By Jon Wiener
This column originally appeared at www.thenation.com
Amos Oz is Israel’s leading novelist, a founder and the best-known voice of Peace Now. He is a bellwether for Israeli doves, for opponents of the occupation who favor Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and a negotiated two-state solution. In a recent conversation, he assessed the political and diplomatic implications of the Hamas electoral victory.
Q: A week after your book How to Cure a Fanatic was published, Hamas won a historic victory in elections for the Palestinian parliament. Do you regard Hamas as an organization of fanatics?
A: Fanatics are those people of any faith, color, persuasion or political belief who maintain that the end, whatever end, justifies all the means, including the bloody means. By this criterion I am afraid Hamas is a fanatic organization par excellence.
Q: Did Palestinians vote for Hamas because they are fanatics?
A: Not necessarily. As I read the situation, and as I hear from my Palestinian friends and colleagues, the prime reason for the Hamas victory is the alleged corruption of the Palestinian Authority and its leading movement, Fatah.
Q: In your book you argue that fanaticism is not necessarily a permanent condition. You say that as a child you were “a brainwashed little fanatic all the way.” What made you a young fanatic, and what made you change?
A: I grew up in a militant atmosphere in a painfully divided Jerusalem, in times of bitter conflict and rivalry. I grew up as a very enthusiastic one-sided Zionist. Over the course of the years, and through some personal experiences, I have discovered that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like many other conflicts, has two sides, two perspectives, perhaps two logics. The moment you discover this kind of moral and political relativity, you are no longer a fanatic.
Q: Over the past decade, part of the Palestinian movement moved away from what you call fanaticism toward what you call pragmatism.
A: Not only part of the Palestinian movement—I believe the majority of the Palestinian people now have a pragmatic approach and a realistic attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A majority of the Palestinians—and a majority of the Israelis—know now that, at the end of the day, there is going to be a compromise, a sharing, a two-state solution. Are they happy about it? No. Will there be dancing in the streets once this solution is implemented? Certainly not. Do they regard it as just, or secure, or safe? Probably not. But they accept this as the only possible solution, as the bottom line. This is true of the Israeli Jews, and this is true of the Palestinian Arabs.
Q: Is there evidence since the election of Hamas that a majority of Palestinians still favor a two-state solution?
A: Public opinion surveys in Palestine week after week after week, for over three years now, including during the worst days of the violent intifada—those surveys show that a majority of Palestinians are prepared to live, unhappily, with a two-state solution. They don’t trust the Israelis, but they will accept it. By the same token, like a mirror image, the majority of Israelis will accept this solution, but don’t trust the Palestinians to accept and respect it.
Q: The question of the day is whether Hamas will become more pragmatic. What signs do you see?
A: We will have to wait and see. Right now I don’t want to give Hamas credit they don’t deserve. Right now it is a fanatic, fundamentalist movement that maintains in its charter, in its covenant and in its platform that Israel should be liquidated and that the Israelis should be removed from their country. Will they change? I don’t know. If they change, they will be accessible for doing business.
Q: And if Hamas doesn’t change?
A: If they don’t change, I think it would be wise for Israel to take the conflict upstairs, to neighboring Arab nations, perhaps to the Arab League, and talk about a solution that will then be presented to the Palestinian people in a referendum.
Q: The Hamas platform in the recent elections did not highlight their position on the elimination of Israel or the endorsement of terrorist methods—their election platform focused on ending corruption, improving the job picture and social services and infrastructure. That seems, in your terms, pragmatic.
A: The platform put a heavy stress on struggling against corruption. Nevertheless, it still mentions the liberation of what they call all of Palestine as the unshakable goal of the Palestinian national movement. They have not revised their basic attitude toward Israel as a mobile exhibition that should be removed from the area, or a kind of infection.
Q: The description of fanatics in your new book obviously refers to Israelis as well as Palestinians. What is your estimate of the state of fanaticism on the Israeli political scene today?
A: Israeli fanaticism and fundamentalism unfortunately are alive and kicking—on the far right, and in the ultra-religious segments of Israeli society. No society is immune to fanaticism and fundamentalism—not Israeli society, not American society and not Arab society. I have never gone for this simplistic dichotomy about a struggle between civilizations: east versus west, or Islam versus the rest of the world. I think the real struggle in the world arena, and probably for the rest of the twenty-first century, is the struggle between the fanatics and the rest of us.
Q: Has the electoral victory of Hamas strengthened the fanatics inside Israel?
A: Fanatics always play into each other’s hands. They always kindle the enthusiasm and zeal of their counterparts on the other side.
Q: Let’s talk specifically about the Israeli political landscape. Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu has compared the electoral victory of Hamas to the electoral rise of Hitler. But opinion polls in Israel show no significant shift toward Likud since the Hamas victory. What should we make of that?
A: Opinion polls today [January 30] show a very slight shift toward Likud and other far-right segments, but all in all there does not seem to be a landslide—yet. It is too early to say how Israeli public opinion really will digest and respond to the change in Palestine.
Q: You criticized Ariel Sharon’s policy of unilateral disengagement from Gaza, arguing it would have been better to have a negotiated transfer of power that might have been the first step toward the end of the occupation. Many Jews in Israel and the United States are now saying the Hamas victory shows how prescient Sharon had been. Do you agree?
A: A negotiated arrangement for Gaza would have been preferable to a unilateral withdrawal, but a unilateral withdrawal I regard as better than the previous status quo, the Israeli occupation of Gaza. I think Sharon would have been wiser to try to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority: Gaza first, in a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, we will never know if this would have worked, if this would have prevented Hamas from winning the elections. All of this now belongs to the realm of what-ifs and of historical hypotheses.
Q: It was argued in Ha’aretz recently that only Hamas can truly stop terror and only Hamas has the legitimacy to negotiate a settlement with the Israelis—that Hamas’s success in preserving a “lull” in terrorist attacks since November 2004 shows that it has power and legitimacy of a kind that the Fatah leadership lacked. I wonder if you agree that the legitimacy of Hamas gives it the capacity to negotiate peace?
A: This may be the case—but what good does it do us as long as Hamas doesn’t change its basic positions? This is more or less like stating that Al Qaeda is the only group that can stop Al Qaeda terrorism. Of course Al Qaeda can stop Al Qaeda terrorism. But does it have the motivation to do so? Is it inclined to do so? Is it going to do so? Yes, Hamas may have the authority and capacity. But do they have the intention? We will have to put every possible pressure on Hamas to change its intention—Israeli pressure, American pressure, Arab pressure. Then the capacity and authority of Hamas will become very important.
Q: Israel can make life a lot worse for the Palestinians under a Hamas government. Israel can also use its power to encourage the more pragmatic tendencies in Hamas. What kinds of Israeli occupation policies do you favor at this point?
A: Personally, I don’t favor the occupation. Period. I think Israel would be advised to terminate the occupation through an agreement or a settlement that, if it can’t be made with the Palestinians at this moment, should be made with the member states of the Arab League. I believe termination of the Israeli occupation is urgent, and is in Israel’s best interests and can be implemented as a part of an Israel-Arab comprehensive agreement.
Q: What role should the United States play in this process?
A: The US should encourage moderation wherever it can, and in a nondogmatic way. Sometimes encouraging moderation may mean encouraging nondemocratic regimes. Sometimes encouraging moderation may mean encouraging regimes that are not rosy and wonderful. Encouraging moderation is not the same as installing democracy at gunpoint. Encouraging moderation means helping create and stabilize civil society, because there can be no real democracy where there is no civil society, and there can be no civil society in a place of extremism, fundamentalism, poverty and despair.
Q: The title of your book, How to Cure a Fanatic, holds out the possibility of “curing” fanaticism—among both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
A: The title should be taken with a grain of salt. I argue that fanaticism is a bad gene in the human DNA, and that no one among us is immune to a certain fanaticism. In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, I think we can contain fanaticism. We cannot cure it, but we can contain it—by strengthening the middle class, strengthening civil society, strengthening the secular, moderate and pragmatic segments of both the Palestinian and the Israeli societies.
Jon Wiener - Wiener@uci.edu - www.JonWiener.com