David Newman on the Israeli debate about peace
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to restart negotiations at the U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference in Annapolis this week. In public opinion polls conducted by the Dahaf Institute and Dialog Agency [sic], published in The Guardian newspaper, only one in five Israelis believe that the Annapolis conference was a success, and more than 80% of the public believe that Israeli and Palestinian leaders will be unable to reach their goal of concluding a deal by the end of 2008. To give us some added insight on the conference this week and speaking to us from London is David Newman, professor of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. David, I’d like to read you a quote from Prime Minister Olmert, which appeared in Haaretz newspaper just after the end of the Annapolis conference. He’s quoted as saying,
EHUD OLMERT (TEXT ON SCREEN): If the day comes when the two-state solution colapses [sic] and we face a South African style struggle for equal voting rights also for the Parlistinians [sic] in the territories… Then as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.
Olmert went on to say,
OLMERT: The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us, because they will say that they cannot support a state that does not support Democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.
Olmert is making the case why this two-state solution is necessary for the future existence of the state of Israel, trying to persuade both American Jewish organizations, but I assume, David, even more so the people of Israel and particularly his opponents in Israel. Number one, I guess a question is does Olmert really want a deal? And if he does, can he actually get a deal through, given the current state of Israeli politics?
DAVID NEWMAN, PROFESSOR, BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY: Well, I think Olmert’s statement explains precisely why on the whole the Israeli public has come around to a consensus situation that a two-state solution is the only resolution to the conflict. People often ask themselves, how is it possible that people, politicians of the right wing, like Olmert and even more so Sharon, who in the past so totally opposed to a Palestinian state, you know, are suddenly promoting it? And the only real answer you can give to that is the whole discourse of demography, the fact that between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there could well be, within a not too long period of time, parity between the number of Israelis and Palestinians. And if Israel does pride itself on being a democracy, it can’t continue forever in the situation of occupation. It would have to give everybody equal rights, and it would very potentially lose its Jewish majority. And for many people like Olmert, this is seen as just as great a security threat as the presence of armies and tanks on the border.
JAY: The ability to create this two-state solution, both in terms of what the Palestinians want and what Israeli, especially the Israeli right, is willing to accept, one of the issues clearly is the state of Jerusalem. Both in the U.S. and in Israel there are organizations that simply won’t accept a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. How is Olmert going to get past this?
NEWMAN: There’s no question that Jerusalem is the most difficult of many difficult problems, and a lot of other problems have to be resolved and implemented before we get to dealing with Jerusalem. There are solutions out there on the ground, just as there are solutions to all of the complex issues, including borders and settlements and refugees, leaving aside for a moment the Old City, which is where the real crux of the problem is. And in terms of the rest of the city, it’s one city, a metropolitan area, which has very clear Palestinian neighborhoods and very clear Israeli-Jewish neighborhoods, because of course the two populations are highly segregated and hardly ever mix in the same neighborhoods. So sort of some form of municipal or functional separation between the Palestinians and the Israeli neighborhoods is not impossible to imagine, and to a great extent the separation barrier or the separation wall has more or less divided them in that way. The big issue with Jerusalem, of course, is the Old City. What do you do about the Old City, the holy sites, the access of Jews and Muslims to their holy sites? This is by far the biggest problem, and it’s not clear, even according to the Olmert position, how exactly that would be resolved.
JAY: Gaza, now under Hamas leadership, has denounced Annapolis, denounced these whole negotiations. The plan seems to be if there is a deal, Gaza stays out of it. And then what happens there?
NEWMAN: No, I’m not sure that that’s correct. I think, you know, we spend enough time discussing two states, and then there are those people who would say we’ve lost the two-state solution, there’s only a one-state solution. There are people out there at the moment that are talking about three states, West Bank and Gaza as separate states. The situation of the Hamas is problematic at the moment. On the one hand, it rose to power because a lot of the Palestinians on the ground were totally frustrated with the leadership of the Fatah, whom they believed had compromised to Israel but has delivered absolutely nothing on the ground. And at the same time, if Hamas failed to deliver anything on the ground, and they’re failing to deliver at the moment, there could well be a counter-revolution within Gaza. So it’s not clear at all whether the Hamas power has long staying power and whether it can infiltrate into the West Bank as well.
JAY: What does the Bush administration really want here? We’ve heard that Elliot Abrahms, on behalf of the Bush administration, has told the Israelis, don’t worry, Bush will put a brake on any real pressure on Israel here. This is more about developing a front against Iran, getting as many as the Sunni Arab countries as possible on board, and isolating Iran. Nobody really expects much to come out of this. That, in fact, what the U.S. and perhaps the Israeli government want is actually the status quo, the continued disintegration of Palestinian society, the weakening of it, and maybe live with that for quite some time.
NEWMAN: I think, you know, if there was an agreement by the end of next year—and I too tend to be skeptical, I don’t believe that will happen—but obviously if by some miracle that did happen, then obviously Bush will have a major feather in his hat when he left office. But I don’t expect that to happen, and I do think that the American administration are manoeuvring here. They do want to regain some sort of credibility in other parts of the Middle East, and not just in Israel. They probably want to slightly divert attention away from the problems of Iraq and of Afghanistan, and they feel that maybe some good news could come out of Israel and Palestine.
JAY: The poll that I referred to in the beginning of the interview—80% of Israelis don’t expect anything to come out of this—do you think that does reflect Israeli opinion?
NEWMAN: I think Israeli opinion was very skeptical going into the Annapolis talks for a number of reasons. One was we’ve been there before. We were there at Madrid, we were there at Oslo, we were there at Taba, we were there at Camp David. And without going into the discussion of who was right and who was wrong at any of these talks, you know, we always had very high expectations, higher hopes, and either nothing came out of it or, even worse, what came out of it was renewed violence on the streets and intifada. So, of course, the disappointment was very great. And I think a lot of Israelis, including many pro-peace Israelis, are very skeptical about these high-level summits, particularly at a time when there is no real communication and interaction between leaders at the track 1 level. Yes, there’s a lot of track 2 dialogue going on. That goes on the whole time behind the scenes and it’s extremely important in exchanging ideas and creating networks. But at the real level of leadership—prime ministers, presidents, foreign ministers—there hasn’t been much going on recently. And suddenly you jump into an Annapolis situation because basically the American administration has forced you into it, has told you you must be there. And so most Israelis are pretty skeptical that anything substantial could come out of this.
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