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The occupation debate in Israel

Most Israelis live in a climate of fear, much of it abused and manipulated by politicians.

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: Thank you for joining us for our interview with Daniel Levy. In this part of the interview we’re going to discuss the debate within Israel. Daniel, there seems to be different fracture lines in Israeli society—settlements, no settlement; a greater Israel, a real two-state solution. There’s even a small segment of opinion in Israel for a one-state solution that includes everyone. There’s a debate, and I think a very big one, over the question of whether to have a secular state in Israel. [There are] a lot of secular people that are fed up with the control that the religious right and fundamentalists have over the Israeli state. And there’s even some debate—I guess not too much among the Jewish population, but certainly amongst the non-Jewish population—whether in this day and age there should even be such a thing as a Jewish state, as opposed to a secular democratic state. Tell us the way this debate unfolds.

DANIEL LEVY, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Let me maybe first of all come at it from the perspective of someone who before moving to Israel grew up in the UK. The flag of the UK is the cross. The god who’s saving the queen in the British national anthem probably isn’t the Jewish god, so to speak. The calendar of life is the Christian calendar; those are the holidays. It’s different to America in terms of the non-separation, in some ways, of church and state. That doesn’t detract from, to me, Britain being a democracy, and it was a very comfortable environment for me to grow up in. I think there is a vision of Israel being a Jewish democratic state in which all its citizens are equal. There is not structural discrimination against non-Jewish minorities, in which the Jewish component of that state is the calendar of life, some of the cultural background, could still be the flag, could still be the anthem.

JAY: But can there be an Arab majority in Parliament?

LEVY: I’ll come to that. And an affirmative action policy when it comes to who can become a citizen, because I think even in 2008, over 60 years after the Holocaust, I still think there is a legitimacy, if there is going to be a nation state called Israel and if we’re still organized according to a nation state, to say that anywhere in the world where a Jew faces oppression, there should be one place where that wouldn’t be the case. Once everyone’s inside the state, there should be full equality. Israel hasn’t realized that full equality situation. There is clearly discrimination against the non-Jewish, principally Arab-Palestinian minority. If Israel wants to be able to call itself a Jewish democratic state, then we have to address that. There are efforts to. They don’t go nearly far enough, fast enough, and that’s still a major challenge for Israel to face. If Israel maintains control of the Palestinian territories that it occupied in 1967—and effectively, even though settlements were withdrawn from Gaza, Israel still controls Gaza, ’cause Israel places an external envelope of control around Gaza, so we’re still talking about Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank—if Israel maintains that control, then really you have two options: either you impose an overt apartheid system, and you can set up little bantustans of Palestinian limited self-governance, or you can say, "Look, we’re here. We’ve been here for over 40 years. We’re not going anywhere. We’ll start giving you rights," or the Palestinians will start saying, "You’re here. You’re not going anywhere. One person, one vote." Under those circumstances you’re either not going to be democratic, i.e., the apartheid option, or you’re not going to be Jewish, because you’ll be a Jewish minority in a very short period of time. The alternative to that is a two-state solution, is to say that the occupation that began in 1967 has to end. Any deviation from the 1967 line would have to be agreed by a representative Palestinian interlocutor. There has been a negotiator in the past. When we’ve tried to implement a two-state solution, what we’ve talked about is a land swap. Even, as I would say, suggesting that all the settlements over the ’67 line are not legal, which is my position—.

JAY: So what’s the debate in Israel? ‘Cause what you’re discussing or elaborating for us seems awfully reasonable, rational, and there was almost such deals. And every time there seems to be almost a deal, something kills it. And often it’s Sharon taking a walk. And there seems to be some forces in Israel that don’t want this deal at all. And I think there’s forces on the Palestinian side too.

LEVY: Absolutely.

JAY: But the upper hand clearly is the American-Israeli alliance here.

LEVY: Well, look, I think that if you’re looking at the Israeli dynamic, most of the time, most Israelis aren’t asking themselves that big question, "What are we going to do in the future? Is it going to be a system of control and discrimination? Or are we going to give everyone the vote and lose our identity? Are we going to have—." Israel’s quite an escapist culture, by the way. Most Israelis aren’t living these issues, in many ways, on a day-to-day. Beyond that, most Israelis—and I think people in the United States, at least, would be able to understand this—most Israelis live in a climate of fear, much of it abused and manipulated by politicians. If you look at what’s happened in the US since 9/11, one could see how easily the realities both of Israeli day-to-day existence and of contemporary Jewish history could be used to whip people up into a real frenzy, where everyone becomes a Hitler and every threat becomes an existential threat, rather than taking a sober look and saying Israel’s actually not all that much of a weakling when it comes to its military capacities. So I think Israel can deal in non-kinetic, in non-military ways with its neighbors. The debate that’s going on in Israel, so it’s on the one hand, what does one do on a day-to-day? But in terms of that big picture, yes, the debate is: can Israel maintain an ongoing occupation? I think the subterranean trend is the one that’s towards the occupation. However, you will always have overlays of narratives that push that back, so the idea that we left Gaza, yet there are rockets, ignoring the fact that we left Gaza unilaterally in the most stupid of circumstances, without guaranteeing anything on the other side, that we left Gaza without addressing the West Bank. So I think there’s that tension all the time between the day-to-day and increasing understanding in the majority of the Israeli-Jewish public that we are going towards two states [inaudible] occupation. We might not go there quick enough.

JAY: What was the reaction to Jimmy Carter’s visit and his call to have negotiations directly with Hamas? One sees in the press occasional quotes from military leaders saying we should be talking to Hamas. At the political level, the rhetoric is quite the opposite. How split is Israeli society, in especially leading circles, in the military and political circles? Is there a debate on this?

LEVY: There is no love lost between Israel and Hamas, and there’s no sympathy for Hamas amongst the Israeli population, but that’s how it should be—there’s no sympathy for Israel amongst the Hamas. Israelis and Palestinians are in an adversarial relationship. The idea that we can be best buddies with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah is, unfortunately, not too reflective of our reality. There is a debate; there’s a very serious debate not reflected in the United States. It’s very easy when you’re this far away to say, "Don’t talk to any of these bad guys." The dirty secret, of course, is that when America has its lives at stake, when you have 150-odd thousand troops on the ground in Iraq, suddenly the guys that were shooting you yesterday, if they’re willing to stop shooting you today and they’re willing to call themselves an awakening council, then you’ll give them arms. If it requires getting a ceasefire with Muqtada al-Sadr to have a bit of quiet, then suddenly that becomes a very attractive option. I think the same is true of Israel. Inside Israel there’s a very serious debate about a ceasefire with Hamas, about how one deals with the Hamas reality, not exclusively militarily. We failed to deal with it militarily. Fatah failed to deal with it militarily. Some things do not avail themselves of military solutions. So, yes, inside and outside government, you have a debate amongst the public, amongst the leadership, amongst, as you said, senior ex-military people.

JAY: But the Americans don’t hear this debate.

LEVY: Well, I think they’re not totally cut off from this debate.

JAY: Certainly on mass television media.

LEVY: I think, in terms of populist, electoral demagogy, they don’t hear the debate. I think in the policy community there is a debate inside the US and I think, broadly speaking, out there amongst people who interest themselves in this issue in the blogosphere, etcetera, and there is a debate.

JAY: Thank you for joining us, Daniel. And thank you for joining us. If you would like to see more interviews like this and more news from The Real News Network, please click on the "Donate" button over my shoulder here. We only exist if we have your support. Thank you.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.