Head to Head

Transcript: Shlomo Ben Ami

The full text of our discussion with Israel’s former foreign minister, on whether Zionism is compatible with democracy.

Read the full transcript of Head to Head – Is Zionism compatible with democracy? below:

Part one

Mehdi Hasan (VO): It promised a land of safety and peace. But the Zionist dream became a Palestinian nightmare. Is Zionism still about the right to self-determination? Or is even its liberal variety just a form of colonialism? Today Israel takes pride in saying it’s the only democracy in the region, but for Palestinians living on both sides of the wall, things look very different.

I’m Mehdi Hasan and I’ve come here to the Oxford Union to go head to head with Shlomo Ben Ami, the former foreign minister of Israel. One of the most influential voices on the Israeli Left, he came close to ending the conflict in 2001, but failed.

Today I’ll challenge him on whether liberal Zionism is compatible with liberal democracy, and whether it can ever produce a just settlement for the Palestinians. I’ll also be joined by three experts tonight who will share their perspective: renowned Israeli historian, professor Avi Shlaim; Paul Charney, chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain; and Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former PLO legal adviser.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Shlomo Ben Ami. He considers himself an ardent Zionist, but also a liberal and left-wing democrat. 

Mehdi Hasan: Thanks, Shlomo, for coming, thanks so much. 

Shlomo Ben Ami, you would presumably describe yourself as a Liberal, as a man of the Left, as a democrat, and yet you also describe yourself an “ardent Zionist”. Is it possible to be both a Liberal and a Zionist?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Of course it is possible. I would refer you to the initial declaration of independence of the state of Israel, where it says that this is about the gathering of the exiles based on ancestral certificates of belonging. But one that is also respectful of the rights of minorities, ethnic groups, religions, gender and would add to it the definition that the founder of Zionism Herzl gave at the time, that this is about the creation of a Jewish state based on the Laws of the Nations, on international law as you would say today. If Israel respects all these parameters, this is the Zionism that I am an ardent supporter of.

Mehdi Hasan: So how would you define Zionism in a way that’s, say, different to the way a settler defines Zionism? Or even Benjamin Netanyahu defines Zionism?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Yeah…Well, I say that in my book, I put the limits in the borders of 1948. I think that a state that is part of the community of nations should not settle beyond its internationally recognised borders. Admittedly, the 1948 borders were not recognised internationally and one of the meanings, in my view, or perhaps the main meaning of the 1967 war is that it has legitimised the 1948 borders in the eyes of the Arab world.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, how does a political ideology which, at its core, is about privileging a particular ethic group presumably over other ethnic groups. How do you reconcile that with the principles of Liberalism, which is about equal rights for all, equal citizenship for all?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I think you need an effort to reconcile the two, to square the circle. It’s not easy, but I do agree that there is a fundamental anomaly in the creation of the state of Israel. This can perhaps explain the controversy around the Jewish state because it was created in a very particular way. And, given the background of Jewish history as we know it. But I do believe that enlightened leadership and more sober political construction in Israel could have bridged that kind of squaring the circle.

Mehdi Hasan: But when you talk about squaring the circle or anomaly some people go further. They say “there is an inherent, more than just a tension, there is a contradiction when you talk of being a Jewish and democratic state.” It is like talking about hot ice. It’s a contradiction in terms, it is an oxymoron.

Shlomo Ben Ami: No it is not an oxymoron. I mean, you can be a Jewish state where the Jews are a majority but is fully, unconditionally respectful of the minorities. Look, without declaring it, many other states throughout the world gave priority to a majority ethnic or religion.

Mehdi Hasan: You’re right, if we take the United States, for example, you could say there’s a big debate about indigenous people there, Australia. The difference, surely, is that in the nature of Zionism, surely it’s about preserving a Jewish majority and that Jewish majority, of course, came about by expelling some of the Palestinians who were living within those original borders, those UN-mandated borders. You wouldn’t have a Jewish majority and a Jewish state had you not expelled Palestinians along the way.

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, this is the way the state of Israel was created. I’m not trying to whitewash the anomaly in the creation of the state of Israel by saying that nations normally throughout history were born in blood and were born in sin. The difference is that Israel was born in the age of mass media. Imagine that the United States would have been born in the age of mass media after the elimination of the indigenous people.

Mehdi Hasan: Today, the United States does not say it is the nation or the country of one particular ethnic group or religion. And, whereas the Jewish state is called the Jewish state. You are, in its very title it is privileging one group of people over another group of people who happen to live within that state’s borders.

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] Ah, well…

Mehdi Hasan: …That’s why people talk about – it’s an ethnocracy, not a democracy, some suggest.

Shlomo Ben Ami: You need to see that against the background of Jewish history. Now what we need is to reconcile that complex historical background with what a normal state should be.

Mehdi Hasan: Well, let me go to our panel. Dr Avi Shlaim is one of Israel’s best-known historians. He is Professor Emeritus of International Relations here at Oxford University. Professor Shlaim, do you think there is a contradiction inherent within the Zionist project?

Avi Shlaim: No, I do not think that Liberalism and Zionism are a contradiction in terms. Zionism isn’t a monolithic movement. Zionism is a pluralist movement and there are very many different strands of Zionism. And Professor Ben Ami represents the most liberal strand within the Zionist movement and he represents the views of a handful, you know, a few percent of the Israeli population. But mainstream Zionism has never been liberal. The gap between the lofty Zionist ideals and the reality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians on the ground has always been so huge that Zionist leaders filled it with hypocrisy and humbug.

Mehdi Hasan: You describe yourself, I believe, as a post-Zionist. What is that?

Avi Shlaim: It means that I’m not an anti-Zionist because I accept Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jews. But I believe that the Zionist project was achieved by 1967. There was a viable Jewish state in the Middle East. And I would have liked Israel to have given back all the territories, to trade them for peace so that everyone could get on with their lives. Both Israelis and Arabs. And 1967 is the great watershed. Before 1967, Israel had considerable international legitimacy. It lost it in the aftermath of the war because it became a colonial power ruling over an Arab population.

Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in Paul Charney, who is chairman of the Zionist Federation of Britain and Ireland, a former lieutenant in the Israeli army. Avi Shlaim says that there’s no inherent contradiction, he believes, between Zionism and Liberalism and democracy, but the gap has been filled – in practice, the gap has been filled by hypocrisy and humbug. What’s your response to that?

Paul Charney: I disagree with the premise of the question. I disagree with some of what my esteemed colleague has been saying. Let’s come back to what Zionism is. Zionism was formed in the late 19th century as an answer, as a solution, to the Jewish people who were persecuted around the world. The world itself defined Zionism by telling the Jewish people no matter where you live, at any point of history, at any time, you are not safe. And the Liberal Zionists at the time came up with the conclusion that we need a Jewish homeland, a safe Jewish homeland, in our Jewish historical national homeland for the Jewish people and then we will be safe.

Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in Diana Buttu, who is a Palestinian lawyer and activist, former legal advisor to the PLO between 2000 and 2005, and I believe your parents were born in what is now Israel, and you have Israeli citizenship as well.

Diana Buttu: Indeed.

Mehdi Hasan: Shlomo Ben Ami says every country is born in sin. Why is, do you think, Israel is any different, then?

Diana Buttu: It’s very different. The fact of the matter is that the Zionist movement and Zionism on the ground, is the idea of creating not only a Jewish state but at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population. What Zionism is is the idea of privileging and giving exclusive rights to one group of people at the expense of another group of people. This isn’t liberal, this isn’t relating to equality. There isn’t a single Zionist who is able to say that they actually believe that Palestinians have the exact same rights as Israelis who are living in that country. And this is the fundamental problem with Zionism. 

Mehdi Hasan: What is your response to Diana?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, Arab Israelis share, in some way, the predicament of Jews and the diaspora in the following sense: that they are equal by law to the Jewish part of the population. But real life has discriminated against Arab Israelis in many fields.

Mehdi Hasan: 700,000 Palestinians left what is now Israel. They didn’t all just run away out of choice. In many cases, they were driven out. Do you accept that you would not have the Jewish majority and the Jewish state today without that original act – what the Palestinians call the “Nakba”, the catastrophe?

Shlomo Ben Ami: History offered different options. 1947 was one option. You could have had an Israeli Jewish state without expulsion.

Mehdi Hasan: Without expulsion you wouldn’t have a Jewish majority.

Shlomo Ben Ami: This fact of history is today one of the major reasons that the Israeli right of centre is ready to engage in a peace process in order to give away lands in the West Bank. The fear of a demographic doomsday. That’s always been one of the central issues in this process.

Mehdi Hasan: And would you accept that the Jewish state was built on an act of ethnic cleansing then?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, there were elements of ethnic cleansing, there is no doubt about it. The story of Lydda, no, of Lod. So there were obviously cases and there were many other cases where the country was bisected by war and people ran away out of fear. I don’t believe that there was a masterplan.

Mehdi Hasan: Let’s assume it was all an accident. Let’s assume the Palestinians all ran away out of choice. You didn’t let them come back. It’s all very well acknowledging the history and saying, “That was unfortunate, this may have been ethnic cleansing.” But I’m asking you, you say today, “I am an ardent Zionist.” That’s part of the legacy of Zionism.

Shlomo Ben Ami: I, well, I accept it as it is.

Mehdi Hasan: But you don’t say, “I don’t want to therefore take the tag of an ideology that produced that.”

Shlomo Ben Ami: I’m trying to reconcile the price that was paid by everybody in this conflict with a decent state of affairs. That is what it is to be liberal today.

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Well, let’s talk about that but Paul Charney wants to come in here, Paul.

Paul Charney: In the 1950s there was a Jewish majority in that land because the Arab nations expelled 800,000 Jews and they had no one where to go but Israel. The Arabs have created as much of a Jewish population in Israel as the Palestinians leaving.

Diana Buttu: Why haven’t the refugees been allowed to return? Because the fundamental issue is that you view Palestinians as a demographic threat and that you don’t believe in equality for Palestinians.

Paul Charney: [INTERRUPTING] Because as soon as the Palestinians return, then you create a majority…and as soon as you have a majority…

Mehdi Hasan: I want to pick up what Shlomo said about dealing with now, the consequences of now. I hear a lot of people on the left in Israel say, you know, “We’re opposed to settlements, the settlements are bad, don’t judge us on the basis of the settlements, we’re against settlements too.” And there’s this sense that settlements are somehow alien, distinct, different to Israel proper. Isn’t the problem here that you can’t distinguish the two; they are part and parcel of the same enterprise?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Yes, I think Israel hasn’t been able to overcome the hangover from the years prior to the state of Israel, where settling the land was made by outsmarting the British and outwitting the Arabs. 1967 unleashed the spirit of the old Jewish community in Palestine, of settling the land, and I think that it’s about time to put an end to it.

Mehdi Hasan: When I hear people in Israel talking about settlements, there are two different types. There’s someone like yourself saying it’s time to bring it to an end, and we had Dani Dayan on this show, the former leader of the West Bank settlers, sitting in that very chair last year, on Head to Head , and he said, quote; “If Tel Aviv is not a colonialist project, then Mali Shomron, the West Bank settlement where he lives, is not a colonialist project”. i.e., if the settlements are colonialist and illegitimate then so, too, is Tel Aviv, so, too, is Haifa. He’s got a point, hasn’t he? He’s kind of bluntly honest about all this.

Shlomo Ben Ami: No, he doesn’t have a point. This is a silly argument. This is a totally…

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Why?

Shlomo Ben Ami: …silly argument. Simply because 1948 is a reality that is now regionally, internationally recognised. And going beyond 1948, settling in the West Bank today, which is what remains for the Palestinians to have their own sovereign, decent state, you need to put limits to the sin. There has been, as I say, a sin in the creation of the state of Israel, as I do believe that there has been a sin in the creation of many nations throughout history. But you need to put a limit. And the limit, the reasonable limit, is the state of 1948. And going beyond that, by saying that Tel Aviv is also a settlement is political pornography.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let me ask Diana Buttu. When you hear someone like Shlomo Ben Ali here on the left of the Israeli political spectrum saying, “political pornography,” what’s your response?

Diana Buttu: I hate to agree with Dani Dayan but in a way he is absolutely right. The fact that we’re trying to make a distinction between what happened in ‘48 and what happened in ‘67 is a false distinction to be making. Zionism as its fundamental core is the idea of privileging one group of people over another. And the way they created a Zionist state in the first place was to expel millions, hundreds of thousands, now millions, of Palestinian refugees, including my family. And the way that you create a bigger Zionist state is do the exact same process. I think that it’s important to keep in mind that between the period of 1948 and 1967, which people are sort of trying to idealise as being the great years of Israel, there were Palestinians who were citizens of that state that were living under military rule.

Mehdi Hasan: Let me just ask you this, in the past sixty years, roughly 700 Jewish communities have been established inside the 1967 borders. Do you know how many have been established for Arab citizens?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I guess none.

Mehdi Hasan: Seven.

Shlomo Ben Ami: [LAUGHS] Oh, seven.

Mehdi Hasan: Seven. So when you see a statistic like that, how can you say that this is a country that treats its Arab citizens and its Jewish citizens equally?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I said equal according to the law, not reality. I say that very clearly. And this is one major assignment that the state of Israel still has. That is, to turn this equality, according to the law, into a reality, a social and political…

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Which law? Which law? From the very beginning there have been laws discriminating against Palestinians living in Israel.

Shlomo Ben Ami: I am not going to be the advocate of these policies. These are the policies upon which the state of Israel was built. Israel is driven by a paranoia with regard to the Arab world. The dilemma of the Arab Israeli is of a people whose people is at war with its state. And this is a very, very odd condition that you don’t find among other nations. And therefore everything that happens is conditioned by these contradictions that are inherent in the creation of the state of Israel.

Mehdi Hasan: Could a Palestinian ever be prime minister of Israel?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, well… [LAUGHTER] History, history will tell.

Mehdi Hasan: If you had a Palestinian prime minister, then why call yourself a Jewish state?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Because the state so far has this preoccupation with being the refuge, with being the shelter of the Jews, given the historical background. We have a particular history and the Jewish state, its formation, its constitution has much to do with this burden of history.

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Agreed. I don’t think anyone would dispute the burden, the suffering, the persecution: that’s not what’s at stake. I think the issue is that the right to self-determination of Jews came at the expense of equal rights of other people and continues to come at the expense of others.

Shlomo Ben Ami: And this is, as I say, this is the assignment of Liberal Zionists. To try and put an end to this and put a limit to this inequality. Peace with the Palestinians would be a major step towards such a goal.

Mehdi Hasan: You would accept, surely, at the very minimum, what we’ve just discussed, that it, Arabs are discriminated against legally, in an institutionalised fashion.

Shlomo Ben Ami: They are, but less and less. I think Israel is making headway in reconciling itself with its Arab minority.

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Well, let’s ask our panel. Paul Charney, you would accept that Arab citizens of Israel are treated differently to Jewish citizens of Israel?

Paul Charney: Well, let’s look at it this way: there was no Palestinian liberation movement in the West Bank prior to 1967.

Mehdi Hasan: That’s not the question I asked. Do you accept that Arab citizens in Israel are treated differently to Jewish citizens in Israel?

Paul Charney: I accept that Israel has some way to go for all its citizens to be 100 percent equal in its society, not in the law, but in the society. And that takes time.

Mehdi Hasan: What does that mean, “not in the law”?

Paul Charney: That means that, just in every democratic society around the world, minorities are treated, in some circumstances, differently to the majorities. Including this country here.

Mehdi Hasan: Really? In this country people, defined as an ethnic group, are treated differently?

Paul Charney: [INTERRUPTING] In this country. You will see parties like the BNP talk about different races and different minorities.

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] So you’re comparing Israel to the British National Party? A far-right fascist party? [LAUGHTER]

Paul Charney: I am comparing Israel to a conglomerate of democratic parties just like the UK.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let me ask Avi Shlaim to respond to that.

Avi Shlaim: I would like to disagree with Professor Ben Ami when he says that Israel is less and less discriminatory. I think that’s the exact opposite of the truth because ever since the breakdown of the Camp David conference, summit, Israel has been moving further and further to the right. And today we have a prime minister who embodies the most right-wing, xenophobic, exclusivist and racist brand of Zionism. And his government is an extremely chauvinistic government which not only is opposed to any withdrawal on the West Bank – in other words, it’s opposed to peace with the Palestinians – but it’s also increasingly discriminatory towards the Arab minority within Israel.

Mehdi Hasan: Diana Buttu, what do you make of the argument from liberal Zionists, not-so-liberal Zionists, that everyone inside of Israel is treated equally? By the law if not in practice?

Diana Buttu: Absolute rubbish. First and foremost, I think it’s important to go through some of the laws just so that people get a flavour of what these laws are about. First of all, immigration issues. My family hails from a town that is in the Galilee and they were ethnically cleansed from their homes in 1948. They have never been allowed to return back, even though they themselves are citizens of the state of Israel. We’re considered “present absentees”. My family, some of whom actually fled to other Arab countries including Jordan, have never been allowed to return to their home inside what is, what is present-day Israel, for one reason and only one reason: because they’re not Jewish. Another law that the Knesset has recently passed is a law that allows communities to be able to discriminate against people who decide to move into those areas. So, for example, if you are Arab, there are committees that are specifically designed to weed you out because they don’t want any Palestinians living amongst them.

Shlomo Ben Ami: It’s true, that’s a reality, and it is not a reality that should be condoned. They come from something which is inherent in a movement that wants demographic majority, the same drive that will eventually bring about the creation of a Palestinian state, simply because this drive to be a Jewish majority is what will prevent the annexation of the West Bank.

Mehdi Hasan: Just to come back to my earlier question, because this is the key here: you don’t accept that your definition, which you use the phrase “demographic” and “demographic drive” and “demographic majority”, is a definition of an ideology that doesn’t match most other political ideologies.

Shlomo Ben Ami: It is the result of Jewish history that brings us to want to have a Jewish majority. If it is, if it continues to be preserved and a limit is not put to it, it becomes racism and this is exactly what people like myself and many others would like to put an end to.

Mehdi Hasan: We’re going to take a break now. In Part two, I want to talk to you about the peace negotiations that you engaged in when you were foreign minister of Israel slightly over a decade ago, and we’re also going to be talking to our audience here at the Oxford Union. So stay tuned for Part two of Head to Head with Shlomo Ben Ami. 


Part two

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to Part two of Head to Head . We’ve been talking about Liberal Zionism; is there a contradiction between Liberalism and Zionism? Our guest today is the former Foreign Minister of Israel, Shlomo Ben Ami. In Part two, in this part, I’d like to talk about some of your experiences as a negotiator at Camp David, as a foreign minister for Israel at the Taba Peace Summit in January 2001. We are always talking about the quote unquote “peace process”. What I wanted to ask is whether this process was all ultimately a waste of time because two decades later, we talked about settlements in Part one, the number of settlements doubled during that time, the Palestinians still don’t have a state, still haven’t ended the occupation, there’s still no peace in the Middle East.

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, it was not a waste of time. I think that we reached a point where we all understand what is the price of peace. When we came to the Madrid peace conference, we thought that peace is not about all the land and the Arabs thought that it is not about all the peace. Today we do understand that it is about all the land and all the peace. That’s one lesson. Another thing that was not a waste of time is that the peace process managed to bring into the idea of a two-state solution, the Israeli centre, and the right of centre. What is a waste of time is to insist on the paradigm. The paradigm of peace negotiated directly between Israelis and Palestinians would, is not valid anymore, in my view.

Mehdi Hasan: Taba in January 2001 where you led the Israeli negotiating team: how close do you think you came to an agreeing, comprehensive peace deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I think we came very close. What happened to us is what happens in many other peace processes where the political calendar clashes with the logic of the process. And we were very close to elections. Arafat was unwilling to strike a deal with a moribund government. He truly believed that with Bush Jr he might have a better deal. He remembered Bush Sr, but Bush Jr turned out to be not the son of his father, he turned out to be the son of Reagan.

Mehdi Hasan: But your old boss Ehud Barak didn’t really want to do a deal either.

Shlomo Ben Ami: That’s not true. He was very keen on having an agreement. He came to the peace process the way Rabin came. He was not a peacenik. He saw it as a central pillar for Israel’s security. And he wanted it very, very strongly.

Mehdi Hasan: What I’m confused about is I read your book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace and I’m slightly confused because on the one hand you say things like, “If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David,” the peace offer at Camp David.

Shlomo Ben Ami: But not Taba, I said Camp David but not…

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] You also say in 2001 after Taba, you say, quote, “Arafat doesn’t accept us,you said at the time, “Neither he nor the Palestinian national movement accept us. Contrary to the Zionist movement, they are incapable of compromising.”

Shlomo Ben Ami: Let me explain what I mean by this. You see, for the Egyptians and the Syrians, a peace agreement with Israel is about real estate. It is about a piece of land. We gave back the Sinai peninsula and we got a peace treaty. When it comes to the Palestinians, this is not about the political recognition of the state of Israel. It is about the moral recognition of the state of Israel. It goes into intangible, non-tangible issues. And, for them, it is extremely difficult.  I still don’t have an answer if he did want a deal or if he did not want a deal, and I am saying that from a very, very favourable opinion to Arafat. You see, for him to recognise the state of Israel was to recognise this state that was born in sin. It was to confer to Israel a moral legitimacy which is not the kind of legitimacy that the Egyptians were about to confer to us. They gave us political legitimacy. So, this is where, given the context of the Palestinian tragedy that has some sort of cosmic dimensions, all political solutions fell short of reconciling this tragedy, and this is where I see the difficulty of the Palestinians to reach a deal.

Mehdi Hasan: So let me put some of your comments to our panel. Diana Buttu, you were obviously a legal advisor at the time when all this was going on. Were you incapable of compromise?

Diana Buttu: Look, I was also present at Taba and this is what compromise is in the, in the Israeli mindset. They take the land, claim that it’s theirs and then they make “concessions” on land that doesn’t actually belong to them. And this is the way that the Zionist movement is about, so at Taba, Taba didn’t really differ very much from, from Camp David. They, the Israelis were…

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] Oh, come on! Come on! Come on!

Diana Buttu: [INTERRUPTING] …still willing to take, yes, you still wanted the Ariel block, you still wanted Ma’ale Adumim, you still wanted to take large swaths of Palestinian land. There was still no recognition that Palestinians have a right to return to their homeland. There was still no compensation that was going to be paid. There, it was still this idea of continual control over Palestinian lives.

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Okay, well, I’ll come back to you in a moment, Shlomo…

Diana Buttu: [INTERRUPTING] That’s what concessions are about in the Israeli mindset.

Mehdi Hasan: Paul Charney, if you were at Taba, would you have signed a deal – the kind of deal that Shlomo Ben Ami was talking about at the time?

Paul Charney: So long as Israelis can live in a secure, safe environment, I would be happy to sign the Taba deal.

Avi Shlaim: Paul privileges Israel’s security. For him, what matters above everything else is Israel’s security. He completely ignores Palestinian rights, both individual rights and collective rights. Now, the trouble with the Israeli concept of security is that Israel wants 100 percent security for itself, which means zero security for the Palestinians. And I would say that the American-sponsored peace process since 1991 is an exercise in futility because it’s all process, and no peace. Benjamin Netanyahu pretends that he wants to negotiate with the Palestinians but he keeps expanding Israeli settlements. So he is like a man who pretends to negotiate over the division of a pizza and he keeps eating it. 

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, all right, Shlomo Ben Ami, Avi Shlaim talked about “all process, no peace,” and a lot of people who were supporters of a peace process and a two-state solution along Oslo grounds, Camp David grounds, Taba grounds, now say it can’t happen, it won’t happen. And they would say that a one-state solution, a secular, bi-national state of Palestinians and Jews living side by side is the only option. You say in your book and elsewhere, it’s utterly unrealistic. It’s nonsense. Others would say it’s inevitable.

Shlomo Ben Ami: If we go back to the demography question, I think that if the two-state solution doesn’t work, you will see an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank, precisely because of the demographic issue. Why did Sharon disengage from Gaza and dismantle the settlements that he, himself, had created? Because of demography.

Mehdi Hasan: Do you see Palestinians as a demographic threat to Israel? Do you use that language?

Shlomo Ben Ami: It does not respond to the original plans of Zionism.

Mehdi Hasan: What proportion of the Israeli population, in an ideal world, in Shlomo Ben Ami’s ideal, would be Palestinian?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I don’t… I mean it’s, er…

Mehdi Hasan: It’s an important question…

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] No, no…

Mehdi Hasan: …if you’re going to talk about demography…

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] No, no…

Mehdi Hasan:…How many Palestinians are too many?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I, I can’t say that, I, I don’t know…

Mehdi Hasan: If it was 51 percent Palestinian, would that be a problem for you? As a Liberal Zionist?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I guess not, but as a whole, the state needs to have a Jewish majority because that was the initial idea, this is the central idea…

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] But then you’re contradicting yourself. You’re saying, “I guess not” to 51 percent, but, “The state needs to have a Jewish majority.”

Shlomo Ben Ami: You are discussing with me mathematics. I am talking about the principle…

Mehdi Hasan [INTERRUPTING] I’m asking – the principle? I’m saying…

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] Well, no, I…

Mehdi Hasan: …in a Jewish state, with a quote unquote “demographic threat,” or “demographic race” is the phrase you use in your book, how many Palestinians is too many? It’s the only democracy that defines itself on ethnic grounds.

Shlomo Ben Ami: But there are others that do not define but do it in practice.

Mehdi Hasan: In practice, okay, let me go back…

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] For example, the Arab world is, the Arab states are not, Muslims

Mehdi Hasan: I don’t think the Arab states have ever claimed to be Western, liberal democracies. Avi Shlaim, every country does it? 

Avi Shlaim: Well, we are talking about Israel, not about other countries. And Israel, within its pre-1967 borders, is a democracy, a flawed democracy. But Israel plus the occupied territories is, most emphatically, not a democracy. It’s an ethnocracy where one ethnic group dominates over the other.

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] And very quickly, are you a supporter of a two-state solution? Or do you think a one-state solution is now inevitable? Or a unilateral withdrawal?

Avi Shlaim: All my life I’ve supported a two-state solution. But now I believe that the two-state solution is dead. It’s dead as a dodo, it’s dead as the Oxford dodo which you can see at the entrance to the Pitt Rivers Museum, not very far from here…

Mehdi Hasan: Okay. It’s dead, I think we get it. [LAUGHTER]

Avi Shlaim: And Israeli governments destroyed the two-state solution, systematically destroyed the basis for a viable Palestinian state.

Mehdi Hasan: Paul, how many Palestinians is too many in Israel today?

Paul Charney: Judaism and Jews are a fundamental part of the nationality, the national outlook of Israel. It’s a fundamental part. And if you said in Britain today that you would open your borders to immigration from around the world, you would have riots on your hands. 

Mehdi Hasan: I asked you a question: are Palestinians immigrants in their own land?

Paul Charney: Not just Palestinians. Israel will limit immigration of any nationality, of any people around…

Mehdi Hasan: Paul, it’s a very simple question. Are Palestinians immigrants in their own land?

Paul Charney: Non-Israelis, which is fundamentally part of Judaism, are limited in the amount of people that can come into Israel.

Diana Buttu: This is precisely the face of Zionism. The fact that Israel comes to me and now I’m considered to be an immigrant to that country. This is precisely the ideology. The problem with Israel is that it views me either as a demographic threat or as a security threat. And if you look at Israel today, it already is one state. It’s no longer a question of whether it is going to be one state – it is one state. The problem today is it’s apartheid. That’s what we’re living under.

Mehdi Hasan: Let me go to our audience now who’ve been waiting very patiently. Okay, gentleman here, waving his hand.

Audience Participant 1: Mr Ben Ami, you may or may not have a right to a state, but why should we, Palestinians, have to suffer so that you have a state. How is that fair? And why am I being denied my right to visit the village of my grandfather, which is only 10km to the east, to the east of Gaza? And just to remind you, to remind the audience, the whole world, which has been under siege for the past seven years by your government. Thank you.

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, I hope that this two-state solution at one, at some point down the road, will materialise, and we will have peace with the Palestinians, and we can visit peacefully Palestine and Palestinians can visit peacefully Israel.

Mehdi Hasan: What about the earlier part of his question, which was about statehood for the Jews came at the expense of Palestinians. How is that right?

Shlomo Ben Ami: It is…no…if…if this is…

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Because on the phrase used that the Palestinians and the Jews…

Shlomo Ben Ami: If this is what he says, and if this were the reality, then he is right. But there is a shared responsibility. There must be a shared responsibility why the Palestinians do not have their own state. We need to go back again to history and see why in 1947 it did not happen, why in 1937 it did not happen. The Palestinians were offered a state, never a perfect state, three times, and three times they rejected it. So this is part of the story. You cannot go into the movie in the middle of the movie and say, “Okay, this is what happens.” You need to go to the origins, and in the origins, there were Israeli sins and there were Palestinian political miscalculations and wrong decisions that brought them to this situation. And, as brilliant Palestinian scholar Yasir Sayeb wrote, “If this kind of decision-making by the Palestinian leadership persist, they might end – and this is a Palestinian saying – like the Kurds, with the right cause but with no solution.”  Shared responsibility when political decisions need to be taken.

Mehdi Hasan: Just very, very quickly, Avi Shlaim, you’re here, you’re famous for being one of the new historians. I’m just wondering what your take is in terms of apportioning blame for the fact that the Palestinians don’t have a state today and don’t have justice.

Avi Shlaim: Whichever way you look at the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, it involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s take some more questions. I’m going to go back to the back, who’s got their hand up highest? Oh, that guy put his hand up very high.

Audience Participant 2: Thank you for this event. I’m not Jewish, or Palestinian, but as someone who is outside the conflict, it seems that as a Liberal, you said you support international law, which includes not only ending the occupations and granting equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, but also implementing UN 242, right? The right of return of the refugees and the diaspora. And so my question is, why shouldn’t we boycott Israel? Divest from Israel? Impose sanctions on Israel? Until it meets that minimum standard of international law. Ending the occupations, gar-granting equal rights and allowing the right of return. It worked in South African apartheid – why shouldn’t we apply the same strategy here?

Shlomo Ben Ami: 242? 242 is not about ending occupation. 242 is about negotiating the end of occupation. And this was negotiated by some Israeli governments in good faith and this is where you can discuss the question of shared responsibility. Why we did not reach an agreement in Camp David? Why we did not reach an agreement in Taba? Why we accepted the Clinton peace parameters and the other side did not accept them? So, there was an attempt to reach a solution based…

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] What about refugees?

Shlomo Ben Ami: About refugees, 194, this is another example of these divergent rhythms of decision-making between Israelis and Palestinians. 194 was rejected by the, by the entire Arab world and in Losan, Israel proposed the 100,000 return of refugees. I admit that it was done as a tactic. But it was not accepted by the Arab world. Today 100,000 refugees returning to Israel would have been a glorious achievement.

Mehdi Hasan: I’m assuming you don’t agree with boycotting Israel. But do you understand where that sentiment comes from, that people do see these kind of discriminatory laws, they do see these injustices and they say, “What else should we do? A peaceful means of trying to put pressure on Israel?”

Shlomo Ben Ami: I think that what they should do is push their governments to put pressure on the parties to reach a settlement. Sanctions need to be ruled out in this context.

Mehdi Hasan: Diana Buttu, do you support, as a Palestinian, the boycott, divestment and sanction movement? The BDS movement…

Diana Buttu: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is the only way that Israel’s going to get the message that it’s not above international law and that the Palestinians are not beneath international law.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, back to the audience. Lady here in the front row in the grey jacket. Do you want to speak up, please?

Audience Participant 3: You acknowledge that there is a gap between the equality that Israel- Israeli Arabs receive under the law and the equality they receive from their Jewish Israeli neighbours. What practical solutions can you describe right now for addressing and then changing that mindset?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, the only practical solution is more proactive policies by Israeli governments. What strikes me, in the behaviour of Likud right now is this tea party emergence within Likud, that goes against the initial philosophy of the Israeli right. Because, surprisingly, they always believed in a fair deal to the Palestinians.

Mehdi Hasan: Okay, gentleman here in the tie, on my right, third row back.

Audience Participant 4: Professor Ben Ami, you are talking about peace negotiations and two-state solutions, but at the end of the day, in negotiation, the devil is in the details. Can you envisage an Israeli government that will meet the minimum requirement on issues like refugees, Jerusalem, even the swap of lands? And if I can take it further, the Arab initiative, the Saudi initiative, can you see any option for these to be revived – is it valuable to revive it now? Or it’s all done and dead?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I don’t see an Israeli government in the foreseeable future that will meet the minimum requirements of the Palestinians for statehood. When we went to Taba, the negotiating team, which I headed, you cannot imagine in the Israeli political map a team more to the left. The Palestinians rejected also the Geneva accords. The political career of Yasser Abed Rabbo was destroyed because he was party to the Geneva accords. So, you can, one asks oneself, what is that minimum? Because…

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Do you think the current Israeli government should sign up to the Saudi peace plan, which has been on the table for a while?

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] I think that not only the current Israeli government. I think that the governments from 19- 2002 lost the historic opportunity to subscribe to the plan. By the way, the plan, when it comes to Jerusalem, goes beyond what the Palestinians agreed at Camp David and in Taba, which is not the division of Jerusalem East/West, but the division of Jerusalem along ethnic lines, which is the Clinton, which are the Clinton peace parameters. So I think that this is a workable, a liveable plan that an Israeli government should have subscribed to.

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] You don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon?

Shlomo Ben Ami: I don’t see that because the political map has shifted, as Avi said rightly, to the right. And Likud, even, has become an ungovernable party.

Mehdi Hasan: Let’s come back to the audience here; let’s come back to the lady three rows down with her hand up, yes, on my left. 

Audience Participant 5: I just wanted to know as a Liberal Zionist who embraces the idea of equality in Israel for the Arab citizens of Israel, and I am an Arab citizen of Israel, would you, one, how would you move forward in advancing this population, and would you agree to affirmative action policies that would advance this, this minority in Israel?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Absolutely, I would, I would subscribe to affirmative action. I would subscribe to affirmative action.

Mehdi Hasan: Ok, let’s go back to the audience. Lady here on my left.

Audience Participant 6: I wanted to ask you, going back to this divide between 1948 and 1967, you’ve made a compelling argument tonight, as a Liberal Zionist, that the problem is the occupation and not the original sin of 1948. But we know that at this forum Dani Dayan said that he rejects this and Diana Buttu, our esteemed colleague here, has also said that this is one, really one and the same. And given these opinions of members of both nationalist camps, who are not considered radicals within their own movements, what gives you hope for the two-state solution going forward?

Shlomo Ben Ami: No, I’m not extremely hopefully if the current paradigm continues, where the two parties are supposed to reach a settlement, there will not be a solution. A solution has to have an ingredient of imposition. It has to, it has to come from the international community. What you need is a peace plan that would become the internationally accepted interpretation of 242.

Mehdi Hasan: When you talk about hopefulness and what’s going to happen with the Palestinian Israelis, I just want to read one quote to you that you said when you were on Democracy Now, the American radio show, a few years ago. You said that you support concessions, quote, “not because I am concerned with the future of the Palestinians or because I am concerned with international law. It is because I define myself as an ardent Zionist that thinks the best for the Jews in Israel is that we abandon the territories. It’s not because I’m concerned with the Palestinians, I want to be very clear about that.” My question is, as a Liberal, shouldn’t you also be concerned about the Palestinians? It shouldn’t just be a cynical exercise in saving Israel.

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] No, no, no, I shifted in that particular answer where is the core of my drive to reach a settlement. The fact that I think this is the best for the Jewish state, to, for all reasons. For political reasons, for international reasons and for moral reasons because there is a spillover of the practices that one exercises in the territories into the state of Israel. So I think that it includes everything.

Mehdi Hasan: One last question, from the gentleman who waited very patiently in the back.

Audience Participant 7: Dr Ben Ami, does there come a point where Zionism where the mistakes of war and the actions of extremism, as, the mistakes of war, as you call them, when those destroy the moral ascendency, in your eyes, of, of Zionism as an ideology?

Shlomo Ben Ami: Well, Netanyahu is obsessed with absolute security, something that is utterly unrealistic and, in fact, this drive to have absolute, total security is not possible to implement. And therefore you can see him insisting on a continuous presence of Israel in the Jordan valley…

Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Does a point come where you say, as a fellow Zionist of Benjamin Netanyahu, on a different part of the spectrum, where you say, “This project just doesn’t, I can’t sign up to it anymore, I can’t be an ardent Zionist anymore, given what things have happened in the name of Zionism”?

Shlomo Ben Ami: [INTERRUPTING] No, of course not, of course not. If he distorted the idea, it doesn’t oblige me to abandon my credo. I mean, I think that this is his view. It’s not a monolithic ideology. People gave it different interpretations, as in every other nations.

Mehdi Hasan: Just before we finish, 13 years ago, you say you came very close to a peace deal at Taba. 13 years from now, what is that region going to look like, what’s going to be happening in Israel and Palestine? What’s your prediction? 

Shlomo Ben Ami: I think that Israel condemns itself to partition if it doesn’t reach a settlement whereby you will have a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. You have condensed this debate into the moral sphere. History is not a department of moral philosophy. Not for the Israelis and not for any other nation in the planet. If you see that from a political and strategic perspective, I think that this is the end of the Jewish state, this is the end of the initial Zionist idea if we do not have a Palestinian state. Morally, politically, strategically. For me, a Palestinian state is not the objective. For me, this is the instrument, the tool, the way to reconcile ourselves with the entirety of the Arab and Muslim world. And this is the strategic meaning of a Palestinian state. And this is why I want it. If it doesn’t happen, what we will see is something similar to what Ariel Sharon did in Gaza, a Unilateral withdrawal.

Mehdi Hasan: Thank you very much, Dr Shlomo Ben Ami, for joining us here on Head to Head . Thank you for all coming to the Oxford Union tonight. Thanks to our panel and thanks to you all for watching at home. Head to Head will be back next week. Goodnight.

Audience: [APPLAUSE}