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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: An Interview with Dr. Michael S. Neiberg

Michael S. Neiberg, Chair of War Studies at the U.S. Army War College and Professor of History in their Department of National Security and Strategy, is a leading military historian of the World War I era. He has authored or edited eighteen books on modern military history, with many of them having been translated into various foreign languages, including Polish, Turkish, German, and Chinese. Moreover, his books have won a number of impressive awards, to include the Harry S. Truman Prize, the Madigan Award, the Tomlinson Prize, the Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award, and various other honors. He serves on a number of editorial or advisory boards for various publishing projects, museums, and research centers, and has provided commentary in articles or television and radio appearances for a variety of media organizations in the U.S. and Europe, including PBS, National Geographic, France 24 Radio, Belgian National Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and others. He is, by all accounts, a leading intellectual voice on matters of modern warfare. 

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Above Images: (L) Michael’s most recent book- The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America, (C) Michael’s 2013 book Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I, which the Wall Street Journal called one of the five best books ever written on the topic, and (R) Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe– the 2016 Harry S. Truman Book Award winner.

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So how did I, a humble medieval historian, come in contact with Michael? I vaguely recall that it happened as a result of an energetic discussion about some topic (I can’t recall the topic) on Facebook, of all places. A mutual friend had tagged Michael in a post, thinking his commentary would be helpful. As a result, I “friended” Michael not really realizing his prominence as a scholar at the time. One certainly never would have sensed it based on his humility and generosity in dealing with others on social media. In fact, not knowing his background initially, I recall the thing I liked most about him was his joke that since I also liked the rock band Journey, as visible from my Facebook page, that it was good enough for him to friend me. Of course since then, I have become familiar with Michael’s work and influence, and have enjoyed following his posts on social media and his always thoughtful commentary on complex issues.

For this reason, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Michael and I had something in common at the end of this past summer. Because I sometimes comment on events in the Middle East for local media in the North-Florida area, I was invited to participate in a cultural exchange in the West Bank (in July of 2016) by a Palestinian organization, the American Federation of Ramallah-Palestine.  A colleague with connections to the group had suggested it for me, highlighting how it was an opportunity to be “on the ground” and witness how the conflict is affecting the lives of those who live in the West Bank. Obviously, it presented a chance to gain a unique perspective on the conflict that not too many in the west get the opportunity to experience because conditions there are sometimes volatile. The U.S. State Department, for example, forbids its employees from traveling there and warns against other Americans going there as well. Naturally, as a typically inquisitive academic fascinated with events in that part of the world, both historically and in the present, I jumped at the opportunity. Of course, I first had to convince my wife that it was safe enough to go, which to be honest I was not entirely convinced of myself. I have since written about my experiences in a brief blog post here.

Michael had noticed, on social media, that I was going on the trip and mentioned to me that he was doing something similar in August, but as a guest of the Israeli Yitzkah Rabin Center. They brought him to Israel as part of an academic exchange where he had the opportunity to consider Israeli and Middle Eastern security issues. We were both intrigued by the similarity of our trips, the fact that we would both be there at roughly the same time, and that we would be hosted by organizations presenting competing narratives and perspectives on conditions and events in the region. We both had the opportunity to tour (sometimes sensitive) areas related to the conflict, and to speak with many officials, politicians, and common people, in both formal and off the record conversations.

Obviously, Michael and I saw this as a potentially interesting opportunity for the two of us to discuss our experiences and the differing perspectives we were exposed to during our trips. Consequently, Michael has kindly agreed to answer some questions about his experiences during his trip and provide his analysis, but he wants to make clear that the views expressed here are his own and not those of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.

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Question 1: What were the circumstances leading up to your trip to Israel in August? Why were you invited and how did the sponsors of your trip explain its purpose?

This trip was co-sponsored by the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv and an NGO called Academic Exchange, which is based in California. I think they were looking for academics who work in a field related to the Middle East crisis broadly understood, but they did not want people who were specialists in Middle Eastern studies; to their credit they sought not only historians and political scientists, but professors of comparative literature. This mix of people from the US, Europe, and China allowed us to bring in a wide variety of perspectives without getting too deep into methodological or strictly disciplinary questions. Most of us were recommended by a past participant in the seminar.

It is, of course, impossible to assemble a group of about a dozen people on a topic like this one and expect them not to bring in preconceived biases. Instead we were all asked to confront our knowledge and biases openly in a questionnaire we filled out before the trip. The sense I got was that the sponsors very much wanted to be sure that at the end of the trip our attitudes, impressions, and biases about the conflict in the region were based on what we ourselves saw and heard rather than through the filters of media, campus activists, politicians, etc. I never got the sense that the sponsors were trying to force us into one point of view. The goal was open discussion, not consensus – always a good idea when dealing with academics!

Question 2: Where did you go and who did you meet with during your trip? What were the primary issues you considered as you visited various places in Israel and spoke to various peoples? I assume Israeli security was a major issue, and I would be interested to hear about it here, but what other concerns came up? For example, to what degree are Israelis worried about their international image as a result of various controversies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I assume that is a major concern as well as it has the ability to impact Israel in many ways.

We were all over the country, from the “triangle” where Gaza, Egypt, and Israel meet to the Golan Heights to the West Bank. We went to an Arab town inside pre-1967 “Green Line” Israel, a new Palestinian community under construction in the West Bank called Rawabi, a Jewish settler community outside the Green Line, and, of course to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Security was a ubiquitous issue, as one would expect. The general sense is that Israel has almost unprecedented security from states on or near its borders. Relations with Egypt and Jordan are very good right now; Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States share an interest with Israel in deterring Iran and fighting extremism; and former foes such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are too politically fractured to threaten Israel.

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Above Image: A model showing what the Palestinian West Bank town of Rawabi will look like when it is completed. Michael notes it is very impressive and a model for a series of Palestinian villages to be developed in the future.

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The concern today comes from non-state and hybrid actors like Hamas and Hizbollah. They have state sponsors and have learned to adapt to Israel’s conventional military power. Israelis do not see them as viable partners for peace or even people they can or should talk with (a position the US government also holds), so there is little hope in coming to a diplomatic solution with them. Israel tends to see them not only as an Israeli security problem but a manifestation of the wider Shia-Sunni rivalry that is consuming the region and is rapidly replacing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main driver of events in the Middle East.

As to Israel’s image, I think I’d say that most Israelis are feeling increasingly optimistic in this regard. Their improved relations with some of the major Sunni states offers some hope that those regimes might tone down the vile anti-Semitic material that often appears in Arab schools and media. We saw some examples of it and they are truly stomach turning. Israel is also enjoying better relations with states like India, Singapore, China, even Russia. This is partly due to better diplomacy and partly due to Israel’s booming tech sector, which has helped to grow stronger economic relationships. In short, I think most Israelis with whom I spoke thought their international standing was improving, notwithstanding the BDS movement’s growth in some parts of Europe and the USA.

Question 3: There is much bitterness toward Israelis by the Palestinians I spoke with in the West Bank. During my trip, I could be speaking with an otherwise very pleasant and generous Palestinian, that I might run into during my morning visits to a grocery store near my hotel in Ramallah (for example), but when the topic turned to Israel or the Israelis, their facial expressions and the tone of their voice would change, growing much more serious and firm, as they then lectured me about the hardships imposed on the Palestinian people by the Israelis. As a result, I am curious to know how Israelis you spoke with think of Palestinians. Was there a similar reaction when Palestinians or Palestinian issues came up in your discussions with Israelis? To what degree are Israelis angry at and distrustful of the Palestinian people? Do you see bitterness and mistrust on the Israeli side as a serious roadblock to the ability of both sides to negotiate in good faith on various issues related to the conflict?

I definitely picked up some sense of the Palestinians as “the other,” a people of radically different values, history, and culture. But I also talked to a retired senior IDF officer whose daughter had just married an Arab citizen of Israel, and he was delighted both for family reasons (he really likes his son-in-law) and national ones. More intermarriage, he hoped, would bring the two communities closer together. He had himself grown up in Lebanon and spoke Arabic before he learned to speak Hebrew. He has many friends in the Arab villages inside the Green Line which make up 20% of Israel’s population, and he sees himself as a bridge between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities. When I pressed him, however, he admitted that the couple has faced a lot of problems and had to get married in Cyprus because no Israeli rabbi would marry them. All marriages in Israel are religious. Israel does not recognize purely civil marriage.

But the person that really stood out to me was the director of the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Gaza and Israel. He had lived in Gaza, but the Israelis destroyed his village in 2005 as part of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In his view, the Gazans had repaid that act of conciliation by putting Hamas, which pledges not just to destroy Israel but to kill Jews all over the world, in power. He saw as his first mission protecting his staff in this very dangerous and ugly place, and his second as ensuring that no weapons get smuggled to Hamas. Even so, he expressed deep concern for the people of Gaza, who are living a horrid existence. He saw it as a moral obligation to ensure that the food, medicine, and building materials coming through his checkpoint got to the Gazans who desperately needed them – as long as doing so did not in any way undermine the safety of Israel. He also noted several times that although he knows everyone who works there, he starts each day from a position of zero trust with his Arab partners. He told us that his checkpoint was the first built with an assumption of persistent conflict rather than imminent peace in mind.

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Above Image: The Kerem Shalom border crossing, where Gaza, Egypt, and Israel meet. 900 trucks per day go through here and every single one is screened carefully.

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These are admittedly small and selected samples, but I saw much harsher attitudes on my only other trip to Israel, in 2007. Back then I saw people talking about the need to create entirely separate communities for Jews and Arabs. On this trip, I saw much more discussion of the reality that Jewish and Arab life was intertwined by economics and the incredible physical proximity of places like Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank. There was therefore much more talk this time of the need to find a way to live side by side than I heard nine years ago. There was also much more discussion of the important differences between Gaza, the West Bank, and the Arab communities inside the Green Line.

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Above Image: A sign (of hope?) in the Old City of Jerusalem in Hebrew, Arabic, and English showing some of the diversity and openness of the city.

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Question 4: Based on your experiences during your trip, do you think a two-state solution is still possible? Where are the Israelis on this issue at the moment? What are their key requirements for this to be possible?

Ah, the 25 million shekel question. There was an almost schizophrenic approach to this question among the people I spoke with. Most people accepted and understood that two states was the only possibility for the future. A multi-ethnic one-state solution risks Israel fracturing the way Lebanon and Syria have, and the only other future would be one of a continued ethnostate with Jews in control over a minority of Arabs who lack basic rights and freedoms. So the two-state solution is by far the least bad solution.

On the other hand, few people I talked to thought it would happen. The consensus was that there is too little room for agreement on issues like settlements, Jerusalem, or security. Others said that the political will is lacking or that there is too little trust between the sides. Some suggested that Israel’s enormous edge in military, political, and economic power gives Israelis (of all political stripes) too little incentive to deal because they can maintain a status quo that is essentially working in their favor. Others suggested that the Palestinian Authority has to develop more of the instruments of a modern state before any two-state solution can work. Should Hamas do well in the municipal elections scheduled for October, that problem will only multiply. So, on the one hand, a two-state solution has to be the way forward, and on the other, there is no faith that it can work. A majority of both Israelis and Palestinians say they want a two-state solution, but a majority of both majorities are pessimistic that it will happen.

I cannot speak to the Israeli government’s position, but people I spoke with wanted guarantees of security, a promise that a Palestinian state would recognize Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish state free from the threat of terrorism, and an assurance that a Hamas takeover in the West Bank would not happen as happened in Gaza. There is some hope that the Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar might be able to help broker a deal if they were interested in being an honest broker, and that remains for most people in Israel a very big “if.”

Question 5: Unquestionably, the most pressing and inflammatory issue among Palestinians in the West Bank is the presence and continual expansion of the Israeli settlements. Many Palestinians no longer use the term “settler,” preferring instead to use the term colonist.” Could you give a sense of how Israelis you came in contact with view this issue? Do they view the settlements as a necessity and if so, why? What sort of justifications do Israelis give for supporting the settlement movement in the West Bank?

There is great division inside Israel on this question. A lot of Israelis, especially on the left, oppose the settlements as being incendiary to Arabs and detrimental to the peace process. Some settlers have religious motivations, and their political parties, while too small to form a majority of their own, are strong enough to tip the parliamentary balance after close elections. Consequently, they have outsized political weight. Other settlers are there primarily for economic reasons. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are very expensive places to live, so the settlements offer what American suburbs claim to offer: cheaper housing, more fresh air, less crime, and better schools.

There are also still raw wounds left over from 2005 when Israel demolished Jewish settlements in Gaza as part of the Oslo deal. Some soldiers refused to participate and there was some violence. There is a fear that large numbers of soldiers in the IDF, especially religious ones, might refuse orders to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank if ordered to do so. Such a scenario would be quite dangerous not only to Israeli security but to Israeli democracy as well. I posed the question directly to two separate officials; both answered hesitatingly that they thought soldiers would obey orders to demolish settlements if the government could persuade the country that it was necessary for peace, but neither sounded fully convinced. Whether any Israeli government would be willing to risk Jewish on Jewish violence over issues of settlements in the West Bank is, to my mind, very much an open question.

In other words, the issue of the West Bank settlements is not only about its impact on Palestinian-Israeli relations. It is also about its impact on Israel itself. Therefore, it is unfortunately not as simple as pressuring the Netanyahu government to dismantle the settlements. To most of the outside world and to many inside Israel, the harm these settlements is causing far exceeds their benefits; at the very least, Israel should build no more and make clear that the construction of a Jewish settlement does not mean that the state of Israel accepts its permanence or assumes responsibility for its future. It is undoubtedly difficult to tell people that their community may be traded away as part of a wider peace treaty, but the current course of action is provocative not only to Israel’s enemies, but to many of its friends as well.

 

Question 6: I once gave a live televised interview for a local television station that considered issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the very end of the interview, when I had about 20 seconds to response, the interviewer asked me, “How do we bring about peace in the Middle East?” I was a bit dumbfounded by the scope of the question, fumbling to give a meaningful response to such a complex question in 20 seconds. But perhaps I can similarly put you on the spot here to address the complex issue of Palestinian-Israeli relations. In a few paragraphs, please explain how you might see a roadmap to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians? What can or must be done to lessen anxieties on both sides? From the Israeli perspective (as you understand it based on your trip), what do you understand to be non-negotiable and what is negotiable?

One speaker was quite blunt with us that the United States needs to stop talking about solutions because the people of the region no longer believe in them. He spoke instead of setting more modest goals such as reducing points of friction and improving the quality of life for as many people as possible. Part of the reason for this pessimism (or, I suppose, pragmatism, depending on one’s point of view) was that successive and repeated failures in the peace process since Oslo have diminished faith in the process itself. In other words, every failure only reinforces in each side’s mind the basic lack of honesty of the other. By this argument, starting peace talks hoping that a solution might somehow emerge or with the simple goal of keeping lines of communication open is a mistake because if/when the talks fail, people grow more cynical about the very idea of peace talks.

Another problem is that, as one speaker said, “God is back in town, big time.” By this line of thought, what had been essentially secular issues (where would the Palestinian capital be, where should the borders go, who should have control over what) in the 1990s have been replaced by essentially sacred issues (all the land belongs to us, Jerusalem is our city, etc.). The former could be negotiated, even if the compromises that resulted left many people dissatisfied. The latter are not open to compromise and therefore require one side to win and one side to lose.

There are, however, steps each side can take unilaterally. Israel can turn over more of Area C (that part of the West Bank fully under Israeli control) to the Palestinians, assuming Hamas does not do well in the October elections; Israel can also make it easier for third parties to invest in Palestinian development projects on the theory that improving the economic well-being of Palestinians will give them an incentive to cooperate rather than turn to Hamas; and Israel can encourage states like Saudi Arabia, France, and Qatar to play a more productive role in the region. In other words, we need to stop thinking that another Camp David or Oslo moment is right around the corner and work instead to light candles where we think they will best be able to illuminate the darkness.

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Image Below: Michael notes, “The one creature in Jerusalem without an opinion…In 2007, I spoke to some Nepalese peacekeepers in Golan and they said ‘We are here because we are the only people in the world who do not care how this ends.'”

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