A conversation with Shlomo Ben-Ami; on Israel, Palestine and beyond

Shlomo Ben-Ami Shlomo Ben-Ami (Photo: Wikipedia)

Shlomo Ben-Ami is an old hand in Israeli and international politics, as in addition to History Professor he has been Minister of Internal Security and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel, among other high-level positions that he has held in his illustrious career. When you hear him speak, though, you sense the energy, a positive energy and a concern that goes beyond the often affected ways of a professional politician. He is no longer a practicing politician in any case. But he remains a concerned citizen of Israel and the world.

Below is a summary of the main points of a 30-minute discussion with Mr. Ben-Ami over the phone, Brussels calling Madrid, where he is based these days, as Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. We were very lucky to get him, as he is a much sought-after commentator once again, following the unexpected outcome of the 17 March 2015 Israeli election that saw Mr. Netanyahu emerging with a reinforced majority. The summary gives the overall sense of the discussion with him, quoting his exact words on key topics.

The Israeli election

Mr. Ben-Ami has traditionally been a Labour politician, but this time he admits that he did not vote for Labour and the Herzog-Livni Zionist Union. In these Israeli elections he chose to vote for left-wing Meretz, because he “did not want the party to disappear” and because “it was the only party that spoke about peace”.

The Zionist Union did not speak about the peace process, Mr. Ben-Ami noted, adding that they were only talking “about social and economic affairs, as if they were in the European Union”. They failed to confront Mr. Netanyahu, and certainly their talk of giving hope to the nation was no match to Mr. Netanyahu’s narrative about the existential threat posed to Israel by the rise in the Middle East of non-state entities, like Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS.

The opposition Zionist Union talked only about economic and social affairs,

ignoring security to their loss

So Mr. Netanyahu managed to get through his agenda of security and carried the masses, not just the religious right-wing, capitalizing on their sense of insecurity. He will be able to create a stable government of the right, Mr. Ben-Ami is certain. Nevertheless, he expects Mr. Netanyahu to try to get onboard Labour or Yesh Atid, on the left and centre respectively, to be able to appear to the world as more moderate.

Mr. Ben-Ami hopes, though, that these parties would not agree to join the new Netanyahu government, which will have to face the very real problems of high cost of living, unaffordable housing, increasing poverty and inequality, in addition to security. Mr. Ben-Ami thinks that the new Israeli government should go ahead with the policies that it was voted in for and Israel should face the consequences, good or bad, of those policies on all fronts.

The state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

According to Mr. Ben-Ami the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been in a coma for a while now. What Mr. Netanyahu’s reelection did was to “seal its comatose condition”. If one judges by the five seats that Meretz got in the Knesset, only 5 out of 120 Israelis at the moment really care about and want to continue with the peace process. Even if the Zionist Union had been elected this would not have changed things substantively.

All Netanyahu’s electoral victory did was to seal the comatose condition

of the peace process

Mr. Ben-Ami does not mince his words: Israelis are very aware that decades of peace efforts have led to no tangible results for them. They have seen successive Intifadas, suicide bombings in Israel, the rise of Hamas, rocket attacks from Gaza, and have had enough. They do not see any credible negotiators on the Palestinian side. What they know is that concessions by Prime Minister Barak under the Clinton peace proposal and further concessions afterwards by Prime Minister Olmert failed to improve the situation, and now they just want guarantees for their security.

What can Europe, the US and the world do?

Mr. Ben-Ami questioned how central the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the agenda of the West at this point, when the Middle East is experiencing “a meltdown”. Once it was thought that finding a solution between Israelis and Palestinians would stabilize the Middle East. Who can really claim that now, in view of what is happening in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya? Kurdish self-determination is currently more relevant to efforts to deal with ISIS and stabilize the region, Mr. Ben-Ami notes. It is questionable how far Europe and others would or even should go in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Even if they did decide to invest in this, an eventual Palestinian state would not necessarily be a factor of stability, if one looks at the extremist positions of Hamas.

Looking at the bigger geopolitical picture, Mr. Ben-Ami recognized the importance of “moving ahead with Iran” in efforts to deal with ISIS and in stabilizing Syria. He noted some dramatic changes happening in that regard, including the end of US calls for the overthrow of the Assad regime. At the same time, Mr. Ben-Ami would not “bet on Iran” being a major ally for stabilizing the region, because of the country’s strategic plans for the Middle East and the Gulf, the antagonism with Saudi Arabia and the pervasive Shiite-Sunni divide. Every concession to Iran would alienate, in addition to Israel, several other Middle East allies of the West.

Mr. Ben-Ami was very clear on what needs to be done for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is still a priority for him. “The solution can only come from outside” and not from the parties themselves. And the solution is already there, in the form of the “Clinton Parameters” dating back to 2000, which according to Mr. Ben-Ami should be turned into a UN Security Council resolution. Such a resolution, if also supported by the US as seems plausible now, would not particularly please neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, but would be the only realistic scenario.

The parties themselves cannot reach a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,

so the solution has to come from outside

Both parties should be asked to take concrete steps with concrete deadlines to implement such a UN resolution, Mr. Ben-Ami stressed, under the supervision of the international community, not only the US, which has proven unable to resolve this by itself for decades now. In complying with the resolution requirements Israel would have a chance to see its status normalized and its wish for NATO membership finally considered, once it has clearly established borders. A Defence Treaty with the US could also become possible for Israel then.

I left the conversation with Mr. Ben-Ami with a sense that he is less dovish by nature than I believed he was before talking to him. He is obviously a man who has handled serious government responsibilities in the interest of his country, including in tough negotiations with the Palestinians, the Americans and others. His clear judgement and his concern for Israel and regional stability have led him to conclude that a two-state solution is necessary and should be imposed on the parties by the international community, in view of their inability to get to it by themselves. In the process it is certain that Mr. Ben-Ami hopes that a more democratic, prosperous and egalitarian Israel will also emerge, correcting the current turn to the right.


Georgios Kostakos

Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Brussels-based Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). He has been extensively involved in global governance, sustainability and climate-related activities with the United Nations and beyond. The starting point for the work of FOGGS is the need for a new “Grand Narrative” for a fair, human-centred and inclusive globalisation. One of its projects is the UN2100 Initiative for UN reform, while FOGGS also supports the Citizens Climate Pledge.

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