Q&A: Edward Platt

Edward Platt, who reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the <em>New Statesman</em>, talks

When and how did you begin reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

I'm writing a book about the West Bank city of Hebron, and I started going out to the region in 2007. I've been reporting on it since then.

Clearly any peace deal must be brokered by the US. Are you confident that Obama can have a positive effect?

Not particularly. Of course, his approach is an improvement on that of the last administration, but the conflict is so intractable that it's hard for any politician, however well-intentioned, to make much difference.

The argument about settlement growth that has occupied headlines recently is an example of the obstacles Obama faces. The Israelis are insisting that 'natural growth' of existing settlements should be permitted. In other words, they are saying that people who are born in a settlement in the Occupied Territories should be allowed to live in the settlement where they grow up, and the settlements should be allowed to expand 'naturally' to accommodate them. It's an absurd argument: the idea that you ought to be allowed to build a house next to your parents' would be dismissed by any responsible planning regime anywhere in the world, and besides, research suggests that 'natural growth' includes significant numbers of incomers with no previous connections to the settlements.

Yet this is the ground on which Israel has chosen to fight, provoking the most serious crisis in its relations with America for many years, and forcing Obama to expend a great deal of political will and energy on an essentially trivial point: even if Israel agreed to freeze 'natural growth', we would still be no closer to addressing the existence of the settlements themselves, or Israel's reluctance to cede control of the West Bank.

Besides, I think it's a mistake to focus too much on individuals - given that the confict has its roots in pre-history, and in its modern incarnation has been going on for more than a hundred years, it's necessary to take a longer perspective. Events in the region since the creation of the state of Israel are encouraging in one respect. Israel's survival was seriously at risk on three occasions in the first thirty years of its existence, in 1947-48, 1967 and 1973. Ignoring the debates about how the wars started, or whether Israel sought confrontation in the first two instances, there is no doubt that its Arab neighbours were intent on destroying it on each occasion - and on each occasion, they expected to succeed. Since then, Israel has been involved in three more wars: Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 and Gaza in 2008-2009, which was the summation of all its engagements with the Palestinians. There are no arguments about how these wars started: there was serious provocation from terrorist groups, but at no time did the PLO, Hizbollah or Hamas pose an existential threat to Israel. On each occasion, Israel initiated war, and sought to reshape the political landscape of the region through military force, and on each occasion, it failed: the two Lebanon campaigns were disastrous, and Operation Cast Lead was a lasting disgrace to a nation that still prides itself on its 'purity of arms.'

In other words, Israel's neighbours tried to destroy it three times, and failed three times, and Israel tried to impose its will on its neighbours three times, and failed three times. The result is a political and military stalemate which might have positive consequences - if both sides accept that neither can destroy the other, and neither can dictate terms to the other, then they might be forced to come to an understanding.

Naturally, Obama would claim the credit if the breakthrough were to occur during his time in office, just as Tony Blair claims credit for brokering peace in Northern Ireland, though it was largely coincidental that the Good Friday Agreement was signed on his watch.

A two-state solution still seems a distant possibility at best. Is it time to explore the alternative of a binational state?

The binational state, with a fully enfranchised Palestian majority, is what the settlers fear most, though their actions have made it almost inevitable. And yet it's too simple to say that the settlers alone have scuppered the prospects of implementing a two state solution: in my experience, the difference between 'leftist' Israelis and the right-wing settlers is much smaller than people think. Even many of the Israelis who condemn the settlers and the settlements believe that the Jewish people are the rightful owners of 'Eretz Israel,' the land of Israel, which includes the West Bank, or the Biblical territories of Judea and Samaria. The left says it's our land, but we'll give it up for peace, and the right says it's our land and we won't give it up, but few on either side dispute that it's theirs to dispose of as they like.

The attachment to the land is very strong, partly for religious and historical reasons, and partly as a result of a more recent desire for refuge. The Palestinians may be more prepared to compromise over the ownership of the historic land of Palestine, but there are enough extremists to derail any putative settlement. Given the existence of two peoples who both believe they are the rightful owners of the same patch of land, I don't believe that it will be possible to implement a two state solution, and some kind of binational state seems the most likely alternative.

Is the consistent US support for Israel based on the strength of the Israel lobby or something else?

I'm not very well qualified to comment on this, since I have never reported on American politics. Of course the Israel lobby is important, and yet beyond the immediate ethnic, religious or familial ties, there's a bond that derives from their shared histories as societies founded by European exiles who saw themselves as hardy pioneers, colonising a 'promised land' occupied by more primitive people. Israel is usually accused of running an apartheid regime, but the plight of the Palestinians could also be compared to that of the native Americans.

The speech Obama gave to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in June 2008, when he was running for President, is interesting in both respects: firstly, he reassures his audience that he is 'a true friend of Israel', despite the scurrilous emails suggesting otherwise, which shows that he regards the Jewish lobby as important, and then he goes on to talk about 'the shared values and shared stories of our people', and his emotional attachment to the 'Zionist idea that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.'

How do you think Tony Blair has performed as Middle East peace envoy?

As far as I'm aware, he hasn't performed at all. Perhaps that's just as well, given his attempts to bring peace to other parts of the Middle East.

Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Israelis support peace with the Palestinians. Why has the right, notably the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu, been gaining support?

The Israeli left is always puzzled by this: people say they want a peace settlement, and yet they vote for parties that don't hold out the prospect of one.

It's not a uniquely Israeli phenomenon of course - people are often compelled to vote against their better instincts. The UK is not immune to the global fear of Islamic extremism, and Israelis have particular reason to feel beleaguered. But I think the country's internal contradictions are the main reason. The Israeli knesset recently passed the preliminary reading of a bill that calls for a year's imprisonment for anyone who publishes a 'call that negates the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.' Yet it goes without saying that Israel's million and a half Arab citizens cannot be expected to recognise Israel as a Jewish and democratic state: "They want it to be a state for all its citizens, not just Jews," Uri Avnery, former Knesset member, and leader of Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace bloc, wrote in the London Review of Books recently. He went on: "They also claim, with reason, that Israel discriminates against them, and therefore is not really democratic. There are Jews too who don't want Israel to be defined as a Jewish state in which non-Jews have the status, at best, of tolerated outsiders. The prisons will not be able to hold all those convicted."

The new government has already adopted a bill sanctioning three years imprisonment for anyone who mourns the 'nakba' - the Palestinian name for the events of 1947-48, when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were driven from their homes, and the state of Israel was created. Avnery says the "production of racist laws is now at full capacity", and I believe the trend is an explicit articulation of the phenomenon that led to the increase in the right-wing vote in the first place: given the growth of Israel's domestic Arab population, and the many millions of Arabs or Palestinians that have been effectively absorbed into 'greater Israel', the Jewish nature of the state is under threat, and Jewish Israelis are turning to the right in the hope that it will be able to shore up the Zionist dream of a country in which Jews will be in control of their own destiny. The fact that it then resorts to bizarre and discriminatory laws in an attempt to do so proves the futility of the ambition.

What are the chances of charges being brought against Israeli officials for the alleged use of banned weapons such as white phosphorus?

Very small. I wrote an article about this in this week's magazine. Unfortunately, the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction in Israel because it is not a signatory to its founding statute, and it isn't clear whether the Palestinan Authority, which is not a proper state, can accept its jurisdiction. There is a case currently going through the Spanish courts concerning a bombing attack on Gaza in 2002 that might produce results, though possibilies for future prosecutions are limited, as the Spanish are in the process of revising the universal jurisdiction legislation that made it possible.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the New Statesman

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.