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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We should bring a little history in, and I know that you feel history is important in your work. I'm reminded what you said about figuring out, in your youth, what is the truth and what isn't, or whether we know what we think we know. book coverIn your book on For the Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, you point out that the Six Day War was both a curse for Israel and a blessing, so that the victory created a situation which changed the internal dynamic in Israel. Explain that for us, the way that a dynamic was set in place.

Every political system that works, including the United States, works because some questions are not being asked. [Imagine] if every day the United States had to ask, "Should we really be a monarchy after all? I mean, maybe just because we had our revolution in 1776, we still ought to think about it." There are an infinite number of questions that you could ask. For example, now that we've ruled out slavery and racism as a politically acceptable official ideology, there are many, many groups in this country that otherwise would have power, that can't even compete effectively. It's a great thing for a county to be able to exclude a certain number of political formulas, so that it can proceed down one path somewhat coherently.

One of the achievements of Israel in the its early days, in the fifties and sixties, was to exclude some of the most popular Zionist images of what the country really should be, images that it should be God's kingdom on earth, that it should be a large country, including all the Land of Israel. The most potent critiques of the Ben-Gurion - Mapai [Israel Workers Party] leadership came from those groups. So when Ben-Gurion celebrated a state whose borders were weird and excluded actually the biblically most important parts of the country for Jews, and emphasized the State of Israel, not the Land of Israel, he was making it possible to forget about all-out dreams for expansion that could only get Israel into trouble. At the same time, of course, it ensured the dominance of his party and excluded his main rivals.

Ben-Gurion's own ruthless use of force and Dayan's ruthless attitude towards the Arabs in the fifties and sixties contributed to a climate by the sixties of another round, another attempt by the Arab states to destroy Israel. What happened in the 1967 War was that the victory -- the military, tactical victory by Israel -- opened up what had been termed the "fantasy" of the Israel right and the activist labor right, that Zionism should rule all the Land of Israel, that it was an illegitimate state just in these confines of what was the called the Green Line, the 1949 armistice line. "We should not look at the West Bank as stony hills and enemy territory," as Ben-Gurion had called them, "it is Judea-Samaria. We are redeeming it, we are liberating it."

So all of those elites that had effectively been excluded from political competition, all of those ideological appeals, came roaring back in. And in Begin, Shamir, Sharon, Netanyahu, you see the dominance of ideas, not to say anything about Gush Emunim, that is, the fundamentalist Messianists. They almost completely disappeared by 1967, there were only about a dozen students in their seminary. Then they became the largest non-parliamentary political movement in Israel. So the victory in the war destroyed the hegemonic position of ideas that had protected Israel from itself and from parts of Zionism that were no longer functional. Those have been released, and we're coping with the consequences today.

Tell us a little about how the Likud government, which embraced (if not totally, in substantial measure) this fundamentalist position, set about creating facts that, as you say, created interest?

What's ironic is that the Likud, the right wing of the Zionist movement, going back to revisionists, used to make fun of the Laborites, the socialist Zionists, who would create "facts" during the mandate period. "We want this part of Palestine to be with the Jewish state. We'll put up a stockade there, one more goat, one more acre of land, one more goat. That's how we're going to get the country." And Jabotinsky, that is the leader of the Revisionists, the mentor of Begin, would say, "This is absurd! This is not the way a respectable nation gets a state. A respectable nation gets a state by going out and conquering it and annexing it, or going to the British Empire and having it given to them." So they made fun of this.

But when the Likud came into power, it saw the old Labor Zionist techniques, which had been used in some settlements even earlier in the West Bank by the Labor Party government, as the key. They didn't want to officially annex the West Bank and Gaza; that would mean giving citizenship to the Arabs there, and it would mean a confrontation with the world, to say nothing of the majority in Israel that still opposed it. But just one more settlement, one more settler, one more road -- eventually, the idea was to create a network, an infrastructure, a set of interests that would make it impossible, politically, for governments to give up that area, and then impossible psychologically to imagine you would give it up. That was their objective.

Under Begin, under Shamir, that was the objective. Even though they pretended to negotiate, it was my job in the State Department and elsewhere to try to convince American diplomats that when they were negotiating with Israelis and not objecting to settlement activity, they were actually following the Israeli game plan. Shamir put it best after he lost the 1992 election, when he admitted that the negotiations he had been involved in at Madrid, he was going to drag on for ten years, not with the hope of getting an agreement, but with the hope of putting a million Jews into the West Bank and Gaza, and making future negotiations irrelevant.

Explain to us what have been the factors, the forces that prevent that possibility from becoming a reality.

What is the reason why the vision of Gush Emunim, of the Bloc of the Faithful, of the Shamir-Begin governments, of making Jewish rule over the whole Land of Israel a reality -- why will it fail? First of all, Israel is not living in a vacuum. The world is a much more tightly interconnected place than it ever has been, and Israel has been deeply implicated and dependent on the United States. book coverSo when you try to convince people that "We shouldn't even think about the West Bank, it shouldn't even be on the agenda," and all the time, you have to defend yourself from outsiders' questionings, "Why are you doing that? The Palestinians want to talk to you. Why don't you negotiate with them?" -- you undermine your ability not to think about it because you have to give rational arguments.

In fact, a very amusing thing happened. This is in my Unsettled States book. Shamir was meeting secretly with the youth movement of the Herut Party that he was the head of when he was Prime Minister, and he was asked, "Mr. Prime Minister, what do we do when we're asked by the leftists and by the Americans, 'Why should Israel insist on having Judea-Samaria? Why not withdraw from the settlements for peace?' What should be say to these people?" So Shamir said, "Don't say anything to them! Don't argue with them! Just say, 'Kacha zeh! That's the way it is!'" And he's right, because if you argue, that means that there's some rational basis, some contingent basis on which maybe things could change and you think you wouldn't need those territories. If Israelis need to argue to win, then ultimately Israel won't win at all from the point of view of keeping the territories.

The other basic reason is because they were unwilling and unable to expel the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, or to make them demographically irrelevant. With all of the massive investments, billions and billions of dollars put into subsidized Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, excluding the Jewish neighborhoods in Greater East Jerusalem, you have about 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, maybe 250,000 at the most. But you've got 3 million Palestinians. So it's still not even up to what the French had in Algeria, at the time when they were all evacuated.

So it's demography that's working against Israel, but also the mobilization of Palestinian nationalism.

Demography, of course, is the bottom line, and the mobilization of Palestinian nationalism, particularly in the Intifada.

We also can't forget the left in Israel, that there are Israelis who have noted, some of them from very early on, including generals and intellectuals, that this was a catastrophe. But they were running against the grain of a triumphalist culture after the 1967 War. It took painful victories in 1973, a real defeat in Lebanon, then the brutal confrontation with the Palestinians during the Intifada, to start to convince masses of Israelis that they couldn't just get what they wanted, that they actually had to give something to the Palestinians. What has become an issue. But that was a major accomplishment, let's not diminish it, that the Israelis themselves, a portion of them, were willing to analyze, were willing to think, were willing to act on behalf of a better future.

But Palestinian political opposition was weak before the first Intifada. There were many reasons for that, including very clever and divisive Israel policies of occupation, and also policies of the PLO on the outside, and of the regimes that did not want an alternative leadership on the West Bank and Gaza to arise and challenge it. It's kind of an implicit partnership between Israelis and the outsiders that kept the Palestinians in the territories from mobilizing. The first Intifada happened from 1987 to 1993, and that led to the Oslo negotiation.

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