An exclusive Gazette-Interview with Tom Segev

The Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev was born in 1945 in Jerusalem. Three years later his father - having fled with his wife from Nazi Germany in 1935 - died in the first Arab-Israeli war. Segev received his BA in History and Political Science from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and his Ph.D. in History from Boston University. In Ha'aretz, Israel's most prestigious newspaper, he publishes a weekly column dealing mainly with the politics of culture and with human rights. His opinions are so controversial that he is probably the most often quoted journalist in the Israeli media today.
In his interview with Linda Benedikt he describes the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict as highly explosive, but not altogether hopeless.

Die Gazette: Some argue that the Intifada of today is completely different from the one in the late '80s? Can they still be compared?
Tom Segev: They can be compared, but only in general terms. Both are meant to throw us out of the territories. The greatest difference between the two is, that today, most of the attacks are happening in Israel and that they are directed against civilians and settlers rather than against soldiers. Nowadays soldiers don't spend so much time in the territories as they used to during the first Intifada. It was the soldier' s action which caused widespread unease of the Israeli public. The public did not like what it saw. And the result was a very large support for Oslo, for the majority wanted to get rid of the territories. In that sense the first Intifada won. During the first Intifada, terrorist attacks were not a major means to get rid of the occupation. This has changed. The second Intifada is in fact a long series of terrorist attacks which has the opposite effect. Then people said: let's get rid of the territories. Today people say: let' s get rid of the Arabs. In that sense, the Palestinians are not winning.

But could that not lead to exactly the same thing, that is a final withdrawal, no matter the different motives?
To pull out of the territories is a left-wing slogan. And the left is very weak today as a direct result of terrorism. Today the right wing idea of getting rid of the Arabs is much stronger and it entails all kind of other implications, such as transfer and expulsion. If you walk around Jerusalem you can see written it written on the walls: gerush le aravim, death to the Arabs.

But the idea of transfer is not necessarily a new one. It was already a feature in the '80s.
Yes, but not a prominent one. It was only advocated by a very, very small minority of fringy and crazy right-wing people like Rehvam Ze'evi [a former member of Sharon's Likud led government. He was killed by Palestinian gun men last fall in Jerusalem. He advocated the idea of transferring all Palestinians from Israel from the '80s onwards]. But today more and more people pick up on this idea, thus granting it some legitimacy. A legitimacy it formerly lacked. Now it has become a topic of discussion. And this is the major difference of the two Intifadas as far as Israel is concerned. Concerning the Palestinians: the first Intifada had an element of social revolution which the second one lacks. The Intifada now is very much directed by the Palestinian establishment. It is not a rebellion, it is not women' s movement anymore, it is not the young against the old.

What is the role of the Palestinian Authority in the uprising and is it not also under attack by the Palestinians?
The Palestinian leadership is playing a double role here and is really speaking with two voices: On the one hand they condemn it and on the other they finance it. They are in a situation which is quite similar to any other leadership of a liberation movement: their agenda is determined by the extremists. As to what extent the Palestinians are also fighting against the PA: I really do not know. Basically they want the PA to do more for them. But as far as I understand it: it is not a rebellion directed against the PA, it is not about a new agenda.

Were the Israelis really taken by surprise by the new uprising?
Yes. We were all very surprised. But if we had read more carefully what we had published, what we had written, we should not have been. But most Israelis believed that we are heading towards some kind of settlement. Not necessarily peace, but at least some kind of settlement. Now we know that was an illusion. Not all of it. Oslo was a good system, it was just managed very badly. But the underlying assumption, that we needed a lot of time to solve things gradually, was correct.

But was not this the main problem: postponing the crucial issues ad infinitum?
No, it would have been good if it would have been managed well. But instead of keeping to Oslo, we continued our settlement policy and completely ignored the fact that the majority of the Palestinians had absolutely nothing from Oslo. We know now that the whole world was giving Arafat lots and lots of money which he used to build up this very corrupt oligarchy and the ordinary people gained absolutely nothing. That was a mistake we made, the world made and of course, Arafat. He wasted ten years and so did we. But this does not mean that the system was wrong. After all, we all know what is going to happen: a Palestinian state. But that so much time was wasted really annoys me. But if it were up to me to make a decision, I would go back to square one: Oslo.

Should a Palestinian state not have stood at the beginning?
Yes, that was the major mistake of Oslo. The peace process should have started with a Palestinian state and major Israeli concessions. I still do think that we need not solve all issues at once, like the questions of borders or who rules over Jerusalem - after all, at the beginning of Israeli statehood, Jerusalem was not the capital of Israel. And it was wrong of Barak to request from Arafat to tell the Palestinian refugees that they cannot return. There are still many issues we will have to solve. But since the gap between both parties is still so big, why should we try and solve all outstanding issues? Why not concentrate on what we can do? We must avoid a situation were we believe that we can solve the conflict. This conflict cannot be solved. It can only be managed. Anything else would be naïve.

According to the official web-page of the Israeli government, Israel still refuses to take responsibility for the refugee problem. Famous scholars, such as Benny Morris, who, like you, is part of the so-called New Historians which had access in the mid-80s to newly declassified material from Israeli archives and who consequently could show that Israel was much less vulnerable and less innocent than Israelis would like to believe and their government would like them to know. Today Morris together with Ehud Barak is entirely blaming the Palestinian leader for the failed Camp David talks in a series of articles in the The New York Times Book Review. What made Morris suddenly contradict his own scholarly work?
That is what terror does to us. It is utter disillusionment, the feeling of "we have tried, but it did not work. They still want to throw me into the sea". This is what terrorism does. It would be different if they used different tactics. Terrorism does not hurt my country, it does not hurt my society, terrorism hurts me. I am sitting in my coffee shop, I am talking peace and the next morning that coffee place is gone. This is a very individualistic time in our history. We do not think collectively anymore.

What do the Israelis know about Palestinian suffering? Is there a sense of Israeli action and Palestinian reaction?
This is not a moral question. Do I approve of what the Palestinians are doing? No, neither in the past nor now. Nothing is worth this suffering. And this is very harmful to any future settlement. If you ask me why Benny changed his mind, well, he does not like terrorism. It is that simple.

Will there ever be an Israeli government that will dismantle the settlements or will the fear of the settlers' political wrath stop any such efforts?
I am not sure. Maybe some settlements. The geopolitical situation in this country has changed. It is not the same as it was in '67. So, when the Palestinians recognised Israel in her '67 borders that was very nice. But not enough, it is too late. Some things you cannot change. Take Ariel, it is now a big town. Same with Ma'ale Adumim. There are there to stay. It is not realistic to talk about dismantling them. Small ones of course can be dismantled.

To which extent is Israeli politics and dealings with this conflict influenced by the rivalry between Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanjahu [Netanjahu, like Sharon a member of the Likud party, initiated a inner party vote on whether a Palestinian state should at one point be allowed to exist next to Israel. Sharon was a against such a vote. However, Netanjahu went ahead and the party decided against the establishment of a Palestinian state]?
To a great extent. But Sharon still enjoys more support within the Likud party than Netanjahu. But in general Israel does not have such a thing like foreign policy. Everything is the result of internal politics. And it is usual a small segment of extremists which determines the agenda.

Which role plays the Labour party which, according to some, is a brother in crime ever since they joined Sharon's government, and do you see anyone who could break the current deadlock?
First of all, the Labour party doesn' t exist anymore. Sharon is at the moment very strong. That is not to say that he cannot be replaced by someone else, I just do not see anyone. Maybe Netanjahu will be the one. Maybe not. As to the current deadlock: I only fear that either Sharon or Arafat will deteriorate the situation even further and that there will be a war. And then I am afraid that once we have an all out war, a lot of Arabs will be expelled and people will explain such actions by saying: well, such things happen during war! And we will be really back at square one. That' s why I think it is extremely harmful that people are discussing even the possibility of transfer and expulsion.

Israeli politics seem to be dominated by a selected view: Sharon is part of the political landscape for over 50 years and even Ehud Barak threatened in a recent interview, that, if need be, he would return to politics.
It is true, political changes in Israel are quite slow. I do not know why. But altogether we do have new people. We just do not have new ideas. Many things we say today, we already said years ago. On the other hand the basic problems have also not changed. There was a time shortly before Oslo, when new agendas came up. But this new circle of violence just threw us back to the familiar Zionist narrative. Whereas the last of the Zionist dreams still waits to be fulfilled: Arab recognition of Israel.

Does not the conflict with the Palestinian serve as a convenient excuse as not to touch pressing issues within Israeli society which might disrupt its unity?
I do not know whether it is an excuse. I just know that before Oslo Israelis were seriously discussing as to how to combine its quest for democracy and its commitment to a Jewish majority. This concerned mainly Israel' s treatment of her Arab citizens and their integration into Israeli society. Yet the conflict with the Palestinians brought this debate to a halt.

Can there be anything learned from the failure and shortcoming of Oslo?
It becomes more and more difficult to solve this problem. What we need to do is share the land. But the more settlements we build the more difficult it all becomes. On the other hand, if we look at it historically, there is also some hope: the basic positions of the Arabs and the Israelis got closer. The Palestinians have signed Oslo. And the Israelis who once said that they will never ever talk with the PLO – at times it was even illegal to have contact with a PLO member – started to negotiate with Arafat. Israel is also willing now to accept a Palestinian state, talk about power sharing in Jerusalem. In this respect, many taboos were broken. It is simply a very slow process.

18. Juni 2002


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