How to Cure a Leper State

Shlomo Ben-Ami has long since abandoned the Labor Party, but though he says he isn't as naive as he once was, he believes Israel can regain its good standing in the international community, provided it atones for past sins.

Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
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Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

Shlomo Ben-Ami laughed in embarrassment and hastened to correct "we" to "they." "They" are the leaders of the Labor Party, first and foremost Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was a senior partner in yet another military move-cum-diplomatic disaster. Ben-Ami, a history professor who was one of the great hopes of a party that is no longer great, has disengaged himself from it.

In recent years, he has been dividing his time between his home in Kfar Sava and the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid, a research institute he heads. Ben-Ami, who served as foreign minister and public security minister during the peace process and the start of the second intifada, offers a sober diagnosis of Israel's bleak international standing.

He does not linger over operational issues, like the botched raid on the 'Free Gaza' flotilla. This is not his strong suit. The Or commission criticized his functioning during the events of October 2000, in the course of which 13 Arab civilians were killed during a protest, and recommended that he not serve as public security minister again.

With due caution, he attributes the relatively quiet protest by Israel's Arab minority this past week to its leadership's intention to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

His analysis is cold and absolutely practical: What hasn't worked with force in Gaza over the past decades is not going to work by more force during the next 50 years. The siege of Gaza, he says, was born in sin - the sin of assuming it is possible to eliminate Hamas.

"Hamas is a natural growth that has been developing in recent years in all of the Arab world," he says, "and we should realize that it is impossible to eliminate natural growths. This is the only answer they have to autocratic secular regimes. There is no liberal-secular option there. Look at the end result of free elections in Algeria. It's necessary to understand that the battleground in the region has changed. There are no more short, swift and elegant victories, as [former chief of staff] Haim Bar-Lev once said. Look at how the Americans are embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Our mistake was rejecting the Mecca agreement [the reconciliation agreement mediated by Saudi Arabia between Fatah and Hamas in February of 2007 for a unity government]. Instead of bringing Hamas in with the help of the important Arab peace initiative, we imposed an unproductive siege on Gaza. It is not bringing about the collapse of the Hamas regime or the release of Gilad Shalit. In this way we are both [not helping ourselves] and becoming a leper state in the eyes of the international community."

Why is it we who are becoming lepers? Israel isn't the only state where they use violence against civilians and violate human rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did, after all, declare he supports the establishment of a Palestinian state.

[Netanyahu] suffers from a problem of trustworthiness. To the best of my knowledge, the Americans find it hard to believe he really intends for a two-state solution. And if the Americans have their doubts, the Europeans certainly have them. When the head of the Mossad says the United States is moving away from us, another eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah or a new settlement in the West Bank constitutes a justification for the Europeans to give Israel the cold shoulder. It is necessary to take into account that the effect of such actions in Israel is different from the world's reaction to similar actions in an African country. That's the reality. There is a process of delegitimization of Israel abroad, and especially in Europe. Golda Meir said Israel will continue to exist even if the rest of the world says we aren't nice. Today the need to be nice means taking the element of awareness into account, which is a crucial part of the decision-making process.

Could the crisis of confidence with Netanyahu's government lead to a change in America's attitude toward nuclear weapons in the region?

Israel has created a link between its willingness to join a nuclear disarmament arrangement in the Middle East and regional peace. If there is a government in Israel that is clearly perceived as the party impeding peace, and there is an American president for whom disarmament is a top priority - he isn't going to be committed to understandings with Israel on this issue. We are currently witnessing the beginning. Moreover, for years I've been saying the sanctions will fail and there is no military option. A key figure in the intelligence community has told me the question isn't whether Iran will have nuclear weapons but rather which will come first - regime change or the bomb.

In recent years, with the rise of the right in Western Europe, there has been an improvement in the attitude of important leaders there, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Key governments in Europe contributed to the United Nations Security Council condemnation not mentioning Israel explicitly. Israel's main problems in Europe are public opinion, the media and non-governmental organizations. This stems not only from Israel's behavior but also from the political culture in Europe. Since the fall of Berlin, public opinion in Europe has not taken kindly, to put it mildly, to a state whose answers go through the use of force. Europe is not yet free of guilty feelings for the Holocaust and colonialism. This is part of the explanation for the frivolous ease with which images of the Holocaust are applied in Europe to Palestinians. For generations we have branded this mark of Cain on Europe's forehead and today there is a process there of catharsis for Israel's sins. Stupid moves of ours like the siege of Gaza and the settlements are adding fuel to the fire.

How far are relations with Europe liable to degenerate?

The governments in Europe, including right-wing governments, can't ignore the street's eroding attitude toward Israel. At the same time, they have not entirely lost hope that the Israeli government will go in the right direction and they will be able to play a role in the peace process. In recent years Europe has been ahead of the United States.... Europe is more aware than the United States of the problems of nationalism and struggles for independence, but the European diplomatic vision is limping behind the Americans and focusing on a policy of statements from the Council of Ministers. To what extent is the cold shoulder the European Union has given Turkey nudging it into the Islamic and Arab corner and distancing it from Israel?

The significant change in Turkey's diplomatic deployment doesn't have to do with Israel. Europe did not want it as the lion's tail so it has decided to become the fox's head. The Turkish foreign minister has said their foreign policy is zero problems with its neighbors, that is - Iran, Iraq and Syria. Israel's peripheral alliance with Turkey, [Iran] and Ethiopia was created in the 1950s as a tool for avoiding peace with the Arabs. A return to this alliance goes through reconciliation with the Arab world. Turkey is telling us in effect: In order to reach us, the second circle, you have to make peace in the first circle, and we want to be the mediator. Israel's blunders are being exploited by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, who is aiming to become a major power in the region, at Egypt's expense.

Israel is now marking 43 years of the occupation. As someone who has conducted negotiations, do you believe that your generation and mine will be able to celebrate the end of the conflict?

I don't believe in the end of the conflict I had believed in with a degree of naivete. In the best case, the conflict on the borders, water and Jerusalem can be ended. I'm not certain it is possible to end the moral conflict. There will always be significant groups in the territories and the Palestinian diaspora that won't be reconciled to a painful compromise with their ethos. Only if we have a border to which we and the international community agree will we receive legitimization for self-defense. As long as there isn't agreement on the border, we are condemned to lose public opinion abroad.

Who will lead this move? The party of which you were one of the leaders?

To my regret, the courage Barak showed at Camp David isn't being manifested. He is the one who released the cork that made it possible for Ehud Olmert to talk about dividing Jerusalem. I heard from [American envoy George] Mitchell that they have great expectations from Barak. He is not in the government as a subcontractor for security matters. He has to lead the diplomatic line and take the heat. The party has an obsession with being in power even just cosmetically. That is how it dropped from 26 Knesset seats to 13 - and it will continue to tumble. If they aren't having any influence - they should draw the conclusion.

Shlomo Ben-Ami.Credit: Alon Ron



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