Kadima: Interview with Otniel Schneller


Yesterday I interviewed Otniel Schneller, a current member of Knesset, twenty-seventh on the Kadima party list, the former deputy speaker of the Knesset under the previous Kadima government, and the director general of the Yesha Council between 1983 and 1986. Kadima was a centrist party formed by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in November 2005.

The unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza carried out in August and September of the same year exposed huge rifts in the then governing Likud which left PM Sharon isolated in his own cabinet. When the Labor party decided to desert the governing coalition in early November, Sharon established the new party to give him the freedom to push his disengagement agenda and perhaps the establishment of a Palestinian state. Others have argued that the Gaza Disengagement was used by Sharon as a stop-gag measure to quiet international criticism while consolidating Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

When Sharon fell into a coma in January 2006, Ehud Olmert succeeded him as prime minister, leading the party to victory in the March 2006 elections. During his administration, Olmert faced a number of challenges including the Palestinian parliamentary electoral victory of Hamas in late January 2006, the kidnap of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June, and the August to October Lebanon War sparked by the Hezbollah kidnapping of Israeli servicemen Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in July. Olmert also participated in the November 2007 Annapolis conference in which he reportedly offered to PA President Mahmoud Abbas a territorial withdrawal from the West Bank and divided control of Jerusalem more generous than that offered by Ehud Barak to Yasser Arafat in 2000 at Camp David. However, this was only to serve as a framework for future talks, which did not take place.

Olmert resigned from party leadership in 2008 following a series of scandals and was succeeded by current party leader Tzipi Livni. She now heads the opposition as the largest party in Knesset by one seat (28 to Likud’s 27) following the March 2009 national elections. She and former PM Olmert have also been vocally critical of the Likud-led coalition and their approach to international engagement asserting that the conservative bloc has alienated Israel from its traditional allies and largely foregone the peace process.

According to Schneller, this is indicative less of the performance of the current government than it is reflective of a shift in Kadima’s political orientation. Although a centrist party under Ariel Sharon, it was become a leftist one under Olmert and Livni with more in common with “Labor and Meretz” than the Israeli political mainstream. Schneller still identifies with the “ideology” of Kadima but not its practical “politics.” Does this mean that Schneller is planning to defect from the party? He asserted that Israeli law requires that he remain a part of the party to which he was elected. However, with regard to the future, “this could be interesting.” Kadima and Labor may merge or it may disappear altogether. In any event, its current political orientation is not one with which he can comfortably identify.

Schneller’s policy preferences and opinions, then, must not be taken as reflective of any political consensus within Kadima. They reflect the voice of a self-perceived outsider who, however, believes himself to be a political centrist. Throughout, then, I will be comparing his positions to those which he believes represent the Kadima leadership. The congruence of these positions is still, in my mind, significant and also shares important similarities to those of parties across the Israeli political spectrum. As with previous interviews with members of Knesset, I will offer his thoughts on several key territorial issues: Gaza, the Golan, the West Bank, the question of land and/or population swaps in pursuit of a final settlement, and Jerusalem.

As with other members of Kadima, Schneller is supportive of the principle of territorial withdrawal in order to secure Israel’s existence as a Jewish and Democratic state. From his point of view, the most important thing is not the Palestinians but ensuring the continued welfare of “our nation” in a Jewish state. The best way to achieve this is a two state solution where the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. More important, however, is that Israelis build a “common national agreement” on their future; one which puts on the table a picture of the Jewish state which Israelis can give to their grandchildren.

The next critical element is to recognize that “peace is a vision, not a reality right now.” Neither side, he believes, is currently prepared to pay the high price necessary to create peace between Israelis and Palestinians. However, he does believe that Israel can take concrete steps to build an environment in which trust can develop and neighborly relations can be established. This will require temporary measures which perpetuate Israeli control more or less as is over the territories while helping the Palestinians to develop their economy and build a credible and effective security infrastructure and autonomous political administration.

The final responsibility, however, falls to the Palestinians. While Israel has been working hard to create the conditions under which peace will be possible, the Palestinians he argues have stood on the sidelines. Rather than taking part in the cooperative process, they have stalled negotiations even during political openings which might have been offered by the now-expired West Bank building freeze, issued demands to the international community, and refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Schneller asserts that if the Palestinian Authority were to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the process would go forward “very fast,” but if they continue to refuse this condition, peace will not come for many generations.

With these three elements in mind, Schneller’s positions on each of the contentious territories in question are quite illuminating. With regard to the Gaza Disengagement, he insists that he was supportive of a more gradual and negotiated withdrawal than actually occurred. Rather than expel all of Gush Katif’s residents at once, Israel should have engaged in a provisional withdrawal, starting in the north. This could have been an excellent test case for withdrawal, both for determining what security conditions would be on the ground from the Palestinians and for ensuring that Israel was indeed prepared to resettle its citizens outside Gaza.

Unfortunately, by engaging in this unilateral action, Israel enabled a dangerous security environment in which Hamas was able to take political power and use Gaza as a launching ground for an unprecedented barrage of missiles on Israel’s south. It also failed to properly resettle the former residents of Gush Katif, many of whom to this day are living in “temporary” camps awaiting permanent and sustainable resettlement. Today, it is unthinkable for Israel to return Jewish settlement to Gaza. There are too many Palestinians living there and the demographic price to Israel would be too high. However, it must work harder to contain Hamas in Gaza as it has been largely successful in doing so in the West Bank. In this respect, Schneller’s position on Gaza today coincides with those which still characterize Kadima as well as most of the Israeli mainstream; isolation of Hamas, containment of Gaza, and no return to Jewish settlement.

The Golan, as with most of my previous interviews, was treated by Schneller first and foremost (if not exclusively) as a security issue. Syria, he asserted, is a part of the alliance which includes Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, whom Israel cannot trust in the current international security environment. The idea of 100% peace for 100% withdrawal as has been suggested at various times by Syria (as the alternative to no peace at all), is ultimately unworkable. Israel needs the Golan Heights to defend itself against what it perceives to be a persistently belligerent neighbor. If Israel were to withdraw in any part from this territory, it would have to be under a condition where this was no longer the case. Peace with Syria, Schneller insists, must then consider options other than full withdrawal. This may mean that the Golan is given a “special status” or that Israel and Syria simply learn to be good neighbors under the status quo.

In terms of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (West Bank), Schneller cannot imagine that a full withdrawal would ever be possible or even desirable. Here Schneller’s rationale for opposing such an evacuation takes four forms. As with Gaza, the question of demography dictates that some withdrawal will be necessary to ensure that Palestinians do not become citizens of the State of Israel, thereby erasing its Jewish character. However, there is also the question of security. The Jordan Valley and the strategic highlands which dominate Judea and Samaria are critical for Israel’s defense, both from potentially hostile neighbors and from the Palestinians themselves. These are both considerations which also guide Kadima party policy and those Labor, Likud, and even Meretz.

Schneller is also concerned with the status of Israelis who currently live in the West Bank. It is his belief and insistence that any peace deal with the Palestinians does not include the displacement of any more than around 10% of the territory’s Jewish population. As such, he does not support either the Geneva Accords or the Annapolis Process, both of which imagine a much larger evacuation of Jewish communities. A peace deal based on such a massive expulsion of Israelis from their homes as envisioned by these frameworks would never be accepted by the vast majority of Israelis.

As important if not more so than peace with the Palestinians, he insists, is peace between Israelis. Without such an internal peace, peace with the Palestinians will be simply impossible. Convincing Israelis that another displacement of their citizens from their homes is a necessary step to peace, however, is only one part of the story. The other is reconciling political necessity with the abdication of exclusive control over Judea and Samaria, the heartland of the historical Land of Israel. Integral to forging such a common understanding, is the acceptance that “the Green Line is not sacred” (קוו ירוק לא קדוש).

Schneller is a supporter of territorial swaps to compensate the Palestinians for major settlement blocs annexed to Israel. The real question is if such swaps will be territorial only or also include populations as envisioned by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. In concept, Schneller suggests, the swaps will be both, but in reality they will likely only begin with swaps for “empty” territories. The feelings of Israeli Arabs aside, he does not believe that Jewish Israelis are ready to convince Arab citizens or themselves that they should be under Palestinian sovereignty. However, as the Palestinians demand more and more territory be placed under their control, Israel will reach a red line when it must offer the option of Arab populated regions of Israel in exchange for Israeli populated ones in the prospective Palestinian state.

As has been the case across my interviews, Jerusalem remains the exception even among those who are willing to exchange land for peace. Whereas the idea of the Land of Israel has some emotional pull in Judea and Samaria, it is a gravitational force for Israel’s biblical and historical capital. Schneller went as far as to insist that he would prefer a situation of continued war with the Palestinians in which Israel retained control of Jerusalem to one in which peace was achieved but Israel no longer retained sovereignty.

That said, he is not entirely closed to the idea of compromise. The issue of Jerusalem, he believes, must be parsed along several key considerations. The first is that one must define what one means by Jerusalem. While political rhetoric often points to the indivisibility of the entire expanded municipality, this is much more expansive than the territory which is actually important to the Jewish people. There are only specific areas of the city which are holy, namely the Old City and Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, Har Zion, and Ir David. The peripheral Palestinian neighborhoods like Issawiya, Jabal Mukaber, and Kfar ‘Aqab are not.

In his vision of a divided municipality, areas like these will be “Al Quds” while “peripheral” Jewish majority neighborhoods like Har HaTzofim, Hagiva Hatzorfatit, Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo, Har Homa, and the like will be a part of “Yerushalayim.” Internal Arab majority neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon HaTzaddik and Wadi al-Joz may require special arrangements given their degree of geographic integration with Jewish neighborhoods. The residents of these neighborhoods along with the “historical” neighborhoods listed above would be served by their respective municipalities, al Quds for Palestinians and Yerushalayim for Israelis under the framework of controlled open movement, with similar arrangements for property ownership. So too would security arrangements in these areas need to be coordinated between Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

Notably, the only place in which Schneller’s hopes for the future of Jerusalem seem to differ from those of former PM Ehud Olmert are in the conditions of sovereignty for the historical areas of Jerusalem. Both assert that the area must be open to both Israelis and Palestinians under special arrangements, both assert that the sovereignty of holy sites must be held by religions and not states, and both maintain that sharing these spaces is critical for peace. Schneller, however, insists that these “special arrangements” in historical Jerusalem must be under the permanent condition of Israeli sovereignty. He is not shy to insist that this is because of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s special and unique link to this city.

Schneller’s position on Jerusalem in particular highlights that although themes of security and demography reverberate through every national discussion regarding the determination of Israel’s final borders, these themes become considerably less dominant and more subject to compromise where identity claims are most strong. True, leftist parties appear prepared to accept greater compromises on Jerusalem than their rightist counterparts. Yet even those on the left insist on a special status for Jerusalem’s holy sites, however geographically and politically divided, though their leadership may not be particularly religious or nationalist. That disparate political ideologies coalesce around this position may significantly define the conditions under which conflict resolution in even these incredibly contentious spaces is possible.

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