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.