Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami is one of the most respected commentators on West Asia. A historian of repute, he has authored several books, including the much-acclaimed Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy, and is currently the vice-chairman of the Toledo Peace Centre in Spain. He responded to questions from Pranay Sharma on the current violence in West Asia and the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Excerpts from the interview:
What would you attribute the latest round of violence in Israeli-Palestine relations to?
There were several reasons. One, the missiles launched on southern Israel were unsustainable for Tel Aviv. It would have been so for any state. Two, Hamas could not resist the pressure of the most radical groups, like the Islamic Jihad. Instead of playing its now-usual role of reining them in, it joined them.
The underlying reasons is the drive by Hamas to change the rules established by Israel—the strategy of creating a buffer zone within the Gaza Strip where armed militias were not allowed to operate. Hamas tried to create a symmetry whereby it conducted attacks on Israeli patrols on the Israeli side of the border. This is how a military jeep was attacked, triggering the current round of violence. Evidently, Hamas is also trying to put pressure on both Israel and Egypt to put an end to the blockade. The Rafah crossing to Egypt is closed, and so is the border to Israel. Yes, even the current Islamist regime in Egypt is somehow complicit with Israel’s siege on Gaza.
How do you see Israel’s response?
It was inevitable. It was politically unsustainable not to respond when a million of your citizens live under the barrage of these rockets. Israel, however, is wrong to focus exclusively on a military response. It failed in addressing the continuous calls of (Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud) Abbas for a political deal. Einstein said that the pinnacle of idiocy is to repeat old patterns of behaviour in the belief that what did not work in the past would work now. This conflict has only a political solution.
How much is Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong response against Palestine linked to the Israeli elections due in January next year?
I would not discard that the approaching elections put additional political pressure on the PM to respond. However, it would be wrong to conclude that if there were no elections, Israel would not have responded to Hamas’s attacks. It is built into the precarious balance of deterrence between Israel/Hamas that we shall have these periodic rounds of violence.
"I know the Israeli system, its advantages and flaws. Targeting civilians is not one of them. It is Hamas that is targeting civilians." What about Palestine’s move to seek its identity as a separate state at the UN? Is it also linked to that?
Palestine’s bid at the UN is not a motive for Israel; it might have been the motive behind Hamas’s decision. They stole the show from their political enemy, Abbas, captured headlines, got foreign visitors, and might be getting more sympathy. Israel should have supported Abbas’s bid at the UN. That is the best way to sideline Hamas, show that Abbas’s diplomatic strategy is rewarded by Israel. Instead, we focus on Hamas, and might end up making concessions—easing the blockade, for example, as part of a ceasefire. The lesson for Palestinians, indeed for the region, is that Israel only understands, and rewards, the use of force.
Even if one criticises Hamas for starting this violence, why is Israeli reaction always so out of proportion?
This question of proportion is frankly misplaced. Proportionality in modern warfare is not a biblical concept of an eye for an eye. You use force in relation with your objective, in this case to break Hamas’s will to keep submitting Israel’s population as far as Tel Aviv to such attacks. The air force is the most surgical form of operation; and if Israel has so far refrained from using ground forces, it is because of the civilian casualties it would have caused. Wars are ugly, and I do not know of such a type of confrontation as in Gaza now where civilians won’t suffer the consequences, especially knowing the policy of Hamas, when its entire military apparatus is intentionally deployed amidst civilians.
Are most Israelis in favour of such strong action? Can the death of innocent civilians, particularly children, be dismissed as ‘collateral damage’?
Not for a moment would I say Israel targets civilians intentionally. I know the Israeli system with its advantages and sometimes appalling flaws; targeting civilians is not one of them. It is Hamas that is targeting civilians. Or is the fact that Israel developed sophisticated defences against rocket attacks something we should apologise for?
"We need to reach out to those who consider themselves victims of our rise as a nation. There’s no other solution to this." Some say the Israeli response is a precursor to what it may do to Syria or Iran. Do you see that happening?
I hope the Iran nuclear crisis is solved diplomatically. It would be an enormous calamity if it degenerates into a war. I would like to see the great powers engage all regional actors to create in the Middle East a zone free of nuclear weapons. It has the infamous record of being the world’s only region where chemical weapons have been used after WW-II.
Egyptians and other Arab leaders are trying to mediate to end the violence. How do you see it ending and what is its likely fallout?
I expect a ceasefire to be reached through the good services of Egypt. I believe true statesmen need to work for such conflicts to end in arrangements that move us forward, not just restore the precarious status quo. I hope the outcome of this conflict would be a return of Egypt to its traditional role of a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Hopefully, this would also mean restoring the bilateral dialogue and cooperation between Israel and Egypt on questions of regional security. Israelis and Palestinians should start dealing with the fundamental issues: Palestinian statehood, security for all. A system of security and cooperation in this most dysfunctional region of the world is what we all should aspire to reach.
Are there any lessons for Israel from all this?
One major lesson: the rise of political Islam and Israel’s own diplomatic blunders have left it isolated in a region in turmoil. It was left with no friends. Military responses alone would not secure our future. Our task is to confront the world not only with traditional defensive tools, but also with the audacity of thought—the hallmark of Jewish elites throughout the centuries. We have not survived all the horrors of extermination only to entrench ourselves behind the walls of our own convictions and remain righteous and immobile. We need to reach out to those who consider themselves the victims of our rise as a nation. There is no other solution to our conundrum.
The interview with former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami was revealing (‘Israel is wrong to focus only on a military response’, Dec 3). It is sad how, in the justifiable sympathy the world shows toward Palestinians, Israelis have lost much sympathy, that too when living memories of the Holocaust survive. The settlements in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem by Israel are the only hurdles before a final two-nation resolution of the crisis.
Apropos Shlomo Ben-Ami’s interview, ‘Israel is wrong...’ (Dec 3), the Hamas/Israeli/ Palestine problem is far from being resolved. Tahrir Square is once again the centre of political volatility; Syrians continue to kill each other. Perhaps the region should now be labelled ‘The Muddled East’.
>> "i admit!"
You are a gentleman.
<<Admit that you lied.>>
>> How many Dalits were burnt for not changing their religion.
Many Dalits were killed for just being Dalit. As I have said several times before, Will Durante has very low presige in historical circles and exaggerated Muslim atrocities in India in order to mitigate European atrocities in the Americas, Australia and in Europe itself.
>> In France in 1936, a Jew was the president.
I was talking of the treatmnet of European Jews over the past 2000 years.
>> Britain had a Jew as a PM.
Disraeli had converted to Christianity. Your arguments are getting more and more ridiculous.
>> The pogroms against Jews are not exclusive to Europe. The wiki article I quote have pogroms against Jews in Muslims lands.
>> "Muslim Society is even more full of social evils than Hindu Society." (Ambedkar)
But you had said, "Even Ambedkar considered Muslims Dalits worse than Hindu Dalits." Admit that you lied.
<<Can't match what the Dalits suffered for 2,000 years.>>
How many Dalits were burnt for not changing their religion. Compare this with Islamic barbarism in India
Jews were better in Ottoman empire than in Europe but Jews flourished in Europe too. Jews were made to pay taxes in Muslim lands because they were Jews. In France in 1936, a Jew was the president. Britain had a Jew as a PM. Jews prospered more in Europe and they suffered more in Europe. In Muslim lands, Jews were less persecuted and they prospered less.
The pogroms against Jews are not exclusive to Europe. The wiki article I quote have pogroms against Jews in Muslims lands,
<<Ambedkar would never have said something like that because it is false.>>
Ambedkar said that for sure. In his book Partition of India, he writes about contemporary Muslim society in the part titled - Muslim Society is even more full of social evils than Hindu Society is - where he describes Casteism in Islam.
>> Do you want me to give you chronicles of Islamic barbarism in India?
Can't match what the Dalits suffered for 2,000 years.
>> Indian gdp was 20 percent of world gdp in 1700. In 1947, it was less than 2 percent.
These figures should be taken with a ton of salt.
>> Do you need a better proof for Jewish persecution under Ottomans?
The same Wikipedia article you posted says, "During the Classical Ottoman period (1300–1600), the Jews, together with most other communities of the empire, enjoyed a certain level of prosperity. Compared with other Ottoman subjects, they were the predominant power in commerce and trade as well in diplomacy and other high offices. In the 16th century especially, the Jews rose to prominence under the millets, the apogee of Jewish influence could arguable be the appointment of Joseph Nasi to Sanjak-bey (governor, a rank usually only bestowed upon Muslims) of the island of Naxos. Also in the first half of the 17th century the Jews were distinct in winning Tax farms, Haim Gerber describes it as: "My impression is that no pressure existed, that it was merely performαnce that counted." Although the treatment of the Jews got worse in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was still a lot better than the plight of Jews in Russia, Poland, Germany and most of the rest of Europe.
>> Jews flourished in Europe too. Marx to Einstein to Bohr, all were Jewish.
Bohr's father was Christian. Marx, Einstein and Freud had to leave their countries of birth. But you can't judge the condition of European Jews from the examples of these exceptional people. You have to consider how the ordinary Jews were treated in Russia, France, Poland, Germany and even in Scandinavian countries for nearly 2000 years.
>> Even Ambedkar considered Muslims Dalits worse than Hindu Dalits.
Ambedkar would never have said something like that because it is false.
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