North Africa, West Asia

Tough times for progressives in Israel

The state of right and left politics in Israel during the latest conflict in Gaza, Hamas’ evolution, the BDS movement and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Interview.

Michael Karpin Charalampos Tsitsopoulos
17 October 2014

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos: In your recent book ‘Imperfect Compromise’ you raise the point that people on both sides are ready for a compromise, even if the latter is imperfect, due to fatigue with a long-standing and extracting conflict. But in a recent poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, 58% of Israelis claim Israel should continue to fight until Hamas surrenders. In addition, it seems that the right wing’s initial handling of the situation boosted its popularity, despite figures (especially for PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon) plummeting after the rise in Israeli casualties. What has changed during Operation Protective Edge? Are Israelis suddenly less eager for an imperfect compromise?

Michael Karpin: Polls with reference to the enemy, which are performed during a military conflict, are influenced mainly by the state of emergency and barely represent the commonsense of the masses, and therefore I would not ascribe too much value to the poll you mentioned.

In the history of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians even long periods of acute confrontation – like the two prolonged Palestinian uprisings (intifada) and the First Lebanon War, during which, the PLO leadership was expelled by the IDF from Beirut to Tunisia - could not affect the stable and solid support of a clear majority of Israelis for a territorial compromise in the form of a two states solution.

Probably, even Operation Protective Edge will not change the desire of the majority to resolve the conflict by a compromise. The problem lies in the current leadership's lack of desire to challenge the deadlock in a determined manner. Contrast this with actions of the late PM Yitzhak Rabin during the early nineties, when his government negotiated the Oslo Accords. Rabin was a unique politician, presenting in parallel two seemingly contradicting characteristics. One was the aura of a successful general who, as chief of staff delivered the 1967' Six Days War astonishing victory, which granted him wide public trust. The other was his kinderstube characteristics: Rabin was a devoted and pragmatic social-democrat, who went through an educational process based on compassionate humanity. In contrast, PM Benjamin Netanyahu has been captivated by the extreme conservative nationalistic legacy of his political movement and by the determinist world-outlook of his late influential father, a well known pessimist historian.

Netanyahu lacks Rabin's virtue of self confidence, which is necessary for making concessions in order to reach a compromise.

CT: The progressives and liberals in Israel seem paralyzed. Both the Labor Party and Meretz supported the latest Gaza campaign. Dov Khenin of the Hadash Party is the one of the few I can find who has openly criticized Netanyahu for the war and called for further engagement with Hamas. Anti-war rallies were attended by very small numbers. So what is happening?

MK: No, most liberals in Israel are not paralyzed. Hamas is Israel's bitter enemy and during war time, what a peripheral political party like Hadash is able to allow itself, mainstream parties like Labor and Meretz are not able to presume. Like most Israelis, also Labor and Meretz distinguish between the refusal of the Netanyahu administration to recognize the new unity government of the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the one hand, and the military campaign against Hamas, on the other hand. They provide support to the government on the military sphere and at the same time require that any post-war settlement will be negotiated with the PA's unity government.

CT: From Israel’s “Big 3” fiction writers, Amos Oz, Abraham Yehoshua and David Grossman, only the latter has dissented. Oz has used the Hamas charter as justification for any lack of progress. Yehoshua has been slightly more conciliatory, saying that Israel should call Hamas an enemy, not a terrorist entity, and therefore engage with it as with previous enemies. Grossman has condemned Netanyahu for condoning racist incidents that led up to the war. Are there any other figures from the arts that are more disturbed by the actions of Israel’s government in the latest war in Gaza?

MK: All three authors you mentioned are peaceniks by definition. Grossman was speaking in a Tel Aviv rally, which was defined as pro-peace more than anti-war. The anti-racist views of Oz and Yehoshua are well known. During military conflicts, the custom here is that those who have reservations remain silent. Of course many intellectuals and art figures are disturbed by the status-quo policy of the government, but also they distinguish between the military campaign against Hamas, which most of them, I presume, find necessary, and the government responsibility for freezing any peaceful arrangement with the Palestinians. Some intellectuals – not many, you are right – pronounced reservations during the war. One was the author Etgar Keret (look for his article in The New Yorker ). Another one was Prof. Zeev Sterenhell (see Haaretz).

CT: In ‘Imperfect Compromise’ you mention that despite its founding charter, Hamas has often shown signs of pragmatism. Michael Bröning of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Jerusalem wrote a book in 2011 advancing roughly the same notion. But views on the other extreme look prevalent in higher political echelons. For example, Likud MK Gilad Erdan recently said that Hamas is as peace-seeking as ISIS or Al-Qaida. Do you agree?

MK: Likud's MK Erdan spreads propaganda. Binding ISIS and Hamas within the same bundle refutes reality. ISIS is an ad-hoc coalition of politically motivated Iraqi-Sunni tribes, bands of Muslim fascists, common thugs and western adventurers. Hamas is a classical national liberation movement, which is slowly moving from the space of belligerence into politics. On June 2, 2014, by joining the Palestinian unity government, Hamas' leadership made a significant practical step of becoming a governing-party instead of being a resistance movement. Quite a few Israeli orientalists – among them Prof. Shaul Mishal from Tel Aviv University and Dr. Ronit Marzan from Haifa University – have recently analyzed the process of modification that Hamas is going through and come to the same conclusion: Hamas adjusts its strategies to the sea changes in the Middle East.

But not only intellectuals, also members of the Israeli defense community are adjusting their views. One of them is the former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who served as PM Ariel Sharon’s national security advisor. Halevy reached the same conclusion. In his column, published lately by the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Halevy wrote that Hamas' leadership undergoes a transformation “right under our very noses” by recognizing that “its ideological goal" to liquidate the State of Israel "is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future.” Hamas, wrote Halevy, is now ready and willing to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state within the temporary borders of 1967.

CT: Talk of BDS against Israel is fashionable, pointing to the South African precedent. Personally I disagree with it, and so do others, the most prominent recently being Noam Chomsky. What is your view of BDS?

MK: The South African precedent does not have the similar political and social components of the West Bank's occupation and Israel's attitude to the Palestinians bears no resemblance to the original apartheid. In general I think that the BDS movement has shown a simple attitude toward a complicated situation.   

CT: Can Europe play a more effective role in the Middle East instead of playing second fiddle for America? Given its different political culture, how could Europe be constructive vis-à-vis the Middle East and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in particular?

MK: No, Europe should continue to hold the second driver seat while the US should continue to lead the peace process. Because of the current labyrinthine situation which prevails in the entire Middle East, I think that for the benefit of both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, conflict management should be led by the most influential power. Europe should throw its weight behind the latter’s efforts. During the lingering history of the conflict, the structure of the Quartet - the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia – with the US as the leading entity among the four has been the most efficient arbitration power.  

CT: In 2006 you wrote a book about Israel’s surreptitious acquisition of nuclear weapons. What is your view of (the failure of) nuclear disarmament initiatives in the region? Egypt and Iran pressed for a nuclear-free Middle East in the 70’s, while Bashar al-Assad called for a WMDFZ early on in his presidency.

MK: I was asked the same question at a Washington Post live on-line discussion about my book and I'll repeat my answer. In a future peace epoch, a nuclear-free Middle East will be most welcomed by Israel. When Israel's first PM, David Ben-Gurion unveiled the nuclear reactor at Dimona, on December 21,1960, in the emotional speech he made from the Knesset podium, he uttered only one sentence that referred to Israel's neighbours. For a durable peace he offered them a "comprehensive and absolute disarmament in Israel and the neighbouring Arab countries, with mutual supervision."

At that time, the construction of the reactor in Dimona had not been completed and for him, the nuclear option was a distant dream. Nevertheless, my research taught me that the understanding that "absolute disarmament" is necessary remains a fundamental principle of Israel's defence policy.

Israel will come to the peace negotiations with a set doctrine composed of three principles: First, Israel opposes the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as it has from the very beginning. Its own acquisition of nuclear capability was a defensive imperative that will fall away when peace is achieved. The meaning is willingness to achieve disarmament. Secondly, Israel will give up its nuclear option only when it is proven beyond doubt that peace is an absolute and established fact and it is clear that Israel no longer needs the ultimate deterrent. Thirdly, the nuclear demilitarization of the Middle East will be implemented through a regional pact to be reached through negotiations between Israel and each one of the states in the region, and not through joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel's neighbouring countries are aware of this set of principles.

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