Allianz Visiting Professorship at LMU
“It’s all about breaking the genetic code of the Arab-Israeli conflict”
In the following interview, the former Israeli Foreign Minister and current Allianz Visiting Professor at LMU, Shlomo Ben-Ami, discusses the Arab-Israeli conflict and explains why a solution can only come from the international community.
The conflict in the Middle East has been a decisive element in the lives of generations of the area’s inhabitants. Why has it proven so difficult to find an acceptable solution?
Shlomo Ben-Ami: Because it has all the ingredients of a protracted conflict. The conflict in the Middle East is not easy to resolve. Let me give you the example of Syria, which is these days in the news. Both Rabin and Barak were ready to give away the whole of the Golan Heights in exchange for normalization, but this question of normalization was a very hard nut to crack. For the Syrians the idea of seeing an Israeli flag on an Israeli embassy in Damascus was inadmissible. And by the way, imagine that we would have given back the Golan Heights to Bashar al- Assad; we would have today ISIS on the shores of the Lake of Galilee…
It is these intangible issues, such as normalization, that are so difficult to resolve. As one who has gone through long negotiations and meetings with the Palestinian representatives, I recognized that when it came to the question of land, the problems could be solved. We agreed on the principle of swaps, annexing some areas and providing compensation within the state of Israel. However, when we got to the non-material issues – holy places, memories and refugees– everything became extremely complicated. Sometimes I think it’s all about breaking the genetic code of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
You have been closely engaged with the issues for a long time. As Israel’s Minister for Internal Security and as Foreign Minister between 1999 and 2001, you were directly involved in the political process and took part in negotiations with Palestinians. How has your view of the conflict changed over the years?
It has become ever more difficult to resolve. Yet, although I have never been a political friend of Netanyahu, I cannot deny the logic of his point of view. His position is: The Arab States in the Middle East are disintegrating. The concept of the Arab state has always been problematic. Most of them are artificial creations and they have been unable to find an adequate response to the challenges posed by the Arab spring. Netanyahu never believed, as many in the West did, that an Arab democracy was around the corner, and he so far did not prove to be wrong. He then asks: Is it such a brilliant idea to create another Arab state when all other Arab states are melting down before our own eyes?
Now, back to the dilemma of peace with the Palestinians, my experience is that it is always easier to negotiate with a State than with a movement like the Palestinians. The negotiations with Syria on the disengagement of military forces in the wake of the Yom Kippur War are a good example. From 1974 to this day, not a single shot has been fired on the Golan Heights. In the conflict with the Palestinians you withdraw from Gaza and what you get are missile attacks.
The way to save the Zionist idea is a two-state solution. And salvation for the Palestinians also lies in a Palestinian state. So, why they don’t create it? – Because it is, oddly, also not particularly attractive for either party. For the Israeli side it means going back to the borders of 1967, which a former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, not exactly a hawk, called “Auschwitz borders”. What Abb Eban meant by that is that those were borders so impossible to defend that they are an existential threat that will eventually bring about our destruction as a nation. And you have to find a solution for hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers. So you might end up with something close to a civil war in a deeply divided society.
And, believe or not, the two-state solution is not particularly attractive to the Palestinian side either. The Palestinian tragedy is of almost cosmic dimensions. It’s the tragedy of a disinherited nation that carries on its back the catastrophe of the 1948 Nakbah, the compelling, yet always manipulated, problem of the refugees, the betrayal of Palestine by the Arab states in 1948 and beyond – all this is going to be translated into a State the size of Luxemburg, split between Gaza and the West Bank. Moreover, the constituent ethos of Palestinian nationalism, the Right of Return of refugees, is simply not going to happen. So that the Palestinian state might eventually be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of many segments of Palestinian society and polity both in Palestine and in the Diaspora. To hamas in Gaza it might even amount to a standing invitation to a civil war.
In 2007 you published a book entitled “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy”. What led you to choose the term ‘tragedy’ here?
Because it is a tragedy, because it is very sad: It is an encounter between two civilizations. Both parties can claim they have good arguments for their respective positions. The Jewish National Movement was also driven by the catastrophe of Jewish existence in the Diaspora, and I do not mean necessarily the Holocaust. People put too much emphasis on the link between the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. When the truth about the Holocaust became known in 1945, an Israeli State was already in existence. If the Holocaust hadn’t occurred, it might have taken slightly longer, but a Jewish state in Palestine would have come about sooner or later. The Holocaust did not change the inevitability of the creation of a Jewish state; it only made it more acceptable to the international community. The Holocaust did not change the course of history leading to the creation of a Jewish state; it only speeded it up. Hitler was not the creator of the Jewish state; the founding fathers of Zionism, the extraordinary combination of diplomatic skills and state building capabilities of the Jewish community in Palestine preceded Hitler in creating the conditions for a Jewish state. The deniers of the Holocaust, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and many others, don’t really intend to deny the Holocaust. They wish to deny Israel’s right to exist, for they wrongly, or cynically, assume that it exists only because of the Holocaust. But that is absolutely not the case.
So we have here a Jewish and a Palestinian tragedy: Each claim to have justice on its side. A solution would require that we reconcile ourselves to each other’s narrative. My dream is that one day the Prime Minister of Israel will say, from the podium of the Knesset in Jerusalem, to the Palestinians and to the world: “We acknowledge and accept responsibility for our part in the Palestinian tragedy.” This would have an enormous impact. We have been too mean-spirited/grudging in our attempts to reach out to the other side. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. Nor do I see on the Palestinian side a readiness to assume their own responsibility in the tragedies that have befallen them. Three times in their history they were offered a state ( 1937 through the Peel Commission, 1947 by UN General Assembly Resolution 181, and in 2000 through the Peace Parameters of President Clinton ) and three times they rejected it.
As Vice-President of the Toledo International Center for Peace, you are actively seeking a workable compromise between Israelis and Palestinians. What might an equitable settlement look like?
When our government lost the election and Ariel Sharon came into office, I wrote an article in The Financial Times and another in Newsweek where suggested that it was time to change the old peace paradigm and opt for an international solution. My view then was, and still is, that no solution can come from direct discussions between the parties immediately involved. If only these parties sit around the table, they will not reach a solution. Therefore, you the international community, must come up with a package and say: This is the solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. What you can do is negotiate about the parameters and we will help you. – But the solution has to come from outside.
I support a UN Security Council Resolution that would turn the Clinton Peace Parameters into the internationally recognized interpretation of what a reasonable peace deal looks like. A solution to the Arab-Israeli Conflict is not impossible, but it is close to becoming impossible for lack of visionary leadership and political will on both sides.
The Allianz Visiting Professorship at LMU was set up to promote dialog between Jewish and Islamic cultures. Have you set yourself any specific goals for your term as Allianz Professor?
I hope at least to show that, as an Israeli and an ex-official, I am someone who is capable of presenting both sides of the coin in the Arab-Israeli conflict and can be self-critical when it comes to our own policies. It would be a major mistake for either an Arab or an Israeli lecturer to represent one’s own case. I am a historian who is keenly respectful of the rules of the discipline. Lectures at a university are not demonstrations, they are classes. I try to introduce the young students to a topic that is constantly in the media, but is so very little understood. It is one of the topics in international politics that generates too much sloganeering between the good and the bad, the occupier and the occupied. Much of it is true, but it’s really important to explain the nuances of a complex problem, and let the students decide for themselves. I want to arouse my students’ curiosity, I want them to read more widely, and I have the sense that this is rather new to them. I do my very best to explain the positions of the parties, and how they perceive one another, but it’s not a matter of reaching a verdict on who is right and who is wrong.
What is your impression of the degree of interest in the Middle East problem generally and in Israel in particular among students here?
Professor Brenner, who holds the Chair of Jewish History and Culture at LMU, told me he was surprised by the number of students visiting my lectures. This is a topic many people are interested in. For a problem in international politics to get so much attention in the media, it needs to be part of a bigger story. Here the bigger story is the Jewish People, the Holocaust, the Jews in Europe, this complex relationship of love and rejection. This is what makes it more interesting than, for example, the conflict in Darfur. And there is another story which the Israelis are not very happy to hear about it. We are today the last “Western power” occupying an indigenous people. Maybe that’s the perspective that, in addition to the “bigger story” to which I referred, which makes Zionism so disproportionately central: It gained its statehood in the era of mass media.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Foreign Minister of Israel and is currently Visiting Professor in Jewish Studies at LMU.
Interview: Constanze Drewlo