Sharon’s political acrobatics

One of the most important figures in modern Israeli intellectual life, Shlomo Ben-Ami has left his own mark on the fragile political landscape of the Middle East. Born in Morocco in 1943, Ben-Ami served as Israel’s ambassador to Spain from 1987-1991 after heading the School of History of Tel-Aviv University (1982-86). Elected to the Knesset in 1996 with the Labor Party, in July 1999 he was appointed minister of public security and foreign minister in 2000 before abandoning politics in August 2002. Well known for his moderate views on the Palestinian issue, in this interview with Kathimerini he criticized the unilateral actions of the Sharon government and emphasized the need for the denuclearization of the Middle East in general. Ariel Sharon’s unilateral moves create the impression that Israel’s foreign policy has always been lacking in long-term planning. Although peace with the Palestinians has always been the goal of every government, it is more than obvious that Israel’s foreign policy lacks continuity. When the Labor Party was in government its goal was peace with the Palestinians through negotiation and the mediation of the United States. Sharon’s policy breeds an air of despair as far as the prospect of negotiated settlement goes and is based on the concept that the Palestinian Authority remains an unreliable partner for peace. The unilateral approach is a direct consequence of this very concept. Israel has got every interest in strengthening the politically weak president of the Palestinians. Mr (Mahmoud) Abbas’s downfall will have a negative impact on the whole region. Nonetheless, the US government seems to have aligned itself with the policy of Mr Sharon, and George W. Bush became the first American president to suggest a settlement which does not take into account the 1967 borders. That is not true. Bill Clinton was the first US president to recognize Israel’s right to maintain control over the large settlement blocks in the West Bank. In 2001 at the White House – and I was present as head of the Israeli delegation – the latter suggested a solution which took into account the demographic realities on the ground. The difference between Bush and Clinton is that the former president had also talked of compensation for the Palestinians. It is beyond any doubt that President Bush will talk of compensations when he meets with Mr Abbas. Even though when George Bush took office his motto was «Anything but Clinton,» with regards to the Middle East his vision is identical with that of his predecessor. How probable is it that the Israeli government will continue on the unilateral path after «disengagement» from Gaza? Lately, there have been leaks regarding a new «disengagement» plan for the West Bank. That would constitute a grave mistake. The unilateral approach inevitably creates illegal situations on the ground. Such a move in the West Bank will lead to the creation of a Palestinian state that will not be friendly toward Israel and the West, since its borders will be imposed. The essence of a negotiated settlement is the creation of a state that will be willing to peacefully coexist with Israel. The fact that both the Likud and the Labor Party appear to have accepted the so-called «merits» of the unilateral approach is not encouraging. Will a solution to the problem of Palestine pave the way for a peace treaty with Syria? The problem with Syria is the Assad regime, and I believe that we will witness great social and political changes in that country before we see a comprehensive peace deal. Bashar Assad, who created aspirations for political change when he first took office, is now facing tremendous international pressure. In many ways, Syria has evolved into the North Korea of the Middle East. The president is promoting democracy in the Arab world, but when the regimes of the region are called to choose between peace and political reforms they always go for peace. This is the case with Syria. On the other hand, Israel cannot sustain two peace processes at the same time and since President Bush has made it clear that the road map will not be complete before 2008 I cannot see a peace deal with Syria until after the end of the peace process with the Palestinians. Does Iran’s nuclear program constitute a real threat for Israel? It constitutes a threat for all the states of the Middle East. The real problem, of course, is not Iran’s nuclear aspirations but Tehran’s ambition for hegemony. I strongly believe that a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will pave the way for a steady improvement in the relation between the Jewish state and the Arab world. When that is done, we should all agree for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. All the nations of the region, Israel included, ought to denounce nuclear weapons.