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Wed. February 01, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Prof. Clive Jones
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International Affairs Forum: Where does Israel stand in relation to Hamas after the recent Gaza Offensive? Did Israel achieve its goals? Prof. Clive Jones: Let’s put this within a broader context, there has been an ongoing debate since the early part of this decade about the role of Hamas and the extent to which they are pursuing a strategy to create conditions of instability which provoke a harsh Israeli response. Many people believe that Israel had no choice given that there had been this ongoing, intermittent bombardment of Israeli towns such as Sderot and even concerns that these rockets could reach as far as Dimona where Israel has its nuclear reactor, and in some sense the Gaza Offensive was justifiable; however there are certain caveats to this approach. Firstly is the fact that Hamas is a democratically elected representative of the Palestinians in Gaza. Secondly, there were attempts by Hamas to reach some form of ceasefire which Israeli actions were seen to violate. Thirdly, it assumes that Hamas controls everything that goes on in Gaza and I’m not sure that it does. There are a number of gangs, criminal elements as well as organizations such as Islamic Jihad which means that not all of the rocket attacks on Israel can be attributed solely to Hamas. Finally it assumes that Hamas is a unified organization but there is evidence to suggest that there is a real difference between the political wing in Gaza and the military wing which is based in Damascus. Therefore it is not necessarily the case that Israel is dealing with a unified actor and that there are differences in opinion within Hamas. The military leadership based in Damascus is in essence protected by being located in an Arab state and this is partly why Israel has been so keen to push a peace agenda with the Syrians and I think that it also partly explains why the Netanyahu Government is not going to last very long. IA-Forum: Could you elaborate on that? Prof. Jones: The Generals in Israel have come out quite openly and said that a peace treaty with Syria, even if it means that Israel has to forgo the Golan Heights, is worthwhile because it would cut the cloth from under Hamas while at the same time undermining Hizbollah which is dependent upon Syria. Since many believe that Hamas and Hizbollah are the extended arm of Iranian foreign policy, Israel would also be able to counter this threat with a peace deal. However, the next part of this equation is that this has been tried before. Israel tried to reach a peace agreement with the Syrians back in the late 1990s when Ehud Barak was Prime Minister. By all accounts they came quite close to achieving a peace deal however the sticking point was a full Israeli withdrawal and Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee. Because this is Israel’s most important strategic water reserve the Israelis were unwilling to agree and the talks consequently fell apart. It also explains why Barak belatedly tried to invest in diplomatic relations with the Palestinians but not from the position of strength that a deal with the Syrians would have given him. While the idea that a Hamas that had been undermined by a Syrian peace deal would have to accept the terms dictated to it by Israel, it presupposes that Hamas could be delegitimized amongst the Palestinian people and I’m not sure that that is actually the case. Most Palestinians see the value of Hamas not in terms of its religious ideology rather in terms of a social movement, provider of services and as an alternative to the perceived corruption of Fatah. IA-Forum: You mentioned earlier the influence of Iran. What evidence is there of Iranian influence on Hamas? Prof. Jones: We know that they have sent money, we know that they support Hamas diplomatically and there is some evidence to suggest that some of the technology that has enhanced the rockets that target Israel has the hallmarks of Iranian knowhow. However I think that it has been very easy to exaggerate the Iranian influence for political purposes. Firstly, there is a massive distance between Iran and Gaza and logistically it is very difficult for Iranian-Gazan relations to happen and secondly we should always remember that Hamas is a Sunni movement and this automatically limits the type and extent of assistance that comes from Iran which is predominately a Shia state. IA-Forum: What factors are there within Israel itself that are a hindrance to the resolution of the Israel Palestine conflict? Prof. Jones: Well partly it is to do with the fractious nature of the Israeli political system itself, it is very difficult for any Israeli government to plan strategically over a four year period because they can never be sure that the disparate coalition that has been brought together will actually last for the duration. Israeli politics is littered with single issue parties that come and go but equally the growing power and the growing influence of religious parties is pulling Israel in two directions. On the one hand we have this kind of ‘settler-Israeli’ identity and on the other this very religious, Jewish identity which cuts to the very core of what it means to be Israeli. I think that this is certainly beginning to change the political landscape so there is now a Kulturkampf, a real cultural struggle over what Israel should actually be. Although this has been ongoing since the 1990s, recent democratic trends mean that this will certainly be a significant factor in what Israel will become over the next 10-20 years. The other issue is the settlements. No Israeli government can uproot 250,000 settlers from the West Bank. I think that the solution that Israel is pursuing, although possibly wrong and amoral, is to allow the settlements to remain which is why the separation wall currently goes around them. IA-Forum: Some commentators have suggested that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is becoming increasingly Orthodox in its ideological orientation, do you agree and do you believe that this is a concern? Prof. Jones: It is certainly a worry as it is changing the social profile of an army that has always obeyed the rules of the State. However what happens when you have to obey the laws of the State and it goes against your conscious? It should be noted that this has often happened with IDF soldiers from a secular background who were told to do things in the Occupied Territories and have refused to carry out their orders often leading to their arrest. Now a similar situation could happen amongst Ultra-Orthodox members of the IDF, but while those on the Left tend to go to prison and serve a short sentence, those on the right may be more inclined to take up arms against the State. For example, if you are an infantry captain and you’re given the task of uprooting a settlement which you yourself are from, what do you do? There becomes a conflict between obeying the laws of the State and obeying the laws of the Torah. IA-Forum: Do you think that there is a real possibility of civil war in Israel? Prof. Jones: Not within the foreseeable future by which I mean the next 10 years or so however I certainly think that the social dynamics and the demographic makeup of the State are being pulled in two different directions and it is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile the two. Perhaps the political system could be changed by increasing the proportion of votes needed to gain a seat in the Knesset which has been suggested but ultimately the desire for a political system that encompasses all views without marginalizing fringe groups and pushing them out of the political system entirely is best administered through the current system of proportional representation. However, even within this system groups on the right are beginning to believe that their views are not being represented and are looking for other ways to ensure that for example, land is not given up to the Palestinians. IA-Forum: You recently had a paper published arguing that the security barrier, as well as protecting Israeli citizens from terrorism is equally an attempt to ensure the coherence of Israel’s ideological boundaries. Could you briefly outline your argument? Prof. Jones: The security barrier which in all likeliness will form the border of any future land agreement is not an ideal solution but is basically a compromise driven by demographic concerns. The idea of separating Israelis from Palestinians was justified on security grounds such as the threat from suicide bombers but crucially it will keep most of the settlements inside Israeli dispensation. I think it works in the sense that a) most settlers are economic settlers rather than ideological settlers and b) even the ideological settlers who have had their views dampened somewhat by middle class comforts are accepting that there is a limit to the extent of Israel’s territory. Conversely however, there is a hardcore that will never accept that and will use violent means to oppose it. IA-Forum: Does this hardcore minority that you mention have enough power and influence to affect the situation or will they remain marginalized? Prof. Jones: They don’t have enough power per se to impact upon the political system but where they do have power is being able to use direct action and violence. For example, if there was another assassination or attack on a high profile politician this would certainly impact upon the Israeli political landscape, perhaps polarizing it by setting those who see their Israeli identity in religious terms against those who see Israel as a secular construct which was original basis of Zionism as far back as the days of Theodore Herzl. The real security challenge for Israel is less the immediate military threat from Arab states or Hamas but rather the difficulty in reconciling the different identities within Israel itself. Clive Jones is Professor of Middle East Studies and International Politics at Leeds University. He has just had a paper entitled The Writing on the Wall: Israel, the Security Barrier and the Future of Zionism published in the current edition of the Mediterranean Politics journal.

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