In October, the Union’s Debate Society invited Ben White, a Pro-Palestinian freelance writer for The Guardian and New Statesman, and Ran Gidor, an Israeli Embassy Attaché, in to discuss issues in Israel. After the debate, Impact’s Oscar Williams and Dan Fine caught up with the two speakers for an interview. The following are the interviews in full, of which short extracts were published in Impact‘s print edition.

Interview with Ben White

How damaging do you think that the Gilad Shalit deal could be to Abbas and the PA?

Well, that is complicated because they’re both claiming some gain. There is a good case to be made by Netanyahu himself, you can see why Hamas would say that too. It’s probably easier to identify one loser which is Abbas. An Israeli newspaper this morning had an editorial saying the swap was massively at the expense of Fatah. Netanyahu’s popularity will go up but I think equally Hamas will get credibility.

Will it damage the PA from a negotiation stance?

In terms of how it effects their general credibility or most of the main issues around their credibility they’re kind of permanently their and unaffected by these things but of course it doesn’t look good that only a few weeks ago Abbas goes to New York effectively gets nothing and no one thinks he will get something.

In a sense I’m saying it will make Abbas more hardline but he’s chosen a strategy (of applying to the UN) that he has to stick to because it’s his only card he can play.

Why did the deal happen when it did? Was it at all related to the application for statehood?

From Hamas’ point of view? Possibly yeah. I think it was also a good point made related to  the regional changes (with the Arab Spring). So Hamas has been feeling pressure related to what’s happening in Syria as well. I’m sure the why now thing actually is a response to pressure that Hamas is feeling from the UN bid and also pressure Netanyahu is feeling related to his popularity too because over the summer the protests that took place over summer related to socio/economic changes really damaged Netanyahu’s popularity. So I suppose, yeah there’s domestic reasons from both sides.

Do you think Netanyahu and Abbas are the right people to bring peace to the region?

On both sides, no. I mean it does need a change of person because you need the right person to reframe it really fundamentally, in my opinion where the focus is much more on rights so the starting positions are realistically accessible (?) of the fact that Israel has not been interested in creating a Palestinian state ever since it  occupied the territories in 67. It’s gotta reflect the fact that even focusing just on the post-67 occupation ignores the seminal events of ’48 which culminated in the expulsion of the Palestinians. So in other words the current framework to do with the negotiations between two parties that aren’t equal is heavily flawed.

How damaging do you think the diplomatic rift between Turkey and Egypt could be?

The simple answer is, it’s definitely not going back to what it was. So in that sense, it’s a real concrete change. You’ve got to be realistic, there’s still a lot of economic trade between them. Those business interests are going to stay there and lots of people don’t want to disrupt that. Egypt’s almost a trickier case because it’s in such a state of turmoil and change. It’s very difficult to predict in a year’s time what the regime’s going to look like. Will the proceed with democratic elections?, what government will be elected? etc.

It’s not like Turkey is operating from a position of human rights perfectionism, it says one thing to Israel while doing something else to the Kurds. The Egyptian military rulers are trying to capitalise on what the know is the popular sentiment of the population. That’s the key thing that’s changing in the region now. Israel’s almost relying on a buffer between popular sentiment and it through dictators. That’s why the Israeli government mourned the loss of Mubarack because those rulers, you can deal with them directly rather than the people as you can in a democratic government.

Do you think the relations between Turkey and Israel are under pressure because of Iran’s growing influence in the region?

No because the stuff that Iran influences has been there for a while. The extent to which Hezbollah and Hamas take orders from Iran is exaggerated but of course the links are there. The major changes that have taken place in the last year are really unrelated to Iran: people power in Tunisia and Egypt; uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain. You know, all these other cases. In fact, Saudi Arabia tries to say Iran, for example, is inciting uprisings in Bahrain but that’s just an excuse because they want to repress what’s going on there. So it’s not that it doesn’t have influence, it hasn’t significantly expanded or grown more than it already existed.

 

Interview with Ran Gidor

Obviously the Gilad Shalit deal happened today, how damaging do you think that could be to Abbas and the PA?

It’s too early to say. I think that is one of the considerations that delayed the deal for quite sometime because we always realised that striking a deal with Hamas could end up strengthening Hamas at the expense of Abbas. However, at the end of the day we had to get Gilad Shalit back home. So I think if both sides, namely Israel and the Palestinians manage it in a clever way we could minimise the political repercussions for Abbas.

Why did the deal happen now? Is it a response from Hamas to the application for statehood?

So much of the negotiations have been shrouded in mystery and in secret so that all I can do is offer speculations. According to opinion polls in Gaza we know Hamas felt threatened by the fact that Abbas took the initiative in seeking UN recognition for statehood. Also, we know that Hamas has been threatened by the Arab Spring. Suddenly, all these millions of people across the Middle East are demanding to have civil rights that are denied to the people of Gaza. Thirdly, the Hamas headquarters has been based in Damascus. And of course we all know what has been happening in Syria over the past six, seven months. So it’s fairly likely the Hamas leadership will have to relocate. The only viable alternative as far as they’re concerned to Damascus is Cairo and the Egyptians are pressing Hamas to reach a deal with Israel and Gilad Shalit. So this could be another possible explanation.

Given that Abbas was so public about the application to statehood, why did Netanyahu seem so taken aback by it? What was the official Israeli line to stop that because it didn’t seem to be very distinct?

Well the official line is that the Oslo peace process is all about talking to each other and reaching a bi-lateral compromise. By taking the issue to the United Nations, in effect, the Palestinians are declaring the Oslo peace process null and void. This is why the Israeli people have been under the instruction to press that point. It seems everyone agrees that the best way to move forward is for the Israelis and Palestinians to sit across the table from each other, and our point is if the UN grants Palestinian recognition of statehood independent, there is nothing to tempt them back to the negotiation table. So that has been our strategy.

What was done to try to discourage Abbas from going to the UN? Were negotiations offered?

There was nothing we could do in order to stop them going to the UN. We tried to galvanise support for our position in the general assembly. We also tried to tempt the Palestinians back to the negotiation table. If you remember last year Israel, for the first time ever, suspended settlement activity for ten months. Unfortunately, the Palestinians didn’t take up the offer and nothing happened.

Do you think Netanyahu and Abbas are the right people to bring peace to the region?

Again, we are venturing into the realm of speculation. What I can say is both leaders have enjoyed popular support. Both leaders were voted in and this means at the very least they have the mandate from their respective electorates. Whether or not they do so depends not just on themselves but on the extraneous forces and elements, for example, Iran has been doing everything in its power to sabotage relations between Israeli and Palestine. So it’s not just down to Abbas and Netanyahu, but it’s also down to extraneous circumstances.

With the recent diplomatic rift between Turkey and Egypt, how has that damaged Israel’s position? 

Well, there’s no point denying the recent developments are extremely reprehensible. The spat with Turkey is a huge blow to the region’s status. However, we hope that it’s short-term and that recent events in Syria will make the Turkish government revise its position. Turkey for the past few years has been espousing the policy of zero conflicts. Now in the space of just a few months they’ve found themselves having to take a very strong position with Libya and Syria and they’ve found they’ve got take a very strong position with Iran in the very near future as well. Hopefully, all of that together will make them veer more towards an Israeli point of view. As for Egypt, we know that the recent attack on the Israeli embassy was actually not perpetrated by the Egyptian government. The Egyptian government actually stepped in, admittedly at the very last moment, but they did in order to save the lives of Israeli diplomats. So there’s ongoing diplomatic and security cooperation between us and the Egyptian leadership. This was evidenced by the release this morning of Gilad Shalit. So hopefully, the bi-lateral relations with Egypt will stabilise after the parliamentary elections we’re all expecting to take place in Egypt soon.

So you think it’s unlikely they’re going to scrap the peace deal?

I think it’s unlikely because it would be contrary to their self-interest. First of all they benefit economically and financially from cooperating with Israel. Secondly, they would be jeopardising American aid if they were ever to scrap the peace deal. Also because Egypt is facing a huge financial crisis, they can’t really hope to sustain an army and certainly not to prepare for military showdown with Israel.

Do you think the relations between Turkey and Israel are under pressure because of Iran’s growing influence in the region?

No, I don’t think there’s any truth in that. As far as we’re concerned, Turkey represents a liberal, secular, commercial entity. It’s exactly the kind of country we want to have good relations with. The reason for the most recent spat have to do with domestic politics in Turkey.

Dan Fine & Oscar Williams

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