Interview with UDS speaker, Yiftah Curiel


On Thursday 5 November, Yiftah Curiel, Head Spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London, came to St Andrews to take part in the union debating society’s discussion entitled, “This house believes all is fair in counter terrorism.” Speaking alongside esteemed professor, Richard English, Yiftah Curiel gave us unique insight into the personal and political impact of terrorism.

Sitting down with Mr Curiel, who was accompanied by Matt Keston, Academic Liasion Officer, I asked how our tiny bubble had garnered the interest of the Israeli Embassy. “We attend many campuses, because many issues that Israel is facing have a regional and global impact on the UK,” he tells me. Having just come from Aberdeen University the day before, Mr Curiel is keen to stress the importance of engaging with the student body, as well as the complexity of Israel’s unique position on the topic: “We are the Western democracy at the forefront of the counter terrorism dilemma and I am here to offer practical insight into aspects of Counter Terrorism,” he said.

Mr Curiel outlined the challenges of working as a diplomat, particularly in terms of the challenges of representing a very complex nation. “Diplomats are taught to portray the best of their country,” he explains. “One of the most difficult things for Israel is that we are the only democracy in the Middle East. We have a thriving economy and a free press. Yet we are facing threats that Europe has not experienced since the Second World War. These strategic issues are hard to get across to the West when you have not experienced them.”

The matter of tactics over strategy in Israel’s counterterrorism policy was a particularly relevant for this debate topic. Agreeing with Daniel Byman’s sentiments in the 2011 Israeli counter terrorism book, Mr Curiel commented, “We are stronger on tactics than strategy in most areas.” Though acknowledging that he did not wish to challenge Byman’s book, he further elaborated: “We are good at finding on the spot solutions for many of our problems. We are not so good at planning ahead. And I think the reason for that is we live in such a volatile reality that often times we don’t know what the future will be like anyway.”

Photo: UDS
Photo: UDS

Speaking on the topic of another Israeli counter terrorism expert, Boaz Ganor, Mr Curiel’s response is more vague. The utilization of the words ‘eradicating’ and ‘eliminating’ terrorists has been pointed out by many as a somewhat loaded and disturbing terminology. Yet, Mr Curiel explained that we shouldn’t judge him on the use of language, one word or another. [pullquote]We don’t speak publicly on the issue of targeted killings[/pullquote] “We need to isolate groups of extremists who are beyond negotiation or refuse to renounce terror. Our late Prime Minister Rabin, murdered 25 years ago yesterday , stated that we must fight terror as if there is no peace process and pursue peace as if there is no terror. The problem with terror, especially in Israel, is that it has caused such fear, hatred and hostility: one must really deal with this problem. This is true even today with the stabbing sprees we are witnessing.” He went on further to say, “You need to be able to provide the most basic security for your citizens.”

Upon being asked whether Israel advocates an aggressive approach rather than one of deterrence, he replies that the Israeli doctrine has always been one of strong offence being the best defence: “Take the battle to your adversaries field.” This is particularly important in Israel where our citizens are always on the frontline. We can’t afford to be fighting on our own turf. Israel was one of the first. I shouldn’t go into that.” There were several subjects that Mr Curiel did not wish to discuss, and this sudden pause was due to a reference to targeted killings, to which he responded, “We don’t speak publicly on the issue of targeted killings and drones.” Israel was, in fact, one of the first countries to employ the use of targeted killings and in 2006 the High Court legalized the use of targeted killings in certain circumstances. He does, however, acknowledge that the blurring of lines between civilian and soldier and the rise of non state actors has led to this being a tactic employed by many states. Moreover, he is keen to stress that the soldiers that operate drones in Israel differ from those in the West because there is no detachment: “This is personal for our people. We are defending our borders. When a drone operator takes out a rocket launcher he is taking out the rockets that will hit those in Israel.” When quizzing him on Netayanhu’s recent comment regarding the culpability of Palestine in the Holocaust he is also dismissive. “Let’s skip that question. That was a statement he later rescinded.”

On the topic of the rise of ISIS as a threat, he commented, “It is a difficult and long struggle and we need to look at the different actors playing in this field. Western intervention formed a deterrent, but this has been eroding as can be seen by Asaad’s use of chemical weapons. Just as intervention in Iraq caused controversy, non involvement also has its price. We are seeing that with the millions of refugees.” He is also highly critical of Iran: “The Asaad regime would not be there without Iran. They are the number one state sponsor of terrorism. It is a difficult situation. Non involvement is not how we defeat ISIS. We cannot have our cake and eat it.”

When questioned about the relationship between Israel and Iran, Mr Curiel emphasized there is no territorial dispute and that “We, Israel, have no dispute with the people of Iran.” He went on to say that “We had a great relationship before the Revolution. We have an issue with a the Iranian Regime, which is anti Semitic, holding a Holocaust cartoon contest every year in Tehran; they have called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Iran is the main backer of Hezbollah and Hamas.” He further adds, “This radical Islamist ideology of the regime is averse to all principles espoused by the West and this is a universal problem.”

On this subject Mr Curiel has his own personal experience, relaying his memories of hiding with his two young daughters when missiles were raining over Tel Aviv. “It is something that is very tangible. This was in 2012 just before I came to London, and it was the first time there were air raid sirens in Tel Aviv: the first time Hamas acquired rockets that could reach 70 km from Gaza to Tel Aviv. It was the first time rockets had fallen since the first Gulf War. Most Israelis have experienced these kinds of attacks.”

While Israel is certainly similar to Western countries in certain aspects, it is also an extremely unique nation. This being said, Mr Curiel’s experiences really relay the personal fear and difficulties faced by the Israeli people as a result of terrorism. In an age of increasing terrorism, it is clear Mr Curiel and Israel’s own extensive experience of terrorism has provided new and important ways of learning to counter this particular Photo: Debating society security issue.


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