The history of the modern Middle East is typified by conflicting nationalisms, hubris, pride of place, and corrupt leadership. Yet few are willing—in the name of equity, fairness and human decency—to speak truth to those in power.
In London recently, Vision publisher David Hulme spoke with Menachem Klein, political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, about the state of Israeli politics today and about what’s needed to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
DH In our previous interview just before Israel’s 70th anniversary of statehood, you mentioned the problem of corruption. What’s your explanation for the corruption that seems endemic in Israeli politics today?
MK Wherever you have politics or a political elite, and being elected costs a lot of money, you have corruption. It’s built in to the system. And if you are too long in the business of politics, you need to have strong character and be very honest in order to reject corruption. It’s almost a norm; it’s abnormal not to be corrupted. Sometimes the attorney general and the police catch you; most of the time they don’t. Therefore the standards in Israeli politics are lower than ever. This is bad news for anyone who wants to become involved—who comes with ideas or is an idealist. It rejects the good and honest people entering into politics.
If you make a list of those who were convicted and put in jail—from president and prime minister to ministers, Knesset members, mayors, local council members in cities and towns—you see that corruption is built in to the system. The system encourages corruption. People who are ready to take money or offer bribes motivate it.
DHSo it’s a cultural phenomenon?
MKIt’s cultural, yes.
DHAnd once found out, there seems to be a tremendous desire to hold on to office.
MKYes; take a politician—let’s say a Knesset member. In most cases, the acting politician wants to stay in office. So he has to struggle every four years (or perhaps less if we have early elections) for his political existence, his salary, his status. Now, without ego you cannot succeed in politics. This big ego brings him or her to think that without him or her everything will collapse—besides the fact that without assistant, car driver, high salary, knowing all the secrets and the gossip, life is very boring. All these motivate the politician to do everything he can, taking even illegal acts, in order to stay in power or to enter into power.
“If you lower your norms in order to be in power, you become a corrupted person.”
Once you’re in office, and definitely if you are too many years in office, you think you were chosen by God, or by destiny, or by history, to stay there, because you’re much better than the others. So you have the right to take some bribes.
DHYou sound like Ezekiel telling the leaders of ancient Judah what was wrong in the state. But that seems like a very distant thing in today’s world.
MKDefinitely. In the ’50s, Ben-Gurion and other founding fathers spoke a lot about our prophets—Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, for instance, the prophets that warned the leaders about their morality and said that corruption would destroy the state. Today we have a few writers who speak the truth. Unfortunately, we don’t have an academia that speaks truth to the powers. The power of Israeli academia to resist political pressure is declining.
DHPresumably, if you were untenured, you might be rejected for tenure on the basis of speaking out.
MKYes, I was denied promotion for about seven years because of my political involvement. I was fully aware that I would pay that price, but I felt that this was part of my duty as an intellectual. Israeli society paid part of my studies; the government subsidizes it. I concluded that I owe something to society. I would like not to hate myself when I look in the mirror every morning. If this is my best judgment based on my studies, and it has relevancy to the present problem of the state of Israel (especially Israel-Palestine, which is my field), then I must be very honest and raise my voice, even if the powers don’t like it.
DHSome leading scholars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are deeply dispirited, it seems to me, by the current impasse. They appear to have given up. Is that the position you hold?
MKNo, definitely not. Many of my colleagues in Israel are desperate, but history teaches me that there are turning points. The Israeli-Palestinian subject is out of the news; everybody speaks about Iran, Saudi Arabia, regional affairs and so on. But it will be back. One cannot ignore it. Inside and outside Palestine, the new generation is energetic, nationalist in its conscience. The Israeli right wing thinks the Palestinian national movement was totally defeated by us, and that’s it, the end of the story. I don’t think this is the end of the story.
DHYou have protested the taking of land from Palestinians, if I’m not mistaken.
MKYes, I argued in favor of dividing Jerusalem and giving up Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, which was implemented unilaterally against international law. In favor of peace, we have to let the Palestinians have their full sovereignty. This is not an issue that the Israeli public takes very easily. I understand that, but I’m ready to defend my views.
DHYou would be considered a revisionist political historian, but not one who subscribes to a 20th-century version of revisionism.
MKYes, in my book Lives in Common, I actually did something very different from my previous publications. It’s a history of the encounters of average citizens in three mixed cities over 150 years. So I moved from the conflict to other issues. I don’t say that the conflict isn’t important, but, for instance, let’s take the ’29 or ’36 riots in mandatory Palestine and ask: Once the bloodshed ended, then what? People from Tel Aviv returned to Jaffa? People from Jaffa came to Tel Aviv in big numbers as earlier, or not? What happened in Jerusalem’s streets, in the bazaar or in the joint holy places?
“These are the questions that I ask—not who started the conflict, but what happened between the citizens?”
My major conclusion is that up to ’48 there was a joint identity shared by Jews and Arabs. It was not exclusively Palestinian; it was not exclusively Zionist. This local patriotism actually started at the end of the 19th century as part of the modernization of the area. Everyone who lived there or immigrated to Palestine shared a local/Palestinian identity. Joint identity is very different from the classical argument of the two national movements. Each—the Zionist and the Palestinian—claims exclusive patriotism and attachment to the land. Nevertheless we find in writings and memoirs that it was shared by both of them, and each saw the other as his compatriot.
The status that Jews or Christians had in medieval times—second class vis à vis the Muslim—was not in force in the late 19th century, not in everyday life in the mixed cities. The religious social walls between Christians, Muslims and Jews were much lower than earlier due to modernization and secularization. At that time Jerusalem and Jaffa were cosmopolitan Middle East cities as much as Alexandria or Beirut, so we have to see it in this perspective. This subject is part of a wider wave of rewriting the history of Jews in Arab-Muslim countries—in Iraq or Morocco or Tunisia or Egypt. But Palestine has its unique profile of Jewish-Arab interaction, which did not exist in any other place in the Middle East.
DHAnd do you think there’s hope in that concept for the future?
MKDefinitely there is hope. The exclusive argument that you hear in almost every Israeli-Palestinian debate is “We Jews were here before you.” “No, no, we Palestinians came before you, because Abraham was the first believer and the Canaanites are the first Palestinians.” “No, we, the Jews, were here before you.” This “who was first” argument is not correct historically, because the land belongs to everyone who was and is living on it. Many Palestinians are ready to acknowledge the Jewish attachment to Palestine. The tragedy is that the Zionists’ argument for exclusive attachment throws out another sovereignty. Alternatively, we can disconnect between sovereignty and attachment and say yes, both of us are attached to this place.
“We both have a very rich history here in the land. We are attached religiously and culturally to Palestine, but this does not mean sovereignty.”
Let’s see how we solve this sovereignty debate and agree on mutual attachment to the land. Let’s stop using history and attachment in order to gain sovereignty. This is the road ahead. I’m very optimistic regarding this.
DHAre there Palestinian intellectuals—authorities who would express themselves in the way you just have about the possibility of reconciliation?
MKYes, definitely. I don’t want to raise names because this is still classified, but I’m involved in talks that go in this direction. I can use one example that was published in the Geneva Initiative; we signed it and put our names in public. In the chapter on Jerusalem there is a mutual recognition of the historical and religious attachment of both sides to all the city, disconnected from sovereignty.
By agreeing to have Palestinian sovereignty on the Temple Mount, we don’t say that we Jews don’t have any historical and religious attachment to the place. In the same way the Palestinians, by agreeing to divide Jerusalem and that Israel will rule West Jerusalem (including neighborhoods that were Palestinian before ’48), don’t deny that in history these areas were Palestinian. We can expand this strategy to all Palestine.
DHWhen people talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an impasse, it’s understandable if you just read the newspaper headlines. But the possibilities of peace agreements have been on the table for a long time. It’s basically in place. Why doesn’t it go forward?
MKThere is no political will. The Palestinians are very weak at the moment, and the Palestinian leadership has declined. Taking the imbalance in power into consideration, if there is no pressure on Israel, Israel will not make any concessions. Israel is strong. Why make concessions?
When Israelis do have leadership that is ready to negotiate, they want to copy the current imbalance in power into the agreement. However, this creates a problem of an unsustainable agreement. The powerful side must be ready to see the other side as equal—to let the other side gain power and status and benefits from the Israeli side, which now holds all the assets.
The unwillingness to give up anything is an obstacle. Part of it is because, with the expansion of settlements, the right wing can create a very negative reaction to a democratic decision to leave the occupied territories, including in the form of a revolt or a mini civil war. The decision makers, and even perhaps the public, acknowledge it in the back of their minds. Why should I enter into a civil war or face a revolt, or even face being murdered (as [Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated by a radical) just for the benefit of the other side. I prefer to live in peace with my people rather than with my enemy. The Palestinians have not found a way to impose on the powerful side to make concessions.
The First Intifada is a great example. It brought Rabin to negotiate, because the Palestinians found a way to put pressure on him. At the first stage of the Intifada, he instructed the army to break bones, hands and legs of people who struggled for independence. Then he was forced to change.
Another problem is that the Palestinians have no alternative strategy to the failed peace process under the US mediation. But this weakness will end at a certain day.
“I believe that the Palestinian people don’t want to be subject to the Israeli occupation. They want independence, and they’re ready to sacrifice.”
The main issue that I wish to bring attention to is the debate that will break out inside Israel. At the moment, the Israeli right wing thinks (in my view, wrongly) that they won. For them, the Israeli left is finished. But when the wakeup call is sent to the Israeli right wing, it will create a crisis inside Israel. Therefore, reaching peace is not only a question between us and the Palestinians; it’s a domestic problem.
Inside Palestine, interestingly, Hamas has changed—Hamas, which once was very negative against any concessions or political process, has changed. Hamas is ready now to have a Palestinian state in ’67 territories and to recognize Israel’s internationally recognized border in the Gaza strip. Politically Hamas does not aim for Israel to vanish from the map. It is its dream but not action plan. Last year, Hamas started supporting a civil-society initiative of unarmed protests in the Gaza Strip, replacing rockets with kites. The kites show that they are inventive and motivated. They will find any cheap way to resist the occupation. The border demonstrations show that they are ready to be killed or wounded in order to be liberated and let off the siege. Their struggle is not about having higher salaries. It’s about independence and living free of Israeli siege. What happened in Gaza will someday be copied in the West Bank, I am quite sure.
Once again, history is very important here. The First Intifada against Israeli occupation put an end to the Palestinian terrorist and guerrilla operations from Lebanon and Jordan. Maybe the kites will put an end to the rockets. It shows that there are much better ways to fight. We don’t have to upgrade our rockets to missiles; kites can deliver the message.
DHUnder the current US administration, you get the impression that the Palestinian Authority [PA] is going to be ruled out of any discussion. How can you have a negotiation where one side is not even consulted?
MKAnd the PA refuses to come to the table if the United States is the sole mediator, because the United States takes sides; it supports Israel. So here we have a problem.
There are different ways out, but they are theoretical, not practical. One way is to bring in West Europeans. The problem is that Western European states lost interest in solving the problem, and the European Union is divided between the East-Central European authoritarian regimes that support Netanyahu and the West European liberal democracies that don’t. In addition, there is division between Western Europe and the US administration.
If something changes—if, let’s say, there’s a leadership change in the PA or an uprising—then everything will change. We need a catalyst to restart the process. Yet the situation on the ground is very clear. Israel rules the whole area from Jordan to the Mediterranean, and the Palestinians are a second-class collective—to use John Kerry’s term in his farewell speech from the State Department, “separate and unequal.” He is right, in my view.
One day it will end as slavery ended in the United States and settler-colonialism ended in Algeria. It will cost us a lot, but it will end. I’m not in despair. Today the Israeli army is powerful, and soldiers tell the Palestinians what to do. But in his mind the occupied Palestinian person is not defeated. He sees that the soldier at the roadblock is frightened. Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories feel that they are in a foreign country, not in their fatherland. Even the settlers are frightened. There is a deep division between the settlers’ ideology and their fearful behavior. Most of the soldiers hate what they are assigned to do. They’re afraid; and because they’re afraid, they’re violent.
“Their patrols in the Palestinians’ villages and cities are not an afternoon walk as I make in my city.”
DHWe often hear about the remaining sticking points: the status of Jerusalem, right-of-return for Palestinians, security, borders. Why are they so difficult to resolve?
MKBorders, settlements and sovereignty are one big interrelated subject due to the Israeli expansion into Palestinian territories. I wish to stress that the main problem is not with the location of the people, in or outside settlements, but with Israeli views. For a variety of reasons—some of them religious, or not trusting the Palestinians—many Israelis share the same views as the settlers have. So the problem is not only with radical settlers, and as I said earlier, we may face an armed revolt or mini civil war against a sovereign decision to withdraw from the occupied territories, even if it’s approved in elections or a referendum. For them, God’s will or history is much stronger than people’s vote.
Jerusalem is another kind of problem because of its history and holy places. Here the way out is first to find how we can keep the two cities of East and West Jerusalem open, and how we agree on mutual historical religious attachment, divided from sovereignty.
The most difficult issue in my view is the refugees, because the Israelis deny the whole subject. They close their minds to what happened in ’48, whereas the Palestinians stick to it more and more. The conflict, indeed, is not just about occupation in ’67 territories; for the Palestinians, settlement expansion repeats the Nakba [Catastrophe] of ’48. In Israel we have a cabinet that fears having a public debate regarding ’48, so it rules it out. On the left, discussions started, but the counter reaction from the mainstream and the cabinet delegitimizes it. Any public institution that hosts a Nakba event will lose government funds. That’s the law. It’s also forbidden to teach the Palestinian narrative in high schools. In some universities it will be too sensitive to include it in the classroom; students may complain. However, this will not make it disappear.
In my view, the right wing is correct in saying that the conflict with the Palestinians is about ’48. However, the prognosis of the right wing is wrong. The prognosis of the left is correct: let’s have a two-state solution. Indeed, this solution is not without many problems, but in my view any other option is more problematic.
DHWhat’s the effect of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
MKConsequent to the move, the Israelis think, “We won; the Palestinians are defeated. We have Trump on our side, so who is Macron, who is Abbas?” The Palestinians think, on the other hand, “We resist. We are here, and we will stay here despite everything.” This kind of passive steadfastness may translate to acts. I wish to add that hubris is the greatest enemy of the powerful side. Unfortunately, we in Israel don’t see it this way. Alternatively, and while we talk peace with the Palestinians in ’67 territories, we have to work together with our Israeli-Palestinian citizens—not on the basis that “we are Jews, they are Arabs, so we are unable to cooperate.” We must cooperate with them based on our joint citizenship, because citizenship is the basis of liberal democracy.
DHIsrael is often said to be a dangerous neighborhood. Sometimes that’s in reference to what’s going on in Iran. Is it an existential risk that Iran continues to have access to nuclear technology?
MKThere’s an agreement that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in the next 10 or 15 years. As an Israeli, I don’t feel under existential threat. Iran is far away; it cannot destroy Israel. In the worst case scenario, Iran can send a missile with a small nuclear warhead. It can, let’s say, destroy half of Tel Aviv. Israel will answer by destroying Tehran. This is not the end of the State of Israel or Israeli society. We are strong. We are there to stay. And Iran is also there to stay. Iran will not send its tanks 2,000 kilometers away to occupy Israel and give it to the Palestinians. Nonsense. Some of the Iranians are radicals and use radical rhetoric. So what? There are Palestinians and Israelis with similar rhetoric; they want to wipe the other side from the map. All are wishful thinking.
I don’t see any existential threat to Israel. We have peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. We rule the Palestinians. We have intelligence cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. They even let El Al fly in their airspace to India, and they let Air India fly over Saudi Arabia to Israel. Syria is destroyed. Lebanon is a weak country and a broken society.
“The only existential threat that we have is psychological. In my view it’s not real but imagined.”
The “neighborhood” is over. There is no Arab League; it’s collapsed. Many Arab countries are busy with civil wars. Even when the Arab League functioned, its Arab states were divided and fought each other. This is one of the major reasons that let Israel win the ’48 war.
DHCreation of trust is essential in arriving at peace agreements. How has it been achieved in the negotiations you’ve been a part of?
MKSuccessful negotiation is based on trust, and sharing information with the other: “I will tell you my real concerns. Please be fully sincere with me on your concerns and real red lines and core interests, and let’s see how we manage. I will take your concerns into consideration, and vice versa.”
I will give you an example. In the Geneva initiative, we, the Israeli team, enjoyed professional knowledge—computers, maps, etc. The Palestinians had much less professional knowledge and data. We could have exploited that in order to gain more (which was the strategy used in the official talks, by the way). Or we could share data. You bring yours, we will bring ours, and we’ll share.
No less important is the following: relate to the other side as partner and as equal. Don’t be arrogant because you have a state and they don’t, or you are a professor or army general and they are just employees or whatever. Relate to them as human beings fully equal to you. This is a very basic element in talks; it’s hard to achieve, but it’s necessary in order to get an agreement.
DHYou’re talking about an empathetic state of mind.
MKEmpathetic all the time. It cannot be used artificially. It’s beyond having dinner together. I will give you another example. In Track II talks that I participated in, the two delegations, Israelis and Palestinians, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. The Palestinians got “special” security treatment. Security told them to go aside to be checked differently than the Israelis. We said no, we’ll go with them. We insisted on having the same security check as they.
DHWhat advice would you offer the politicians in Israel?
MKLet’s learn from history and don’t be arrogant. One of the mistakes of the Israeli left in ’93 (at Oslo) was arrogance. The right wing today makes the same mistake; it is arrogant toward the left. When peace negotiations are back on the table, let’s be modest and decide jointly on the rules of the game. How will we reach a conclusion? How will we bring the agreement to the people for a vote? It’s not a magic formula to eliminate the armed resistance that I mentioned earlier, but it will reduce it. It will not eliminate the expected collective trauma but will help overcome it.