November 13, 2006, 9:00 am - August 13, 2020, 7:14 am


1761 N Street NW
Washington, 20036 (Map)

The panel discussion "Israel's Evolving Foreign Policy" took place at the 60th annual conference in November, 2006.

Israel's Evolving Foreign Policy



Geoffry Aronson, Daniel Levy, Yoram Peri, Daniel Seidmann, Ian Lustick

Ian Lustick, Moderator

This is really a fantastic opportunity for us all. This is a terrific panel on a topic that I'm sure all of us care a great deal about. I'm going to save all the time we have from elaborate introductions and justifications and get right to the panelists. Each panelist will have ten minutes. That will make time for a vigorous question and answer period afterward.

Our first speaker is Yoram Peri. Yoram is co-founder and current president of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society. He's professor of political sociology and communication in the Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University. Yoram was a former political advisor to late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former editor-in-chief of the Israeli daily Davar. He's also a journalist and a political commentator.

First Panelist
Yoram Peri:

Thank you, Ian. I appreciate the effort that all of you made to stay here for the last panel. So many people at the last panel, that's wonderful. I promise to give back in return the best that I can.

Many years ago, after the war of 1973, when Kissinger had his shuttle diplomacy, he said after realizing how the Israelis operate, "Israel doesn't have foreign policy. The foreign policy of Israel is the extension of interior policy." Twenty years earlier, Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel, said that the Israeli foreign policy has only one purpose: to serve Israel's defense policy. In fact he created the foreign policy system in Israel according to these ideas. The foreign minister is the third or fourth or fifth position in the cabinet. The defense minister is much more important. The prime minister usually has the position of the defense minister as well. The foreign ministry as such is very weak. Its influence on foreign policy is marginal. For example, relations between Israel and the US are done by the prime minister and the major issues are dealt with not in the foreign ministry.

So when we talk about Israeli foreign policy, we have to see the major characteristics of Israeli society and the state of Israel. Namely, that it is a unique case of a democracy that has been since inception under prolonged war – not only from 1948 but even before that. Every decade we have a full-fledged war and between wars we have other sorts of hostilities. So war is really the major factor that shapes Israeli foreign policy. Therefore it is not only the war or security that affects Israel's foreign policy but the institutions, the groups, the bodies, the organizations that deal with Israel's defense that affect Israel's foreign policy. First and foremost is the military, of course.

In spite of that, very little is known by the international community about the political role of the military in Israel's foreign policy. I'm sure the journalists who sit here can mention the names of Israeli politicians, parties. Fewer of them will be able to mention the names of more than one or two generals in the present military or previous ones. There is a lacuna there of a very important ingredient in that picture that should be analyzed.

This is what I tried to do in the book I published a few weeks before the war in Lebanon, "Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israel's Policy," which I began to work on in 2000. The reason I did it was that I was surprised to see something that most Israelis did not know then, that it was the military who advocated first, before others, before the civilians, to start the peace process with Syria, the Palestinians and Jordan. It was the military that initiated the process and became a major partner in this process. When Rabin became prime minister, the military was the major tool that Rabin used to enhance this process. So it was a surprise. Here was the military – usually the image of the military is of being less for peace than for war – not only supporting but initiating the movement.

So I wanted to study – I went deeply into it. During the time I did that, the second intifada started. The military changed its position from one pole to the other pole, from pursuing the peace process to advocating – and not only advocating but conducting – very severe and harsh measures against the Palestinians.

So I looked at both cases. The common denominator was that in both cases, whether it was for peace or for war or harsh measures against the enemy – the military went beyond what is perceived to be the role of the military. So I had to analyze the position of the military. I realized that the traditional perception of the instrumentalist model – namely that the military is subordinate to the politicians and executes the policies of the politicians – is the wrong perception. What we have is a different model. We have a partnership between politicians and generals. Only if you understand the partnership you can see the tools that the military is using to enhance its policies.

What is fascinating in the Israeli case is that the military accepts the superior position of the government. It will never do things that the government is not willing for them to do. They accept the formal position of the government. But they influence the government to such a degree that the formal relations are less important and what is more important is to see the struggle for power and the different give and take and pressure that is used, etc.

The major reason for that is the weakness of the Israeli civilian arm in this structure. What happened in the war in Lebanon this summer is the best example. Unfortunately the book was published two weeks before the war, but some people said I initiated the war to prove my case. I didn't do that, believe me. But it definitely shows.

The war was decided after three hours of deliberation in the cabinet. Could you imagine? A three-hour deliberation in the cabinet, the war started? It started only because you had very weak politicians, a prime minister and defense minister, who had no experience in foreign affairs and defense issues, and a very tough chief of staff who put forward a position without – even he didn't realize that he was starting a war. It took him about five or six days before he realized that this is a war. One simple example is the fact that he didn't conduct the war from the war office but from his usual office, because he didn't think it was a war. This is only one illustration of a much deeper problem. If a general looks at such an operation without seeing the broad horizons, the broad perspective, this is what happens.

The major argument is that the weakness of civilian institutions – for example, Israel does not have really a national security council. There is an organization called the National Security Council but it doesn't serve in the same way that yours does. The very many other bodies or mechanisms of civilian control are very weak. Therefore you have a strong military and a weak political leadership.

The luck is that the military is not always identified with militarism, with the love of war. Therefore I started with the story about the peace process. The military could do either this or that, but the fact that it's so strong is a major weakness in Israeli democratic system.

I'll finish with one word, and that is to compare what you have today – not only today, since the war in Iraq and before that – and what we have in Israel. It's fascinating to see the two cases. They're very similar in the fact that civil-military relations are in crisis, and particularly political-military relations are in crisis. But while in the United States it was a very strong secretary who moved into the military much against their own will – and now they're very happy about developments – in Israel the opposite occurred. A very weak political arm created a vacuum where the military could get in and have a much stronger influence. But beyond that, we'll leave it to questions later on.

Ian Lustick: Our next speaker is Geoffrey Aronson. Geoff is the director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, where he is also the editor of the Foundation's bimonthly "Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories," a long-dependable source of information on that sensitive topic. He's also a journalist and historian who's published widely on international affairs.

Second Panelist
Geoffrey Aronson:

Thank you very much. Thanks for having me here. Yoram mentioned that the Israeli cabinet devoted three hours to a discussion and then embarked on a war. I'll take ten minutes, after which I assume everyone will applaud the prospects of peace.

I'd like to pick up in a sense where Yoram left off, looking at the question of how the current situation in Israel, which is characterized by a real political vacuum, affects Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The fact that this subject is not on the top of the agenda was symbolized very clearly in our own city in these last days, which is now hosting the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In the reports I've read of the conversations that he's held with Bush Administration officials, the focus has been on the threat from afar – i.e., Iran ostensibly – at the expense of a focus on issues of what I would argue are of much greater consequence closer to home, which is Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

To suggest however that there's a vacuum, which itself is a product of the fact that the weakening of Prime Minister Olmert as a consequence of the war in Lebanon, which has resulted in part in his repudiation of an idea for further evacuation of settlements in the West Bank, obscures more than it clarifies. There is a dynamic at work in Israeli policy in the West Bank and also in the Gaza Strip that precedes and can only be influenced by a determined effort at the top of Israel's political establishment to change direction that is based on decades of implementation. In other words, since the occupation itself began in June 1967.

What are the fundamental elements of this dynamic that if one sees them suggest a certain policy? I'll divide these into two or three. One relates to settlers and settlements, relating to territory. The second relates to the army and security.

Insofar as settlers, settlements and territory are concerned, we see a dynamic at play which we've witnessed certainly since – without any real interruption – since the occupation really commenced in the early 1970s. This is a dynamic of Israeli settlement, settlement expansion, and the protection above all of the interests of settlers insofar as they may contradict or challenge those interests of the Palestinian community.

This dynamic can be changed, I'll state that at the outset. For example, when the idea of Prime Minister Olmert's policy for what he called convergence on the West Bank was in its first flowering, in the spring earlier this year, there was a very interesting article that appeared in Ha'aretz which noted that the Israeli army had determined that not one settlement in the West Bank was required in order to secure Israel's security interests. This was a tremendous change in the thinking historically of the IDF. Again, it suggested a rethinking of in some respects fundamental premises in the wake of a decision or a preference on the part of the prime minister to suggest an alternative way of doing things.

Having said that, in the intervening months, which resulted in the progressive weakening of this idea to the point where today there's no operative possibility of any withdrawal by Israel from settlements and certainly in the near term, we've seen a resurgence of confidence in the settler community that they haven't felt in many years. This expresses itself in bureaucratic terms, in the sense that settlement continues to expand. I won't bore you with any of the details but suffice it to say that the population of settlements in the West Bank grows at a rate two and three times the rate in Israel proper. This is true of established settlements and also a whole new category of what I will argue are permanent settlements, which we call settlement outposts, which have sprung up and numbering now about a hundred in the past decade, from 1996 basically until 2004 or so. There are a hundred of these new locations on the ground which all efforts and intentions, whether on the part of the Roadmap or on the part of Israeli prime ministers, whether it be Sharon or Olmert, all their efforts to appreciatively reduce these numbers have come to naught.

Combined with these territorial expansions is an overall intention to separate these areas from those parts of the West Bank inhabited by Palestinians. These efforts at separation are increasingly taking a physical character – i.e., physical fences that are being built around the expanded perimeters of these settlements, which of course in that process end up taking Palestinian lands in many cases. But generally speaking, the extent to which settlers expand subsequently denies Palestinians access to these territories and the resources within them.

The other arena for physical territorial division is the system of roads. We don't pay too much attention here to the strategic character of roads and transport networks. Then again, in our homes and in our lives there's no contest except for people who don't want the traffic in their backyard. But in the West Bank certainly, roads have a strategic function. They link, in the case of Israel and the settlements, they establish territorial links between these satellite outposts and the mother country. They establish links between the settlements themselves and in so doing compromise the capacity of Palestinians to make use of their own alternative linkages or even these new roads themselves. As we proceed to an era increasingly characterized by division, we have the creation of two separate and distinct road networks: a new one that's being used by settlers and a far less capable one that's far more circuitous, used by Palestinians.

The next and very important aspect of physical division is the separation barrier, which most of you are familiar with, which now has survived most of the legal challenges to it and when it's completed will essentially alienate about 10 percent of the West Bank from the West Bank itself, and compromise the ability of Palestinian landowners and farmers to access areas west of this barrier.

The second important aspect of the dynamic that's now at play in the absence of any real political oversight is the whole question of security. Each of these elements I've described is a subset of this overall security framework, which again is based on dividing Israeli settlers physically from Palestinians. It's based on awarding primacy to the interests of settlers at the expense of Palestinians. This is exemplified in two major ways.

One is the issue of closure, the process by which Israel creates obstacles to Palestinian movement in, around and through the West Bank. So for example, obstacles to movement in the West Bank have increased to 533. There are 533 obstacles according to the latest UN report. This represents an increase of 42 percent over the baseline figure of August 2005. So we can see that the dynamic is for further constraints on Palestinian movement.

Complementing this is a similar constraint on the ability of Palestinian security services to function. In the wake of Israel's Defensive Shield operation in April 2002, Israel essentially jettisoned one of the principal aims of the Oslo era, which was a collaborative partnership with Palestinian security services. Now the IDF moves everywhere at will throughout the West Bank and this certainly undermines the ability of Palestinian security services to create a function for themselves.

This can only get worse in the absence—these dynamics can only continue to expand and to consolidate their power—in the absence of a political program which seeks either to amend or challenge them. There was the prospect for some degree of this sort of change in the early months of the Olmert administration. However in the aftermath of the war in Lebanon, it seems that the prospects for such a change are not in the cards. Thank you very much.

Ian Lustick: Our next speaker is Daniel Levy. Daniel is a senior fellow and director of the New America Foundation's Century Foundation Middle East Initiative. He was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative and directed policy planning and international affairs at the Geneva Campaign Headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Third Panelist
Daniel Levy:

I'd like to thank Ian for that introduction and thank the Middle East Institute for putting this together. I also enjoy being with such a set of lovely co-panelists and I'd really like to thank Ellie and Moran who work with me. You'll see there's a few statistics I'm going to throw at you and that's all their doing.

I thought I'd approach this in the following way. There's about to be a changing of the guard at the Israeli embassy here in Washington, a new ambassador is about to enter. The Israeli prime minister is of course in the United States, has now left Washington for Los Angeles. I thought I'd share with you an imaginary note, from an imaginary Israeli ambassador ending a tour of duty here to an Israeli prime minister. I hope it's not an imaginary note. I hope such a note has been sent and exists somewhere in the files. But the one I'm going to share with you is the product of my imagination. It would go something like this. It's a discreet note, so I think it will be directly from the ambassador to the prime minister, and the foreign minister might get the hump on this one.

"Mr. Prime Minister: I congratulate you on another fantastically successful visit to Washington. You hit all the right notes again. Here at the embassy we were amazed that you actually managed to praise the president for his conduct in the Iraq war and call it a stabilizing force in the Middle East while keeping a straight face. You really deserve credit for that one.

"Of course, you said what I say on endless occasions. The relationship has never been closer; we've never had such a great friend in the White House. These are things I find myself saying on occasions too numerous to remember. But you know, there's something nagging at me. Occasionally someone puts up their hand in one of these gatherings – quite often someone from the Jewish community – and says, Mr. Ambassador, we cherish the relationship; we cherish the closeness in business, in trade, in commerce, in culture, in defense, in sharing values. And yet, during the last six years of this administration there have been more Israeli civilian casualties than in any previous time. Israel has not known one day of quiet. There has been no hope let alone any peace process. Has this been good for Israel?

"Of course I shrug it off and I give the standard expected answer. But it keeps me awake at night more and more often. So I'm going to give you the counter-take on the relationship that we have with our close and dear ally, one that we don't normally of course share with each other yet one that in these times I think is more important than ever for me to convey to you. I'll blitz you with some numbers and some polls just to get us rolling and I think you'll see where I'm going with this, Mr. Prime Minister.

"In one of the latest Pew Global Attitudes Surveys around the world, it came out that of the five countries that are the closest Muslim allies of the US in many ways – Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey – in not one of them was there more than a 30 percent favorable opinion towards the United States. In all of them there was a majority who saw the Iranian acquisition – and of course these countries are not Shi'a countries – as something positive rather than something negative.

"Inside the US itself, the percentage of Americans who agree with the statement that the US – this was a separate Pew survey – that the US should mind its own business internationally has risen in just three years from 30 percent to 42 percent. 42 percent of the American public agree with the sentence that the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get on as best they can. When Americans were asked by the Progress on International Policy Attitudes pollsters whether they thought the Bush Administration has been conducting US foreign policy in a way that has on balance increased or decreased the likelihood of terrorist attacks, 60 percent of Americans thought the likelihood had been increased and 78 percent of Americans thought that goodwill toward the US in the world had decreased.

"A poll by the Zogby pollsters recently asked whether people thought that the work of the Israel lobby on Congress has been a key factor for the Bush Administration going to war in Iraq and now confronting Iran. The split was 39/40. In the Atlantic Monthly only last month, foreign policy experts were asked, how would you describe US support for Israel under the Bush Administration? 62 percent said it was too strong.

"When we survey the Jewish community, Steven Cohen's polling shows that the number of American Jews continues to decline who see Israel as being an important part of them being Jewish and 37 percent were often disturbed by Israel's policies and actions, while another 30 percent were not sure. In Israel, by the way – and I'm sure you're aware of this, Mr. Prime Minister – one in four Israelis think that Bush has made the world safer but 36 percent think he has added to the risk of international conflict.

"What does all this mean? I could continue to bombard you with numbers, and you might want to check the Pew website. But what does all this mean? There are three conclusions that I'd like to draw to your attention.

"The first is America's standing in the world and in the region. To my mind, there was no more symbolic demonstration of this than last Tuesday. At the same time that the American public said that a war that is costing taxpayers $6,000 a day and, according to estimates Nicholas Kristof published, an overall estimate of $2 trillion – sums that could easily cover the Social Security and health care crisis – decided that a change in direction was needed. On the very same day, China was hosting 48 out of the 53 African nations, including 40 African heads of state. Could there be any more symbolic occasion in terms of America's standing in the world today? China and Russia sit together with the Central Asian states in the Shanghai Cooperation Council. President Putin has involved himself again in the Middle East and has made the first presidential Russian visit since the changing of the guard at the end of the Soviet Union and in fact the first since 1970.

"American foreign policy experts – if one reads Richard Haass' recent piece, Ed Djerejian's piece in this month's Foreign Affairs, or even Jim Wolfensohn, who says that America may lose interest in Israel – and in parentheses, Mr. Prime Minister, if we're looking for someone to suggest to the Americans as an envoy, we could do a lot worse than suggest Mr. Wolfensohn.

"So the first thing I draw to your attention is America's standing in the region and the world. But it's not too late. America's standing is still sufficient that we can encourage the Americans to play a different role in the region and they will be listened to.

"The second, and I'll give it to you telegraphically, Mr. Prime Minister, is US domestic politics. Sure, Israel is still that untouchable item. Yet there sometimes appears a shrillness in the voice of our supporters that may suggest a lack of belief in the conviction of their own arguments. Some have even suggested that they stifle debate, which can't be good for any of us. There are suggestions that there may be a turn to isolationism – those numbers I shared with you could bear that out. There's something – you may not be familiar with this – called a net roots constituency now in the Democratic Party. There are progressive foreign policy people who feel uncomfortable with the Middle East policy. The American Jewish community maintained and even strengthened its support for the Democrats despite efforts on the other party to claim that the pro-Israel policy should be the single issue that they vote according to. They apparently didn't buy that. Conflating our interests with the neocons' ideological agenda has apparently done us a disservice.

"There are two relationships here in the US between Americans and Israelis: one between the evangelical far right and the Israeli nationalist right, another between the neocons and the old-school Likudniks. Neither of those agendas, Prime Minister Olmert, would seem to serve you. I suggest that you build a new constituency with moderate voices, especially among the Jewish community. You can try that in your LA speech in the next day.

"The third thing is the realities in the region. Extremists are on the rise. Moderates have been emaciated and in many ways silenced. Just listen to the King of Jordan whenever he speaks on this subject.

"What does this mean? Well, it's not business as usual. The choices do seem to be binary. If we don't return to peacemaking, it seems we will go to war. So I would close with this thought. Often people say to the Americans: sit down in quiet, in a closed room, and have a serious heart-to-heart with the Israelis. Maybe, Mr. Prime Minister, it's time for us to reverse that equation; to sit down in a room and tell some home truths from the Middle East to the Americans, things that will serve Israel's interest and America's interest – to reengage in conflict resolution. There are many inside your own establishment and community in Israel who believe in this. If you're not sure who they are, just ask your wife, Eliza – she knows virtually all of them."

Ian Lustick: Our next speaker is Danny Seidemann, who's a practicing attorney in Jerusalem specializing in those issues that impact relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Seidemann is founder and consultant to Ir Amim, City of Peoples or City of Nations – it's an Israeli NGO dedicated to a stable, equitable and sustainable Jerusalem for both national collectivities.

Fourth Panelist
Danny Seidemann:

Thank you, Ian. There's a classic Israeli comedy routine that cites an evening of songs on clinical depression. I would like to thank the Middle East Institute for organizing this. We're feeling better already.

I'm afraid I will continue to contribute to that. I do Jerusalem, as my three young daughters constantly remind me; apparently it's the only thing I know how to do. I'd like to dwell very telegraphically on one non-event and two trends that are taking place that are pretty much under the radar there in the city of Jerusalem.

First, let's begin with a non-event. Had I appeared here four months ago, my address would be very different. It was very clear that Prime Minister Olmert was heading places where apparently Sharon would not have gone. If he was talking about realignment in the West Bank, he was going to apply that in Jerusalem as well. He was writing off and drawing the maps on exposing of the extreme neighborhoods in Jerusalem from Beit Hanina in the north to Sar Bahir in the south, drastically reducing the number of Palestinians within the city. That's not going to take place and I doubted all along whether it would. The obstacles were just too large.

But to a certain extent, it doesn't really matter. Cognitively, in the minds of most Israelis, Jerusalem has been redivided. In a subterranean mechanism that I certainly don't understand, 49 percent of Israelis today are in favor of a redivision of the city; 64 percent in the context of final status. That's new. Empirically, the way Israelis treat much of East Jerusalem, whether in positions of authority or not, East Jerusalem – for the most part – has already been written off.

The downside of this, and it's a very big one, is that the conflict is being reduced to its volcanic core, namely and ironically almost to the borders identical to the Jordanian municipal boundaries pre-1967 – namely the Old City, the historic visual basin surrounding the Old City, and perhaps the downtown area of Jerusalem. We'll return to this theme of the reduction of Jerusalem to its volcanic core shortly. But it's very interesting that on these issues, events that don't take place often have as much impact as events that do. I think this is one of them.

The second issue I want to mention in passing – the wall, of course, has received a lot of attention worldwide and provides great visuals, but public opinion in a post-9/11 world has rather short attention spans. If anybody lives under the illusion that the wall is an issue of the past, please think again. Until now the wall has made people's lives in Jerusalem inconvenient, miserable, impossible, etc., but there have been ways around it. There was always a way over, under, around and through the wall. It was a bit like a sieve. In the upcoming weeks, months – but not many months – the wall will become a hermetical seal between Jerusalem and the West Bank, with between 200,000 and 250,000 Palestinians who are not Israelis of the Islamic persuasion living on the Jerusalem side of the wall. This is clearly one of the most radical changes of the last century in Jerusalem. It is the first time since 1535 that Jerusalem is being walled in.

It cuts against the grain of what I described earlier. A quarter of a million Palestinians, who Israelis do not view as Israelis, they themselves do not view themselves as Israelis, are also now being prohibited from going to Area A and Area B of the Palestinian Authority. Namely, it has been illegal on paper all along for a Palestinian to go to Ramallah from East Jerusalem. It's now being enforced more and more. This is the most radical change in Jerusalem since 1967. Jerusalem has been quite stable during this intifada, among else because the Palestinians have looked to the north and the south as to how miserable their lives could be were they living in Ramallah and Bethlehem, rather than looking west. We are changing in Israel their terms of reference. They'll be looking west. This is not forebode a non-violent state of equilibrium in the city of Jerusalem.

However superficial that analysis was, I want to move on to the most important point. During the last two and a half years, settlement activity and other activity in the historic basin surrounding the Old City and the Old City itself has resumed after a quiet period of almost a decade. During that period, every national, religious, historic and archaeological site available to the Israeli government has been literally turned over lock, stock and barrel to the extreme settler organizations, El'ad primarily but also Ateret Cohanim. These organizations have a multi-tiered ideology: displacement of Palestinians from their homes, and the settlers have moved into new areas, including the Mount of Olives; voluntary detonators of any political process; messianic aspirations on the Temple Mount. Last August the Israeli government allocated 60 million shekel a year for eight years to preserve the historic character of the Old City, something that has turned into something equivalent to a slush fund for the settlers. Allow me to give you one example.

There is an ancient quarry under the Damascus Gate that extends 280 yards under the Old City, approaching the mosques, the Temple Mount. The settlers have a house at the end of this quarry on top. Barely 90 yards away is the exit from the Hazmonean tunnel. The settlers are pressing very hard to create an underground thoroughfare for settlers skirting Haram al-Sharif, from Damascus Gate all the way through Dung Gate.

I've just completed a study with a Palestinian colleague on what stabilizes and destabilizes Jerusalem over the last century. Jerusalem has a reputation for being nitroglycerin and to a certain extent I make a living off of that reputation. It's utter nonsense. Jerusalem is not set off by random bumps in the road. It is set off by a finite number of identifiable subjects. These subjects are the carburetor effect – the mixing of religion and nationalism in sacred and secular space; identifiable real and perceived threats. Jerusalem ain't no nitroglycerin; it's a small atomic device. I can guarantee that by creating physical embodiments that will create real or perceived threats in this area is quite stark indeed in its implications.

The challenge of Jerusalem is how to create circumstances where three mutually incompatible religious narratives and two mutually incompatible national narratives can cohabit the same secular and religious space. We're talking about two square miles. Jerusalem has created mechanisms which allow for this to take place in relative stability. But the eruptions are also periodic.

If this trend is to continue, it goes far beyond the city of Jerusalem. The user interface between Islam, Christianity and Judaism is not exactly user-friendly at the moment. This is precisely the kind of thing that can turn Jerusalem into a hemorrhaging border in which these mutually incompatible narratives have it out.

Put bluntly, I am less concerned about the implications of this for violence in the city of Jerusalem – we know how to handle these things – than I am for the implications on home security in this town if the current trends continue. To turn Jerusalem into the quintessential arena of Jewish fundamentalism at a time when Hamas is on the ascendancy in Jerusalem and Islamic fundamentalism in Jerusalem, and Al Qaeda is focusing on Jerusalem, and where this is a playground for certain elements of the evangelical Christian right hoping to see Armageddon and the second coming – hopefully in that order – does not augur well.

There are complicated problems that have simple solutions and this has one. It need not predispose, prejudge or engage in the major issues of final status. Take the matches away from the pyromaniacs. Restore these sites to responsible governmental hands – I know I need not say in this town that responsible governmental is often an oxymoron, but in comparison to the alternative, I know what I'm talking about. Don't waive your claims, don't waive your dreams, don't waive your control – but return it to the professionals.

Preventive medicine costs nothing. It costs nothing in terms of domestic American politics. It costs nothing in terms of Israeli politics. Trauma room medicine is exorbitant in its cost and the mortality rate is high. I'm here in town to try to convince people that you'll be back in Jerusalem; the question is, is it before the eruption that can be avoided or after it's too late? Thank you.

Ian Lustick: I've actually been asked to do double duty as moderator but I'm also speaking. I won't introduce myself, because you can read about me in the program, except to say I teach at the University of Pennsylvania and I have written this book, Trapped in the War on Terror.

When Zionism started out, it knew it had a problem. It needed peace in the long run to survive and was facing a region filled with people who were resisting Zionism for the same reasons that the Zionists, the Jews, would have resisted anyone coming into their land. That was very honestly said by Jabotinsky in his famous article on the Iron Wall in the 1920s – any normal people would try to stop by all means alien invaders from coming into their country.

The problem was, if you're faced with that, how do you get peace eventually? The brilliant solution of the Zionist movement was a two-stage strategy of the pedagogical use of force. First you use force repeatedly to prove that the Zionist creation of Israel would not be able to be destroyed – that it was, like it or not, a permanent fact of the Middle East. Once that was accomplished you would split the Arabs, split the Palestinians. Some of them would never give up but some would become moderate and would be accepting of half a loaf. At that point in the strategy of the Iron Wall, you move toward compromise and negotiation. The Arabs will ultimately therefore make peace and Israel will be able to survive.

What happened was the first stage worked. By 1948, certainly by 1967, a critical mass in the Arab world and increasingly among the Palestinians were willing to say: okay, we don't like it, we don't say it's legitimate, but we're willing to accept half a loaf and accept that there will be some Jewish state in the Middle East. But Israel over the last several decades – there's been a prolonged delay in the movement to the willingness to compromise. In fact within the Iron Wall, inside of Israel, the natural tendency was not to reduce demands but to expand them, because with victory after victory it looked like expanding one's ideological demands was costless.

The question is now raising itself whether this prolonged delay has pushed Israel and the Muslim Middle East beyond the assumptions of this Iron Wall strategy entirely. Let's look at Israel first and then the Muslim Middle East.

We've heard already about the security barrier, the wall. That is in essence walling off Israel from the Middle East. We don't only have to see it as walling in the Palestinians – it is a wall walling off Israel, as if the country really doesn't want to be a part of the Middle East, can't bear to think of itself in the Middle East, would rather be Mediterranean or European and is looking that way. Think about the recent extravagantly celebrated policy of unilateralism. How many articles and books did we see before the Lebanon war but after the withdrawal from Gaza – Israel has finally hit on the right strategy. Since there's no partner, use its power to do things unilaterally. That again is an image of giving up the use of force as a pedagogical device to convince the Middle Easterners of anything. You just use force. Not like in the Lebanon war, the first one, where the strategy was spang the [phonetic: gomarnu]: you hit them and it's finished. Now it's just spang, there's no [phonetic: gomarnu]. There's no finish.

The Lebanon war itself an example of this abandonment of the Iron Wall strategy – there was no real thought of we are hitting Lebanon so that it will contribute to a peace process or create moderation in some way or even actually create the effect of the conviction by Arabs that Israel is indestructible. Quite the opposite was the effect.

The hysteria in Israel about the Iranian nuclear capacity. Not thinking how could the Middle East be adjusted so that could be integrated, the Iranian capacity – simply trying to invoke an American military response or an Israeli-American covert political response to neutralize the threat, without thinking how it will contribute to a long-run outcome.

In other words, if you wanted to summarize what Israelis are going toward – and I account in this trends toward Jewish emigration, trends toward 100,000 Israelis getting EU passports, finding a way out of the country just in case – that what you have is not the old idea of habotz halivanoni – the Lebanese mud from which we must avoid going there – it's really habotz hamizrach tichoni, the Middle Eastern mud – no matter how much you thrash around there, it just doesn't work. That image is undercutting the commitment of Zionism to the Iron Wall, to using force in any way that could push toward peace.

It's not happening in a vacuum, because on the Muslim side, the Arab side, there's a similar process of polarization, of an abandonment of the idea that Israel is a country that could ever be digested in the Middle East. That is after decades of televised brutality in the territories, after the Lebanon war, the cluster bombs; after the identification in Middle Eastern minds of Israel with the United States in the Iraq War, with the United States and Israel getting manacled together in the Middle Eastern imagination. You still have elites in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt willing to make peace of some sorts that could help them out. It's not clear that the masses, the Islamist movements or even the intellectual elites in the Muslim Middle East are ready for that anymore, as opposed to just saying Israel is a country like other European fragments that ended up in the Third World and did not annihilate their aboriginal populations. There are only a few of them. South Africa, Rhodesia, French Algeria, the Crusader Kingdom. They don't survive. So we'll just wait, a hudna for forty years. The Israelis essentially will not be able to survive. But never grant them legitimacy.

That raises the question of whether the Palestinian problem, the settlements that I and the members of this panel and others of us have been worrying about for thirty years, any longer matters. Let's say Israel agreed to solve the Palestinian problem along the lines outlined on this panel and so many others. Would it matter to the rest of the Middle East anymore? Is not perhaps the burden of proof shifted drastically toward those who have to say there is still a possibility of getting a comprehensive peace in the Middle East by solving the Palestinian problem? And a shift in the burden of proof inside Israel from being convinced to give the Palestinians a state, even if it's without Jerusalem and without refugee return and it doesn't have territorial contiguity, to a burden of proof in which Israel must convince Palestinians: look, you're going to have a contiguous state, you're going to have Al Quds as your capital, you're going to have control of your borders. Has the burden of proof shifted in that direction?

Why has this failure occurred? I've suggested one reason is a natural reaction inside of a country that's victorious regularly to expand the definition of what it considers minimally necessary. But I would mainly place the blame on the United States because what has the United States done? It has wrapped a cocoon of political and economic support around Israel. I went down with my son to Disney World in Florida and they put these goggles on you and you're in a virtual world fighting with enemies that aren't there. But for you, that's the world you live in. The United States has basically put a virtual world around Israeli democracy that makes it seem like whatever they do is costless because the US will never vote against them in the Security Council, because they'll always have three billion dollars worth of aid. Israeli democracy is forced to operate in this virtual world where there's no punishment for deeds that are catastrophic in their implications. Israeli democracies anyway aren't very good at making tough, costly decisions in the short run because of payoffs in the long run. So what the United States does is force Israeli democracy into a position of doing something that no democracy has ever been able to do, and that is to make this kind of sacrifice without even being allowed to feel the negative implications of the policies you're being asked to abandon.

So until that cocoon for one reason or another is removed and Israel is allowed to operate in the real world, in the real Middle East, which Israelis themselves are reluctant now to admit they operate in, we may be in the moment where the definition, the very categorization of what the Arab-Israeli conflict is, is shifting beyond the control of diplomacy and toward certain inexorable but dangerous historical processes. Thank you.

Question & Answer:

Question: The first question for Geoffrey Aronson. In a long commentary on what Israel is doing in the West Bank, and I think we heard from Danny Seidemann about this also, any thoughts on what the Palestinians are doing and have done? For instance, why did the IDF stop working collaboratively with the Palestinian security services in 2002? Did the Palestinians share responsibility for that in any way?

Aronson: Sure they did, absolutely. This is a process. As much as some would like, this is not Israel playing on a field all by itself. Having said that however, Israel, because of its occupation, because of the ability to wield force overwhelmingly in many arenas vis-à-vis the Palestinians, is in a much more commanding position to determine the agenda, to frame the choices, and to execute changes in the status quo. And by its policies, to encourage others – Palestinians and others – to empower them to take the right kinds of choices. For the most part the process I've just described was absent. The choices that Israel made, specifically when it embarked on Defensive Shield, marked the end of an assessment on the part of the IDF that they could empower Palestinian security services to essentially sub-contract the policing of the West Bank, which the IDF had grown tired of executing. Unfortunately they're now back in that game in a big way and not only in the West Bank, as we've seen.

Certainly this is a dance that needs two to tango and, as we've heard, even more if one includes the US and the international community. However, none of that absolves Israel of the responsibility to undertake policies that are not only in the best interests of the Palestinians but I would argue are in Israel's best interests as well.

Question: A question directed at Yoram Peri. What have been Avigdor Lieberman's relations with the IDF leadership and how might his unusual new cabinet role affect the civilian-military competitive balance?

Peri: May I take the opportunity to start with another sentence that I want to add? Because the topic of our panel is Israel's evolving foreign policy. Therefore all of us share some criticism about Israel's evolving foreign policy, as if there is no partner to that policy – namely the Palestinians and some Arab states. I wish we could have talked about the other side of the picture. I'm afraid that we tilt too much toward one position. For example, Ian, you said that the Israelis are living in a virtual world. How would you describe a world in which one of your opponents declare every day that you should not exist at all, that his aim is to destroy the state? How would you describe a people who see suicidal bombers every day and every night in their coffee bars? So it's not totally virtual. It's not exactly real but it's not totally virtual. The French philosopher Baudrillard wrote a book describing his post-structuralist approach about the first Gulf War, and he wrote it as "the war that didn't exist." There was a war in the Gulf War. So it's more complicated.

Lieberman is almost anathema to the military. It's the other side of Israel, it's the other side of the coin. He doesn't reflect Israeli Sabra culture and he doesn't have ties with the military. He's an ideologist. The military officers are pragmatists. He speaks in nationalistic terms. The officers don't speak in nationalistic terms. It's totally different. Their approach to security is more pragmatic, simple. They are practitioners. His worldview is totally different. The fact that he got that important position as being in charge of Israel's strategic threat is more – he's not going to control more than his secretary and four or five people in his office. He doesn't have a direct position over the security service, over the Mossad, over the military. His impact will be in the cabinet, because he has very strong political power within the cabinet and he shifts the balance of power within the cabinet. But I don't think he will be able to mobilize some officers to think with him how to get rid of some of the Israeli Arabs and push them beyond the Jordan River.

Lustick: Yes, there's real threats, absolutely. It's seeing what the reality is that is necessary. Seeing the cost of delaying dealing with those threats before they get stronger. But think about how important the threat of terrorism is in Israel. How Sharon used the war on terror to justify Defensive Shield. How the Olmert government used the war on terror to justify the disastrous war in Lebanon. So part of American politics – namely the war on terror that traps us – has also trapped the Israelis and pushes them toward things which distances them from the real abilities they may have to cope with real threats.

That's another question that's come up. I think many of the members of the panel, certainly Daniel Levy and Danny Seidemann could respond – it's a question I also raised. Is it too late for a two-state solution?

Levy: In a way, my response to that question would be the same as my response to Ian's comments here. We may well look back 20, 30, 40 years from now and say how naïve it was to advocate a two-state solution in 2006 given the density and degree of entanglement of settlements in the territories, given the situation in Jerusalem that Danny Seidemann knows better than anyone else, and given what Ian described as the shifting of the burden of proof as to whether a two-state solution could hold and whether we haven't crossed the Rubicon in terms of an Arab convinciveness that Israel could be a passing episode. We may look back in 30 or 40 years' time and say, wasn't it clear in 2006 where the solution was known and had been known for over a decade, perhaps since the Beilin-Abu Mazen informal document was out, certainly when the detailed Geneva Initiative model that I was involved in – the Ami Ayalon-Nuseibeh, the Clinton parameters of December 2000, when even the Bush presidency spoke of the two-state solution, the Roadmap talked about the 1967 lines – wasn't it clear that we all knew where this was going? Along came Ariel Sharon and for all the negative, he proved that the egg could be unscrambled. He set the precedent. There was the Gaza evacuation – the sky didn't fall in. Pat Robertson may claim that he was then struck down by the Lord for doing that, but I beg to differ.

And there we were. We were so close. There was a misadventure in Iraq. People began to understand that you can't divorce Israel-Palestine from the rest of the Middle East. People began to understand that you can't restabilize the Middle East. In fact, in December 2006 down the pipeline came the Baker-Hamilton commission and the adults were back at the steering wheel in Washington.

Both could be right. We don't know. That's my position. I don't buy into this sense that the burden of proof has shifted. I think the burden of proof was always on those of us who believed that a two-state solution could be sustainable. It was never an obvious and it's not an obvious. It will take a hell of a lot of day-to-day management of them to make it work.

What I would say is three things. Number one, I'm not going to sit here passively and wait to see where we stand in 40 years, because I think the non-two-state solution would still be a disaster for both peoples. Until something else will seem a reasonable option, we'll be generations away. So anyone who wants to at least get to the next phase, where the immediate tension and violence and hatred and interaction there is off the agenda, needs the two-state solution. So number one, I'm not going to wait by passively.

Number two, I think we have the great advantage that a majority of the publics on both sides still are supporting a two-state solution. That's something precious that we shouldn't give in on.

The third thing is to be cognizant of – I think in personal and geopolitical, in all relations, one is on a – this isn't a comment on my personal relations – on a thin sheet of ice. You can always bring out the hatred in people, in any situation. It's so easy. It lies just below the surface. There's an approach that's been taken in the last few years that if there's hatred there, bring it on. Let's take the pickaxe to that ice and see what happens. There's another approach that says thicken the ice day by day, hour by hour. Add layers and layers of stability because that's the only way we're going to survive and create a mutually livable world. So that's what I think is the approach.

Seidemann: I'd like to respond very quickly. First of all, again the caveat, I speak only about Jerusalem and its immediate environs and I defer to experts much greater than myself, like Geoff or Dror Atkas, when it comes to the West Bank. But that's what I know.

I met earlier today with Aaron Miller and we picked up on a conversation that we've been having for a decade, including during this summer of 2000. Aaron asked me a very similar question. I made, along with a colleague, the only map on how to implement the Clinton parameters in Jerusalem, for the Taba conference. Completely worthless endeavor, nobody even looked at it. It's not even worth a footnote in Clayton Swisher's wonderful book. But I could tell Aaron today that the situation in Jerusalem is not qualitatively different in 2006 – that it was difficult then, it's difficult now. There are some changes and I don't make light of them. There's Har Homa, there's Rasul Abboud. There are dangers. But one of the terrible frustrations of the period is the – still, it may be five minutes to midnight. Had E-1 been built, we may have turned in the towel. There is no solution other than the two-state solution. There's a one-state consequence. Neither national movement wants anything but a two-state solution.

But having said that, five minutes to midnight, it's still there. It's all over but the body count. The borders of the Clinton parameters exist today in Jerusalem. You want to see the borders of Jerusalem today and whether a two-state solution exists? Watch the feet. Watch where Palestinians go, watch where Israelis go today. That's where the borders are. They're in place and it awaits the political will to flesh this out into a political agreement.

So with all the depression, I'm sorry to disappoint you. Yes, the two-state solution is alive and well.

Peri: I share the same view and I do not want to lose my hope that that will be the solution. But I want to tell you how things did change in Israel due to the last war in Lebanon. That's a serious matter that I'm not sure how much the international media dealt with enough.

The brilliancy of Sharon was not that he devised the unilateral approach. That was a mistake. The brilliancy of Sharon was that he discovered that though most Israelis do not believe there is a partner to negotiate with, he can claim that the territories are not an asset but a liability. Therefore Israel should withdraw from part of the territories. By doing that, he broke the fixed situation that existed still from 1967 until his days – namely, half the Israelis believed in territories for peace, the other half believed in peaceful peace – namely, no territorial withdrawal. He was able to move half the nationalist camp to the peace camp by creating a third way. It's not the British third way, but in Israeli terms a third way.

What happened with the war in Lebanon, and for this I will never forgive Nasrallah, that he destroyed that third way. Many Israelis said after the war in Lebanon: we were not there, we gave back territories, we gave back the territory in Lebanon and in Gaza, and in spite of that they continue to fight with us. It means that we should not give back territories. So the half of the nationalist camp that moved to the left and half of the left, all these moved to the right. Now the vast majority of Israelis say we should keep the territories, whether there will be someone to talk to or even worse than that if there is nobody to talk to. Therefore things are much more complicated today than they were before.

Nevertheless, I didn't lose my hope that things will change. The only solution will be a two-state solution more or less along the Clinton parameters.

Levy: Sorry, the polling doesn't bear that out. The polling bears out that Israelis have less trust in the other side, are more suspicious regarding the intentions of the other side, but polling in the worst days immediately at the end of the Lebanon crisis showed a majority in favor of withdrawing from the territories. Unilateralism contributed just as much as Nasrallah.

Peri: I wish you were right.

Levy: I'll give you the polling. I'll email you the polling. The polling numbers are all there.

Question: There are many questions that share a common theme. This is an example of that theme. Given Israel's refusal to help facilitate positive outcomes with the Palestinian and broader Middle Eastern issues, why should US policymakers treat Israel as an asset rather than a liability?

Daniel Levy: That question could be turned on its head of course. I think it depends which Israeli policy you're talking about. I think an Israeli policy that is pursuant of peace and de-occupation – and you've had those policies – and that inspires hope in the region, then I think Israel is an asset. I think there's been important instances in America's past – by the way, it hasn't always been looked at that way. We didn't here go into the history of American-Israeli relationships. There have been some very tough and tense times. There have often been sharp words exchanged between American and Israeli leaders, coming from both directions.

What I at least sense in Israel post-Lebanon is the beginnings of a debate inside Israel as to whether the directions of recent American policy have served anyone's interests. You look at things that people like Shlomo Ben Ami, our former foreign minister, are saying.

So I think in the current predicament, neither side is serving the other side's interests. I think at the time when you had Rabin and Clinton, for instance, I think you could say both sides served a greater interest. An Israel that is giving hope in the region, an Israel that is engaging with its neighbors with American encouragement, I think is a strong force for stabilization and moderation in the region.

I think you can ask that about many relationships, but I think it depends where the policy decisions come out.

Lustick: Let me put in my two cents about this. I have kind of a cynical view about it, as a political scientist.

I think in general Israel has been a terrible liability for the United States in the Middle East. No question about it. However, there have been ways in which it's been a real asset and could be again, but not in the ways that most people think. The way it was an asset was because of the wars that were generated out of the Arab-Israeli conflict and because of the tight relationship between Israel and the United States, the only address for many Middle Easterners to go to for what they needed – namely, keeping the Israelis off our backs – was Washington. In fact, the power of the Israel lobby in the United States is so strong that even the Russians and others have to cater to the Israel lobby in order to get what they want from Washington. So if you've got lots of potentially important countries coming on their knees to the United States because of Israel, you can claim that's actually an [asset] though unfortunately it requires a conflict to continue it.

Sometimes that conflict becomes way more costly than any side benefits like that. We are now in one of those circumstances when the ability of the United States to somehow extricate itself from the Iraq catastrophe without creating an even bigger catastrophe will require an image of momentum on the Israeli-Palestinian front that only the United States can create but only Israel can deliver.

So Israel can be an asset in saving America from its stupidity in Iraq but only if it, as Daniel Levy suggested in his fantastical conversation, had a heart-to-heart talk with the United States about how it would be better for both of them to live in the real world and not the world created out of the Beltway and out of domestic American foreign policy, which both Israel and American policy are forced to live in.

Levy: I've got a list of gripes with the lobby that could take us from here to tomorrow. But there's one thing I will say. I think the attribution of omnipotence is sometimes too convenient for many other actors. I think it's too convenient for the Arab states, who do quite often very little to lift a finger to really influence this. It's too convenient for other lobbies and other interests – the military industry, the oil, etc., who are also involved in it. It's mutually supportive. The lobby wants to say: yes, we're the strongest in town. Others who don't want to appear in the front line are happy for them to take all that glory. And not least, it makes it too easy for politicians to say: we're not culpable. We can't think of our own policy. We can't act against certain groups who are lobbying us. Every politician, including the new people elected, including the person who may or may not be chair of the House International Relations Committee – who said some things I have a real problem with in the past – every one of them has to answer to themselves and their constituents and has choices before they do or don't vote for resolutions. I think it's wrong to ascribe omnipotence to something. It's a misreading.

Question: I have one more question I'd like us to answer. It's in regard to the theme of the panel, about evolution. Has there been any evolution that any of you can detect in Israeli policy toward Hamas?

Aronson: Not as much as there needs to be, certainly. There was what I described at the time as a reasonably effective partnership between Israel and Hamas. Not an explicit partnership, not one in which you had a document to show for, not one that was the product of discussions face to face, but one which operated in parallel planes but resulted in mutually satisfactory results. What I'm referring to is Ariel Sharon's decision to evacuate the Gaza Strip. In contrast to many people, including perhaps many on this panel, I thought that it was a rather good idea, given the absence of better ideas on the table.

This effective partnership resulted in two or three things. It resulted in a pacific Israeli evacuation of the Gaza Strip. It resulted in an Israeli agreement to enable the holding of Palestinian elections in which Hamas representatives ran. It also resulted in maintenance of the decision of the Cairo Agreement of March 2004 for Hamas to keep its guns in its pockets and to interrupt, if not end, its policy of suicide operations, attacks and terror against Israeli civilians.

This partnership has not withstood the test of time. It has not withstood the change in administration in Israel. It has not withstood the reassertion of prerogatives by the IDF. It's unlikely that it will be put back together again. In its place we have fanciful hopes and expectations that the Palestinians will kill enough of each other so that at the end of the day the bad guys are not standing anymore. That's where we are today and it's a policy of hopelessness and conflict which cannot succeed and will probably end up empowering the very people that the policy is meant to undermine.

Lustick: Do we have any other note that we could end on?

Peri: The more important question is not whether there has been evolving policy vis-à-vis Hamas but what will be the future of this evolving policy. The only thing I can do is look back. I remember in 1982, I did my PhD at the London School of Economics and the editor of my newspaper came to London. I took her around in the city and we spoke. Usually when you go out of your country you are more free and open. I asked her, why don't we recognize the PLO and negotiate with them? It's obvious there will be no solution without recognition of the PLO and negotiations. She said: Yoram, you are here in London, far away from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, therefore you can talk like that.

I see the debate that is going on today in Israel and I have to remind myself of 1982. It took another eight years. I hope it will be shorter. But it needs two for tango.

Lustick: I want to thank the panelists for an excellent panel.