Find Mediators Near You:

Should We Negotiate with Hamas? Interview with Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami Interviews

February 24, 2006

This is an interview with former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on negotiating with Hamas Mr. Ben-Ami’s pertinent comments are drawn from a debate between him and another expert on the Israeli-Palestinian history, Norman Finkelstein, sponsored by Democracy Now, and moderated by Amy Goodman on February 14, 2006. Excerpts are reproduced with permission. The complete transcrip, is available at .

With the election in the Palestinian Territory of Hamas as the majority party, an organization that admits planning and engaging in violence against Israel and Israeli civilians and publicly refuses to recognize existence of Israel, many consider them to be terrorists and that no negotiation should be considered or allowed unless or until they renounce their position. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and others have taken what has been popularly been termed a ‘tough stance,’ which includes cutting off monetary support to the Palestinian people. There has been little discussion of other negotiation strategies. Ironically, one comes from a most unlikely source. Former Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, sees an good opportunity for negotiation and presents a compelling case for realistic and pragmatic negotiations that are not constrained by ideological labels or preconceived judgments of the motives of opposing parties.

AMY GOODMAN: Well over a decade has passed since the historic Oslo Accords that brought hopes for a lasting peace. Today, relations between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority are virtually nonexistent. With the recent election of Hamas, Israel says it will cut off all ties to any Palestinian government that includes the group. After the election, Israel withheld tax funds it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. It finally transferred the funds, but says any Hamas-led Palestinian government will get, quote, “not even one shekel.” The Palestinian Authority is on the brink of financial disaster. Today, we bring you a discussion with two of the world’s leading experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both of them have new books on the subject. We’re joined by Shlomo Ben-Ami, both an insider and a scholar. As Foreign Minister under Ehud Barak, he was a key participant in years of Israel-Palestinian peace talks, including the Camp David and Taba talks in 2000 and 2001. An Oxford-trained historian, he is currently Vice President of the Toledo Peace Centre in Madrid. His new book is called Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

We’re also joined by Norman Finkelstein. He’s a professor of political science at DePaul University. His books include A Nation on Trial, which he coauthored with Ruth Bettina Birn, named as a New York Times notable book for 1998. He’s also the author of Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and The Holocaust Industry. His latest book is Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. His website is On the establishment of the State of Israel, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Can you talk about how it began? I think you have a very interesting discussion in this book that is rarely seen in this country of how the state of Israel was established.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, for all practical purposes, a state existed before it was officially created in 1948. The point that I made with regard to the war is that the country, to the mythology that existed and exists, continues to exist mainly among Israelis and Jews, is that Israel was not in a military disadvantage when the war took place. The Arab armies were disoriented and confused, and they did not put in the battlefield the necessary forces. So, in 1948, what was born was a state, but also an original superpower in many ways.

My view is that, but for Jesus Christ, everybody was born in sin, including nations. And the moral perspective of it is there, but at the same time it does not undermine, in my view, in my very modest view, the justification for the creation of a Jewish state, however tough the conditions and however immoral the consequences were for the Palestinians. You see, it is there that I tend to differ from the interpretation of the new historians. They have made an incredible contribution, a very, very important contribution to our understanding of the origins of the state of Israel, but at the same time, my view is that this is how — unfortunately, tragically, sadly — nations were born throughout history.

And our role, the role of this generation — this is why I came into politics and why I try to make my very modest contribution to the peace process — is that we need to bring an end to this injustice that has been done to the Palestinians. We need to draw a line between an Israeli state, a sovereign Palestinian state, and solve the best way we can the problem, by giving the necessary compensation to the refugees, by bringing back the refugees to the Palestinian state, no way to the state of Israel, not because it is immoral, but because it is not feasible, it is not possible. We need to act in a realistic way and see what are the conditions for a final peace deal. I believe that we came very, very close to that final peace deal. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it. But we came very close in the year 2001.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to that peace deal, another thing that you have said. “Israel, as a society, also suppressed the memory of its war against the local Palestinians, because it couldn’t really come to terms with the fact that it expelled Arabs, committed atrocities against them, dispossessed them. This was like admitting that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained forever by a major injustice committed against the Palestinians and that the Jewish state was born in sin.” I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that the author of these words is the former Foreign Minister of Israel.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Yes, while, at the same time, a historian. I am trying to be as fair as possible when I read the past, but it’s a very interesting point, the one that you make here, about us trying to obliterate the memory of our war against the Palestinians, and the whole Israeli 1948 mythology is based on our war against the invading Arab armies, less so against the Palestinians, who were the weaker side in that confrontation, because it didn’t serve the myth of the creation of the state and of the nation. So we need to correct that. There is no way — there is no way we can fully compensate the refugees and the Palestinians, but we need to do our very, very best to find a way to minimize the harm that was done to this nation.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to those who continue to say that at that time, at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel and before, that it really was empty, that Jews came to a place that was not populated.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Of course, it is nonsense. I mean, it was populated. Obviously, it was populated. I mean, the notion that existed, I think it was Israel Zangwill, the first to say that we are — we became a nation without a land to a land without a people. Obviously, it was not true, but again, part of the tragedy was that the Palestinians, as such, did not have — the Palestinian peasants did not have the full control of their own destiny. Part of that land was bought by the Zionist organizations from Affendis, landowners living in Turkey or anywhere else throughout the Ottoman Empire, and these people were inevitably evicted by these kind of transactions. But, as a whole, I think that not more than 6 or 7% of the entire surface of the state of Israel was bought. The rest of it was either taken over or won during the war.

The difference here might not be that huge between what Dr. Finkelstein says and my argument. I mean, either right or morality, the bottom line is that he assumes that the practical solution to the problem is not there, and it’s not really feasible to recognize, on the one hand, the existence of the state of Israel and to say that the right of five, six, or what-have-you million Palestinians to return to the state of Israel is something that can be reconciled with the existence of a Jewish state.

So, we need to find a way, and the way was, I believe, rightly found in Bill Clinton’s peace parameters, that say the following. It says that the Palestinian refugees have the inherent right to return to Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza being Palestine, being part of Palestine. There is an element in the parameters, that I have to say that was my personal contribution to the peace parameters, that says the following. It says that in the context of land swaps that were discussed between us and the Palestinians, the Palestinians were about to get some percentages of what is now the state of Israel. And the peace parameters of the President say that they can bring to those parts of the state of Israel, that will be transferred to the Palestinians, as many refugees as they wish. That is, that the return will be to the Palestinian state, plus to those parcels of the state of Israel that will be referred to Palestinian sovereignty, plus huge sums of money for compensation and rehabilitation. It seems to me that this is the most that can be done within the context, as it exists today, and we came very close to the solution.

By the way, Arafat was never very interested in the refugees problem. He was much more concentrated on Jerusalem. I saw him once saying to the current president of the Palestinian Authority, “Leave me alone with your refugees. What we need is Jerusalem.” See, he was not very keen on making much of a progress in the question of refugees. Arafat was, and remained until his last day, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a deeply religious man, a Koranic man that saw Jerusalem as the core dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He was not very interested in the territorial question either. I saw him, for example, in Camp David, saying to President Clinton, “I am ready to give away 8% of the West Bank for the sake of the Israeli blocks of settlement, so long as you give me a solution on Jerusalem.” So he was that kind of leader. The refugee problem was not so central in his mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Shlomo Ben-Ami, give us an overview of the whole peace process, of which you were a part, a critical player in this, the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. Can you talk about what they entailed, why they failed?

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, the Oslo peace process was an agreement — it started as an agreement between two unequal partners. Arafat conceived Oslo as a way, not necessarily to reach a settlement, but more importantly to him at that particular moment, in order to come back to the territories and control the politics of the Palestinian family. Don’t forget that the Intifada, to which Oslo brought an end, started independently of the P.L.O. leadership, and he saw how he was losing control of the destiny of the Palestinians. His only way to get back to the territories was through an agreement with Israel. So in Oslo, he made enormous concessions. In fact, when he was negotiating in Oslo with us, an official Palestinian delegation was negotiating with an official Israeli delegation in Washington, and the official Palestinian delegation was asking the right things from the viewpoint of the Palestinians — self-determination, right of return, end of occupation, all the necessary arguments — whereas Arafat in Oslo reached an agreement that didn’t even mention the right of self-determination for the Palestinians, doesn’t even mention the need of the Israelis to put an end to settlements.

Now, the thing is that a major problem with Oslo, on top of it, was that it solved very minor issues, such as Gaza, and even people on the far Israeli right were ready to give away Gaza, but it left open the future. The future was unknown. The two sides, the two parties started to embark on a process, when they had diametrically opposed views as to the final objective. There was nothing as to what will happen about Jerusalem. It was only said that we will negotiate Jerusalem. What about refugees? Nothing clear was said, just that we will negotiate the refugees. So the fact that the future was left so wide open was a standing invitation for the parties to dictate — to try and dictate — the nature of the final agreement through unilateral acts: the Israelis, by expanding settlements, and the Palestinians, by responding with terrorism. So this symmetry that was created in Oslo persists to this very day. So Oslo could not usher in a final agreement because of the different expectations that the parties had. It was an exercise in make-believe.

There was a lot of ambiguity, constructive ambiguity Kissinger might say, but I think it was destructive ambiguity. This destructive ambiguity helped in clinching the Oslo Agreement, but it was a minefield for those who went to Camp David and later on to Taba to try and solve all the pending issues.

Arafat didn’t give a damn about international law. It was not whether or not the agreement was based on international law or not that concerned Arafat. In my view, this is my interpretation of a man I met many, many times. I might be wrong, obviously, but this is my firsthand interpretation of this man. He was morally, psychologically, physically incapable of accepting the moral legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of its borders or whatever. Arafat was incapable of closing or locking the door of his endless conflict between us and the Palestinians. And this is the bottom line.

In Taba, what happened was that Arafat really believed that Bush son is a replica of Bush father, and Bush father was known in the Arab world as more friendly, or at least partially deaf to Jewish concerns. This was his image in the Arab world. I remember a visit I made to President Mubarak. After we left office, I said “Everybody speaks about military intelligence, Mr. President, but we all failed in our political intelligence. You wanted the election of President Bush. We wanted the election of Al Gore, and then we ended up with the most friendly president to the state of Israel ever in the White House.” So this was the conviction of Arafat, that he can still get a better deal from President Bush. His concerns were of a political nature more than anything else, and this is where he failed again, because Arafat had always a sense of somebody who knows everything. I mean, he thought of himself as a great strategist, and this is where he failed time and again, and he betrayed the cause of his own people, because at the end of the day, today, the Palestinians are becoming the second Kurds of the Middle East, a nation that is moving away from the chances of having a state.

There is never going to be an ideal solution. A leader needs to take a decision in moments of trial, because if you look for a consensus among your people for a solution, you might never have that kind of consensus. Peace is a divisive enterprise, and a peace that is accepted by Hamas will not be accepted by the Israelis, just as a peace that is accepted by the Israeli far right, Mutatis Mutandis, is not going to be accepted by the Palestinians. You need to divide your society, and the peace agreement will not be in full coincidence with the requirements of international law. It will be in coincidence with the feasibility, with a political possibility of reaching a precarious line of equilibrium between the positions of the parties. This is how peace is made throughout history, and I believe that we lost that opportunity, sadly enough, and we need to go back to it.

When it comes to the new situation in the Palestinian Authority today, I am less pessimistic than many others. I don’t think that we need automatically to rule out the new rulers in Ramallah and Gaza as peace partners. There are things that need to be done.

Yes, Hamas. I think that in my view there is almost sort of poetic justice with this victory of Hamas. After all, what is the reason for this nostalgia for Arafat and for the P.L.O.? Did they run the affairs of the Palestinians in a clean way? You mentioned the corruption, the inefficiency. Of course, Israel has contributed a lot to the disintegration of the Palestinian system, no doubt about it, but their leaders failed them. Their leaders betrayed them, and the victory of Hamas is justice being made in many ways. So we cannot preach democracy and then say that those who won are not accepted by us. Either there is democracy or there is no democracy.

And with these people, I think they are much more pragmatic than is normally perceived. In the 1990s, they invented the concept of a temporary settlement with Israel. 1990s was the first time that Hamas spoke about a temporary settlement with Israel. In 2003, they declared unilaterally a truce, and the reason they declared the truce is this, that with Arafat, whose system of government was one of divide and rule, they were discarded from the political system. Mahmoud Abbas has integrated them into the political system, and this is what brought them to the truce. They are interested in politicizing themselves, in becoming a politic entity. And we need to try and see ways where we can work with them.

Now, everybody says they need first to recognize the state of Israel and end terrorism. Believe me, I would like them to do so today, but they are not going to do that. They are eventually going to do that in the future, but only as part of a quid pro quo, just as the P.L.O. did it. The P.L.O., when Rabin came to negotiate with them, also didn’t recognize the state of Israel, and they engaged in all kind of nasty practices. And therefore, we need to be much more realistic and abandon worn-out cliches and see whether we can reach something with these people. I believe that a long-term interim agreement between Israel and Hamas, even if it is not directly negotiated between the parties, but through a third party, is feasible and possible


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Winks, Nods, and Corporate Culture

Two Minute Trainings by Maria SimpsonLast week I wrote about the lessons learned from General Shinseki’s resignation as Secretary of the VA,including opening communications avenues to people several steps below...

By Maria Simpson

Questioning authority: teaching new mediators the value of open-ended questions

There's a story I tell when I teach mediation students how to ask effective questions: A guy walks into a bar. He strolls up to the bartender and asks for...

By Diane J. Levin

Decision Tree Analysis in Litigation: The Basics

From John DeGroote's Settlement Perspectives A sample Decision Tree, available in .pdf format here. I remember my first mediation decision tree. It was late in the day, just before impasse,...

By John DeGroote