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RUMPUS IN THE MIDDLE EAST:  

A Conversation with Einat Wilf

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By David Levy

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The Montréal Review, August 2014

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Einat Wilf was a member of the Knesset, the state of Israel’s national legislature, 2010-2013 representing a break-away Labour party faction under Ehud Barak. A graduate of Harvard University, she holds a Ph.D.  in political science from Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. Born and raised in Israel, she grew up in Jerusalem, served as an IDF Intelligence Officer and now lives in Tel Aviv:  “I am,” she has said, ”a Zionist because I am an atheist and a Jew. Zionism has allowed someone like me to preserve my faith in the sovereignty of human beings over their fate, while maintaining a deep and continuous commitment to the Jewish people and its future.”

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Part 1, 9 June 2014. At Ms Wilf’s home in North Tel Aviv.

David Levy: One might suppose that with the region in a state of chaos –Iraq, Syria, Libya – this may not be the most propitious time to try to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. How then might one explain the American president’s apparent determination to achieve a breakthrough he must know is pretty much impossible.

Einat Wilf:  There is something very elusive about the conflict. It’s like the holy grail of international diplomacy. Everyone wants to take a shot at it. There’s the sense that somehow it’s literally just a few details and you close the deal. I believe that there is insufficient appreciation for how serious the conflict is and how deeply opposed are the views of both parties. It’s an illusion that they’re somehow close to a resolution. You’re absolutely right that the region is undergoing convulsions of a magnitude that is really a once-in-several-centuries event.  We seem to be seeing the unraveling of the post WW1 order. Tribal identities, ethnic  identities, sectarian identities, religious identities coming to the fore.  It’s going to take time. But over time there might be opportunities that emerge. New alliances, new situations that create an opportunity for agreements, arrangements.  I don’t know if it will be peace in the deep sense of the word, but arrangements, agreements that somehow allow everyone to get out of each other’s hair…to live in dignity and not engage in violence. Over time there may be opportunities.

DL:  What might be the best possible outcome, say, from Israel’s point of view?

EW: The best possible outcome of course would be that the ideas that were expressed in the Arab squares will become the governing ideas of the region. That Israel will not be the only democracy in the Middle East, that Israel will one day find itself one of many others, surrounded by democracies that respect human rights and respect minorities and religious freedom, women’s rights, gay rights. Then I would argue that in this situation Israel would easily integrate into the region, easily find itself making peace with its neighbours, because we would share the same values. I as a woman would be able to look around the region and see countries that I could respect and value for how they treat women. That would be the best possible outcome.

DL: Is that at all likely?

EW: Not tomorrow. Perhaps in 50 to 100 years. Nothing immediate. A century from now the odds are very high. The transition is likely to be bloody. The ideas that were raised in Cairo’s Tahir square were radical ideas, the ideas of openness and accountability. If you look for example at the trajectory of Europe from 1848 to 1945, ultimately, a century after 1848, the initial ideas of the spring of nations in Europe emerged – liberalism, socialism, national self-determination. But in the process Europe went through mayhem. I expect something like that to happen in the Middle East. Some people think Islam and the Arab world are incapable of democracy. I don’t believe that. I just think that historically it’s going to be a very long process.

DL: There are reports of a proposed Israeli annexation of Judea-Samaria a k a  the West Bank.

EW: It’s certainly the plan and the program of Naftali Bennett, the head of the right wing religious party. Right now it’s broadly, internally opposed. It’s also likely to be globally opposed. I myself personally believe that the road to peace involves self-determination for the Jewish people and self-determination for the Arab people in this small strip of land. The key has to be two states – other people think differently.

DL: Some see one state, some two, some three, where Gaza remains a separate entity…

EW: There’s no partner for that. I don’t see Egyptians taking responsibility for Gaza. The Palestine unity government sworn in a few days ago was intended to demonstrate that for the Palestinian people Gaza and the West Bank are one entity.

DL: How would travel between Gaza and the West Bank be managed?

EW: If we are talking about a situation of peace there are solutions. A road, a corridor. A rail line.  If you are in a situation where both sides are acting in good faith you can solve problems. Right now that situation doesn’t exist.

DL: Would Israel ever abandon the settlers in Judea Samaria as it did in Gaza?

EW: Abandon is a loaded word. The fact that the settlers felt that way is of course absolutely true….

DL: Could this happen again?

EW: You have to see where the Israeli consensus lies when you speak of settlements. Those townships that are very close to the green line that are essentially considered almost suburbs of Israel. these are within the Israeli consensus and there is no prospect at all of them being evacuated or abandoned in any way.  When there is talk of annexation it’s about annexing those. Then there are the settlements that are called the “settlements on the mountains” on the high mountains that are far closer to the main Palestinian population centres. They are more ideological, more extreme, and they do not enjoy the Israeli consensus…

DL: Have you seen the Dror Moreh film The Gatekeepers? An acidic not to say stunning view of Israeli policy regarding the territories delivered by six former heads of Shin Bet.

EW:  The film lacks context.  As an Israeli watching it one knows the context and the history. There is no problem understanding what those men have to say. If you are an outsider who knows very little you may somehow conclude that there was a state of Palestine that Israel occupied in 1967 and has been occupying ever since. The film offers no insight into the origins of the conflict, the reasons for it, why Israel needed to go to war in 1967, the debate over the future of the territories. The thinking in 1967 was that this was a temporary measure. Israel believed that the Arabs would soon come round and make peace and Israel would return the territories. In 1956 Israel acquired the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and returned it after a few days in return for some agreements. That context is missing in the film. As a result you get the narrative of bad mean Israel doing bad mean things for no reason whatsoever. The filmmaker wanted to tell a certain story.  For him maybe the context might have been so obvious he felt no need to go into it.

DL: Moreh seemed to have a definite agenda…

EW: He clearly has an agenda. He opposes the occupation, he wants to show the high toll it takes on Israel. He wants to show that there’s no pretty face to the military occupation of the West Bank and earlier Gaza.  Part of that agenda involved removing the context.  I too have no problem with that point of view. I too would like to see the end of the military occupation.  I too believe that the Arabs in the region have the right to self-determination as they have the right to their own separate national expression, as much as the Jewish people have the right to a separate national expression. I just think that ignoring the context is far from helpful in the greater cause of resolving the conflict.

DL:  The Shin Bet men, among the key enforcers of the military administration, seemed somehow angry at the political authority they served, feeling they had been used in a negative way – as one of them put it, it was tactics without strategy.

EW: I don’t know if you’d call it angry.  They knew they were in a situation where they were required to carry out a security mission which was to ensure that the people of Israel were safe and they felt they were doing their job, buying time for the Israeli government to seek a political solution to the problem. There is wide agreement that the solution is political, which is to say it requires a political agreement.  The feeling here in Israel is that time was bought but perhaps that time has been squandered. No political solution has been found. As a result the job of the Shin Bet continues without a sense of when it may end.

DL: I have a Bolshevik friend who keeps promising me a third intifada.

EW: A violent 3rd intifada like the one we saw in 2000 – 2004?  The Palestinians themselves in the West Bank will tell you that this is not their intention. They realize that violence has backfired. It’s not that they’ve become pacifists. They pragmatically acknowledge that extreme violence has failed them. Has undermined their cause in the eyes of the world. It has also allowed Israel to respond far more aggressively. I do think we are already in the throes of a third uprising which is diplomatic, political. What you see in the BDS movement. A war fought with words, images, ideas, in the media, fought at the U N. We see that happening.  The Palestinian Authority has renounced the violent option strategically for pragmatic reasons.

DL: Might this apply to Hamas as well?

EW: I would not see that. Hamas is really in a stressful situation. They’ve lost Egypt, they’ve lost Iran, they’ve lost Syria.  They now have no base to work from. They’re under extreme duress. They’re losing their financial support, and I would say the attempt at a reconciliation with Fatah was really a decision about financial needs. There is, of course, a genuine desire on the part of the Palestinian people to see the two sides united.

DL:  While Abu Mazen claims he is renouncing violence Itamar Marcus’s Palestine Media Watch regularly reports the continuing PA /Fatah worship of men and women who have murdered Israeli civilians, women and children, their demonization of Israel and incitement to terror. The point perhaps being that the PA is no more a peace partner than Hamas.

EW: It is part of the culture.  As far as they are concerned they are a people in a struggle and those are their heroes. The Jewish people, Israel, is the enemy. Killing the enemy, including women and children, is from their point of view completely legitimate and heroic.  That’s their story. They have not become pacifist, they have not changed their belief in what is due to them, in what they believe is an injustice that needs to be corrected. They still believe the Jewish people have no business being here, that the Jewish people have taken their land. The story remains and as a result the heroes of that story remain. At the same time they are able to make local pragmatic decisions such as not resorting to extreme violence because it works against them, not because morally they abhor violence.  We should not be surprised if they continue to cherish those who committed attacks against Israeli civilians and committed suicide murders because using violence is for them a practical not a moral choice.

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After events heated up and war with Hamas broke out I managed to contact Itamar Marcus, head of Palestinian Media Watch. We’d met in Jerusalem. Itamar told me that he lived in a tiny neighbourhood where everyone was related to or knew someone serving in the army and involved in the fighting. The big news in Israel, he said, concerned the elaborate tunnel network Hamas had constructed running from Gaza into Israel. Apparently, Israeli intelligence possessed insufficient knowledge of the extent of the tunnels. A potentially tragic situation, with consequences to rival those of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  The Hamas plan was to pour hundreds of armed men through the tunnels into Israel to murder and kidnap Israeli citizens Rosh Hashanah. What foiled the plan was a strange miracle. The Hamas group that was planning the attack, in preparation over many years, kept it a secret. The group firing the rockets didn’t know about it. It was only through the Israeli operation against the rockets that the IDF discovered the extent of the tunnel network. As for the decision by Hamas to intensify the rocket attacks there is an election coming up and Fatah seemed to be significantly ahead in the polls. After the rocket squad went to work two things happened: Hamas poll numbers improved and the tunnel network was discovered.

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Part 2, a telephone conversation, 20 August 2014

DL: Much has happened since June…What if anything would you say has changed?  When we spoke in June I thought I heard optimism…You seemed to feel while it was perhaps too soon to talk about a Israeli-Palestinian peace deal now that it was a distinct future possibility based on changes that might occur in the region.

EW: Long term I maintain my optimism. Long term meaning a century, maybe a couple of generations. I recently published a big piece in a Turkish foreign policy journal in which I reiterated the comparison of the spring of nations of Europe of 1848 and the Arab Spring of 2010. My basic argument is that ultimately the noble and positive ideas of the spring of nations of 1848 became the Europe of a century later - after a hundred years of transition that were absolutely awful. My argument is that the Middle East should expect nothing less. Ultimately the noble ideas of the Arab Spring will triumph in the Middle East. But we’re in for an awful century of transition.

DL: Those were the things you said back in June. What has happened since - the murders of the kidnapped Israeli teenagers, the apparent revenge killing of that Arab kid, the Hamas rockets, the tunnels, the war- has not altered your thinking?

EW: No. We’re in the process of the awful times. That’s where we are now.

DL: Israel keeps agreeing to ceasefires that Hamas keeps breaking – apparently at least a dozen to date…Labour Party chief  Isaac Herzog is demanding a tougher response following the violation yesterday of the most recent temporary cease-fire.

EW: Ultimately, I think Israel gains a lot of political goodwill domestically and internationally by agreeing to the ceasefires. If the prime minister is going to call for more aggressive IDF action the only way he would have substantial support within Israel is if people really felt he had exhausted all other options.

DL: You don’t think Israelis feel that way now?

EW: They might. The process of agreeing to ceasefires that are then broken is essential in building domestic support for something broader.

DL: Here is summary of recent events: “Israel has paid a heavy price of 64 dead soldiers as well as three civilian fatalities. Its economy and image were dealt a heavy blow. The tourist industry was paralyzed and the economy suffered for over a month. All of this and almost nothing in return…Yes, the IDF were able to destroy most of the infrastructure of the terror and assault tunnels Hamas had built in the Gaza Strip. But this is pretty much it.”  Is this an accurate assessment?

EW: It’s a too-soon-to-tell assessment. We’re still in the middle of talks whose outcome we do not know. We are as matters stand unable to engage in any sort of final assessment.

DL: You maintain your optimism…

EW: I maintain my jury-is-out attitude.

DL: When we spoke in June you pointed out that Prime Minister Netanyahu may talk tough but that his conduct tends to be prudent…Has he been too prudent?...Overly influenced perhaps by domestic political considerations?

EW: No, I don’t think so. I would have bet against any possibility of there being any kind of armed conflict under his leadership.  He has gone further than I expected.  

DL: A retired Israeli colonel I talk to tells me that Hamas will violate any agreement they sign on to…that they still possesses a substantial military capability…that an IDF excursion into Gaza to degrade or eliminate that capability would be enormously costly in terms of blood & treasure…Is there an option? 

EW: The truth is nobody knows. I assume there is. I assume that no one knows what the price is. Ultimately the prime minister bears the responsibility. It’s a difficult decision. Of course it can be done.

DL: Has Israel reached a critical point where it must act decisively against Hamas?

EW: Not yet. We may be reaching that point, but not yet. 

DL: A couple of days ago the Shin Bet revealed that it had foiled a Hamas plot to carry out a coup in the West Bank. Is there any doubt that sooner or later Hamas will be in control of the West Bank?

EW: It is one of those things where predictions may lead to actions that would refute the predictions.

DL: There is of course, as we’ve said, the current rumpus in the region. My colonel friend believes The Islamic State  a k a  ISIS is now taking a hard look at the West Bank.

EW: They’ve certainly made their goals very clear. They want to go after Jordan, they want to go after Saudi Arabia. I’m sure after Jordan the West Bank is next. They’ve shown they have no tolerance of minorities. For any version of Islam that is not theirs. The Jewish state is an anathema to them. We should be under no illusion about their goals.

DL: Israel’s response?

EW: We should prepare to prevent any onslaught on our borders. It is a force that has to be stopped, whatever mobilization might be necessary.

DL: The Qataris seem to be playing an unfortunate role, perhaps providing financing for The Islamic State.

EW: They do appear to be punching above their weight. They may see their existence too as incredibly fragile. We need to understand that right now in the Middle East almost nothing is stable. It is a time to sleep with one eye open.

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“After the Gaza War.”

THE fifty-day Israel-Hamas war of 2014 seems to have ended inconclusively, neither side achieving a better political reality.

Hamas and related terrorist groups fired 4,564 rockets and mortars into Israel, hoping to strike civilian targets, 735 were intercepted by the Iron Dome  - in Hebrew metal kippah -  defense system. Thirty-two tunnels from Gaza into Israel were demolished.  Such has been the coverage of The New York Times that it did not fully report the larger damage done to the Israeli economy and the population including the traumatization of children by Hamas rocket fire.  Nor did it tell its readers that the rocket attacks from Gaza did not begin in June, 2014.  There were 22 rocket attacks in January, nine in February, 65 in March, 19 rockets and five mortars launched at Israel in April, 4 rockets and 3 mortar shells in May.

A guerilla force, said Henry Kissinger, wins if it doesn’t lose, which is to say so long as it can stay in the game and keep on fighting. Thus post-war Hamas.

The question now being asked by many in Israel is why the IDF didn’t finish the job, why Bibi allowed Hamas to escape total defeat via yet another ceasefire it is unlikely to respect.

I put the question to Jonathan Halevi, a retired Israeli colonel.

Jonathan Halevi: There were for Israel a number of factors Netanyahu had to take into consideration apart from the post-conflict strength or weakness of Hamas. There were international implications, the reaction of the Americans, and the Europeans, and so on, and also of course the state of a wounded Israeli economy.

David Levy: Major American pressure?

JH: There was also some American pressure I suppose and European pressure as a result of the images that circulated from Gaza. But there is another factor: ISIS. I believe that in the end that concern came to dictate the key Israeli perception of Gaza. The thinking seems to be that if Israel can contain the situation in Gaza and deter Hamas for a long period that would give us time to  develop other answers.  As matters stand, Israel has no interest in being engaged in keeping a large part of the regular army in Gaza when there are other threats in the region. We saw quite recently that the al-Nusra Front took control of the Quneitra crossing on the Syrian side of the Golan border.

DL: al-Nusra Front forces attacked U N peacekeepers, who fled into the Israel-controlled Golan and were holding Fijian peacekeepers hostage. There has so far not been an Israeli response.

JH: And there is not likely to be one. Israel does not want to initiate anything because that would open a totally different development. Let Assad deal with ISIS and the others with his own forces. Unless Israel is being attacked directly there is no possibility of any IDF involvement. At the same time, you have to remember that this is the most important front right now for Israel. ISIS, as you know, is not just in Syria it is in Iraq. The problem is that it may also threaten Jordan. If that happens all the equations in the Middle East will change. That’s why Netanyahu decided not to finish off Hamas. For Israel the cost of taking over Gaza and trying to install a new government there was too heavy, especially with the problem of ISIS looming.

DL:  It seems clear that the USA, as President Obama has conceded, is without a strategy for dealing with ISIS and can’t be relied on to confront the rise of ISIS in the region.  Is an alliance between ISIS and Hamas in the works?

JH: I don’t see that happening.  Hamas is maintaining the pact with Iran. Iran and ISIS are enemies. Khaled Meshaal, on the other hand, probably has little desire to become a junior member of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi  caliphate.  This is not of course to ignore the influence of ISIS on the Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank and Arab-Israelis who are gravitating to ISIS. More and more Palestinians appear to be volunteering to join ISIS. That may have a negative consequence in the long term.  

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