may be less sympathetic to his message, he didn’t flinch. “Let’s do it,” he said.

That brought Gold to Dan and Jenna Adler’s living room last Sunday evening, surrounded by a small group of Hollywood players, tech entrepreneurs, lawyers and a few politicos, including a former National Security Council negotiator for nuclear treaties under Ronald Reagan. 

“We’ve got left, right, center; Democrat, Republican; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated, evangelical, Christian and probably a few atheists thrown in for good measure,” host Adler said, introducing the group. David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, accompanied Gold to the soiree, where those who didn’t know each other quickly got acquainted.

“So what do you do at Sundance?” one guest inquired of another. “I represented Bob for 10 years.”  He meant Robert Redford.

On the couch, an attractive, young man was eager for the fireworks to begin. He said he was staying in the Adlers’ guesthouse. “I’m the Kato Kaelin here.”

Gold stood firmly at the center of the room, austere looking with his globular head and painter’s-brush mustache. Even though this crowd was not his choir, he barely disguised his intentions for them: “I felt from many of my Jewish friends in America that we [Israel] had a problem: The U.S. was hearing from the government of Israel [about the Iran deal], but they wanted to hear something broader — from more than just the government — perhaps, a national consensus view … ”

But the desire to build a consensus among Jews feels like wishful thinking. Even as Gold spoke in Los Angeles, a group of former Israeli security officials from the army, Mossad and Shin Bet was signing a letter for Yediot Aharonot newspaper, urging the prime minister to relent and accept the Iran deal as “an established fact.”

Gold was dismissive. “There are people who engage in diplomacy because they’re hopeful that diplomacy will produce a better situation,” he said. The problem in this case, he added, is that there is a dangerous and naive misconception of Iran held by the United States government and its allies — including negotiating partners France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia and China — which he believes would fundamentally undermine the success of the deal. 

“The subtext I’ve detected is that [they believe] Iran is on the verge of change, and that this agreement is a transformational event that will lead to a new Iran, an Iran that wants to take its place among the community of nations,” Gold said. “If that was true, that would be great. But unfortunately, all the evidence points in the opposite direction.”

Gold spent most of his talk outlining the ways Iran has become increasingly militant, expansionist and underhanded. He cited examples from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq of the ways in which Iran is funding terrorism through radical Islamic proxy organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and how the economic “windfall” created by the collapse of U.S. sanctions would only bolster its regional ambitions and interventions, while concomitantly strengthening the terror organizations that live on Israel’s borders. “That is why we are making such a big deal about this deal,” he said. “We are not shy in telling what we think is the truth.”

But if Gold expected this crowd to nod in agreement, he miscalculated. The diversity of opinion quickly became evident in a lively back-and-forth. Why is it, one guest wondered, that the P5+1 sees things so differently from Israel? How could the U.S. and some of our closest allies be so blind?

“These people aren’t stupid,” another guest chimed in. “The governments of Germany, France, Britain, the United States — they aren’t stupid.”

“I never said they were stupid,” Gold replied. “But there has been a school of thought in Washington over many years that Iran’s radical course was because of foolish mistakes made in United States policy in the past; and that if America took a different approach to Iran, then Iranian behavior might change.” 

But rather than “give peace a chance,” as one guest put it, Gold said the world cannot afford to take a diplomatic risk with Iran, whose leadership cannot be trusted. He made it clear he believes the Iranians will almost certainly cheat on the deal and, as in years past, hide their military endeavors from inspectors. 

In addition to his field experience as a foreign policy adviser, Gold is also a historian and scholar. He breezed through a long list of instances when, in anticipation of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, Iranians covered any tracks of weaponizing their nuclear activity: In 2004, they destroyed a number of buildings at a previously undeclared site, Lavizan-Shian, and dug out 6 meters of top soil so radioactive material could not be tested; and in 2013, the Institute for Science and International Security, an anti-proliferation monitoring group, revealed satellite images of Iran spreading asphalt over the Parchin site, a weapons-testing lab U.N. inspectors had tried — unsuccessfully — to visit for years.

Gold reiterated Israeli concerns that the inspection and monitoring mechanisms of the current deal are not robust enough. In some cases, the current agreement allows Iran up to 24 days of advance notice to anticipate inspections. In which case, Gold said, “Any incriminating evidence in undeclared sites is going to be sanitized.”

Lawrence Bender, a film producer best known for his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino and an active supporter of Democratic politics, challenged Gold on Israel’s overall calculus. 

“We’re actually better off today than we were two years ago when we started negotiating,” Bender said, adding that Iran has since reduced its number of centrifuges, converted some enriched uranium to solid materials and reduced the amount of plutonium produced by its Arak heavy-water reactor. “If we were to say today that the U.S. won’t do this deal, as you would like, I would say that Israel would be in a disastrous situation.”

For a casual Sunday evening, Gold was put on the defensive more than the jet-lagged diplomat anticipated and it showed. But to his credit, he soldiered on, parrying questions for nearly 90 minutes. He stood for most of it, until finally the group wore him down and he plopped onto a white-leather divan.

I asked Gold whether Iran might potentially follow in the footfalls of Saudi Arabia, which Gold once considered the greatest sponsor of global terrorism. Today he refers to Saudi Arabia as his “partner,” even Israel’s ally. What accounted for that shift, I wondered. 

Gold acknowledged that Saudi Arabia eventually “woke up” when, in 2003, the terror organizations they had been supporting ultimately turned on them, rocking the capital city of Riyadh with compound suicide bombings. But he scoffed at the notion that Iran might follow a similar path, or that ISIS was an example of Iranian-backed jihadi gone awry: “Just because it happened with Saudi Arabia doesn’t mean the same exact thing will happen to Iran.”

So, are negotiations hopeless? Gold insisted all Israel wants is a better deal: improved access for monitoring and inspections; further reduction of nuclear infrastructure; disclosure of weaponization programs and tough limits on missiles. “Our Arab neighbors, I even call them Arab allies, have the same exact view as we do,” he said. 

“So, what can we do?” asked one woman who said she was against the deal.

“That’s a boundary I don’t want to cross,” Gold said. 

And then, in a play out of his boss’ playbook, he did. 

“If you feel what I am saying is true, you’re citizens of the United States … you participate in your political system here. I don’t have to teach you civics.”