Israel‘s Situation Has Never Been as Good as It Is Today

An interview with Zeev Sternhell, by Maciej Nowicki

We can achieve a tolerable coexistence with Iran, remindful of the relationship between Western Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War—says Zeev Sternhell interviewed by Maciej Nowicki

Benjamin Netanyahu won again and took power for the fourth time. What is his political project?

I will answer paradoxically—he does not want anything and at the same time he wants quite a lot. The only thing he desires is that nothing changes in Israel. His ideology is preserving the status quo. His choice is easy to understand— Netanyahu does not justify it directly, but you can guess it from his numerous allusions. Our economic situation has never been as good as it is today (although the rich are far richer than before, and the poor are mostly poorer, but according to Netanyahu this does not matter). Unemployment is lower than in the EU, and the prices of apartments in Tel Aviv reached Manhattan level. In the region things are also going well—we have excellent relations with Egypt and Jordan. Saudi Arabia does not pose any problems. And Palestinians are not a threat to us in the short term—the political right believes that you can either buy them with economic concessions or break them. In addition (and contrary to all the noise in the media) the Arabs, the US and the EU don’t give a damn about Palestinians. They will not stand up for them seriously. They do not care that Palestinians are living in conditions close to apartheid and that this poses a risk of explosion.

You recently called Netanyahu “a weak man.” This is a bit odd about a politician who has dominated the political life of Israel.

Netanyahu really is a weak man. He admires Churchill, but to match him you must have a sense of the historical moment and pull the nation behind you rather than just pander to voters. After the famous 1999 speech at the Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu had a real chance to communicate with the Palestinians. But he invented new obstacles at every turn. He completely fails to understand that we are doomed to ending this conflict, that it is the main strategic problem for us.

Rather than Iran, as the prime minister says?

Even if worse comes to worst, you can just bomb Iran. Also, I‘m not sure that it will come to the worst. So far, if you ignore the militant rhetoric, Iran does not seem inclined to take big risks. They know perfectly well that we are able to respond to any attack, that we have excellent air-force and that we would inflict huge damage on them. In fact we can achieve a tolerable coexistence with Iran, remindful of the relationship between Western Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. On the other hand, the real existential problem for us are Palestinians. There is nothing more important for us.

Because Israelis live together with Palestinians…

Exactly. And if we do not agree relatively quickly to the creation of a Palestinian state, we will bring about a de facto end of Israel in its present form. We will have a two-nation state, and one day Arabs will gain majority in this state, because demography works against us. We will become a minority again, we’ll will go back to the situation we experienced for hundreds of years and which Zionism and the creation of the Israeli state was supposed to address. And we will be constantly asking ourselves the following question: was it really worth it to expend so much force in the last one hundred years in order to again become one of many minorities in the Middle East? And all the while we had a better solution on hand. I did not come to Israel to live as a member of a minority here. If I wanted that, I would choose a state where my life would be both better and safer. Besides, the two-nation solution rarely works—as we have seen, for example, in Cyprus, Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia (with more actors in the last case). And who is going to tell me that it will work in Israel? That Jews and Palestinians will be pioneers of the two-nation state where everybody will live happily ever after? No kidding… You should rather expect a constant civil war. Or an intensification of the colonial model, with increasingly prominent elements of apartheid.

You said once: “I am a Zionist or even as super-Zionist.” Should a super-Zionist appeal for giving land back to Palestinians?

The people in power respond to this in the following way: “Why should we give back to Palestinians something which they are unable to take away from us?” I have two answers to that. First, as a result of colonization, lawlessness is slowly becoming something normal in Israel and democracy is getting weaker. Second, Zionism has never been a colonial movement. It was not about controlling the route to India or natural resources. It was a national movement aimed principally at saving European Jews.

But how to do it without land and state?

Of course, we needed the land. It was clear that the Arabs would not give it to us voluntarily. So we took it by force. The ideal solution would be for the whole historic Palestine to become a Jewish state. But the aim of saving the Jews can also be achieved within narrower borders, we don’t need the West Bank colonies for that.

In short: it was the Jewish people, and not the land, which was most important for Zionists. And for today’s right, land is more important than the people. Such ideology is anti-Zionist. For Israel will never be an independent and sovereign state if we don’t end the occupation of the West Bank and do not engineer a divorce with the Palestinians. You have to say repeatedly to the right: you are destroying the Jewish state, created by the Zionist movement.

We have to complete the project as soon as possible. We have to say loudly to the entire world that all aims of Zionism have been achieved on the basis of the so-called “green line,” roughly corresponding to the borders after the independence war, ended in 1949. That what was achieved during the independence war was necessary. And that everything that was achieved later—such as the conquest of the West Bank in 1967—was not necessary. In 1967 we defended ourselves from danger. That war was waged on us, we didn’t want it. But the fact that our defense was legitimate does not mean that the later colonization was also legitimate.

But fewer and fewer people in Israel think like that. “The peace camp” is shrinking. Your country is more and more clearly turning to the right. Why is that?

This has not started yesterday. Since the 1967 war we began to perceive force as the basic instrument of our policy and the source of our legitimacy in the Middle East. At the same time, a political, legal and religious messianism seduced our society. Today we are faced with a dispute: to whom the land of Israel really belongs? Many propose the following answer in their messianistic spirit: this land belongs to us, because God gifted it to Abraham and our ancestors. And we are the only legitimate owners of this land, while the Arabs are only tenants. And they will never become anything more than tenants. If you think like that, you do not see any problem in the conquest of the West Bank. Just as you do not see any problem in the situation of Arab inferiority, which the government would like to perpetuate through legislation defining Israel as a “Jewish state.” Which would mean in practice that the state does not exist in order to promote the well-being of all citizens, but in order to facilitate the supremacy of Jews over non-Jews.

The Palestinians also seem unable of compromise. They are actually even more intransigent.

That is true. You may doubt if there are many Palestinians capable of understanding us. But it does not matter. We hold the power, we dominate their lives. And we should demand more of ourselves.

Before the elections you wrote in Ha’aretz that regardless of the results (everything suggested then that the Labor Party would win), nothing would change.

Victory of the Labor Party would mean some progress in political or social issues, but not too big. This is one of the tragedies of our politics: the differences between the left and the right, the center-left and center-right are minimal in these areas. Moreover and above all, there is no party in Israel today which would be able to propose a real plan for creating two states. A coalition gathered around the Labor Party would negotiate more seriously than Netanyahu, because he has never really negotiated. However, you should not expect that it would be ready, for example, for a confrontation with the colonists, who will obviously not refrain from violence.

What does the problem of the Labor Party consist of? Why has it been unable to get through for such a long time? It is a bit like it was in Italy until recently: everybody was tired of Berlusconi, but he continued to rule anyway. The Israeli version of Berlusconi is Netanyahu of course.

First of all, the Labor Party made a huge mistake by maintaining the illusion that there is a clear line between peace and social issues. And that you can solve the latter without touching the former. This is untrue. And not only because an increasing amount of resources which should be used for supporting the pro-arrest is today channeled to defense. The most important thing is that the militarization of Israel makes it impossible to think about our state in normal categories.

The left contributed to Israel’s turning to the right by not opposing this tendency very clearly. I joined the Labor Party after the historic defeat in 1977, when the Likud first came to power. I belonged to the group of intellectuals who were supposed to help in defining its program. My diagnosis has not changed since that time: there is no reason to vote for the left as long as it remains only a copy of the right. The original thing is always more attractive. Yet the leadership of the left is saying today instead: “The voters have moved to the right. And we have to follow suit.” This is a recipe for defeat.

Netanyahu’s relations with Obama are getting increasingly worse. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress just before the elections in Israel, targeting the nuclear deal with Iran, was also an attack on the US president. To what extent can Israel afford a confrontation with the United States?

Let us start with the speech in Congress. It had no political consequences. It did not change US policy even one little bit. And it did not change Israel’s position on the issue of nuclearization of Iran. It was just a personal success, which Netanyahu wanted to translate into an electoral success. And he won the elections. But was it really the result of his address in Congress? I am not sure. Immediately after the speech his ratings went down.

And now another issue. In the government circles there is a very popular theory that we have to confront the US, that by saying “no” to Washington we are saving Israel. But we cannot keep saying “no” indefinitely, for we depend on the US in two areas. The first area is political: without the United States, Palestine would long have been a full member of the United Nations. And this would mean countless legal and political problems for us. The other area is strategic, or to be more precise—military. Our air-force is capable of striking back at Iran or Arab countries thanks to the Americans. It is thanks to them that we have the status of a military power in the Middle East and that our combat capabilities are comparable to the armies of the largest European states.

Israel is and will be surrounded by hostile countries. It has to resort to force. To what extent is its use justified?

My childhood coincided with war. Being a Jew meant constant escape, hiding, lying about your identity. I just wanted to survive at all costs, I was like a hunted animal. Then I came to Israel. During the Six-Day War, my friends and my soldiers were killed. But at least they died like human beings. Because we had an army.

The use of force is justified when you are faced with an existential threat. Let us take the last war in Gaza. Today it is difficult to even say who started it. Perhaps Hamas, when it kidnapped and then murdered three young Jews. On the other hand, there is no doubt that our response was excessive. We could have behaved in a less tough and brutal way, too many people died. And on top of that you cannot really say that it produced anything good—for the operation in Gaza did not end in success. Its main side-effect is a loss of respect for human life— also the victims on the Israeli side do not make such an impression as before. My generation served in an army which fought for the nation’s survival. The experiences of today’s generation are completely different—it serves in an army which has only one aim: to control the occupied territories and to support colonization.

Force always has to be the last resort. Unfortunately, in today’s Israel there is a worship of force and we often make it a starting point.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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