Naomi Chazan is chair of the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, and author of Irridentism and International Policy (Lynne Rienner, 1991). Salim Tamari and Joel Beinin spoke with her in Jerusalem on December 30, 1991.
What are the likely effects of the settlers’ move into Silwan on the peace negotiations?
Silwan is a watershed in Israeli domestic politics in several respects. First, what one has here is one of the most invasive, intrusive, physically abusive violations of human rights we have ever seen. Second, it has very severe implications for life in Jerusalem. Third, it has brought people out in protest who had been previously silent. People who have never demonstrated on the settlement issue did on the Silwan action, people with central positions in the construction of the state and in defense, who’ve seen this as their red line. If the peace process does not proceed reasonably in the next few months, I think we will go back to Silwan and date it as the beginning of a real civil struggle inside Israel.
Is it a watershed because it redrew a line between the larger circle of oppositional groups and the right, or because it is pitting the dominant groups on the right against one another?
Let’s put it this way: It is clarifying the circle of opposition. People who were previously quiet are now coming out in to the open. I do not see that it is creating a rift in the right. From the point of view of the Likud government and the extreme right wing, it’s actually hiding an anomaly that we’ve known about for some time — that the Likud government is incapable of differentiating state interests from its ideological position. Except for one or two minor squawks, there has not been vocal discontent in government circles on this.
An Israeli newscaster in late December noted the logic of the Silwan settlers’ assertion that they are reclaiming Jewish property for Arab claims on Jaffa, Haifa and other places. Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek’s opposition to Silwan is that the settler activity actually prevents the peaceful annexation of Jerusalem.
The array of people who have come out against it have different motives. Some, including Kollek, see this as undermining Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. The peace movement is divided on that; the more radical elements see it as antithetical to any other possibilities regarding the political disposition of sovereignty over Jerusalem.
There are more nuances in the opposition than in the right. It has essentially three components: People who are opposed to any settlements; people who are opposed to settlements at this time because it is the middle of the peace talks — there is a very wide circle who are willing to entertain a freeze on settlements during negotiations. The third circle is opposed to this type of action in Jerusalem because it upsets the city’s balance.
If the Likud wanted to do something about this they could have. Its own attorney general provided rulings on which the government could have based some restraining move but didn’t. This conflation of party or ideological interests with state interests has structural implications here that are very serious. Essentially it’s undermining the autonomy of any government, not just the Likud, to operate.
Many Palestinians think the Likud negotiating strategy is to stall into the middle of American elections or Israeli elections. Is there any chance of substantive negotiations beginning in the near future?
Two critical factors will affect whether there will be a move from the procedural to the substantive. One will be the extent of American involvement. I don’t think there is any clarity from the Americans about what it is they want to achieve at this point.
The second factor relates to Israeli domestic politics. I wouldn’t be surprised if within the next very short while that there will be an agreement to have early elections in Israel. So there is no incentive domestically for Israel to move from procedure to substance.
There is the perception here that no real negotiations can begin until there is a change in the regime, not necessarily an ouster of Likud but a rearrangement of political forces that weeds out the extreme right and installs a coalition supporting negotiations. Is it necessary for the government to fall before real negotiations can begin?
If I have to make a list of desiderata, I would put that very high, if not highest, personally. It would clearly be much easier to arrive at an interim agreement if there were a change of government. It may be unrealistic to count on that. One has to examine what the possibilities are under Likud. The Likud may have to distinguish its position from the extreme right, between outright annexation and what the Likud still considers to be in its best interest, namely some kind of autonomy. That may be the point of a certain convergence between Palestinian interests at this moment and the Likud government, while dividing the Likud from the far right.
If there is an agreement for three years of interim self-rule, what one succeeds in doing is buying time. The question is, how important is this in terms of changing patterns of interaction, accumulating different forms of relationships, getting used to reality that makes what seems to be impossible more feasible? I’m not sure the Likud can take us to any serious peace agreement, because it is unwilling to withdraw from the Occupied Territories. But if things go forward at least partly on substantive issues, and if time is considered important, then I wouldn’t totally dismiss it. It’s not preferable, but it’s possible.
The actual behavior of the government in Silwan seems to indicate total capitulation on the part of the Likud to the extreme right.
That’s why Silwan is such a watershed. The government is finding it, for a variety of reasons, more and more difficult to take action, and therefore it is moving even further to the right. This has some really profound implications for the Israeli state. The government, before and after Silwan, has not only failed to control the settlers; it is negotiating the formalization of handing over arms to them. There is nothing that undermines state capacity more directly than a government ceding its monopoly over the use of force in society. The government is colluding in an act of subversion against the state of Israel. I know too much about states and how they fall apart. That’s got me seriously worried about what the implications are structurally for the state.
Point number two: The government has options which it could have used against the settlers “going crazy,” not only in Silwan but also taking matters into their own hands and issuing “warnings” with live fire. The government could have, and could still today, cut off the financing. Instead it is increasing it. It is still not taxing fully people who live across the Green Line. It is essentially giving them license for a whole series of things. Furthermore, it could very clearly put a stop, through the use of government forces, to this kind of action. But the government has allowed the settlers to undermine very seriously the state’s capacities.
Are elections likely to produce a polarization that is favorable to the peace forces?
That brings us back to what the possibilities are for a change of government. A change of government won’t be conducive to civil relations within Israel, but I think we’ve reached a turning point on that already. The lines are drawn. Either way, we’re moving into a very messy period.
What alignment of forces do you see emerging?
I won’t predict, but this is what may happen. On the right, the three extreme right parties — Moledet, ha-Tehiya, Tzomet — may be able to siphon off some votes from the Likud, depending where Sharon stands. Sharon’s wing of the Likud can not be easily distinguished from portions of the far right. If they have seven [seats] now, they might go to ten. The polls are now showing Likud bringing in roughly 30 to 35 percent of the vote. As Madrid fades, that diminishes. Barring any surprises, Shamir will lead the Likud and there won’t be direct election of the prime minister. Despite the power battles within, the Likud leadership is fairly predictable. There is the possibility of increasing its strength, or at least maintaining it even if it loses a bit to the right wing.
Labor is going to experience a dramatic reduction in its electoral support, partly because it can’t resolve its leadership struggle. The new crop of contenders are not persuasive. It’s lost a lot of credit because of its incapacity to act as an opposition, and it made some platform choices that don’t help to clarify its position — primarily the decision to retract their original positions on the settlements in the Golan and on religion and state.
There is no center in the Israeli political scene today. Any attempt to establish that center now is fallacious, misleading and, I think, doomed to fail.
What about the Zionist left?
The parties left of Labor are Ratz, Shinui and Mapam, although Shinui would dispute that description. Ratz and Shinui are going to run together, and I would bet that what we’re talking about is a Ratz-Shinui-Mapam bloc, that now controls ten seats in the Knesset. The polls are showing that this bloc will win 15 seats without trying. The question is, can they top 20? This assumes Mapam coming into the “peace bloc.” There is going to be a bloc, and it’s going to be the third largest party in the next Knesset, but is it going to be significant enough to form a coalition with Labor, and will it, together with Labor, be strong enough to bloc a strong right-wing coalition?
Then we have the Palestinian Israelis, the Arab vote, and here I also anticipate an electoral alliance between Mi‘ari’s Progressive List for Peace and Darawsha’s Arab Democratic Party.
The Islamist tendencies, especially in the Galilee, have been growing in the last few years. There is a debate as to whether they will actually run in the next elections.
There is a high likelihood that if they decide to run they will be brought to the Supreme Court, on grounds that they don’t support the existence of the state of Israel, and I’m not sure they want to risk that. The critical question is what behind-the-scenes role will they play. There was much higher participation in the 1989 municipal elections than in the 1988 national elections, for instance. The Arab vote in Israel has never been fully realized. Its strength is up to 14-15 seats. I understand from people involved that they are trying to work out a deal where the Islamist groups will help bring out the vote but themselves stay in the background.
You are not only a prominent scholar of Africa in Israeli academia, you are also seen as a rising star in Israeli left politics. What role do you see yourself playing in the coming election?
I’d prefer to answer that on a less personal level of where I think Ratz should go. Rising stars can also fall.
I start with a few assumptions. First, these elections are absolutely critical — for Israeli politics, for the peace process and for the Palestinians. Because the elections are so important, in terms of the internal balance of forces, the question is what kind of strategy should the left devise.
We know what the Likud strategy is. The Likud is very successful with its compartmentalization strategy, which goes as follows: There is a peace process that has nothing to do with settlements; and settlements have nothing to do with immigration; and immigration has nothing to do with the economy. If you keep dividing up the spheres of action, making sure that one is not connected to the other, then you can make your case in each area and get away with it. The Likud will present itself as both the promoter of peace and the protector of a Greater Israel.
The Labor answer is to try to set priorities, but because it is not willing to take clear positions on critical issues, it finds itself answering or attacking the Likud, asking the Likud to make a connection between peace and immigrants, and so forth.
So the strategy of the peace bloc is, first, to be crystal-clear on where it stands and where it wants to go and what the dangers of not moving are. Clarity demands literally digging in and taking a stand. Second, the only viable electoral strategy is to draw a very clear picture of a preferred future, an alternative vision for Israel as a small democratic state in the Middle East, and to build around that alternate vision what I consider to be a positive goal. That involves certain concrete steps both in the peace process and in terms of Israeli democracy, which is now at risk, and in terms of domestic social and economic issues. In other words, a viable strategy is a comprehensive strategy, a clear and positive construction of a future, to give people something to hang on to.
There are still difficulties for the peace bloc, especially on matters of social and economic policy, that have to be ironed out. But this is a period where old ideologies are being reconsidered. One can take advantage of the opportunity and start repackaging everything. One has to stake out another place on the political map and make it absolutely evident where one stands, and where one wants to go and why.
When we are discussing things that are actually going on, you give a very pessimistic reading of the growing strength of the ultra-right and its ability to dictate the structure and discursive framework for Israeli politics. On the other hand, there’s your projection of the future emergence of a peace bloc and what it might be able to accomplish. Suppose the extreme right continues along the same path, continues to be able to constrain and pull the Likud toward a more extreme position, and the Likud is reelected whenever elections happen; suppose too that some version of the peace bloc comes together, and does very well but not well enough to block the formation of a second version of the current coalition. Then what?
You zero in on what I think is the greatest impediment of the opposition in Israel. It has nothing to do with anything we have discussed so far. I can summarize it in one phrase: lack of self-confidence. The trends we’ve been discussing are noticeable to others as well. People feel very helpless and frustrated. They can’t see what immense power they actually have. That has to be tested, and that’s why I was so emphatic about the need for a clear and positive strategy. That means overcoming a psychological barrier among many Israelis who feel they just can’t do anything about what’s going on. The connection is in bolstering the self-confidence of the opposition to challenge the ability of the right to control all the symbols of the spectrum. Silwan embodies that symbolic struggle.
The link between the two levels is the capacity to instill the belief among large segments of people who are unhappy about what’s going on that they have the ability to change the balance of power in the country. There’s been only one pole. Establish an alternative pole. Hopefully it will garner enough votes to change the balance. I have no problem, but some of my colleagues are less happy, in contemplating a coalition with Arab partners within Israel. Either Israel is a democratic society and therefore power is open to everybody — not just representation — or it’s not. There is a democratic course that we must defend and promote. This is serious business. If you fail, you fail. But you go into it not in order to make a point. You go into it first and foremost because you want to win.