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.
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
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
Will there ever be an Israeli government that will dismantle the
settlements or will the fear of the settlers' political wrath stop any
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
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
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
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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