Israel's new Deputy Prime Minister on the "two state solution," Tony Blair, and western boycotts of his countryby / June 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
“I think this government is willing to move to a peace process,” said Silvan Shalom, Israel’s new Deputy Prime Minister, now also in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians. “I believe that if we find the Palestinians willing to resume the negotiations, something they are not willing to do now, they will find the Israelis a real partner, a serious one to work towards peace.”
The surprise victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in the March elections, and his formation in May of a coalition dependent on the nationalist Jewish Home party, has raised concerns internationally about whether Israel will back a revival of the moribund peace process, following comments from the prime minister before the election which cast doubt on whether he supported a “two state solution”.
Shalom, a Likud member of the Knesset, and Minister of the Interior, said that “During the process both sides should make some compromises.” Speaking to Prospect in Jerusalem ahead of a speech in London today (Monday), he said “the fact that there is no peace process is not our fault. We would like to resume the negotiations, today, or yesterday.”
The new government takes shape against a background of growing international pressure over its building of Jewish homes in West Bank settlements, on land occupied by Israel since 1967. Asked whether the settlements have spread too far to make a separate Palestinian state viable, as many western diplomats and analysts now suggest, he said: “We don’t ask them [the Palestinians] to come with preconditions,” such as giving up the “right of return” of Palestinians forced out of Israel at its creation, “and they should not ask that in turn”.
Asked why Israel did not stop building, when governments who are otherwise supportive of Israel see it as uniquely provocative, he maintained the longstanding government line that most building was within the large settlement blocs and that “it is well recognised” that these blocs would remain with Israel in any final deal, swapped for land elsewhere. “While people live there, we cannot stop building kindergartens or healthcare centres,” he said, calling protests about the spread of the settlements “only excuses” by the Palestinians not to resume talks.
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“Many Israelis will tell you that the Bible” gives Jews the right to live in the territory east of the 1967 border and west of the Jordan river, he said. “But we know that Palestinians live there. We have to face the reality and try to resume negotiations.”
He floated the idea that “Maybe we can’t achieve [a] final status [agreement], maybe only an interim one, in return for improvement in living standards.” Israel has “cancelled many roadblocks, issued more permits to work in Israel,” he said. While almost no one on the Palestinian side has anything good to say about Tony Blair in his role of envoy to improve the Palestinian economy, Shalom maintained that “Tony Blair, yes, did some good things. Implemented many projects. Helped Palestinians.” But Palestinians have been deeply suspicious through more than two decades of attempts to strike a deal of proposals for a staged approach, believing that the issues about which they care most will never get addressed.
“I don’t think that they can wait forever,” said Shalom. “They are under huge pressure because of the threat from Hamas, from their own people. They always thought time would work in their favour.”
However, there are new signs of alarm in Israel at the rise of the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” (BDS) movement, directed at its presence in the occupied Palestinian territories, and at the recent success the Palestinians have had in appealing for recognition as a state to the United Nations and other international bodies.
“They have found a new track that enables them to get what they want without making any compromise,” he said. “If they are willing to make progress [in talks] they should stop their unilateral moves.” Those violate the 1993 Oslo accords, the agreements which attempted to start the peace process, he said; the Palestinians’ retort is that the settlement building violates those accords.
In approaching the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council for recognition, “the only reason they don’t succeed is that most [of these] organisations are financed by US which threatens to stop their budget,” he said. That overstates the US’s role, however; it has refused to join the ICC.
“Any kind of boycott is not helping peace process or Palestinians,” the minister said. “They are not really trying to boycott Israel because of the settlements or the Occupied Territories, they are doing it because they want to destroy Israel. They cannot do it militarily so they want to do it economically.” He added that David Cameron has opposed such boycotts and that parts of the US Congress (such as the Senate Finance Committee) are investigating ways of using trade bills to discourage businesses from boycotting trade with Israel.
Shrugging off the pointed criticism from President Barack Obama, and the apparent tension of relations between him and Netanyahu, he maintained: “On the most important issues for the safety and security of Israel he was there fully, is there and will be there. Israel is the best ally of the US in the region and always will be. That comes from a very deep place and I hope it will last forever.”
While claiming that he is “very pro European”, he said that European countries could not mediate in the conflict “without a more balanced attitude” which only the US had.
He dismissed, too, the threat that many see to Israel from demographics, in the absence of a two-state solution. Because of the rate at which the Arab population is growing, both among the fifth of the Israeli population that are Arabs, and in the West Bank, Jews will soon be outnumbered in the land controlled by Israel. The challenge, as many see it, is that Israel will face a choice between maintaining its Jewish character, or its claim to be a democracy, if it does not give West Bank Palestinians the vote. “It is an argument that belongs to the left in Israel and I do not accept it,” he said.
He rejected as hypothetical the question of whether Palestinians might demand the vote, turning their international campaign into one of civil rights. While that would run counter to the nationalistic character of the Palestinian campaign for their own state, it is a potential line of challenge that younger Palestinians are increasingly voicing.
In talks, Israel will not compromise on security, he said. Netanyahu has repeated “that we will keep the Jordan valley to stop Islamic State coming through Iraq,” he said. Experience has not encouraged confidence in land for peace agreements, he said. When Ariel Sharon handed over Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005, pulling out Israeli settlers, “we were told it would be Monaco, the Las Vegas of the Middle East, with hotels and investors,” he said. “Instead, since we left, we had thousands of missiles launched by those terrorists. When we withdrew from Lebanon, Hezbollah came,” he added.
He was scornful of the proposed deal that the US and EU have brokered with Iran over its nuclear programme. While he “very much appreciated” the sanctions that the EU imposed on Iran and its decision not to buy Iranian oil in 2012 despite being in economic crisis, and “did not take that for granted,” Israel’s new government is “totally against the deal.” Netanyahu appears however to have failed in his bid to persuade the US Congress to block the Iran deal. “The international community failed in Iraq, and Libya,” said Shalom. His view is that it may now do so in Iran.