JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you for joining us.
Our speaker, Ari Shavit, is one of Israel's leading newspaper columnists and one of its most important political commentators. He not only influences readers in Israel, but commands attention and respect here in the United States. You just have to read Tom Friedman's glowing endorsement of his new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, in the November 17th New York Times, or any other of the glowing reviews that appeared this past week in our newspapers, to know what I am referring to.
In the aftermath of this weekend's negotiations with Iran, we are delighted that he is here today to talk about a country that is so pivotal in today's global landscape. As a nation, a people, a place, Israel is unlike any other. It has defied all odds just to exist.
When books about Israel are written, they typically fall into two categories: either they are totally supportive of the state of Israel and its policies, or they are critical and lean more towards the Palestinian cause. Ari's book is neither, as it is much more nuanced, in that he challenges the dogmas of both the right and the left to answer his own questions of: Why Israel, what is Israel, and will Israel survive?
My Promised Land tries to make sense of the real Israel, in all its moral complexity. It's not just the Israel we read or hear about in the media. Ari uses his family's history and its involvement in Zionism as the starting point to take us on a journey that begins with the arrival of his British grandfather in the ancient land of Israel in the late 1800s. This narrative provides a context for demonstrating not only the diversity of this turbulent country, but also provides a better understanding of the century-long struggle between Jews and Arabs over the Holy Land.
My Promised Land gives new meaning to the term "going beyond the headlines," as he makes it poignantly clear that issues that were festering then are still very much alive today.
The questions about Israel's future are many. Ari writes that "there are no simple answers, no quick solutions; it's not a question of us versus them." He makes no judgments. But by using the defining moments of the past to shed new light on the present, he has widened our vision to understand more clearly the triumph and tragedy of his promised land.
Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a very special guest, Ari Shavit.
Thank you for joining us.
ARI SHAVIT: Thank you very much. Actually, now I have very little to add. [Laughter] You're a great reader, Joanne, and what you said—I really have little to add. That was actually it. But as I was asked to spend a few minutes here, I will try. I'm not sure that I'll quite provide you with the show promised a few minutes ago, but I'll try to give you some food for thought, if I may.
First of all, it is really a pleasure and an honor to be here and to see all of you gathered here. My initial idea was to speak about my book, about My Promised Land, and then perhaps to refer to some issues of the day. But, as I think that everybody now has Iran on their mind, I had a feeling that if I will speak about the book and Iran afterwards you will not listen to what I have to say about the book; you'll just be expecting Iran. So let's turn things around, in the Israeli improvised way, and I'll first give you some of my thoughts about Iran and then I'll talk about the book.
My real wish is really for us to be in dialogue, so I will try to keep this as short as possible, because I really want to hear your questions, your concerns, and talk to you, rather than give you a speech.
Iran: I have been an Iran guy, I was perceived as an Iran alarmist, Iran freak, Iran obsessive—call it what you may—for a decade. For some sort of reason, I got Iran sometime around 2002, 2003. When I look back at this decade, I am deeply, deeply saddened, because whatever you think about the deal now and what will happen next—and I'll relate to that—one has to be sincere and say that we have failed. We have failed is definitely Israel has failed, although I do not think this is an Israel issue; the United States has failed, the Western world has failed, the international community has failed. We should have not been in the place we are in now.
Iran, with 18,000–19,000 centrifuges, is something that should have never happened—never. And when you look back, and I have no doubt whatsoever—I am only an amateur historian, but I have no doubt whatsoever—that when historians will tell the story of the 21st century, they will describe this last decade as an almost despicable decade as far as international diplomacy is concerned.
Iran is truly no Nazi Germany; it's not that powerful. It could have been easily dealt with. There is no correlation whatsoever between the power of Iran and the power of the international community. But the international community was not there to deal with Iran when Iran should have been dealt with. We wasted our energy on things and issues and countries that in retrospect seem ridiculous.
That applies to my country. We were obsessed with specific issues that should be dealt with, like the Palestinian issue, the wars we had in Lebanon, the Gaza issues. But none of them—the Palestinian issue is critical in another way; I'll get to that later—but none of them was as dramatic as Iran. And yet we, we who speak now so loud and criticize everybody, we woke up very late. Israel too was dormant for many years.
But so was the Western world. I think that basically what happened is that the professionals, the strategic establishment, so to speak, in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, definitely in Tel Aviv, got Iran probably around 2005, 2006. People really began realizing its significance. But we in the public affairs world, in the public opinion world, the media, the political life, were not dealing with this. So the leaders who got all the documents warning them how important and crucial Iran is did not have the political context to deal with it. So although all the professional talk was there, people realized it, what should have been done was not done.
What should have been done? The only good solution for Iran was a political-economic siege back in 2003 or 2005 or 2007. What President Bush should have done is not gone for war in Iraq but for a major campaign against Iran that did not need to use military force. Had President Bush built the right coalition with the Russians and the Chinese and the Europeans and all the Sunni Arabs and Israel, Iran would have been stopped.
If Iran, at the right time, would have faced the dilemma of a nuclear bomb or political survival, they would have abandoned the bomb. But President Bush went for the wrong conflicts, and by doing that (1) he missed the right opportunity to deal with Iran and (2) because of the Iraq war, this country lost much of its willpower to deal with the Middle East.
The result of that is, when President Obama came into the White House, he was working, functioning, within a context of an exhausted America that did not want to see what is going on.
I remember—I cannot give you the name—but I remember sitting in some very respectable forum—I can't tell you exactly, November–December 2008, just as the Obama administration was about to begin—and I was giving my passionate Iran speech. A very senior thinker sitting next to me, very senior, very smart man, much more professional in this field than me, whispered in my ear, "Ari, you are absolutely right. But Iraq and Afghanistan sucked all the oxygen out of the room. We cannot hear it."
So now we are faced with the consequences. Now we face a situation where we are basically facing an Iranian victory. In my mind, the rationale behind the deal is actually the one that is not told. It is actually an understanding in Washington that the war has almost been lost.
What has happened? The Iranians have achieved a technological victory, and now they are trying to put a political victory on top of that. So they are willing to make some minor, minor, almost ridiculous, technological concessions in order to cement their political victory.
So what do I think about the deal? The question is: Is it an act of creating the time to wake up and see what's there; or is it a process of deluding ourselves one last time, which will be the very last time? If the deal is there so the Iranians are really tested, if President Obama and the other Western leaders, once they are back from the Thanksgiving holiday, will say, "We are not waiting for May, we are putting the final status issue right there on the table right now, we are really confronting the Iranians now," then the deal makes sense.
But if the deal would be actually a beginning of a slippery-slope process, where you actually give up while not wanting to say it, then it is a very dangerous one. So if the deal is a process, may God help us. If the deal is a means to breach the moment of truth soon, not too bad. Therefore, I think any simplistic position about the deal is wrong.
I want to end this part of the discussion—and I suppose we will talk about it later—why do I think it is such a dramatic issue? You've probably heard that, but I think it needs to be told.
One of the problems of having a lack of awareness about Iran is that people have tried to—they gave lip service to Iran, but they did not internalize the fact of how dramatic it is. Why is it so dramatic? This is one of the reasons why I have deep criticism of a lot of the rhetoric coming from my own country. Iran is much too important to be made an Israel issue. As an Israeli, I care a lot about it. But for the world, this is not the issue.
And it should definitely not be a Benjamin Netanyahu issue. We must separate between Iran and Benjamin Netanyahu. Like him, don't like him, hate him—he is not the guy in any rational world who should be dealing with this. I can tell you later where I think he is right and where he is wrong. But definitely this is not for him. But the fact that there is no one else dealing with it, that's outrageous.
So let me tell you what I think about Iran in a paragraph or two.
If Iran goes nuclear, within weeks Saudi Arabia will go nuclear. The bomb there on the shelf in Pakistan will be just dusted and flown over. At that moment you will have a nuclear Gulf. But within a very short time, Egypt, Turkey, possibly Algeria, and possibly others will go nuclear. What you will have is a multipolar nuclear system. By the way, Israel will have to change its nuclear policy as well, after being a very responsible player for half-a-century. You will have a multipolar nuclear system in the most unstable, largely irrational region in the world.
We did not try a multipolar nuclear system even in the Cold War. But having such a multipolar nuclear system in the Middle East is wild. The illusion that because America is going to have energy independence it can forget about the Middle East is an illusion, because all your major airlines will still depend on Middle East oil. And the Middle East is too close, as far as it is, to be ignored.
When the Middle East—I leave aside the apocalyptic scenarios of a bomb falling on Tel Aviv; let's assume we know that will not happen—just by having a multipolar nuclear system in the Middle East, a nuclear Middle East, our civilization will change. Yes, within years life in Tel Aviv will be in jeopardy. But within decades life in New York will be in jeopardy. We will live in a different world.
Now, if you look back, the greatest achievement of international diplomacy in the last nearly 70 years was the control of the nuclear demon. We brought into this world this terrible demon, the worst thing man has ever created. But our greatest achievement—again, not enough credit was given to all these diplomats and security experts who maintained this dramatic challenge.
If Iran goes nuclear, that's it, the nuclear demon will be out of the bottle, and the 21st century will be about nuclear proliferation. Now "proliferation," I don't like that word, because one of the problems with all these nice words is that they are like sterile professional words that hide from you the real meaning of it. No, there will not be the danger that we experienced during the Cold War of humanity destroying itself. But the chances of nuclear events throughout the Third World and Third World organizations affecting Western countries will increase dramatically.
So this is what it is about. The next year, 2014, will be critical. It's really a critically historic year, because you will have one of the two: Either this will be dealt with and stopped, or we will have what I think is what the Iranians are going for, which is several years of peace—Iran will not rush into becoming nuclear immediately—you will have a few years where it will seem as if everything is okay, tensions are down, but at the end of that tunnel, whether in 2017 or 2020 or 2022, you will face a nuclear Iran that will be a major nuclear power. It will not have one or two bombs; it will have 20, 30, 40, 50 bombs. So we will win some time, we will have a pause in the drama, but within a few years, within a decade, we will face the ramifications, the results of our negligence now.
So I encourage, I plead, I really plead; for anyone sensible and responsible, I think that ethics in international relations is not only avoiding war crimes. Ethics in international relations is also being sober, looking at reality as it is. If you are just trying to be righteous and you ignore the brutal reality emerging in front of you, that's immoral in my mind. It's not only unrealistic, it's immoral.
So I think we should adopt a kind of new morality which says we will look at things as they are. We will look at the Middle East as it is and we will look at Iran as it is, and we will not delude ourselves, because self-deception is morally wrong, self-deception is criminal. We had enough of this in the last decade and it is time to wake up.
My book. When I decided to write the book, people asked me, "Why do this? There are so many books about Israel, and great books—biographies, history books, academic books, polemics, a lot of polemics. Why is there a need for another book about Israel?" Actually, people warned me that no one would read my book, that no one would want to hear anything about Israel.
But I had the feeling that with all these books, a lot of them great books, it has been decades, probably 40 years, since an Israeli wrote a real deep, personal nonfiction that does the real soul-searching of that country, of the nation I grew up in. My conclusion was that it was no accident, because in many ways we Israelis lost our narrative.
To begin with, Israel, or the Zionist movement, was actually a story that became reality. But once reality was there and the physical reality became stronger and stronger, we somehow lost the story, we lost the tale, the plot. It happened because of all kinds of reasons. There is all the day-to-day friction, all the day-to-day events. There are so many trees to be dealt with in that country that you lose sight of the woods. And there is the tribalism, the different ideologies clashing, of course the great debate over the occupation. I thought as a result of all that, we speak so much about Israel, we feel about Israel—we love it, hate it—but we lost sight of what it really is.
So I set out on this mission to try to write the narrative again, to bring in the big picture, because, like it or not, Israel is an amazing, unique phenomenon. I tried to bring the understanding of that back. That was what I wished for. I wanted a new kind of Israel conversation that will address the real Israel condition in all its complexity. I wanted to enable people who want to love Israel to love it again, but in a critical and realistic and moral way, not in a kind of dogmatic way. I wanted to take the Israel cliché and bring it back to life.
How did I try to do that? I will not tell you about the entire book—I hope you will read it—but I will tell you about the beginning and the end.
I begin with the arrival of my great-grandfather, who was a very successful, self-made lawyer in London, one of the first founders of Zionism, before Herzl. He travels to Palestine in April 1897, a few months before the First Zionist Congress assembles in Basel.
I asked myself: Why does he go there? Unlike 99 percent of the Jews who went to Palestine, he had no need to go there. He was not persecuted. He was not poor. He had a future. Why should a Victorian gentleman who lived in St. John's Wood go to a desolate, remote wasteland that Palestine was? My conclusion is that there were two major reasons.
One, my great-grandfather and his peers, the founders of Zionism, were brilliant in the sense that they saw that Europe is turning violent in its relationship to the Jews. This is no news, because Europe was always after its Jewish minority. It's difficult for us to imagine it now—we have so many European diplomats sitting here—but for centuries, for millennia, Jews were Europe's "other," Jews were the ones that Europe could not find a way to live with. But that was an old problem with the Jews, all the anti-Semitism. That was Christian, religious-based anti-Semitism.
The surprise was that the new Europe that was emerging, much more secular, much more well-educated, much more enlightened, that new Europe developed a hate for the Jews that was even more dangerous, based on nationalism, not on religion. Herzl saw that in the Dreyfus trial in Paris, and that was his great shock, that in France, the capital of enlightenment, people stand and shout in such a way about that miserable, sad Jewish officer.
But the genius—it's not that my great-grandfather and Herzl and their friends knew there would be an Auschwitz. But when you look at it, what they did was to preempt Auschwitz. Forty, fifty years before, they realized that the Jews of Eastern Europe and Central Europe will face existential danger. They thought it would be some sort of mega-pogrom. They didn't know there would be gas chambers. But the fact that these people led an endeavor that is so dramatic—it's the most dramatic revolution one can imagine, to take a people from one continent to another, to establish a nation, to revive a language, to create a home for homeless people, because they realized that there is physical danger ahead. If you see that, you see what genius and what justification there was to Zionism. It was a race against time to save European Jewry.
Sadly, the real flaw in Zionism, contrary to what is said about it, is just that it was too late. Had Zionism started 20, 30 years earlier, 6 million Jews would have been saved, 6 million humans—it doesn't count that they are Jews; humans. So in this sense that endeavor was not only brilliant, it was on a universal basis the most just one you can imagine.
Then they had another notion, and that is that while Jews are in jeopardy in Eastern Europe, Jews in the West faced a different danger. They realized that the old way Judaism existed, Jewish cultures existed, was within the ghetto, and that once the walls of the ghettoes are down, non-Orthodox, non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish civilization is in danger. In this sense, they did not know there would be a Pew report, but they anticipated it. They said, "If we are to maintain non-Orthodox Jewish civilization, there needs to be a place that is the anchor of Jewish modern secular identity."
These were the two brilliant ideas that actually brought my great-grandfather and his peers to Palestine.
But then there was the flaw. The flaw was that they could not see there were other people there. The flaw was that my Victorian great-grandfather comes to Palestine in his Thomas Cook tour, riding carriages throughout the country, and he doesn't see the Palestinians. His need to create a home for his people is so deep, so great, that he would not see that there is another people there.
So basically, what you see, talking of the triumph and the tragedy, you see something that was, on the one hand, so impressive, so brilliant, so just in universal terms, and, on the other hand, you see an inherent flaw. The inherent flaw created this conflict, and the fact that we failed time after time after time to end this conflict is no accident. I am an anti-occupation guy, but the conflict is not about occupation. I am an anti-settlement guy, but the conflict is not about settlements. The conflict is a deep, deep conflict, probably the worst, if not one of the worst, on this planet, because it has a religious element, it has a cultural element, it has a national element, and it has this element of an indigenous population that sees the Jews who returned to their land as outsiders, as colonizers. This is what makes the conflict, and this is the ongoing tragedy.
Fast-forward to the end, the last chapter. I follow the footsteps of my great-grandfather and I try to look at what was achieved and what was not achieved. You see these two elements there.
On the one hand, Israel is usually—and again, I am such an anti-occupation guy—but the Israeli condition now is based on two pillars. On the one hand, we are an occupying nation. Unlike any other democracy, like the ones that we want to be like, we occupy another people. I think, of course, we should deal with that.
But on the other hand, we are the most intimidated nation on the face of the Earth. Part of the problem in the controversies and the discussion about Israel is that the people on the left worldwide, including in Israel, focus all the time on occupation. People just see Israel as the Goliath controlling others, while the people on the right throughout the world, and in Israel, tend to just look at the intimidation. They just see it as a danger.
But the only way to really look at it is to look at both. As we said before, there is nothing— anyone who has a simplistic idea about the Middle East, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or about Israel is wrong. If you don't get the fact that it is complex, you don't get it.
I believe that if we all agree on that, if we would begin the discussion from realizing how complex it is, we will have a much more rational and much more moral debate about it, because then we all wrestle with the complexity. We can agree, disagree, but there is a common ground. This need to not see one of the pillars is one of the deepest flaws in the discussion about Israel.
But what I see there when I travel throughout the country is really, on the one hand, an intimidated nation, and I describe it in many ways. Israel is seriously at risk. It is right now powerful militarily, economically, but its fundamental condition is the condition of a nation on the edge.
But what I see, on the other hand, is this amazing feast of life that Israel is. This is the other element that I would want people to relate to. Israel is not only about the conflict, it's not only about the Palestinian issue, not only about the debates with the ultra-Orthodox.
At the end of the day, what happened in that country is that the Utopia the founders tried to create is not there. Israel is not a Utopia in any sort of way. The dream, so to speak, of a paradise was shattered.
But in the process, while this dream was shattered, what was created there is one of the most robust, energetic, creative societies I know. Life is astonishing in Israel. It's not only that we have this amazing economic success talked about in recent years. It is not only the start-up nation. This is one of the reflections of the Israeli vitality and creativity.
The amazing story, if you take a step back, is you have there a people that are the ultimate victims of the 20th century. Don't anyone forget that, the ultimate victims of the 20th century. But these people were not addicted to their victimhood. They did not linger over their pain. They did not turn it into suicide bombing. They were not seduced by a constant feeling of revenge. Their revenge was to live, to have babies, to have the babies get good education, to move on, to party. Israel is a lot of fun, a lot of fun.
So what you have is this amazing phenomenon of a nation that is on the edge, that you don't know what the future holds for it, but it celebrates life in every way possible and it creates a feast of life, a spectacle of life, of the people who came from there and are still surrounded by the threat of death but have chosen life.
QUESTION: Allen Young.
A couple of years ago we had here at the Carnegie Council the Iranian woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her civil rights work in Iran. [Editor's note: Check out Shirin Ebadi's 2006 Carnegie Council event, "Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope"] She was talking about the Iranian atomic bomb. She said the reason that people are legitimately concerned about the Iranian atomic bomb is the fact that Iran is an authoritarian theocracy. If it were a democracy, she said, people wouldn't be so worried about it. No one is worried about the fact that France has an atomic bomb. She said the world community should do what they could do to try to foster democracy, a change in regime.
Now, that may be wishful thinking. But is it possible, as a result of these diplomatic agreements, which always involve compromises on both sides, that the moderate elements in the Iranian population are likely to change that whole country to the point where they will be a democracy, they won't be the kind of threat that you're talking about that everybody recognizes?
ARI SHAVIT: Great question.
When I began being concerned about Iran 10 years ago, and again being ridiculed and very lonely, there were some in Israel, among the few experts who were thinking about it, who said, "The one thing that will save us from Iran is the Iranians."
By the way, I criticized President Bush, but I think that probably President Obama's greatest mistake in this sense is the fact that he turned his back on the rebels in June 2009. June 2009 was when this sentiment arose. It was an incredible opportunity when American values and American interests totally overlapped. But America looked the other way because it was dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan. I understand the reasons, but this is what happened.
Let me say another thing before I answer specifically your question. I am a great believer in the Iranian people. I have no doubt that if Iran's nuclear program is stopped—I don't know if it will take 10 years or 20 years—the Iranians will get rid of their regime and then we will see an amazing country. That is one of the most impressive nations in the Middle East. It's a deep civilization, very talented people. We were their allies up until the late 1970s. If there is no nuclear bomb, it will be a ball. I am very optimistic. I love the people and I appreciate them and I believe in the future.
But this brings me to the point. In a sense, if you will allow me, I think that I totally disagree, respectfully. Why? Because if Iran succeeds, there is no way there will be a regime change.
If Iran goes nuclear, or even if it is perceived—by the way, look at the news today, how the people negotiating were received when they came back to Tehran—this will be such a victory for the regime, that even the ones who oppose the regime will rally behind it. Sadly, most Iranians, including the reformers, want the nuclear project. So give the regime the credit for the achievement of giving Iran grander imperial status, I don't want to say it will stay there forever, but it will get an opportunity to stay there for many more decades. Only if we stop the Iranian nuclear program then change will come, and then I think the change might actually come rather quickly.
QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.
Ari, I want to ask you about another bomb facing Israel, and that's the demographic bomb. What I want to ask you is, what will happen, what will Israel do when if, as seems unfortunately likely right now within X years, it becomes a majority Muslim or Arab population? What happens at that point to its idea of itself as the Jewish state? And the other question, of course, is what happens to Israeli democracy, which we all love and admire?
ARI SHAVIT: Well, if you get through the book and get to the last pages, you will see what I write there. I wrote it in very blunt terms. There is no way that the Jewish democratic state can survive if occupation goes on. So this is the real cancer eating us from within.
When I talk about threats, there is the Iranian threat, there many other threats, but it is this issue that is really the most dangerous from within. We must deal with it.
Now, I had the opportunity to say it a few times in these last 10 days in this country, so if people heard it I don't want to repeat myself too much. But I think that the great mistake done here by the Israeli left and by the international community is composing two different issues and thinking they are one.
One issue is occupation. The other issue is peace. We made a logical error. We combined the two. They are not the same. The reason we are stuck with occupation is that intellectual logical mistake. The left and the international community were totally right in saying that occupation is disastrous. They were totally right in saying settlements are futile and suicidal. But they were wrong in promising peace tomorrow, because it's not clear that there is a partner for full, final peace. It's not clear that there is the maturity on all sides to have the final status agreed.
This is why I am an adamant plan B guy. If I had been Israel's prime minister, yes, I would have gone with Secretary Kerry, I would have taken the Olmert plan, the Barak plan, the Clinton parameters —you name it. I would have taken Israel's greatest peacenik, Yossi Beilin. I would have told him, "Yossi, you have the mandate. Bring me a signed document in six months." I don't believe he would bring me a signed document. But it is my duty to check that. Perhaps I would be wrong. But if there isn't that signed document in six months, I would not waste time.
We have been wasting—just as we were so wrong about Iran, we were wrong about the way we dealt with the Palestinian-Israeli issue. For 20 years now, we are in this all-or-nothing cycle: either we will have peace next March or we will have another 50,000 settlers there. Now, because there isn't peace until next March—next March 1992, March 1997, March 2002, March 2007; Democratic president, Republican president, different secretary of state—we tried it all. We tried it so many times. We have been through this movie so many times. And what is the result? More settlements.
So I think it is time to learn from that. Yes, let's try final status. But if it doesn't work, let's not be idle. Let's create a new imaginative plan where Israel gradually ends occupation. If there is no peace deal, you cannot expect Israel to retreat to the '67 line within a week or a year. It has to be a long, cautious, gradual process where we deal with our malaise, which is occupation, while the Palestinians deal with their internal malaise, which is the lack of a political body and a constructive political culture.
So if the international community, rather than waste all their time on these theological debates that lead us nowhere, if it would orchestrate two coordinated unilateral processes, where we deal with occupation and they gradually, in a Fayyad kind of way, build their nation, this will bring us to what I call a "two-state state." It will not be total peace, but it will create a situation that is reasonable, that is unofficial peace. Then I hope we will be mature enough on both sides to negotiate the final deal.
But to jump from where we are to solving all these issues is in my mind totally ignoring reality as it is, and the result is really having Israel stuck as an occupying power, which is something that is morally wrong, politically dangerous, and should be dealt with at once.
QUESTION: John Hirsch. First of all, thank you very much.
Following what you have just said, I want to ask you a tripartite question. Within Israel, where is the leadership to take your path? There is now a new leader of the Israel Labor Party, the son of Chaim Herzog. Where is the leadership within the Palestinian movement to move toward the outline you have proposed? And where is it here? I mean we have the American Congress that seems to support Prime Minister Netanyahu all the way, and we have a split country, split government, and we have the Jewish community in this country which seems to be split. So could you comment—that's a big question—on one or another aspect of that? How do you get from here to where you—I really applaud what you have said—think one should try to go?
ARI SHAVIT: Very good questions this morning. For very early in the morning you ask very good questions.
Where do I begin? Let me begin with this country. With all the criticism I allowed myself to express, I am as pro-American as anyone can get, perhaps more than many Americans, again because I can see it from perspective. I think that, with all its faults, not only is America a great democracy—and in this sense what the Jews have in this country is just an indication of how noble and how great this country is. The fact that you have the perfect Jewish diaspora, the first one in millennia, in this country is no accident. It is the result of the deep, deep democratic free society you have here. Coming from where I come, don't take that for granted.
But beyond that, I think, relating to the issues that I discussed, the nuclear issues and others, American leadership since World War II—even before, but definitely since World War II—made the world a much better place, or, to put it differently, not as bad as it could have been.
When I talk to a lot of my European friends on the left who have this American hatred, I say, "Give me one other nation that would have such power, that would be such a great superpower, and would not abuse it much more than America did. America did abuse it many, many, many times, but any other nation that would have had such power would have done much worse."
So I really dread—I worry about my country—I am fearful of a world not led by America. When I come to this country now and I see the divisions within you and the polarization and political tribalism, and Washington dysfunctional, I am deeply worried.
As I said before to Joanne, up until 10 years ago, in conversations in Israel, we kept saying, "Why cannot we be like Americans?" But rather than Israelis becoming Americans, Americans became Israelis. [Laughter] So I really hope, getting beyond the controversies and talking sense, I really wish and pray that things will improve here in every way, whether it's the health care or foreign policy.
Now, talking about our problems back home, in my mind there are two reasons for the failure to do all the reasonable things that I said I think should have been done a long time ago and must be done.
One is an intellectual failure. This is what I discussed, the fact that the Israeli left and left-of-center never went—we never really—I mean Oslo was so impressive and Oslo was such a failure. The Camp David Peace Summit in 2000 was so courageous and was such a failure. The Olmert initiative was such a failure. It was time for us to draw some conclusions. The fact is that we did not, that we were intellectually lazy and dogmatic. People who are supposed to be progressive have to be open-minded. The fact that we, the open-minded people, stuck to some dogmatic concepts, not being able to bring a new peace idea, that is in my mind the major part of the failure.
I think that if we do that, if we bring a realistic process, you will see that the Israelis are actually much more moderate and reasonable, because most Israelis are not that extremist. We are in the hands of extremists because we failed to convince the center that we know what the Middle East is about and what the conflict is about. If a realistic concept is being brought to the table, I think we will win the hearts of 60–70 percent of Israelis. That is one issue.
The other issue is, of course, the leadership issue, which goes with just what I said. I'm not talking about a Ben-Gurion or a Roosevelt or a de Gaulle or a Churchill. The Israeli center and center-left failed to produce a Bill Clinton or a Tony Blair. The only reason Netanyahu is there in power is because he, with all his flaws, is the only presidential figure around. It is quite astonishing that Israel's elite, that people who are so successful in economic affairs, so successful in academic life, in technology, in art, in all that, are a terrible political failure. Of all of Israel's political tribes, the most sophisticated people are the most primitive political tribe.
I think it is a combination of the two that creates the problem.
My wish—right now I am in America—when the book is out in Hebrew and I begin doing these tours in Israel, my wish is really that if we will have, not leadership in the sense of one person, but if we will have a reasonable, noble, pragmatic, political elite, we can lead the Israeli people to a much better future.
QUESTION: Over the past few decades, one gets the feeling that Israel's foreign and military policy is based fundamentally on the proposition that no matter what Israel does, the United States will finally back it. Now, the rest of the world certainly believes that. Do you get the feeling that Israel believes that the U.S. military is in the Middle East for Israel? Any comment on that?
ARI SHAVIT: I think, to say it mildly, this is an overstatement.
First of all, I think it is my duty as an Israeli and it is our duty as Israelis not to create that impression and not to live under that assumption.
But the whole point about creating that land, that nation, was for us to be able to defend ourselves. I just want to remind you actually that the great drama concerning Iran in the last two or three years was America asking Israel not to defend itself.
Let's put it this way. I think there are historic traumas here. When people come to criticize parts of the American Jewish community and parts of the political activity, one has to remember the formative trauma. The formative trauma is the trauma of 1944, when we knew what was going on, when the information was in Washington, when the American Air Force had all the ability it has, and when we all failed to act. I think that there is a formative trauma within the American Jewish community of what happened then, not to say that because we are embarrassed, because we have our complexes, we do not act when the time is right.
Now, many people criticize the mentioning of that trauma. But I think we have a right to remember that. The Fed's policy to this day is influenced by the trauma of the Depression. The German monetary policy is influenced to this day by the trauma of the German inflation. We are a people that have experienced the most dramatic of traumas. Therefore, I think it is legitimate for us to have it in our veins.
And yet, we should not abuse it. We should not abuse the power we have. We have to be cautious, we have to be listening, and we need to have a much healthier relationship between America and Israel, a relationship where there is intimacy, there are shared values, I think there are mutual interests, but where there is less friction and no attempt of one side to twist the arm of the other. In this sense, I really hope that we will have a much more noble and respectable relationship than some of the things that we have seen in recent years.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
After your brilliant exposition, on the one hand, would you expand on what the very creative Israelis in the sciences and technology and so forth, how they are living an international life here and in Europe? But on the other hand, getting back to Iran, how can Israel survive the Iranian support for Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so on, which definitely affect the politics in the Middle East?
ARI SHAVIT: I'm not sure quite what the first question was.
QUESTIONER: That Israelis can survive internationally because they are so welcomed with their ideas and technology.
ARI SHAVIT: Again, the point in having that Jewish national home is to have it balanced—on the one hand, to have something that we as Jews did not have for thousands of years, which is sovereignty and a national existence; but on the other hand, to maintain the values and the spirit of freedom and universal values and not to get into some sort of chauvinist and provincial state of mind. I think it is there. Sometimes we do better with this challenge, sometimes not as good. But this is the challenge for us.
But referring to the other point that you mentioned—and I think perhaps it is good to end here—Israel in many ways faces less threats now, specifically now, because a lot of the old threats created by the Arab nations are much weaker. Yes, Hezbollah is a problem, Hamas is a problem. These are not existential issues.
But this just emphasizes the fact how crucial the Iranian issue is. I will not talk only about Israel. One has to understand that what we see now is a kind of meltdown of Arab nationalism throughout the region. If Iran goes nuclear, that will enable it to dominate much of the Arab world. Sadly—this is another conversation—the Arab structures have collapsed or are disintegrating.
So at the end of the day—and this is something that I would wish us all to go with outside—really Iran is a pivot. If Iran will be dealt with, will be solved—and there are no perfect solutions—but if there would be a reasonable solution to Iran, you might actually see a better Middle East where many Arab moderates and Israelis work together and create this kind of de facto peace—not the White House lawn peace, but they will be actually moving on to—and then you can combine what I talked about in Palestine with a kind of region that deals with its internal problems with less tensions.
But if, God forbid, Iran goes nuclear, it will control much of the region and, as I said, it will change the Middle East, it will change our world, and it will change our civilization. Iran is a civilization challenge. We should not leave it to just diplomats and generals and strategists. This is relevant to all of us. Let us wake up to this and let us deal with this in a benign manner.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for one of the most thoughtful mornings we have had here. That was excellent. Thank you.