Israel’s U.S. Envoy: Peace Talks with Lebanon Possible Next Year

Comprehensive peace has never been closer for Israel, and within a year Israel could be holding peace talks with Lebanon, Israel’s U.S. ambassador told JTA.

Sallai Meridor noted that talks with the Palestinians are continuing despite the political upheaval in Israel, and said a third track could be in place within a year.

“I don’t think it would be a sin to hope for peace with Lebanon,” he said. “Hopefully we will be able in the next year, rather than having two focuses [the Palestinians and Syria], we will be able to have another one with Lebanon.”

Meridor spoke with JTA recently to deliver a Rosh Hashanah message to readers two years into his stint as Israel’s ambassador to Washington.

“Israel is blessed to have such a supportive and engaged Jewish people,” Meridor said, speaking of the U.S. and other Diaspora communities.

This year’s High Holidays bring much uncertainty for Meridor. He arrived in Washington as a close confidante of Ehud Olmert, the scandal-plagued Israeli prime minister who resigned Sunday.

Washington envoys often are the personal pick of the prime minister, and it’s not clear whether Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party’s new leader, will replace Meridor if she manages to put together a coalition government and become prime minister.

In his conversation with JTA, Meridor noted the irony of recent progress on the Israel-Palestinian and Israel-Syria tracks while Iran apparently edges closer to obtaining a nuclear bomb.

By this time next year, he said, the Iranians “could be further advanced in nuclear weapons and we will be close to peace.”

“If allowed to continue on this path and pace operating now, they could have enough low enriched uranium by this time next year” for a bomb, Meridor said. “Very serious sanctions should be applied now because we are afraid that in late ’09 they will be less effective.”

Israel wants to see an end to refined petroleum exports to Iran as well as a freeze on investment in Iran’s energy infrastructure. Iran, despite being a major oil producer, relies on imports for nearly half of its refined petroleum needs. Israel and pro-Israel lobbyists recently have also been pushing for an insurance ban on Iran’s energy sector.

The United States and Europe appear to be on board, Meridor said. More frustrating, he said, has been the reluctance of Russia and China to join in the efforts. The two emerging trading giants “could have been more supportive,” he said.

Meridor would not speculate on the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran, but he dismissed recent reports in the Israeli media that the United States is denying Israel the logistics and weaponry it would need to strike Iran, including refueling capabilities and combat aircraft.

“What I can tell you having read some of these reports, without getting into details, is that not all the reports are accurate,” he said. “There is a rich, intimate cooperation on a variety of issues, first and foremost the threat from Iran.”

Overall, the U.S.-Israel relationship, always close, has made strides, he said. Meridor cited the increase this year in defense assistance to Israel from $2.4 billion to $3 billion, and the expansion of joint research into energy alternatives.

He also noted President Bush’s two visits to Israel this year, the visits by two official congressional delegations and the overwhelming support for congressional resolutions marking Israel’s 60th anniversary.

Meridor says he holds out hope for the peace process, particularly in talks with Syria — seen as critical to weakening Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Iran needs Syria to reinforce its Lebanese proxy, the Hezbollah terrorist organization.

Meridor said Israel’s ties with Diaspora Jewry were critical and that Israel must do more to accommodate its pluralistic nature. He noted that the influx of Russian Jews over the past decade included a substantial portion of non-Jewish families.

Easing conversion conditions could help, said Meridor, who supervised interdenominational talks on conversion when he headed the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“We need to work and find ways to help those of the immigrants who consider themselves part of the Jewish people,” he said.

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