Former Israeli minister of foreign affairs Shlomo Ben-Ami, keynote speaker at the annual Association for Israel Studies conference. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)
Shlomo Ben-Ami champions pragmatism in Israeli foreign policy
In a speech at the 29th Annual AIS Conference at UCLA on June 24th, former foreign minister of Israel Shlomo Ben-Ami spoke about David Ben-Gurion, the founding of Israel, the impact of the country’s victory in the Six Day War and the changing way in which Israel has been judged by “the tribunal of world public opinion.”
“I truly believe that not all is lost. Israel has still much to say to the international community and if it goes to internationally recognized borders, it will have peace with the world."
International Institute, June 24, 2013 —
“Israel might suffer from too small a geography, but it has more history and memory per square mile than any other country,” said former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami
at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on Monday, June 24.
“The nontangible categories of Israel's existence — namely, memory, history and the struggle over millenarian certificates of ownership — is what makes our small corner of the world so disproportionately central to the business and the concerns of the family of nations,” he remarked.
Renowned for his efforts to negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinian Authority at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001, respectively, Ben-Ami delivered a wide-ranging speech entitled “Zionism, Israel and the World.”
Ben-Gurion and the realism of early Zionism
“Historically,” observed Ben-Ami, “Jewish experience in international relations [has not been] particularly edifying. An independent Jewish state existed for only short periods out of our millenarian history and it twice committed political suicide. The reason was always the same: the blunder of ignoring political realities and challenging the world powers that governed the international system of the time.”
Early Zionism, he argued, was able to successfully create the state of Israel because it was pragmatic, valued world opinion and developed the diplomatic skills needed to navigate international waters.
David Ben-Gurion, founder of the modern state of Israel and its first prime minister, never stopped reminding his generation that Israel could never again conduct a foreign policy without an alliance with a superpower, said Ben-Ami. He was particularly astute in intuiting the demise of the British Empire and shifting the focus of Zionist diplomacy to the United States at just the right moment, noted the speaker.
“It was not only through superior military capability that Zionism prevailed,” argued Ben-Ami, “Its victory depended no less on its sense of realism.” Ben-Gurion, he insisted, was indifferent neither to the UN nor world opinion.
In fact, in an October 1960 speech before the Knesset, the Israeli leader explicitly asserted that without the sympathy of the world, Israel’s army alone could not provide it security. And, observed Ben-Ami, he remained doubtful of the ability a small Jewish state to survive in a hostile Arab neighborhood.
The legacy of the 1967 war
The Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel won a lightening victory over Egypt (the United Arab Republic), Jordan and Syria, ended with its occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.
Calling 1967 an annus mirabilis for Israel, Ben-Ami said the war “reshaped the deployment of the superpowers in the region, created the conditions for the eventual dismantling of Soviet presence in the Middle East, shifted Israel's alliances from Europe to the United States, turned Europe into the major critic of Israel's occupation practices, put the Jewish state in the dock of the tribunal of public opinion and opened new doors and avenues for the solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
The devastating effects of Israel’s eventual accessionist policies in the occupied territories, however, led the speaker to recall Hegel’s dictum about the “impotence of the winners.” For Ben-Ami, the Six Day War led to a radical transformation of Israel from a conservative position to the policies of messianism.
He reminded the audience that the grand territorial designs of Zionism were tempered in Israel’s early days by a sober acknowledgment of the limits of power. “We should not conclude from [the 1967 war] that we can set for ourselves far-reaching, absolutely unrealistic objectives,” he remarked. “Realism defines the limits of what is possible — not every fantasy is a vision.”
“The ideological settlers in Judea and Samaria like to defend their messianic vision on the ground that Zionism was also an unrealistic dream that miraculously came true. But this was not the case. There was nothing miraculous or providential about Zionism's exploits,” he insisted. “Zionism materialized because the historical conditions, the political circumstances, favored it. And because Zionist diplomacy wisely navigated through the waters of international diplomacy.”
Dismissing talk of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as “nonsense,” Ben-Ami contended that “fatalism about the chances of peace is a useless advisor in international relations. History teaches us that political positions are not eternal.”
Israel in the dock of public opinion
Ben-Ami drew repeated attention to the vicissitudes of world public opinion toward Israel. Even more than in the world’s political capitals, he argued that the case for Israel was frequently decided in the “tribunal” of international public opinion.
The creation of Israel was greeted with great international sympathy and its quest for security in a hostile Middle East was largely understood through 1967, said the speaker. Neither after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, nor immediately after the 1967 war, was Israel subjected to international pressure to relinquish its territorial gains, he related, largely because of the perception that its victory was the result of a legitimate war.
“International acquiescence to the situation created by Israel's victory in 1967 was extremely short-lived, however,” pointed out Ben-Ami. “When the ‘war of salvation and survival’ turned into a war of conquest, occupation and settlement, the international community recoiled and Israel went on the defensive. She has remained there ever since.”
Nevertheless, he found Europe’s harsh criticism of Israel during the second intifada in the Palestinian territories [roughly 2000 to 2005] unbalanced, especially in light of the good-faith efforts of Israel to negotiate a reasonable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000–2001.
“We, the Barak government,” said the speaker, “. . . negotiated peace by coming close to the outer limits of our capacity for compromise. We touched and broke all the taboos of our collective existence. We accepted the division of Jerusalem, we committed ourselves to the practical withdrawal from the [Palestinian] territories and the creation of a fully viable Palestinian state.”
Yet despite the concessions made by Israel and the unlikelihood that a similar team would be in power in Israel for years to come, Ben-Ami said he saw no sense of urgency or missed opportunity among his Palestinian interlocutors.
“We came as close as possible to breaking the genetic code of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Europe applauded us. However, the moment the intifada started, the onus was almost exclusively put upon us,” he remarked. Instead of using its economic, political and moral leverage to influence the Palestinians, Ben-Ami maintained, Europe primarily criticized the supposedly excessive force that Israel used in its defense.
He noted in particular that European nongovernmental organizations frivolously use the vocabulary of the Holocaust to describe Israeli actions in the occupied territories. “Sometimes,” he commented, “even those of us who consider themselves to be on the left side of the divide believe that the vilification of Israel has long superseded what could be defined as legitimate criticism.”
“Europe,” contended Ben-Ami, “which too frequently looks at us with an air of sanctimonious finger waving, knows from experience how deep such conflicts can become. It took Europe many religious wars, two world wars and more than one genocide to solve its endemic disputes over borders and nationalisms.”
Despite Europe’s current crisis, he argued that the European ideal remained relevant to the vital quest for an architecture of peace, stability and cooperation in the Middle East. The European Union offers the lesson that nationalism — if respected — can become a responsible force and a benign basis for broader international cooperation, he said.
Looking to the future
Ben-Ami urged Israel to trim its post-1967 territorial ambitions, pointing out the lesson of U.S. experience in Iraq: force without legitimacy will eventually produce a backlash. “What is required of Israel,” he said, “is to strive to be on the right side of international legitimacy.”
“The two-state solution has its faults and difficulties,” he conceded, “But we have a message to convey to our own society: all other alternatives might be worthless and might put in jeopardy the entire Zionist project.”
For Ben-Ami, the goal of the peace process is to achieve internationally recognized borders “This,” he noted, “will give us a pillar of security that we have discounted for so many years now.”
“It is up to our leaders to inculcate in us the notion that we have not survived all the horrors of extermination only to entrench ourselves behind the walls of our own convictions and remain there, righteous and immobile,” he asserted.
“I truly believe that not all is lost,” concluded Ben-Ami. “Israel has still much to say to the international community and if it goes to internationally recognized borders, it will have peace with the world.” History and memory may remain a bone of contention between Israel and many nations, he said, but that challenge is not an obstacle to peace.
Ben-Shlomo Ami served as Israel’s first ambassador to Spain from 1987 to 1991, and its Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2000 to 2001. Apart from his diplomatic service, he is a well-known historian of the rise of fascism in Spain and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University. There, he headed the Graduate School of History (1982–86) and the Curiel Center for International Studies (1993–96), which he also founded. He is currently executive vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Spain.
In recent years, Ben-Ami has written a number of books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including "Quel avenir pour Israel?" (Presses Universitaires de France, 2001), “A Front without a Home Front: A Voyage to the Boundaries of the Peace Process” (in Hebrew; Yedioth Ahatonoth, 2004) and “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Arab-Israeli Tragedy” (Oxford University Press/ Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005).
This story was originally posted on July 1, 2013, and revised slighltly on July 2, 2013.
Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies
Published: Monday, July 01, 2013