Although he said he purposely avoids talking about what seems to be the most pressing issue of the day — Iran’s potential as a nuclear power — because “those who know don’t speak; those who speak don’t know,” Israeli diplomat Asher Naim did offer his take on the possibility of an attack on Israel.
Nearly 200 people gathered Feb. 26 at Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson to hear the former Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Korea, and Finland discuss the “Arab Spring” revolts in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia.
In talking about the upheavals in his birthplace, Naim, who made aliya from Libya with his family in 1944, described the rise to power of strongman Muammar Kaddafi following a 1969 military coup. The dictator, he said, replaced the Libyan Constitution with The Green Book, containing laws based on his own political ideology. “Your children could write a better book,” Naim told the audience. “What qualified Kaddafi to be a ruler? In the Middle East, rulers can dictate things even the imagination cannot conceive and get away with it.”
In most cases, the revolts of the Arab Spring are stalled, he said. “Unfortunately we are not at the end of the road, and it’s not very encouraging,” particularly in regard to the threat to Israel. “In recent days it is getting worse. We are alarmed because it’s becoming more of an uncontrollable situation.”
Naim discussed the brutal government reaction to the uprising in Syria that, according to UN estimates, has resulted in the death of some 7,500 people. “What is happening in Syria is not human,” he said.
Following his talk, Naim responded to a question about his avoidance of an in-depth discussion of Iran by saying, “I think that the Iranians hate us, and that we disturb their dream of building an empire. But I don’t think they will dare attack. They know what kind of military strength we have.”
Israel, however, should refrain from making a preemptive strike against Iran, he said. “I think it would be stupid for us to launch a strike. I’m not saying we should ignore the issues, but my personal opinion is that we should not take the initiative.”
Naim summarized the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace process in three words: lack of trust. “It stems from their unkept promises, and our inability to believe what they say,” he said.
Israel has distinguished itself in the region as “the only peace lover in the Middle East” and for its extraordinary successes in technology, research and development, and agriculture, he said. “We are doing better than all of the Middle Eastern countries put together.”
Naim also shared anecdotes from his days as an ambassador. In separate meetings with the Korean and Vietnamese ambassadors, he said, he was pleasantly surprised to hear both men describe their people as the “Jews of Asia.”
Naim served as Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia in 1990-91 and was instrumental in the negotiations that resulted in airlifting some 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel over the course of 24 hours. He wrote about the daring rescue in his book Saving the Lost Tribe. He signed copies of the book after his lecture.
Attendee and CBI member Marna Feldt of Middletown was part of the committee at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia that selected Naim for the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award in 2009. The ambassador, she said, “is a very humanistic, knowledgeable person for Israel to have on its diplomatic core.”