Nov. 24, 2014 by Darius
Last week, I attended the Middle East Institute’s annual conference. One of the panels was on “After Gaza: Getting Back to the Peace Process.” All four panelists had interesting remarks. Today I’ll share the comments of Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli politician, member of the Knesset, and member of Israel’s delegation to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.
Mr. Ben-Ami discussed recent changes in Israel. He said that there has been a radical shift in Israeli public opinion against trust that the peace process will eventually deliver. According to Ben-Ami, “peace process” has almost become a dirty word for the entire political spectrum right-of-center.
Ben-Ami also said that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has sold his government on two claims. The first is that with Netanyahu in charge, there is security for ordinary Israelis. The second is economic growth. Now, though, both these points are under threat: Israelis’ sense of security is being damaged by attacks, and the economy posted no growth in the last quarter. According to Ben-Ami, Netanyahu is a “politician rather than a statesman.” That means that Netanyahu is tied to his political base and will not take bold action that will force him to find a new base, as former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon did when he unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2006, leaving his political party and calling for (and winning) new elections. Ben-Ami felt Netanyahu’s political cowardice is very bad for the peace process: Netanyahu will not make any bold moves for the cause of peace because such moves will alienate his political base. Now, especially, as Israeli parties are preparing for elections, Netanyahu will be cautious. Ben-Ami warned, though, that without the two-state solution, Israel will end up in “ a South African situation without a South African solution.”
Ben-Ami said that in general, Israelis want peace with the Palestinians without having to negotiate with the Palestinians. He said that Israelis see an important difference between negotiating with Arab states and with the Palestinians: Arab states are states and behave as states. Israelis see the Palestinians, though, as a movement. Movements are unpredictable; one doesn’t know where a movement will end up in five years or ten.
Ben-Ami also blasted the diplomatic trope of “building trust.” He felt that trust in negotiation is fundamentally not important. What is important, instead, is respect. Israelis have no respect for the Palestinian side.
Ben-Ami complained about the US’s failure to use its leverage in recent years. According to Ben-Ami, the US’s only successes in the region have come from political arm-twisting: the disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt after the 1973 October War, aggressively brokered by Henry Kissinger, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, similarly brokered by President Jimmy Carter, and the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, where, in Ben-Ami’s words, President Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, “dragged [Israeli PM Yitzhak] Shamir to Madrid against his will.” Ben-Ami questioned the point of having the US involved at all if it wasn’t going to use its leverage to help the process. He also suggested that if the US isn’t going to be helpful, that perhaps bringing in other partners, like the UN Security Council or other countries, could produce better results. Mr. Ben-Ami clearly felt that it is time for the US to cede its monopoly on trying to midwife an Israeli-Palestinian peace.