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July 7th, 2009
Heart of Jenin
Aaron Brown Interview: Gideon Lichfield

Gideon Lichfield is the Deputy Editor of Economist.com and was the Economist’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 2005 to 2008.

AARON BROWN:
In many ways, to me, the film really comes down to a character story about two people, or two families. The Orthodox Jewish family, and Mr. Khatib, the father. Do you think if it’s an unfair question to ask Mr. Levinson, in this moment where his child gets, or may get, the organ, “Does it matter to you if it’s an Arab organ or a Jewish organ?” Is that an unfair question to ask?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I don’t know what would constitute an unfair question. I mean, I think it was a good question. I liked it. I thought it brought out a very honest and visceral reaction in him.

AARON BROWN:
His reaction is, “I’d be happier if it were a Jewish kidney.”

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Yeah. He said it would be Jewish blood, not Arab blood. And you know, it says something about the point of view that he has, and that a lot of Jews in Israel have. Not, by any means, all of them, but there’s a certain part of the population that really sees it in that way.

AARON BROWN:
Right down to the kidney level, there is a difference. It’s not something we believe. It’s not a choice we made about who we are. It is that our blood is different than your blood. That our organs are different from your organs.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I don’t know how much he sees it as, like, they are substantially different, because he does say in that moment, you know, “Obviously, we don’t have another donor, so we will take it.” It’s not like he thinks that somehow his daughter won’t function if she has an Arab kidney or an Arab heart, or whatever. He feels somehow intuitively, instinctively, that there is a difference between the groups, between the races, and prefers – out of some, I think, just very tribal instinct – to preserve that sort of purity, as he sees it.

AARON BROWN:
Do you think he looks at his daughter differently because she has an Arab organ in her?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I don’t think that, no. I don’t think he does.

AARON BROWN:
So what’s he reacting to?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
He’s reacting in some just very visceral, intuitive, sense to this tribal notion that there is a different between us and them. And, as far as possible, he would like to maintain that separation, that purity, as he sees it. I mean, it’s not an absolute for him. Because he does say, “We don’t have another donor, so I will take this.” But somehow he feels, instinctively, that he would like to maintain things separately. Just as he also says, “I wouldn’t want my children to have Palestinian friends. I wouldn’t want them brought up that way. They might get the wrong influences. They might get the wrong values.” You know, it’s an isolationist approach. It’s a very tribal approach.

AARON BROWN:
Do you think the reaction would have been different if that kidney had gone to a secular Jew in Israel?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Not necessarily. Levinson struck me as basically a guy from a very closed community, who happens to be ultra-religious. But there are plenty of secular Jews in Israel as well, who are also from an insular mindset, an insular point of view. And they also would feel, somehow, that there’s a difference between them and the Arabs. And they wouldn’t want, or would feel somehow uncomfortable with that sense of a donor. And, at the same time, they would accept the donor because they know that their child has to be saved. They wouldn’t be fundamentalist about it. And, at the same time, I think you would find Jews, among the secular and religious Israelis, who wouldn’t feel that.

AARON BROWN:
You didn’t report one side of the border. You reported both. So might we have heard the same thing had the situation been reversed? Would a Palestinian father have said, “Honestly, given my choice, I’d take an Arab kidney?”

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I think so. Absolutely. I couldn’t tell you what proportion of them might say it. But absolutely, I think there’s that feeling, again, of tribalism: we want to not have too much to do with those people. And, at the same time, the irony is that, you know, these two people do have an enormous amount to do with each other.

AARON BROWN:
I always think the first impression you get, when you arrive in the region, is how small it is. How close it is. These are people who are almost literally butting up against each other all the time.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right. It’s unusual, yes, in conflicts, in that the two sides of the conflict have really been living together. Not really close to each other, but really together for a very long time. For most of the past 40 years the border between Israel and the Occupied Territories didn’t really exist. Palestinians were coming to work in Israel every day by the tens or hundreds of thousands. And, you know, I wouldn’t say that the Palestinians and Israelis usually were the best of friends. But there was certainly a very deep cooperation at very many levels, economic and social. And as you said, the distances are tiny. I mean, it takes from Jerusalem to Jenin 50 minutes to drive, if there are no checkpoints along the way. And from Jerusalem to Ramallah, which is the de facto Palestinian capital in the West Bank, 15 minutes, if there are no checkpoints.

AARON BROWN:
When you try to understand both points of view – particularly, I think, the Israeli security point of view – you always have to keep in mind that this is all taking place on a kind of geopolitical head of a pin.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Yes. Absolutely. I mean, one of the issues that I was reporting on when I was there was the building of the barrier through the West Bank, the security fence, and what the Palestinians called the apartheid wall. Like everything in the region, it has several names depending on who you are. One of the issues that would come up was that the Israelis wanted a perimeter alongside the wall – basically, a kind of a no man’s land to run alongside the wall – which would be a security zone, so that anyone who got into that zone, that close to the wall, would be considered as someone potentially trying to infiltrate.

So, they would have that kind of security gap. And they wanted it to be five hundred yards, which is not really that much. But in the Territories, 500 yards is a huge amount. That might cut off half of the agricultural and cultural land of the nearby Palestinian village. Or it might leave a village so isolated that there was only one road leading out of it to the rest of the West Bank. So these kind of tiny distances suddenly play enormous importance.

AARON BROWN:
I want to go back to Mr. Levinson. And I’m not interested in beating him up, because I think it’s actually a complicated personal moment for him. But he does seem less generous in receiving this gift than Mr. Khatib seems in giving the gift. And he’s also struggling with it. But I keep wondering, what does this tell us about the possibilities? If, in this act of extraordinary generosity we still can’t connect to one another, what does that tell us about the prospects of something big and important happening in the region?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
You know, I think Yaakov Levinson is a special case. It’s not a unique case, but not every Israeli would have that much of a conflict about this issue.

AARON BROWN:
Okay. Secular Jews might see this on the other side of the barrier, or whatever we want to call it. I mean, this can happen…

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Yes. That’s true. No, what I mean to say is that Levinson clearly struggled enormously with this, because it is somehow very difficult for him to accept this from an Arab, and, as I said, at the same time he cannot refuse it. You know, his humanity does exist to the extent that he understands, obviously, that this is a human organ. And his daughter is a human daughter, and this will save her life, and that he has to be grateful for it. You see his position softening a little bit in the film. A little bit. When he receives the Khatib’s in his house he’s very uncomfortable with it.

AARON BROWN:
Oh, it’s just the most uncomfortable…

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
It’s extremely difficult. And you kind of think, from your perspective, watching him, “How can he be so ungrateful to the guy who’s coming to his house after his son has been killed, and who has given his son’s organ to your daughter?” But I think you do have to look at it from the perspective of the stride that Levinson is taking by even having the man in his house, to understand what a huge leap that is for him.

AARON BROWN:
I believe that. To me it is one of the most uncomfortable [parts of the film], from beginning to end: from the phone call in the car, to everything that goes on in the living room. It’s as if these people have lived on and in fact they have, parallel planets. [Levinson] says to him – I think he’s trying to be kind when he says it – “You should go to Turkey.”

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right. This is it. I mean, Levinson in that scene is trying to express what he thinks is useful and best. And you can see the looks on the faces of Ismael and the boy’s uncle, who cannot believe their ears at the things this guy is telling them. And yet, they’re trying to be polite and neighborly. You know, Ishmael says, “Why don’t they go and leave the country?” And the uncle says to him, “No, no, they live here as well.” There’s a whole negotiation going on between these three. They’re all trying to maintain this kind of air of civility. Going back to your other question, there are encounters like that which are extremely difficult. And there are other encounters; there is something, for instance, called the Bereaved Families Forum, which is an organization that brings together the families of Palestinians who were killed by the Israel army, and Jews that were killed by Palestinian terrorists. Families get together and they share experiences, and they talk, and they send people to each other’s schools to give talks to school children. Within those little islands, there’s an enormous capacity for overcoming and understanding. I think what worries me about it – and, maybe the kind of the warning that one could take from this film – is that those areas of understanding and cooperation don’t usually stretch very far. They don’t have the ability to penetrate further out into the wider society. If you’ve been touched very personally by a situation like this, and you have a chance to contact the other side, you can overcome a lot of barriers. You can maybe change your perspective. But that doesn’t filter out for the rest of the population so much. And the other worrying thing about all of this is that, as I said, Israelis and Palestinians have been living very close together for a long time. But, in the last few years, because of the intifada, and because the barrier has gone up, and because there are more checkpoints, there’s less and less interaction between the two sides. And so more and more the Israelis young Palestinians are likely to know is an Israeli in uniform. And the only Palestinian an Israel is likely to know is a Palestinian that he’s seen on the television blowing himself up, or something like that. And so that potential common ground is eroding away.
AARON BROWN:
I know, how terribly naïve this, so don’t tell me it’s terribly naïve. But in the Hollywood script version of this documentary, Mr. Khatib comes to the door and Mr. Levinson throws this big bear hug around him. And says, “Thank you for this incredible gift to my child.” But sadly that’s Hollywood. That’s not the Middle East.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right. Well, it’s not the Middle East in this particular case. I can imagine the Hollywood script happening with another Israeli.

AARON BROWN:
Fair point. And probably not to be lost in the pessimism of the moment. But, in that moment, it doesn’t, Hollywood seems more correct to me. Sort of more logical to me. More human to me. That seems like the human reaction in a moment, as opposed to a political reaction, or a cultural reaction, or anything else, is that you saved my child. You have lost something as dear to you as this little girl is to me.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right. Unfortunately, a lot of the world doesn’t operate by those nice logical rules that we would like for ourselves.

AARON BROWN:
There has certainly been significant change in Israeli politics over the last five, six, seven years. Is that where it comes from? In part, that this contact has diminished, and therefore humanity itself has been diminished?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I think Israeli politics, you know, play off the feelings in society. But it’s also very much driven by extremism. The Israeli political system is set up in such a way that it’s the extremists who tend to take control of the agenda very often because they hold the balance of power in government coalitions. [Palestinian] politics has become that way too; it’s become more fragmented between the two parties, Fatah and Hamas. So it feels as if the moderate mainstream is not really in charge of the decision process anymore. It’s not really in charge of the political agenda. It’s being driven by more extreme forces on both sides that bounce off each other, react to each other.

AARON BROWN:
I’ve always thought that one of the central barriers here is that there are, on both sides, too many people – not everyone, maybe even not most, but too many people – who don’t recognize that the other side has a story to tell, that history has dealt bad cards, not just to us, but to them too, whoever the “us” and “them” happen to be. And they don’t even acknowledge that that story exists. I wonder if you found that in your reporting.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Absolutely. I think that, on both sides, you have, you know, an inability to comprehend the other side’s narrative and its story, and the importance of it. Jews in Israel don’t get the Palestinian attachment to the land. They don’t understand that the land is what it is about to be Palestinian. You know, Jewish history goes back thousands of years. Palestinian identity as a people is relatively more recent. I think people trace it back to the 19th century, when there was a sense of Palestinian people-hood. And so much more of what it means to be Palestinian is about the land of Palestine, and about the fact that that land was taken away. And Jews kind of think like Yaakov Levinson, “Well, why don’t you just go somewhere else? If your life is bad here then go somewhere else.” And [they don’t] understand that so much of what it means to be Palestinian is tied to that. So many Palestinians don’t get the Jewish story: the story of being an oppressed people wandering from place to place, and the minority, and always being in danger of extermination, and also of losing the land and coming back to it. They don’t want to see that, or they don’t understand the relevance of it. And they don’t get, I think, that, for Jews, the Jewish story is a very compelling story. Because just in terms of a story, it’s really very dramatic. And to belong to that is something that forges this tremendous sense of identity. And so, on both sides, you have this unwillingness to engage with what it means to be from the other side. And I don’t think you can really make a connection unless some of that is bridged.

AARON BROWN:
It’s true that there’s never been a majority government in Israel has there?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Not since 1970.

AARON BROWN:
It’s just my sense, having reported this story some of my life, that if you cannot get the two sides to recognize the other side’s story – I mean their narrative is just, like, next to their humanity, it’s the essential part of their being – than you cannot resolve it.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
No. But it’s a good question of which comes first. A lot of the peace talks, such as they are, for the Israelis center around the Palestinians changing the way that history is taught in Palestinian text books. And that’s true. There’s a lot of material in those books that’s very inflammatory. But I think what the Israelis would like to see is that the Palestinians change it so that they tell the history of the state of Israel, and kind of legitimize that. And I’m not sure that can come in the beginning. I think that maybe it has to come after you’ve had a formal agreement. I don’t think that the bringing together of the narratives and the reconciliation of the stories, and the ultimate making of peace, can come before you’ve put down the basic political framework.

AARON BROWN:
What are Palestinian children learning that offends the Israelis so much?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
They will learn, for instance, the Jews, the people who “claim” to be the Jews, are not actually the original Jews. And there was actually some research that suggests that a large number of people who are, today, Jewish, were actually the descendants of converts, and not the Jews who left Palestine. So that’s a whole academic controversy, but it’s taught to Palestinian children as fact. They may be taught things like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the old blood libels that the Jews had to contend with in Eastern Europe back in the day.

AARON BROWN:
Different, by the way, than what Saudi Arabian children are being taught?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Oh, I’m sure not. I’m sure not. There are children’s cartoons and things on television, there’s a great deal of stuff that is pretty nasty. It must be said, you know, a lot of the things that Israeli children are taught about Palestinians is probably not as extreme, but are, also, again, not really part of the formal curriculum, but in terms of the general word on the street, and the zeitgeist, what people are taught about Arabs is also fairly poisonous.

AARON BROWN:
It’s back to the same point: there is, on both sides, this sense of dehumanizing the other. That they are not as human somehow. It’s a moment in the film where Mr. Levinson has to accept, for the survival of his child, and the quality of life of his child at the very least, the humanity of the other side. And you watch him struggle with him. Or at least that’s how I saw it. And it’s a struggle. It’s even at the very end, even when they meet, he still, to this day, I believe, he’s still working through it. It’s not easy for him. And it is, to me, the most difficult part of this. Because if you can’t grab that, if you don’t acknowledge that, and I think, on both sides, there is too little of that.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right. But I think that that acknowledging of humanity is something that comes, to some extent, as a consequence. If you have a peace deal, and if you have traffic and commerce and interaction between the two sides, it’s much easier, for most of them, to acknowledge their humanity. But that always means some people who don’t. But it becomes easier. And one of the things I was saying earlier is that, in fact, there is a large history of interaction between these two peoples. And so a lot of them are already used to the idea of that humanity. I mean, what Palestinian children are taught about Israelis in schools may be pretty nasty. But what their parents know about Israelis is far more than what the people of the same generation in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or anywhere else know. And I know that, you know, they’ve had Israeli friends, or Israeli business partners, and they know that these are human beings. And I think the worrying thing is that, because of the increasing separation between the two peoples, because of the West Bank barrier, and the intifada, that a generation grows up that doesn’t know that. On either side. So that common ground of humanity starts to get lost.

AARON BROWN:
There’s a definition of insanity that is you do the same thing, exactly the same thing…

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Over and over again.

AARON BROWN:
…over and over again, and you expect a different result. And I sometimes look at the region precisely that way. We go through these spasms of violence. And then we just keep doing the same thing. Both sides continually do the same thing, and expect, somehow, that the result is going to be different. And it is never really different.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I think maybe the insanity is not actually on the two sides, but on the outside observers who watch and expect them to behave differently, and who keep on constructing these plans and methods of negotiation that are supposed to produce a certain outcome, that don’t really take enough account of the local dynamics. What do I mean? The whole negotiation is based on, for instance, from the Israeli side that the Palestinians have to stop violence. They have to bring themselves under control, have to guarantee Israel’s security. And, from the Palestinian side, it’s based on the Israelis removing the checkpoints. They have to stop trying to clamp down on the Palestinians in order to preserve their own security. And the expectation that this can be resolved by baby steps of confidence building measures, I think, is unrealistic. Because, the politicians on both sides – like politicians in other places, but especially there – they work on very short term considerations. “What’s going to keep me in power for the next ten minutes?” This is particularly true on the Israeli side because the Israeli governments are very unstable. They’re formed of coalitions of typically four or five parties. And nobody has any majority. This is just an outcome of the system of voting that they have.

AARON BROWN:
And so, offend one small group within your coalition and your government could fall.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
And, in fact, that happened.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
In fact, that happens, and the small parties know that, and they use it to their advantage in order to put pressure on the government in order to get whatever end it is that they have. And the small parties that make up that balance of power, as a rule, are right wing, or religious, or both. So the outcome is that it’s very difficult for an Israeli leader to make big, bold, far reaching moves. And, in fact, that’s why, when you look at the history of the conflict, the leaders who’ve typically made the biggest, boldest, farthest reaching moves, are not the so called doves, the peaceniks or left wingers, they’re the right wingers who have that grip on the government because they’re from the right. They can’t be undermined by the right, and, therefore they are the ones who actually can go ahead and do this. And so prime ministers like Menachem Begin who gave the Sinai back to Egypt, Ariel Sharon who pulled out of Gaza, are the ones typically who have been able to do the biggest things.

AARON BROWN:
Right. Well, we would call the Nixon goes to China position, that a Democrat never could have been the one to go to China, but that the staunch anticommunist Richard Nixon could have been the one to go to China. Perhaps it is Netanyahu who can do a deal, if he’s so inclined to do a deal. Do the Israelis want to do a deal, do you think?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I think the Israelis, in general, want a deal. They want the outcome. But they’re not very keen on the process that gets them there.

AARON BROWN:
What does that mean?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Well, if you do opinion surveys, and you ask people, “Do you want a peace deal with the Palestinians where the Palestinian get a state?” Most of them say yes. And you ask the same question on the Palestinian side, you get the same answer. Most of them say yes. If you ask Israelis about what has to happen in order for the Palestinians to get their state and they’ll put down a series of conditions that, really, the Palestinians would never agree to. And they’ve put down those conditions because they want guarantees up front. And of course the Palestinians want certain things up front. And those things really would be better coming after you’ve reached the deal. So things like the Israelis demand an upfront demilitarization of the Palestinians. Or they insist that, like I said, the Palestinians change all their text books first, or that the Palestinians, this is the main one, renounce the right of return to Palestine up front. Now, in the outcome everyone kind of understands that there won’t be too many Palestinians coming back to Israel. But, for the Palestinians, giving up the right of return, it’s an issue of principle. It means, essentially, from their point of view, admitting that they had no claim on the land in the first place. And that’s how they see it. That’s how they see the Israeli demand, that they’re being asked to admit that they were wrong in the first place. That’s why they can’t accept it.

AARON BROWN:
Just as a matter of negotiation, it’s the weirdest negotiation ever constructed. Because, to some degree, everybody knows what the end looks like. I mean, you could sit down with a map, and various Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and some American go-between, George Mitchell or someone, and you could, within a couple hundred meters here or there, draw the boundaries. So we know the end. This can’t get past the beginning.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right. We can’t get past the beginning. And we can’t agree on what it is that has to happen before we agree to respect those boundaries. I mean, some of the details are also, obviously, rather difficult. The Israelis, right now, would like a demilitarized Palestinian state, where Israel controls the borders and controls the air space, so that it can have security. From the Israeli point of view, that’s very sensible. From the Palestinian point of view, it’s outrageous. And, obviously, I think, the Israelis, they would say, “Well, in the long term the Palestinians can have an army, and they can have full control, and so on, but we have to make sure that they behave themselves first.” Which for the Palestinians, of course, is a patronizing attitude. And it’s not a very fruitful one long term. Because, if you want to make peace with someone, if you want to make peace with your neighbor, then, really, the weight of good relations is not to de-claw him, not to force him to live without any protection. It’s to allow him to live with protection, and then both of you have an incentive to be on good terms with each other.

AARON BROWN:
You went through – and the prime minister went through, a couple weeks ago, on the Israeli side – a very specific list of preconditions. “We’re not even going to discuss this unless we can agree to control the borders, it’s demilitarized. They recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” And I’m listening to this and I’m going, what’s the negotiation about? Okay, and the other side, the Palestinian side, has, maybe not as long a list, maybe a longer list. I don’t know. What’s on that list?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Well, they want– they want to know that it’s a discussion about parity first of all. They want to know that the Palestinian state that they’re talking about is a demilitarized state where Israel controls the borders. But it’s a state with all of the trappings of statehood, including control of its own resources and of its borders and its military. Something else that I don’t think has been, probably, official discourse, so much, but I certainly hear it a lot from Palestinians, is they want Israel to recognize the right of return in principle. Meaning what? Meaning Israel to say, “Okay, we accept that this was your homeland that we took. Even if we’re not going to let any of you back.” And even if the two sides would sit down and agree there will not be any Palestinians allowed back or only a very token number. But they want to hear that admission, the recognition, this land was theirs.

AARON BROWN:
It seems to dovetail so conveniently with an Israeli demand. Accept that we are a Jewish state. “Accept that we are a Jewish state. Accept that.” So one side says, “All we’re asking for here is that you acknowledge that this was once ours, also. Or was once ours.” And the other side has to then say, “And we now accept that it is not.”

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Yes. That has to happen. One of the sticking points, though, is at what point that recognition goes on.

AARON BROWN:
At the beginning the middle or in the end.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Or the end. So, right now, Israel is saying, “We want you to recognize us as a Jewish state in advance. Before any negotiations start, that’s got to be clearly understood.” And saying you recognize us as a Jewish state is really code for saying, “You renounce the right of return. We don’t recognize the right of return in any form.” And that’s where the Palestinians get upset. Because they say, “What you’re asking us to do is actually give up a key issue. We’re not negotiating it.” Before the negotiations take place. Now, again, this is the kind of thing where all of that talk is, itself, a negotiation of some sort.

AARON BROWN:
I guess what I’m trying to understand, Gideon, is: Are both sides setting up preconditions to a negotiation? Or are these the subjects of negotiations? It sounded like Prime Minister Netanyahu is setting the preconditions. These things have to be there before we even talk about anything else. The question of right of return, the Palestinians accept that as something to negotiate? Or do they want that decided before they sit down and talk. Because that’s not going to happen.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I think, you know, the preconditions themselves are sort of part of a negotiation as well. There’s the negotiation before the negotiation. So which of those things is set down as a precondition, and which of those things is part of the formal negotiation? Is itself something that the two sides are negotiating effectively in public?

AARON BROWN:
I mean, the things that we talked about here is that the Israelis want, I think you laid it out as a precondition. I hadn’t thought of it that way: that the things that Palestinian children are taught change. They’re taught some pretty outrageous things. Is that a precondition toward negotiations?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
No, that’s probably…

AARON BROWN:
…is that something that comes because the circumstances have changed?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
That’s more part of the negotiation. But I think that Israelis would, I mean, Israelis would like that to come first. And some of them will say that it should come first. And I think the main change that we see now, with Benjamin Netanyahu now becoming prime minister, in substantial terms, is that he’s saying, “Lots of things have to happen before we actually negotiate.” But, ultimately, they would probably accept the text book thing as part of the negotiation. But then they would want that to come into effect as soon as a Palestinian state is created, for instance. So there’s a lot of negotiation about when each of these things has to happen. And all of that is part of the process. It’s true.

AARON BROWN:
So a peace deal to the Palestinians has to have certain component parts to it, and those parts are what?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
So some of it is the obvious thing that has been the substance of peace negotiations for a long time. So it’s a return to the borders that existed before 1967, of the West Bank in Gaza, those being the borders of the Palestinian state.
It’s Palestinian access to the holy sites in Jerusalem. And control over parts of Jerusalem. It is Palestinian control of their state. In other words, not that Israel has control of the Palestinian borders and air space, and not that the Palestinian state demilitarized. But, in fact, it has all the trappings of a full state. And then, one of the firmest issues is the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. And I have not met even the most moderate Palestinian who would say, “We can renounce the right of return in principle.” Meaning they want Israel to recognize that this land was theirs. Even if Israel isn’t going to give any of it back. Even if Israel isn’t going to allow any Palestinians back in. And that’s the substance of the negotiation, is how many, if any, will get back in. But they want Israel to recognize, in principle, that it took someone else’s land. And that therefore, the Palestinian’s desire for return is historically legitimate. And that’s one of the most difficult things for Israelis to accept.

AARON BROWN:
I believe this to be true: In all human interactions, somebody benefits from the way it is. You know, it’s the way it is because some people are making out okay in the end. It works for them. Is it the extremes on each side that benefit from the situation the way it is?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Not necessarily. A lot of people all across the spectrum benefit from it, not just the extremists. I mean, they do, obviously, as well. The militants perpetuate the struggle for resistance against Israel, and so there’s a high profile conflict for them to be involved in, and so much the better. The Israeli settlers benefit as long as they can keep on building their settlements in the West Bank. But there are other people in the middle who get some kind of benefit out of this as well. A lot of the Palestinian leadership, in particular, but also much of the Israeli leadership, has just been involved in this peace process for such a long time. They’ve kind of made a career out of it. I’m not saying that they deliberately avoid reaching a peace deal so that they can keep on having jobs. But there’s something in just the habits – something that you said earlier, about repeating their behavior over and over again – those habits have just become engrained, and they keep on performing the same dance, because that’s what they know how to do. The solution that everyone talks about is the solution that they’ve almost been programmed to reach. And then there is a great deal of aid money that flows into this conflict, and a great deal of military support from the US. And, you know, money generates interest, inevitably. People are making a living on the Israeli occupation, on both sides.

AARON BROWN:
So, in trying to understand why this so often goes nowhere, there are people who benefit from the craziness. And if it were just craziness, okay. But it’s not: people die. People die on both sides. And at some point, I would have thought, 60 years into this, that both sides would say, “You know what? Enough people have died.”

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I think one of the mistakes that we make, when we analyze the world – we, I mean, anyone who watches the world – is that we have a tendency to anthropomorphize nations. And we think that a country acts like a person. I saw this a great deal, particularly on the Israeli side. They would say, “Well, if we keep on beating the Arabs then eventually they’ll learn their lessons,” as if the Arabs were like a small child that you could educate by hitting it enough times. I think we make this mistake with nations in general. We think, well, these people would surely learn from over these years of conflict that they are, you know, on a road to nowhere, and that they have to they have to change their behavior. But a country, a mass of millions of people, is not a single person. It doesn’t function like a single person. And the things that drive it, and the dynamics, they just don’t function in the same way. And, as I said, what happens when you have a situation like this is very often it’s not the head, the moderate center that takes the decisions, it’s the things on the extremes, and those function according to a different logic.

AARON BROWN:
It just goes back, it seems to me, to this point: the parties there keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect somehow the result is going to be different. Clearly it’s not. And so why has no one stood up on either side? Where is the young leadership? I mean, we spend our lives, all of us, waiting for the next Mandela, and obviously it isn’t going to happen. The sense of, “Let’s try something completely different. Totally different.” What would it be? What would the totally different approach be?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Look, the right approach, actually, is not a different one, it’s precisely what people have been aiming for. It needs a leader on each side to stand up and just take the issue by the neck and say, “We are going to do this, like it or not,” and risk the fact that they’re going to be pilloried by a lot of the people of their own country. It needs to be somebody who has the political base to make those very bold moves. And, like I said, very few leaders on either side have had that. Now you talk about Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995, had that ability because he was a left winger, but he was also from the head of the army, and he had a great deal of military credibility. He was someone who Israelis felt they could entrust with their security. There hasn’t arisen another leader who has quite the same vision as he did, and also that security credibility. Ariel Sharon, the prime minister who pulled the Israelis out of Gaza, was the guy with the security credentials, and had he had a bit of, apparently, an epiphany in office about what was needed to be done. But it was still not very clear where he thought the Gaza disengagement would lead to, whether he actually believed in it going to a Palestinian state further down the line. And he was, certainly, much more hawkish. He didn’t love the idea of peace. He didn’t love the idea of a Palestinian state. So it was hard to read his intentions. And I think, again, the problem is that, because of the nature of the politics on both sides, there is very little incentive for really good, strong, and visionary leaders to get up to the top, because they have to manipulate so much on the way there. They have to fight so many political fights. And the people who make it to the top are very good politicians. They’re good at playing the political games. But they’re not states-people.

AARON BROWN:
And on the Palestinian side, is there a generation of emerging political leadership that says, “We need to do this. This isn’t working for us?”

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
There is.

AARON BROWN:
Can they survive? Literally survive.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Well, some of them, obviously, yes. Some of them have been in danger because they’ve been engaged in militancy against Israel. And so some of them have been locked up or assassinated by the Israelis. Some of those people have taken a different turn, and realize that they need to go into politics instead of violence and have started preaching a different game. The problem is that, on the Palestinian side, that generation itself is very split. It’s competing. It’s full of rivals who all want to get to the top job. And there’s a kind of glass ceiling for them because the people in charge at the moment are still this old generation, this old guard who really have been holding on to the reins, and don’t want to let anybody else in. And so there is thing in the Fatah party, the secularist party of Palestinian politics, which is very ironically referred to as the young guard, because they’re all getting into their 50s by now, and they’ve been waiting around to take over.

AARON BROWN:
I love that.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
But yes, there are people that you can point to. But then can one of those people overcome the internal political barriers and can become a leader? You know, one of the little catch 22s of the conflict is that the guy who most people talk about as the visionary leader who could actually take them out of this mess is a guy called Marwan Barghouti, who has been in jail for the last few years. He’s very popular, and he is a great bridge builder between Fatah and Hamas, between the secularists and the Islamists. The big split right now in Palestinian politics is between these two parties. But Barghouti could be the guy who mends it. He has enough public support, and he believes in a two state solution. He could talk to the Israelis. He could be the guy. The problem is he’s in an Israeli jail because of his activities during the intifada. If the Israelis let him out in order for him to be able to become the Palestinian leader, he’ll be seen by the Palestinian street as a collaborator with the Israelis. They’ll suspect that his agenda is not the Palestinian agenda. That weakens him. So, how do you get out of that loop?

AARON BROWN:
Right. There’s a kind of logical next question which is, “Does the American government have a role here in helping the Palestinian leadership emerge?” But that, in itself, could be the kiss of death, because the Americans are seen as allies to one side.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I think it has been a kiss of death up to now. I think everything that the last two years of American involvement in this conflict has done has really been a kiss of death. Because they’ve tried to pick a winner. They’ve said, “OK, it’s all right if you have this party leading, but not that party.” Now, the reasons why America and Israel and a lot of Arab countries, as well, do not like Hamas Islamists, are not willing to let them lead, there’s a whole very complex history and story there. And it’s about the rise of Islamism in the Middle East in general, and so forth. But the fundamental problem that I think American policy has not addressed up to now is Hamas is a popularly elected Palestinian party. It enjoys a mandate. You can’t shove it aside. You have to figure out how to deal with it somehow. There has got to be a mechanism by which you allow it to take a seat at the table. And somehow you do it in these set conditions that are acceptable to you for that to happen. But you have to plan on Hamas becoming a seat at the table, having a seat at the table. And the plan, up to now, has been we’re going to try to get Hamas eliminated. That’ll never work.

AARON BROWN:
Because, the harder you try…

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
The more support it gets.

AARON BROWN:
The more credibility they get.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Yes.

AARON BROWN:
So, you know, people say, all the time, there can’t be a Middle East peace without American involvement, without American guarantees, security guarantees and the like. But sometimes I think there can’t be peace in the Middle East with American involvement because the Americans aren’t necessarily trusted on the street.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
So, if this was the only catch 22, we could probably solve it here this afternoon. But there is another catch 22.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Right. And it’s a very different…it’s that things are very difficult for anybody to be an honest broker. You know, several Arab governments who have also been trying to broker in one way or the other. Both within the Palestinian internal conflict, and in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. But each of those Arab governments has their own agenda. And a person they favor and a party they favor. And so there are no real honest brokers. Maybe the Norwegians. But they, you know, they haven’t got enough clout to do it on their own. So how do you do it? I don’t know. You know, people talk, they talk in, kind of, blue sky terms, people say, “Well, we need an international peace plan with an international peace keeping force that will take over the job of guaranteeing Israeli’s security. And it’ll deploy along the border of Israel and Palestinian. That why the Israelis won’t have to worry about the capability of the Palestinian security forces. And somebody will be there to, essentially, take the rap if things go wrong.” You know, nobody wants that job. No foreign country wants that job. The UN is overstretched. The US, everyone is overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s not realistic.

AARON BROWN:
Given the nature of the Israeli politics it’s difficult for the middle to govern. Correct? Given the nature of Palestinian politics, it’s very hard for the middle to govern, correct? It’s hard for leaders to try something new because they are seen as inherently suspect. Give me some good news here. I got the bad news part. Is there is there any way to look at this today and say, “Look, there’s this little kernel of hope here,” or not?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I wish I could be optimistic. I mean, I spent four years there gradually becoming more and more pessimistic. I don’t see a solution that comes out of leadership, certainly, out of what is currently the governing class. The one hope that you can still point to, maybe, is that there are still a lot of people at the grassroots who are thinking about trying to find something, trying to make something work. There are still a lot of these coexistence groups that try to bring, to find common ground between Israelis and Palestinians. There are movements, in Israel particularly, that are thinking about how can we restructure this country? How can we restructure the system of governance of this country? How can we bring the voice of the center into decisions? And we’re not only talking about it in the context of the conflict. They’re talking about how you make better decisions on business, on the economy, on the environment, on all sorts of things that Israel has trouble with. And if one could see a grassroots movement like that, that gradually starts to take over and demonstrate the ability to do things, to make things happen despite the government, then maybe you could see a move towards something else on the peace front as well. But I don’t see where it’s actually going to come from. And I think that the most straightforward and obvious solution is a leader who can take charge. But there isn’t one of those on the horizon.

AARON BROWN:
Well, but it can’t be a leader. A leader gets you halfway home, quite honestly. You need two leaders.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Sorry. I meant a leader on each side, yeah.

AARON BROWN:
On each side. And then do you think, coming back to the film, then does Mr. Levinson accepts the legitimacy of the Palestinians and Mr. Khatib accept the legitimacy of Mr. Levinson? I mean, do they finally, in this construction, this grassroots moment, do they accept each other? Or do they always live with this notion that, given my choice, I’d rather have a Jewish kidney or an Arab kidney?

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
No, I think Mr. Levinson and Mr. Khatib are not, you know, they’re not at the same place. Mr. Khatib has accepted the legitimacy of the need for Israel to exist. He’s accepted that, for him to have peace, and a political reality, Israel has to have a political reality. Mr. Levinson might not be quite there. And maybe he never would be. Maybe, even if there were a peaceful solution in two states and everything, there would always be those people in Israel and in Palestinian who would never be fully happy with it. But at least if you have a workable situation, something the majority can see works and is to their benefit, then they can keep those minorities, I think, contained. And I think you will always have, or at least for a very long time, you’ll always have a majority on the two sides who say, “Well, you know, it would be nice if we had this all to ourselves. It would be nice if those people weren’t there.” But that would be one of those things that they hopefully would get over.

AARON BROWN:
Over time.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Over time. And maybe, you know, and maybe it just persists. I mean, you can see, look at Belgium today. There’s still tension between the two groups there over the country. And yet, you think the country is unlikely to really fall apart because the cost would just be too great. So, in the end, it becomes a cost benefit thing.

AARON BROWN:
But it hasn’t yet.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
But it hasn’t yet.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
You need to overcome a hurdle. Yes.

AARON BROWN:
Both sides, at an intellectual level, have to know they live less well than they would otherwise live.  That they live in greater fear than they need to live in.  I think, at an intellectual level they know this.  At an intellectual level they know that their lives are limited by the political choices they are making again and again and again. And that both sides continue to make the same political choices.  As if there were no other, I mean, and, honestly, your solution, I don’t mean to denigrate it, I just don’t quite see how it happened, is that this kind of rise is from Mothers for Peace, or Mothers of the Bereaved, or Sisters of the Sad, and we sit around and sing kumbaya.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I don’t think it happens either.  I mean, you asked me for kernel of hope, and that was the best I could do.

AARON BROWN:
Incredible human and economic costs on both sides.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Yes.

AARON BROWN:
And it hasn’t been enough.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
And it hasn’t been enough. I mean, I think, depends very much on your personal attitude. There is a Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh who likes to go and give talks about how all that divides the two sides from peace is this, like, glass wall. And they can see through the wall, and they can see on the other side what there is. And all they have to do is just break through the glass. And he kind of makes it sound as if it’s really not such a big deal, and it’s quite plausible. And we could get there quite soon. And, you know, I see, I suppose, a glass wall that is made of, really, bullet proof glass. And no one is quick to break through it.

AARON BROWN:
So much for the idealism of youth.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
I guess I lost that when I went there.

AARON BROWN:
I guess so. It’s really nice to meet you. Thank you for joining us on Wide Angle.

GIDEON LICHFIELD:
Thank you very much for having me.

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