EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The former US Ambassador to Israel seems deeply pessimistic but hopes the popular uprising can translate into a political movement that will steer Israel back to democracy.
Martin Indyk is filled with mixed feelings, mainly gloomy, as the state of Israel approaches its 75th anniversary.
“After I came back home from my recent visit, I sat down and wrote a memo to my friends, which I titled, Israel is in trouble,” the former US ambassador to Israel told Plus61J Media in an exclusive interview.
The Australian-raised diplomat and foreign policy expert described the secular-religious divide as “profound”. He said he can’t see any obvious solution to the conflict it is causing but that the ongoing demonstrations against the government, which he called a “full-scale civil society revolt”, offered a silver lining about the depth of popular feeling towards preserving Israel’s democracy.
However, on the question of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Indyk was deeply pessimistic, saying that Palestinians “had become ghosts in Israel”. He said a third intifada was looming and may already have started – and “it is going to be horrible for both sides”.
He also offered an incisive analysis of the future relationship between the weakened Palestinian Authority and Hamas, pointing to the situation in Lebanon as a model for how the power dynamic might play out in the Palestinian world.
“We are seeing a deeply consequential confrontation that is dividing the country in a way that I’d never seen before, and weakening it in the face of its adversaries.”
Indyk was clearly affected by what he witnessed during his visit to Israel, where he was seen marching with the demonstrators. He described the protests as a “popular uprising” against the Netanyahu government’s judicial reforms.
“It captured my feeling that we are seeing a deeply consequential confrontation that is dividing the country in a way that I’d never seen before and therefore weakening it in the face of its adversaries.
“The divide between secular Israel and religious Orthodox and national/religious Israel is profound – and not easily papered over. The government can put the legislation on pause, but it doesn’t resolve the problem.
“Secular Israel has now awoken, and they are determined to take back the country. But the national religious zealots and the Haredim are equally determined to promote their interests and objectives.
“I don’t know how it gets resolved. It will require a good deal of statesmanship on the part of Israel’s leaders and I’m not hopeful we’re going to see that from the current government.”
Asked how he sees Israel’s future, Indyk replied wistfully: “I’m reminded of the way in which the previous two Jewish states managed to come apart because of internal divisions around the 75th year. We Jews have a great difficulty governing ourselves; we’re not good at it.
“I’m very worried.”
On the other hand, he stressed, the sustained intensity of the demonstrations and their widespread social base offered a genuine reason for hope.
“The peace movement died after Rabin’s assassination and the intifada. It never recovered. Now there is a genuine movement that is focused on preserving Israel’s democracy.”
“I hope I’m not being Pollyanna, but this uprising is replacing the peace movement which died years ago, essentially, after Rabin’s assassination and the intifada. It never recovered and there’s been no movement since. Now there is a genuine movement that is focused on preserving Israel’s democracy.
“And if it converts into a political movement, it will put the centre parties back in government. You can already see it in the polls with the dramatic shift of right-wing voters away from the Likud, which never happened in the last five elections.
“The other thing that’s heartening is that they are extremely well-organised and well-financed, and not by foreign money. It’s Bibi who is financed by foreign money. The demonstrators are financed by Israeli high-tech.
“I was truly inspired from my experience with the demonstrations and by my conversations with some of the organisers. They are keeping a low profile, but they are highly trained – and they are one step ahead of Netanyahu in every way, in communication, in organisation, strategy.”
Indyk believes that Netanyahu’s (now reversed) sacking of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, which sparked major protests and the current pause on judicial review, was the biggest of a series of mistakes.
He thinks the reason Netanyahu backed down was the public stance taken by US President Joe Biden.
“Netanyahu has other important objectives on his agenda, which is to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and to make peace with Saudi Arabia. Those are more important priorities for him than judicial reform.
“But he cannot advance that agenda without the help of Joe Biden, without being able to come to Washington and sit down with Biden and his Republican mates and develop a joint strategy for both Iran and Saudi Arabia with the US.
“Biden has basically told Netanyahu: ‘You’re not welcome in Washington until you forge a consensus or put the whole thing on hold’.”
“So it’s a real problem for him that Biden’s made it clear, in public, that until Bibi fixes this problem (with the judicial legislation), he isn’t welcome in Washington. I never expected Biden would go public. But it’s become the most effective lever that the US has at the moment. He’s basically told Netanyahu: ‘You’re not welcome in Washington until you forge a consensus or put the whole thing on hold’.
“The underlying issue here is democracy. The reason for bipartisan support has always been much more about common values than about common interests. Republicans and Democrats alike see Israel in our image, as a democracy.”
With regard to the Palestinian-Israel conflict, Indyk is deeply pessimistic about the path forward. “Israelis have, for a very long time, turned their back on the Palestinians. They’ve become ghosts and Israel has thrived despite the lack of any progress on the Palestinian issue, so they’ve been able to ignore it.
“The Abraham Accords have just reinforced the sense that they can even have peace with the Arabs without having to worry about making any concessions to the Palestinians.
“But it’s an unsustainable position. Sooner or later, it’s going to blow up in their faces so, like it or not, it has to be addressed.”
Here Indyk harks back to the popular revolt embodied by the protests. “A civil society movement that is focused on promoting Israel’s democracy will inevitably come to the question of the democratic rights for the Palestinians.
“A civil society movement that is focused on promoting Israel’s democracy will inevitably come to the question of the democratic rights for the Palestinians.”
“But I think it’s going to take a long time. I don’t see a resolution to the conflict in my lifetime. I’m about to become 72. I fear that we’re going to have another round of violent conflict before both sides decide that it’s better to resolve the conflict than continue fighting.”
The question of who Israeli leaders could negotiate with has often been raised as a stumbling block to peace from the Palestinian side. Given the weakening control of the Palestinian Authority leadership, what does Indyk think about the likelihood that Hamas could take over as the leader of the Palestinian people?
Although he concedes it is “entirely possible”, he thinks a more likely scenario is the one that exists with Hezbollah in Lebanon, “which is not to take control of the government”.
“Hamas did that in Gaza, but they’ve regretted it because they are responsible for feeding the people – and they have done a lousy job, which has meant they’re not popular in Gaza.
“So I don’t think they want to take control of the government in the West Bank. I don’t think they want to be responsible for feeding too many people. I think they want to hollow out the PA and control it, like Hezbollah controls the Lebanese government without taking responsibility.
“That’s where we’re headed, which is even more problematic. So ironically, we’d be better off in terms of the maturation of Hamas if they took control of the West Bank, rather than pulling the strings in the background.
“I’m not optimistic. I think we’ll go through a third intifada. it’s already underway, basically, and it’s going to be horrible for both sides.”
“But if they manage to do it, Hezbollah-style, taking control without responsibility, it’s going to be a bigger problem. So I’m not optimistic. I think we’ll go through a third intifada. It’s not going to be the same as the second. It’s already underway, basically, and it’s going to be horrible for both sides.”
After so much pessimism, Indyk said he did not want to end the interview on such a gloomy note. “I do believe that eventually, after both sides have exhausted the other possibilities, they will recognise that the only solution to the conflict is a two-state solution.
“The only way to do it is what Rabin had in mind: to separate the two people. We know what that looks like. We negotiated in detail. I was involved in that last round.
“It doesn’t take genius. It just takes leadership and trust – and neither of those are there on either side at the moment.
“But that’s the solution and that’s what was put forward 75 years ago.”