Transcript: Yoav Peled on Egypt, Israel's Reaction and "Post-Post Zionism"

The following interview was conducted by Suzi Weissman for her program "Beneath the Surface" on KPFK, February 11, 2011. Transcribed by Meleiza Figueroa. This interview was published in Against the Current 151, March-April 2011.

Suzi Weissman: I'm very pleased to have Yoav Peled join us right now to talk about the Israeli reaction to the events in Egypt, the relations between Egypt and Israel, and we're going to ask Yoav: Wither the Middle East after today's events? In what directions will the fresh air blowing from Tunisia and Egypt continue? And we're also going to talk to Yoav about "Post-Post Zionism," the title of Horit and Yoav Peled's latest article in the New Left Review, confronting the death of the two-state solution. Yoav is this year's Hans Speier Professor at the New School for Social Research; he's also a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, and he's also just got a law degree from Tel Aviv University. So he's done a lot of things, he writes a lot about citizenship, his book "Being Israeli: the Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship" won many prizes, and his latest collection is "Democratic Citizenship and War." Yoav joins us from New York. Welcome to Beneath the Surface.

Yoav Peled: Hello, thank you.

SW: I'm very pleased to be with you today, and especially as this joy that spreads around after 18 days, in which we've seen a movement for democracy actually topple a dictator get, as you've probably heard, martial law lifted in Algeria and has dictators scrambling around the whole of the Middle East. So my first question to you is: what is the reaction in Israel?

YP: The reaction in Israel is very very nervous, naturally. Israel's good relations with Egypt were precisely with their dictator. So, to the extent that Egypt democratizes - and by the way, we still don't know to what extent this will happen - but to the extent this will happen, then Egypt will probably be less friendly to Israel. And by the way, I think the same holds for the US government - I'm sure the US government is also nervous, even though it has to say otherwise.

SW: Well, you and I were talking earlier about the dual nature of US policy; on the one hand, Obama's been saying the right things, at least in the beginning and being with the protesters, while Hillary Clinton's State Department supported this so-called "slow transition." Frank Wisner went and said that Mubarak was critical to the transition, they allowed the appointment of the vice president Suleiman, who is the torturer in chief, who then gave that contemptuous speech telling the demonstrators to go home to "be with their parents." In fact their parents were with them in the square. That angered the Egyptians even more and led to the downfall. You probably didn't hear, but Mark LeVine says that the impression is that Suleiman is gone as well, as the army takes over. So - first I should ask you, you mentioned now that Israel is very nervous - what do you think of the US policy as being sort of confusedly put forward these days?

YP: I think the US is nervous too. I think to the extent that Egypt becomes more democratic, to the extent that there is a regime there that is attuned to public opinion, will be less friendly, or I should say less subservient to the United States and Israel. So I think both of them are nervous, and of course we know that Saudi Arabia is very very nervous, and I'm sure Jordan too. So while a lot of people celebrate, there are a lot of people who don't see a reason to celebrate in all of this.

SW: But we've seen already, Yoav, that in Yemen - it spread somewhat to Libya and Yemen and to Jordan, and you mentioned Jordan, which borders the Palestinian territories. And on the Egyptian side, can we assume that Gaza will no longer be an open-air prison and that that blockaded tunnel will no longer be blockaded?

YP: Well, I think this really probably the first point in which there will be a confrontation. I think that any regime in Egypt that is somewhat democratic will not be able to maintain the siege on Gaza, which Egypt has been maintaining in Israel's service very religiously. So they will probably open the border, but I think the reaction of Israel will be to take over the border area, to re-occupy the border area from which it withdrew in 2005. So this will be an immediate point of contention between Israel and the new Egypt. If that happens - I think this is one major reason for concern for Israel. Besides, the Muslim Brotherhood already announced that it is Israel who has not lived up to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979, and they are right, because that peace treaty, the first part of the treaty talks about the Palestinians, it doesn't talk about Israel-Egyptian bilateral relations, that's only in the second paragraph. And Israel of course has not lived up to its obligations under the treaty with respect to the Palestinians. So the Muslim Brotherhood is saying Israel has not lived up to the treaty, so we're not obligated by it either. So to the extent that they will have influence in the new government, things can develop on that front also, so that's another major concern.

SW: So it's pretty amazing; and you've said an awful lot about things that we may, I guess, anticipate. And one of them is the way the winds have been blowing - this wind of fresh air, of the fact that even though there's been this contempt for people expressing democratic needs or even be "prepared for democracy" - we've seen that there is a young generation, workers and others, who are ready to have democracy. And I guess the real question is, can you imagine it reaching the Palestinian territories via Jordan or Gaza?

YP: Well, Gaza and the West Bank are not in the same situation. Gaza is under siege by Israel, but internally governed by Hamas. Hamas, of course, is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and they are celebrating what's happening in Egypt. In the West Bank, if there is any attempt to imitate what happened in Egypt, it's the Israeli military that will intervene, and the Israeli military will not treat the Palestinians the same way the Egyptian military treated the Egyptians.

SW: But would they dare, in this atmosphere, then put it down brutally while the whole world is watching?

YP: Israel is not interested in the whole world. Israel is only interested in the US, and the US is not going to interfere. I mean, we've already seen that the Obama administration is completely and totally in the little pocket of the Israeli government, to an extent that's really amazing, even. So I don't think Israel has to worry about anybody's reaction, because the US will support whatever it does.

SW: That's pretty depressing; and it seems to me that everything has changed now in the world as a result of what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, and we can't predict where it's going to go even for Israel, and I know that goes against what you're saying. But I can imagine that with this democracy spreading, that we can see the end of suicide bombers, if they have some form of political expression open to them, that this could evaporate; and it seems to me that it could happen quickly. Do you think that's pie in the sky?

YP: There hasn't been any suicide bombings since 2002. This is not at all the issue. This is not suicide bombers, it's Israel's determination to maintain control over the Palestinian territories. This is the issue. It's not a matter of the Palestinians changing; it's a matter of Israel changing. And there is no indication that the lesson in Israel, from what's happening in Egypt, is that Israel should change its treatment of the Palestinians.

SW: I'm speaking with Yoav Peled, he's this year's Hans Speier professor at the New School, but he is a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. And we're talking about Israeli reactions to the events in Egypt, we're also going to be talking about Yoav's latest article with Horit Peled that appears in the latest New Left Review on the end of the two-state solution. Well, Yoav, your article is very important. You've long been a proponent of the two-state solution, as long as I've known you, and yet in this article you posit the end of the two-state solution, as you and Horit summarize this movement of Israeli intellectuals who were previously critical of the religious state. So, what has happened, and can you sort of summarize what's happened?

YP: Well, the two-state solution is simply no longer an option. It was killed in July 2000 at Camp David, was killed by Ehud Barak with the very active help of Bill Clinton. And since then it's not been on the agenda; since then, the development of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has been such that this is no longer an option. It's like one of the Palestinians used to say: while we're negotiating about dividing the pizza, Israel is eating the pizza. So, there's simply no more land for the Palestinians to have a state. Many people thought this happened a lot earlier, I thought it only happened in 2000, but anyway we reached the point of no return in terms of Israeli settlements, so the whole question of a partition of the territory is no longer there. So the fact is, it is one state. I think we honestly have to face the fact that there is one state now, and that state is one where 40 percent of the population has no citizenship rights of any kind - and this is what needs to be changed. So what we're saying in our article is that we have to work now for a democratization of this state, where 40 percent of the people have no rights.

SW: And you also say though that the character of the state is - and you talk about it as the "post-Zionist state," and so it would have to be a secular and democratic state, one state - it is one state now. But, is this something that you can actually see happening? And before you answer that, I wanted to ask, what is it that made the former liberals and so-called left in Israel move to the right?

YP: Well, it was the combination of what happened at Camp David - because the version that was told about what happened at Camp David by Ehud Barak, with again the active assistance of Clinton - was that Israel offered Yasser Arafat everything, and that he refused. And if he refused to accept this generous offer, it means he doesn't want peace, it means he wants the whole country, doesn't want to have a partition of the country, and therefore we have no partner for peace. And since then, that has been the slogan in Israel - "There is no partner for peace." Now, following that, the Second Intifada of course broke out, and then the suicide bombing really happened in a very very large scale. And this was a real shock to the Israeli public in general, and Israeli liberals in particular. The psychological effect of the suicide bombings is simply unimaginable in how profound it was. And this is really what pushed almost the entire Israeli peace camp to the right.

SW: Do you think it's also the fact that so many Russian immigrants came into Israel and supported the far right?

YP: Yes, that changed the balance of the population, sure. The balance of opinion in the population changed. But what I'm talking about are the [liberals, sw] people - the Russians were never liberals. Of course, there are exceptions, shouldn't generalize completely - but by and large they were never. But I’m talking about those who were, I'm talking about the peace camp. It was, at its height, you could say almost 50 percent of the population, and these people changed their views, most of them. So this is the significant thing that happened. You can look just in electoral terms - look at the two parties that supposedly represent the peace camp, Labor Party and Meretz together has 16 seats in the Knesset today. In 1992, both of those parties together had 56 seats in the Knesset, which is almost an absolute majority. So this tells you about the change that's happened.

SW: But you also talk about - I guess, in looking at the books of these formerly liberal and so-called leftist intellectuals - that you detect the same colonial mentality there that exists in the rest of the, let's say, pro-Zionist population. And that the control systems, as they call it, are not able to give way before that changes. And I just wondered - has the existence of the WikiLeaks, revealing some of the attitudes of the Arab states, pressuring Israel on Iran, for example - has that had any effect on Israel and on public opinion?

YP: No, not really. There were more significant leaks, the Al Jazeera leaks, that leaked the documents of the so-called negotiations that took place between the Palestinian Authority and Israel since 2000, that showed that the Palestinians were willing to go to almost any length in order to reach an agreement, and everything they agreed to wasn't enough. But then again, these things always tend to reinforce people's opinions. So the Israeli mainstream said, "well, that shows that we don't have a partner. Look, they didn't agree to even more than that." And the few liberals left then said, "look, they agreed to so much, and we didn't agree, so it means the Palestinians don't have a partner for peace."

SW: Well, Yoav, you've written so well in the past about the political economy of the peace process, and today as Egypt gave way, I was thinking about the political economy of the Middle East as a whole, that's obviously going to change if the relationships change and the dictators go. And I just wonder what you think is going to happen now if Israel is isolated, being the only one that supports the so-called existing arrangements. How do you see this playing out? What differences can you imagine?

YP: Well, I think that the most important thing is that Israel can no longer rely on Egypt not being an enemy. It doesn't mean there will be a war tomorrow, or even that the peace treaty would be officially canceled tomorrow. But from now on, in Israel's strategic planning, including its defense budget planning, it will have to take into consideration the fact that if there is a future war, Egypt will not stand on their side as it has done since the signing of the peace treaty. And that's an additional military, an additional economic burden on Israel. And there's also the question of commercial relations; 40 percent of Israel's natural gas is provided by Egypt for relatively low prices as the result of a bilateral agreement, and there's a whole series of other commercial agreements. So this may also change. But Israel's economy, as you know, is booming. Israel is not affected by the global crisis. So it will be an additional economic burden, but it's not anything that the Israeli economy could not withstand. And as far as their chances for peace, the Israeli public has despaired of the chances for peace, and it is no longer even interested in that. There was a very interesting cover story in Time a few months ago detailing that development, and I think that they were right. So overall, I would say it's an added economic and military burden, and a little bit more concern for Israel, but I don't think in the short run anything fundamental will change.

SW: But do you think that the formerly liberal, so-called social democratic left, that you say are now entirely caught up in this colonial mentality, might change their ideas given what's going on outside their borders in the Middle East? It seems to me that even with Israel's booming economy that you just mentioned, that depends on a lot of commercial relations with Egypt - it seems there's going to have to be new negotiations. I guess I'm just wondering - do you see Israel becoming more isolationist and entrapped and having a siege mentality, or reaching out?

YP: More isolationist and entrapped in a siege mentality, definitely. You can already see that in the commentary in the Israeli media right now, yes.

SW: Well, that's sad. So let me ask you then, finally: you do say that the only real solution now is a secular democratic state, a one state, recognizing realities. Is that a wish, or is that something you think is eventually going to have to happen?

YP: Well, I think it eventually will have to happen, or else the situation will be very unpleasant. But I don't think this is around the corner or anytime soon. There has to be a lot of work done, and there will have to be a lot of strengthening of the Palestinians and the Arab states. So in that sense, the fact that Egypt might now become democratic - and I suspect if it becomes democratic it will also become Muslim - and the same thing happens in Jordan, the pressure on Israel will increase, and then gradually the realization will come that they have to solve the issue with the Palestinians. They can no longer keep 3 and a half million Palestinians as subjects with no rights, and by then it will be clear that the only way is to simply give them rights because there is no possibility of partition. So I think this could happen, but this is really in the long term, it's not something that's going to happen anytime soon.

SW: Well, we've run out of time. But I think that one thing we've learned about the Middle East in the last month is that everything that seemed long-term can change very quickly. And I'm going to hope, against everything that you said, that this will accelerate the movement throughout the region.

YP: I think we should hope; it's always better to hope than not to hope.

SW: Yes. Well thank you, Yoav Peled, for joining us today. And as always, we love having you on the program with your insights.

YP: Thank you very much.