“Extremism breeds extremism” – Israel and the road to self-destruction

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Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at St Antony’s college and one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was born in Baghdad and grew up in Israel, later serving in the Israeli army. He talks to Anna Friedler on the how the blinkered Israeli right refuse to negotiate with a rapidly changing Middle East and why there is only a Palestinian partner for peace.

The only contact most of us will ever have with the tangle that is the Israel-Palestine conflict is via a few piecemeal media images of stereotyped people hundreds of miles away. So do the feelings of real Isreali people actually mirror the actions of one of the world’s more extremist governments? Shlaim doesn’t believe so. “There is a huge gap between the policy makers and the people at large. The Israeli political system is highly dysfunctional: it’s an extreme case of proportional representation. The political system doesn’t translate majority opinion into government policies and secondly, all governments are coalition governments and therefore can’t pursue a coherent and clear foreign policy for the most part. Thus it has to be a process of bargaining within the government, with complete disregard for the opposition and for public opinion. The present government is the most right-wing, chauvinistic, and overtly racist government in Israeli’s entire history of 64 years and much more ‘hawkish’ in its polices towards the Arabs then the majority of the people. The majority of the people are for a two state solution and for almost complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. They are not so terrified by the prospect of an independent Palestinian state, whereas the government says it would accept a demilitarised Palestinian state, but all its policies – particularly the settlement expansion and the so-called security barrier wall on the West Bank – are intended to prevent [its] emergence.”

“There is mistrust and hostility between most Arabs and Israelis and a major reason for Arab hostility is Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. Israel’s disregard for international law and its brutal treatment of the Palestinians, for example by the blockade of Gaza, the harassment of Palestinians and restrictions on their movements – there are 600 checkpoints on the West Bank – all these are reported in the Arab media, particularly by Al Jazeera, and generate extreme bitterness towards Israel. Arab hostility towards Israeli isn’t fixed and absolute, it’s the result of Israeli policies. Some Israelis and supporters of Israel, say it is Arab anti-Semitism rather than specific Israeli policies that generates this hostility towards Israel. I challenge this: anti-Semitism is a European phenomenon. There’s always been anti-Semitism in Europe, and there always will be anti-Semitism in Europe. But anti-Semitism isn’t an Arab or a Muslim tradition – it’s the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians that generates Arab anti-Semitism and if you remove the conflict, you’ll remove most sources of anti-Semitism in the Arab world.”

But on the question of whether recent upheavals in the Middle East are widening these divides, the answer is both complex and disturbing. “The Israeli reaction to the Arab Spring has been negative at every level; by the leadership and the people. The underlying reason is that Israel has never regarded itself as part of the Middle East, they regard themselves as part of the West. Israel has always prided itself on being an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. And so you would have expected the Israelis to welcome the Arab Spring and the pro-democracy movement, but they don’t – they are very suspicious. Benjamin Netanyahu [Israeli Prime Minister] in particular, told the Knesset [Israeli legislature] that this is an Islamic revolution and a threat to security – that it was antidemocratic, antiliberal, anti-Western, anti-Israel. Netanyahu used to say that an Arab shift towards democracy is a precondition towards genuine peace, because democracies don’t fight one another. But now that there is a genuine shift towards democracy all around Israel he’s changed his tune, and he has said that because of the instability, because of the turmoil, even if we reached a peace settlement with the Palestinians, we would have to maintain a permanent military presence in the Jordan valley. So the move towards democracy in the Arab World has led him to harden his terms for peace with the Palestinians. The Arab Spring presents Israel with an opportunity and a danger: most Israelis from top to bottom have inflated the dangers and completely ignored the opportunities – [it] hasn’t had any positive consequence of bringing Israelis and Arabs closer together; it’s deepened the gap between Israel and all its neighbours.”

“I believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main source of instability in the Middle East. This is not to say that there aren’t all sorts of other problems – religious, democracy and women’s rights deficits, ethnic conflicts, authoritarianism and dictatorships – there is a whole raft of problems, but the most fundamental and the most persistent is the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. Palestine is still a major issue for all Arabs at a symbolic level: it’s the symbol of their struggle against Western imperialism. If you solve this problem, then you’ll remove one of the most fundamental sources of friction and instability in the region and create a climate which would facilitate the solution of the other problems. For example, Arab despotism: the conflict with Israel has always enabled strong men like Gamal Nasser and Saddam Hussein to say ‘well, the first priority is to fight Israel and then we’ll see about other things’ and if there was peace with Israel, it would remove one of the props of Arab authoritarianism.”

“Some Israelis say this conflict is insoluble; the present government really believes that there is no diplomatic solution “Extremism breeds extremism” – Israel and the road to self-destruction to the conflict with the Palestinians and therefore Israel has to maintain its regional military domination. I think this is not so, I believe that Israel has a real opportunity of peace with the Palestinians based on a two state solution, but it involves Israeli withdrawal from the whole of Gaza and about 95% of the West Bank and a Palestinian capital city in East Jerusalem. It’s Israel who is refusing to have a two-state solution, not the Palestinians. The biggest barrier to progress is Israeli settlements: settlements on the West Bank are illegal, all of them without any exception, and are the main obstacle to peace.”

But what about Palestinian violence – how are we to view notorious groups like Hamas? Should we, in the West, denounce them as terrorists or call for engagement with a party in government through internationally monitored, free and fair elections? “Hamas is a terrorist organisation – it has a military wing which has carried out attacks on civilians, so these are terrorist attacks: killing civilians is wrong, period, and the military wing of Hamas has done that. But it’s not just a military organisation, it’s also a political party with a lot of credibility, a party that provided medical, educational and welfare services to the Palestinian people and a party that has an impeccable record of honesty, in contrast to the pervasive corruption of the Palestinian authority. The policy of the Hamas-led government was to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel and de facto accept a two-state solution, because a ceasefire would have been along the 67 lines. Israel doesn’t say ‘if Hamas accepts certain conditions then we will agree to negotiate with them’, Israel’s rejection is absolute, it says Hamas is a terrorist organisation and therefore we will have nothing to do with them. And so far both America and the European Union follow the Israeli line, although there is an increasing number of statesman, both in America and in Europe, who are calling for critical engagement with Hamas.” And Shlaim does not believe that such groups are an inherent feature of the Palestinian landscape: “moderation breeds moderation and extremism breeds extremism. Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister in 2001, so for the last decade we have had only right-wing governments in Israel and no genuine partner for peace with the Palestinians. That’s certainly fed Palestinian extremism.”

International reactions to the conflict, however, seem to offer little hope of a way forward. “America is the only superpower and has arrogated to itself a monopoly over the peace process. It has excluded Russia and the United Nations (which is the right world body to deal with this conflict) and it has marginalised the EU, but then didn’t put any pressure on Israel to move towards a settlement. America set itself up as an honest broker, but it is a dishonest broker. The asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians is such that they can never resolve amicably their differences. You need a third party to put its weight on the Palestinian side of the scales, so there will be some sort of a balance and America, instead of supporting the weaker party, the Palestinians, reinforces and supports Israel all the way and uses the veto in the Security Council to defeat any resolutions that are not to Israel’s liking. The last resolution was the most revealing: in February of 2011 there was a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion.14 members of the Security Council voted for, America used the veto to defeat it. Because of the American position, because it’s so onesided, the rest of the international community cannot do anything about this conflict.”

And arguably the main reason for this position is the Israel lobby: “[it] is so powerful in America that is can distort American foreign policy towards the region. American foreign policy since 1948 is a struggle between the pro-Arab state department, which is concerned with real American interests, like security, access to oil and cultivating Arab allies, and the White House, which tends to be pro-Isreali for electoral reasons. Obama is a very good example of an evenhanded American president who is very well-informed about the history and suffering of the Palestinians and who is genuinely committed to Palestinian statehood. And yet when he put pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to stop the settlement expansion and to move forward towards a settlement with the Palestinians, the power of the Jewish lobby defeated him. He went head to head with Netanyahu on a settlement freeze and each time he backed down; so Netanyahu defeated the American president and now there is no peace process and there is no pressure on Israel to stop settlement expansion.” 

So where, then, can we go from here? “The only solution to this conflict is a negotiated solution, it cannot be an imposed solution. There is a Palestinian partner for peace ready to negotiate on a two-state solution, but there is not an Israeli partner for peace. And Benjamin Netanyahu [Israeli Prime Minister], whatever he might say, has always been and he remains, a proponent of permanent conflict. He thinks there is no one to talk to on the Palestinian side and there is nothing to talk about, so his party and this government hold no hope of a better future to the Palestinians. But nor do they hold out any hope of a better future to the Israelis, except more conflict, more wars, more violence, and bloodshed. So I think it is a disastrous policy – they are leading Israel on a road to self-destruction. All my adult life, I’ve supported a two-state solution, but today I have to recognise that the policies of the Israeli right, in particular over the last decade, and the settlement expansion on the West Bank, have all but eliminated the option of a two-state solution. Israel by its own actions has undermined the possibility of a viable Palestinian state and therefore by a process of elimination, I end up as a supporter of the one state solution: one state, over the whole of mandatory Palestine, from the river to the sea, with equal rights for all its citizens.”