Forum — From the September 2014 issue

Israel and Palestine

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AVISHAI: Since you mentioned John Kerry, this seems like a natural segue into the American role in all this. How do you all view that role? Is it useful? Is it fake? Do you expect the United States to do anything constructive, or have you given up hope on a constructive American engagement?

RUBINSTEIN: For many, many years my dream was that the American administration would force us — both Palestinians and Israelis — into a two-state solution. It’s not only me. All the Israeli left wing and moderates, their dream was that Americans would come and force it. It didn’t happen for almost fifty years.

When I saw Secretary Kerry trying to do it, I was quite pessimistic at the beginning because I understand that it’s not realistic anymore. The two-state solution — here I agree with Dani Dayan — it’s not relevant anymore. The American administration, after those fifty years of trying to impose this, should see that it’s not valid anymore. The Americans should give up on that and say, “No more two-state solution.”

MARGALIT: But there should be an American role. Like anyone who is brokering negotiations, you can do a good job and you can do a mediocre job. A lot of it has to do with the level of expectations that you set. There were many mistakes made in the Middle East by the current administration, here in Israel and elsewhere, expectations that solutions were in the offing. If you’re creating an expectation that in nine months we will solve it all, then if you’re solving it in twelve or twenty-four months you’ve failed. So I think that Kerry’s approach was very admirable but couldn’t have succeeded without the full backing of the administration, and with a time frame that was nearly impossible.

KHOURY: The question is: Who is in control? Are U.S. interests dictating to Israel or the opposite? Many here believe that U.S. actions are determined by what the Jewish lobby in the U.S. wants. I believe it’s the exact opposite. I believe — with all due respect to you guys — Israel is a base for American interests in the Middle East. It’s a huge aircraft carrier.

MARGALIT: If you want to have a conversation based on mutual respect, don’t call us an aircraft carrier.

KHOURY: I am not calling you anything. I’m describing how big powers operate.

MARGALIT: You know, this is the land of my fathers, of my Bible, of my heritage. That’s why I’m here. If you call me an aircraft carrier, I’m offended.

KHOURY: I’m speaking about what I perceive to be American policies. The Americans view Israel as an aircraft carrier. They view the whole Middle East through the prism of U.S. interest. Of course they allow leeway here and there. But if there’s a crossing of a red line by any of us, the United States will know how to put us in our place.

And so to be honest, I don’t think Kerry was doing something just because he is an honorable man. I think he genuinely believes that it is in American national interest to do something about this conflict. It’s not because he wants to be remembered in history. Of course, everybody has his own personal ambitions. But had it not been in America’s national interest, it would not have happened.

When Kerry gave nine months, it was in the genuine belief that we could achieve something in nine months. As somebody who was working with the Kerry team, I can tell you they meant well. I mean, he used a lot of his personal political capital when he brought all those consultants from McKinsey and whatever to come in their private jets — they were trying to think outside the box, to see if they could do something different.

ILLOUZ: When one sees the massive investment of Israel in the military and the fact that this society thinks of itself and its politics primarily in military terms, Bassim’s metaphor of Israel as an aircraft carrier seems quite apt.

DAYAN: I was in Washington in June 2013, when Secretary Kerry tried to jump-start the negotiations. I had a breakfast with the chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House, Ed Royce, and with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairperson of the Subcommittee on the Middle East. And I told them Kerry would manage to jump-start the negotiations — he has to press a few buttons here, a few buttons there, and that’s doable — but that failure is inevitable, and that will be an additional blow to the national interest of the United States, to the prestige of American diplomacy. They will take notice in Moscow, in Pyongyang, in Caracas, in Tehran, in Damascus, in all the places where America is not a favorite.

The thing that amazes me most about American diplomacy during the last year is how immature it seems to be, how unprofessional. I would even say, contrary to what Bassim said, driven by personal interests and personal inclinations. It is inconceivable for a secretary of state of the United States of America to enter a process like this, in which — let’s use an understatement — there were fair chances of failure, without an exit strategy, without a contingency plan in place in case it really fails. And that’s exactly what happened.

You know, Secretary Kerry during this past year developed an expertise in threatening Israel — I say this as an objective commentator, not as an interested party. It was the boycott issue in Munich, and finally the A-word [apartheid] in that unfortunate conversation in Washington. If a Third Intifada arises, it should be named after John Kerry.

AVISHAI: Khalil?

SHIKAKI: I don’t think Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking will succeed without a strong American role. But that role, I believe, has almost zero chance of succeeding if the gaps between the two sides are as wide as they are today. If the gap was the gap between Olmert and Abbas, then the U.S. role would be critical and most likely successful. But given the distance between a right-wing government in Israel and the Palestinian side, I cannot see a way for the United States to succeed without having to use a great deal of leverage against Israel — which I think is simply not realistic. If the gaps can be narrowed somehow due to domestic changes in Israel and Palestine, then I think the United States can play a very constructive role. To succeed, the United States would have to do two things. They would have to present their own ideas to bridge the gaps. The two sides might not necessarily like it, but I think this is something that the two sides would ultimately agree to, even if they don’t like it.

Second, the United States will have to use leverage. The United States can use leverage any time it wants. So far, it has really avoided using leverage, particularly against the Israelis, in the way, for example, that Kissinger did in the ’70s or Jim Baker did in the ’90s. This administration and the previous one have avoided a situation where the United States is seen as pressuring Israel. But I just don’t see any way for progress to take place without the United States putting pressure on the two sides. On the Palestinian side, the easiest way is to withhold money. The United States supports the PA with about half a billion dollars a year. So the United States should say, “No, thank you. We don’t like your policy. There will be no money.” In the case of Israel, I don’t think this is an option. However, I think the United States can say, “We will not interfere in the business of the U.N. if you don’t do what we think is the right thing to do.”

ILLOUZ: As of today, it seems the solution can only be forced, either by greater powers than the actors in the conflict — by a coalition of the United States and Europe, for example — or by the populations of each country, the citizens who will just do what citizens do best: change the terms of a politics that has failed them. Israeli and Palestinian citizens have the same interests, and perhaps the future lies in building up networks and frameworks of solidarity between them, so to speak, above the heads of political leaders and institutions.

HUSSEIN: You can’t talk about an American involvement when you discuss only the administration. There is a huge role for American Jews to play in this. You have a vibrant Jewish minority. We have programs like Birthright Israel, which started as a brilliant program to educate Jews around the world about the State of Israel. You know, you come here and you show them the image of Israel that you want to portray. I am deeply involved with Birthright. I share stories with them about my life, about my father’s experience constructing the new wing of the Israeli Knesset in 2004. And guess what? Only last week, I received a phone call from Birthright Israel saying, Please, Mr. Hussein, we love you. You know, our kids from Harvard and Johns Hopkins and whatnot, when they come to Israel they want to listen to you. But could you please do us a favor and censor yourself? I am not someone who comes to bash Israel. God forbid. I love my country, and I want it to be the country that I’m so proud of.

So you come from an educational perspective to prove a point but, you know, the ecosystem is not right because — it goes back to the issue of leadership, whether you’re running a nonprofit, a government, a company. I think the time has come for us to take some responsibility, guys. You know, we screwed it up. And I think, you know, it’s up to us.

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