Avineri: It is very important that Turkey and Israel cooperate when everything around us is sort of collapsingIt was a privilege for me to discuss Middle East issues, upcoming Israeli elections and Turkish-Israeli relations with Professor Shlomo Avineri during his visit to Istanbul. Mr. Avineri is a professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and also served as Director-General of Israel´s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first administration of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from 1975 to 1977
How do you see the future of the Middle East with a non-state actor like ISIS which is very different from any other non-state actor we know?
What we see today in the Levant; basically in Syria and Iraq, is that the old state system which was established after the World War I, after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire by the French and the British (we just call it Sykes-Picot but it is not just Sykes-Picot; it is Sykes-Picot and conferences like Sèvres, San Remo and Lausanne) is coming to an end. This system was an attempt to create nation states in the European Westphalian model in the Middle East. And it was successful. After the British and the French mandate came to an end, independent countries like Iraq and Syria continued to exist, because it was in the interest of mainly authoritarian rulers. But this state system which created new states and borders, created entities which have never existed before. There were kingdoms, empires in the history but not states. And certainly the borders were not decided by the will of the local population. People were not asked "would you like to be Iraq or Syria?” That was set up, again, by the British and the French. The very existence of these states was never an expression of the popular will of the population and it lasted as long as it can last. Once it was challenged with the Arab Spring, it became clear that this system is extremely fragile. In countries like Iraq after the American occupation, and Syria with the beginning of demonstrations, showed that people don't feel themselves anymore mainly as Iraqis or Syrians but identify themselves as Shia, Sunni, Kurdish...
What we are seeing now is something which can go to all kinds of directions and I am not sure in which direction it will go. I am not sure if ISIS is going to succeed. But the challenge of ISIS is a serious one and therefore I don't think we are going to see Iraq reestablished as a unitary nation state. Kurdistan Regional Government has some problems but basically it controls its territory, has international relations, and has an economic basis. It is not recognized as a state but it is a de facto state. I am not sure if Shia majority in Iraq and Sunni minority which used to be the hegemonic power can live together. Even if Assad remains in power, and it seems he is able to remain in power, he does not control all of Syria, just part of it. So we are going to have a new, chaotic and unstable system similar to what we have in Libya. Post-Kaddafi Libya was not able to establish a coherent government. Libya was not a result of Sykes-Picot but Italian imperialism created an entity Libya out of two Ottoman vilayets. Sudan is another example; it was established by the British, but South Sudan is independent now. So we see a total change of the state system, similar to what we have seen in the end of 90s in Central-Eastern Europe. The end of communism in the Soviet Union was also the end of Soviet Union as one country; it is now 15 countries. The end of Yugoslavia was not just a regime change; it is now 6-7 independent countries. It takes time, and it will take time until the situation in the Middle East is going to stabilize.
What about the Gulf countries? Are they more powerful than before? We hear a lot of Qatar…
Qatar is an interesting case and it is changing. It is a very small country, but a very rich country. For a couple of years the rulers of Qatar thought because of the richness they can dictate policies to the neighbors and they were involved in Syria and Gaza. The last few weeks showed us that there are limits to what Qatar can do. And now Qatar follows the lead of Saudi Arabia which tells us even if you have a lot of money and oil this is not enough. You have to have a territorial base, population base. It seems to me it will continue to behave like other Gulf countries which are very rich but they are not regional power. I don't want to be critical but Qatar had a little bit of megalomania or lack of proportion in the way it behaved and the Saudis have told them what their place is.
What do you think about Iran? Is it a real existential threat for Israel? I don't think that they will immediately bomb Israel once and if they get a nuclear weapon. But Netanyahu presents it as an existential threat...
For certainly this is not an existential threat. I am not sure what the Iranians are doing and nobody knows exactly what they do. But certainly they have been lying for years. They were lying to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and they were doing things not allowed according to the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) which they have signed. So it is a threat, it is a challenge. I am not sure if the West is addressing it the right way but it is not an existential threat to Israel with the very simple reason; Israel is a powerful country and the Iranians know it.
On the other hand, I think there is a positive development in Iran that one has to acknowledge. Iran with Ahmedinejad was a problem and it was not a challenge just to Israel, but also to Turkey, Saudi Arabia. The problem with Iran and Ahmedinejad was that you had a president who was using language which is not acceptable after World War II in the international community. He was talking about Israel to be wiped off the map, he was denying the Holocaust. The combination of a nuclear possibility with this sort of language was something which was very problematic and Netanyahu reacted and it should be reacted. I think that after Ahmedinejad’s statements some of the Western countries should have cut diplomatic relations with Iran and maybe kick Iran out of the UN.
There is a clear change with the new President Rouhani and Iran is re-entering the international system…
Now you have a different leader in Iran and this is not enough but again I think one has to listen carefully to what Iranian President Rouhani is saying. Iranian president is sending Rosh Hashanah greetings to the Jewish community and he is different from a president who speaks about the destruction of Israel. It changes not only in the tone but in the balance of the internal powers of Iranian politics. Iran is not a simple dictatorship. Iran is a very complex country. Within the Islamic establishment, there are different groups, there are elections. Rouhani won the election which was not totally democratic because not everybody could run for the elections only somebody who was 'kosher' in the Islamic point of view. But there were other candidates and there was a candidate supported by Ahmedinejad, his candidate lost and Rouhani won. Because of the change in language and approach, from confrontational to some sort of negotiating position, Iran has already achieved something; it is now part of the international system. I am not sure if the West is negotiating with Iran with enough power. But there is no doubt that the sanctions are hurting Iran and this may be responsible for some of the changes. One has to be very open minded about what is happening in Iran, it is not enough to demonize Iran or President Rouhani, there are changes in Iran and they are in the right direction.
Could there be an increase in tension on the border after Israel's air strike on northern Syria?
There is evidence that Iranian general was in the convoy which was hit. This suggests that Iran and Hezbollah as well, have been much more deeply involved in Syria, as never have seen before. And this is something that the international community should have taken into account.
About the upcoming early elections in Israel, what do you think will be the outcome? Will Netanyahu win again with the security card?
The elections came a total surprise to everybody in Israel, both in the government, in opposition and in general public. Half a year ago, everybody still thought that Netanyahu's government has two more years to go until the next elections. It was a complicated coalition but more or less it worked and it did not appear that there was an alternative party, to Likud government and to Netanyahu as prime minister.
This has now changed. I have no idea how the elections will come out but Netanyahu is now vulnerable. For the first time people are thinking seriously that there is a possibility of a change of government. On one hand the Netanyahu government is now perceived by many Israelis as having failed on a number of levels. It appeared that Netanyahu is not in control of his own coalition. He had to fire ministers in his own coalition. He basically lost a parliamentary majority. Situation in which you have the prime minister and former finance minister Yair Lapid going in two directions in every issue, it was not functioning and people realized it.
The Netanyahu government had a promise as a response to the social protests two and a half years ago. Netanyahu promised a lot but nothing was done. On top of that, the war in Gaza which was promoted by Netanyahu as a war to crush Hamas. There was a much more complex outcome. So Netanyahu promised something which he did not deliver. The international standing of Israel and the criticism coming from outside of Israel which is focusing on many aspects of Netanyahu’s government policies in the West Bank has also made Israelis more aware than before that this government is not really helping Israel on the international scene. On top of that you have a very surprised marriage between Labor Party under Herzog and small party Hatnua under Livni. And this created a totally different discourse in Israeli politics. For the first time people are saying that it is possible that there could be a change because it is a new alliance and it created a different political map. And this is reflected in public opinion polls. Public opinion polls are very unreliable but you see changes. Half a year ago in public opinion polls Labor Party under Herzog received less than 10 % of the votes. Now it is between 20 - 30%. I don’t take it as indicating what is going to happen but it indicates a change. The only thing that we can say with some certainty is that for the first time this elections are a real challenge for Netanyahu.
Can we say that Netanyahu made a bad choice by going to early elections or he did not have any other option?
Probably he had no other choice. Because his coalition was collapsing, he did not control the budget, he did not control his own minister of finance, he did not control his own party. So he made a choice which was unavoidable. But the consequences, that he is now challengeable, have to do with his weakness and his political failures. If he thought he will survive this crisis, he would not go to elections.
What do you think about the diplomatic steps of the Palestinians in the international arena?
The Palestinians are making a big mistake. One does not have to be a supporter of Netanyahu’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians to realize that at the end of the day the only way that the Palestinians can achieve a state on the basis of two state solution is by negotiations with Israel. They are not going to get a state if they go all diplomatic offensive and avoid negotiating with Israel. Israel in order to achieve peace with the Palestinians would have to make concessions. Netanyahu at least on the rhetorical level has made a concession by saying that he accepts two state solution which is not his historical position or the position of Likud. The Palestinians have not made any concessions, they are not ready to engage in serious negotiations and find every reason not to negotiate.
Their attempt to go to the UN, or even to ICC (International Criminal Court) damage Israel internationally but it is not going to give Palestinians a state. The Palestinians have illusions that they can do things without negotiating with Israel and without making some very far reaching concessions which they have to make just as Israel has to make. I don't think they want to make concessions. We had negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians under the Olmert's government. It was a much more moderate government. On issues like borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and security, the most moderate Israeli government and the most moderate Palestinian leadership Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas) did not reach an agreement. So I want to say in a very careful way, even after this elections there is going to be a government headed by Herzog and Livni, this does not mean that you are going to have immediately an agreement with the Palestinians. But if it is going to be a center left government in Israel, a lot of things will change. The atmosphere will change. It will be perhaps possible to go to negotiations rather than confrontations. Center left government certainly will put an end to new constructions in the settlements. Once Israeli stops the construction it is a very clear sign to the Palestinians, the EU, the US and I think also to Turkey about where Israel wants to go. We have to realize that the alternative to war is not immediately a final status solution. You can have all kind of partial agreements, technical agreements, unilateral steps, confidence building measures. All those are things which in the absence of a final agreement in Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo has stabilized the situation and avoided violence. It is not just war and peace, but all things in between.
What do you thing about the future of the Turkish-Israeli relations?
I hope like everybody in Israel and also in Turkey that the relations would be better. Israel and Turkey have a lot of things in common. We are countries with difficult problems but Turkey is a democracy as, Israel is a democracy, therefore Turkey and Israel are very different from all the other countries in the Middle East. We know that on Turkey-Israel issue both sides have made a lot of mistakes and I think both sides have realized that they have made mistakes. But one has to think strategically and not emotionally. And there have been too many emotions involved.
Do you think natural gas can solve the problem?
I have to admit I am not an expert on the gas issue. But I don’t think it can solve the problem. If the relations are going to be better, if you think in strategic terms and not in emotional terms, the gas issue can help link the interests of both countries. If the atmosphere is poisoned, you can’t overcome it by gas. But a gas deal in the long run suggests again that Turkey and Israel have common interests that go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It is very important that Turkey and Israel cooperate in the architecture of the Middle East especially when everything around us is sort of collapsing.