Ian Lustick Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Coming to Terms with Israel: Conversation with Ian Lustick, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania; 3/4/02 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Studying Comparative Politics and the Middle East

You did your undergraduate work at Brandeis, then you came to Berkeley. Somewhere in this path, you got interested in the Middle East. Tell us about that.

Part of being interested in the Holocaust was also being interested in Israel. When I was growing up, I was fascinated by Israel. I remember during the Six Day War, which was my senior year in high school, I was raising money for an emergency relief fund. When I got to Brandeis and I started becoming active in the antiwar movement, I encountered New Left attacks on Israel, Palestinian attacks on Israel, which I had only heard echoes of earlier. I never really knew much about the Palestinians. It made me extremely nervous when I would realize I was in conversation with somebody about Israel, and I didn't know as much as they did. So I went and started studying more, so that I would always know more about this issue than anybody I was arguing with. When I was starting to learn more about it, I realized that I was wrong to think that of all the problems in the world that were gray and complicated and had more than one side, that I was so fortunate, that my issue, that I cared most about, the Israel-Palestine question, was black and white, and didn't have to worry about complexity! I remember being amazed at how lucky I was.

I went to Israel in 1969 for six months in the Jacob Hiatt program, and I studied the Palestinian question. I wrote a paper, my first published paper, actually, on "What do the Palestinians really want in the West Bank?" At that time, they wanted ultimately a West Bank/Gaza state alongside of Israel, even thought the PLO wasn't saying it yet. I was shocked, in '69, to find Jews talking about settling in the West Bank in order to bring the Messiah. It baffled me to think that Jews wouldn't be able to see clearly how disastrous that was. What I learned about Israel at that time convinced me that, again, to be vigilant against injustice, to save Jews from another catastrophe, meant working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and getting Israelis and Jews to see that this was not a black and white situation, it was much more difficult. That started a lifelong commitment to study this problem and try to contribute to its solution.

We'll come back to this issue in a minute, but let's talk about the decision to become a political scientist, and somebody who does comparative politics. Help me understand what it takes to do what you do, and what it is you do.

I do study comparative politics, but I also try to reach people. I try to reach people and teach them things that they don't want to learn. One of the things I've found when I lecture about Arab - Israeli relations or the Palestinian question to Jewish audiences and mixed audiences is that if you start right out with your position on the issue, you're not going to reach people. One of the best ways I have found to reach people is to puzzle them. Give them a question about the world that is not apparently political, in the sense that it doesn't look like it's slanted toward or against their prejudice. "How do you explain this? Isn't this odd?" And get them to focus on that as an analytic question, which they want to solve. Then in the presentation, show them that in order to get rid of the anxiety that this question causes, they have to learn a theoretical framework, they have to learn something about the way the world works, and they also have to abandon a prejudice that they had. But they don't realize that until later in the presentation, when they've already learned what they need to do to solve this initial question.

Now, this whole operation is science. It was no more clearly represented to me than in my studies at Berkeley in the Political Science Department with faculty like Ernst Haas and Ken Waltz and Bob Price: first know the question you want to answer. What is the puzzle you want to solve? And then solve it. Now, when it's a general question, and it's not a factual question about an historical episode, you can't solve it without looking comparatively at more than one case. In the natural sciences, we can often set up experiments artificially in a laboratory. But what is an experiment but a comparison between a control group and a treated group, chemicals that are set and not disturbed, to chemicals that are heated, and then you compare? In our world of human societies, we can't recapitulate France again and again, so we have to look for what are called natural experiments -- countries, for example, which are similar in many, many respects, but different in some crucial respect, so you can learn about what difference that makes.

In implementing the strategy, one of your major books is Unsettled States, Disputed Lands. You told us that you had this fascination with Israel and with the Middle East, but in that book you've set about comparing the situation of the Israeli leadership and the disputed lands, in the dispute with Palestine, with other case studies. book coverTell us a little about that choice, and what you learned.

I knew that [I wanted] to convince the people, to convince both the Jewish community in the United States, Israelis, and the American government, that the settlement policy in the West Bank and Gaza was a catastrophe. I thought this back in the early seventies. Even though there were only a few hundred settlers, I wrote and argued that before long, there would be tens of thousands, and then a hundred thousand, and it would tend to prevent a solution to the problem that was otherwise available. But I knew that if I just argued about that, I wouldn't be able to succeed. I needed to be able to anchor my arguments in other cases. That meant, for me, looking at France and Algeria, Britain and Ireland.

Why? In 1979, I entered the State Department for a year, in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and I was charged with analyzing Israeli - Palestinian relations and contributing to the autonomy negotiations. At that time, I realized that you could only say a limited amount by staring at the Israeli-Palestinian case, and just looking at it, piling up facts about it. There was an argument going on: had the settlements, so many settlements, prevented any possibility of Israel withdrawing from the West Bank? Had the "point of no return" been passed? If it had been passed, then arguing for a Palestinian state would be a stupid policy by the United States, because we would just be playing into a grand trap on Israel's part, with no rights to the Palestinians. Then we should shift to argue for one democratic state. But if it was still possible for Israel to withdraw because the settlements themselves couldn't stop a state from emerging, then U.S. policy of trying to stop the settlements was still valid. How would you know whether the point of no return had been passed? Israelis, smart Israelis who knew everything about what was going on on the ground, said, "My God, 50,000 settlers, impossible to ever change" or "50,000 settlers, easy to change." "You're insane." "No, you're insane." How was I to know? -- and it was my responsibility, as it were, to advise the U.S. government.

So at that time, I realized that I needed a theory of how states arise and get smaller, because this is really a claim of the conditions under which any state can get smaller, so Israel could get out of the West Bank. But there is no theory. So I knew that eventually I would have to write a book which would develop a theory of state contraction. And that theory couldn't only be based on the Israel - Palestine case, or else the whole theory would be loaded from the beginning. I had to base it on other cases.

I used the British relationship with Ireland over time, where a parliamentary democracy had annexed Ireland, then eventually withdrew from most of it, and the French relationship with Algeria, in which Algeria was officially made a province of France, only eventually to be withdrawn from completely. How did this happen? What theory could explain the regularities in this long process? And what would the theory look like if you applied it to Israel-Palestine? To accomplish that objective took three books and about fifteen years.

What was the conclusion that you came to?

The operative conclusion that I came to -- I put it in the conclusion in the book that was published in 1993 -- is that actually there will be a Palestinian state, Israel did not pass the point of no return. Because in order to do so, the issue of what to do with the West Bank and Gaza had to disappear from the Israeli political imagination. And for reasons that my theory led me to, I argued that this was not done in Israel and could not be done. At the same time, I argued that in order to create that solution, there was another terribly difficult political problem that had to be solved, which is to negotiate a regime crisis. I argued that in order for Israel to do what ultimately it would do -- namely get out of the West Bank and Gaza -- it would have to tolerate a serious threat of civil war.

One of the specific things I said in my conclusion was that eventually, and probably pretty soon, there would be a secret deal between the PLO and the government in Israel to move toward negotiation -- this was before Oslo -- but that the prime minister who tries to carry out that deal will be subject to assassination attempts, especially by Jewish fundamentalists. But then I argued that a crafty government could do what Churchill had done in Ireland, and what DeGaulle did, which was to use the extremism of their opponents to shift the whole meaning of the dispute into a question of defending democracy. This (and I argued in the Israeli press) is what the government should do, it should in a jujitsu way use the extremism in their opponents to move swiftly toward the implementation of Oslo.

They did not follow my advice, and we see the consequences now. Eventually that will be done -- that's my view. But it illustrates very well that you cannot make a contribution to policy and to a moral commitment without systematic, scientific, organized investigation of history and politics. That's what I've been trying to do, really, all my professional career.

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