Sami al-Arian & Daniel Levy on The Return To Open War in Israel/Palestine

Two wise people, a Palestinian and an Israeli, on a harrowing past few days and avoiding the horrors to come. FOREVER WARS editorializes: if you want peace, free Palestine. 

Sami al-Arian & Daniel Levy on The Return To Open War in Israel/Palestine
An olive tree set on fire by a gas grenade. Photo: Yoram Sorek, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Edited by Sam Thielman

SINCE THE OUTBREAK OF THE WAR BETWEEN HAMAS AND ISRAEL I’ve spent as much time as I could talking with people who are impacted by the violence and are attempting to formulate strategy in its wake. 

On the one hand, that's my job. On the other, it's necessary during horrific periods of violence—periods that extend beyond the flare-ups of open conflict to the extended violence that is everyday life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation. War is dehumanizing. We have to talk to people to remain human, and to always keep in mind that the costs of war are borne by human beings who, usually, didn't want any of it and were not consulted. 

I wasn't in Israel/Palestine this weekend. But I had just returned from a trip to the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, and a frequent subject of conversation was a highly anticipated accord between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel, and what it would mean for the region. Days later, Hamas launched a three-domain (sea, air, land) offensive from Gaza into Israel. I turned all that into this long and broad piece for The Nation, which I hope you'll read. It’s about the longstanding dynamics among U.S. clients in the region; the violent dynamics this deal will entrench; and the unyielding resistance of Palestinians who will once again see their lives and aspirations sacrificed in the process. 

But two people talked to me for this story with more eloquence and wisdom than I could fit into what's already a very long piece. One of them is Sami al-Arian, an extraordinary man persecuted by U.S. authorities before and during the War on Terror for, basically, being outspokenly Palestinian. He currently directs the Center for Islam and Global Affairs at Istanbul Zaim University. The other is Daniel Levy, who was a peace negotiator for the Israelis under both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak and now is president of the US/Middle East Project. I've known Daniel for a long time, and he made time to speak for my piece despite clearly being (understandably) shaken by the return to all-out war. Here's the thing: You can understand something awful is coming, because you understand the structural forces at work, and still be shattered when it does. That's not naïveté. That's humanity. 

When doing longform journalism, you talk to someone for five, ten, twenty minutes, an hour, several hours, whatever, and end up using a couple sentences at most. And when talking to wise, experienced people like Sami and Daniel, it's often hard to figure out which sentences best represent them. Something like 80 percent of the reporting I do never makes it out of the notebook. 

So I figure here's a chance to open up FOREVER WARS to knowledgeable and decent people at a time when many of us are struggling with the pitilessness of the war. I write this on Monday, after the Israeli defense minister called Palestinians "human animals" and vowed collective punishment against Gaza, all to the silence and tacit affirmation of the west; and after Hamas has pledged to kill civilian hostages if Israel doesn't give sufficient notice to Gazan civilians ahead of its airstrikes. Hopefully reading some of Sami and Daniel's thoughts will provide intellectual nourishment, emotional comfort, and spiritual sustainment through the dark days ahead. 

OK. Remember that I'm talking to these guys primarily in the context of the U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal. Sami I interviewed over Zoom on Sunday. I'm going to clean up some of his comments a bit, because all of us meander when talking. Daniel sent me stuff Monday morning in writing. Some of these quotes you will see in my Nation piece, which I hope you'll check out. Here are their fuller remarks.

SAMI AL-ARIAN: If we talk about ending the conflict by bypassing the Palestinians, then people are deluding themselves. Israel has been acting for a long time like it could do that. Historically, Israel was faced with three options, where it had to choose two out of three things. That is between being Jewish, keeping the entire land of Palestine, and declaring that it’s a democracy. If it opted for being Jewish and democratic, that option would have been what was called the Two-State Solution. They received recognition from the official Palestinian leadership, the PLO, in 1993 on 78 percent of historic Palestine in return for 22 percent for the Palestinians. That option would have preserved its Jewish democratic majority. But it rejected that deal. Anyone who argues otherwise is either blind or deceptive. 

The second option would have been to choose the entire land of historic Palestine and being a democracy in which case it would have to integrate both the Palestinians and Israelis together in one state. That option would then have to afford the Palestinians under occupation political and legal rights like its Jewish citizens. But because its ideology is Zionism, which believes in Jewish supremacy and exceptionalism, no party in Israel would accept that. So that was never really an option. 

The third option was to choose all three: Preserving a Jewish majority, keeping the lands for a "Greater Israel," and claiming a democracy while excluding the Palestinians. It was the Israeli form of Apartheid. This is what we’ve had to live with for the past 30 years, a deceptive process called Oslo. Everyone's trying to act like it's still going on when it's been dead for 25 years. But Israel was trying to make it appear like it's going on because it had created a pliant, complacent Palestinian leadership that was doing its bidding in controlling the Palestinians under occupation. Meanwhile, the United States, which has been a dishonest broker, was trying to play the game like this was a real process. Successive Israeli administrations have dealt with the end of Oslo by pursuing their agenda of imposing a greater Israel and creating irreversible facts on the ground. This has frustrated the Palestinians and been driving them to resist their occupiers in different ways, as Israel pursued a policy of "mowing the lawn." Every time that they see there is an empowered Palestinian resistance, they would try to bring it back to heel and hope they would be able to keep them under their thumb. 

Of course, that policy could never have worked in the long term, and I think what we’ve seen in the past few days is an earthquake—a shattering of this myth that Israel can simply bypass the Palestinians and start normalizing with Arab regimes. What Trump tried to do in the so-called "deal of the century," by adopting all of the Israeli right's policies and fantasies, was to convince the world that there is a fourth option: the old South African model, but without calling it apartheid, where the Palestinians would live in some sort of Bantustans, having some form of self-rule without any form of sovereignty or agency. That didn't work.

There are so many problems within the region that they’ve tried to redefine the strategic challenges in the region, particularly after the counterrevolutions to the Arab Spring movements. States, principally the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian military, and other autocratic regimes, tried to depress this rising [democratic] phenomenon, and tried to obliterate it. Syria is in chaos, Libya is in chaos, Yemen is in turmoil, we saw the military coup in Egypt and the palace coup in Tunisia. They thought: We don't really want to give the people representative, popular and democratic governments, so we better ally ourselves with what they thought was the regime that has open access to the U.S. government, Israel. So one way those regimes thought they could get American security guarantees to their shaky regimes was to make sure that they would be in close coordination with Israel. 

The regimes have this fantasy that the best gateway to any American administration is Israel. They see both Democratic and Republican administrations, if they agree on anything, it's probably Israel. Even with NATO now you have partisan problems. But on Israel, there's consensus in the American political establishment. So they thought that if you normalize with Israel, if you let Israel dictate the regional order, then they would appease the United States and receive security guarantees and protection to their regimes. 

ME: What does the deal mean for Palestine? 

SAMI AL-ARIAN: They’ve always tried to bypass the Palestinians, but the Palestinians are there. They have nowhere to go. So Mohammed bin Salman, the real ruler of Saudi Arabia, has now to convince his people [to support the deal] by demanding certain conditions from the U.S.—since the Saudi people overwhelmingly support the Palestinian cause. But I don't see how he can recognize Israel without the Palestinians getting anything. Unless of course by brute force, but this brute force cannot continue forever. Saudis will not accept this deal without the Palestinians getting something in return.  

Let's remember that all the peace initiatives proposed by Arab governments starting in the 1980s, from the Prince Fahd Plan to the Arab Peace Initiative, were initiated and pushed by the Saudis. The idea was that the Palestinians would get a state. Now bin Salman isn't talking about a state. He's talking about improving Palestinians' conditions. That will be totally unacceptable to the Palestinians. 

I don't think this will happen soon, unless the father [King Salman] dies. I also don't think bin Salman prefers Biden. He prefers Trump. I don't know why he'd give this political victory to Biden rather than Trump. That doesn't make sense. Trump would certainly give him all the things he wants. My personal analysis is nothing is going to happen, if at all, until 2025, when either Biden is reelected or Trump wins. 

But what happened this week is a huge challenge. We haven't seen the end of it yet. It's very possible there will be a wider war. All this talk about normalization could then be shelved. But I wouldn't be surprised if it happens. Bin Salman doesn't care about the Palestinians. Most Arab governments today don't care about the Palestinians. But most Arab governments today are not representative of their people. These are autocrats, tyrants, and authoritarian regimes that only care about staying in power. They think the United States can help them stay in power, and they believe the best way to get to the United States is through Israel.

ME: If we do see normalization without an end to apartheid, what will this deal produce, except more violence? 

SAMI AL-ARIAN: As far as Palestinians are concerned, it's not going to do much. Saudi Arabia is a bigger prize for Israel than the UAE or Morocco. But it's not going to change the calculus of Palestinian resistance or Palestinian aspirations for justice, self-determination, freedom, independence, and liberation. But the Saudi state itself could be in jeopardy. MBS might think he's so powerful and he has total control over Saudi society, but I think he's mistaken. If he thinks he could get away with a deal that doesn't resolve the Palestinian cause, I just don't see how. He's young but I don't think he's that foolish. 

But let's say he does. I think that will only hasten the inevitable confrontation between the masses and their autocratic regimes– I wouldn't say this will happen in the next year or the year after, but I would say in a few years, there will be a huge backlash, a new wave of revolutions across the Arab world against tyranny, corruption, and Israel’s arrogance and hegemony, because Israel is not going to stop. I don't know what's going to happen after this latest war, but my hunch is that after the Israelis have taken a beating, where their nose has been bloodied, there would be new calculus about normalization across the region. The calculation that Israel is so strong it can protect us, that illusion has been shattered. That’s why the U.S. and Israel would try to desperately change the image and psychology of what has just happened. But it will not be easy. 

ME: When you say the deal won't have any impact on Palestinian aspirations or Palestinian resistance, I understand that, but I don't see how a deal like this would be anything but a green light for Israel to intensify its repression. Do you not see it that way? 

SAMI AL-ARIAN: But they have been. People talk like Israel hasn't been doing that. It has transformed the Palestinian Authority into its first line security protector and collaborator, placed severe restrictions on Palestinians across the West Bank and Jerusalem, imposed a crippling siege on Gaza for 16 years, preparing to annex most the land in the West Bank after annexing the Golan Heights and building hundreds of settlements across the West Bank, and trying to impose a division in the Aqsa mosque and other holy places. For decades, it has been transforming the lives of the Palestinians into a living hell.

ME: I don't mean [otherwise] at all. This year alone is one of the most extraordinary years of Israeli oppression, and that happened without this deal. 

 SAMI AL-ARIAN: The only thing left for Israel to do is mass deportations, mass exile, like they did in 1948. I don't see that. Not at all. Palestinians are not leaving anymore. Even if they get killed. Look what you see them do to Gaza. Do you see any mass flood of people trying to get to Egypt? No. If we have to die, we'll die in our homes. We're not going anywhere. This fantasy that the Israeli right has, that they'll find some sort of strategic timing when they can push the Palestinians to Jordan, that's not going to happen. That's just a fantasy. The Palestinians will stay and endure what they have to endure. 

My final point has to do with the future of this region. There are two visions for this region. And it's not clear now which one is going to carry the day. Today it appears like Israel and its supporters and those who normalize with it are carrying the day, and the United States is their patron. But we also see changing geopolitics around the world. China is becoming an international player creating an alternative order, even as they're opening to the Saudis. But they also see what's happening on the ground with the Palestinians. Russia – see what's happening with Ukraine, it's going to certainly impact this region. If Russia wins, it will have a stronger hand, and its allies are not Israel's allies. So there's a lot of players that would impact the future of the region.

But ultimately it is the determination, will, and resolve of the Palestinian people. They will refuse to adhere to Israel's plans and dictates. That means the resistance will grow stronger and I think that weakens Israeli resolve and society. Eventually, this deal, like what has happened with Egypt and Israel over 40 years, is just on paper. It's not real peace. There have to be major changes that address Palestinian injustices, grievances, and aspirations for real peace to take place and hold.

DANIEL LEVY: One's heart breaks at the scenes from the weekend, and the uncertainty that still pervades many Israeli households as to the fate of their loved ones. And one's heart trembles as to what is now happening and is likely to happen to the 2.3 million Palestinians long besieged in Gaza and now under relentless assault and whose lives are forced to rarely extend beyond the horizons of that 41-kilometer strip.

It's the hardest time but the most important time to remind ourselves that security for Israelis and security for Palestinians are intertwined, and you will not get one without the other. Even against the backdrop of the painful scenes, Israel is the occupying party that makes Palestinian lives abnormal every day in denying them the most basic rights and freedoms and predictability of life, which we take for granted.

It is so frustrating to think of the umpteen efforts to grab the attention of leaders and policymakers and explain that without addressing the root causes and Palestinian dispossession and if all peaceful avenues for Palestinian redress were closed, then violence and war would be inevitable—and that is where we are. And war is horrendous, always should be a last option and should always be brought to a rapid close.

But years of relative quiet had been frittered away by the U.S. and its allies in avoiding the hard political questions and in sending Israel the signal that the U.S. has its back no matter what its policies towards the Palestinians, and no matter if those are increasingly credibly designated, whether by international human rights groups or former heads of the Mossad, as constituting a regime of apartheid.

A particularly egregious form of this indulgence by the U.S. has been the pursuit of so-called normalization accords between Israel and Arab states with whom Israel is not at war. Initiated by the Trump administration with the Abraham Accords, the effort has been continued under the Biden administration, which has pushed a package of U.S.-Saudi-Israel understandings.

Diplomatic relations between countries are ostensibly a good thing. They can enhance understanding, including passing sometimes hard messages. But the lie at the heart of American-led normalization is that this is peace-making and is somehow a substitute for dealing with the core Israeli-Palestinian issue or even more illogically—is a positive contribution in that arena.

Current events are a painful reminder that these efforts are a sideshow, part of the make-believe world that American policy in the Middle East inhabits. The accords, as choreographed by the U.S., intentionally keep in place an Israeli-Palestinian status quo which is antithetical to peace and security for all, including to equality and rights for the Palestinians. It is part of an architecture which encourages Israeli hubris, and which has nurtured the very failings in the Israeli system which came into play so powerfully during the attacks carried out by the Gaza-based resistance movements.

The Saudi-U.S. talks around normalization are likely to be put on hold for the duration of what may be a prolonged escalation. There are already manifestations of support for the Palestinian plight in Arab and Muslim countries and elsewhere, and the initial statement out of Riyadh included a Saudi reminder of the consequences [for] Israel for the continued occupation, denial of Palestinian legitimate rights and provocations at al-Aqsa—very different to American statements. Of course, the Saudi-U.S. talks may resume even if time is running out, but they will be no substitute for the hard but necessary work of actually engaging with Palestinian-Israeli realities and the need for political, not military solutions.

IF YOU'RE WONDERING WHAT FOREVER WARS'  EDITORIAL POSITION is on Israel/Palestine, it's this: the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the Israeli displacement of the Palestinians from their historic homelands in 1948, known as the Nakba; the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the strangulation of Gaza; and the Israeli insistence on exclusive sovereignty over the land called Israel/Palestine. The two-state solution, if it was ever viable decades ago, is a chimera that justifies Israeli apartheid. True peace, justice, security and reconciliation have their best chance in a free, democratic and binational state of all its citizens between the river and the sea. [Co-sign.—Sam.]

I am neither Israeli nor Palestinian, so it's not truly my place to tell Israelis and Palestinians how to organize their societies. Like I told Peter Beinart two years ago, when we observers wishcast our preferred Israel/Palestine solution, we're primarily making statements about our values. These are mine. 

Another is: You don't have to be an asshole about it. (I am sure I fall short on that one, but it's still a worthy aspiration.) War is dehumanization, and well-meaning people, including people who don't see it your way and are convinced their position is right and yours is wrong, naturally struggle with that. Peter's piece today moved me

But still another value I hold is: When someone denies someone else's humanity, and you challenge that, you are not the asshole.