By Hank Beckman -
WHEATON - When Israeli Consul General to the Midwest Roey Gilad spoke last Wednesday at Wheaton College about current challenges for his country in the Middle East, the 50 people in attendance were respectful and well-behaved, with no sign of the open anti-Semitism that dominates discussion of the only democracy in the Middle East on so many campuses throughout the country.
No slanders about Israel being an apartheid state, no calls for boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) and none of the hateful rhetoric that led the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to conclude a decade ago that anti-Semitism had become a "serious problem" at many universities.
That was the good news.
Gilad himself highlighted the bad news while listing the four main actors in the region, including Shia radicals led by Iran and its allies in Syria and Lebanon, Sunni moderate states Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, radical Sunni non-state actors Hamas, Al Qaeda and ISIL, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In what might be the understatement of the 21st Century, he said, "None of these four groups...none of them are very happy about the presence of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East."
Indeed, there's no question that the main issue preventing peace between Israel and its neighbors is that many of the region's actors refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist at all, Iran and Hamas being prime examples.
Currently dominating Gaza, Hamas was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas's 1988 charter, or covenant, explicitly calls for the elimination of Israel, exhorting its followers to strive to "raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine," after which all religions can presumably live in harmony under the protection of Islam.
Since the beginning of Second Intifada (2000-2005), Hamas has not been shy about launching rocket attacks against Israel, deploying suicide bombers and using tunnels to smuggle explosives into Israel or kidnap it citizens.
And even though Hamas suffered a devastating loss during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, hostilities have continued, and reports from the region indicate that Hamas is telling Palestinians to prepare for more violence in 2016, with possible resumption of suicide bombings.
Iran, historically providing funding and weapons to Hamas, is no better. An ally of Israel under the Shah of Iran, Iran was one of the first Muslim states in the region to recognize Israel, conducting a brisk trade with the new state that continues to this day, although on a lower level and conducted primarily through third countries.
But since the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the ruling mullahs have been unrelenting in their hostility to Israel.
Tehran has called for the destruction of Israel (the "Little Satan" to the United State's "Big Satan") so often that it has almost completely lost its ability to shock.
After taking power, Ruhollah Khomeini even called for a day dedicated to the elimination of Israel, Quds Day, which has since become a national day of protest marking the Republic's commitment to destroying Israel.
Other Sunni states can find common cause with Israel in opposition to expanding Iranian influence in the region.
But the Saudis still provide financing for fundamentalist Wahhabi madrassas throughout the region, and many believe the financing of the 9-11 attacks on the United States can be traced directly to Saudi Arabia.
Egypt's peace treaty with Israel has definitely showed signs of wear in recent years, with several border clashes between the two countries and a recall of Egypt's ambassador to Israel after Israeli air strikes against Hamas.
All that noted, Gilad didn't seem overly pessimistic about the chances for lasting peace, but he didn't hesitate to highlight the serious nature of the challenges facing Israel.
He took several audience questions, and many of them were related to the recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a deal that would prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, at least for the next 10 years.
Gilad noted that there existed a fundamental disagreement between policy-makers in Israel and those in the West.
"While in Washington, Iran is considered to be part of the solution," he said, in Israel, "Iran is considered to be part of the problem."
Gilad acknowledged that U.S.-Israeli relations had become strained over the Iranian issue, saying "It has cast a shadow over the relationship, that has to be said."
He stressed that the Iranians gave the region and world community other reasons to be concerned, among them financing proxy wars throughout the region, testing ballistic missiles in violation of the agreement and a human rights portfolio that is "devastating," as he put it.
And he made no doubt about his country's resolve in matters of security, whatever the stance of the international community might be.
"Israel should have the ability to defend itself," he said.
Hank Beckman is a freelance journalist based in DuPage County, Illinois.