Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who served during the Camp David and Taba negotiations. His debate with Norman Finkelstein is interesting, because it brings together serious individuals who differ wildly on values, and yet are both serious about the facts. What is distinctive about this debate is the amount of agreement between the parties, despite one taking the perspective of an “ardent zionist”, and the other being opposed to the ethnic character of any state. Rather than comment on the debate, I’ve simply transcribed passages I found interesting, all of which are from Ben-Ami. If you want to watch the debate, you can find it on youtube or download it from democracy now’s website.
On the creation of the Israeli state and the Nakba:
In 1948 what was born was a state, but also original superpower in many ways. We have prevailed over invading arab armies and the local population, which was practically evicted from Palestine, from the state of Israel, and this is how the refugee problem was born. Interestingly, the Arabs in 1948 lost a war that was as far as they were concerned was lost already in 36-39 because they had fought against the British mandate and the Jewish pre-state, and they were defeated then. So they came to the hour of trail in 48 already as a defeated nation. That is the war of 1948 was won already in 1936, and they had no chance to win the war in 1948, they were already a defeated nation when they faced the Israeli superpower that was emerging in that year.”
On the “New Historians”
There is a whole range of new historians that have gone into the sources, the origins of the state of israel, that have exposed the evidence of what really went on on the ground. I must from the very beginning say the main difference between what they say and my vision of things is not the facts, they are absolutely correct in the facts and setting the record straight. My view is, but for Jesus Christ, everyone was born in sin including nations. And the moral perspective is there, but does not undermine in my very modest view the justification for the creation of the jewish state no matter how tough the conditions, and how immoral the consequences were for the Palestinians.
The Oslo peace process was an agreement between two unequal partners. Arafat conceived Oslo as a means not to reach a settlement, but a way to come back to the territories and control the politics of the Palestinian family. Don’t forget that the intifada started independently of the PLO leadership, and Arafat saw how he was losing control of the destiny of the Palestinians. His only way to get back to the territory was through an agreement with Israel. So at Oslo he made enormous concessions. In fact, when he was negotiating at Oslo with us, there was an official Palestinian delegation negotiating in Washington negotiating with an official Israeli delegation, and they were asking the right things from the viewpoint of the Palestinians: self determination, right of return, end of occupation, all the necessary arguments. Whereas Arafat in Oslo reached an agreement which didn’t even mention the right of self determination, doesn’t even mention the need to put an end to settlements. If the Israelis continued after Oslo to expand settlements they were violating the spirit of oslo, not the letter of oslo. There is nothing in the Oslo agreement that says the Israelis can not build settlements. This was because Arafat wanted to come back to the territories and control the politics of Palestine. Oslo solved very minor issues such as Gaza, and people even on the far Israeli right wanted to give away Gaza, but it left unknown the future. The two parties started to embark on a process when they had diametrically opposed views as to the final objective. There was nothing as to Jerusalem – only that we will negotiate it. Nothing as to the refugees, just “we will negotiate the refugees”. The fact the future was left so wide open was a standing invitation of the parties to try to dictate the final agreement through unilateral acts. The Israelis by expanding settlements, and the Palestinians by responding terrorism. And this asymmetry that was created in Oslo persists to this very day. So Oslo could not usher in a final agreement because the different final expectations that the parties have, it was an exercise in make-believe. So you could have leaders like Rabin who thought this could end in a state-minus. This was Rabin’s expression, he never thought this would end in a full fledged Palestinian state. There was a lot of ambiguity, destructive ambiguity, helped in clinching the Oslo agreement, but a minefield for those who went to Camp David and later to Taba to try to solve the final issues
On Terrorism by States and Militias:
Terrorism is an indiscriminate attack against civilian population. If my son in uniform is attacked in uniform by Hamas while in territories, I will not call this terrorism. I will call it terrorism if they go into kindergarten and case injuries and death. Now the problem of the response of a state is much more difficult to define, because a state needs to go not against the civilian population, but against military targets, ticking bombs. This is what state can do and should do. The problem is when you have a fight not against armies, which is the case of Syria, Egypt – we never spoke of Israeli state terrorism against Egyptians, we spoke about wars between military sides. THis is very different from the conditions prevailing in Gaza and the West Bank where you have militias, you have arsenals of weapons, and the armies attacks them and there is collateral damage to civilian population. To me this is very difficult to define as state terrorism, it is attacking military objectives, or sort of military objectives, an army which is not a real army but can cause damage and you need to fight back and defend your population. And it is very very unfortunate that civilians are hit. But if Israeli intentionally targets civilians, this can be defined as state terrorism. I don’t think we have done this normally, the practice is that this happens collaterally.
On the need for a two-state settlement:
There is no other way – to split the land into two states, into two capitals, trying to find the best way to end this conflict. Because much of the instability in the middle east has to do with our condition. You don’t need to be a Bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein who tried to put on themselves the mantle of the vindicators of the Palestinian cause in order to say the Palestinian issue is a platform of instability in the region that needs to be solved. But even when it is solved, let us not fool ourselves, many of the problems that the West faces with the Arab world will persist. The Palestinian issue has been used frequently by many Arab rulers to not do things that need to be done in their own societies. But for the sake of the Israelis, when I say that we need to make concessions it is not because I am concerned with the future of the Palestinians or with international law – it is because I define myself as an ardent Zionist that thinks that the best for the Jews in Israel is that we abandon the territories and we dismantle settlements, and we try to reach a reasonable settlement with our Palestinian partners. It is not because I am concerned with the Palestinians, I want to be very clear about it. My interpretation, my approach is not moralistic, it is strictly political.
Hearing Ben-Ami speak in this documentary makes me interested in reading his book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace.