Pierre Vimont is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. His research focuses on the European Neighborhood Policy, transatlantic relations, and French foreign policy.
From March 2016 to January 2017, Vimont served as the special envoy for the French initiative for a Middle East Peace Conference. Previously, he had been nominated the personal envoy of the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, to lead preparations for the Valletta Conference between EU and African countries to tackle the causes of illegal migration and combat human smuggling and trafficking.
Prior to joining Carnegie, Vimont was the first executive secretary-general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), from December 2010 to March 2015. During his thirty-eight-year diplomatic career with the French foreign service, he served as ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2010, ambassador to the European Union from 1999 to 2002, and chief of staff to three former French foreign ministers. He holds the title, Ambassador of France, a dignity bestowed for life to only a few French career diplomats.
Vimont speaks French, English, and Spanish and is a knight of the French National Order of Merit. He holds a degree in law from Pantheon-Sorbonne University, and is a graduate of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and the National School of Administration (ENA).
Below is a full transcript of the podcast episode, lightly edited for clarity.
Alon Ben-Meir: That’s great. Well again, I want to thank you to begin with, really, for taking the time. So anyway, this is what I wanted to talk about, these four subjects, because your input is really, very unique and I’d love to hear it, about the Balkans and the prospect of accession of some of the Balkan states to the EU. Now given the situation today in the European Union, in the wake of Brexit and this, to extend the turmoil that has been caused. You don’t feel that the EU is ready right now to proceed expeditiously or faster in the process of accession of some of the Balkans countries?
Pierre Vimont: No, I think you’re right, I don’t think we’re ready for that. You remember that when the current president of the European Commission came in, Jean-Claude Juncker, he said that during his term of office, his five years of office, there will be no new enlargement. I don’t know what the next president of the European Commission will say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he would say something of the same kind, because we think— First of all on our current agenda, we have still many issues to deal with – the consolidation of the Eurozone, the whole migration issue, to think more about the future of the European Union, how to reorganize ourselves, the whole issue of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. So I think everyone agrees that those enlargement perspectives with regard to the West Balkans are still there. We want to allow this country to become a member of the European Union, but it’s a question of deadline, it’s a question of timing. And we think that if we go too quickly and would allow these countries or some of those that will be ready to come in too quickly, then we would have a lot of problems in our own current European Union. As you know in some of these European member states, there is a need for a referendum.
PV: Some of those can go through the Parliament. But in many of the European Union member states there is a need for a referendum, and the risk is that you could lose that referendum.
ABM: Would you say, Pierre, that that the enlargement of the EU was too fast to begin with, and as a result of that, the EU is experiencing some of the difficulties that they are experiencing today?
PV: With hindsight this is the general agreement, that maybe we have gone too fast or brought too many countries at the same time into the European Union. But if you look at it from where we were at the time, at the end of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Soviet Union, there was this urgency to bring all these countries aboard. And look at it from an economic perspective; this was a success. We managed in a very few years to bring back all these countries to the free market economy, to consolidate their economy and their political position. And that was really one of the major achievements of the European Union. So today to go back and to say ‘it was a mistake, we shouldn’t have allowed them in’, as I can hear not only in France but also in Germany, where there is a lot of concern and even complaints about the enlargement. I think this is to some extent in my opinion the wrong perception and wrong judgment. I think we were right in getting them in. I think we all made mistakes in keeping this sort of division between the West and the East of the European Union. We haven’t reached out from the West side, we haven’t reached out enough to the new East and Central European partners. And they on their side, Central and East European countries have remained somewhat aloof, far away, distant, being very critical, not bringing their own input into construction of the European project. I think this is where we need to work more together, to try to bridge the gap that is still there.
ABM: So, along with what you’ve said, in hindsight they felt ‘well, maybe we have moved too fast,’ but that nevertheless does influence today’s decision of the EU. Who else to allow access, that is, slowing the process. Wouldn’t you say it came as a result of the fact that some think it was enlarged too fast?
PV: Yeah. You have to make a distinction between those countries, namely the West Balkan countries to which we have committed ourselves. All the other members of the European Union have said, ‘you have a right and a vocation to become a member.’ And this was agreed. So the principle is there. They can become [members]. With the other new candidates for membership, namely Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, there for the time being we haven’t made a firm commitment. But in both cases, I think what we are saying is that we need more time, because first of all we need to put our own house in order. And I think that’s really the message we want, to bring you closer to us, and then one day to get you on board. But for the time being, we have our own problems and you must allow us some more time to put the house in order, and then we will come back to you. I think that’s really what we’re trying to push as the kind of narrative.
ABM: I want to mention a couple of countries, one is, we mentioned before is Serbia, the other one is Turkey, and Macedonia, to the extent to which the EU moved probably closer to Macedonia. Do you agree with that, in terms of accessibility?
PV: Macedonia certainly, if they manage to get a final agreement on the change of the name of the country.
ABM: Of the name, yeah, well.
PV: Because that was the real stumbling block.
ABM: So, I want to just ask you about Turkey. From my perspective, I don’t think Turkey has a slight chance of ever becoming a member. I’d like to hear your views on it.
PV: Now a difficult question, because Turkey has been there looming in the horizon.
ABM: For years.
PV: For many years. I think for the time being, what I would say is that more or less everyone is happy with the kind of status quo we have, [which] is that we still keep this commitment that one day Turkey could become a member, but for the time being it’s not possible. And Turkey on its side, it’s rather happy to have this commitment, this political commitment there, because I think it’s important for their own credibility. But they’re very happy with the current situation, because the whole process of accession, alignment, on the European legislation has reinforced the Turkish economy and has been very helpful for Erdogan in the last years to bring up the Turkish economy, the business sector, everything, to a level of strong competition with the outside world. So that has been rather useful. Now for the time being, because of the many contentious issues we have with Turkey, I don’t see any prospect, at least for the moment, of any accession. I think the only point President Erdogan would like to push forward is to improve the current situation of the Customs Union. He would like to improve the deal we’ve passed with Turkey about 15 years ago, and would like to have better provisions, improved arrangements with the Customs Union. This I think we should go along with, but at the moment the 28 member states have not been in agreement between themselves to start that negotiation, precisely because of the political situation in Turkey – the whole issue about human rights, about imprisonment, etc.
ABM: Yeah, I mean the setbacks, if you go back five, six years ago, he championed reforms and [they] were social, economic, certainly political. And then everything has been reversed, and now Turkey is experiencing also terrible economic problems on top of everything else. I mean, when I initially sounded categorical about, I don’t think there is any prospect—
ABM: Maintaining the so-called in something in the future is good, I agree with you 100 percent. Erdogan, I don’t believe that Erdogan is interested in EU membership, because he would have to restore all the reforms—human rights, freedom of press, I mean, he’s got 200 journalists in jail right now. So he’s not interested, and he’s also trying to push his Islamic agenda, which is totally inconsistent with the EU’s political and social culture. That’s not going to happen. I mean that’s why I feel.
PV: No, but you may be right that in the end there will never be a Turkish accession. But it seems to me that this may be linked to the whole overall evolution of the European Union as such, and that maybe the European Union will morph into something that will be somewhat different from what it is today. In other words, we may find ourselves as times go by and some countries are ready to go into enhanced integration, while others are not exactly on the same line, that we will start to see a more flexible Europe, with a first group of countries ready to go for more political, economic, even social integration, and others that will prefer to stay in a sort-of second circle, and maybe even in a third circle, I don’t know. And it is maybe there that you will see some kind of alignment of Turkey with maybe one of these two or three circles, and maybe all things will shape in a different way. It won’t be any more a question of whether you become a member of the whole European Union, or maybe you’ll become a member of only part of the European Union, and this may be the case for Turkey as it may be for other candidates. It may be the case also tomorrow for Ukraine or for Georgia, for many reasons. One of them we alluded to a few minutes ago, would be also the way Russia is looking at all these evolutions, and the need to take into account Russian concerns.
ABM: So going back, given that this is Russian concern, going back to Serbia. Now based on what I know, I think Russia is going to fight to resist or to prevent specifically Serbia of all the Balkans not to join the EU. Do you think— Of course there’s also the Serbia problem with Kosovo, which has not been settled down, and the EU would like to have that been settled before they seriously consider Serbia’s accession to the EU. This is one problem. And of course the other problem is Russia itself. Do you feel that at any point in time actually Serbia will have a reasonable prospect of accession, as long as Russia continues to oppose that?
PV: I think we have to face this dilemma more and more in the European Union. On one side, we shouldn’t be under any kind of Russian veto, and I think even Russia wouldn’t dare to say so publicly that they are against Serbia’s accession. But at the other side, we need to look at the geopolitical reality of Europe in a more realistic way than we have done before. I think one of the reasons why we have been facing this whole issue of the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia was precisely because the European Union went maybe to some extent too far or too quickly with the Association Agreement with Ukraine, and that we should have found ways of alleviating the concerns of the Russian leadership and explaining to them what we were doing, and maybe looking altogether with Russia and others about the kind of economic cooperation – even more so security cooperation – between all the different parts of the European continent to look at this from a regional perspective. Because one of the major concerns I guess of Russia with regard to the European Union is if we go on enlarging and having new member states moving in, we’ll show once more that the European model of economic assistance, of economic development, works much better than the Russian model. If you look at Poland and Ukraine before Polish accession to the European Union, Poland and Ukraine had more or less the same level of prosperity, the same level of GDP. Ten years after Polish accession, the difference is from 1 to 7. That’s the result of Polish accession to the European Union. This is the real challenge for Russia when it wants to convince Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Belarus to stay inside the influence zone of Russia.
ABM: But do you feel that? I mean my sense is that Putin, not Russia per se but Putin, because we don’t know who’s going to follow Putin, is trying to revive elements of the Soviet Union. That is, other than concerns over how fast Europeans [are] moving to Russian shores so to speak, that he not only he wants to stop that, but he wants to reinstate, reconstitute elements of the Soviet sphere of influence.
PV: It could be, it’s very difficult to say. I think his main purpose was to be seen and perceived once again as a major global power, not only in Europe but all over the Middle East and probably in other parts of the world. His most recent outreach to Venezuela for me is quite interesting, all the more so as I’m not so sure Russia has enough financial resources to take care of all those countries who are left behind, like Venezuela, Nicaragua, or others. But let’s put this aside. With regard to Europe as such, I agree with you that I think he still wants to keep some sphere of influence, zone of influence, around Russia with the fear that if he doesn’t do that, he would be progressively encircled by Europe and free market countries that he wants to push back as much as possible. So the risk there is that if we are not able to reach out to Putin and try to find some sort of common ground, the confrontation that we have witnessed in Ukraine and even recently in the Sea of Azov, this kind of confrontation will come out more and more. So we I think if we want to have a strong and imaginative and innovative diplomacy with regard to Russia, we have to take Russian concerns into consideration. Not to abide by it, this is not what I’m saying, but we shouldn’t be naive and think we can move forward without any problem. There is a problem with Russia, no doubt about it, and we need to face it and to try to find the right answer to that challenge, that is about how to alleviate Russian concerns.
ABM: I absolutely agree. Do you think, and I’m coming from a background of conflict resolution— In my mind right now as I see it, the recent development with the Russian seizure of a Ukrainian ship and all of that, shouldn’t that provide some opening along the lines of what you’re saying? Not only deal with this issue, but take it further and open an open-ended dialogue with Russia and perhaps France or Germany, the leading European Union [states], should begin that kind of process, especially given that you cannot rely on this president here to really take any significant—and he can’t. I mean, come January he’s going to be almost a lame duck, because he’s going to be constantly under pressure from Congress. But do you think that conflict currently now between the Ukraine and Russia might provide that opening that you just talked about?
PV: Let’s hope it could. I think the problem of the relationship between the European Union and Russia has been one of missed opportunities. In the beginning of 2000 and the years that followed, there was a window of opportunity to try to develop with Russia a whole new idea about what I would call the new architecture for the European continent from the point of view of security, of economic development, and prosperity. There was a real possibility to do that, and maybe Europe missed that point. Russia maybe also in its part—but Russia came up with some interesting, well interesting, their own proposals that are not acceptable to us. But rather than being dismissive as we were at the time, rather listen to them and try to see how we could work together, would have been much preferable to the position we took. We have to recreate that kind of opportunity with Russia in my opinion and start some sort of dialogue with them, taking into account the whole European region, and see how we could work together. I recognize it’s very difficult to do at the moment, because of the Ukrainian crisis, because of the sanctions we have taken with them. So how to re-initiate a dialogue with Russia? Real geopolitical dialogue may be difficult, but I think this is really what the Europeans should start thinking about.
ABM: Yeah, I mean because, Russia is going to be there, European Union’s going to be there. And I think given the tense situation right now, it’s possibly, as a matter of fact, it might be an opportunity to say well listen, these problems [are] going to fester. Let’s talk, let’s deal with it now and then take it into the next step, the next step. You see, as I see it, of course Putin feels emboldened by this president here.
PV: You’re right.
ABM: This is the problem. And right now, he doesn’t have the incentive to sit down actually and start serious negotiations with the EU. But in the final analysis, the sanctions are biting, the economy in Russia is not doing great at all. So he still might have that kind of incentive to still say, ‘let’s solve these problems.’ I don’t know. I mean, one country back channel of sort to begin that kind of process.
PV: Yeah. It could be, I still think if the Europeans could find the beginning of a solution on Ukraine, that would be very helpful. We have as all too often started a process in Ukraine and we just now have sit back and let the process go along without much result. We should bring back some momentum into that process and try to find ways of moving out of the kind of deadlock where we are at the moment.
ABM: Especially you might say given the position of Trump, who might find European intervention more palatable than he himself going against [Putin]. Would you say that?
PV: I guess we have to wait for, first of all for the next presidential election in Ukraine. But with a new Ukrainian president, whoever it will be, whether it will be Poroshenko being renewed or another one, we will have maybe there a bit new energy on which we could try to rebound and build a new stage for that dialogue and for this peace process there. And if we manage to do that, it could open the way for a sort of incremental process with Russia, where we could start really a new dialogue with them. It may sound once again very unrealistic at the moment, but for me it’s a sort of obligation, if we want.
ABM: I agree with you. It’s not unrealistic, I mean [it] really ought to be done. If there’s any implications that may be negative, it’s the fact that say, are we as the European Union negotiating from a position of weakness? Why should we take the initiative when in fact it was Russia that committed this transgression? And Russia ought to begin to improve the relationship first. But I think well, you are a diplomat you know better than anybody else, there’s so many different channels that you can go around about to begin some kind of dialogue. It doesn’t have to be formal to begin with.
PV: Absolutely. And the reality is that if we don’t do that all together, every European member states will go on its own, and they’re already doing that. They’re all visiting on a bilateral basis; they’re all visiting Moscow. And of course Putin is playing with that and creating divisions among the Europeans. So we better get a united position and try to bring this new dialogue again into motion.
ABM: Great. Well, now we solved the problem of the Ukraine, of Russia.
PV: We can go to the Middle East, easy.
ABM: No, I really appreciate your take on this very much so. I know you’ve been a veteran diplomat in the Middle East as well. You are all over, and you do amazing things. But as far as the Middle East goes, I just want to talk to you about the current few conflicts. Let me begin with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well, many people resigned now themselves to the fact that there will be no two-state solution, and the only possible, other outcome [is a] one-state solution, which in my view is totally unacceptable, will never be accepted by Israel. Or the other one is maintaining the status quo, which is explosive. It’s a question only of when. Let me begin with this premise. Do you a) agree with this premise, and take it from there.
PV: No, no I totally agree with you. I recognize as I think you do yourself that the two-state solution has more or less backtracked in recent years, and that’s the sort of gridlock where we are at the moment. It hasn’t helped, of course. So a lot of people are telling us time and again, the two-state solution has become totally unrealistic. Nobody trusts or believes in it anymore. So let’s put it aside and start thinking about something else. But what I have always found out discussing this whole peace process is, whatever other solution is being put on the table has at least as many problems as the two-state solution today. So why not stick to the two-state solution, even if I agree for the time being that there is not much prospect of this being delivered soon. But I think we should keep it as the final goal and try it from there to start, exactly as we were saying before, to start moving in that direction, with small steps if possible, and with a bit of political goodwill on both sides, which is I fear is what is missing the most at the moment.
ABM: My take on it, in addition to that, and you’re absolutely right, is that— And I’ve been singing the song, I feel I keep singing the same song, but because I still believe the tune of the song still resonates with me a lot more than anything else. And that is the current leadership in my view, be that Netanyahu [or] Abbas, are not and will not make the kind of concessions necessary to make peace. I begin with that point. The second thing, going to your point, is we need – and you remember we’re talking about a process of reconciliation, finally. Former Secretary of State Kerry, Dennis Ross, and many others who’ve involved with these negotiations were saying, we made a terrible mistake. We were sitting and negotiating and negotiating, but the street remained the same thing. The hatred, the animosity between the two sides did not change. And if we came up with a solution even, how will the two sides accept it, if the concession has to be so considerable that people are not ready to make that kind of concession, or the process of reconciliation so to speak was missing all along, which has to precede any serious peace talk. But the third point, I feel that the commitment to really reach an agreement was never there. I mean, I’m prepared to go back 15, 20 years even in Camp David. They came very close in 2008 and 9, they came very close, 2013 14. What happened? Why has [it] not been completed? I don’t think that commitment— I mean, do you agree? That’s really what I [want to] hear you your take on it. That is, if I am committed to do something 100 percent, you and I agree we’re going to have to cross the street no matter how horrible the traffic is, no matter how difficult it is, no matter how the weather is, we will find a way to cross the street. That kind of commitment to reach an agreement was never there in my view. Which, hence, no significant efforts were made to prepare the ground for the inevitable, which is, it’s got to be a solution. And as long as that commitment did not exist, means and avenues were never exhausted to reach an agreement.
PV: No, I would agree with you. I would start from maybe a different point, but I come to the same conclusion. My point is that both sides have, after awhile, felt very comfortable with the status quo, be it the Israeli side with this idea that we have this occupying power status with which we can take a lot of from, which we can take a lot of benefits, extending settlements and creating a de facto situation, a fait accompli as we say in France, which is very comfortable for us. At some point there was maybe some security problem, but we have faced it, we have overcome that, and we control the situation. And on the other side, I sense that to some extent the Palestinian Authority is rather comfortable with the current status quo also, because they have this ruling over a very small part of the territory, Ramallah and a few other parts. They considered itself as a de facto state which has a status of observer in the U.N., can play with it. And because of all the divisions inside and the different factions inside the Palestinian Authority, rather than trying to overcome and finding some unity, they preferred to stay there. So I don’t feel that is there is any eagerness on either side to move away from the present situation.
ABM: But the question is, is it sustainable?
ABM: That’s my concern. That is, there are currently, there’s no motivation, certainly not in Israel; and among the Palestinians, the division you talked about is absolutely valid. Not [between] just Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, but within the Palestinian Authority, and within Hamas. You have groupings and sub-groupings and they have never reached a consensus. And I think that was the plight of the Palestinian people. There was really never a unity of purpose. Let’s get together, let’s— And then of course they fell so terribly behind, by instead of focusing on building the foundations of statehood, they were occupied by trying to push Israel out. And that’s still the case to a great extent, especially say in Gaza and elsewhere. So they have been playing into the Israeli hands all of these years, and never changed their narrative, never changed their approach. But the current situation cannot be sustained once—Abbas is going to go in one form or another. Netanyahu is going to go. There is no visible, strong Israeli leader that can come to the fore and say let’s solve— In fact, all the Israeli opposition parties never even talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore. So you are so right in suggesting the status quo, they’re happy with the current situation, but I think it is explosive. At one point or another it’s going to explode because it’s not sustainable. Do you agree with that?
PV: I would agree, but I’m quite struck and somewhat interested by the kind of narrative I detect in what the current U.S. administration is trying to do, this so-called peace plan of the century that’s going to come out. Because what I can gather, what I have gathered so far from bits and pieces we hear about that plan, is that there is a sort of gamble on the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis who will not be interested anymore in this pursuit for this political goal of two states, or a Palestinian state, but will be much more interested in the relative situation of economic prosperity, and looking for better living. And therefore, these people will be ready, the next generation will be ready to leave aside the prospect of a full-fledged Palestinian state in favor of economic prosperity, which I think is at the heart of what Jared Kushner and Mr. Greenblatt are looking for. Can this work? I doubt it personally, and I think you will doubt it also.
ABM: I agree with you.
PV: But I think it’s interesting that they’re trying that way, because it’s maybe another way of looking at the whole issue. I personally think that the Palestinian cause has become too much of a political goal that you just can’t let aside.
ABM: I absolutely agree with you. I think economic development can be used only as a means by which to eventually get to the ultimate agreement, a two-state solution of sort, but it cannot be in and of itself the ultimate objective. National movement, historically speaking, you can correct me on that I’m sure, the Palestinian national movement never subsided and died only because they have now attained a better economic condition. Yeah, they like that, but they don’t give up the hope and the dream of having independence. I mean, when I go to the West Bank. I hear this time and again and again and again, we may be making a living, but our hope and expectation is somewhere along the line. And they understand Abbas is pretty much useless; Netanyahu is hardcore, waiting for him to either leave or [be] indicted or go to prison hopefully, as some of his predecessors. And that’s the problem with the Israelis. I think it’s a sad, sad commentary on both Israelis and the Palestinians to get to this point, that [they are] thinking they are sitting on something that can be held onto and sustained, when in fact it doesn’t really have strong legs to stand on in the long term.
PV: No, I agree. And I think we should be careful. We diplomats tend to live in a bubble and think that the situation can go on. But when you go on the ground and watch what’s going on—I’m not even talking about Gaza, because Gaza is—
ABM: Is awful.
PV: Is awful. But [in] the West Bank there is a lot of frustration. Resignation, trafficking of all sorts is taking place, which means that for me this place is very unstable and risks an explosion at all moments.
ABM: I think so.
PV: And this sort of ongoing hubris on the Israeli side, that through security they control everything and that no bad surprise can occur, seems to me a bit shortsighted.
ABM: Very, very, very shortsighted, especially given the conditions in the Middle East altogether, which—the situation in Lebanon with Hezbollah, the situation in Iran, which take me now—Let’s go to Syria, take a ride to Syria. Syria created a completely new dimension to various conflicts. I mean, I think there is some kind of connection of sorts obviously between all of these conflicts, and the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could eventually impact on the Israeli-Iranian relationship, so to speak. But let’s go back, your take on Syria is very important. What is your take, given that now people talk about coming very close to the ending of the civil war? There’s a question still, the city of Idlib is still pending. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know that Russia is entrenched to the hilt. Iran does not want to leave. Israel has locked horns with Iran as far as Syria goes, and on and on. Where do you go with this?
PV: I’m not sure I know myself where we’re going. I would say two things on the military side of the problem. It’s true that we are witnessing a new stage in the conflict, where Syria supported by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah has gained ground and is moving in towards an increased control of the whole Syrian territory. But I would put immediately a caveat there, is that I’m quite struck by the fact that in large, in many parts of the country where the Syrian National Army has managed to get in, with the support of Russia and others and is regaining control, there is still fighting going on.
PV: They don’t get rid of those opposition armed groups. Even Daesh, ISIS, has not totally disappeared. It’s not any more the sort of structured organization that was in charge of a large part of Eastern Syria, but it’s still there, it’s still fighting. So what we are witnessing is maybe a situation where the high intensity conflict is slowly moving out of the picture, but something different may be appearing, which will still be a conflict, low intensity terrorist attacks, whatever. I’m not sure that we’re back to full-fledged military security and stability as Damascus may be expecting.
ABM: I agree 100 percent. Yeah.
PV: That’s one point. The second point is that maybe because of that military situation, I don’t see any political solution here. Not only because the opposition will go on fighting as long as they can, and because the political and economic reality in many parts of the country now is made of warlords a little bit everywhere, who are playing their own game. But also because in Damascus I don’t think that in any way Bashar al-Assad is ready to give up any of his power. And when we are all expecting, with the help of the U.N., that we’re going to be able to set up a constitutional committee that will draft a new constitution, I personally think that Bashar al-Assad doesn’t want any of this to happen, and that as far as one can see, neither Russia nor Iran have the necessary leverage to impose this upon him. If only they were willing to do so, which I’m not sure. So I unfortunately think that we may be facing the kind of situation we have now in Syria going on and on for a while. Which brings about the whole question of, what should the West do in those conditions, which is not easy.
ABM: So, along the lines of what you’re saying, really you have the internal combustion that is still going on and will continue to go on, the population is segmented, you have different groups – Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, and so forth – and they each have their own particular interest and want to guard it at all costs. And then you have external players like Russia, Iran, of course Saudi Arabia indirectly, the Israelis are there, the Americans are there; that’s another layer. So to satisfy all of these players, to find a solution that can meet and satisfy all these players, to me it is practically almost impossible. So do you agree that the dynamics inside Syria ought first to be changed before you can get all this, better than a dozen significant players inside and outside the country, to come up with some kind of consensus with which they can live? Do you see that happening?
PV: No, because first of all I very much agree with you that the internal dynamic is still very much there. And if you look for instance back at the unfortunate experience of Lebanon in the 70s and the 80s, it was the regional actors that at some point were able to come in. Saudi Arabia, if only to name one of these regional actors who at some point understood that time was ripe to step into Lebanon and to convince the different parties to stop fighting each other, because there was a lot of war fatigue between all of them at some point. I’m not sure we have reached that point yet in Syria. And secondly, unfortunately the main regional actors are fighting each other by proxy through Syria. So it seems to me that I don’t expect neither Russia nor the United States nor the U.N. nor the Western countries to be able to impose a solution, because they’re not part of that region and it never works when you come from outside. I think it’s for the actors in the region at the end of the day to be able to find a solution. And I think that at the moment, because they’re fighting at each other, we haven’t yet a solution there for the time being, unfortunately.
ABM: Yeah, definitely. I mean when you think in terms of political solutions in particular, or what sort of— We go always to these countries like cowboys with two guns ready to go. We have a system you ought to emulate. We have a democratic form of government. Just follow that, go to elections, and everything is going to be fine. Well, it was never fine anywhere in the Arab world so far. And it’s not going to be fine in Syria, specifically in Syria. So I mean it is sad, sad, sad, sad commentary, that nearly 600,000 people died, half the country is refugees or internally displaced.
PV: The only glimmer of hope or optimism I have with Syria is that under this fractured, under the surface of this fractured country today, it seems that at the local level there is something appearing of new local powers here or there that could be interesting to watch and to support to some extent. Of course, the risk is that if you support some of those local authorities that are emerging there, you go even further into fragmentation of the country. But maybe with the necessary degree of control and self control, you could start seeing or emerging a more decentralized Libya that could help—
ABM: You mean Syria.
PV: Syria, sorry. That could help set up a new type of government in due course.
ABM: Yeah, well, that’s going to take awhile.
PV: It takes a while.
ABM: That’s going to take a long while.
PV: It will be rather than the top-down approach, it would be a bottom-up.
ABM: Bottom-up. You’re going to need to need a bottom-up. I absolutely agree that is probably the only thing that will save Syria. But, this in my view is years ahead, is not going to happen any time soon. So I want to move to Yemen. That is another heart wrenching tragedy. I wrote so much about it, and every time I write about it I really, I want to cry. I really mean it. I feel, especially when it comes to kids, when you hear about a million kids infected by cholera. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands are dying from starvation. And then we, the United States, continue to support the Saudis, providing the ammunition they need and all of that, providing [them] with the killing machine. And recently I wrote a piece about, as a consequence of the killing and the dismemberment of Khashoggi, shouldn’t that provide us with some opening? Well, what’s going on now in the Senate, with the hearing, what happened, you know this better than anyone else.
[Note: at the time of recording, the Senate was debating a proposal condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the death of Jamal Khashoggi; it has since passed unanimously.]
To what extent do you feel, and given of course the madness of this president, who is so—I mean for him who cares, Khashoggi, no Khashoggi, we want to sell them arms, we want to buy this, and thank you Saudi Arabia. Can you imagine? I mean, I get the chills when I hear something like that. But given this situation here, and now the revelation as of yesterday, when the director of the CIA [briefed Congressional members about the situation]— What do you do to bring an end to this horrifying, horrifying war that no one is going to absolutely— I think at the end of the day, nobody is going to come victorious at all. That has to end somehow, and everybody going back to where they were before. That’s how I see it.
PV: No, I totally agree with your description of the situation there. If I take up your question about what can we do and how to move forward, I would take up the point you made about the humanitarian situation. At least let’s try to bring some positive moves with regard to the humanitarian situation. In other words, get from both sides an agreement that allows humanitarian assistance to get in, a free flow of humanitarian support, at least 4 to 6 months ahead to try to alleviate some of the difficulties the population is facing. Even that so far has been impossible to reach because both sides are so hooked on this idea that they’re not going to let any opening happen with their current infighting. This has made any humanitarian breakthrough impossible. So I think we should seize this opportunity of the Congress being maybe more aggressive in the next few months on this, but also putting pressure on some of the Western countries. My own country, Britain, which so far has been very supportive of the Saudi offensive and the Emirati offensive, to try to make them change their position. Personally, I expect more maybe from the Emiratis, who seem now to wobble.
ABM: You mean, talking specifically about Abu Dhabi. I mean, the United Arab Emirates?
PV: The Emirates, exactly, who seem to wobble a little bit. Now with their Yemen implication, I’m less convinced that on the Saudi side the crown prince is ready to be more flexible than he has been before. At least we have now this conversation starting in Stockholm. Let’s see how it goes. But if at least it could come out with one agreement on humanitarian assistance, that would be a first step, I think. One additional observation – the Europeans, at least the three Europeans who are part of the Iranian nuclear deal plus Italy, have as you know started a political dialogue with Iran, and one of the few issues on which they had perceived a little bit of flexibility from Iran was precisely Yemen.
PV: And I think we should try to make the best out of this. I don’t think, contrary to what I hear from my former colleagues in the State Department or other circles in Washington, that Iran is totally invested in supporting the Houthis against Saudi Arabia. I’m not so sure about that.
ABM: I agree with you.
PV: Of course they’re using that opportunity against Saudi Arabia.
ABM: Well of course, because they’re also, not profusely bleeding, but they don’t see an outcome where they can emerge really with any significant, durable gain. They don’t. That’s how I see it. I don’t think they see that. They see that this is a war, it’s consuming a lot of resources. They’re under tremendous pressure, there’s renewed sanctions and all of that, and then there’s of course the Iran deal. And so a solution to Yemen, I like your view on it. A solution to Yemen from the Iranian perspective, and perhaps this is the reason why they’re showing a little bit more flexibility about Yemen, is to try. Also if there is a solution there, it could open or pave the way, at least provide a small opening to dealing with a larger regional issue, particularly concerning the conflict between the United States, Israel, and Iran. Would you think that?
PV: It seems to me that the only solution to the current confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is growing by the day. I mean, they’re getting more and more aggressive, one against each other. It’s not to think about some sort of regional security pact, of course it would be great, but we’re too far away from this.
ABM: No, I’m talking about—
PV: Talking about small steps.
ABM: Saudi Arabia, yeah, Saudi Arabia and Iran, ending that war.
ABM: Could provide openings, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t think you can go over.
PV: But that’s my point. I think you’re absolutely right, is that by going by a step-by-step approach that we can start, it’s what we usually call confidence-building measures. And there’s a total lack of confidence at the moment. So it’s about restarting a process that will slowly build confidence again between all these different nations. And you have to start somewhere. Why not start with Yemen?
ABM: Also within that, exactly what you said starting with Yemen, but the first step is to begin with humanitarian steps, in order to alleviate the horrifying conditions that exist right now in Yemen. And I think both Iran and Saudi Arabia may be open to this, now that the crown prince is under this kind of pressure. If Congress is going to pass most likely a resolution, they have a veto-proof consensus now, that they may pass it today or tomorrow, that compels the president to stop supplying the kind of weapons the Saudis need. [Note: this was passed after recording, on December 13 in the Senate, 56-41.] That is going to also send a clear picture. But I feel very strongly, concurrently with that, I would have liked to see a delegation going immediately to Saudi Arabia and saying, ‘look, you have made a horrible mistake. This is not going to go away so easy. But try to show some signs of humanitarian signs and say we’re going to do this and this in Yemen, we’re going to…’ That is going to also improve their—
PV: I see your point.
ABM: Global, improve their position on the global stage because of Khashoggi. I mean, I see that the Khashoggi situation provided perhaps that opportunity. But are we going to capitalize on it, or from your perspective do you think the Europeans should do something, specifically the British and others, France?
PV: I think maybe the British would be the one who could do it. I’m still hesitant about the ability of the European Union as such, as an entity, to be a real global actor at the moment. It’s more individual member states which have a stake into the matter. Britain for instance, Germany to some extent, France, maybe one or two others. These are the ones who can maybe help broker a deal at some point. But Europe as such is too much divided, with some of the member states still very reluctant to be seen in any way opposing President Trump. So I sense that if you want to do something quickly in an urgent way, as a sort of a priority, it should be maybe one or another of the member states in Europe that could try that. Britain has been trying that, as you know right now at the moment in the U.N. Security Council. France has never been very active in Yemen, they sell arms to Saudi Arabia. At some point they have tried to be part of a small informal group of diplomats from different European countries and non-European countries who tried in the past to broker a peace deal between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, but it didn’t go very far. I’m more trustful to some extent of a country like Oman as the one who could come back into the game and play a useful role of honest broker, maybe because they have good relations with Iran. They can talk to Saudi Arabia and they may be the ones who could help bridge some sort of a go-between move between the different parties. Of course you have the U.N. also which is there, and the special envoy is someone who knows well the region and has been very effective in the past, so this could also help. I think the best contribution from the European side, coming back to what I was saying earlier, is their ability to talk directly to Tehran.
ABM: I think so. And I also think, I mean you’re talking about the United Nations. I mean there is full coordination between Britain and the United States in the Security Council. I’m not sure the Russians don’t have much say about the situation in Yemen. There is this kind of, and there is a resolution, but does really the United States need a U.N. resolution to deal with Saudi Arabia, or Britain for that matter? So, I think the focus should be now directly on the Saudis, and give the crown prince an opportunity to put a better face by stopping this horrible, by saying let’s begin a major humanitarian project to deal with that end of it. Don’t you think that would be?
PV: I think this is certainly what we should do and keep on doing. And I agree with you, with the relative weakness at the moment of the U.N. system. This I agree. Where I have my doubts is on the attitude of the crown prince in Saudi Arabia. It seems to me that out of the Khashoggi affair, he has come down to some extent by doubling down on his position, on being even stronger and firmer in his stance regarding Yemen, regarding Iran. And this is where I think we will need a lot of pressure to be able to do that.
ABM: Unless, that is, I agree with you, unless the United States acts, and I think now he’s also watching what the Senate is going to be doing. And if the resolution passes – and it will pass, based on the numbers that we are looking at – that means no supplies. So there is a leverage right now. So he maybe doubled down on, thinking I’m going to do this, this is my problem, my prerogative. He’s going to feel the pain sooner than later. And that is if the Senate sticks to its guns, and takes that kind of measure and sends a clear message to him, ‘Hey Mister, you’d better listen or else, there’ll be even worse consequences.’ Don’t you think that this potentially could happen?
PV: It’s true. It can work. It can work. But what are the levers of the Congress? It will be arms sale.
ABM: They have, yeah, they can prevent the president [Note: under the War Powers Act, which checks’ the president’s power to engage in armed conflict without the consent of Congress] from shipping any kind of ammunition, and actually they are – for example, they can stop the president from refueling these planes. The munitions they are using to kill people, they can stop that. So they can stop all of this. Basically, they can put a halt to the offensive the Saudis have been conducting for the last three, four years. The Senate can do that. And if it’s veto-proof, over 60 [votes], there isn’t much the president can do about it. They’ll have to adhere to it. [Note: This measure passed the Senate 56-41 on December 13] So we can only hope of course, which takes us to our easiest problem to solve, which is Iran. Are you OK with it?
PV: Cherry on top of the cake.
ABM: I know Iran is a—
PV: Iran is a big piece to swallow.
ABM: I feel—please correct me, because this is my take. There is of course the nuclear problem. There is the Israeli play and game position on this, which is I think way too exaggerated than what the Israelis claim. I don’t feel that Iran, even if it eventually acquires a nuclear weapon, is going to use it, knowing that it could be annihilated in return. I think this is all more of political posturing on the part of Israel. I think the deeper conflict is more like the Sunni-Shiite conflict today in the Middle East, and with Saudi Arabia and Iran trying to position themselves in a manner so that they will be the anchor of the region, representing the two brands of Islam. And the two countries that have a say on that specifically, is Iran and Saudi Arabia. And that is the backdrop as I see it, of some of what’s going on even in Syria. Needless to say in Syria there was also proxy war to a great extent between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And now there’s new sanctions on Iran, the economy is hurting, like you just said, the Europeans are dealing with Iran, trying to find out better ways—where is this all going to lead to?
PV: Easy question.
ABM: I thought I’d give you little hard time toward the end.
PV: I very much agree with your assessment. I have personally, for having lived in this region at some point, I’ve always been struck by – leaving Turkey aside – the confrontation between Saudi Arabia on one hand and Iran on the other hand was an obvious one that was there for all to see, and with – in my opinion, I may be wrong – real important assets on the Iranian side, a strong population, larger than Saudi Arabia.
ABM: Three times.
PV: High quality of education of their young people, which means great expertise in many issues, and a vibrant society which has survived and has remained very vibrant in spite of the regime.
ABM: Yeah, to a great extent it remains Western oriented.
PV: Yes, yes.
ABM: There’s no question about it, and you are so absolutely right. I mean, they are a proud people. Historically speaking, culturally speaking, the numbers talk. As far as they’re concerned, there are more Shiites in the Middle East than there are Sunnis [in the] Gulf or in Jordan, including Iraq and all of that, there’s still more Shiites in that region. So from their perspective, we are the power and we have inherent rights. So, I’m sorry to interrupt you.
PV: No, no, no, but you’re absolutely right. And furthermore, if you pretend to become one of the major regional powers and you look around you and you see that all your neighbors have the capacity, the nuclear military capacity, like India, Pakistan, and Israel on the other side, you just want to have the same leverage. And of course by doing that, you trigger Saudi Arabia’s reaction, which wants also its own nuclear military capacity. So this is the natural road to instability confrontation, and things are getting more and more dangerous as we move along. So the whole point is for me two-fold. One is, let’s stop talking all the time about regime change in Iran, because this is really what it’s all about from the U.S. side. We will never be able to start any sort of dialogue if the sort-of precondition is regime change, and it will go nowhere. This is why I think, whatever we may think about the nuclear deal with all its shortcomings, it was better to have this deal than not to have it.
ABM: Absolutely, absolutely.
PV: This was a first step towards something that could be helpful in the future. So I think at some point we have to go back to that, how can we convince the present US administration to go back to a more rational approach towards Iran. This I don’t know, and I’m not sure we can expect anything there for some time. So for the time being, we have to convince our American partners that by going on discussing, having this dialogue with Iran, we are moving in the right direction and that they better look at what we’re trying to do. We – the Europeans – Russia, China, and others, India, Japan, and that maybe they should slowly come back to a more rational and peaceful course with regard to Iran. That in my opinion would help, also maybe to support the moderates inside the regime and to be on that side of the political spectrum in Iran, comforting those who are looking for a progressive opening towards the west, so on and so forth. Now we have a major difference with—and this would be my second point. We have a major difference with the U.S. administration, [which] is that they just don’t believe in the kind of assessment we’re making about the Iranian regime. When we’re talking about a distinction between moderates and radicals, they tell us in strong words that we are naïve, that this is one united political regime and they’re playing with us this game of moderates against radical. But nothing of that kind exists in Iran, it’s one obsessed regime with aggressing the West and refusing any kind of compromise at the end of the day. Once again, I don’t want to be naïve. We know about some of those radical moves inside the regime, the terrorist attacks that we have been the victims of here and there, but in our opinion that should not prevent us from keeping on dialogue with Tehran, because that would be for the benefit of all.
ABM: There’s no doubt. I think the whole effort, in which country at least in recent decades, where we attempted regime change was [not] successful. In Iran itself, go back to 1953; we actually forced the regime change and [it] came back to haunt us in 1979. I mean, any regime change, I think the Obama approach to Iran was much more practical by far. First of all, he openly said we are not looking for regime change. He moved to get the Iran deal done. And the whole idea was that you have that deal, exactly what you said, and from that moment on, you move and build on it. I mean, certainly Iran has a security concern. Forget even Israel, or forget Saudi Arabia, they have security concerns from the other side. They have to deal with Pakistan, they have Afghanistan, they have all of these countries, and there’s no stability there. So they are basically surrounded with countries who are either hostile, or at best certainly not friendly in any which way. So they have security concerns, and I think what you said is absolutely necessary. It’s a pipe dream to think that you’re going to get a regime change in Iran. They seem to be holding to power very strongly. We don’t sense, I don’t know if you sense any internal threat to the regime. I don’t, no matter who we look at and we talk, they don’t sense any impending.
PV: This is a country, a nation with a very strong nationalistic streak, because of their long historical legacy of Russian interference, British interference, U.S.-CIA with the Mossadegh government. So this has been kept very much alive in their memory. When I was posted in that country many years ago, memories of Mosaddegh were coming back all the time; they were talking to me all the time about this. So I think there is, it seems to me to be a little bit of a pipe dream to think that this regime will fall easily just by putting on it economic sanctions.
ABM: I mean, the regime is not exactly ignoring the public consensus. They are paying a lot of attention to how the public is reacting. And as a matter of fact, because of what the United States has done under this administration, the public is angry at America—not at the regime, because they feel the regime is fulfilling its obligation. It’s been doing the right thing. They agreed to the agreement and the United States came in and revoked the whole thing. And that’s why I don’t see any disturbances within Iran itself, because they more they see more eye-to-eye with the regime than they have seen before, so exactly [the] opposite of what Trump is trying to achieve. He thinks that the economic sanctions are going to cause tremendous domestic dislocation, economic dislocation. It does to some extent. But don’t you feel that the Iranians are not – even though they may be suffering more economically – they’re not prepared to take it against the regime?
PV: I agree with you. Even if I would say social unrest has been increasing in Iran in recent months, even in recent years. But interestingly enough, the regime is very much aware of that. Five years ago, you wouldn’t have heard in Iran the kind of statements you get from the Supreme Leader or from the President Rouhani, saying that they understand the social uneasiness and they want to do something about it. And I think it’s interesting to hear those statements, which for me are rather new in the Iranian context, which shows that they are aware that something needs to be done—
ABM: Something needs to be done, yeah.
PV: To alleviate some of those social concerns. How far can they go amidst all these new sanctions regime, we’ll have to see. But contrary to the previous sanction regime where we were all united, I mean the international community, here you are in a situation where as far as possible, most of [the] Iranian partners are trying to see how they can find a way through, in spite of the U.S. sanctions.
ABM: Yeah, and they feel encouraged. I mean they feel that. I mean, that’s why probably it is not as widespread. But I think you’re absolutely right. These demonstrations were not geared against the regime per se. We want regime change, no such thing. It’s, we want better conditions. Don’t you—I mean, that was a sentiment. Nobody was saying ‘regime is this, there is corruption, there is this, there is that.’ They’re mostly talking about their own economic, mostly economic conditions, yeah. But as far as Iran’s nuclear ambition, so far they have adhered, continue to adhere to the Iran deal. That’s what we understand. The European community has been saying they have been adhering, nothing has changed, and if I take, not a wild guess but thinking the way the Iranians are thinking, I don’t think they have any plan necessarily to withdraw from the deal at this point or any time in the near future, because what would that do? That would be very much to their disadvantage, where now they can play Europe versus the United States. They are still dealing with Russia, they’re dealing with China, they’re still buying their oil. China is not concerned with that. So they have no real motivation to withdraw from the deal. And they have patience. They’ve had 4,000 years of continuing historic existence; for them 10 years, 15 years from now is a very short period of time.
PV: No you’re right, I agree with you. Their interest for the moment is for a certainly, the current situation is US being isolated. Many of the Iranian economic partners [are] trying to find ways to circumvent sanctions, so on and so forth. Whereas if they decided to just get out of the nuclear deal, then I guess the whole international community would have to set up new sanctions that would have a universal dimension, and that would be much more difficult for them. So I think the point at the moment is certainly for them in this kind of very difficult domestic balance of power between the different elements of the regime. This is more or less the tipping point of that balance. But one has to be cautious, because you see that still inside the regime, the radical faction seems to be going on with its terrorist attack against opposition in Europe. We have seen plans for terrorist attacks of that sort, and that is not very good of course because it forces the Europeans to start looking again at the possibility at least of personal sanctions against some people of the regime. So there is a risk there of this current attitude from the European side to slowly crumble in, as we face continuing attacks from the radical part of the regime against the Western world.
ABM: Yeah, but, I suppose, I mean, I take it that Western diplomats are actually, should be conveying this message – that is, you want us to stick to the sanctions, to stick to the deal. You better watch what you’re doing. I mean, I suppose these messages [are] being conveyed to the—
PV: Absolutely, they have been conveyed.
ABM: To the Iranians.
PV: Now we have to watch and observe very closely what will be the outcome.
ABM: And then finally, I think one point [is] that they may stick to the deal still for a while. I think they see what’s happening here in the United States. Like myself and many others hope that Trump is not going to be reelected. Or if he—hopefully he won’t last to 2020 anyway, and that the political dynamic is going to change if there’s a new president. I think they have enough patience to wait and see what’s going to happen here in the United States. And on that note—
PV: Optimistic of note, you would say.
ABM: I can’t thank you enough for taking so much time; I took a lot of time, like more than an hour and a half. Again so much, thank you so much.
PV: Thank you Alon, it was a pleasure to host both of you.
In today’s episode, I talk with Nathan J. Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, about Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority, and the challenges of coming to a peace agreement.
Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics. Brown brings his special expertise on Islamist movements, Egyptian politics, Palestinian politics, and Arab law and constitutionalism to Carnegie. Brown’s latest book, Arguing Islam After the Revival of Arab Politics, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016, and his previous book, When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics, was published by Cornell University Press in early 2012. His current work focuses on religion, law, and politics in the Arab world.
In 2013, Brown was named a Guggenheim Fellow; four years earlier, he was named a Carnegie scholar by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. For the 2009–2010 academic year, he was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In addition to his academic work, Brown serves on the Middle East and North Africa advisory committee for Human Rights Watch and the board of trustees at the American University in Cairo. He has previously served as an advisor for the committee drafting the Palestinian constitution, USAID, the United Nations Development Program, and several NGOs. For 2013-2015 he is president of the Middle East Studies Association, the academic association for scholars studying the region.
Brown is the author of Between Religion and Politics (with Amr Hamzawy, Carnegie 2010); Resuming Arab Palestine (University of California Press, 2003); Constitutions in a Non-Constitutional World: Arab Basic Laws and Prospects for Accountable Government(SUNY Press, 2001); and The Rule of Law in the Arab World: Courts in Egypt and the Arab States of the Gulf (Cambridge University Press, 1997). He also edited The Dynamics of Democratization (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
Professor Daniel Serwer (Ph.D., Princeton) directs the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a Senior Fellow at its Center for Transatlantic Relations and affiliated as a Scholar with the Middle East Institute. His current interests focus on the civilian instruments needed to protect U.S. national security as well as transition and state-building in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans. His book, Righting the Balance: How You Can Help Protect America, was published in November 2013 by Potomac Books.
Formerly vice president for centers of peacebuilding innovation at the United States Institute of Peace, he led teams there working on rule of law, religion, economics, media, technology, security sector governance, and gender. He was also vice president for peace and stability operations at USIP, where he led its peacebuilding work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Balkans and served as Executive Director of the Hamilton/Baker Iraq Study Group. Serwer has worked on preventing inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iraq and has facilitated dialogue between Serbs and Albanians in the Balkans.
As a minister-counselor at the U.S. Department of State, Serwer directed the European office of intelligence and research and served as U.S. special envoy and coordinator for the Bosnian Federation, mediating between Croats and Muslims and negotiating the first agreement reached at the Dayton peace talks. From 1990 to 1993, he was deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, leading a major diplomatic mission through the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War.
Khaled Elgindy is a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings and a founding board member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. He previously served as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on permanent status negotiations with Israel from 2004 to 2009, and was a key participant in the Annapolis negotiations held throughout 2008. He is a co-author of “The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East” (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).
Prior to that, Elgindy spent nine years in various political and policy-related positions in Washington, D.C., both inside and outside the federal government, including as a professional staff member on the House International Relations Committee in 2002 and as a policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2000 to 2002. He served as the political action coordinator for the Arab American Institute from 1998 to 2000 and as Middle East program officer for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs from 1995 to 1997.
Elgindy holds a master’s in Arab studies from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s in political science from Indiana University.
Michele Dunne is the director and a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East. She was the founding director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council from 2011 to 2013 and was a senior associate and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2006 to 2011.
Dunne was a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Department of State from 1986 to 2003, where she served in assignments that included the National Security Council, the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff, the U.S. embassy in Cairo, the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem, and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She also served as a visiting professor of Arabic language and Arab studies at Georgetown from 2003 to 2006.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization, which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community. Additionally, Dr. Zogby is Managing Director of Zogby Research Services, LLC (ZRS), specializing in research and communications.
During his four decade long career, Zogby also co-founded and directed the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Save Lebanon, Inc.
In 1993, he was asked by Vice President Al Gore to lead Builders for Peace, a private sector committee to promote U.S. business investment in the West Bank and Gaza. In this capacity, Zogby worked with a number of U.S. agencies to promote and support Palestinian economic development, including AID, OPIC, USTDA, and the Departments of State and Commerce.
Dr. Zogby has been personally active in U.S. politics for many years, he currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and is Co-Chair of the DNC’s Resolutions Committee.
A lecturer and scholar on Middle East issues, U.S.-Arab relations, and the history of the Arab American community, he has an extensive media profile in the United States and across the Arab World. Since 1992, Dr. Zogby has written Washington Watch, a weekly column on U.S. politics that is currently published in 14 Arab and South Asian countries.
In addition to Arab Voices, he has authored a number of other books including What Ethnic Americans Really Think and What Arabs Think: Values, Beliefs and Concerns, based on polling he conducted together with his brother John Zogby.
In 1975, Dr. Zogby received his doctorate from Temple University’s Department of Religion, where he studied under the Islamic scholar Dr. Ismail al-Faruqi. He was a National Endowment for the Humanities Post-Doctoral Fellow at Princeton University. He is the recipient of a number of honorary degrees and teaching fellowships.
Arbana Xharra is an investigative journalist from Kosovo. She authored a series of investigative reports on religious extremists and Turkey’s Islamic agenda operating in the Balkans. She has won numerous awards for her reporting, and was a 2015 recipient of the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department.
My guest today is Robert Lapiner, Professor of Humanities and Dean Emeritus of the School for Professional Studies at New York University.
From 2011-2013, Robert Lapiner served as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Continuing Education at New York University, which would eventually become the School of Professional Studies. Prior to that, Lapiner was the Dean of the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies, where he remains a member of the faculty.
Lapiner joined NYU after serving as the Dean of Continuing Education and UCLA Extension, and faculty associate at the UCLA Center for International Development Education. Before his position at the University of California, Los Angeles, he was based in Paris and New York, as Deputy Executive Director/Director for Europe for the Council on International Educational Exchange. His international experience began with his appointment as a career diplomat in cultural and educational affairs with the US Foreign Service.
Lapiner earned his B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of California, Los Angeles. He earned both his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Lapiner is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society and a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. While at Harvard he was named a Graduate Prize Fellow.
While on assignment to the Democratic Republic of Congo with the U.S. Foreign Service, Lapiner earned the Meritorious Honor Award for special achievement. He has also earned commendations for exceptional educational public service, by the City and the County of Los Angeles.
Additionally, Lapiner earned the Award of Excellence for Innovative Programming from UPCEA.
Alexander Cooley is the Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute (2016-18).
Professor Cooley’s research examines how external actors have shaped the development and sovereignty of the former Soviet states, with a focus on Central Asia and the Caucasus. He is author and/or editor of six academic books. His most recent book Dictators without Borders explores the rise of “extraterriorial authoritarianism” and how Western professionals support the transnational networks of Central Asian elites.
In addition to his academic research, Professor Cooley serves on several international advisory boards and has testified for the United States Congress and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Cooley’s opinion pieces have appeared in New York Times, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs and his research has been supported by fellowships and grants from the Open Society Foundations, Carnegie Corporation, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, among others. Cooley earned both his MA and Ph.D. from Columbia University.
My guest today is Ahmed Zohny, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Coppin State University. Zohny served as a Senior Adviser to the United States Department of State/ USAID project of technical assistance to the government of Egypt (2005-2007). He advised the World Bank Institute on a wide variety of issues, including quality of graduate and professional programs worldwide. He served as an adviser and leadership trainer on issues of Public Policy Development, Implementation & Evaluation, Governance, Human Capital Management and Development for Senior Government Managers from the Middle East at the Economic Development Institute of the World Bank.
Zohny is also an international development and transactional lawyer whose practice focuses on International Marketing, International Trade, Intellectual Property, Trademark, Patent, Trade Secret / Unfair Completion, Anti-Piracy, Copyright, Right of Publicity / Right of Privacy, Agency, Franchising, Distributorship and International Arbitration with Egypt and the Arab countries.
Dr. Zohny is fluent in both Arabic and English with extensive knowledge of Islamic Banking and Finance and experience in identifying, investigating and deterring fraud and corrupt practices in international banking in the Arab countries’ setting; structuring complex financial transactions, including security arrangements, developing risk mitigation strategies, formation of Joint Ventures and Strategic Alliances.
On this episode, I speak with William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, about the role of the UN in global humanitarian crises, the Syrian civil war, and the broader situation in the Middle East.
William Morris is Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, as well as being a broadcaster. He has worked as a farmer, miner and publisher, and for the past 20 years has worked extensively within the area of conflict resolution, principally in the Middle East. William was awarded an honorary doctorate in law by the Earl of St Andrews, Chancellor of the University of Bolton, in 2017 for his services to peace.
As a student, William travelled extensively in the Middle East with his father, a Cornish journalist with a strong interest in the region. As a direct result of this unique experience, in 1991 William was invited to be special advisor to the deputy Prime Minister of the Sultanate of Oman and set up a publishing and printing unit at Sultan Qaboos University.
In 1996 William returned to his home in the West Country with his family. Shortly after his return to Cornwall he was appointed Secretary General of The Next Century Foundation, an organization whose founders included the Lord Weinstock and Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire. The then-Crown Prince, now Emir, of Qatar was also particularly supportive. In this role, at the behest of Derek Fatchett MP (then-Minister at the Foreign Office), William Morris produced an important report on Kashmir in consultation with the Mirpuri community in Britain. In October 2000, he helped set up a war avoidance team to carry messages between the then-Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr Peter Hain, and Iraqi Minister Mr Tariq Aziz. In May 2003, William was appointed Chairman of the International Media Council (now a part of the International Council for Press and Broadcasting) based in London. In this capacity he has led press delegations to Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Syria. The goal of the Media Council is to counter xenophobia and disinformation in the press of the Middle East and the West. William is a trustee of Sanghata Global, a charity for transformational change that designs and implements breakthrough conceptual models focused on serving humanity. He is also a core member of the personal development charity, Initiatives of Change.
I sit down with Chuck Freilich, former Israeli deputy national security adviser and senior fellow at the Belfer Center, to discuss Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel’s national security. Chuck’s latest book is available now from Oxford University Press; as a courtesy to my listeners, use the discount code ‘asflyq6’ for 30 percent off, only on Oxford’s website: global.oup.com/academic/product/…32?cc=us&lang=en&
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center and the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy (Cornell University Press, November 2012), Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change (Oxford University Press, 2018), and Israel and the Cyber-Threat (forthcoming late 2018).
Chuck’s primary areas of expertise are the Middle East, U.S.-Middle East policy, and Israeli national security strategy and decision-making. He has taught political science at Harvard, NYU, and Columbia in the United States, and at Tel Aviv University and IDC Herzliya in Israel.
Chuck has appeared as a commentator for NBC, ABC, CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera, and various U.S. and Israeli radio and TV stations. He has published numerous academic articles and op-eds, including in the New York Times, Haaretz, and other leading newspapers.
Chuck was a senior analyst at the Israel Ministry of Defense, focusing on strategic affairs, policy adviser to a cabinet minister, and a delegate at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. He was the executive director of two nonprofit organizations and served in the Israel Defense Forces for five years. Chuck earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University. Born in New York, he immigrated to Israel in his teens.
I sit down with Harry Verhoeven, professor at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Georgetown University, to discuss the current geopolitical situation in the Gulf, and Qatar’s role in the region and beyond.
Professor Harry Verhoeven teaches at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Georgetown University. He is also editor of the Cambridge University Press series on Intelligence and National Security in Africa & the Middle East and an Associate Member of the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Oxford. His research focuses on elite politics, ideology and international relations. He was founder of the the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN) in 2008-2009 and remains a Co-Convenor of OUCAN. In 2016-2017, he served as a Visiting Scholar at Cambridge University.
Harry Verhoeven completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford, where he was a postdoctoral fellow from 2012 to 2014 and a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College from 2013 to 2014. He was a founder of the Oxford Central Africa Forum (OCAF). Outside academia, he has worked in Northern Uganda, Sudan, India and Democratic Republic of Congo. He has provided consultancy services to and collaborated with the World Bank, UNDP Sudan, Chatham House, Small Arms Survey and several governments. His work has been funded by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Qatar National Research Fund and the Volkswagen Foundation.
I recently sat down with Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, to discuss recent events in Gaza.
Hillel Schenker is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a Jerusalem-based independent English-language quarterly, initiated and maintained by a group of prominent Israeli and Palestinian academics and journalists. It aims to shed light on, and analyze freely and critically, the complex issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Schenker served for 13 years as editor of New Outlook, the Israeli peace monthly founded in the spirit of Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue, that served as a vehicle for understanding Israeli-Arab affairs and as a catalyst for dialogue and initiatives for peace. He has written for The Nation, Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, Tikkun, Israel Horizons, In These Times, the Israeli-Hebrew-language press and many other print and electronic outlets. He was an activist and co-founder of the Peace Now movement and has served for many years as spokesperson for the Israeli branch of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He is an International Advisory Board member of the Global Majority center for non-violent conflict resolution based at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Below is the full transcript of the episode, lightly edited for clarity.
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to “On the Issues.” My guest today is Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a Jerusalem-based independent English-language quarterly. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
Anyway, so I thought—this is not question and answers, this is a conversation. We’re going to talk I think about Hamas, what do you think?
Hillel Schenker: We can talk about Hamas and about what is happening right now in Gaza. I think we cannot avoid talking about this.
ABM: It’s about exactly what’s happening in Gaza, you know. And I wrote a piece, I don’t know if you had a chance to see it, about the situation.
HS: Yeah, I saw it. This is the latest piece that you just wrote.
ABM: The latest piece, yeah. Well, you know more or less my position on it. So, you read my take on it, and my take is basically, I always call it facing the inevitable, or facing reality. That you can’t change short of catastrophic events. Gaza is Gaza, is by and large pretty independent, its own territory, basically its own governing authority. Notwithstanding the effort to unite with the PA, all of these efforts failed miserably in the past. The question that— So my focus is Israel versus Hamas. And here the situation in Gaza, what to do about it, given the reality on the ground.
ABM: And so all of these disturbances and the demonstration near the fence in the border, it’s no surprise to anyone, given the miserable, horrifying conditions that exist in Gaza. Now, where do we go from here? You know this is really what boggles the mind from my perspective is that, be that Netanyahu or anyone, and Ismail Haniyeh and Sinwar himself. If they sit down for a moment and begin to think in terms of, OK, where do you go from here? Where do you go from here?
HS: Well first of all, what we do see is a terrible humanitarian crisis. There are almost 2 million people in abject poverty, with sometimes barely four hours of electricity a day and water which is polluted. There was just today, I was reading that there was a delegation from the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights in Gaza, which now—it was composed entirely of Palestinian Israeli citizens, because they wouldn’t let Jewish Israelis go in—and they are saying that the medical facilities, it is just catastrophic. They are living, and so therefore it is not surprising that there is this tremendous frustration and that there is this readiness to respond to some type of protest action, which is what we’re seeing now. Now Hamas bears a large part of the responsibility obviously, because they are the government.
HS: But they are not the only ones, you know. On the one hand, they won the last Palestinian elections back in what—
HS: 2006, primarily because Fatah was perceived as being corrupt, and they were presumably clean and honest, et cetera. They are as corrupt as Fatah. They make money out of the tunnels, they make money out of everything. They don’t do what is necessary for the people of Gaza. So we know today for example that in the latest public opinion polls – you know Professor Khalil Shikaki at the Palestinian Center for Policy Research in Ramallah, who is the most admired and respected independent researcher, says that both the Hamas and the Fatah leadership have lost the confidence of the people in Gaza and in the West Bank. Now. But going back to Gaza, it’s not only, Israel left but still has a siege, it still controls the borders, land, sea.
ABM: Well there’s a blockade, I mean, yeah.
HS: But Egypt has responsibility as well, because Egypt has also created a blockade on its side of the border because they are afraid of extremist Islamists going into northern Sinai and meeting up with the ISIS people.
ABM: But you see Hillel, this is the reality. You articulated as best as anyone can be. The question is not withstanding all of this, what do we do? That is, this isn’t enough. This is going to explode. This time it’s exploding in the form of demonstrations and is going to continue probably, I think this is the last Friday?
HS: No, no, it’s going to continue until May 14. It’s going to be six weeks of demonstrations.
HS: With the peak being every Friday, because that’s the Muslim holy day and so therefore that’s when there’s the particular motivation. May 14th in the general calendar. That’s the day of Israeli independence seventy years ago, but for them it’s the Nakba, the disaster. So that will be the peak.
ABM: That will be the peak. My thinking, you know, had the Israelis and the Palestinians been smart enough, maybe to use the occasion and say wait a minute, let’s look back for a moment and see where we were, where we are, and where would you go from here. Just give it some thought. Again, given what you can change or what you cannot change.
HS: First of all, I want to make a comment about the nature of the protests. They call the protest the March of Return, which I think is a mistake.
ABM: Terrible mistake, terrible mistake.
HS: The Palestinians claim this is to remind everybody that there is a refugee problem. But it does two things which are totally counterproductive. One is it creates an illusion among the Gazans—the poor, suffering two million Gazan people—that maybe the answer is to return to their former villages in Israel. That is totally delusional. It is not possible. And so using that title actually creates a false illusion on their part, as if this is an answer. Now also with the Israeli public, if they had called this the protest for freedom, the protest for independence from the current tragic situation, it might have a possibility of resonating with the Israeli public. But March of Return is very problematic.
ABM: It was the worst thing they could have done. And I know if you read the article, I said exactly the point, what right of return? I mean, there is a question of technicalities. Well the second mistake they also made, how could you demand the lifting of the blockade, and at the same time call for Israel’s destruction? What government in Israel, even the extreme left, Meretz or even left of Meretz—
HS: No, no nobody accepts that, but—
ABM: No one is going to accept the fact that you lift the blockade and hope for the best.
HS: No, but we should still also give them some credit, even though they haven’t really done very good public relations for it. When Sinwar became the leader instead of Haniyeh, what happened is that he I think does understand that you have to come to terms with reality, and that was the reason for—they tried to change the charter, they tried to signal the idea that they would accept a Palestinian state within the ’67 lines.
ABM: This is true, but Hillel, you know, I’ve read it. I’m sure you read the new charter. And the new charter still calls for Israel’s destruction. I mean, they tried to sort of color it slightly, but it’s still there. What I’m saying to them when I have this opportunity to talk to any of them, I’m saying look. Can you see, can you imagine possibly Israel, destroying Israel in any shape or form, at any time in the future? That’s not going to happen.
HS: Of course not. And they understand that, I assume.
ABM: I tell the Israelis, and they know, and they said no. And I said to the Israelis, do you think you’re going to wipe out Hamas? You going to wipe out the Palestinians? That’s not going to happen either. So when I speak about reality, this is what I’m talking about. So then, you have to begin by changing the public narrative at least. It is exactly your right. When they come up with the March of Return, well, what return? And there’s another technical point that I tried to point out to them. I asked them the following, Hillel. Do you consider Gaza to be part of Palestine? They said yeah, absolutely. Do you consider the West Bank to be part of Palestine? They said absolutely. OK. Then the Palestinians who you call refugees in Gaza or in the West Bank, are they refugees or are they internally displaced? Who can call them a refugee when they are still in their home country? Right? So you are internally displaced, you are not a refugee. Now you are talking about two and a half million so-called refugees who actually live, as a matter of fact, two thirds of the Palestinians in Gaza consider themselves refugees. Or a million and a half. And nearly a million and a half in the West Bank as well. They consider themselves refugees when in fact they are internally displaced.
I said, if you begin to make this kind of distinction, what’s going to happen? I am like many like myself, when I go to Europe and they ask me, what do we do? I said well, why don’t you begin to think in terms of establishing funds for resettlement and/or compensation of the Palestinian refugees, and make it clear to the Palestinians, here we have five billion dollars or ten billion dollars waiting to be used. If you begin to start to think in realistic terms of resettlement and/or compensation, because— And then accept the reality that you are already in your homeland. You are not outside your homeland. That’s one point. And the second point I said, if you really want a significant change, and I think Israel, even Lieberman said, please correct me Hillel if I’m wrong. Lieberman said he wants them surrendering their arms. Well, that’s not going to happen. Surrendering the arms, I mean giving up their arms for them is a surrender. It’s almost unconditional surrender. They’re not going to go for it. Call for renouncing violence. That’s it. Don’t ask for recognition of Israel now, don’t ask for anything else. Just renounce violence and show us that you are renouncing violence by stopping building tunnels and procuring and/or manufacturing weapons. So that’s what I’ve been trying to explain to them, this is what needs to be done.
HS: Let me tell you. I just came from three days at the J Street conference.
HS: And two observations from different sessions that took place there. One was there was a session about the future Palestinian leadership run by young Palestinians who were out there. And you know, none of them agree with Hamas’ ideology. But they all say Hamas is a part of, what can we do. They are half of the people. A future Palestinian state has to include Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. But there are certain conditions that have to be met. The fact is they are not members of the PLO and they want to become part of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And what these Palestinians were saying, if they want to become part of the PLO, then they have to accept the basic resolutions that the PLO came to, which include number one recognition of the existence of the state of Israel. Number two, the decision to support only nonviolent resistance and not violent resistance. If you want to become a part of the PLO, which they want to do, so they are saying this is what we are demanding of them. Now, the second very interesting comments were in Bernie Sanders’ presentation. Bernie Sanders made a very powerful presentation, which I would recommend everyone look at, I’m sure it will be uploaded onto the Internet, in which he criticized Hamas very strongly for exactly the things that you are saying. He also held Israel responsible for maintaining the siege and not helping to rebuild Gaza. We all believe that there should be something like a Marshall Plan, which is what helped to rebuild Europe after World War Two. But then he made a particular point of the responsibility of the wealthy Arab states, the Gulf states. And he was pointing out the fact that MBS, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, just bought, he contributed 50 million dollars to the reconstruction of Gaza but he spent 500 million dollars on a new yacht. And the comment was all of the region has to participate, has to help take responsibility for rebuilding Gaza. And the Hamas people, they have a responsibility to declare what you are saying.
ABM: Yeah, I mean this is exactly the point. You know that is, if you and I were to sit down and fashion a solution, what are we going to do? We’re going to look at the reality and say OK, resettlement, compensation require money; where is this money going to come from? Certainly the Gulf states, the EU, the United States, even China will contribute. I mean it’s little stretch, but many, many countries will come, I mean to gather, to put together 10, 15 billion dollars, it’s not much if it’s coming from all over all of these countries and some. So you have that. I think what we need to do here is, at least what I think, four different things, and please correct me. Number one is, we need to put some kind of influence on Hamas, change your narrative. Don’t keep calling for Israel’s destruction. Don’t have to do anything, just don’t use, keep using that. Don’t keep calling.
HS: In order to do that, we have to offer them something too.
ABM: Ok, I’m coming to that. You do that, and Israel is going to come and say OK, we’re going to make this concession and this concession and this concession. We will allow so much more goods to go, so much more cement and steel will go there. Then we make an easing of the blockade again. So what we’re talking about is incremental easing of the blockade and linking it to the behavior of Hamas. Hamas will understand. If I renounce, if I’m not going to call for Israel’s destruction, I’m going to get something. I’m going to renounce violence, I’m going to get something. It has got to be quid pro quo. If you have that quid pro quo, you’re going to create an atmosphere where the cooperation is going to create a new atmosphere that is conducive to further progress. And that’s what you want to do. You have to create an atmosphere conducive to further progress. And it won’t take much sacrifice from either side.
HS: And the average Israeli, and even the right-wing government. If there is quiet and construction in Gaza, the average Israeli will be very happy to know that there is no more friction, no more possibility of rockets against the southern towns of Sderot and other towns, and the right-wing government, which may not want to accept Hamas, would have to.
HS: There’s no question about it.
ABM: Exactly. And here the next point, I tell you, I’d like you to comment on it please. You know, Netanyahu and his other government always took the position, well, if Hamas join with Fatah, we will not negotiate with Fatah because we will never negotiate with the—
HS: Which is a mistake.
ABM: Which is a terrible mistake.
HS: It’s a mistake. Because the whole basis of the Oslo Accords was mutual recognition.
HS: And if Hamas joins this mutual recognition, then they are also legitimate partners for negotiations.
ABM: Then you ask yourself the question, why is Netanyahu doing this? He’s doing this in my view, and I’m convinced of it, precisely because he wants to maintain the disunity between the two sides.
HS: Yes. Yes, the truth is—
ABM: Now I want to take it a step further and say to them, listen to the following. Gaza is there like where we started, Hillel, and Hamas is there. Wouldn’t it be to your benefit – they are not connected, neither territorially nor ideologically, the two sides. They’re not connected. Wouldn’t it be better for you to start working with Gaza as if it were a separate entity? Think in those terms, as it if it were a separate entity. What advantage that would give Israel.
HS: But the thing is that the Palestinians, and I think rightfully so, say we want you to look at the totality of the Palestinian people, which includes the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem.
ABM: This is true, but I’m talking about treating Gaza as if it were separate. In a sense that, meaning—
HS: It is a separate problem, but it is part of a larger entity.
ABM: Yes, but this is how—the point is, if you can’t solve the big problem together, you break it down. That’s where I come in terms from conflict resolution.
HS: No, but let us go back to Netanyahu. The problem with Netanyahu is that he gives lip service to the idea of the two-state solution, but is not ready to do anything to advance it.
ABM: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re saying, that’s why this is going to happen under Netanyahu. This scenario can be effective only if there is new leadership in Israel.
HS: This is what we need. Hopefully Netanyahu will fall due to these investigations and—something very interesting. The Palestine-Israel Journal, I’m co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, we had a fascinating meeting with a veteran South African anti-apartheid activist who was very close to Nelson Mandela. And we asked her what led to the downfall of apartheid. And she says it wasn’t first and foremost sanctions. It was two factors. One factor which we do not have in the Middle East, and that is that 10 percent of the Afrikaners could not continue. It was unsustainable to continue to control 90 percent of the population. But the second factor she said, was corruption. The Afrikaner government was extremely corrupt, and even the businessmen, the English and the Afrikaner businessmen, said this cannot continue to work, and we have to have a different regime. If we want to have an effective economy, yeah. Now this is what we have in Israel, we have corruption. Hopefully that will bring Netanyahu down. And then we have a possible chance of an alternative center-left government. And we need that, and we also need new leadership on the Palestinian side.
ABM: This is absolutely true, but I just want to go back for a moment to the situation in Gaza. All of the scenarios we’re talking about now in my view is, there’s got to be a change of leadership in Israel, that just has to be a given. So what I am saying, if we were to treat Gaza as a separate entity in a sense that, here’s the quid pro quo that I am talking to you about. You do this we do this, we do this, we do this. Now you’re going to create a new atmosphere, a collaborative effort, made by both sides. This is going to also give Israel leverage over the Palestinian Authority. If the Palestinian Authority realizes that Israel is making progress with Hamas, the Palestinian Authority itself will become more amenable to listening more carefully to Israel. Because that’s what it’s terrified of. You know what they’re terrified of? That actually they can be separated. They don’t want to be separated.
HS: What’s called the three-state solution, yeah, yeah.
ABM: That will be the three-state solution. And they don’t want that.
HS: They don’t want that.
ABM: So what Israel could make it, double gains on two fronts simultaneously by working with Hamas. If Hamas is smart enough to realize this is what they can do, and then Israel will have leverage on the PLO afterwards. But Hamas too come the election, would have a greater advantage.
HS: But let us also add that it is quite clear again from public opinion polls that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians do not want to live under a regime which is guided by Sharia law, religious law. And so they do not want the Hamas ideology to be the guiding factor in the future of the Palestinian people.
ABM: I agree with you, and I also suggest the following, that the Palestinians in Gaza are not living under Sharia law, and you know that. There’s no such thing. It’s only, in the air. The Sharia law is in the air. It’s not on the ground. That’s number one. But Hamas uses religion just like ISIS does. Why is that? Because to use religion to that extent, in the extreme form, you prevent questioning what you’re doing. Because you’re doing it in the name of God. Who are you to question God? I am not, I am only a servant. I am not doing anything.
HS: Unfortunately we have echoes of that on the Israeli side.
ABM: There’s echoes of that on the Israeli side as well.
HS: The extremist settlers who say God promised this to us and therefore there’s no place for compromise.
ABM: But if we go back to the Palestinians—
HS: Which goes totally against the founding fathers of Zionism, who rebelled against the religion and said we take our fate into our own hands.
ABM: That’s right, that’s right. So when you say about Hamas being totally committed to Sharia law and all of that, honestly, it’s not.
HS: What I say is that the Palestinian people do not want to live under Sharia law.
ABM: They don’t, and Hamas is not enforcing that in the least. Not even in Gaza. And that’s the situation. I’m just thinking in those terms, and your take on this is very important. You know, when I look, and you know, I keep saying this time and again, when I see crisis, every crisis, I see also opportunities. To me, when there is a breakdown, there is a breakthrough. So look for the breakthrough. There is a breakdown today between Israel and Hamas. We’ve got to look for break.
HS: So the question here is, here we need third parties to enter into, talk to Hamas, to talk to Israel, to enable a possibility of a breakthrough because it’s highly unlikely that the current Israeli government will be ready to speak directly to Hamas. Yeah.
ABM: You know, I wish, if we could arrange we could arrange something like this in Israel, or Hamas, or in a neutral territory. In Cyprus, it’s very easily accessible.
HS: Cyprus, Brussels, Turkey, there are all sorts of—
ABM: I will be more than happy to do something like this in Brussels. And I can tell you that the EU may very well, I did already actually with the EU last November, a mock negotiation between Palestinians from the Authority, 5-6 members from the top rank of the PLO. And else from the Israelis and the deputy—
HS: The PLO but not Hamas?
ABM: No, they were not Hamas. And then from the Israeli side also members of the Knesset and all of that, came to Brussels and I conducted a mock negotiation.
HS: So the question is, is it possible to do the same thing track two, track one and a half, government, civil society. However—
ABM: I think we can do that.
HS: Between Hamas and Israel. That would be very constructive to do. Now I just feel we cannot have this conversation about Gaza without also making these comments about what has happened since the March of Return began. And the fact that that first Friday, the Friday of the seder for us, the Jews, and for the Palestinians it was a marking of Land Day, which began in 1976 in Sakhnin. The fact is that 17 Palestinians were killed by Israeli sharpshooters that weekend. The following Friday, again I don’t remember exactly. It’s altogether about 30, and there is no question that the Israeli government made a decision to use an exaggerated amount of force. There was no need to shoot. It’s not as if there was a serious danger to the soldiers or a breakthrough of the border, anything like that, and this has to be said because soft, what’s called soft force. There are so many other means of crowd dispersal that could have been used.
ABM: I could not agree with you more. You’re absolutely right. And that was—
HS: And this is really unfortunate.
ABM: It’s a tragic mistake on the part of Israel. There was no need to use this kind of excessive force. What’s wrong with using rubber bullets all the time, why use real bullets?
HS: And smoke, and there’s all sorts of you know—
ABM: Water cannons, whatever you want.
HS: There are all sorts of means that— If it were the Haredim, ultra-orthodox blocking the roads in Jerusalem, which have – you know, I spend every half a week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And when they decide to protest because they don’t want to serve in the army, they block all the roads and the police use crowd dispersal. But they will never fire at them.
ABM: No, yeah, I agree with you. So anyway, what I’m thinking, I don’t know if, what you, what’s your thought on it, on this but perhaps maybe you want to give it some thought when you get back home, and see if there is any possibilities from your end there. I can work on this side, to have some kind of—but they’ve got to be from the top Hamas tier, not fourth, fifth tier; second tier would be good enough. Because you cannot get the first two, three people. Second tier of individuals, like this person of, what’s his name, I talked to him, my mind is shot with names, I’m terrible with names. Abu—, what’s his name?
ABM: Marzook? Marzook it is? Marzook. You know, people like that, we can get them. I can get them to come to the EU. They’re not coming with a sign, Hamas.
HS: I think at this stage it cannot be at the political level. There are no members of Knesset who will be ready to do it, but civil society, like I was saying, what I was describing to you before, the fact that we have a policy working group of—
ABM: Civil society, yeah.
HS: Of former ambassadors and senior academics and civil society directors.
ABM: Civil society, those two, three who come from Hamas, they’ll go back with a message.
HS: Now, if the Hamas people are ready, this is I think the challenge. If they are ready, I think on the Israeli side partners will easily be found to have such an encounter.
ABM: That’s what I’m saying, asking you if you could reach out, I don’t know if you have it, through Palestinians, not directly to Hamas but through other Palestinians, and tell them look, there is an opportunity to develop a new narrative, a new posit, exactly based on what you’re saying. The tenure of Abbas is limited, we know that. How long is it? And Netanyahu, whether he is indicted or not, I don’t think he’s going to run. Even if he runs, I don’t think he’s going to make it this time around. I really doubt it.
HS: At this stage, I doubt whether one can find partners in the Palestinian Authority ready to do this.
ABM: Forget the Authority for now.
HS: But let’s leave them aside. There are people, there are Palestinians and there are also Israelis, there are some Israeli journalists. There are also activists like Gershon Baskin, who was very involved in the release of Gilad Shalit who are— People don’t realize this, but there are Israeli journalists in the daily papers, in Ha’aretz, even in the Jerusalem Post and Yedioth, Maariv, who speak to Hamas people.
ABM: Yeah, yeah.
HS: And it’s not as if there is no communication. And so it is possible to explore and hopefully build the foundation to be able to do something like that.
ABM: I really think there are possibilities. And if you want to, I don’t know, to start to put out some feelers with these individuals.
HS: Yeah, yeah. This is definitely something possible, desirable, and very timely.
ABM: And timely more than anything else, before it’s too late. You know if you have a new government, a new leader with the Palestinian Authority, you don’t know what’s going to be. But if you prepare the ground for Hamas to look at the conflict with Israel a little different, and they do. You see, the problem is that, the point is, they know between them and themselves, they know Israel is a fact of life. We have to deal with Israel, we have to coexist with Israel. They know that.
HS: They know that.
ABM: They know that. And they know there is no way out. They know that. What we want to do now is create a narrative so that they can say it, and Israel will be prepared to make the kind of quid pro quo involved, to build the kind of trust necessary.
HS: Such, what we are seeing possibly is a similar evolution to what Fatah and the PLO underwent in the 70s and 80s, reaching the point which eventually led to the Oslo Accords. The mutual recognition.
ABM: This is true.
HS: And we can possibly see a similar coming to terms with reality on the part of Hamas. But you need the groundwork of these track two encounters. And I think it’s possible if they are ready for it.
ABM: But again, given the fact, that’s why I keep saying the same thing – given the fact that they know that there is no other way but to deal with Israel, they know that. Then they’re going to have to think about differently, if you show them a new map, a new direction. I just want to tell you, notwithstanding the fact that Hamas, PLO I should say, changed their mind, changed their charter and all of that. I had a conference in Brussels – this is, the EU invited Israelis and Palestinians to come together, and I was asked to come to the meeting. It was a huge meeting. And at the time I wrote two open letters, one to Abbas, and one to Netanyahu. And the chairman of the meeting, he started the conference by saying, Alon Ben-Meir just wrote these two letters. Because you know my position, I’m unbiased. I go where I think who’s right and who’s wrong. I don’t care, have absolutely no, I don’t lean to either side. To me, peace and solution is the only thing that matters. So that’s why the two letters were very balanced in terms of blaming Abbas for the wrong thing he’s doing, and blaming Israelis for their wrong things.
And then when I started my speech, I appealed to the Palestinian delegation, which was a huge delegation. I said, I want you to understand, first thing I want to say, I am for 1000 percent for a two-state solution, much of the West Bank, 95, 94 whatever percent, and land swap, same thing with Gaza. Are we clear on this? That’s fine. I said, but your approach for the last 30, 20, 15 years is completely misguided. And I suggested a few approaches, and you know what they started? They started going back to 1948, repeating the same thing as if nothing has changed. And when I got up to speak again, I said to them, as long as you live in the past, you live 70 years ago, you are not going to—what you talking about the right of—think in terms of, what do we do in order to solve the question of the right of return, rather than demanding the right of return. I said, even if you use it as a slogan, you are alienating every single Israeli because that’s not going to happen. So even with the PLO today, they’re still demanding the right of return. They haven’t changed their slogan.
HS: They are demanding a recognition of the principle of the right of return.
ABM: The principle, yes.
HS: But the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been supported by 22 Arab nations and all 57 Muslim nations including Iran, says an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem, which means—
ABM: Exactly, a just solution.
HS: With the Israeli government. What the Israeli government will agree to and allow to, in principle. And I would add also when we talk about history in South Africa again to go back to South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was a very important component, was a post agreement dynamic. You cannot do that before you write, reach an agreement. when you get to the agreement, Then you can talk about what everyone felt about the past, the suffering, who, the responsibilities, et cetera. But we have to look forward, get to an agreement by stages or directly everybody would like to see– the problem of the Oslo Accords was that uh it was a stage but it was supposed to be completed in five years and It wasn’t.
ABM: No, because Netanyahu came in 1996 and started to torpedo elements of the Oslo Accord. You know that. But your point is well taken. I said in Camp David would there been negotiation between Barak and—
HS: In 2000.
ABM: In 2000, yes. And Arafat at the time, and they almost reached an agreement, and the sticking point was the right of return. And actually Arafat would not sign on the dotted line unless—I spoke to Peres. Peres himself told me this. He said, Alon. I said, why, why, why? He said, he insisted that the right of return, he agreed there’d be no right of return, the Palestinians, but he would not say this, he said for the next generation to decide. But I want this, that the Palestinians reserve the right of return in the document. And Barak jumped.
HS: Whenever discussing the right of return, I always go back to a public opinion poll which again professor Khalil Shikaki in Ramallah did. He went to the refugees in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and asked them what are their views. And before he published it he went to Arafat, who was still alive at the time, and said these are my findings. And Arafat said to him, what are you doing? You’re undermining my negotiating position. And Shikaki said, I’m a scientist. These are my findings and I’m going to publish them. And he did. And the findings were that 95 percent of the refugees know that they will not return. And so it can be worked out.
ABM: And his office was ransacked as a result of that, right after he published it.
HS: And today too, the PA is not happy with the fact that he is an independent researcher there. It’s hard for us to believe, but there are independent researchers in the West Bank and even in Gaza. There is Omar Sha’aban, he has, he calls it Pal Think if I remember correctly. There is independent analysis there as well. And if we do anything track two, they should be involved as well.
ABM: Absolutely. I mean, I just thought I’d throw this, give it some thought.
HS: Definitely. And I may add by the way, it’s hard to believe that at the Palestine-Israel Journal we have about 30 Israeli and Palestinian members on the editorial board. One of them is from Gaza. Ali Abu Shahla is an independent Gazan businessman who everybody agrees—Hamas, Israel, Fatah—can periodically get a permit to come to the West Bank to do business. He’s not a politician. He is a trustee for one of the universities. And there are people to talk with in Gaza. And we should do it.
ABM: I mean you know for this, for what’s his name, Lieberman to say, what did he say lately which was the most insulting thing you can possibly imagine about the Palestinians in Gaza. What was it that he said he had to take it back, to swallow it back, that the Palestinians, do you remember? He said you know, they are all terrorists or something like that.
HS: No, that’s absurd. They’re, most of them are simply suffering human beings. You know, 40 percent unemployment, 60 percent of the youth are unemployed. They want to live a normal life. Yeah.
ABM: Yeah. You know what he said, no innocent people in Gaza. No innocent people in Gaza.
HS: That’s absurd.
ABM: Yeah, no innocent people, everybody is guilty of something.
HS: Yeah, some people say that about Israel – everybody is a soldier, therefore everybody is responsible for the occupation. But so many Israelis are against the occupation. So you can’t say that about Gaza either. No question about it.
ABM: Anyway, it was wonderful having a conversation with you.
HS: My pleasure, and hopefully also we can move ahead with some initiatives.
ABM: I am, honestly, I am ready willing and able to do whatever it takes. Hillel, that’s what I am doing now, I really am doing nothing else. And I’m not looking for compensation, I’m not looking for money. In fact, if it’s offered, I refuse it, I’m not interested.
HS: I’m going to bring these ideas back to the Palestine-Israel Journal, we have an editorial board meeting soon, and to the policy working group. And hopefully we can come forward with initiatives.
ABM: If you want me to come, I’m happy to come to Israel, have initial meetings, whatever it takes.
HS: Definitely. Definitely.
ABM: I am absolutely, listen, I’m committed to this.
HS: The main thing is people ask me why am I not in despair as so many other people are. And I say the main reason is because I’m being proactive.
HS: I’m on the front lines of seeking answers. And that’s what we all have to do.
ABM: Exactly. All the power to you. And I know that. I mean that’s why, I never suggested anything like this with anyone because I thought, what’s the point. What’s the point? But you can take it, and then you can rely on me to do whatever it takes. Here, in the EU, whatever.
HS: Very good. OK.
Robert Wexler is the President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in Washington, DC. He served as a Democratic member of Congress from 1997 to 2010, representing Florida’s 19th district in the House of Representatives before retiring to lead the Center. Wexler was named one of the “50 Most Effective Legislators in Congress” by the influential magazine Congressional Quarterly and was named to the Forward 50 list as one of the most influential leaders in the American Jewish community.
In 2008, Congressman Wexler served as an advisor on Middle East and Israel issues to President Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. In 2012, he served on the President’s reelection Steering Committee and addressed the Democratic National Convention outlining the President’s policies related to Israel.
Throughout his tenure in Congress, Wexler was an outspoken advocate for the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel and a leading proponent of Israel’s right to self-defense and the need for a just and comprehensive resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He traveled on numerous congressional delegations to the Middle East and met with the leaders of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the Palestinian Authority. At President Clinton’s invitation, he was the only member of the House of Representatives present during the signing of the Wye River Peace Agreement. In addition, Wexler was one of two Congressmen to travel to the International Court of Justice at The Hague to oppose the Palestinian case against Israel’s construction of a security barrier.
Congressman Wexler served as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, a senior Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a member of the Middle East Subcommittee. Wexler worked to strengthen the transatlantic alliance, build security and economic bonds with the European Union and the nations of Europe, and help guide the economic and political development of the former Soviet States. Wexler served as an American representative to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and was the co-founder of the Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations, the Taiwan Caucus and the Indonesia Caucus. He was also an active member of the India Caucus. In addition, Wexler served as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and the Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property.
Born in New York, Congressman Wexler moved to South Florida with his family at age 10. He earned his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Florida and law degree from George Washington University. Before serving in Congress, he served in the Florida Senate for six years. Congressman Wexler and his wife, Laurie, have three children.
Below is a transcript of the episode, lightly edited for clarity.
Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of “On the Issues.” My guest today is Congressman Robert Wexler, President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
ABM: Why the United States is consistently supporting Israel, even though successive American administrations been saying time and again that the settlement is not helpful to the peace process. Many are saying it’s also illegal, of course. And, but no American administration really took any specific steps to penalize, to—
Robert Wexler: Right.
ABM: To pressure Israel to stop, other than the talk. Look at—I mean Obama was probably the one who put more pressure on Israel in this area than any of his predecessors.
RW: No, I would disagree.
RW: President, first President Bush.
ABM: Bush, yeah, well Bush was—
RW: Carter did more.
ABM: Carter, yeah. You’re right. Carter, going back many years, when in fact the settlements were few.
RW: And second President Bush put plenty of pressure.
ABM: Only on the connection with the—
RW: It was just a different Israeli leadership. Sharon didn’t ignore it.
ABM: Well, also most of them ignored it.
RW: Yeah, no, they continued to build, but when Bush was serious, Sharon came up with constructive solutions.
ABM: Yeah. Well, Bush held this 10 billion dollar guarantee as a crutch. But that is because Israel requested that. So you say, well, we won’t give it to you. But there was no initiative on the part of the United States to say if you don’t, we’re going to do this. So he basically did not want to give them.
RW: Ok, but Obama gave the largest security package in history. So I don’t think you can say—
ABM: That’s my point. No, but this is exactly the point.
ABM: He’s talking the talks, don’t build, don’t build, it’s bad, and then end up giving 38 billion dollars over 10 years for military aid. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m talking about.
ABM: So, because you’ve been so much involved in this and you are so pro-Israel, for good reason – me too. What do you attribute this unequivocal support of the United States to Israel? That is, I mean, obviously it has a number of sources, number of reasons. But what is your personal take on it? You know I mean, I don’t want to start my sense of it, but what it is that you think? Because it’s more than one issue. Obviously there’s half a dozen reasons why the United States continues to support Israel.
RW: There are many reasons. First and foremost is a shared set of values between the United States and Israel that cannot be underestimated. And subsequent to 9/11, that shared sense of values from an American perspective, I believe is even more pronounced, when Americans look out upon the world and they see those countries that truly share America’s commitment and passion for freedom, for civil rights, for democracy, for liberalization of the role of women in society, respect for judicial independence in the Middle East. Obviously, Israel stands far and above any other comparison. So there’s a set of values that provide a foundation. But what I also think is sometimes overlooked currently in Israel is the central role that the American Jewish community has played, both in terms of the way that it has successfully assimilated into American life in all fields over the past several decades. And the result is an increase in support between the United States and Israel by non-Jewish Americans. A familiarity, a sense of partnership, a sense of commonality – not just in values but in way of life and perspectives that undergirths the relationship. Also, outside of the Jewish community in the United States of course is the extraordinary respect that the evangelical community in America provides.
ABM: Well that’s a big, big factor, of course.
RW: Yeah. And it’s a big factor politically.
ABM: Politically, of course, domestically.
RW: Domestically in terms of communities, where often there is a very small American Jewish community. Obviously there are large evangelical communities that provide a perspective of support for American Israeli relations. It’s different than the Jewish community’s perspective.
ABM: Yeah, but I think this particular point is probably far more relevant and important to the politicians here. That is, many politicians, including the presidents, Congress, House, Senate, many of them probably would not be elected unless there’s a strong support from the evangelicals, don’t you think?
RW: Sure. But—
ABM: And the evangelicals’ support to Israel is unequivocal. I mean, that’s by extension those who do not go along and support Israel, many potentially could not make it in areas where there is overwhelming evangelical presence.
RW: Well, I think you might be overstating it a bit. It’s true that the evangelical community supports Israel wholeheartedly, and it’s a very important source of strength. But let’s not exaggerate the role that Israel plays in the domestic politics of the United States. America’s relationship with Israel – for me, for you, for certain people in the United States – is central to our thinking. But in most elections in the United States, the focus is on the economy. The focus is on local industry, on the local economy. To the extent that the focus becomes on foreign policy, it tends to be on terrorism, it tends to be on American soldiers, where American soldiers are fighting—in Iraq, in Afghanistan, wherever it may be.
ABM: This is true. But in every election, almost with no exception, very few countries are mentioned. But Israel is always mentioned.
RW: Yeah, it is.
ABM: Our support for Israel. There’s a reason for it. Why they mention Israel of all, singling out. Even the last speech, his State of the Union, one country by name was mentioned, and that is Israel.
ABM: And that is very consistent by all administrations, Israel is singled out. And there’s a message behind it, there’s no question in my mind.
ABM: There’s a message behind it. Where this message to? Not to the Israelis, and not to the Jewish community.
RW: Oh, sure it is to the Jewish community.
ABM: Well I mean—
RW: Of course it is, of course it is.
ABM: The Jewish community has always been there for Israel, there’s no question. But now, now it is waning. I think the support of the Jewish community—
RW: No, no, no, no, no. With all due respect, you’re not saying it properly. It’s not that the American Jewish community is there for Israel – which it is – the American Jewish community is profoundly engaged in American politics.
ABM: This is absolutely true.
RW: And that’s why it’s mentioned. It’s mentioned of course because of the evangelical community‘s interest in the issue. But the question is, yes it’s mentioned, yes there are reasons, yes, and I’m glad there are political consequences for affirming one’s support for the American-Israeli relationship, positive consequences. But still, Americans vote on their pocketbook issues, they vote on things important to their local communities. They vote on foreign policy issues most concentrated on the American military, on terrorism and so forth. To foist the American-Israeli relationship up into the top one, two, or three issues I think misrepresents the strength of the relationship, because then one can say, well let’s look and see what issues Americans identify as their top 10. Well, rarely will they identify Israel in that context.
ABM: But there is no question about it. By not identifying it does not mean— Can you imagine anyone running for the Senate or for the House during the campaign would be attacking American foreign policy because it’s been supporting supportive of Israel all these years?
RW: Well no, but—
ABM: What would that person—
ABM: But that is my point here.
RW: Yeah, but hold on. There actually was one man who did speak differently about America’s relationship with Israel, certainly at the beginning and through the middle of his campaign, and that was Donald Trump. And he was quite successful.
ABM: Well, but look what’s happening. I mean—
RW: I understand what’s happening. But evangelicals did not move away from Donald Trump when Donald Trump was somewhat critical in certain respects of Israel’s traditional posture. Now, he changed his tone.
ABM: Very quickly, very quickly.
RW: Yeah, very quickly. But he paid no price.
ABM: Well he paid no, but because he changed his tone so early in the campaign. I mean, it wasn’t like his tactic.
RW: We agree. We agree.
ABM: Oh, I mean, let’s— No, I’m not here to argue with you.
RW: Yeah, no, but we agree. We agree.
ABM: My point is, I’m really, I’m learning, I’m not here to. I want to hear—I’m actually writing a work on this now. And I have obviously some different take on what you’ve basically— I agree with you, the American Jewish community has an influence. I agree, certainly the evangelical. I probably apply more relevance, more importance to that than you do.
RW: Well, it depends. You need to divide it up in a partisan sense and so forth. Obviously within the Democratic Party, the influence of the American Jewish community would be more pronounced than would be the influence of the evangelical Christian community, although in the state of Iowa, or in the state of Ohio in the south, or in different parts of the Midwest or different rural communities, even where it might be a Democratic representative, the influence of the evangelical community will be significant. But even in the Republican Party, where obviously the voter impact of the evangelical community will be disproportionately higher, the influence of prominent Jewish Americans in the Republican Party has grown substantially over the last 20 years. Look at the people most involved in the Republican National Committee on the finance side, on the policy side, on many of the different attributes. And there are prominent Jewish Americans—
ABM: No doubt. This is true. I just want to go into more into nuance here in terms of, do you believe. I mean, I see this happening. Do you believe that there is still erosion? That is, many Americans are now looking at Israel and looking at the occupation and the values we talking about before this. See, we have similar values, Israel is a democracy, equal rights, respect for the judiciary and all of that. This is all true, but there is now an erosion in terms of what’s happening in say the last five, six years, in particular since the formation of the last government, when you have Shaked trying to tamper with the judiciary, trying to appoint judges who are not going to be favoring really being a judge and go with issues, but those who are going to look at the Palestinian issues differently. The occupation itself is causing serious—many American Jews are very concerned. That is, the degradation of Israel’s moral principle, which we sort of take and say well, we support Israel because here’s, the Jews, democracy, freedom, and all of that. That is also eroding. Do you see that erosion taking place among the Jewish community, and certainly among the larger American community?
RW: Certainly there is an erosion as you describe it in terms of identity and affinity between Jewish-Americans and Israel, particularly when you look at it from the perspective of younger Americans. I think it’s possibly a simplification to simply point to Israel’s policies regarding the West Bank and settlement building to say, oh that’s the reason Israel has been, as you well know—
ABM: No, no, that’s one of them.
RW: Has been building settlements for decades. And they’ve built settlements under left-of-center governments, Labor-led governments, and they build them today under right-of-center governments led by the Likud. So, while certainly increased focus on settlements does create a division and adds to that division, I think it’s broader than that. And when I say broader, what I mean is there’s a perspective and I don’t think it’s necessarily 100 percent correct. But there’s a perspective amongst younger Jewish Americans as they adopt a more liberalized approach to life and to ethics and to the different issues that motivate them. They look at Israel and at times see possibly a different direction, although that’s not entirely fair in terms of the rights of the different communities in Israel, whether it be gay rights or the liberalization in terms of adoptions and things of that nature for same-sex couples, Israel is a leader in many respects. So while yes, it is true that there is a growing division and certainly an increased focus on expanded settlements, it doesn’t help and probably hurts. And yes, questions particularly in the Jewish community when there is a rigidity with respect to conversions and the rights of women to pray in certain ways at the Kotel. I mean, that got a lot more play—
RW: The Kotel than settlements did for many years. And so if that’s an indicator of the emotions of the American Jewish community, I think that would support a different hypothesis. Meaning that it’s the social issues, that when they create a division it causes a bigger divide than necessarily the settlement policies. I would argue it’s an accumulation.
ABM: OK. I mean there is accumulation, but let me, if you ask most Israelis today, and I’m sure you heard this and seen this, they will tell you what matters to them as far as countries around the world are concerned, including the EU, United States is the most important ally, bar none, and second to none. So for most Israelis, United States matters the most obviously. Now think about it in those terms. As a result of this, since the United States albeit criticize Israel occasionally here and there about, up with some pressure, minimal pressure really. In my view, if the situation today it is what it is, and we are on the verge basically last vestiges of what’s left of this two-state solution, I feel very strongly that United States become the enabler. That is, the United States’ policy toward Israel made it possible for the Israelis to get to this point where the prospect for real peace based on a two-state solution practically has diminished, if not dead already. That is what I see happening, is a continuing of this policy. Is it good for Israel? My feeling is that with the best of intentions of the successive administrations, with the best intentions of the Jewish community, with the affinity and love, affiliation, Israeli values, American values. What we have done here basically enable the Israelis to continue with this path both from the left and center, right-of-center, left-of-center, pretty much maybe with the exception of Meretz, pretty much continue exactly what you said, to build the settlement. We got to a point we have created now irreversible facts. As a matter of fact, in my view on the ground, who is going to evacuate 500,000 or two hundred thou-, or even 100,000. That’s what I feel where America has been very shortsighted. In the name of loving Israel, protecting Israel, and taking care of Israel, we also enabled Israel to get into this terrible spot today, and the Israelis themselves seem to think well, we are where we are. We are, from Netanyahu’s perspective, they’ve achieved a great deal. And Trump came in, gave them the biggest prize historic in its dimension. And so here you have the problem that is, out of love – no, there was no, if it was tough love is one thing, but it wasn’t tough love.
RW: I would respectfully differ a bit in terms of the totality of the perspective. Certainly you’re correct that America has as you say enabled certain Israeli policies. But I think you’re only focusing on part of the equation of both the relationship and the consequences of the relationship. For instance, I think you would agree that any Israeli government, whether it’s right-of-center or left-of-center, can only, would only be able to effectuate a realistic offer with respect to a negotiated two-state outcome if it felt secure enough, strong enough, in terms of its defensive capability to make such an offer. And without American support throughout the decades, that level of Israeli confidence never would have been realized. Only with Israel maintaining, preserving, and even pushing ahead with its qualitative military advantage does it allow Israel to be in a political posture to engage seriously with respect to a negotiated two-state outcome. So you’ve got to give America credit for that.
ABM: Well this is true, but we have to separate now between providing the kind of security and the support from a security perspective, versus what Israel is doing in the territories.
RW: Well yes you can, but what you suggested, which certainly there is a level of truth to, which is the settlement policies are the ones that are undermining the possibility of a two-state solution. And surely that is part of the equation. But also part of the equation is that in order to effectuate a two-state solution, Israel must be secure and must have its defensive capabilities at an all-time high.
ABM: Provided you leave an opening. But you have to also leave an opening for a prospective solution to the Israeli-Palestinian.
RW: Of course.
ABM: But that opening was closing while the United States has been doing nothing, practically nothing to prevent that from happening. That’s what I am saying.
RW: Ok. Well that’s also where I think your description is a bit unfair. Yes, American policies thankfully have largely not been punitive with respect to Israel. But on the other hand, it was President Clinton, along with Prime Minister Barak and then Arafat, who all but negotiated an end to the conflict only to have it not be successful, at least disproportionately decisions made by the Palestinian leadership. Again, Olmert and Abbas, with the engagement of the United States, brought the level of negotiation even further. Olmert’s offer was more generous than was Barak’s in certain respects.
ABM: Oh no, no, I agree with you. I am not actually suggesting that the Palestinians were right.
RW: I know you’re not.
ABM: No, not at all.
RW: I know you’re not.
ABM: I think they were their own worst enemy, their own worst enemy. So from a perspective of negotiation, I absolutely have no problem with that.
RW: OK. So, but how can—
ABM: But one has nothing to do with the other.
RW: No, but that’s where I would differ. How can one say America is an enabler of Israeli settlement policy, but not recognize at least that however you describe America’s role in terms of its support for Israel, the totality of its role, it also enabled America to bring Prime Minister Barak to where he got to in terms of his offer to the Palestinians, which was unfortunately rejected and allowed America or enabled America to help bring Prime Minister Olmert to the offer that he made. It’s two-sided.
ABM: Yeah, but again, this is all true, this is all true. The question is, if you look today, what is the biggest stumbling block? Of course you don’t have leadership among the Palestinians who are willing, able to make the kind of concession necessary to make peace. I grant you that, there’s no question. I don’t think anything is going to happen unless there’s visionary, strong, powerful leadership. Knowing the Palestinians, Abbas isn’t going to deliver peace. This is dead on arrival as far as I’m concerned. He can’t, nor can Netanyahu for that matter, because he’s wedded. Netanyahu is not interested in two-state solution, period. He said it himself. It is not going to happen under his watch. What I’m saying is the combination of all of this put together has created now a situation where we started, you and I at the very beginning, it’s as gloomy as it can be. That’s what I’m saying. Which means, not exclusively, America was a partner, a party to the enablement of Israel. But Israel’s policy was the right policy, of course not. Was the Palestinian did the right thing? Of course not. Olmert would have been able to achieve peace had Abbas was smart enough to think, well, because there the stumbling, really main, big problem was the land swap, the percentages – you know, what Olmert demanded, versus what Abbas. But I think had this been the only problem, it could have been resolved. But that is not the only problem. On the surface that was a disagreement, yeah.
RW: Prime Minister Olmert essentially offered 6 percent in terms of a land swap; President Abbas’s position was 2 percent.
ABM: Yeah, even less, 1.8.
RW: Ok, 1.8, 1.9. And there are a series of maps, both at the time and developed subsequently that would certainly allow for what would appear to be a reasonable conclusion for both sides, a roughly 3.8 or 4.0 that would allow about 80 percent of the Jewish Israelis that live beyond the 1967 lines, east of the 67 lines, to be incorporated into Israel’s new internationally recognized borders. So I don’t think that while I differ and oppose Israel’s settlement policies as they go out further into the West Bank, I think it is responsible to identify the difference between those settlements that would logically impede the negotiation success of a two-state solution, and those that do not.
ABM: Oh no question, no question.
RW: And so just broad generalizations I think don’t get us anywhere.
ABM: No, no, and I’m the last one—
RW: I know you don’t, I’m just saying in general.
ABM: I mean as a matter of fact, the three blocks of settlements, plus perhaps a few others, they will be under any circumstances part and parcel of Israel, have nearly 80 percent of the settlers. So it’s not like all these, spread all over the West Bank have various, relatively speaking only 20 percent really of the settlers. The majority of them are in the area where Israel is—
ABM: Yeah. So having said that nevertheless, what you have today now comes Trump—I hate to call him president, I’m not used to calling him president.
RW: Well, he is the president. He is the president.
ABM: Comes Trump. Now he said one state, two state, it doesn’t matter. What kind of signal did that give to the Israelis, as well to the Palestinians?
RW: No it’s a terrible signal, terrible.
ABM: So he now added another layer of confusion, of difficulties.
ABM: To the whole process. Where do we go from here? You know, we may differ on some of the numbers and the details and the causes behind what happened, but I think you and I agree, the accumulative impact of the mistakes by all parties involved, United States has contributed to the impasse. That’s how I see it. Contributor, not the main contributor.
ABM: But certainly contributed to the impasse.
ABM: And now it’s even getting worse, under this administration.
RW: American policy for the last several days has no doubt contributed to the impasse. But I would not conclude, however, that in terms of the size of that contribution that that it is a meaningful discussion at this point. The focus should be on the requirements of both the Israelis and the Palestinians to exercise their right of self-determination in a manner that is consistent with their historical narrative with respects to their security interests. And at the same time, recognizes that while they may not agree with the narrative, the historical narrative of the other side, that it is a legitimate narrative that must be honored, that must be respected and accommodated in a political sense. And I think American administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have acted in accordance with that principle. So yeah, thank goodness American administrations and the American Congress has been so supportive of Israel that we do not act in a punitive way. Because you know why, and I think you would agree, there have been so many punitive actors throughout history towards both the state of Israel and the Jewish people that America, thank goodness, and Americans, the vast majority of them, do not want to participate in that type of a historical war.
ABM: Well when we say punitive action, obviously we’re not talking about imposing sanctions or things of this sort. America has so many levers to use, to exert the kind of influence—
ABM: I mean, pressure that—
RW: OK, but let’s give America some credit. Why?
ABM: Oh no, no question.
RW: But hold on. Why is the E1 corridor to date still not built upon by successive Israeli governments? Why is at least East Jerusalem still connected to the West Bank, so that if a negotiated two-state outcome were to occur, it would still be possible theoretically for a Palestinian state, a newly created Palestinian state, to be contiguous, to be connected from Jerusalem to the West Bank. It’s because of the positions of Republican and Democratic administrations for the last 25 years who have stood in the way. Now, whether President Trump’s administration will do the same is a question mark.
ABM: Well that’s the point. That’s the point. I mean, it’s been deteriorating and now we are at a point almost of no return if he continues with the current policy, and if Netanyahu god forbid is re-elected.
RW: Yes. Those are legitimate questions.
ABM: And that is my concern. So, you’ve been active politically. You have been an adviser. And I think, as far as I know about you, you’ve done an amazing job. What would you recommend today if President Trump came to you and said, ‘tell me, what should we do in order to advance the—’ and I’m not being facetious.
RW: No, I know you’re not.
ABM: I really am not.
RW: I would say to President Trump that he has an enormous swell of goodwill that he has built up with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and equally important with the Israeli people. He has developed a degree of confidence in terms of average Israelis in his performance, in his commitment to the state of Israel and its security, to use that degree of goodwill as a negotiating tool to help facilitate the goals and objectives that he sought to build when he made his first trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Meaning, President Trump rightly identified the emerging, very strong dynamic of the Sunni Arab states, moderate states in the Gulf, that have a coherence of interests with the state of Israel and with the United States in countering Iran. And what I would advise President Trump is, use that accumulation of goodwill, continue his effort to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. He’s announced that he will insist upon a renegotiation of the Iran nuclear agreement. Work, I would suggest to President Trump with the French president, President Macron, who played a very constructive role – the French did – in terms of America and its negotiation with Iran. Ask President Macron to work with the Iranians and bring along the European bloc to extend the sunset provision on the Iranian nuclear agreement. Include in ballistic missiles and their destructive approach to the region into outside understandings. Doesn’t need to be in the nuclear agreement, just additional agreements. And make certain that Iran’s treacherous behavior in the region becomes more addressed than it is today. And at the same time, if that is successful, legitimately be able to argue to the Israeli leadership and to the Israeli people that America has constructively laid out a dynamic in the region that allows Israel the space in which to resolve its issue with the Palestinians in both a way that increases its security and the likelihood that extremist groups and regional war cannot break out to Israel’s benefit, for Israel to maybe take a more generous approach. Not an approach that in any way de-emphasizes its security needs, but a more generous approach in terms of allowing Palestinian dignity. Palestinians should have their capital of their new state in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. That is of no or little consequence to the state of Israel in terms of its security or the sanctity of Jewish holy sites. Give Palestinians a sense of dignity by honoring their right of return, but make that honor apply to the new state of Palestine, not to the state of Israel, and ensure once and for all that Israel has internationally recognized borders. And at the same time, President Trump can usher in an era in which Israel enjoys economic benefits with the neighboring states that it has never enjoyed before in the open, that can flourish, that can bring in increases in gross domestic and national product, that are unforeseen in terms of their tremendous potential, and allow the energy finds that are very important but shouldn’t be overemphasized both in Israel and Egypt and possibly off of what would be the Gaza coast, to enable a regional approach to these increased energy finds, and maybe a way to bring in Cyprus and possibly Turkey, which is a whole other story. But the most lucrative or most economical routes usually go through Turkey. And to do all that in the next two or three years, because the urgency for a two-state solution is real, and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has gotten to a point where it will have dramatic negative consequences, both [to] the Israelis and to the Palestinians. And if President Trump doesn’t do all this or at least make an attempt, I would respectfully suggest to him he’s not taking advantage of the extraordinary steps he has taken so far to develop this degree of goodwill with the Israelis.
ABM: Yeah, I think you’re right. The only, there’s a lot of if obviously, that’s—
RW: Of course.
ABM: That’s my concern here, this is, if, and if. And I’m not undermining what you are saying, and I think this scenario is plausible, but we have to deal with the ifs. That is an open question. Let me tell you the Israelis, what they say—those who are, not necessarily feel the same way in connection with all of these issues. Economically speaking, they are dealing now with open markets in India and China, which by far will exceed anything they can do with the Arab states. Again, not saying they are right. But this is thinking in those terms. The lack of peace with the Palestinians, they see that as an advantage in the sense that they can continue to claim concern over security, security, security, and the United States has fallen for that trap for a long time. And there’s no reason to change course at this point. As far as Iran is concerned, many Israelis will tell you this is hoax, the whole thing. Iran would never ever dare to challenge Israel militarily because it will be wiped out. And as far as Turkey, now as far as Cyprus and the gas between the two sides, the deals are being made there’s, they don’t need America’s help. They don’t need anybody’s help for that matter. And it’s already taking place. What would then going to give that urgency for the Israelis even to listen to Trump, because he too is not going to put his foot down. That is what I’m talking about.
RW: No, those are fair points. And your observations in terms of Iran—in terms of India—well, in terms of Iran too. But your observations in terms of the openness and the potential of the volume of trade—
ABM: This is only two. So many others—Africa everywhere, Latin America.
RW: That’s right. These are all very fair and justified points. I would come back to one of your earlier points though, and that is still I think there is a recognition in Israel, correctly so, that the most precious asset that it holds is its relationship with the United States. And yes, you’re right. And Israelis are right to take advantage of the new opportunities in India. And Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trip to India was as I understand it largely successful. And the Chinese approach will value their economic relationship with Israel without compromising its political or strategic interests, although it will still favor the Palestinians in terms of the UN and things of that nature. There’s also a tremendous opportunity. However, I do think that the Jewish people understand still, this is a planet of what, five billion people? I mean, how many billions are on the planet now, 5 billion?
ABM: More, it’s approaching 8.
RW: Is it 8?
ABM: 7 plus, 7 plus.
RW: I’m showing my lack of knowledge, ok. In a planet of 7 plus billion people, with how many Jewish people, 18 million Jewish people?
ABM: Just about, just about.
RW: Yeah. That—
ABM: But we make noise more than two billion people, so.
RW: OK. It’s still important for this small state of roughly 8 million to have an incredibly unbreakably strong bond with the United States of America.
ABM: Oh, I think it’s very important, it’s very critical. I’m not in the least suggest that that should be tampered with. I’m just saying, the asset that the United States, which you so eloquently suggested, that is, will the United States use the levers in a constructive way in order to change the dynamics on the ground?
RW: That’s right.
ABM: And that’s what hasn’t taken place.
RW: Correct. And let’s hope that President Trump uses that.
ABM: And there’s just one other point I wanted to mention to you, to see what your thoughts on it, and that is what’s happening inside Israel itself in terms of the process. What we are seeing is a movement from left to the right, steadily growing. That is, right is a growing, settlement movement is becoming far stronger than ever before. They have direct input to just about every coalition government. In fact, Israel cannot form a coalition government where some element, some parties that’s represent the settlement is not going to be in that government. So what you have now, it’s a movement from the left to the right, which is growing on a day-to-day basis. And the opposition become really extraordinarily weak, extraordinarily weak. Today I don’t see any prospect of somebody from the left—not, I don’t mean left-left, I mean just left-of-center slightly, or even from the center—to emerge as a leader and say, ‘well we are going the wrong direction. We’ve got to have some correction made here.’ I think that is probably the biggest dan-, another major danger that Israel is facing, because we don’t have that kind of, I don’t see one. Do you see one coming now?
RW: Well, the demographics of Israel are what they are. And in terms of the prognosis for center or center-left political campaigns, the formula for their success as you rightfully essentially suggest is not to generate more interest on the left, but they need to take votes from people who would ordinarily find the center-right more attractive. And so in doing that type of a political strategy, you’re probably going to see the center shift a little bit to the right. It already has, and the center-left even shifted a little closer to the center. The other dynamic of course is non-secular versus secular. And I was at a conference this week in Israel and the polling, if I remember correctly, essentially said that 80 percent of those Israelis, Jewish Israelis, who identify themselves as religious oppose a negotiated two-state outcome. Now, whether the numbers are exactly right or not aren’t even the point. Four out of five.
ABM: And they are always, yeah, they are always in the government almost continuously from day of inception, with the exception of a couple of coalitions where they did not participate.
RW: So either Israelis with the help of Americans and others will persuade those people who identify themselves as religious to take a different point of view, or maybe offer them other things so that they will not stand in the way. These are the questions that the Israeli people will have to decide.
ABM: And the nationalists as well. I mean, you’re talking about Bennett and Lieberman. These are not necessarily religious, but they are nationalist.
RW: Yeah, I don’t think it’s fair in the context of what we’re talking about to put Bennett and Lieberman in the same category. I mean, Lieberman is shown to be pragmatic in certain respects in terms of negotiation with the Palestinians. He doesn’t have a religious zeal for the land.
ABM: No, no, I’m not saying neither of them does. I mean, Bennett a little bit more. But Lieberman—
RW: But isn’t what you’re really saying, it’s a question of the unity of the land versus the unity of the people, or how does the unity of the land and the unity of the people coexist.
ABM: That’s the problem.
ABM: And there is, there is a gap.
RW: Yes, no question.
ABM: This is a big, big gap. And that is that is the biggest problem that Israel faces today. You’re terrific as always.
RW: No, my pleasure. My pleasure.
David Mack is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (1990-1993) and US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1986-1989). Mack’s US diplomatic assignments included Iraq, Jordan, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia. Mack has extensive experience and knowledge on Iraq, Libya and UAE. He also comments on US Middle East policy and the security of the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf region.
Ambassador (ret.) Warren Clark is the former Executive Director of Churches for Middle East Peace. Clark began his career in the Foreign Service in Aleppo, Syria and has served in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Canada, and at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Following his retirement from the State Department he worked as a private consultant and received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Virginia Theological Seminary. Clark speaks French and eastern Arabic.
ABM: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to this episode of ‘On the Issues.’ My guest today is Ambassador Warren Clark, former Executive Director of Churches for Middle East Peace. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
I think you’re terrific.
WC: I always enjoy talking to you, Alon.
ABM: The pleasure is mine. Thank you so much again for taking the time. So, go ahead, please, I didn’t mean to interrupt you about what you’re doing today.
WC: Well, just what I started to say. You talked about the enormous sea change in our politics, the gulf in the middle between these two—the growing polarization between the parties, which unfortunately is now being reflected too in foreign policy. And so many people that I know were surprised by the outcome of the election last November, a year ago.
ABM: Of course.
WC: And so I’ve asked myself, how come we’re surprised? So it’s very interesting how our politics have changed to have this, to increase our awareness of this enormous gulf in the middle, between the two political extremes in the country. And I think there are historical reasons for that, economic reasons, and it’s not all obvious, but clearly we’ve lost the kind of consensus even for foreign policy. Foreign policy used to be a more or less consensus kind of approach. And we’ve lost that, and so I’m trying to find out, or trying to read, or trying to understand, help other people understand why we’ve ended up in this very awkward situation.
ABM: So, what’s your take? I mean, just so that— I was like so many millions shocked when he was elected, and I always struggle with the one issue, and that is, we didn’t see how he managed, and by what means he made that appeal to his so-called base and was able to capitalize on it without much being talked about it before, throughout—
WC: That’s right.
ABM: Throughout the process, throughout the campaign.
WC: That’s right.
ABM: This is really is a big puzzlement for me. Please, enlighten me.
WC: Maybe this is the genius of Trump, is that he’s able to identify issues that really touched people and motivated people.
ABM: And coming from a so-called billionaire.
ABM: Appealing to the poor and the despondent and the despairing.
WC: Yes. Well, I guess part of the— I’m no expert in this area at all, but part of the understanding of Trump is that he’s not from the establishment in New York. He’s from Queens, he’s from the outside. And so he doesn’t have all of that Wall Street kind of background on these issues. So he identifies much more quickly with people who come from modest backgrounds, the so-called white workers—electricians, carpenters, plumbers, [unclear] workers of various kinds—many of whom do not have a university degree, and they have felt ignored and left out of the political process for a long time. Everybody points to the fact that wages have been stagnant for almost 30 years now for this group, and that the government programs, the appearance of government programs, Medicaid for example, helps the lower, lowest maybe 30 percent of the income distribution. But then you’ve got the next 50 percent of the income distribution that doesn’t benefit from these Medicaid and other programs for the poor. So someone mentioned the other day that part of the genius of – talking about medical issues – part the genius of Franklin Roosevelt was that he made Social Security apply to everybody. But as soon as you put on a means test such as Medicaid, then some people are going to benefit and some people are not. And if you’re just over the line, earning an income of forty-five thousand dollars or something and you get no benefit from Medicaid, you’re not happy.
ABM: Yeah. I mean this is what Senator Sanders has been saying about healthcare. That is the only way to do it. I mean, I happen to agree. I lived in England for a while. And it’s not a perfect system in terms of national healthcare, but it works.
ABM: Yes, you’re late, it takes you sometimes two, three weeks before you can get an appointment, especially for something serious. And if it’s urgent, you could end up going to a private doctor if you must, and have the means. But you also know you are safe. You have a national healthcare system that is functioning, that is working, and why is it? I mean, I’m sure you’ve looked into that. Why is it that we are not thinking in those terms? Republicans are not thinking in those terms. I think Democrats will be more inclined to go for a national healthcare system. Why do you think that?
WC: Well you know, again I’m no expert in this, but you can go kind of deep into the American character, about— Our history has given us certain values. I mean, people talk about self-reliance. They talk about the influence of the frontier on the American mentality.
WC: Where you were supposed to be independent. You were supposed to be self-sufficient. You went out and sort of fought for your land from the Native Americans. And so, it’s interesting. I lived in Canada for several years. In Canada, the government are the good guys. The government brings you services and security. When the West, Western Canada was settled, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police went first, and they established law and order. And then the settlers came, then the farmers came, and the police were there to protect them. In the West, in the American experience, of course after the civil war, it was the reverse. There was no law and order. So your gun was—
ABM: Was your law.
WC: Was your law.
WC: And it was another 10 or 20 years before there was a courthouse and a legal system that you could have any faith in. So it’s a different kind of tradition and mentality.
ABM: Culture, yeah, different kind of mentality. But 2017 was an eye-opener in so many different ways. I’ve been concentrating largely on the Middle East in terms of my thinking, writing, preaching the gospel of peace and security. But I couldn’t help it. As a result of this election, I started to tackle our domestic problem, given what Trump is doing. Incidentally, I still have a hard time to say President Trump, so— I really mean it. I cannot use the word president before his name.
WC: In our church, we have a time at our church service when we offer prayers, for people who are sick and so forth. We also offer prayers for those in authority, for the government, and for the president of the United States. And for the first time that happened after the election—no, after the inauguration—the person saying it burst into tears.
ABM: You’re kidding.
WC: To say it, she couldn’t bring herself to say President Trump, it was very difficult. So that shows how, to me, it shows how kind of out of touch we are here in this blue bubble of Washington—how out of touch we are with all those red states, all those people in other parts of the country.
ABM: Which was amazing. Whoever was able to work with him and help him to identify specifically the three states, the key, where the focus was there, when in fact Hillary Clinton just took it for granted that Pennsylvania is going to go with her, so she could seal the election. It is really amazing. To me, this is an amazing lesson—
ABM: In American domestic politics, which is really very, very interesting. When you watch, especially CNN, not that CNN is the source of the truth, the Gospel. But you have some time very interesting guests who are supporters of Trump. And to me it is absolutely puzzling that they try to justify everything. But none—they’re learned, very able. Some of them occupied very important positions in various Republican governments, administrations, but they cannot find a fault in whatever he’s doing.
WC: They’re very defensive.
ABM: How was he able—? I’m not talking now about those who are uneducated, disenchanted, unhappy, that have been left to themselves, but these people are, they know, they understand.
ABM: They’ve been congressmen and senators, all kind of people. And they put it with a straight face. They defend every single step, every single word he’s saying. How is it possible; I mean to what extent these biases have taken such deep roots, in such a short period of time?
WC: Well yes, related to that I think is that, if he says something outrageous or he does something outrageous, his base doesn’t seem to be greatly affected. Because they think ‘well, you know, OK, it’s embarrassing that he did this or he said that.’ But that he’s doing the right thing of trying to disrupt Washington, they’re trying to change the way the government works, and specific things like tax reform and immigration, he’s moving in the direction they want him to move in. And so they’re willing to tolerate a lot of kind of noise and static, that seems very, to the rest of us seems to distract very much from what he’s trying to do.
ABM: I mean for them, these lies, I mean 24 hours a day. The New York Times on this, The Washington Post actually identified that on the average, he lies three, four times a day from the time he came to office. Can you imagine? That is like 1,200 times he’s lied.
WC: I think his supporters, it doesn’t bother people. It doesn’t bother his supporters because well, you know, he often says what he kind of wishes was the case, instead of what is the case. But again, that’s kind of, on the surface it doesn’t seem to bother people because they think he’s moving in the right direction. So you know, it’ll be very interesting to see what happens this year. I think this is going to be an extremely interesting political year.
WC: You know, apart from the whole Russian investigation question, the FBI right now problem, so many women for example have seemed to be mobilized because of the president. And of course sadly a lot of women did not vote in the last election, in 2016.
ABM: I think they probably will be more inclined to vote this time around.
WC: They’ll be much more inclined to vote, and we saw that in some of the by-elections in Alabama and other places, and more women are now being urged to run for office. So I think there’s going to be a counter reaction, and a lot of it will be from women.
ABM: Yeah, yeah. And I think probably the Democrats also are going to be more energized this time around.
WC: Oh definitely.
ABM: I mean mathematically speaking it’s entirely, it’s possible for then Democrats to recapture the House as well as the Senate. I mean, that will be something to see. I think you’re right, 2018 is going to be even more than just that. It’s going to demonstrate to what extent the American public—is the American public moving, in which direction is it moving? What is moving the—I mean, the economy continues most likely to flourish.
WC: He’ll take credit for that.
ABM: So everybody—yes, he’ll take credit, he’s already taking credit for it. So everybody’s saying it’s the economy stupid, it’s the economy, it’s the economy. Well, the economy is going to be fine. Will that still be the main force that is going—
WC: Traditionally it has been. Traditionally, the economy has been the key.
ABM: You’re absolutely right, it’s been the key. Will that now remain the main force, given the fact that everything else they don’t like? And that is to me the most important thing to watch for, not to speak of course of our foreign policy, that is, his foreign policy, which to me is even more alarming than anything else that’s happening.
WC: Right. Well, on the subject that you and I are so interested in and have followed for a long time, namely the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s a very interesting example to see how he operates, and to try to read his mind as to how he’s approaching it. And you know, I think as most people have thought in the beginning, that well, this conflict seems to be intractable, and maybe a person like this who’s coming from the outside with fresh views. It doesn’t seem likely, but maybe it’s possible something will really happen. And I think we’ve seen that’s not the case.
ABM: Unfortunately he made things worse in my view.
WC: And then of course he gave some of the assignment to his son-in-law, who also is I’m sure a fine person but had no experience in this issue. And you can—years ago I worked for Jeane Kirkpatrick at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Jeane was a wonderful person. She was an academic intellectual, but she had no experience in government. She didn’t know how the State Department worked and how bureaucrats work, and how when you’re sending a message, you need to consult with a bunch of people to make sure that nobody is going to contradict you. But in time she kind of learned that ‘OK, this is how you do it.’ And the president doesn’t seem to have learned much about how to build consensus, or whether he should build consensus on given issues. And for example, I think the president in some ways is very interesting, his approach. He often or maybe almost always tries to leave himself an exit, a way out. And on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, especially on the Jerusalem issue. You know, his initial statement was well—on moving the embassy—well, we’re going to move the embassy to Jerusalem but we’re not taking any position about the final boundaries of the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, or the boundaries for the Palestinians. Well of course his statements that he would move the embassy changed so much, because that had been one of the few possible incentives. One of the few for the Israelis to come to an agreement, one of the few cards the Palestinians had, and he just threw that card away.
ABM: He gave it away without demanding anything in return from Netanyahu, which is sad, sad day. I mean this is one—this is such a big thing for Israel, such a big thing. He could have gotten significant concessions.
WC: I mean, everybody knows de facto West Jerusalem is the capital. That’s where the Prime Minister’s office is, that’s where the Knesset is. We all know that. But we also know that if there is ever going to be an agreement between the Palestinians and Israel, there’s got to be something motivating the Israelis to come to the table. Certainly you have this enormous asymmetry, with a very prosperous, strongly allied Israel, with a very poor Palestinian state, and the Israelis are enjoying a good prosperity for the most part, and the Palestinians are not. So that, apart from all the limitations on their livelihood, of travel restrictions and many other kind of restrictions, so that the Palestinians have very strong motives to come to an agreement to relieve these pressures. Whereas the Israelis have very little motivating them I think to come to an agreement.
ABM: Yeah, well, like exactly what you said, the fact that Israel is so prosperous, so powerful, you know economically powerful, socially, technologically, just about in every single field. The economy is thriving. So they have there no incentive to change the status quo. What is also interesting is that having been able to achieve this level of success while the continuing threat so-to-speak going back 70 years from the day of inception. So for them, actually maintaining a certain level of threat or sense of insecurity is strong motivation for all Israelis to rally around the cause. That is, we cannot trust the Palestinians. We have to continue to be, remain vigilant, very strong because— And then having been able to develop this system, the apparatus, both militarily and technologically as well as in terms of intelligence to be able to control the Palestinian. To control specifically violent resistance. There’s some violence, but there’s nothing—more Israeli people are killed on the highway every single day than what the Palestinians are killing Israelis through the whole year. So they have created a situation where they can manage. The management of the crisis becomes the norm now. That is the scary situation. In the interim, what’s happening is they’re continuing expansion of the settlements now practically with no brakes. Nobody’s telling them anymore anything. New realities are created and the two-state solution is becoming very, it’s rapidly vanishing, disappearing. And from the Israeli perspective, it’s a success story. Look what we’re doing. We don’t want a Palestinian state in the West Bank, it’s not going to happen because we’re creating new facts on the ground. On the other hand, I don’t know how many Israelis including the government itself are asking themselves the question, ‘OK we’re succeeding now, we’re controlling the situation, where are we going to be 10 years down the line?’ And there is no answer that I could find anywhere in Israel. Do you know where you’re going to be 10 years down the line? And there’s a great deal of wishful thinking. You know, Palestinians will leave because they’re putting pressure. But they don’t understand this is simply not going to happen. And then out of despair, and when you have nothing left to lose, in my view it’s going to explode, even though tens of thousands of Palestinians can get killed in the process. But for them it’s going to be a small price to pay if they can, because once there is this kind of eruption, it will no longer go back to the status quo. They would want a permanent, definitive end to the conflict. That’s—I mean that’s one end of it. And the second end, from my perspective—
WC: Excuse me, when you say an end of the conflict, are you talking about some form of a Palestinian state?
ABM: They will demand a solution.
ABM: A permanent solution. What kind of contour that’s going to be the contour of the solution, one cannot tell. But there’s no question they’re going to be demanding a Palestinian state. I mean, that is one thing. The other problem is that they themselves have been contributing to their own problem by sticking to their old, old, old narrative going back now 50 years, at least since 1967. They have never understood that you cannot simply resist. You have to come up with new ideas. Resistance to the political, occasionally it’s erupting into, becoming violent resistance. It has never really worked with the Israelis because it only galvanized the Israelis to oppose it and get better at it. And then you have Hamas on the other hand, who constantly continues to threaten Israel, continues to demand all of Palestine, rather than part of it, also playing into the hands of the Israelis. So when I speak to the Palestinians, I tell them, you are making a terrible mistake. You are now the victim. Yes, you are the one who’s been displaced. Yes, but you have to also understand you cannot defeat Israel. Your resistance, be that sometimes peaceful, political, and/or violent, did not work. You’ve got to change your strategy, you know, renounce violence. I mean, Hamas still today refuses to renounce violence, and they’re playing into the hands of Netanyahu and his bunch. And when you have an American administration that sees no wrong as far as Israel goes, simply no wrong, successive American administration from day one have basically supported Israel. Some put a little bit more pressure than the other, the greater the biggest pressure came from President Obama for awhile, to force, to halt the expansion of the settlements, but he ended up giving Israel thirty-eight billion dollars in military aid over 10 years. So there was no, the United States has never taken a single coercive, a single measure to force the Israeli hands, when in fact it’s the only country that can exact any kind of concession from Israel. And the Israelis know that, and the Israelis tell us. As long— America for us is number one two, three, four, and five. And that’s what matters to us the most, knowing also the United States is not going to put that kind of pressure in order to get any kind of concessions. That is— So, as I see it now, America here has contributed to the impasse just as much as the Israelis and the Palestinians have contributed to it.
WC: There was a period I think in the early 90s, after the first Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States looked as though it was the sole power in the world. And Secretary of State Baker organized the conference in Madrid that led to ultimately to the Oslo Accords, and that actually moved the whole process forward quite a bit. And we recognized that the PLO, and you may remember that the PLO and Arafat signed a letter with, exchanged with Rabin on the White House lawn which explicitly not only recognized Israel—
ABM: Oh yeah.
WC: But recognized Israel’s right to exist.
ABM: Yeah, yeah.
WC: So you know it’s really very I think insidious when some years later, Netanyahu comes up with the idea well, they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. So he never mentioned the fact that they already have recognized Israel—not only recognized Israel, but its right to exist. And if you start saying well, you [must] recognize Israel as a Jewish state, what does that mean for the non-Jewish population? What does that mean for civil rights, for human rights? That’s never made clear, and it certainly looks as though it could lay the groundwork for a long-term state where you have two sets of laws for two sets of people.
ABM: Oh, which already exists.
WC: Which already exists.
ABM: I mean Israel itself—
WC: I know it’d simply be giving legitimacy to that system a system that already exists. We don’t want to use the ‘A’ word, but you know, it’s moving in that direction.
ABM: No, but the truth of the matter is Palestinian-Israelis are discriminated against, there’s no, I mean, everybody knows that. And as far as the West Bank is concerned, there are two systems, two separate laws. One is applicable to the settlers, and one for the Palestinians. And so you don’t want to use the word apartheid, but it’s a de facto apartheid, at least now I think is becoming ever so more closely to be identified.
WC: I think we also have to recognize that the PLO and the Palestinian State really went a long way in the early 2000s, after the death of Arafat, that the Palestinian Authority, at the insistence of George W. Bush, cooperated with the United States and with Israel on security in the West Bank. Abbas has said he’s against violence. And during the three Gaza wars in ‘08, ‘12, and ‘14, the West Bank was quiet. And that’s because they were being sat on not only by the Israelis, but by—
ABM: By the Palestinians themselves.
WC: By the Palestinians themselves. So I think the Palestinians can say they have in good faith cooperated a great deal with the United States and Israel, especially on security matters. And of course they’ve got nothing in return. And Abbas, it puts Abbas in an extremely difficult position because he can say, ‘look, we’re cooperating on security. Israeli security people are all over the West Bank. But in return, we’re going to make progress towards a Palestinian state.’ And he has not been able to deliver that.
ABM: Yeah, what the Israeli argument about that, and you hear it all the time, and that is what happened in 2000, the Second Intifada. You see for the Israelis, the Second Intifada—and I’m not justifying it, you know my position, but for the Israelis, the Second Intifada was nothing short of a major turning point. That is, if there was any trust left with the Palestinians, that trust, it totally evaporated.
WC: And it killed the peace movement in Israel.
ABM: Yeah, it killed the peace movement. So when you have 130 terrorist activities that took place in 2000 alone, over one thousand Israelis got killed in these terrorist activities, it really changed, it destroyed the peace movement, exactly what you said, and it instilled serious doubt and distrust of the Palestinians, and they have not recovered from that to this day. And that is something—when I talk to the Palestinians, I say to them, you’ve got to understand the Israeli mindset. You’ve got to understand the mentality. The occupation is not acceptable, is unjustifiable. I’m totally against it, but their actions are making things considerably worse. If you made a mistake in 2000, acknowledge it. Say it was a mistake, we made a mistake. But we don’t want to make the same mistake again. Once it is acknowledged, you disarm the extremists in Israel, who continue to say we gave them, we did this. You remember before 2000, the relationship was actually, after the Oslo Accords, Israelis and Palestinians been going back and forth, Israelis go to the West Bank, they gamble, they buy, they shop, and come back to Israel. This is how coexistence is going to look like. Jerusalem in the ‘80s was incredibly peaceful. But that’s what I’m saying is, what happened is that the mistake each party has taken has been compounded, and it created a such deadlock right now, that it is impossible to unravel. Then comes Mr.—
WC: And it’s been impossible for either side to recognize the narrative of the other.
ABM: Exactly. Exactly. And then comes Trump, And he adds another measure. This is a guy who said, oh, I can resolve, you know, this is going to be the deal of the century. OK, if you are resolved to make the deal of the century, ok, what is the kind of approach, strategy you’re going to take to be able to bridge the gap, if you know anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So he goes with Jerusalem, says well I’ll just remove the question of Jerusalem off the table and that is going to be step one. And then he freezes, because the Palestinians refused now to resume negotiations, he freezes the financial assistance to the Palestinians, which is even more outrageous. And he, you know, this is the sad, sad commentary. Expecting the Palestinians to crawl to get the money.
WC: You know, Arafat and the P.A. do have a political constituency. There were elections a long time ago. And they have to, to a degree, reflect public opinion among Palestinians in the West Bank. And of course there was there was terrible outrage about the announcement of moving the embassy, because it seemed to them that that was the end of any role of the United States as a mediator. So I think the United States is indispensable, it’s going to be absolutely necessary if anything is going to happen. It may be necessary but not sufficient to make things happen. But you know, I think the Palestinians can also say to themselves that there is no point in sitting down and negotiating anything now. That is, as you say, the distrust on both sides is very strong. But beyond that, the prime minister of Israel ran against the Oslo Accords in the mid 1990s. And in the last election, the night before the last election, he said there’s not going to be a Palestinian state while I’m prime minister.
ABM: Exactly. Exactly.
WC: So you know, what is the point of sitting down and negotiating the idea of a Palestinian state with someone who has said that this is not going to happen?
ABM: No, not under his watch, no question. But in the same token I also feel strongly that not just the Israeli government has to be different one to be able to negotiate, but you also need the fresh faces, fresh individual, a Palestinian with courage, with vision, who’s not wedded—
WC: And there seems to be nobody coming up.
ABM: Someone, we need someone who is not wedded to the past. Somebody who’s exempt, exempt himself from ok, what was, was. We have a different, we have to look at the situation somewhat differently. And there is no one in the horizon. The one who could do that is in Israeli jail, which is really most, most unfortunate. I’m talking about Marwan Barghouti.
WC: Yes, of course.
ABM: Yeah, yeah. I think to myself, what has changed since we’ve been talking about it 20 years ago. We’re only adding another layer of problems and difficulties, and the problem with delaying it right now. Now that resumption of the negotiations isn’t going to produce anything, continues Israeli entrenchment in the West Bank.
WC: Yeah, you know there was a, I don’t know how much credibility you give to it, but there was a leak I guess from Saeb Erekat about the purported Trump plan, and the administration immediately said ‘oh, well ‘ that’s not our final version of the plan.’ But they had said they were coming up with a plan. And the terms that were leaked would never be accepted, couldn’t possibly be accepted by anybody with any political credibility with the Palestinians. I mean in 2009, the two sides were rather close in a number of areas. And apparently Olmert was offering to hold onto only 6 percent, and Abbas had offered 2 percent. And the idea was well, maybe there’s a compromise in the middle. Well, this talked about Israel holding onto 10 percent of the West Bank, so they’re going absolutely in the opposite direction. And it’s hard to believe that there could ever be a deal without East Jerusalem, that the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem being part of a Palestinian state and part of the Palestinian capital. And the talk about the capital being in Abu Dis, or—
ABM: Also Silwan, which is very close to Jerusalem.
WC: Well, Beit Hanina, Beit Hanina, which has also been mentioned. I think that’s really a nonstarter. There’s really not going to be a Palestinian state unless the Palestinians have some part of East Jerusalem.
ABM: You see, what is very interesting, the reaction. Of course they share this information with Jordan, with Saudi Arabia, with Egypt. The relatively mute reaction from the Arab states, which was really, a year ago I would have said no, going to be a major outburst, it didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen, and this is another area where Netanyahu’s capitalizing on, and that is the closeness that has been evolving and developing between Israel and the Arab states.
WC: Right, trade and investment.
ABM: Especially with the Gulf and with Saudi Arabia in particular because of the common enemy. And so the Saudis see Israel more of an ally, even closer, more important than even the United States in the sense, this is in the forefront. That is, if anyone is going to confront Iran, it’s not going to be, more likely Israel than it’s going to be the United States. That’s how Saudis actually look at it. So what’s happening in Israel today, as they see it, the Arab States basically put the Israeli-Palestinian [conflict] on the back burner. They are no longer putting any pressure on Abbas to make a move to make concessions, anything like this. And Israel, Netanyahu is building, is capitalizing on the shifting political winds in Israel—I mean, in the Middle East—and the threat that Iran presumably is posing on the entire area. So that’s another. How would that change? So it’s not enough for Israeli and Palestinian governments to change. You’re going to need to change, have other changes, specifically any Israeli government will continue to be concerned about Iran. Could be from—
WC: And Syria, too. You’ve got Hezbollah right there on the border.
ABM: And now they have that. So changing the government is necessary, but in and of itself will not be enough. You need to resolve the question of Hezbollah, the question of Iran’s support. That is why I am saying the conflict is becoming ever more and more intractable because of the changing geostrategic conditions in the region itself. That is making things considerably more, worse than they are.
WC: But even if you have a hypothesis of a de facto alliance between Israel and the Gulf Arabs, Saudi Arabia, Egypt being more or less out of the game, there’s still a lot of tension with Hezbollah, with Syria, and through them Russia, because Russia sees Syria as a client state, it has for a long time. So they’re not particularly wedded to Assad, but they’re wedded to Syria as being a client, their little piece of turf on the Mediterranean. And so somehow that is going to be hard to come to an accommodation without figuring out how to address the Syrian conundrum, I think.
ABM: Yeah, you are right. I think there is, there’s Lebanon, there is of course Syria, even in Iraq to some extent, it is important to calm things down in Iraq. And then you have of course Iran, who is not going to settle on anything other than maintaining its position. I mean, Netanyahu just went to visit Putin.
WC: Isn’t that interesting.
ABM: A couple days ago. What was the subject matter there? Israel will not allow an Iranian base in Syria under any circumstances. And we will take action whether Russia likes it or not. And he was pleading with Putin to convince Iran not to even try, because Israel will not allow it to happen. So you have now a direct issue that needs to be resolved. Iran is determined to establish a permanent base, and Israel is determined not to allow that to happen. So where is the focus going? And that suits the Saudis very, very much, because they have their own stake in Syria. And so they want to make sure that Iran does not stay in Syria as well. So that’s another layer. Other than the nuclear threat, there’s the geostrategic threat, which concerns Israel as well as the Saudis in particular. So you have another layer to this conflict, and of course the Israelis are not sleeping well as long as Hezbollah has a hundred and fifty thousand plus rockets. And now the main concern, the second issue that concerns Israel is the factory that Iran built in Lebanon to build a new generation of missiles.
WC: Oh, they have a factory.
ABM: Yeah, two factories, and Israel has identified the location. And I think it would be only a question of time when you’re going to see—
ABM: Bombing of these facilities, these new factories, only when. But if this is going to instigate any attack by Iran, by Hezbollah against Israel using rockets, we’re talking about a massive, massive, massive conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah.
WC: But if there was prior—maybe this is pie in the sky—if there is progress towards an accommodation with Israel and the Palestinians, would that take pressure off?
ABM: Great deal.
WC: Coming from Hezbollah?
ABM: Not just Hezbollah, Iran as well. See, Iran today is saying as long as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, they have they have the reason to talk and—
WC: But if you take that conflict away—
ABM: If you take it away, you are really usurping away from them the reason to stop. What have you got against Israel. As a matter of fact, you start talking about the relationship between Persians and Jews, which was wonderful.
WC: Very old, it’s an old story.
ABM: Old, old story. But there was an excellent relationship.
WC: Yes. Yes. Under the Shah.
ABM: Throughout the centuries, under the Shah, and going back 2,000 years for that matter.
WC: Yes, yes, yes.
ABM: So that is what the Israelis just don’t understand. You want to mitigate the conflict with Iran, deal with the Palestinians. You want to mitigate the conflict with Hezbollah as well, deal with the Palestinians.
ABM: They don’t get it.
WC: You and I are completely agreed on that.
ABM: I think we’ve been agreed on everything we’ve talked about. Alright.
ABM: Thank you so much, I think we had a good time. It was fun.
WC: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Radwan Ziadeh is the founder and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies in Syria, and co-founder and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington, DC. He is also Senior Middle East Fellow at Arab Center Washington, where he deals chiefly with issues pertaining to Syria. He has been documenting the ongoing human rights violations since the onset of the Syrian crisis and has testified before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US Congress. He served as a visiting fellow and scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Institute for Middle East Studies of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, Chatham House, the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, and the United States Institute of Peace. He was also a Prins Global Fellow at the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University and a Reagan–Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Dr. Ziadeh is the author of more than 20 books in English and Arabic including Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East (2010), and Syria’s Role in a Changing Middle East: The Syrian-Israeli Peace Talks (2016). He holds a DDS in Dentistry from Damascus University, a Diploma in International Human Rights Law from American University, an MA in Democracy and Governance from Georgetown University, and a Diploma in Peace Negotiations and Conflict Studies from the University of Cyprus.
Erdoan A. Shipoli has a PhD in Political Science and International Relations and is a visiting researcher at the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the E. Walsh School of Foreign Affairs, Georgetown University. He is working on his new book “Islam, Securitization, and US Foreign Policy” focusing on Islam in US foreign policy and security, emphasizing on democracy promotion, how Islam became a security issue for the US, and the consequences.
He has served as a co-founder and leader of multiple internationally-recognized organizations and institutes, such as the Istanbul Leadership Institute, Lobbying School, and North American Professionals and Entrepreneurs Network (recognized by FORBES). He is also the Program Director of FEBA, an organization that works with Balkan American youth to overcome challenges they might be facing.
He published a book on the “International Securitization: the case of Kosovo”, countless articles, and presented in numerous international conferences. Currently he contributes for Huffington Post (in English) and sbunker (in Albanian).
Erdoan is fluent in: Albanian, English, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian.
Mark Whitlock is an adjunct lecturer in Columbia University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program where he teaches in the Capstone Thesis seminars. Whitlock’s research and practice examines identity-based political violence and decision-making, emphasizing operational early warning and response (EWR).
His research has specifically analyzed the theory to practice nexus, forecasting writ-large, and the prevention of mass atrocities/mass killing. He has conducted research and consulted on regional early warning architectures primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Europe with organizations including The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and The Visegrad Group. He recently coordinated research for the Africa Task Force on the Prevention of Mass Atrocities (ATF), and contributed to the development of an internal handbook on conflict prevention and decision making for UNOWAS political staff while based in Dakar, Senegal. At Columbia (SIPA and SPS) he has contributed to developing online simulations for graduate students that explore the aforementioned themes highlighting conflict analysis, communication, and decision-making.
Whitlock holds a graduate degree in International Affairs from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), concentrating in international security policy and conflict resolution with focus in Africa and the Middle East. Whitlock has lived, worked and traveled throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, serving first as a biology teacher at Nkonya Secondary School with Peace Corps Ghana, teaching in Tunis, Tunisia, and researching political violence in Ethiopia, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Indonesia, Israel, Rwanda, Burundi, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire.
Tsvi Bisk is an independent futurist, social researcher, and strategy planning consultant He is the director of the Center for Strategic Futuristic Thinking and the founder and director of the Strategic Educational Planning Institute. For more than 20 years, he was a senior associate of the Beit Berl Institute (the research and education arm of the Israel Labor Movement). Bisk is the author of five books, and has published more than one hundred essays and articles in English and Hebrew in a variety of publications.
Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to ‘On the Issues.’ My guest today is Tsvi Bisk, director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and author of the book ‘The Suicide of the Jews’. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.
ABM: So anyway no, I mean it’s not like a formality, but we can talk about anything you want. But let’s talk about your book. Finally I read it like I said, and let’s begin with the issue with the premise. And I think you made a very, very strong case that current Israeli policies and the Jewish experience in general that we are going through right now could lead eventually to the extermination of what you call the suicide of the Jews. And that unless something—
Tsvi Bisk: It won’t be an extermination.
ABM: No, no ex—
TB: It’ll be an erosion that is like—the centrality of Israel to the Jewish experience since the creation of the state, I think is self-evident. I mean, even the so-called anti-Zionists are anti-Zionist Jews in terms of Zionism.
TB: I mean they wouldn’t have an identity. It’s kind of ironic, but I just think that if I look at our present policy—look, I put it this way. I think that the settler movement and the settler culture and the way the settler culture has influenced Israeli political discourse and Jewish political discourse and social discourse, is more dangerous to the future of Israel than the Iranian bomb.
ABM: Yeah, I agree. I just wanted you to tell me, how do you see that? I mean, what would eventually—the settler movement certainly is going to contribute to that. How do you see that progressing in that direction? Because you are futuristic.
TB: OK. I say to people [who] say ‘we can defeat the Palestinians.’ I say, that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of the Palestinians giving up. I’m afraid of the Palestinians saying, ‘OK, we no longer want a Palestinian state. We’re not going to get it.’
ABM: Well they’re already saying that.
TB: Yeah. Over 50 percent by the way are saying one state. And then if it becomes One Man, One Vote, like in South Africa, then it’s just a matter of time. We cannot fight that. We cannot say, ‘we can be a democracy,’ and deprive over half the people or half the people or even 40 percent of the people occupying the land of Israel of their civil rights. There’s no such thing. You know, Lincoln said ‘we can’t be a country half-slave and half-free. We’ll either be all-slave or all-free.’ That was why he was against slavery. You can’t be a country that’s half democratic and half non-democratic. You’re either one or the other. And that means constitutionalist protections in terms of what modern democracy means. Modern democracy—when we say democracy, we mean constitutionalist democracy.
ABM: Exactly, yeah.
TB: We don’t mean majoritarian democracy. Hitler was a majoritarian democrat—he was elected democratically, he formed his coalition democratically. You can even say that Stalin was a totalitarian democrat. Most people supported him. People forget that. Most people support Castro in Cuba. Now you could say, ‘yeah, they were brainwashed because, yeah, because they—’ If you erase [the] constitution, if [you] destroy the press, if you call the press the enemy of the people and undermine them—you’re allowed to criticize the press. [The] press is like anything else. It can be a whorehouse just like the political scene can be.
ABM: There’s no question. I mean, I agree.
TB: I think it was Thomas Jefferson that said, ‘If I had to choose between a free press and a Congress, I would choose the free press over the Congress.’
ABM: That’s right. I absolutely agree with you. I just want you to try to draw a sort of a scenario.
ABM: How do you see that evolving? I absolutely agree that the current situation – that is, where the two-state solution is losing ground, day after day.
TB: It will start in Jerusalem.
TB: We’re talking about—the unified Jerusalem. Now, to make things clear. We have to understand, something like 60 to 70 percent of so-called East Jerusalem, what we annexed, for the 3,000-year history of Jerusalem was never part of Jerusalem. It’s about 60 or 70 villages that are all slums, that were never part of Jerusalem, ever. That’s number one. But let’s say, OK we unified, ‘unified’ in inverted commas, we unified Jerusalem. By the very fact, under Israeli law, by the very fact that they are residents of Jerusalem, they can vote in the Jerusalem elections—the Arabs of East Jerusalem. Up until now they haven’t done that. Because they have this crazy thing about honor, the Arabs.
ABM: Oh yeah, yeah.
TB: They’re, ‘oh, honor.’ We’re not—you know, which is sort of a synonym for stupid. They can vote in the Jerusalem elections. Now I’m saying, OK. You’ve won. Because you have a whole new—I’m talking about, let’s say young Palestinian leadership coming up post-Abbas, post all these ancient guys—people who were born after the creation of the state, people who were born after ‘67. OK. We need a whole new—we need our rights, we have to live. You know, there’s thousands of East Jerusalem Arabs that are applying for Israeli citizenship because they want to get into universities and things like that. OK. What if they vote in the next Jerusalem elections? I think there’s something like 31 members of the Jerusalem City Council. If they vote as a bloc, they’ll get 10, 12, 13.
ABM: At least, at least.
TB: If they join with the Haredim, with the ultra-orthodox, they’re an absolute majority. Now as it is, secular and modern Orthodox Jews are leaving Jerusalem in droves because of the Haredi influence. If it’s joined to the Arabs, it’s the end of Jerusalem. It becomes—Jerusalem will be ruled by anti-Zionist parties. The capital of the Zionist state will be ruled by anti-Zionist parties. I mean, we’ll have to fly into the Knesset with helicopters. So it will start there, and that will be a psychological thing. When we have national elections, they can set up faux voting booths. And we’ll try to break them up, and that will be all over the evening news all over the world, we’re br—but we want to vote too. This is our country.
ABM: But let’s go beyond Jerusalem, though. Let’s go beyond Jerusalem. Again, I want to refer to your book. So, let’s further develop the scenario. What was going to bring to what you term the suicide of the Jews, if you were to continue with this current scenario that you started?
TB: Well it’s multifaceted. It’s not just the Palestinians, it’s the fact that because of this culture, loyalty now to the Jewish people, given the Israeli political establishment which is right-wing, is loyalty to the settlement project.
TB: For example, they [were] going to have the Italian um, what do they call it, the bicycle thing. Uh, when they have the, like, you have the French, when they have these huge bicycle races, what do they call it, that Armstrong was in?
ABM: Yeah, yeah, the—
KH: The Tours.
TB: Yeah, the Tour d’Italia, there’s the Tour d’France. OK. Well, these Tours start in other countries, like the Tour de France last time started in England. This year, they wanted to start in Israel, [the] Tour d’Italia. So they write, ‘we will start in West Jerusalem.’ Because they wrote West Jerusalem, our wonderfully sophisticated Minister of Culture said we’re not going to support it. Ok, what is my point. Loyalty to Israel is now dictated about your attitude towards Arabs and Muslims in general, which spills over into the settlements. This explains why Bibi and other Likudniks cozy up to these right-wing fascists in Eastern Europe. American Jews can’t understand what’s going on here. This guy said, the guy that was an ally of the present prime minister of—the ally of Hitler was a great patriot. Oh we don’t have a problem with that. Let him attack Soros. Soros is evil because Soros is against the settlements. This guy is good because he’s at least indifferent. So that’s that. Ok, That’s one angle. As long as we can keep the ultra-Orthodox happy, we’ll screw American Jewry. You see, [the] ultraorthodox keep us in power, and us in power, that supports the settlements. I heard a very, it can’t be proved but it’s very logical. Why it takes eight to 10 years to have a real estate project, a building project in Israel proper, and why it makes housing so expensive. It’s done purposely. They want people to move to the West Bank.
ABM: Yeah, and there it takes less than a year.
TB: Less than a year, a year.
ABM: Less than a year.
TB: And half the price for the same house.
ABM: Yeah, yeah.
TB: So you have what you call the bourgeois settlements, not the ideological settlements.
ABM: That’s right.
TB: People who are young couples who couldn’t afford housing.
ABM: They have better housing, better views, cleaner air, and cheaper. Much cheaper.
TB: And if you live there, it’s easy to get government jobs. In other words, everything is focused to that one thing. When I talk about the settler culture influencing politics, I’m talking about that. So right now we’re alienating Diaspora Jewry, especially American Jewry, with utter contempt. I blame American Jews for this, that they’ve put up with it. You know, I mean the Israelis have been peeing on American Jews for years, and American Jews open up umbrellas and thank God for rain. You know, no, the Israelis are peeing on us. I think it’s about time the American Jews woke up and said, you’re peeing on us. We’re not going to take it anymore.
ABM: I think they started to know, they started to feel that.
TB: It’s a bit late, it’s a bit late.
ABM: And then also it manifests itself with less and less younger American Jews are coming to Israel, and those who come, many of them are getting disillusioned rather quickly and go back, which is really a very interesting phenomenon. It didn’t happen—
TB: Well there’s another interesting phenomenon now. The millennials of the evangelicals, of the under 35 evangelicals, support for Israel is less and less; it’s about equally support for Palestinians. In other words, these Israelis [say]—we can give up American Jews because we’ve got the evangelicals, and there are 40, 50 million and they’re really, you know, really pro-Israel. History happens, and history matters, and history evolves. People forget that before 1967, Israel’s special relationship was with France and the European left. The European Socialists, who when they were arguing with them they’d say, if you’re socialist you’re for Stalin. They say no. Look at the kibbutz, look at the Histadrut. Now, our special relationship is with the United States and the evangelicals.
ABM: That’s right.
TB: But that too can change.
ABM: And I think it’s changing.
TB: It is changing.
ABM: It is changing already. Absolutely.
TB: First of all, there’s a lot of evangelicals that are people of color and Hispanic, and they have a different view of things. And then you have the younger evangelicals who might even have a university education, who might be a little more sophisticated – still support Israel, but not uncritically. And if it comes to a One Man, One Vote, and if the Palestinians are smart enough to read about Martin Luther King and Gandhi and change their whole thing into a non-violent thing, we’re done. We’re done.
ABM: But you say we’re done. We’re done say politically because of demographics. That is, Israel cannot have it both ways. it cannot have a democracy and cannot—
ABM: It just cannot. OK. How would that now evolve into the much more severe scenario that you are developing?
TB: Well, the same thing that we talked about. This would be, in my opinion would alienate 70, 80 percent of world Jewry, would alienate a huge number of the elites of Israel.
ABM: What would happen to Israel itself? What will happen to the Jews here? What will happen here?
TB: That I don’t know. I think a lot would leave. See, what they—also, the other thing that Israelis don’t is—we brag about startup nation, you know high tech and everything. What they don’t understand, these people, it’s that startup nation can get on an airplane and leave the country tomorrow. It’s not like you have steel and coal and automobiles and factories and stuff. It’s all brains. These guys could export their entire company as an attachment to an email. Could put it on a flash drive and put it in their pocket and get on a plane and go to America, plug it into a computer and they have their—now, they would still have the brains here, but believe me, any country in the world would make it easier for these kind[s] of brains to immigrate. I tell people I could bring Israel to its knees by taking one or 2,000 people out of the country. The top people. Civilizations are always run by elites. It’s snobby to say that, but it’s true. What, America wouldn’t let these people in? Canada wouldn’t let these people in? Australia wouldn’t let these people in? England won’t let these people in?
ABM: No, they are trying to—
TB: They’re trying to get them anyway.
ABM: They want them, they want them badly. Of course, of course. I mean we see this already.
TB: I mean, you see Silicon Valley, I read somewhere that 50 percent of the Ph.D.s in Silicon Valley were born in China or in India. You add on the Israelis, the French, and the, it’s like, so America, you know, all these people that are against immigration in America, I said, believe me, you could trade Kentucky and Montana, and it wouldn’t be half of what Silicon Valley is worth in terms of economics.
ABM: No, I mean, it is very—
TB: These people can go anywhere; they’re mobile.
ABM: I mean it’s already happening. I saw some statistics that suggest nearly 700,000 Israelis are in New York, in the states.
TB: In the states.
ABM: And the majority of them are in New York City, state.
TB: LA is really big.
ABM: L.A., [unclear], yeah, but vast majority of them are also all in New York.
TB: You know, the ironic thing is Zionism wanted to create this rooted, earthbound Jew, not the mobile Jew, the wandering Jew. The young Israeli who served in the army and went to university is probably the most cosmopolitan young person on the face of the planet Earth. That’s the irony of it. You drop him—you know, they serve in the army. They’re already 22 years old before they’re freshmen in university. They’ve been officers, they’ve been in charge of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, they’ve controlled and organized stuff. Then they take a trip around the world.
TB: Crazy stuff. They go to places nobody in the world goes. I mean, you go to places like in South America, and they say the Israelis are crazier even than the Australians – and the Australians are pretty crazy it seems. You know, they go to places nobody goes. And they come back, and they’re not afraid to fail. Israelis have no shame in failing. They try, fail, OK try again.
ABM: They get up again, try again.
TB: Try again.
ABM: That’s right.
TB: They don’t care, which is great for a modern economy. Risk means nothing to them. These are the kind of people that can go anywhere. They speak fairly good English compared to the rest of the non-English speaking world, and they’re fairly sophisticated, and you drop them anywhere, they live. In other words, I can’t be specific about what’s going to happen, but if I was a Palestinian strategist, I could tell you what I would do.
ABM: I will tell you the Palestinians, wait a minute, so to speak. Wait. I mean, time is against Israel 100 percent.
TB: Oh, a lot of them are saying that.
ABM: Yes, wait. You don’t need another intifada.
TB: It might not happen in my lifetime, but my grandkids, in another 100 years, it’ll be. And they have that attitude. Jews are impatient. Arabs are very patient. That’s a temperamental thing. I know people say, ‘well that’s not politically correct because you’re making stereotypes and this, that, the other.’ But I think certain cultures are impatient and certain cultures are patient. Jewish culture is impatient. That’s why Jews are always like at the forefront of stuff, of new entrepreneurial things and new social things and more active in this, they’re impatient. Jews are impatient.
ABM: Yeah, I mean this also comes—
TB: In general.
ABM: I agree, this comes also from a sense of perpetual insecurity.
TB: Yes. No, what it comes from. Yeah, I agree, yeah.
ABM: And so they try to sort of focus on more than one thing at a time. This is very true. So, let’s take it further. And then what?
TB: Look, I was just in the hospital. About 50 to 60 percent of the staff in the hospital are Arabs. Doctors, nurses, male and female. Four doctors saw me, only one was Jewish. You know, this is another thing. The stereotypes have been turned upside down in Israel. There’s a higher percentage of Arab doctors to the population than Jewish doctors to the population in Israel. And why? Because Jews are impatient. It’s, what, I’m gonna study 10, 12 years and then try to make a living? The Arabs are more patient. Not only that, medicine is one of the only places in Israel where there’s not the structural discrimination.
TB: And also it’s a status job, and they’re an honor society. They go into medicine. Jews want to go into high tech. If a Jew’s good in science or math, he goes into high tech. Arabs go into medicine. I don’t know, it depends on what they feel. Because what’s happening with the young Arabs in this country is interesting too. I don’t think they identify with what’s going on in the Arab world, but I can’t speak for them. You know, they—would they like to live in a country that’s totally Judenrein and be taken be another Arab country like Jordan or Lebanon or whatever? I’m not so sure.
ABM: So what, are you suggesting that what you are seeing it’s continuing attrition of Jews leaving this country, getting disenchanted?
TB: Even the ones that stay. Ok, look at this way. I was in the Israeli army, I was in the American army, had an honorable discharge from the American army, I came here, was drafted here and then I served in the Israeli army and I did about 15 years of reserves. If you are the kind of officer that’s very good at the occupation, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good officer fighting the Syrian commandos. It’s a different kind of talent, ‘talent’ in inverted commas.
ABM: Yeah, yeah, of course.
TB: It’s a different kind of personality. When I started my—I was drafted in ‘71, fought in the Yom Kippur war ‘73. When I first was doing my first real reserve duty, I was doing maybe a total of 30 days a year, which was divided as five days a year of exercises, military exercises where you imitate warfare—really, the Israeli army really does this by the way, it’s not playing games—and 20 days doing guard duty at various settlements and stuff like that. By the time I finally got out of the army of active duty in ‘83, it was the last time actually, we were doing 40 days a year and doing two or three days of exercise every other year. So what happens in the Lebanese war? Give you an example, an anecdote. We did all our training at night. There’s something about fighting at night which empowers the person who’s initiating, and makes the people who are being attacked fearful. So they go into Lebanon. And this tank unit gets an order to go attack this village at night. Five minutes, the guy comes back and says, ‘We can’t do that.’ He says, ‘why not?’ He said, ‘we didn’t do any training at night.’ So there’s also this great wonderful Israeli army that pound for pound is the greatest army in the world. If that’s how you’re splitting up your time, guarding the settlements and, and doing [in Hebrew], what do you call [in Hebrew]?
ABM: Yeah, Barriers.
TB: Barricades and making night raids at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning in the villages and stuff like that. When it comes to a pitched battle, you’re not going to be too good at it. You follow what I’m saying? In other words, it’s an erosion of quality all along the line.
ABM: Absolutely. You know, during this war in 2006 which lasted 50 days, we were then questioning what the heck is going on. What is it that’s taking place that Israel could not wind this up in a week or two? Because you know.
TB: Well I’ll tell you what the right-wing will say. Because we’re not ruthless enough.
ABM: Yeah, Yeah.
TB: We take into consideration too much civilian casualties.
ABM: This is baloney. But in the end there was an investigation as you well know, and exactly confirming what you just said. That there was a mess.
TB: It’s a mess.
ABM: Yeah. And finally they had to send different kind of units in order to clean up and finish the war.
TB: They also sent units in, and people got killed because they had the wrong equipment. Wars are won by logistics. If you give people the wrong equipment, they’re gonna get killed.
ABM: To your best knowledge, has this changed now somewhat?
TB: It probably has, but still at the immediate level, approximate level, at the Army level per se, it’s probably much better now. But in the general cultural level—look, both my boys were asked to go to officer school. And both declined. They do not want to be officers. Why?
ABM: Are they still in the army, or are they out?
TB: No, they’re out of the army, and they get out of reserves as much as they can. And by the way, awful lot of—and nobody is ever brought up on charges for getting out of reserves anymore, ‘cause they’d have to put half the country in jail.
ABM: I’m sorry, come again?
TB: They try to get, when they used to be called every year.
TB: They don’t go.
ABM: And there’s no repercussion?
TB: No, no. None. So they’re not the only ones. Very few people who are educated and have any kind of I would call democratic decency don’t feel great about serving. Look at the officer corps now. It’s disproportionately religious, and disproportionately settler. So you get the settler culture and everything. You’ve got one person on the Supreme Court who is a settler. So you have this erosion of what I would call enlightenment values that were part and parcel of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which sort of acknowledged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights kind of thing. You know, everybody’s got rights and—I remember some years ago they wanted to make the Declaration of Independence a Basic Law of the country, and the religious and the right-wing were against it. Because there’s a couple of paragraphs in there that serve almost as a kind of Bill of Rights, equivalent of—you know, we don’t have a written constitution, but if it is, a Basic Law is our Constitution. And if this was adopted, it would like limit half the stuff that they do when they do ‘legally’ in inverted commas. Not particularly constitutionally, but certainly legally in the present situation. So that’s it. You know, if your one judge of loyalty is—for example, they’re introducing a law now that if I come out and say I’m not going to buy any products from the settlements, I can go to jail for three years if I say that. Or I can be sued by a settler, up to 500,000 shekels or something, I don’t know, some crazy amount. And he doesn’t have to prove damages. Just the very fact that I say that. That’s what they’re pushing. Those are the kinds of laws they’re pushing.
ABM: Yeah. There’s another law they’re pushing now about the power of the police.
TB: Oh yeah.
ABM: Limiting the power to investigate corruption.
TB: Not only the police, the state comptroller. They want to limit the power of the state comptroller, that he doesn’t release things at the time that he discovers [them]. In other words, he only releases them when it’s too late, when this money’s already been stolen. It’s a lot of things. And everything is because if it’s good for the settlements. There’s two visions of Zionism. One is Zionism, we’re going to come back to our ancestral homeland to recreate the past, and that is the view that is dominant today. The view that appealed to me, and which was the view of the founding fathers of Israel—and that is Ben-Gurion and Weitzman and I would even say Jabotinsky—I think Jabotinsky would be turning in his grave today, what the people are in his name are doing, because he was a constitutionalist. He believed in full rights for the Arabs, by the way, no d— He was more of a constitutionalist than Ben-Gurion in that respect. No. The purpose of Zionism is to create alternative future options for the Jewish people. Options, plural.
ABM: Yeah, yeah.
TB: So we can create a new future. But the past has a voice, but not a veto.
ABM: Absolutely. It’s a guide, it’s a guide.
TB: It’s an inspiration but it’s not a diktat. And we’re not dictated to by the past. I don’t care if Abraham, Father Abraham, took a nap on this hill. I really don’t care.
TB: Even if he existed, didn’t exist, makes no difference. I don’t care if King David did this here. There’s a story about Ben-Gurion having an argument with a Bundist. A Bundist is, people who don’t know, is somebody who advocated the Yiddish language and the Yiddish culture, which Ben-Gurion really hated. And the Bundist got so exasperated [and] says ‘what, a thousand years of history isn’t important?’ And Ben-Gurion very calmly said ‘Yes. The next thousand years is more important.’
TB: Not the past, but the future. And you look at all the great civilizations in the world, all the great cultures in the world, and they’re future-oriented. America is the perfect example, the United States of America. That’s like the total future civilization.
ABM: I mean, do you really see a sort of slow demise of Israel as we know it?
TB: Not in my lifetime. Look, Israel’s very robust. Israel—you look at things other than the settler thing. I’ll give you a—I came in 1967.
ABM: No, no, but given everything you’re saying, the attrition, the erosion.
TB: It will take much longer than a lot of people on the left think, in my opinion. It won’t be in my lifetime and maybe not in the lifetime of my kids, but by the end of the century— Look, in my book I say by 2048, you know like one hund— I did this thing. 100 years, founded in 48, 2048, maybe 20, 30, 40 years, I don’t know. It’s a—but Israel’s very s—
ABM: What would be then, [in] 20, 30, 40 years?
TB: No idea. Either no Jews, or just some kind of mediocre Middle Eastern state. Nothing qualitative about it, nothing special about it. Impoverished.
ABM: And because of what? Because—
TB: Because a lot of the elites will leave. By the way, a lot of the Arab elites will leave too.
ABM: They are leaving.
TB: They’ll leave too. They don’t want to put up with this stuff.
ABM: They are getting sick and tired of it, yeah.
TB: Yeah, you think they don’t know that the Palestinian Authority is one of the most corrupt things on the face of the planet Earth? Did you know the Palestinians have received four times the amount of aid per individual than the Europeans received under the Marshall Plan? And they’re still in the toilet.
ABM: No, you’re right. You know, I had a group just recently in Brussels before I came here. Palestinians, Israelis; and several of the Palestinians said to me ‘if I had an opportunity to leave, I’d leave tomorrow. If I could get a visa tomorrow to the United States, Britain, anywhere in the EU, I would leave tomorrow. There’s no prospect for me anymore.’ So many Israelis who were with the same group, a few of them said the same thing.
TB: My son, my youngest son, he has a friend, a woman, an Arab-Palestinian from East Jerusalem. He’s trying to help her get a job in Haifa. She’s a scientist, she’s very qualified. She doesn’t want to live with these people. Her people.
TB: Her people.
ABM: So do you think there is anything [that] can be done, should be done, if you were to reverse this trend?
TB: Yeah, if I’m—
ABM: No, but practically speaking, in practical terms.
TB: Yeah. I, look. I think looking for the big deal that Trump brags about, oh, he’s going to make the greatest deal in the world in the Middle East, it’s nonsense. The greatest deal in the world was on the table in 2000 at Camp David, and it was turned down by Arafat.
ABM: OK, well that’s gone, that’s what I say.
TB: So I talk about mitigating rather than resolving. I don’t think you can resolve this situation in the near future. When I say near future, I mean the next 20, 30, 40 years, but you could certainly mitigate it. And what do I mean? Let’s look at the present opportunity that Israel has, that had some kind of vision and courage in its political class. The Sunni Arab world is dying to make peace with Israel. Not because they love us, but because they’re scared to death of Shiite Iran. And they’re more scared of Iran than we are, and justifiably. We shouldn’t be that scared of Iran, by the way, that’s really exaggerated in my opinion.
ABM: Oh I know, I know, I agree.
TB: But they are. But they say what we need [is] some kind of progress on the Palestinian front. So I look at the West Bank. Eighteen percent Area A, 30-some percent Area B, and 50 percent Area C. Area A is total control by the Palestinian Authority, Area B has mutual control, Area C is total control by us, by Israel. Go to Saudi Arabia, go to [the] king of Morocco, whoever you go to, [and] say, ‘listen. We’re willing to go from 18 percent to 30 percent in Area A, make 30 percent of the West Bank Area A. We want five or six Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with us. Set up an embassy, like Egypt and Jordan.’
ABM: But do you think they’ll go for that [on] an incremental base?
TB: That’s the only game in town, in my opinion. If they don’t go for that, then there’s no hope for anything. No hope for anything. I think so.
ABM: I mean if there’s a—
TB: I know, but say, this is not a final thing. Then we’ll go from 30 percent to 40 percent for another three or four.
ABM: I know. If you want to do that in stages, provided there is some kind of framework that is being presented in advance. I mean, they need to see the ultimate picture of what that’s going to look like, and they’ll probably be prepared to go in stages to do exactly what you’re saying.
TB: Ultimate visions that are too detailed can be a barrier, because then people begin to argue on the details.
ABM: No, the opposite, of just a vision of how it’s going to look like.
TB: Ok, The Camp David division. I said in general, the Camp David vision with minor changes.
TB: We’re still willing to go to that.
ABM: And then do it incrementally, along the lines of what you say.
TB: To do it incrementally, and build mutual confidence along the way, that gives the Israeli public more confidence, gives the Palestinians more confidence that they can compromise here without worrying about being screwed. Yeah. That’s the only game I would—and I would go to the Europeans, I would say to the Europeans ‘listen, we’re going to have a problem about land swaps. We’re going to keep the land within the barrier but we’ll give—’ that’s not going to happen. So why don’t you build islands off of Gaza, like they build in Qatar and all these places. Islands, you know. Using islands of the same land area that—and let us, as an interim stage, annex this area within the barrier. Make it part of Israel. That’s not occupied anymore. That’s now Israel. But they get the equivalent.
ABM: Well what’s wrong with [a] land swap?
TB: Because where [are] you going to give it?
ABM: We won’t?
TB: Where [are] you going to give it?
ABM: Who or to where?
TB: Where [are] you going to take it from?
ABM: Well I mean they’ve been talking about, I mean.
TB: I know, but nobody’s been specific when you think about it.
ABM: Maps and maps.
TB: I know, but when you think about it specifically, it’s not going to happen.
ABM: Yeah, specifically I mean no, there were actually specific maps that—
TB: Yeah, I know, but it’s not going to happen. There’s psychological things about this and there’s practical things. If you’re going to expand Gaza, you have to take down 20 Israeli settlements that are within Israel proper.
ABM: I’m not talking about Gaza. I’m talking about [the] West Bank.
TB: Well that’s where land swaps are going to go.
ABM: I’m talking about the West Bank.
TB: We—land swaps is, we keep part of the West Bank and give part of Israel proper.
ABM: Yeah, but Israel proper there’s basically south, you know south uh, east of—
TB: Whatever. I’m saying, this is something I would say to the Europeans. And you give them an international airport on these islands, like you have in Hong Kong, [an] international port. We’re willing to do that. Tit for tat, tit for tat, throw things out. Get them in the conversation, get them to say, this is interesting. Maybe it can’t be done. I say the peace process per se is Israel’s greatest strategic asset. Whenever there’s a vigorous process, we’re the flavor of the month.
ABM: Yeah, but they are not using it, that’s a problem. And the process just remains in name, there’s no progress in this process, and no one—
TB: So make the peace process substantive.
ABM: Yeah, yeah.
TB: Make it sort of a reverse erosion. Look, we don’t want to be there anyway. You talk to the average Jewish mother in Israel, oh, you want your kid to be guarding a settlement? Are you kidding?
ABM: No, of course not. Of course not.
TB: Are you kidding? Scared to death.
ABM: In conclusion.
TB: Yeah. In conclusion, the racist canard that Jews are smarter than other people has been totally disproven by the Zionist project. Give us power and we’re just as stupid as everybody else.
ABM: I’d say amen to that. OK well thank you.
Alon Liel has served the Israeli Foreign Ministry in various positions: the head of the Israeli mission in Turkey (1981-1983), the Foreign Ministry spokesman and the member of the Israeli negotiating team at the Taba talks with Egypt (1985–1987), Ambassador to South Africa in (1992-1994), Director General of the Ministry of Economy and Planning (1994-1996), Foreign Policy Advisor to Ehud Barak (1997-1999), Director General of the Foreign Ministry (2000-2001).
Liel is the author of several books, namely Turkey in the Middle East – Oil, Islam and Politics (1993), Black Justice – The South African Upheaval (1999), Turkey – The Military, Islam and Politics (1999), Turkey in the Middle East (2001), Demo Islam, Turkey’s New Regime (2003). He has taught courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University on Turkey and the Middle East politics.
Liel was the board member of Gazit Inc. (biggest real estate company in Israel). He was the chairman of the Israel-Turkey Business Council between 2002-2006, and is the chairman of the Global Code Ltd.
Liel was the president of the Jewish-Arab soccer club, Abu Gosh-Mevaseret. He is also the founder and the chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society.