Israel and Peace in the Middle East: Shlomo Ben Ami

With the formation of a new government in Israel, what are the chances for peace in the Middle East? Last Friday, as director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution, I invited to Columbia University Shlomo Ben Ami, a historian and former foreign minister of Israel, to talk about the chances for peace in the region. The lecture reflected the depth of knowledge, the intellectual honesty, and the wisdom that has marked the academic life as well as the political carrier of Ben Ami. The thoughts he expressed in the lecture echoed the ideas and the analysis he put forward in his book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace.
The intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is in the nature of this conflict that the maximum for Israel does not meet the minimum for the Palestinians. We have been incapable of accepting each other's ethos. This is very different from a land dispute. This is not only about Palestinians recognizing the state of Israel, but also about the moral legitimacy of the Jewish State. At the same time, without a reasonable solution on the refugee question, one can see how a mini-state in the West Bank with Gaza has little attraction for the Palestinians. Both people are looking for justice.
The two-state solution and the new Israeli government. We are only few minutes away from the end of a two-state solution. The Palestinian have lost hope. They lack the charismatic leadership of a revolutionary figure like Arafat, who was able to impose the two-state solution. On the other hand, the new Israeli government does not even contemplate this solution in its guideline. This government believes that economic peace is sufficient. It is not. This is non-sense. Peace cannot be disjointed from a political solution.
The dangers of a one-state solution. The one-state solution will cause Israel's unilateral and hostile disengagement. In a choice between land and identify, that is between land and demography, Israel has always opted for guarding the Jewishness of Israel.
Peace, not trust. You cannot build trust between the occupied and the occupier. We need peace before and trust later. First you make peace and then you make love. This is what happened with Egypt. The next generation will make love, but for us today peace in enough.
The dysfunctional political system of Israel. You cannot make any important decision - let alone historic decisions - without causing the dissolution of the government. With such a dysfunctional system there is no way to direct a peace process. We need a reform. The one of the 1990s was only a partial reform. Today the electoral system allows for the formation of dysfunctional coalitions. Today with one hand we elect the prime minister and with the other hand, forming the parliament, we vote against him.
Sharon, the political architect. As no one else, Sharon proved able to form coalitions around his policies. As a result of his years, today the right accepts with more flexibility measures that for them were anathema in the past.
The influence of the Israeli Army. It has a unique role. There has been always a smooth move of generals from the combat field to politics. This explains also the strings that generals have with the cabinet. The Israeli really feel threatened and genuinely believe that the state of Israel might not survive. On one hand Israel defines itself as a superpower, and on the other hand it lives in an existential anguish. This is the schizophrenia of the Israeli mind. Consequently, nobody wants to take the responsibility not to take seriously the advice from the military.
The Obama Administration and George Mitchell. Mitchell was one of the best appointments so far made by President Obama. He will not come to the region to commit to small things. I believe he wants to think big. In past peace processes, the parties were able to reduce the ocean to a river, but they remained incapable of crossing the river. The leadership of the United States, together with a broad international coalition, should propose to the parties bridging and binding proposals. If Obama inaugurates an era of new public diplomacy, we have a chance to make peace in the Middle East.