Interview with Yossi Beilin


On Tuesday, I took the train from Tel Aviv to Herzliya to meet with Yossi Beilin, a high-profile leftist Israeli political figure and former head of the Meretz party. He is best known for his active involvement in the negotiation of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2003 Geneva Initiative. In 2008, he chose not to seek a place on the Meretz ticket and has since moved into the private sector. He now heads up an global networking company, Beilink, headquartered in Herzliya but remains an active voice in politics in support of a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Diving right into our conversation, I asked him why he believed that there has not yet been a comprehensive peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. He expressed that he could not be certain, but that in order to achieve peace both sides will have to give up on certain critical principles. For the Palestinians, he identified the critical principle in question as being the return of refugees. For Israel, he believes, it is the division of Jerusalem. For both sides, he asserted, these are issues on which their respective constituencies demand that their leadership makes no compromise.

More than that, however, he believes that the leaders themselves hold these principles dear. That these “axioms” are ones with which political leaders too grew up believing were sacred and inviolable. Between the demands of the public and the stubbornness of the leadership, Beilin believes that there has been a growing acquiescence to the status quo: no peace, no war.

This is a situation which, in some ways, has benefited both sides, allowing each to settle into a political and bureaucratic setting where no one needs to take responsibility for day-to-day realities. For the Israelis, it has allowed for constant extension of emergency laws and for the Arabs to place all the blame for the situation on Israel and the occupation.

To this, he told me a story from his days in the army. Getting up in the middle of the night to begin his guard duty, he noticed that his friend’s tent had been swamped by water. Inside, he was fast asleep and soaking wet. Waking him up, he told him to take his tent which was dry and sure to be more comfortable. Instead of thanking him for a few hours in a new bed, he complained that it had already taken him so long to get to sleep; why was he waking him up now? As an analogy for the conflict, it is fairly self-explanatory.

Both sides, he believes, have taken a certain pride in their ability to weather adversity, be tough, and win great battles. For Israelis, he said that they are proud of their army and their wars. As the generation of 1967, he is proud of his service in the Sinai and the Golan. The Palestinians, he believes, are proud to be fighting occupation. In this way, it is a bit like kindergarten. Everyone prefers to bicker and point fingers blaming the other for their predicament. Everyone prefers to put on a strong face rather than sit down to negotiate.

So what of these principles: refugees and Jerusalem? Beilin believes that there are no other issues which are sacred and it is these that are the main obstacles to peace. For Israelis in the know, he said, it is clear that the refugee camps around Jerusalem (like Shuafat) have nothing to do with Jewish history, and for Palestinians, they know that taking about the return of refugees is an absolute non-starter with Israel. The tragedy he believes is not that there are good people and bad people who cannot get along, but that everyone is right. This makes compromise even more difficult.

Turning to the Geneva Initiative, I asked if he had any hope that this plan would be implemented. He argued that no one is “in love” with the initiative; the point was to show that a negotiated solution is feasible and possible; to show that there are people who are respected in Israeli and Palestinian societies who can come together to form a plan which is comprehensive and detailed. Still, the hope is for peace, not for Geneva. While many can agree on the general ideas of a peace plan, it is said that no agreement can be made on the “nitty-gritty.” “But,” he insists, “we did.”

As to the content of a solution itself, Beilin believes that there must be a division of territory, not that he is happy about it. Then he said something which really surprised me, especially coming from a former head of Meretz. He said that if Israel could, he would prefer if it would stay in Hebron and Nablus/Shechem. This, he insisted, is where our history is; not Tel Aviv. Yet, Israel cannot do this, largely because of demography.

The moment the world decides that Israel is dominating a Palestinian majority, it will have to divide the land, either through negotiations or unilaterally, if it wishes to avoid international isolation. The advantage enjoyed by PM Netanyahu which most previous Prime Ministers did not is that a border already exists; the security barrier. It would be better to negotiate a withdrawal with the Palestinians, but if the government was unwilling to deal with the physical division of Jerusalem or refugees, a unilateral approach would do.

To the question of whether Israel could seek a solution within a single state he answered that “no Zionist” would agree to this. He argues that “serious people” treat this as no more than an intellectual exercise, which rests on the assumption that the Palestinians are ready for the same kind of democracy as Israel. Even the post-Zionists who say that the Jewish state is over are not ready to live in the same kind of regime as might be demanded by the Palestinians. If Israel’s neighbors choose to be democratic, this would be good, but to assert that they should be under the same umbrella is “crazy, not serious.”

I then asked why he believes a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is pressing. To this, he had two responses. First, it is a question of human rights and morality. Even if Palestinians are the prisoners and Israelis are the guards, they are still in the same prison. Pointing to the recent story of a female soldier who posted pictures of herself with bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners, he said that this was an example of the moral costs of occupation. Where one’s attitude toward the other is formed place in a situation of such power asymmetry, the results can be quite damaging. This is particularly true, he argues, of young army recruits. An 18 year old with that much power is just frightening.

More important for the state itself, he argued, is the question of demography. It would be an oxymoron for the Jewish state to have a majority of non-Jews. Neither Herzl nor Jabotinsky ever imagined a situation in which a Jewish minority would dominate an Arab majority. The right, Beilin contended, did not want a state in 1947 precisely because Jews were the minority in the whole of the land. The left, on the other hand, decided it did not have time to wait and opted for a state on a small portion of the land in which they would be a majority. There are a minority of Jews today, he argued, who will say that the whole of the land belongs to them; that they will do whatever is necessary to make this be true including making Palestinians into citizens.

The world, however, he believes will not accept this. Nor, he argued, will Israelis. In his reading of public opinion polling, the majority of Israelis are in favor of an agreement and a division of the land. There is not a readiness to accept post-Zionism. Rather, they want both a Jewish state and a democratic one. Beilin hopes that that this can be the reality and rather than a solution being imposed from the outside, Israel will take upon itself to withdraw from the territories, whether unilaterally or with the agreement of the Palestinians.

2 Responses to Interview with Yossi Beilin

  1. […] division and/or shared control elsewhere with regard to holy sites and Jerusalem in general: here, here, and […]

  2. […] Hayehudi or Ichud Leumi. However, they are also certainly not as open to compromise as leftist parties like Meretz (whose elites incidentally have also expressed to me their understanding of the […]

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