Deputy FM Addresses British 'Think Tank'

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LONDON - Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon addressed senior diplomats, academia and media at London's prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies on Monday.

A day after Ayalon shook hands with Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Munich Security Conference, the deputy foreign minister traveled to London to speak about the challenges and opportunities in the Middle East.

Ayalon began by countering the widely held conception that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central issue in the Middle East.

"Today, the Israeli-Palestinian [conflict] is only one piece of an unsolved puzzle in the Middle East, which also has to deal with the Iranian threat, the situations in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and the list goes on," he said.

Citing a recent United Nations development report, which Arab experts helped to compile, Ayalon told participants that 40 percent of the Arab world lives below the poverty line.

"It is even more fundamental that we address the water shortage and other basic needs," he said.

"For the Arab world to maintain its current position, which is at the lowest rung on the ladder, it will need to create 51 million jobs in the next 10 years," Ayalon said.

"Resources in our region need to be divided in an equitable manner, and we hope to integrate into a regional system that can be for the betterment of all," he said.

Ayalon cited statistics that put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in historical perspective.

"From 1948 [when the State of Israel was reborn], 11 million Muslims have died in conflicts and only less than one-half of one percent were killed in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, whereas over 90 percent were killed by fellow Muslims," he said.

With regard to restarting talks with the Palestinians, Ayalon said the Netanyahu coalition has been "waiting patiently."

"We have been waiting patiently, but urgently, at the negotiating table since the inception of this government over 10 months ago for the Palestinians to join us," he said.

"We are confident that the Palestinian leadership will accept [U.S. envoy George] Mitchell's guidelines, which call for a resumption of peace talks, even if it will be proximity talks. Proximity talks are not our first choice, but they're better than no talks," he said.

Ayalon singled out Iran as the source of regional problems, calling Syria Iran's gateway to the region.

"There are confusing and contradictory statements emanating from Damascus," Ayalon said. "However at the end of the day, we will judge Syria by its actions and not its words," he said.

"Syria is dependent on Iran and provides [Lebanese-based] Hezbollah with long-range missiles aimed at Israel, as well as supporting and hosting 10 [other] terror organizations in Damascus," he said.

"The latest heightened rhetoric with Syria is because of Iran. Only Iran benefits from heightened tension in the region to deter attention from its nuclear weapons program. It is clear that when the Iranian issue is resolved, Syria will become more amenable," he said.

Ayalon said the world should not turn a deaf ear to the cries of the Iranian people.

"The international community should not neglect the Iranian people and call to task the Iranian regime, not just on the nuclear issue, but also on their appalling human rights record," he said.

"The international community should not look the other way and [should] support the Iranian people against the brutal regime," he said.

On Monday, Iran announced it is pressing ahead with plans to enrich uranium to higher levels, a possible indication of its intention to produce nuclear weapons.

Late last week, Iran announced it would hang 11 more members of the opposition. Two weeks ago, the government executed two men who were part of the pre-election protest movement. They had been included in a mass trial of opposition activists.

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