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Middle East

'Syria could be a second Somalia'

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon warns of increasing Islamist forces in Syria, in an interview with DW. He also believes the new Israeli goverment will try to bring the Palestinians to the table.

Deutsche Welle: The election results in Israel were surprising. The conservative Likud-Beitenu bloc remains the strongest political force but there were many votes, for instance, for Yair Lapid's new liberal party. How do you interpret the elections?

Daniel Ayalon: The Israeli public has shown again that it has its own wishes and it doesn't follow any predictions, polls, surveys or spin. So it was a real change - I would say more pluralistic in many ways. But I think the results also show that the main election issues were domestic: a universal military draft from which ultra-orthodox Jews are not exempt, political reform and housing and social justice. And in a way, it shows some disappointment in the Palestinians, who didn't want to come to the negotiating table - and maybe also some understanding that because of the so-called Arab Spring and all the chaos in the Arab countries, we have to look inside and not outside.

From the outside, it seems as if the Israelis are divided. There is an orthodox and ultra-orthodox faction and a secular faction. How do you see the development of these two factions - if indeed there are two?

The present situation in Israel is not sustainable because the ultra-orthodox community is the fastest-growing demographic group. But they don't share the burden of military service or employment. So in the long run, there is no alternative but to include the orthodox both in the army and in the Israeli economy. But this has to be on a gradual basis through consensus and not through coercion. I hope this time the elections will show the ultra-orthodox spiritual leaders that it is time for a new civil framework in Israel.

How concerned is Israel about the situation in neighboring Syria?

Our attitude toward Syria, first and foremost, is that we see it as a huge humanitarian crisis. We have offered help. Of course, the Israeli government can't help because of the sensitivities on the ground in Syria. But we encouraged some Israeli NGOs to help with the refugees on the Turkish and Jordanian borders. On top of that, we are very frustrated with the helplessness of the international community when it comes to intervening. On the one hand, it seems as if there is no consensus in the Security Council. On the other, it has become a zero-sum game inside Syria between the opposition and Assad. There is no in-between; both sides are going to fight to the bitter end. This is very bad. Once Assad is gone, and nobody can say when, I'm afraid Syria will fall further into a chaotic situation of sectarian warfare. The danger is that the Islamists - the jihadists who have the weapons on the ground and the financial backing of certain Arab countries - will turn Syria into an extremist Islamist state, or a failed state like Somalia or Mali. In the absence of any international consensus, things could get very bad, especially for the Syrian people, and the situation will also destabilize the region, because what happens in Syria won't stay in Syria. It will spill over into Lebanon and Iraq.

How do you view Iran threatening Israel? And what can you say about the Iranian nuclear program in view of the remarks of US Vice President Joe Biden?

Iran is the most serious danger to the international community, to the wellbeing of its people and of the people of the Middle East and beyond. I don't see the situation as a duel between Tehran and Jerusalem or between Iran and Israel. It's Iran against the entire international community. And, unfortunately, they're continuing relentlessly with their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, which would be disastrous. They continue to support terrorism around the world: In Europe, you know what happened in Burgas, Bulgaria, and there have been attacks in Bangkok, in Delhi and in Latin America. And of course [the Iranians] are the ones helping Hezbollah and helping Assad. So I think it's important for the international community to continue to put pressure on Iran. A lot of progress has been made with political isolation and economic sanctions. But it isn't enough, because the Iranians are continuing. I believe the window is getting smaller and is closing. The next few months will be very important to see whether or not the Iranians will stop.

Do you see any partners on the Palestinian side with whom you could work? And are you concerned about a third interferer.

It's not for us to elect Palestinian leaders. Of course, we would negotiate with anyone among the Palestinians who renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel's rights to exist and, of course, abides by former agreements. Hamas rejected all these three stipulations by the Quartet on the Middle East. Of course, it is also a terror organization. And they are on the terror list of the EU as well. But it's up to the Palestinians to sort out the rift between Hamas and Fatah. We don't want to wait for reconciliation among Palestinians. That is their business. We would like to see a leader who is serious and trustworthy and can deliver. And the leader will have to deliver on Gaza. Otherwise, you can't move forward. But I'm sure that the new Israeli government will try everything to bring the Palestinians to the table, hopefully without any preconditions, because preconditions cannot create trust. And with preconditions, there isn't much to talk about. We have no preconditions - but we have a lot of concerns. We are willing to sit down with them. It's very easy for the international community to put pressure on Israel. But there also has to be a lot of pressure put on the Palestinians to move forward. We are serious. It is in our interest to come to an agreement with the Palestinians and to solve the conflict in a peaceful manner.

Daniel Ayalon is Israel's deputy foreign minister. Previously he was his country's ambassador to the US. Ayalon is a member of the political party Israel Beitenu.

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