The following is an edited transcript of remarks by Henry Siegman to the Middle East Policy Council's 72nd conference on Capitol Hill about expanding the debate on U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine. Mr. Siegman is the president of the U.S. Middle East Project.
Thank you for your introduction. And I hope that your kind words could spare more readers of my propaganda. But let me try to live up to this reputation I have of being a controversial person and start by telling you that unlike the previous speaker, who I — whose writings I admire and respect, I am a Zionist, and I’m not opposed to a Jewish state. Indeed, I spent much of my early life supporting the creation of a Jewish state.
And my understanding of Zionism, however, was shaped by the founders, the early — the early founders of the Zionist movement, who would be appalled and are probably turning in their graves seeing what their historic experiment actually yielded. And I personally did not begin writing the kinds of things that you have — some of you have been reading until the early ’70s, when it became clear to me that these foundation principles of the early founders of the Zionist movement were being traduced and violated by successive Israeli governments and that some of the assumptions they made about the kind of society that would be shaped and that would develop in Israel in the state — in this Jewish state turned out to be false assumptions, not because the enterprise of developing a democratic state was inherently a false one, but because the people who came to power in Israel, who led its governments, tragically and sadly seemed to learn absolutely nothing from 2,000 years of Jewish experience and even less from the Jewish heritage which gives the name “Jewish” to the state that — and to the governments that they have formed. And that is when my attitude to — not to the idea of a Jewish state but to the policies of the government of that state changed completely.
Now, I don’t have — I actually prepared a four-page speech to read to you. I’m not going to do that for several reasons, but primarily because the fundamental outline of the situation has been presented to you by the two previous speakers, and there’s no need for me regurgitate that once again. And I’m far more interested in engaging audiences in discussion and questions and answers than at talking to them. So let me simply share with you some brief random thoughts, and then hopefully we can pick up the conversation in the discussion that will follow.
First and foremost, and this echoes what you have heard already, the peace process, the Middle East peace process, is probably the greatest scam in modern diplomatic history, and future historians are going to be absolutely in awe in how that was pulled off. And that is not a recent development. That has been the case from the very beginning. From the day after the 1967 war, there has not been a single Israeli government that has seriously considered the possibility of allowing a truly independent Palestinian state and sovereign Palestinian state, terms explicitly used by the road map that everyone, including the United States, Israel and the Palestinians signed on to, implicit in the Oslo Accords and promised repeatedly, even now, by Bibi Netanyahu in the famous Bar-Ilan speech. There was never any idea entertained by any Israeli government that the West Bank would not remain under complete control. Palestinians could call their self-government — whatever forms of autonomy that would permitted could be called — would be allowed to call it a state or an empire or whatever they wanted to call it, but it would be completely under Israeli control.
And this is not just a Likud idea. Dayan — some of you are old enough to remember who Moshe Dayan was; he was a legendary figure in Israel who was supposed to be the savior of the ’67 war — said immediately after the war and then again 10 years after the ’67 war, when he was asked, what will be the future, what will happen with the West Bank and with the Palestinians. And he said, our challenge — he said this publicly because at least in this respect he was an honest man. He said our challenge is to make sure that the situation today remains unchanged permanently. That’s our challenge.
And that’s, indeed, how various Israeli governments have dealt with it. And of course, the chosen instrument for establishing that permanent control over the territories has been the colonial project, the settlements project that incidentally was launched initially by a labor government — none other than Shimon Peres. And it was, of course, improved upon by Begin and Shamir and all those who followed him, and particularly by — I’m having one of those senior moments.
And consequently, if one asks: Why have — why has the peace process failed, why are we facing the situation we’re facing today? It’s simply because the policy of Israel has been from the outset not to permit a genuinely independent, viable and sovereign Palestinian state to ever come into being. And I believe they have succeeded in that.
I don’t think the two-state solution is on life support. I think it is history; it is gone. And the reason it is gone is because the settlement project has succeeded. And I wish I could believe that there’s a reason to draw optimism from a Tom Friedman editorial, which incidentally — and I admire his recent courage when he has come out and said things he hasn’t been willing to say before. But one of the reasons we do not have an honest discussion in this country about these obvious issues is because we always feel that even when we finally recognize the gross injustice and unfairness of the situation, we cannot state that truth without first embedding it in a critique of what Palestinians are doing.
And even in his latest column, Tom Friedman first says why the Palestinians, of course, are so inept and responsible for their own problems, and then because it’s unsafe even for someone of his popularity to say such things in a straight, unvarnished way. I will tell you briefly a — beyond that, the reason the American public has bought a particular narrative of the situation, which is totally dishonest and completely misrepresents the obvious facts. I mean, what could be more obvious that you cannot have a peace process even as you systematically steal the territory underneath the ground that the Palestinians are standing on and living on and discussing in terms of statehood? A six-year-old would understand that you can’t be serious if that’s what you’re doing.
And the reason the American public, it turns out from recent polls, are overwhelmingly supportive of the Israeli position — and only a tiny minority has any sympathy for the Palestinian position — is, first, because the American public generally is largely uninformed about foreign affairs and geography. I mean, ask most Americans to identify countries in Africa or Asia on a map; and, much less, to know what is really going on there. That’s part of the problem.
And that was brought home to me several years ago when I was at the Council on Foreign Relations and I was asked by a person whose name I will not disclose but who was and is a prominent TV anchor. He wanted to come by with two of his research assistants to discuss and be enlightened on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they came, they spent three hours in my office, and I learned shortly before our — as our conversation began that not one of them was aware that Israel was created as a result of a partition resolution by the United Nations. It came as complete news to them. So, is it surprising that the American public has bought a narrative that is totally unrelated to the facts and realities on the ground in that situation?
The other thing — and then I will essentially end my remarks. The hypocrisy that has marked the American approach — incidentally I said that one of the reasons there is no Palestinian state, and probably there won’t be a Palestinian state, at least in terms of the two-state formula — is because of Israeli policy, which was — but the other reason is, there was one possibility that this Israeli determination to prevent a Palestinian state from emerging might be stopped, and that was the one power that had the ability to do it — the United States.
And it was always assumed that at some point, because of America’s generous support to the state of Israel, because of its deep friendship to the state of Israel and because the state of Israel has no other such powerful support in the diplomatic world, militarily and so on, that at some point the U.S. would leverage the credits it accumulated over the years and turn to its friend and say, enough; there are certain lines you cannot cross, because if you do, then we can no longer invoke our common values as the foundation for this relationship because apartheid is not a common value.
So, the second reason there won’t be a two-state solution: because America, the White House and the Congress never had the political and moral courage to act on that expectation. And despite some of the encouraging phenomena mentioned by others, by my previous speakers, the fact that our president went to Israel and said to them — and competed with some of those from his administration who visited Israel before — competed with them in finding adjectives that adequately express our unconditional support and commitment to the state of Israel, and assuring Israel that only its own government can decide how to protect its security — no matter how it affects a neighboring country, American interest — but only they can decide. This is after an initial start in his first administration that raised hopes that finally America would act on what was expected of it.
So, the trajectory in terms of the one power that can make a difference because my dear friends on the left here, J Street — an organization I helped get started — and all the other wonderful people, they will not make the difference. They won’t change even the direction of the American Jewish community. Not in our lifetimes. The U.S. could have done it, but how can anyone expect the United States to turn now on a government that incidentally, despite what the media said, is even more reactionary in its composition than the previous government? Because some of the key people in the Likud have been thrown out, have been ditched. And the people who are supposed to be Tel Aviv secularists like Lapid, their closest political buddies are people like Bennett, the head of this new religious nationalist party, who has been given all of the key positions that relate to housing and settlement construction and finance and so on. They are the ones who are now calling the shots. And anyone who expects after the promises and repeated adulation expressed by our president in Jerusalem, the unbreakable nature of our relationship, of its eternal character and only you can decide what which — what security you need and how to act in achieving that security — that he will then turn around and say, no more? I wish that were true and I could share in that expectation. I don’t.
So, in the end — and that’s a whole other subject I will not open here; perhaps we can discuss it in the discussion that will follow. And it is up to the Palestinians themselves . And I believe that those people that you mentioned — Nabi Salih, with whom I’ve spent a great deal of time in the other villages. They have come around to the conviction that statehood is not the issue for them. For them, the issue is dignity and rights, and they don’t care whether it’s in a state that’s called Israel or a state that’s called Palestine. And if they act on that demand and that conviction in ways that I think one needs — we need to think about very seriously, perhaps in the end, something good may still come out.