The great Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, was born in Jerusalem to a father whose family had lived in Israel for six generations and a mother of Moroccan origin.
This brilliant novelist, whose work has been published throughout the world and translated into 35 languages, is a tireless advocate for rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians. He has received some 15 respected international literary awards, and in 1995, he received the prestigious Israel Prize, the highest honour awarded by the state to Israelis who have distinguished themselves in a specific field.
What do you think about the current Israeli electoral campaign?
It’s a dirty, contemptible campaign that’s a disgrace to Israeli democracy. The political situation in Israel today reminds me of the one in France in the 1950s. The government fell every year. France was facing a big problem that seemed unsolvable: French Algeria. Today we are living in a similar situation in Israel. The government coalitions in power never manage to finish their mandate. And the Palestinian question is the French Algeria of Israel.
What are the main issues in these elections?
The major problem Israel is facing today is the Palestinian question. So, I hate the fact that in this campaign, the principal political parties have been avoiding this question that’s so crucial for Israel’s future. All the other problems are secondary. The very sensitive Palestinian question has poisoned the daily lives of Israelis for several decades. As for the main source of this infernal problem, the policy of settlement in the Palestinian territories, it’s a scourge that is eating away at Israeli democracy.
According to the most recent polls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the political leader best positioned to form the next government. I guess this perspective doesn’t thrill you.
For me, absolutely the only path that Israel can possibly take for a frontal attack on the big problems and the many insistent threats facing it today is a national unity government. In Israel, this is an option that has proven successful in the past. I hope that this time, Netanyahu will not categorically exclude this sensible political option.
If he wins the election, the other political option Netanyahu would have would be to re-establish a government coalition with the parties on the extreme right and the religious parties.
A new alliance with nationalist extremists like Naftali Bennett, leader of Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home party) and the opportunistic and obtuse religious parties will lead us right to another impasse that will be catastrophic. The major priority of this potential new government coalition of the extreme right will be to briskly pursue the settlement of the West Bank and to build hundreds of new homes in east Jerusalem – a disastrous policy that will further poison the already terrible, messy relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration. This awful policy will be a fatal blow to the two-state solution and to relations between Israel and the United States.
Do you still firmly believe in the two-state solution?
There is no other way to ensure a secure and viable future for the State of Israel. I am an old Zionist, born in Jerusalem during the British Mandate of Palestine. I lived during some very hard times when Israel’s existence was seriously threatened. This is the first time in my life that I have heard a political leader, Naftali Bennett, declare publicly that “there will never be peace with the Palestinians or with the Arab world.” It’s frightening. Even in 1948, when Israel was a very vulnerable embryonic state threatened with annihilation by seven heavily armed Arab armies, no political Zionist leader, on the right or the left, ever declared that peace with the Arabs is nothing but an impossible dream. Even in the Zionist revisionist movement, there has never been this kind of fatalism. We have to remember that Zionism has never been a synonym for defeatism. The late prime minister Menachem Begin, a leading figure in the ultra-nationalist, Zionist right, never made such appalling statements. On the contrary, Begin believed in peace with the Arabs.
Last fall, with some other Israeli intellectuals, you supported recognition of a Palestinian state by the European parliaments. Isn’t that kind of European initiative idealistic and counter-productive when we know that an independent Palestinian state will never see the light of day through the goodwill of the Europeans, but only through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians?
That petition was signed by almost a thousand activists in the Israel peace camp: writers, including Amos Oz, David Grossman and myself; artists; university academics; former senior Israel Defence Forces and Israeli intelligence officers, and former senior officials. Everyone knows that this symbolic recognition will not have any concrete results on the ground. The Palestinian state, if it sees the light of day, will be the fruit of the necessary negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. We encouraged this initiative of the European parliaments, because we are convinced that, in the dismal context of politics in Israel and Palestine today, it’s the only way to ward off the disastrous option of a binational Israeli-Palestinian state and to encourage the moderate elements of the Palestinian Authority to return to the negotiating table. If not, it will be the most radical Palestinians who will take charge, and they will end up eliminating any hope of peace. The binational state is a very bleak scenario that’s becoming more plausible every day. In supporting the European parliaments’ efforts to officially recognize a Palestinian state, those who signed the petition were not only performing a moral and existential act for the Palestinians, but also for the Israelis.
Do you believe then that a binational state is the antithesis of the Zionist plan?
Absolutely. In this kind of two-headed state, the Israeli Jewish identity is doomed to extinction. Today, many Palestinians, exasperated by a future that is likely to be darker and darker, secretly dream of living in a binational state. We need to put an end to this macabre dream. Time is against Israel.
How can one restart a peace negotiation process that’s stalled today?
Let’s not fool ourselves. The interminable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians cannot be resolved without the help of the Europeans and the firm intervention of the Americans. The likelihood that this more than 100-year-old dispute can be definitively settled through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is very minimal. The United States is primarily responsible for the perpetuation of this conflict. Since 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the Six Day War, the governments in power in Washington did absolutely nothing to end the Israeli settlement of the Palestinian territories. Nevertheless, since 1967, all the U.S. presidents, Republican or Democrat, have said that the Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace. Unfortunately, nothing was ever done about it. The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can’t be restarted with any serious intent as long as the Americans, and the Europeans too, don’t put intense pressure on the two parties, because they are giving substantial financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity. For the full interview with A.B. Yehoshua in French, click here. Translation by Carolan Halpern.