Gil Hoffman is the chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post. I met him in Cincinnati, where he was the Jewish Community Relations Council guest speaker on recent developments in the Middle East. What follows is an abridged synopsis of our interview(4/5/2011) with full audio transcript.
Q: Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama all agree in theory on the need for peace through a two-state solution. Why is there currently no progress on this issue?
A: America mishandled the peace process. Obama thought that pressure on Israel with regards to settlements, including those settlement that would remain as part of Israel under proposed agreements, would make the Palestinians more willing to make concessions. This policy backfired by creating a confrontation with Israel and making Palestinian demands less conciliatory, since Abbas could not be seen as demanding less than the US. Even though America has backed down from its demands, the Palestinians never did. The other reason Palestinians do not come to the negotiating table is that the international community gave indications that Palestinian statehood may be recognized at the UN General Assembly even without a negotiating process toward peace.
Q: What will restart the peace process?
A: The world must make clear to the Palestinians that the only way to achieving statehood is at the negotiating table and that Netanyahu is willing to go a lot farther than they may think if given the opportunity. The Palestinian Authority may need another election, currently schedule for September, before progress can be made.
Q: Is progress at the negotiation table possible while Israel’s settlement policies continue?
A: Settlements are not the issue. Israel froze construction for 10 months with little effect on Palestinian willingness to negotiate. Negotiations are necessary to determine boundaries. At that point it will be clear where each party can build housing. Israel and the Palestinians were negotiating since 1993. Only since settlements were made the primary issue by Obama did Palestinians start using it as a pretext not to negotiate.
Q: The peace process is predicated on a “land for peace” formula. If Abbas in the West Bank cannot guarantee peace and Hamas will not guarantee peace from Gaza, what is Israel’s incentive to consider further land concessions?
A: Netanyahu made clear that one of the conditions for statehood is that the area would be demilitarized under the supervision of the international community and that Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state to denote a complete end of the conflict. The arrangement necessitates a leader on the Palestinian side that could enforce this. Currently in Gaza this is not the case. In the West Bank it’s debatable.
Q: What can you tell us about Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman?
A: I cannot share personal opinions on the issue since I cover internal Israeli politics and must remain objective. As leader of the second largest party in the coalition Lieberman chose the Foreign Ministry portfolio. He has made clear that Israel can make concessions only to a genuine partner on the other side, which he believes Abu Mazen (Abbas) is not. Israel’s last election was during a war which helped propel Lieberman’s popularity. Currently his influence is “negligible.” He is not involved with the negotiations or the US-Israel relationship, instead focusing on improving Israel’s relationship with Eastern Europe, Africa, and South America.
Q: The removal of Mubarak from power in Egypt has allowed all segments of Egyptian society, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to participate in the formation of a new government. What is likely to be the nature of the new Egyptian government and how will this affect Egypt’s relations with Israel?
A: Israelis are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood will win Egypt’s parliamentary elections, allowing them to reorient policy away from the West and toward Iran. Israel now sees the potential to be invaded from all sides at the same time, a situation it did not have to deal with for the last 30 years. And yet, if Egyptians elect a moderate leadership, it will be better for both countries.
Q: What do you make of Egypt allowing two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, which hasn’t happened since 1979, and the foreign minister reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iran? Do these actions signal a reorientation of Egyptian priorities vis-a-vis the West?
A: “This is a transitional period. Egypt is led by a temporary government, and I wouldn’t look too closely at what they’re doing right now.”
Q: Is there a diplomatic and/or economic solution to Iran’s nuclear development?
A: The world has tried several approaches thus far. The political approach was hindered by Iran’s undemocratic elections. The diplomatic approach of reaching out to Iran’s dictators at the expense of their people did not bear fruit. Now the world is in the middle of an economic approach with sanctions. It is possible it could work if the sanctions are tightened, better enforced, and come with a credible military threat. If Iran’s leaders are told that what’s happening in Lybia—air campaign without boots on the ground—can happen in Iran, the economic approach may work and there will not be a need for military action.
Q: Does US action in Libya stretch America’s military even further, thereby undermining the credibility of a military option against Iran?
A: Never underestimate the power of the United States. They led the campaign against Libya for two weeks and handed responsibility off to NATO. American now has more strength. Also, they are well positioned on the Persian Gulf.
Q: How will the action in Libya affect Israel?
A: Libya and Israel are unrelated matters. There is a concern in Israel that American resources that should be in reserve to counterbalance Iran are being used in Libya, there is enough American power to go around.
Q: A column published in The Jerusalem Post put forward the theory that Europe will aim to please the Arab street by putting pressure on Israel as a way for diverting anger from the Arab street for attacks on Libya.
A: Europe will pressure Israel no matter what. What’s happening in Libya is unrelated to Israel and largely a waste of resources by the West.
Q: What makes European pressure on Israel inevitable?
A: Europe has not gone through a 9/11 attack and fails to realize that there is a battle between Islamic fundamentalism and the West. There is an impatience with making peace without understanding the realities undermining this goal. Israel has to deal with these realities on a daily basis in order to protect its citizens.
Full Audio: Gil Hoffman of The Jerusalem Post (4/5/2011)
Audio was edited due to phone interruptions, but contains full responses)