Palestine in the UN: still a hot debate
Israeli Democracy in Peril
Why Daniel Levy thinks Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is poisoning the Jewish state from within.
Daniel Levy, the diplomat and Middle East scholar who helped launch J Street, wants desperately to see Israeli democracy prevail over sectarian tensions. But he despairs of that happening as long as an undemocratic system of occupation flourishes beyond the Green Line. He will join Palestinian National Initiative leader Mustafa Barghouthi at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate on Jan. 10 to argue that the United Nations should admit Palestine as a full member state. Across the aisle, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President Dore Gold and former State Department adviser Aaron Miller will oppose the motion. Read interviews with Barghouthi and Gold Miller’s countervailing article below.
By Daniel Levy, Slate.com
While 2011 will be remembered as a tumultuous year in the Middle East, that most headline-grabbing of regional issues—the Israel-Palestine conflict—barely merits a footnote. The glacial pace of developments on that front could not have been more out of sync with the surrounding frenzy. There has been no Palestinian Spring to date (although there have been weekly demonstrations in Palestinian villages impacted by Israeli land confiscations) and the entire year passed without even a day of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks (those were in part resumed on Jan. 3 in Jordan, albeit surrounded by realistically low expectations). Instead, 2011 was marked more by continuity than by change—more occupation, more settlements, more Palestinian disunity, and the continued prevalence of strategic myopia on all sides.
All of which was quite the opposite of what had been promised. The U.N. General Assembly in September was billed to be a dramatic point of departure on the Israel-Palestine scene. The Palestine issue was again to be forced to the forefront of the international agenda, and even if Palestine did not immediately become member state 194 , there would be no turning back as diplomacy, urgency, and popular mobilization entered a new phase, all set against the backdrop of the Arab Awakening. Except that the Palestinian U.N. move has so far played out as a damp squib: There has been no vote on membership at the Security Council (and an American veto is guaranteed anyway); the Palestinians did not go to the General Assembly and ended their campaign of joining U.N. organizations almost before it began (bar UNESCO); and there has been no accompanying diplomatic or ground game. The PLO seems to have come down with a bad case of strategic discombobulation.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was Israeli society that more closely resembled its neighbors in 2011. Developments within Israel seemed to predict exciting progress: A tent city sprang up in the center of Tel Aviv, and the J14 social protest movement mobilized some of the largest rallies in Israeli history with a call for greater equality and social investment. But most of the year—plus the start of 2012—has been characterized by the ever more visible fraying of Israeli democracy, as Israel’s lurch toward intolerance, fundamentalism, and xenophobia gathers pace. This phenomenon, unlike the J14 movement, was as much top-down as it was bottom-up. While radical settler youths were uprooting Palestinian olive groves, attacking Israeli progressives, and disabling IDF jeeps, members of the governing coalition in Parliament were advancing legislation to restrict the freedom of Israeli human rights NGOs, trying to prevent Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens from commemorating their own history , and holding committee hearings on the “anti-Israeli” activities of the American J Street organization (Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis actually praised Sen. Joe McCarthy as a role model).
While the connection between Palestine’s frozen bid for U.N. membership and Israel’s increasingly frigid democracy might appear tenuous, it is in fact anything but. Palestine’s flop at the U.N. is a shame with respect to the two-state solution and the emergence of an effective non-violent Palestinian strategy for freedom. But, paradoxically, it is perhaps most devastating for the future of Israeli democracy.
Israeli democracy has come under a twin assault—the culmination of two long-term trends that appear to have reached a tipping point. And now, at the start of 2012, it is sadly unclear whether the democratic system in Israel will be robust enough to face down the threat (especially if Palestine remains under Israel’s non-democratic tutelage).
The first part of that challenge to Israeli democracy relates to the ongoing friction between state and religion—the Jewish part of being a Jewish democratic state. Though never a majority in Israel, the orthodox and ultra-orthodox Haredim were granted a monopoly on all issues relating to personal status (marriage, divorce, burial, etc.); received exemptions from military service; and collected state funding for a separate school system and adult religious learning seminaries (such yeshivas further excused the Haredim from participation in the labor force). Over the years, high birthrates and communal cohesiveness increased Haredi clout, along with the group’s political appetite for legislating benefits for themselves and restrictions for others. The quid pro quo has seen an increasing strain placed on non-Haredi Israel, one that has too frequently spilled over into the politics of hate against the ultra-orthodox.
The Haredim still account for only about 10 percent of Israelis, but that belies the rapidly changing social demographics of the country: 25 percent of first-graders are Haredi and that ratio is increasing by 1 percent each year. There are new neighborhoods and towns (including the two fastest-growing settlements over the Green Line, Modin Illit and Beitar Illit) dedicated to Haredim. There is an assertive self-confidence, and occasional extremism, from elements of the Haredi community across a range of issues—from transportation on Sabbath to gender segregation on buses and streets in Haredi neighborhoods. The intercommunal clashes in the part-Haredi town of Bet Shemesh have dominated the headlines in Israel in recent days.
This is not the place to fully explore what is a complex issue, but suffice to say that the potential Haredi challenge to Israel democracy has no easy answer. It can, however, potentially be weathered. For the Haredim, the bottom line is more about preserving a communal way of life than about imposing a non-democratic vision across all aspects of Israeli society.
Which brings us to the second avenue of assault on Israeli democracy—again, not of new vintage but recently turbo-charged. That is all about reconciling the democratic part of the Jewish democratic state equation. With their tradition of liberal politics and struggles for equality, most American Jews may think the seamless merging of Jewish and democratic sounds like a no-brainer. Seen in the Israeli context, however, it is a far less obvious communion. Twenty percent of Israelis are non-Jewish Palestinian Arab, an indigenous community decimated by the dispossession and displacement that accompanied the coming into being of the Jewish state. They’re often treated by officialdom as potential fifth columnists, and they face ongoing institutionalized discrimination. For many years it seemed that the formal structures of Israeli democracy (universal suffrage, an open media, a robust court system) combined with sufficiently pragmatic leadership would block an ethnocratic or theocratic manifestation of Jewish statehood from swallowing people’s key universal rights.
But something else has also been going on: Israel’s maintenance of an illegal occupation and thoroughly undemocratic system beyond the Green Line (only partially mitigated by the creation of a Palestinian Authority lacking in sovereign powers). Under any circumstances, it would be difficult for a democratic entity to run a democratic system in one space and an undemocratic one in another over a prolonged period of time. This has been the Israeli reality for 44 years and counting. The shortcuts taken by a non-democracy in depriving people of rights (how Israel manages the Palestinians in the territories) have started to seep back over the Green Line into “Israel proper.” The inevitable moral corrosion that accompanies the maintenance of an illegal foreign occupation has blunted Israeli moral sensibilities at home. These are long-term trends.
What is new is the increasingly vocal and open advocacy for implementing a version of the occupation’s non-democracy in Israel itself. A coalition of the national religious (settlers, for shorthand) and nativist nationalists (themselves not infrequently immigrants from the former Soviet Union) are pursuing a Jewish ethnocratic state at the expense of a Jewish democratic state. The space of democracy and dissent in Israel is being squeezed by attempts to curtail the freedom of NGOs, to reconfigure the selection process for Supreme Court justices, and to enhance control over the media by the government and government-loyalists. (Remember, too, that Israel has always been a very imperfect democracy for its Palestinian Arab citizens.) The purveyors of this vision for Israel stake a strong claim to being the authentic Zionists. Today, they are the ones in the ascendancy. While Israeli liberals tend to obsess far more about the “Haredi threat,” it is the settler-nationalists that have a vision for all of Israel, not just for one sub-community—and it’s a deeply undemocratic one.
It is hard to see how democracy will emerge victorious in Israel if the country still has to justify and manage an undemocratic occupation. The struggle for democracy in Israel needs to include the struggle to end occupation—and to create a genuine democracy for all Israeli citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. We must acknowledge a rather self-evident truth: that Israeli society, in the face of this twin assault, is finding it rather difficult to summon the courage and wisdom to end the occupation. Israel might need some help from the Palestinians. In order to take the steps necessary to salvage its own democracy and even its own future, it might need the Palestinians to make the status quo less bearable.
Palestine’s admission to the U.N. would not have changed everything over night, but it would have been a step on the path to a disincentive structure that might challenge the status quo. The Palestinians have alternatives. One of them is to wait: wait for two states to become impossible and for Israeli democracy to further erode. Much as official Israel and its most chest-thumping supporters in the U.S. took umbrage at the U.N. membership bid, it might be Palestinian patience, rather than the impatience demonstrated by the U.N. application, that will have more devastating consequences for Israel’s longevity.
With Jan. 10’s Slate/Intelligence Squared debate approaching, former Palestinian presidential candidate Mustafa Barghouti explains why Israel and the United States are on the wrong side of history.
By Katy Waldman, Slate.com
Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi is gentle and soft-spoken, as befits a Palestinian leader known for his commitment to nonviolence. Currently Barghouthi, a medical doctor, serves as the general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party based in the West Bank that seeks to provide moderate Palestinians with an alternative to what many consider Fatah’s corruption and Hamas’ extremism. “Politics can drive you to wrong decisions and wrong feelings, sometimes,” he told me during our phone conversation last week. Still, he cheered the ongoing efforts toward a unified Palestinian government, which in December produced a shaky reconciliationbetween Hamas and the PLO. He suggests that the Arab Spring helped his cause of nonviolence by demonstrating to Islamic radicals the efficacy of peaceful protest.
Quick to invoke Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Barghouthi locates the Palestinian struggle for statehood in a broader historical arc from oppression to liberty. He defends the power of moral ideas and even expressed sympathy for the Israeli people, whom he believes suffer in their untenable role as occupiers. Barghouthi will argue for Palestine’s admission as a member state to the United Nations in theSlate/Intelligence Squared Debate on Jan. 10, where his challenge may well be to convince his opponents that the moral framework of India or South Africa applies to the Arab-Israeli conflict—and that having the ethical high ground is enough to force a peace agreement on such an inflamed region.
Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Slate: Why is this appeal to the U.N. happening now? As opposed to, say, 1993 or five years from now?
Mustafa Barghouthi: It didn’t happen 20 years ago for a very simple reason. After the signing of the Oslo Agreements, the Palestinians were told that this would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state by 1999. To their great surprise, so many years later, there was no progress on final status issues. And why now? Because we’ve reached a very critical turning point where if Israel continues the settlement policies the whole idea of a two-state solution will be lost. Any more waiting will simply mean the end of that solution.
Slate: Why would the two-state solution be lost?
Barghouthi: Because of the physical changes that are happening on the ground due to settlement building. With the settlements, the road segregation, and the building of that terrible wall—we call it the Apartheid Wall—there will be no contiguity of the territory that should become the Palestinian state. Palestinian communities will become nothing but clusters of Bantustans separated from each other. And this would mean the creation of an apartheid system where two different laws exist for two people living on the same land and where Palestinians are deprived of all their major human rights.
Slate: But why can’t you negotiate about the settlements with Israel directly?
Barghouthi: Because they’ve insisted on continuing the settlements. And talking to Israel while they continue the settlements is like two sides negotiating over a piece of cheese. One side, the Palestinian side, is stuck behind bars; the other side, the Israeli side, is negotiating and eating the piece of cheese at the same time. By the end there will be nothing left to negotiate about. That’s one reason. The second is that we’ve tried negotiations for 20 years. Nobody considered that Palestinians did not make every effort they could to negotiate. And we did and the outcome was that Israel has used the negotiations only as a cover for their expansionist policy, which continues to create new facts on the ground unilaterally. And eventually it will destroy the possibility of a real Palestinian state.
Slate: So is the bid for U.N. membership something the Palestinians should have pursued earlier?
Barghouthi: In my personal opinion, yes. I think maybe we should have done it five years ago. But nevertheless, it’s better late than never; This U.N. activity is helping to bring the reality on the ground here to the attention of the world. More importantly, it reestablishes the international legitimacy of Palestinian rights. International law is on our side—the International Court of Justice ruled that every Israeli settlement in the occupied territories is illegal and should be removed, that the wall itself is illegal, and that the changes made by Israel by force in East Jerusalem are illegal. The U.N. majority is on our side. It’s a very strange situation: While the majority of the peoples of the world are on the Palestinian side, Israel has held a position of total impunity to international law and opinion due to support from the United States.
Slate: The other debating team warns that U.N. recognition is merely symbolic—that it won’t change the “facts on the ground.”
Barghouthi: Well, if it is only symbolic, why are they so much against it? In my opinion they are afraid it is exposing Israel, exposing the wrong policy, and exposing the hypocrisy of countries that claim to support democracy and human rights and self-determination everywhere but grow silent or practically complicit with Israeli actions when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Slate: How would that exposure help everyday Palestinians?
Barghouthi: It will not, maybe, change the daily life, but it will definitely provide Palestinians with hope. It will provide a context where the illegal measures on the ground, enforced by the military power of Israel which we cannot stop, remain illegal, so it’s moral power against military power. When we joined UNESCO [the cultural arm of the United Nations] we were practically creating the power of culture against the culture of power.
That’s how countries in the world liberated themselves. That’s how a person like Gandhi who had no military power managed to unify India and get independence. That’s how Martin Luther King liberated the United States from the segregation system. It’s the power of the idea, the power of culture, and the power of dignity. And that is something that maybe some military governments don’t understand, but that I hope politicians would understand.
Slate: Opponents also say the move is incredibly risky, perhaps exposing the Palestinian people to retaliation from the IDF and empowering fundamentalists. There’s a lot of concern, for instance, about Israel trying to deter President Abbas by withholding tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority.
Barghouthi: These acts are illegal. Israel has no right to withhold the taxes we pay ourselves, especially when it already takes a certain percentage for collecting these taxes. We’re not afraid of the punishment acts and we will not be blackmailed anymore, because if Israel continues and United States continues [to cut off its aid to the Palestinians], the Palestinian Authority will collapse. And the biggest loser of this will be Israel.
What we need are better arrangements, where the grievances of the people will be met, where there will be no motivation for any violation of anyone’s security. Of course, an arrangement where Palestinians receive their rights. If this injustice continues to consolidate an apartheid system which is worse than what prevailed in South Africa in the 20th century, there will be a Palestinian reaction. People will not take it. I’ve always said that the best security for everybody, including for Israel, is peace and democracy, where the two people are satisfied.
Slate: Last Tuesday [19 December 2011] the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution affirming the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. What happens next?
Barghouthi: We will continue the struggle. We will continue our popular nonviolent resistance. I am personally proud of the fact that we have been advocating nonviolence for 10 years. Now all the Palestinian groups adopt our approach, including Hamas. That is a great moral success for us. And we will keep struggling in the U.N.; we will go to every agency, one after the other, and get our membership from the grassroots. They don’t want to grant it to us in the Security Council? We will get it in every U.N. agency. We will go to international courts. We will continue our nonviolent resistance until we get our freedom.
Slate: I want to return for a moment to what you said about Hamas, that they’ve renounced violence. Can you explain that a little more?
Barghouthi: On Dec. 21 they declared their commitment to nonviolence. And they gave me this promise clearly and they declared it publicly. That was the basis of our agreement in Cairo.
Slate: Did they modify their 1988 charter? Do they think Israel has a right to exist?
Barghouthi: They’re adopting the two-state solution; they’re accepting the ’67 borders for the solution, and they are accepting nonviolence and sticking to nonviolence. And that is a big change.
Slate: How did you come to found the Palestinian National Initiative?
Barghouthi: For years we’d been struggling to find our way. There was an unhealthy polarization between Fatah and Hamas and a strong silent majority in the middle that wanted an alternative. And that’s how we created the Initiative back in 2002. We called it the Initiative because we believed that the Palestinians should not be reactive but proactive. And the idea was that we need a movement that struggles not only for Palestinian freedom from occupation, but for an internal strong democratic system, and social justice. These are the three main dimensions of our movement.
When we ran in presidential elections in 2005, we were astonished by the amount of support we got—just under 20 percent of the votes! We were a newly established party, but that encouraged us to continue. Today, the Initiative is a third party in Palestine but it is growing constantly. And as you have seen, it is very influential in terms of its political ideas and strategies, and in terms of being a powerful independent force that can help create the right ideas for our struggle but at the same time push for Palestinian unity.
Slate: A lot of people think the United States wouldn’t support Palestine at the U.N. unless it promised not to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court. What’s your reaction to that?
Barghouthi: I hope [President Mahmoud Abbas] does not accept those terms. We should pursue that line [going to the ICC] as long as Israel continues the violation. It is our right. If we don’t struggle for our rights, we will not be serving anybody.
So I think we should be more determined, more daring and frank with the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were frank. Some people might not like what we do but eventually they will. And we know very well that the American Congress will be the last to change. This is not a new thing. This was the case in the South African situation.
I remember a time when I was speaking on CNN and they asked me about United States policy regarding Israel. This was perhaps three and a half years ago and I said, “Look at Nelson Mandela! He is the most respected politician in the world. Every American president wants to have a photo opportunity with him.” Yet when I was speaking he was still on the American Congress’ list of terrorists. And after that—I don’t know why but maybe that interview helped—the name was removed. But it took a recommendation from Condoleezza Rice.
The fact that the Congress is holding a very strange policy of being totally supportive of Israel regardless of the fact that Israel is violating international law is simply a reflection of the weakness of the American political system. But it should not stop us from struggling for our rights because one day even the American Congress will recognize that it was wrong.
I tell you frankly: The Israelis themselves will not be free as long as we are not free. As much as we are oppressed by this apartheid occupation system, they are also hostage to it. When we struggle for our rights as Palestinians we practically struggle for their freedom as well.
Slate: Can you say more about how you’re struggling for Israeli freedom?
Barghouthi: You see, they are oppressing us, but they are hostages to the same oppressive system. Look at how fearful they are on issues of security. Why? Because they know they are doing wrong. They know they are motivating and precipitating hatred because of their acts. When they continue to occupy us, they create a strong demographic problem for themselves. It is a totally contradictory policy: From one side they are taking away our land, making us angrier, and depriving us of very basic rights—but at the same time, by grasping our land and stealing it they’re creating a demographic problem, because we are not leaving! We are staying here. And gradually we are coming to equal them in numbers. By destroying the two-state solution they will create only one alternative, a one-state solution, which they don’t want.
So if we force them to free us—if we can manage to force them to accept a two-state solution—I hope that then they will be free themselves. I mean, they won’t notice but that’s what will happen. They will liberate themselves from the conflict. If they don’t do so, eventually we will have to liberate them in another way, which is having democratic rights in one state.
I think history is full of examples that enslaving others does not make you free. Although it might sound a bit strange, I say and I feel in my heart that we are struggling for the future of the children of both Palestinians and Israelis. Because an oppressive system creates only anger and cannot last. Violence creates only violence. There’s only one alternative to that and it’s the alternative we are proposing.
Slate: How does the Palestinian push for statehood fit into the Arab Spring?
Barghouthi: The Arab Spring is great because it is finally bringing democracy to the Arab World. The Arabs have been starving for democracy, starving from corruption and oppressive systems, and they’ve been deprived of the right of strong solidarity with Palestinians because of despotic regimes. The more freedom there is in the Arab World, the more solidarity there will be with Palestinians.
And there is another important factor, which is that the success of democracy in the Arab world will contribute to the success of democracy in Palestine. For me, this is one of the biggest issues because we don’t just want a state—we want a good state, a democratic one with equal rights, women’s rights, and social justice.
Finally, the Arab Spring has been very helpful for us because it presented parties like Hamas with the power of nonviolence, which we have been advocating. I remember meeting the leaders of these movements after the success of the revolutions in Tunisiaand Egypt. They said, “You see, your theory is working.” Of course, it’s not my personal theory; but the fact that we were advocating nonviolence definitely left an impact on them. When they saw the revolutions succeeding in Tunisia and Egypt in this peaceful way, they realized what they now understand, which is the power of the people and the power of nonviolence.
Slate: Did you carry anything over into politics from your experience as a doctor?
Barghouthi: Absolutely. If you are a good doctor you have to be a good human being. And understanding the human perspective is always an advantage in my political life. I think having that aspect is very, very helpful. Because you know politics can drive you to wrong decisions and wrong feelings, sometimes. It’s a tough thing. I think my background helps me remember that the human aspect is more important.
At the same time it provides, also, a certain perspective in terms of diagnosing the problems and trying to find solutions.
Slate: It helps you discriminate between causes and symptoms?
Barghouthi: In a way, if you don’t overdo it, of course. Sometimes situations are coexistent.
With the Jan. 10 Slate/Intelligence Squared debate approaching, former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold explains why the Palestinian effort destabilizes the region.
By Katy Waldman, Slate.com
Dore Gold, formerly an Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and a foreign policy adviser to Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, has an encyclopedic memory of the historical details that make the Arab-Israeli conflict so complicated. He remembers the carnage that ensued, in 2005, when Israeli troops last withdrew from the Gaza Strip. (“Rocket fire increased by 500 percent between 2005 and 2006,” he told me.) And he disputes the notion that Israeli settlements are destroying the peace process, pointing out that they take up only 1.9 percent of the West Bank.
Gold believes that the Palestinian effort to obtain statehood through United Nations membership poses an unthinkable security risk to the Israeli people, which is why he will argue that the international community should reject Palestine’s petition to join the U.N. as a member state at the Slate/Intelligence Squared Debate on Jan. 10. Recently I caught up with Gold—now president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs—about the Arab Spring, the problem with Hamas, and whether or not his many years around the negotiating table have tarnished his view of human nature.
Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Slate: You’ve expressed reservations about the Palestinian hope to carve out a state along the 1967 borders. What’s a more rational starting place for negotiations about borders?
Dore Gold: First of all, let me be very specific. My objection to the Palestinian position is chiefly over the issue of borders and security. On this point, Israel has vital needs which have been expressed by the main authors of the national security doctrine, such as Rabin, Sharon, and Dayan, since 1967. Therefore, my concern is how to protect those vital Israeli interests in any future negotiation.
Slate: What are some of those vital interests?
Gold: The fathers of Israel’s security doctrine always viewed the Jordan Valley as the front line of Israel defense. When Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, it learned again the importance of controlling the outer perimeter of the territory where it is waging a counterinsurgency campaign. For example, when Israel left the Philadelphi Route, which was the outer perimeter of Gaza, the entire area was penetrated by massive arms smuggling, including Grad rockets from Iran. This gave Hamas the ability to strike deep into Southern Israel, which previously it did not have. By analogy, should Israel abandon the Jordan Valley, it is very likely that major Jihadi organizations, from Southern Syria down to Yemen, would seek to smuggle weaponry into the West Bank, putting Israeli civilian aviation over Ben Gurion airport and most of Israel’s large cities at risk.*
Slate: So Israel’s biggest objection to the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership is that the borders Abbas has proposed [the 1967 lines] would leave Israelis unsafe?
Gold: The Palestinian Authority’s bid for U.N. membership is part of a unilateralist course that it decided upon a few years ago. Rather than pursuing a negotiated peace, which would require the Palestinian leadership to make certain concessions, just like Israel, Mahmoud Abbas decided to lean on the international community to obtain statehood, without having to agree, for example, to demilitarization.
Borders are another issue. Israel is entitled to “secure and recognized boundaries,” according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. It is not required to withdraw to the pre-1967 line, which was never an international border, but only an armistice line, where the armies stopped in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
Slate: Earlier this month [December 2011], the General Assembly issued a statement affirming the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Where does this leave the Israelis? What are they thinking now?
Gold: I think the point is that any move of the Palestinians towards statehood has to be negotiated with Israel. Israel learned the hard way that if it just abandons territory without putting any security measures into place, it will face unbridled escalation. If you compare the number of rockets that were fired at Israel in 2005, the year we got out of Gaza, to the number of rockets fired in 2006, the year afterward, there was a 500 percent increase in rocket fire. So we cannot—Israel cannot—permit a situation to arise in the West Bank which simply replicates the chaos of what appeared in Gaza.
Slate: But if a state emerged from the U.N. proposal—in other words, if Palestinians got the borders they wanted—wouldn’t there be less motivation to attack Israel?
Gold: That was part of the thinking of the Sharon government back in 2005. But alas, as I said, it doesn’t seem that the 1967 line is the line that will reduce the hostility on the other side. There are other factors involved.
Slate: What would reduce the hostility?
Gold: The sad truth is that this is not a territorial conflict, especially as the role of Hamas on the Palestinian side grows. Even the Fatah leadership insists that Israel will have to take in the Palestinian refugees, and even evict Jewish residents from those areas, before they will talk about ending the conflict. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, wrote in the Guardian on Dec. 10, 2010 that there were 7 million Palestinian refugees, and that disregarding “their aspirations to return to their homeland would certainly make any peace deal signed with Israel untenable.”
This is an impossible condition for Israel to ever meet, since it would fundamentally change the demographic makeup of Israel itself. Because this is the intent of the Palestinian leadership, this is why it refuses to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, even though the Israelis are ready to accept a Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian leadership unfortunately still hopes to preserve the option of using the Israeli Arab population and a flood of Palestinian refugees in order to convert Israel from a Jewish state into another Arab state.
Slate: Your debate opponent, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, says Hamas has renounced violence as a form of resistance and accepted a two-state solution. Would Israel ever collaborate with a Palestinian government that included Hamas?
Gold: There’s a serious problem with Hamas. Hamas has a national charter from 1988 which calls for the complete destruction of Israel. It even calls for attacking Jews anywhere in the world. If Hamas wanted to make itself into a diplomatic partner, it would have to erase that charter. It would have to accept Israel’s right to exist. It would have to renounce violence and accept all previous agreements. But there is no indication that it will do this. In 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian elections, Mahmoud al-Zahar, the man who became the Hamas foreign minister in Gaza, was specifically asked if he was willing to change the Hamas charter. He said, “Not a single word.” So it seems that Hamas is ideologically rigid and locked into most of its old positions, even though it had every incentive in 2006 to change.
Slate: So last week’s reconciliation was an empty gesture?
Gold: I think Hamas is trying to find language that makes it easier for Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas] to work with them. But Abbas is riding a tiger here. The Hamas leadership would like to ignite an intifada in the West Bank, which while declaratively aimed at Israel, will be intended to create chaos that will bring down Fatah control of the Palestinian Authority and replace it with Hamas control. This will bolster the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent movement, in a number of neighboring Arab countries, like Syria and Jordan. Abbas is making a big mistake.
Slate: What actions might Israel take if the Palestinians achieved a status upgrade at the United Nations?
Gold: Well, we’ve already seen many actions the United States has taken in response to [the state of Palestine’s admission to] UNESCO. But Israel will leave itself a number of options to adopt, in the event that the Palestinians continue down the road of unilateralism.
Slate: What might some of those options be?
Gold: I wouldn’t want to try and specify.
Slate: Your debate opponents say that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to expanding the West Bank settlements shows that he is disingenuous about wanting a two-state solution.
Gold: I’ve always believed that the settlements are a side issue. What you have is a territorial dispute: The Palestinians have towns and villages that they’re building and Israel has its towns and villages where it’s building. The borders will not be decided by the rate of construction, but by an agreement that the parties reach.
Slate: The settlements aren’t a strategy to change the demography of the disputed areas?
Gold: Once Israel showed, in 2005, that it was prepared to pull out 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, it’s hard to argue that the settlements are the main factor determining the future borders of Israel.
Slate: But if they’re so insignificant, and they’re the one thing keeping the Palestinians from direct negotiations, is there a point where Israel just throws up its hands and agrees to a settlement freeze?
Gold: In 1993 when the original Oslo Accord was reached between Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, there was no settlement freeze in the agreement. And the two sides negotiated. When Ehud Barak went to Camp David and negotiated with Arafat under the Clinton administration, there was no settlement freeze. And finally when Ehud Olmert negotiated with Abu Mazen back in 2007, there was no settlement freeze.
The settlements are a red herring. The amount of territory they sit on is miniscule—only 1.9 percent of the West Bank. If you’re talking about 1.9 percent, and then somebody adds a few houses, you’re not undercutting the negotiations; you’re just addressing the needs of the people. Meanwhile, the Palestinians want to build a whole new city, called Rawabi, near Ramallah. Why not? They have needs; let them do it! Is that called a settlement?
Slate: Is the Palestinian drive for statehood a late manifestation of the Arab Spring?
Gold: The Palestinian agenda is very different from the agenda in the Arab countries. I think the actual drive for statehood, away from the context of negotiations, began in 2008, when the Palestinians saw Kosovo declare independence and seek U.N. membership. What’s happening now has its roots in that development, I think, and not in the Arab Spring.
Slate: How has the Arab Spring changed things for Israel?
Gold: The Arab Spring raises a great deal of uncertainty about Israel’s strategic environment. Nobody can write a guarantee to Israel that the regimes surrounding it today will be there in five years. Moreover, in Egypt’s case, Israel gave back the whole Sinai Peninsula, a huge amount of territory, to create a stable peace with Egypt. Now many voices coming out of the Islamist parties are calling for altering the peace treaty.
Slate: Has working on the Arab-Israeli conflict affected your view of human nature?
Gold: I believe that people are fundamentally good. I have spent many many hours as a negotiator with Mahmoud Abbas, with Yasser Arafat, and with the entire senior Palestinian leadership. I’ve also been an envoy to Arab countries—Jordan, Egypt, Gulf states—and I believe that there are sometimes conflicts that are very difficult. It’s not a question of a personal rapport. Nobody has solved the Kashmir problem. Nobody has solved the issue of the Kuril Islands, which are Japanese but occupied by Russia. No one has solved the dispute over the Western Sahara or Northern Cyprus. So you have many challenging issues and you should work together to resolve what you can. But you should not give up because you can’t bridge every single issue on the negotiating agenda.
Slate: Do you think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved?
Gold: I think the Israelis and the Palestinians have fundamental interests in surmounting these problems. But we’re in a difficult period. The Muslim Brotherhood is victorious in Egypt and may come to power in Syria. That only strengthens Hamas and makes it more difficult for Fatah to make the concessions that they will need to deliver at the negotiating table in the future.
Slate: Do you consider yourself an idealist or a pragmatist?
Gold: [Laughs] Let’s put it this way: Idealism is the gasoline of political action. But pragmatism is also very much a part of my own personal approach. You need to understand the world you’re facing and try to make arrangements and take reality into account.
Slate: Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that the most he can hope for from a corrupt United Nations is the support of a “moral minority.” You were a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Do you share his low opinion of it?
Gold: What happened at the U.N. was a tragedy. When it was created in 1945, the initial members had to be countries that had declared war either on Nazi Germany or on imperial Japan; in essence, they were Allies. Because of the power of the democratic coalition in those early years, even countries like the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia had to acquiesce to the values of the United States and its allies, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then, during the 1960s, new members from the Third World joined, some of which were Soviet client states. The whole tenor of the U.N. changed. Many of these countries became automatic adversaries of Israel. For instance, Arab countries came to certain African states and said, “We expect your support on this issue and then we’ll help you with your issues.” Even though Israel has excellent relations on a bilateral basis with many countries in Asia and Africa, picking on Israel became a part of U.N. bloc politics.
Are you getting all this? I’m giving you a lecture in international history.
Slate: My tape recorder is getting it! I can’t type that fast.
Gold: Fine. Look, in spite of everything I’m saying, we have to continue and try to find a way to peace. It’s doable but you have to learn the lessons of past failures and chart a new course. You have to reach agreements where you can.
Correction, Jan. 6, 2011: This interview contained a reference to the Gaza Strip that should have referred to the West Bank.
Why Aaron David Miller thinks admitting a Palestinian state to the United Nations would be a terrible move.
For someone who’s spent his life practicing the delicate art of diplomacy, Aaron David Miller can be pretty blunt. “The notion Palestinians are cooking up, for U.N. action on Palestinian statehood this fall, takes dumb to a new level,” he’s said. Though the former State Department adviser and Middle East expert feels for sovereignty-hungry Palestinians, he wants to dispel the myth that taking action—even destructive action—is better than doing nothing. So on Jan. 10, at the Slate/Intelligence Squared debate in New York, Miller will argue against the motion
By Aaron David Miller, Slate.com
It can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t happen. Such are the sad prospects of the Palestinian plan to achieve statehood through membership in the U.N.
Right now, no idea, particularly the semisacred principle of negotiations on the core issues, such as Jerusalem and refugees, will bring Palestinians any closer to realizing their legitimate national aspirations for statehood. But neither desperation nor sympathy for a deserving cause should compel us to embrace and pursue bad ideas that might only make matters worse. And admitting the nonstate of Palestine to the United Nations—the granddaddy of dumb ideas—will do precisely that.
I should know. Having spent 20 years providing both very good and very bad advice on Arab-Israeli issues to half a dozen secretaries of state, I’ve come up with my fair share of doozies. These included inviting Yasser Arafat to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum and encouraging then-President Clinton to believe he could negotiate a conflict-ending agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit in July 2000.
It must be something in the water that leads well-intentioned American mediators to assume that trying anything to keep the peace process alive—no matter how wrong-headed, risky, or dysfunctional—is better than not acting at all. This obsession with process over results, motion over movement, is the solutionist’s curse. Once you conclude that action is mandatory, no matter the cost, you begin to slide down a slippery slope. At the bottom of the hill, failure almost always awaits.
I’ll never forget how inspired I was by President Clinton’s comment shortly before Camp David, that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all. That’s a noble sentiment, quintessentially American. But on reflection, it’s more appropriate for a high-school football team; it certainly isn’t a substitute for the foreign policy of the most consequential nation on earth.
Americans aren’t alone with their illusions.
In the world of Israelis and Palestinians, too, good judgment seems to have gone the way of the dodo. An Israeli prime minister continues to believe that the status quo with the Palestinians is manageable and preferable to taking any risks to change it; and that the continuation of settlement activity is not only politically warranted but wise.
A Palestinian president seems to think that the pressures of the Arab Spring/Winter and the impossibility of negotiations require a push for faux unity with Hamas and faux statehood at the United Nations. And he realizes, as does every other Palestinian I’ve talked to, that both measures will fail.
The Palestinians have thus shed one set of pipe dreams for another. They are quite right in concluding that this Israeli prime minister with this Israeli government can’t or won’t meet their core requirements on Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and security. Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu has recently insisted on a fifth requirement: that Palestinians accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. And they have rightly assessed that President Obama has no intention in 2012 of taking any risks on an issue that can only hurt his re-election campaign.
So instead of banking on an arena in which they currently have no leverage (negotiations), Palestinians have shifted their efforts to another in which they believe they do: the court of international opinion. Here they imagine they can gain admission to international organizations, and pressure—perhaps even sanction and isolate—Israel and the Americans.
But they’re wrong.
First, the Palestinians cannot succeed in gaining admission to the U.N. as a member state. We’ve already seen a trial run in September and October. The United States will veto, and has already persuaded others on the Security Council to oppose Abbas’ petition. Nor does winning by losing seem to have gotten much for Palestinians so far, except a UNESCO admission which prompted the United States to cut off the program’s funding. The big news for Palestinians in recent months wasn’t the U.N. initiative at all, but the Israeli-Hamas prisoner release which won the Islamists far more credit than Abbas’ speech in New York.
Second, if Palestinians are going to pick a fight with the United States and Israel, it ought to be one that either gets them something tangible, increases their leverage, or creates problems in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The U.N. gambit did none of these things; instead, it just made it easier for Israelis to claim that it is the Palestinians who aren’t serious about negotiations. Third, sovereignty is designed—even as a symbol—to convey power, or at least to provide a foundation or launching pad for it. Statehood isn’t supposed to be a window through which the world sees weakness and fecklessness. But right now, that’s the Palestinian story. Prime Minister Fayyad has done a remarkable job in state and institution building, but his competence has only alienated the rest of the government—especially Hamas, which sees him as a threat to its authority. Meanwhile Hamas runs Gaza, Israelis control at least 30 percent of the West Bank, and the Palestinian Authority has no say in managing the borders, water, or air space of the territory left over. What we now witness is a Palestinian Humpty-Dumpty: a fractured nonstate.
Does anyone want to see such an entity admitted into the United Nations? The symbolic conferral of autonomy may temporarily boost Palestinian morale, but it will solve nothing and could even entrench the Israelis deeper in their demands. Nobody can look at the Palestinians today and not be both sympathetic and empathetic to their cause. They’ve suffered long enough and should have an independent state. But it will not come via the U.N., not this way.
Negotiations between empowered Israelis and Palestinians willing and able to pay the price of a settlement (and most likely brokered by an American mediator prepared to be fair, reassuring and tough when necessary) would remain the only possible path to a solution, if there was one. But right now, there isn’t.