Israeli columnist Ari Shavit just came out with a new book, My Promised Land, that is receiving tremendous media attention in the United States. I joined Ari and David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, for a conversaton about Israel and many of the issues raised in the book. You can view the video or read the transcript below.
Speakers: Ari Shavit, Senior Columnist, Haaretz and Robert Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: David Remnick, Editor, New Yorker
November 19, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations, New York
… but is a frequent visitor — we think when — I think people in this room think of Israel right now and Palestine right now, we immediately gravitate toward the obvious questions of the occupation, the struggle over the Arab-Israeli question, Iran, Syria, and all that.
I’d love to get a sense from you, Ari, very quickly, what Israelis obsess in a political sense. What is the Israeli political conversation at a moment of Arab Spring/Winter, the Iranian nuclear issue, and so much else? What is the conversation and obsession like? And do Israelis live in what you sometimes describe in your book and elsewhere as a bubble, as dancing on the volcano?
SHAVIT: If I may, I’ll begin with the obsession of one Israeli and then I’ll get to the obsession of what I think most Israelis share. But, first of all, it’s really an honor and a great pleasure to be here. And I’m really so moved that all of you are here and it’s a great moment for me to be talking to you and to my dear friends.
I want to connect with something that was in the beginning. I make actually a rather daring statement somewhere in the book which is usually we talk about the occupation, and I talk a lot about the occupation, and I think we should talk about the occupation. But in my mind, the banal left-wing analysis that all the faults of Israel began with occupation in ’67 is wrong in this sense, that the Israel that I very much admire, the pre-state Israel, the Yishuv, the Zionist movement before the state, and the Israel of the first 20, 25 years of its existence, that in my mind was an amazing national liberation movement, one of the most miraculous and wondrous of the world, combined idealism with pragmatism and was amazingly politically and economically successful.
And I think that actually our problems are not — have not begun with the occupation, but the fact that the Israeli political system, the Israeli body politic went into decay and created a situation where we were unable to deal with the occupation. We should have done with — we should have dealt with in different ways, and it’s actually not all before of occupation, but because what we’ve experienced, probably especially since the ’73 war, is a series of internal rebellions against the old Israel, which created a situation where everybody in Israel feels he’s in a minority. No one is really in charge.
The right feels that the leftists don’t let them rule, and the left-wingers feel the right don’t rule, and Orientals feel Ashkenazis are still oppressing them, and Ashkenazis feel the state was taken away from them, and the seculars feel that the religious are all over the place, and the religious feel that seculars are still haunting them.
So whether you had a state that had, in a sense, too much leadership, too much state — it was a statist state under Ben-Gurion — what we have in the last 30, 40 years is a completely dysfunctional political system that is unable to deal with existential challenges Israel faces. And in this sense, I think it’s the other way around. If we get the system — it’s not only technically the system — if we get the political culture there, the leadership, we bring back some of the amazing wisdom we had up until 30, 40 years ago, then we’ll be able to deal with the occupation.
REMNICK: What accounts…
SHAVIT: So this is my — this is my obsession.
REMNICK: But what accounts for that disintegration of the political class of Israel? Is it a systemic problem? Or is it…
SHAVIT: I think — I think that it’s something very interesting. I mean, Israel…
REMNICK: I mean, this is a nation founded by enlightenment philosophers and maybe went downhill from there. Isn’t that…
SHAVIT: I’ll tell you what I think is the great luck, the great blessing of the older Zionist movement, that Jabotinsky got it right — and I’m not Jabotinsky, per se — in the sense that we live in a harsh neighborhood and we need some sort of iron wall to protect us from the neighborhood. But Jabotinsky did — and his people never had the ability to create this iron wall or to build the society that was built. And in a sense, it was the fact that Ben-Gurion and his people actually absorbed the Jabotinsky idea, but built it in socialist social democratic ways, in line with progressive forces in the world, that created the strong, tough and yet moral Israel of its early days.
And in my mind, the deep political tragedy — there are many tragedies here — there are many miracles, but many tragedies — but the political tragedy is that when at last Labor was removed in 1977 — and it should have been removed. It was for too long in power. There should have been something new coming. But in a sense, no one replaced it to this day. In a sense, the Israel that was 5 years old, 10 years old, 20 years old was much more politically mature than the Israel of today.
When I look at Israeli politics, at Israeli policy, at some of our politicians, even some of our diplomats, actually, I see something — we went downhill. I mean, Ben-Gurion in this city in ’47, there were, like, amazing 20 Zionist diplomats who turned the world around to get the U.N. resolution, to create — to recognize a Jewish state. To date, it’s very difficult to find three or four reasonable Israeli diplomats who would be able to do that.
So we had the complete decay — not only the — we keep looking for the one leader. There probably is not the one leader. Ben-Gurion had 1,000 people, a serving elite that was very effective, that was on the one hand committed, but yet pragmatic, reasonable, also cunning, that could do the work. Today, all of Israel’s prime ministers are totally lonely. There is no really functioning political elite. And we are actually in a semi-barbaric political situation as the result of the fact that when Labor outcast in 1977, actually no one took in charge of the country in a serious way.
REMNICK: Rob, can you respond to that?
DANIN: Well, thank you. First of all, let me thank you all for being here. And I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be with such distinguished guests, Ari, who I’ve known a long time, and David Remnick, of whom I’m a huge fan. So I know you’ve come — Ari’s the draw, but I’ll — you know, I’ve been involved with Israel for a long time, as a diplomat for over 20 years, working on these issues. I was trained as an historian on these issues, as well.
And I have to say, you know, listening to you, Ari — and this will be an affectionate disagreement — it comes to mind the — I think it’s Yogi Berra who said, you know, nostalgia isn’t what it’s used to be. And, you know, I think if you go back to the history of the Yishuv and then the early state in the ’40s and the ’50s, I think your recollection may be a little bit romantic.
I have a different reading of it. I’m an outsider who’s lived in Israel for over five years, but visits many times per year. I think quite the opposite. I think that the — you know, the Israel that you write about in your book — and let me just say, I mean, Ari’s book — this isn’t supposed to be a book talk, but, you know, as an historian, I would say, you know, you had — first, you had the Leon Uris version of Israel, born in, you know, immaculate conception. You had then a next generation of historians, the new historians — I was trained by one of them at Oxford — who basically wrote that Israel was born in original sin.
And what Ari’s done with his book, I would say, is come to a new synthesis, to say, you know, ’48 was brutal, and we did some bad things, and it was a bad experience, but that does not de-legitimatize Zionism, but we have to come to terms with what we did, and that the conflict today is not about ’67 and about — but is about ’48. And with that, I’m in complete agreement with Ari, in that we can’t just believe that the problems all began in ’67. And for Israelis to understand that is imperative.
But that said, you know, the Israel that — of the ’50s and the ’60s that, you know, you grew up in and that my family was involved in, you know, was not a liberal state. It was a statist — dominated by one political class who basically then brought in a population that you talk about larger than its own group and, in many ways, suppressed their identities to try to forge a new nation.
I think what you see today is an Israeliness — a struggle to define Israeliness. You know, to me, the problem with — that I — you know, reading Israeli history is that, in 1948, the state was established, but two things were not clarified. One, who was a Jew? And, two, what does it mean to be a Jewish state? And this is a question that you’ve been struggling with ever since. And now you have this, you know, many, many different communities in Israel struggling to define what a Jewish state means in their own image, but no one agrees what it means to be Jewish, let alone for there to be a Jewish state.
Does it mean a Jewish majoritarian state? Does it mean a state that’s run by Jewish law? You don’t have an agreement on basic principles. And when you don’t have an agreement on basic principles, it means you have an agreement to disagree about a lot of things, and that is, I think, a source of a lot of the anarchy and balagan that you talk about in Israel, but I also think it’s — you know, there’s a profound agreement to disagree.
And to a certain extent, the conflict has allowed you to avoid those issues. And, you know, to a certain extent, what’s striking about the last election is it was the first election that I know of in Israeli history that really did not focus on the existential issues of either the Palestinians or Iran. It was about domestic issues. So in many ways, maybe it’s a sign of maturation — you would call it maybe denial — but, you know, that actually Israel is struggling to figure out who it is and who it wants to be. Now, one thing that’s happening is the demographics are changing, and so your tribe, the Mapai Naim (ph), who built the state, are now — you know, lost their power in ’77 and never really got it back.
REMNICK: Ari, you want to…
REMNICK: I want you to note, first of all, neither one of them answered my question, and I…
And I have absolutely no work to do here. I’m a potted plant officially. Ari?
DANIN: I can see the steam coming out of Ari’s ears.
SHAVIT: First of all, if you read my book…
… and if there is one chapter that I really recommend reading, if you don’t want to read the rest, is the one about the 1950s. I call it “Housing Estate, 1957.” And where I really try — there are several things, but I try to define that spirit and that melting pot. And I describe in great detail all the problems of all the different oppressions of different minorities and different civilizations and individuals.
I mean, there is no way that I’m recommending that we’ll go back to Ben-Gurion or to Israel of the ’50s. What I’m saying that we — we never — I think that what we should have done is to take the core values that were right and transform them to the 21st century in a relevant way.
And my main claim is — and this was my claim — that when the Likud came, I thought there was a need — you know, I could not vote for the Likud. I don’t even remember if I voted in those elections. But I was — and I’m not a Likud-basher. I mean, most of my friends in Israel — and Stanley will give testimony to that — see me as too soft on Netanyahu and too soft on the right, so I’m not — I’m very far from a dogmatic left in Israel. Most of my writing, in truth, is off the left and off my tribe, so to speak.
So — but my claim is that they never — you never had — when you had — when Thatcher came into power in ’79, so she through out all the Labourites, and she did — she did serious thinking of how she wants to run Britain and what — like a market politics and ideology, and she implemented it in a serious way. So you had this change, and you like it, you don’t like it, but it was a serious change. This never happened in Israel. It never happened. When the Likud came into power, because — and don’t blame just the Likudniks. The way the whole thing worked is that we lost this kind of leadership that shielded overall responsibility for everything and tries to create what we should create, which is this confederation, a federation of new Israeli tribes.
I’m not into monolithical Labor Zionism. On the contrary. But I think we need some sort of agreed-upon values, set of political rules, and a sense of mission, and I think we lost that. We spent most of our energy hating each other. We — all the time — I call it — it’s like we all the time blame the other for abusing us, the internal us. And in this sense, I think that this — I think it’s not even recommended in Washington, I think, but definitely this is very dangerous state of mind, in a state that faces such amazing, striking challenges.
So this is to put the record straight here. But I want to connect it with what you said about the last elections, and then I’ll try to answer your questions.
REMNICK: And I — we will even things out. That much of a scorekeeper I can be.
SHAVIT: In my mind, Israel of the last decade or seven, eight years is a victim of its own success. The remarkable achievement that people do not give enough credit for the Israeli Defense Force and even the secret service, and the leadership of the time, to win the war against terror in 2002-2003, we faced — the situation in Israel in 2002 was surreal. I mean, it was worse in World War II in Britain, but what we faced was surreal. And we won that war against the worst offensive of terror, so it was an achievement of our defense forces, but mainly achievement of our amazing, resilient, strong society.
In 2000s, the Israelis proved that they have the kind of British attitude of stiff upper lip. We won not with tanks. We won by the fact that mothers and fathers kept sending their kids to schools and we went on to work. I’m not sure that European nations and perhaps not even America could have withstood such a dramatic challenge in such an impressive civilian heroic way.
DANIN: We did, Ari.
SHAVIT: Do you want some numbers? Do you want…
SHAVIT: You went — just to remind you — you went from — 2001, you went to this war in Iraq.
DANIN: No, no, no. Ari, Ari…
DANIN: I am talking about — you’re talking about civilians…
SHAVIT: There was — there was…
DANIN: Ari, Ari, let’s not go off on ridiculous tangents, but…
SHAVIT: I’m saying…
DANIN: In terms of civilian resilience, I don’t think you can tell a room full of New Yorkers…
SHAVIT: There was the situation definitely in Jerusalem, but even in Tel Aviv, was an ongoing situation that was not experienced by Western democracies in the last 50 years. So that was the great achievement.
Then came the great economic boom to which the credit goes — a lot of it — to Benjamin Netanyahu and Stanley Fischer. But as a result of all that, what happened? We’ve begun — we fell in love with our economic success, with our technological success, with start- up nation, which is great.
And we began ignoring the region we live in, and we ignored it in both ways, in a left-wing way and in a right-wing way. We ignored it. The right ignored and ignores the occupation, and the left tends to ignore the aggressiveness and brutality of the region.
And in this sense — this is where I totally disagree — I think the last elections were horrendous. I think that the fact that Iran was more of an issue in the American presidential campaign than in the Israeli elections, it’s crazy. It’s just crazy.
SHAVIT: And just — so I think — and this — just to answer your question — Israelis became so — I mean, they have many reasons to be concerned with how the pricing — price of housing, which is outrageous, and with other internal issues. But they cannot ignore these two issues of the areas they are surrounded with and the occupation that is killing us from within. And this is what we saw in the last election.
DANIN: A couple points. I’ll try to be brief. First of all, Ari, I read every word of your book, and Stan can attest to it. He saw me reading it on the plane last month.
SHAVIT: I recommend second reading. (LAUGHTER)
DANIN: Touche. Secondly, look, the — I wasn’t praising the last election. I was holding the last election as a phenomenon that spoke to something, which was simply about a certain inward- lookingness that I think has a healthy dimension to it and that the conflict to a certain extent has so distorted the Israeli reality by focusing on an external — legitimate external problem that, to a certain extent, Israel has not faced up to a lot of the internal issues that it really faces. So we’re more in agreement than you realize.
And, you know, ultimately, I think what you’re saying, the way I would put it is, what you’ve seen is a tremendous leadership failure. There is a lack of vision that we haven’t seen since, you know, many decades. And that’s what I was trying to point to at the beginning, so we’re actually in agreement. I agree with you. There’s a tremendous lack of vision. There’s no shared vision about what Israel is about to a certain extent.
REMNICK: Well, let me…
REMNICK: As my job is a time-keeper, let me ask you both a question, because with Rob, about Zionism, because I know we’re going to get question about Iran, Syria, foreign — and the occupation and Israeli peace process, Israeli-Arab peace process, such as it is.
This book is largely — I would say it’s many things, but one of the things it is, is a history of liberal Zionism or an argument for liberal Zionism inscribed in a history of the state, one of many things. The word Zionism now, Rob, is — it is defined in this book as a movement to save Jewish people and Jewish civilization. Has it fulfilled its promise? Should the terms be changed? Should I in Manhattan or my brothers and sisters in Brooklyn or whatever have ready access to just arrive on the shores of Israel while one’s Palestinian brothers and sisters have no such access?
What are the terms of Zionism to you now? What should it be? How do you look at it? While standing on one foot, you can answer the question.
DANIN: OK, but I understood it and understand it as, you know, a historical phenomenon. Zionism was and is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It was an umbrella term that encompassed a huge range of approaches towards the question of nationalism clashing with the Jewish existence in the world in the 19th century. And Ari does a very wonderful job of talking about that in his book.
But I think — and the reason I said to you, Ari, that nostalgia is — you know, that I think you’re being nostalgic is because I think that what we don’t accept or quite appreciate is that, from its very inception, Zionism — that umbrella encompassed so many conflicts within about what Zionism means, about what Zionism’s goals were. Was it cultural Zionism? Was it a Hebrew renaissance? Was it about power? Was it about normalization? And you have different strands of Zionism, OK?
So in many ways, it was a pluralistic movement, I would argue. And to me, I see the pluralism as a positive development and the struggle to define it as part of the process, so — in the same way that all nations struggle to define themselves. And the thing that’s interesting and phenomenal about Israel — and I think we as Americans also lose sight of this, because we live in an immigrant society, and Israel is an immigrant society, but I’ve also lived in non-immigrant societies, like Britain and the Philippines, and these are countries that are much different.
And so what makes Israel so unique is the fact that you’ve in- gathered so many people under a broad ideology of Zionism, but that Zionism is not monolithic. And so the whole balagan that you talk about I actually see as a positive thing. It’s messy. It’s ugly. It’s violent at times. But, look, you know, Arlosoroff was assassinated in 1933. From the very early period — by a Jew, it is believed. So from the very beginning, Jews felt very passionate that their version of Zionism should prevail.
And so all I’m trying to say here is that I don’t see today’s Israel as horrific or as — or as having taken such a historic deviation in the way that you do, Ari.
DANIN: I think…
SHAVIT: I really think that…
SHAVIT: I wonder if we are talking about the same book and definitely about my approach. I mean, my book is such a celebration of Israeli vitality and of Israeli — the book is all pluralism. I mean, it deals with all the different sides of Israeli society. I mean, it’s so no non-monolithical. I’m not into anything monolithical. I cannot — maybe there is something — I mean, I don’t have a totalitarian bone in me. Anything that is too homogenous and — is — I find absurd.
So the point I think I’m trying to make is the following. I think that the greatest success of Zionism is in creation of a very robust, energetic, creative society. I think Israel is one of the most free societies I know. Life in Israel between wars is the best life one can have. The energy, the warmth, the relationship between people, the creativity, the innovation. It’s a sexy society. It’s a society that makes babies. We are a child-loving society. It’s an amazing, amazing place. And my book is a celebration of that…
REMNICK: And you extent it for all its…
REMNICK: And for all its…
SHAVIT: Absolutely not. Where is the problem? The problem that this — really, it’s such a unique, miraculous society, and this is the achievement of Zionism. But the politics is totally flawed. And I just do not see — how can anyone disagree with that?
I mean, what I wish — my great wish is that the energy we see in the Israeli private sector, that the energy that we’re see in the arts, in literature, in every field of Israeli life will be transmitted to the political. Because at the end of the day, the illusion that you have just a great market, just a great economy with no state holding it and with no reasonable politics maintaining it is flawed. I think it’s flawed anyway. It cannot work.
I mean, in a way, the Israelis went for kind of Italian-like approach, you know, giving up on the state, so let’s live a great life outside the state. This is basically the state of mind. Now, I don’t think it’s that great in Italy, but it cannot work in Israel. So what I’m saying, let’s take this great Israeli society and give it the politics that it deserves and needs.
REMNICK: We’re going to take questions. And I think there are microphones around, and I see some hands, and I’ll try to get to as many as I possibly can. Sir? You get one benefit from being at my table.
QUESTION: This work?
REMNICK: Yes. And I think a good idea is to introduce yourself, as well.
QUESTION: Yeah, my name is Jim Ziron (ph). And my question is, irrespective of how you would define the Jewish state, what its ethos is, and irrespective of how you would define who is a Jew living in the Jewish state — and I think you knew you’d get a question like this — but do you see Iran, a nuclear Iran, as an existential threat to the Jewish state, however you define it, and whether it’s dysfunctional or not dysfunctional, and who’s in it? And if it as existential threat, what would you propose to do about it?
REMNICK: Ari, how do you feel about a nuclear Iran?
SHAVIT: I’ll begin by saying that — I mean, it was really refreshing to have the conversation we had in the last half-hour, because usually wherever I go to the room, I’m the Iran guy. I mean, I’ve been the Iran guy in Israeli media for nearly a decade. Most of the time, I was ridiculed for that by some of my best friends, peers, and family members who just did not realize why — what is it about that — what’s my obsession?
And the reason I’m mentioning this is because I think, one, to answer your question, I think that a nuclear Iran would have a disastrous effect, but not only in Israel. I think that on this point, on the analysis of the Iranian challenge, Benjamin Netanyahu is absolutely right. I think he made terrible mistakes — and he’s still making terrible mistakes regarding Iran — and I would be happy to elaborate, but his basic analysis is absolutely right. And that is that a nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear Middle East and destroy the world’s order we live in.
It will have an effect not only in life in Tel Aviv, it will have an effect on life in New York. It will take another decade or two, but it will change our civilization. I see Iran as a civilization challenge. And I think that the West has totally failed in addressing it when it should have been addressed.
And I see it in this instance the most dramatic terms. Now, I’ll tell you why. Assuming the Iranians are rational, so to speak, and will not use the bomb, the bomb will not fall on Tel Aviv in the next 20 years. Just by going nuclear, Iran will force Saudi Arabia to go nuclear, Egypt to go nuclear, Turkey to go nuclear, Algeria to go nuclear. We will have within months — and definitely within years — but possibly within months a multipolar nuclear system in the world’s most unstable, fanatical, and irrational region.
Anyone who thinks we can live with that, not only Israel, I just don’t understand. This has been actually the most dramatic challenge for the West in the last decade, and we all — Israelis, Americans, Europeans — we all failed to address it in time, because seven, eight years ago, we really could have dealt with it with assertive diplomacy. There was no need for extreme action.
And I thought — and I write it in the book, and I’ve written that chapter a while ago — that the mission of the West in this decade was not to arrive at the bomb or bombing junction. And unfortunately, we are very, very close to the bomb or bombing junction.
And therefore, my prayers that the negotiations handled now will really at the very last moment go back to a very assertive diplomatic approach, because if there won’t be a really — a real deal that will set the Iranians really back for — in a serious way, and if we’ll go for some make-believe deal, the result will be — perhaps will delay their nuclearization, but will guarantee it. And I’m afraid there is a real danger that we are going for that — that way, and that might be — must be prevented this winter, this winter. There will not be another winter to prevent it.
DANIN: Well, first of all, let me answer this as an American and former American official. I mean, I’m in agreement in Ari in the sense that Iran is not an Israeli problem or it’s not just an Israeli problem. It’s a regional threat, to be sure. And the threat that’s felt from the gulf is even greater or as great as Israel feels it, as we all know. It’s an American challenge. It’s a Western challenge. So the unfortunate situation we’ve found ourselves in is that it’s been treated all too often as an Israeli problem and not an American one. That said, it’s not as if the United States has been entirely passive, either, maybe late to the game, as Ari crafts very well in his book.
What’s interesting is this question about it being an existential threat. And here what I’ve observed is that there is an Israeli debate about this. And here we need a little more precision about what the nature of the threat is, meaning you have some people, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, saying this is an existential threat.
You have other people, such as former Defense Minister Ehud Barak saying, no, it’s not an existential threat. It’s a huge threat. It’s the largest threat we’ve faced ever. It is serious, but we are a strong country, and we can deal with this, and we have to deal with this.
Now, that’s an internal Israeli debate, and I’ll defer to Ari on it, but I think it’s worth at least putting a bookmark on to note, because there is a debate about whether the wisdom of having framed it as existential. What is going to — but let me put that aside.
From the United States point of view — and I think this is — and I’ve written about this in a book that we did here at the Council about the threat from Iran — what would it mean for Iran to get the bomb? In the first instance, it isn’t that they’re going to drop a bomb on Tel Aviv, though that is a possibility, in the same way that Israel has a nuclear triad and can also retaliate. But it’s — and it’s — Ari pointed to the proliferation threat. But in the first instance, for those…
REMNICK: Are you suggesting an equivalence because the threat between Israel and Iran?
DANIN: No, but what I’m trying to suggest is the following. Iran will pose such a regional threat and a threat to so many of our allies who are not as strong as Israel that in the first instance, for a country such as the United States that is aspiring to pivot away from its fulcrum being in the Middle East, it’s going to pull us in, in an even bigger way. And the need for us to increase our presence in the gulf, for us to expand an even greater security commitment to other states in the region aside from Israel is such that — I’m just trying to describe here the nature of the threat is such that Iran with the bomb, an existential threat or not to Israel, in the first instance is going to require and will lead to an increased American presence and focus on protecting our allies and containing Iran, if we get to that point.
REMNICK: But if the deal that is possible to be announced as soon as this week, an interim part of the deal, is it a bad deal in your view, Rob?
DANIN: The fundamental question that we don’t know the answer to is, does this actually halt the process of enrichment? Does it actually put time on the clock? Or does it actually give the Iranians time under which to reach breakout potential?
As it is, we understand Iran, were it to sort of race to the bomb, is under two months away. So as Ari points out, we’re very much at the end game here. The key factor about the first deal, if it’s reached, an interim deal, is, what will be the provisions for a second deal? How rigid a timeline is there for a second deal? Or will this just be an open-ended process that means the Iranians can use…
REMNICK: That’s what I’m asking you. Do you share Ari’s concern that it’s quite possible the United States is on the brink of accepting what is termed a bad deal by Prime Minister Netanyahu?
DANIN: Well, look at what we know. We know that Laurent — that Fabius comes in, looks at the deal, and says, there are huge flaws in this, and the United States says, yes, you’re right, and accepts those critiques, that critique about the deal that was on the table. So that’s a roundabout way of saying, yes, we were perilously close to accepting a bad…
REMNICK: So (inaudible) by the French at this point?
DANIN: By the French and Israel, among others, yes.
REMNICK: Stanley Fischer — we need to jump like from lilypod to lilypod, so — pad, to lilypads — is Stanley Fischer here?
QUESTION: I’m going to go back from Iran to Oslo, which you dismiss as — in the part I’ve read so far — as based on illusions. But I should say, first of all, that the plane was very late last night, and so Robert’s probably read most of the book, if not the whole book. I’ve only got one-third…
DANIN: I finished it this morning.
QUESTION: Oh, OK.
QUESTION: I’ve only got one-third of the way through, but I think I can see where we’re going. What was the problem in Oslo? It was that neither side was willing to go very far in those discussions. Israel continued settlement, and Palestinians didn’t — well, they forswore violence, but they didn’t actually do that.
And the question that it raises in my mind is whether the fundamental issue isn’t the borders of Israel, with the society unable to decide on that and about half the society trying to settle the West Bank to determine the future borders and others willing to make a compromise.
Now, you cannot say that the left — at least you cannot say that everyone on the left was unaware of the fact that, if an agreement was made, it would be necessary to defend it. Friends of mine on the left, one of my predecessors, Michael Bruno, who you almost certainly were a friend of, always said, we’re going to have to raise our defense budget if we ever get peace, because it’s going to take a long time to establish the peace, and we’re going to have to defend it ourselves. Nobody else will do it for us. I think that understanding was around. And I think the assassination of Rabin had a profound effect on this. Israeli politics didn’t stop in 1977. It continued through 1997, and then it took a decisive turn in a different direction. So I’m less pessimistic than you about the possibility. I don’t think you’d have thought five years ago that there’d be an Arab peace initiative, not perfect, but it’s out there.
REMNICK: OK, here we go.
SHAVIT: You know how much I admire you and appreciate all you’ve done, and I even like you so much, not to use stronger words.
And — but I think this is really an important discussion regarding the future. Leave aside the past. I mean, we can go — I can give you my Oslo answers, but my analysis, which is different than yours, apparently, is that the mistake of the Israeli left and the international community were in the fact that they combined two different issues.
I studied philosophy, and it took me a while to recognize that there is a logic flaw in the common notions that most of us have, because we combine the issue of occupation with the issue of peace. And these are two different issues.
Israel should not be an occupying power. And Israel, for its own good, for its own moral good and its own political good and demographic good, must end occupation. And the Israeli left and the international community warning the nationalist Israelis, whether they were Laborites or Likudniks, were absolutely right. Occupation was wrong from the very beginning, and especially settlements were a terrible, terrible mistake. So, again, the Israeli left and the international community were absolutely right about that.
But in my mind — and that’s where we differ — I think that where both the Israeli left and the international community were wrong was to promise peace tomorrow. The assumption that there is peace there around the corner, that if we’ll all only be willing to get out of the territories occupied in ’67, there will be peace, I think is flawed.
My — I understand that it’s wrong, but I’m willing to put it to a test. I’m willing — because I think if peace is possible, it’s so important in every way that I’m willing to pay any price, I’m willing to give anything there back.
So what I would do, had I been prime minister, I would say — I would take the Olmert plan or the Barak plan or the Clinton parameters. I will take Yossi Beilin, the peace diplomat, I will say, Yossi, take a mandate, bring me a signed agreement within six months. But I will not waste one day on waiting for that piece of paper to arrive. If I’m proven wrong and there is a great news, great. But if not so, I would not wait. And in six months’ time, I will begin the greatest new Zionist project of this time, which is the project of ending occupation gradually, cautiously, in a moderate way, although there is not peace.
I believe that this is what we should do to guarantee ourselves. I believe that this would work politically with the Israeli people, because the reason Israelis are not as extremist as they are described, the reasons they don’t vote for left-wing parties and for peace parties is because the peace they’re offered by the international community and the Israeli left seems to them to be a fantasy. And they have good reasons to think so.
So, again, let’s put it to the test. Try the big deal. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, work on Plan B. My greatest fear — we discussed the fear about Iran — my greatest fear about what’s going on now, that the brave, noble attempt to have a two-state solution within a month will end with the burial of two-state solution, because if this brave, courageous attempt will fail, the Israelis will feel betrayed, the Palestinians will feel betrayed, the Americans will feel betrayed, and the next secretary of state will never dare touch this subject.
DANIN: Two points I just want to react to. You know, Ari (inaudible) concedes that the left indulged in that you criticized, to a certain extent, I think should be blamed on or could be ascribed to the aftermath of the Six-Day War and the, you know, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which basically talked about land for peace. It was in that formulation that this conflation came. But, anyway, that’s history.
You know, if I may, just a brief anecdote, in 2006, I was deputy assistant secretary for near-east affairs and responsible for this part of the world. And Ehud Olmert was elected to become prime minister soon after the Gaza disengagement. And he came — he was elected on a platform of hitnatkut, which was this idea of basically — it was called, what, disengagement, but…
SHAVIT: Major disengagement.
DANIN: Yeah, from the West Bank. Now, most people in Washington were saying this was a good idea, we should build on it. And I was writing memos to then-Secretary Rice saying that I thought this was a terrible idea. But every day, I would first look for one Israeli source who was writing very critically on this idea, and that was you, Ari.
DANIN: No one knew that Ari was my — was actually my secret source. And Ari didn’t know.
SHAVIT: I didn’t know.
DANIN: Ari didn’t know that he was my secret source, and this is the highest form of compliment I can pay is to now tell you that I was relying on Ari’s insights to inform mine on his critique on — of unilateral disengagement. Because the basic argument, why give something for nothing rather than get something for something?
And to a certain extent, Ari, what strikes me now is you seem to have evolved from that position. So if I can steal David’s hat for a second and ask you…
SHAVIT: Absolutely. Thank you very much…
DANIN: What happened?
SHAVIT: Thank you very much for this question. What it — Olmert’s original idea, then he adopted — he abandoned it very quickly, but what was his plan? He said, within three years, I think, something like that, we’ll go back — we’ll retreat from 90 percent, 92 percent, to the wall, basically, and evacuate 70,000 settlers. That is very dangerous. It’s even dangerous now. It was definitely dangerous then, because the vacuum would be filled with Hamas.
Why am I saying something — I did not change my mind. What I’m saying — let’s try peace. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we have two options, ongoing occupation, which is a cancer killing us from within, so there is only one other option left, which is some sort of unilateralism.
But let’s learn from the failures of the pullout from Gaza. I don’t think it was such a big failure as people think, but it was a failure in many respects. So let’s work on what I call new peace, which is coordinated unilateralism. Work with the constructive Palestinian forces on the ground that were not there in 2005 in the same way. The good — the best news that came out of the region and the best success of American foreign policy in the region was Fayyad. Fayyad, regrettably, is gone. I hope he’ll be back. But Fayyadism is there.
There is strong Fayyadism in the West Bank. We should — and talking of political crimes, what the international community should have done is to take Fayyadism, in my mind, the Palestinian hero, in deep way, because he is the kind of Palestinian who cares about the Palestinian young, their future, their health system, their education, which Arafat could not give a damn about. We should have taken Fayyad and built a tailor-made political process based on him.
Now, Fayyad’s kind of people cannot make concessions on Jerusalem. They cannot make concessions on the right of return. They don’t have the nationalistic authority to do that. But they can enlarge the Palestinian state. They can proceed the — process of Palestinian nation for this. So if the Palestinians will have a process of nation-building, if we’ll have a gradual process of retreat — we cannot get out of all of that land tomorrow, and Olmert was too ambitious, and it was like one of these quick ideas. He didn’t learn the lessons of Gaza.
But the basic approach — this is what I’m saying, a long process, gradual process, cautious process, with Israeli security forces there, with the Palestinians building — just one thing — and bring — there is something great happening in the Middle East with all the troubles. There is this great Jewish-Sunni alliance now.
This is what we have. It’s true that most of the time, the Jews and the Sunnis are spending on, you know, complaining about the Americans, but there is an alliance there.
DANIN: I’m glad we could provide one.
SHAVIT: So take that alliance, make the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and all these — the chaperones of this Palestinian-to-be, help and create something much more — not simplistic unilateralism, not brutal, immediate, quick fix unilateralism, but careful, sophisticated process.
I think it’s the only hope, but I actually think there is real hope. And then I think if we go into that kind of process, even Stanley and I will not have disagreements.
REMNICK: This gentleman here in the red tie who I’m sure has a name, so forgive me.
QUESTION: Ian Lustick from the University of Pennsylvania. Well, so here’s a logical question for you, and then I want to ask you…
REMNICK: Did you say Ian — “Ian”…
QUESTION: Ian, my parents…
REMNICK: … wrote a piece in the New York Times some weeks ago on the one-state solution question and…
QUESTION: Actually, on the two-state illusion, but right.
REMNICK: Six in one, half-a-dozen in the other.
QUESTION: No. That doesn’t — I’m not implying there’s any solution forward. But here’s my question. The logical question has to do with Iran. The larger question has to do with this. You said something striking. There’s a civilizational challenge. It couldn’t be larger. Nothing could be worth that.
Israel has a nuclear capacity that it developed in order to deal with this kind of a threat. Obviously, the prime minister, you do not think that that nuclear capacity can deal with this threat as a deterrent. So it has no role. So I’m asking you, in that context, if Israel could contribute a nuclear-free zone to the Middle East, by saying we’ll trade our nuclear capacity for nobody else having it, since you can’t use it anyway and it’s not even useful, why not do that, to save civilization, if it’s true? If it’s not true what I’m saying, it smells like something that’s an issue inflated for other reasons.
REMNICK: What are you suggesting, Professor?
QUESTION: Meaning that you need — that Benjamin Netanyahu does not want to negotiate seriously, never did, about — with the Palestinians, and in order to deflect attention, finds an Iranian existential holocaust-saturated threat to deflect international and Israeli opinion and attention. I’m not saying Iran isn’t a threat, but there’s obvious approaches to it, which I’ve suggested, which can’t even be — which aren’t even mentioned. Yes…
REMNICK: Just asking a question. Hang on. Hang on.
QUESTION: The question — which I just alluded to — has to do with the 1950s. I haven’t read your book. I will. But I’ll make a prediction of what I’ll find when I read it. I will not find serious treatment of Arabs in Israel.
REMNICK: Actually, you’re wrong, sir, but…
QUESTION: Well, that’ll be interesting, because the — or the military — or the military government…
REMNICK: Let’s let our…
QUESTION: My — question is…
REMNICK: Sir, OK. I think we’ve got it. So would you like to respond?
SHAVIT: Well, there are two issues. The first one I’ll be short on, because…
REMNICK: Be short on both, so we can get to Rob.
SHAVIT: On — as an Israeli, I cannot talk, you know, openly about Dimona, but…
REMNICK: But you did artfully in your book.
DANIN: Although there’s an entire chapter on it.
SHAVIT: I tell it with a smile. I think that actually on this sensitive issue, exactly the contrary of what I said about the settlement project, I think that Israel’s nuclear policy and the Western acceptance of that policy are a very remarkable, responsible, and mature project, unlike the others, because basically I think the world understands that the people that has been through what this people has been in the 20th century and the people that is endangered like no other people is endangered needs some sort of historic affirmative action in the kind — you have to grant it some sort of security as long as it acts responsibly.
And unlike my criticism of Israel in many — Israeli policy in many other areas, in — on this specific sensitive issue, Israel has proved to be very mature and responsible. Although so endangered, although going through wars, it’s never used or played with the powers attributed to it in an irresponsible manner.
So to take that away is to really risk the Jewish people and the Jewish nation. I think it’s morally wrong. I think on the universally basis, this is morally wrong.
Now, coming to Iran, I have one advice, because we are short in time. I really urge all present to make a total distinction between Iran and Benjamin Netanyahu. Iran is far too serious, far too serious to leave it to Benjamin Netanyahu. Don’t let the argument about it be distorted by what you think about this man, his flaws or his virtues. Don’t — because if you do that, at the end of the day, you might have him dealing with it. So if you don’t want it to be a Netanyahu thing, we must all grow up, and we must look at last at this thing honestly. This is serious. This is big time, and it applies to all of us, not only to Israelis and definitely not to Benjamin Netanyahu.
REMNICK: Rob, do you want to…
DANIN: All I’d say is the following, just very briefly.
DANIN: I think this whole discussion points to a phenomenon, since the topic today is really about Israel. In my experience — and I think it comes to a culmination now — is a paradox. Israel has never felt both and been stronger and yet felt more vulnerable at the same time. And I think it’s that paradox that has been a constant in Israel’s life, but ever-growing that we’re seeing here. And I think it’s that paradox that makes it so hard to get one’s hands around this question about Iran today.
REMNICK: There’s some one right here. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Evelyn Leopold, a journalist at the U.N. I’ve been watching the Iranian sanctions and the Iranian question for too long, too many years, and the fact the Iranians would like the capability of making a bomb seems clear, because boys like their toys. But on the other hand, but on the other hand…
REMNICK: What’s your question?
QUESTION: … my question is, there’s no way I think Israel can bomb once and that’s it. It would have to bomb every six months to really shut down the nuclear program.
REMNICK: So you’re asking if an Israeli military attack on Iran…
QUESTION: I’m asking if it makes…
REMNICK: … viable or a good idea?
QUESTION: … at all sense for Israel to constantly talk about the military option?
REMNICK: Rob? DANIN: OK, let me just, again, try to contextualize it a bit and let Ari talk about Israel. I think what’s interesting in the whole — over the last few years has been the following. There’s been an intense Israeli debate — Ari talked about it in his book — plug — very well in talking about, you know, Amos Yadlin and the effect of the various intelligence services in affecting the decision-making about whether or not to take action in 2012, when it felt like — and I was visiting Israel almost every other month at that time — we were at — nearing that decision point.
And people in this country think that the debate was between bomb versus not bomb within the Israeli security establishment, but the real issue was a slightly different one. It was, can we Israelis use military force against Iran without American backing? And that was the real debate.
Now, to me what’s interesting — in looking at the broad sweep of Israeli history — that this was a real change for Israel, because it means that Israel — despite having been founded as a state that can act by itself, for itself, has gone through a transformation that is very painful, I think, that Israel struggles with today, which is, on the one hand, it has the closest friend it’s ever had — and there is no country I’ve ever been to in all my travels that is as pro-American as Israel is and as grateful to America as Israelis are.
And yet it’s a double bind, or it’s a bind, because, on the other hand, there is Israel, despite the Zionist imperative of self- reliance, has become so reliant on the United States that it led the decision-makers to say, can we make this choice and jeopardize our relationship with the United States?
And to me, this is just a phenomenal moment in history that we’re struggling with now. So it doesn’t exactly answer your point, but I think it points to a phenomenon that we’re talking about, about the phenomenon of Israel, its place in the world, and now its relationship with the United States.
REMNICK: If I remember right from my one year at the Council on Foreign Relations, the promise — the dual promise of the Council is both intelligence conversation and on-time-ness, so, Ari, I would ask you to reply briefly, and then we will get you on your way.
SHAVIT: There is no good Israeli solution to the Iranian issue. The solution has to be an American-led solution, whatever it is. This is for America and the West and the international community, not for Israel.
But one must notice the Israeli military option was a great political success, because what moved the West at least, after years of being dragged — people dragging their feet, was the fear of Israel. People in Washington and in London and Paris were not so — Paris is a bit different — Berlin and others were not so much afraid about the Iranians as they were afraid about the Israelis striking. And in this sense, the Israeli military option moved the world. And if there is one thing — and this is, I think, a good thing to end with, I was very impressed with President Obama’s assertive policy, assertive sanctions, assertive diplomacy, and assertive rhetoric in 2011-2012. I think that if the president will keep that and will maintain what he did then when he was under Israeli pressure, but do it now when there is no Israeli pressure, if he will maintain that, he will save Israel, will save the West, will save America, and will save all of us. If, God forbid, that is not the case, we’re all in trouble.
REMNICK: Thank you very much for coming, and thank you, Ari, and thank you, Rob.