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Extended Interview With Yaron Ezrahi

February 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who determined where to build the barrier?

YARON EZRAHI: It is the result and the changing result of four players: the Israeli Army, which has its own notion of what are Israel’s security needs; the Israeli government, which brings in political considerations; the settlers, which are an intense factor represented by part of the political coalition; and the White House, which I think is the biggest player in this matter. Now lately, the Hague, the international court, is emerging as a fifth player which may influence the path of the fence.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In some areas, the fence has completely encircled communities and people are losing their lands. Who would have made those decisions?

YARON EZRAHI: Sharon’s government and the right wing parties which support it. We have to remind ourselves, this is the most right wing government in Israel’s history. Large parts of this government would like to force Palestinians to “voluntarily” transfer — to move from the area. This is an unspoken motive for some elements of the fence and this is what makes Israel’s case before the Hague more difficult.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you believe that a strong motivation is to incite or induce voluntary transfer?

YARON EZRAHI: I think this is an incentive that can be seen in the extreme right wing parties, not in the vast majority of the Israeli public. The vast majority of the Israeli public supported the peace process led by Rabin and led by Barak and Shimon Perez.

This Israeli public supports a two-state solution. It conceives of Palestinians as its future neighbors, not as a mortal enemy. And therefore it will support a peace settlement if it is represented in Israel by a strong and fast leadership and if the other side will also be represented by leaders that can bind the Palestinian people at the negotiation table and control their extremists. Because obviously the longer terror continues, the longer that process is likely to take.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What brought about the decision to speed up the fence and to call for a potential separation, unilateral separation?

YARON EZRAHI: I think the most important factor is the difficulties that the Israeli political leadership faced with the unprecedented, incessant assault of suicide bombers. No government under such pressure can claim that it doesn’t know what to do in order to deal with the situation. So in the American case, Bush went to bomb Afghanistan and in the Israeli case, the government had to do something dramatic to show the government was dealing with this situation. So you can say that in many respects, the wall started this very expensive political gesture towards the Israeli public. And then it became a right wing project which combines security, the taking of some more Arab land and perhaps it’s ultimately an incentive for voluntary transfer of those Palestinians who are besieged by the wall.

But in some very fundamental sense, this wall is the most anti-Zionist project in Israel political history because it reproduces in the independent Jewish state, the ghetto walls which were surrounding the Jewish communities of Europe. It’s not at all clear that the wall is only enclosing the Palestinians. It also creates in Israel a claustrophobic sense of being isolated and insulated.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the other factors that might have led to the building of the barrier? Is the wall a symbol of failure of the policy of occupation?

YARON EZRAHI: The wall is a result of many forces and many factors. On the one hand, it’s certainly an expression of despair in handling terror. Secondly, it is an expression of the refusal of the right wing Sharon government to negotiate. Thirdly, it is an expression of a unilateral response to the issue of violence by separating the Palestinian and the Israeli population.

You have to understand that the interpenetrations between the Israeli and the Palestinian populations create a situation where the two peoples are like Siamese twins. They can either be close neighbors in some imagined future or they can be murderers towards each other which is what happened when the violence reached its peak. The wall made a lot of sense to people as a way to separate the two populations, and to actually also create a distance, a mental distance between Arabs and Jews. But I think experience shows that such measures may not be effective. The Palestinians will find a thousand ways to go around the wall, above the wall, under the wall. And the agony caused to both sides in this matter are not going to increase the probability of a peace settlement.

In some other context, I made the observation that this is probably the longest, most monumental wailing wall in modern history except that the wailing in this case will go on both sides of the wall.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that Prime Minister Sharon’s December announcement that there might be a separation, a unilateral separation could be actual policy or is it just words?

YARON EZRAHI: If we were to judge Sharon on the basis of his record, he speaks a lot more than he acts. His record does not suggest that his words and assurances are backed up by action. I would like to indicate that as of today, the Sharon government has not really moved even one settlement. The one they moved last week has been reconstructed at least partially. If Israeli Army had been under strict orders to remove settlements on a serious and massive scale, it could have be done. But this government is not giving such instructions and therefore, the whole issue of removing settlements is a kind of a political game.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In other words, one settlement might be dismantled or a portion of it one day and then the next day it’s just built up.

YARON EZRAHI: So far we have not seen a successful attempt to remove even remote settlements — like those next to Gaza — where there is a national consensus, they have nothing to do with Jewish history, have nothing to do with Israel’s security and that they are so provocative with respect to the Palestinians. So we cannot take seriously what he says, he says next month, he says two months, he says last month, nothing happens on the ground.

But at the same time, the Palestinian Authority has not done anything substantive in terms of dealing with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. So in some way there is a relationship between these two forms of non-action. The Sharon government either passively or explicitly is legitimated by the fact that the other side is not doing much about the infrastructure of terror.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now if Abu Ala, the Palestinian prime minister, were sitting here, he would say withdraw from the occupied territories and there won’t be support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. What do you say to him when he says that?

YARON EZRAHI: In principle, this is correct. The settlements are the constant provocation. But one has to start in politics and in international relations, somewhere. And one has to start where one can manage to do something. And you cannot start any significant process of negotiation if the Israeli government has not shown its ability to remove settlements and the Palestinians likewise have not shown they will dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.

Now, I have to say that from a point of view of pure political analysis, the leadership of the two people suffer from inability to marshal the domestic political support to take the necessary unpopular historic decisions without which progress toward the settlements is inconceivable. The reason they cannot take these decisions is because neither leadership is willing to risk even a degree of domestic violence. The Israeli public is extremely anxious about domestic violence. So, it would be willing to go through the process of removing settlements only if it appears that the other side is willing to dismantle the terrorist organizations and move along serious negotiation. As long as there is no Palestinian leadership that appears strong enough to bind the Palestinian people at the negotiation table and control their extremists, the political pressure in Israel on the Sharon government or any future government to remove settlements will not be as effective as it could have been.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: If the fence followed the Green Line, would you support it?

YARON EZRAHI: If the fence followed the Green Line, then it would encourage eventually the negotiation of the border between Israel and the Palestinians. If it does not follow the Green Line it will discourage that process, because the problem with the settlements is that when you create life and then people are born and die in a place then it becomes more and more humanly impossible to remove them — whether for humanitarian reasons, for political reasons, sometimes even military reasons. Therefore, time is of the essence.

It seems to me that if drastic actions to carve the land between the Palestinians and the Israelis will not be taken within the next two years, then civil war and domestic violence in the two nations are likely to be unleashed. And it’s very unfortunate that the political timetable of the American presidential election and the Israeli domestic politics is such that these two years are two years which require a lot of attention to domestic political needs. Because the United States is perhaps the only power today in the world that can effectively induce a hopeful process in this region.

As a matter of fact, political scientists and Middle Eastern experts share increasingly the sense that unless the United States is acting decisively in this region, in helping the two sides to dismantle terrorist infrastructure and decisively remove some major settlements, then the United States’ achievement in Iraq may be diminished. Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major test for the ability of the United States to mitigate violence in the Middle East. And I think if this is not being achieved, it will look like the United States is acting only with one of its hands and not with two hands.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much.

YARON EZRAHI: Thank you.