Getting candid with Shaul Mishal

Talking peace with the Center for Israeli Arab Studies founder.

Prof. Shaul Mishal (photo credit: ARIEL BASHOR/SHAUL MISHAL PHOTOGRAPHY)
Prof. Shaul Mishal
 A radio interview two years ago on the subject of roadblocks in the territories, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi), lit a spark of hope within Prof. Shaul Mishal, director of the Middle East Division at The Interdisciplinary Center research college in Herzliya and senior adviser to the Department of Political Planning at the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and as a director and a consultant to international and regional private and public institutions.
“Shame on the State of Israel and the entire security establishment,” Ariel said. “These people have to stand on line for hours in terrible conditions. In the summer it’s boiling hot and in the winter there’s freezing rain. Why isn’t this problem being fixed?”
Mishal, the older brother of well-known journalist Nissim Mishal, has been nicknamed by critics as a ‘Hamasnik.’ For years, Mishal refused to view Hamas as an eternal rival, and believed that the solution could be found through dialogue between the two sides. Once, when he was a guest on the TV show Popolitica, the late Yosef Lapid told him that the university that awarded him a degree should be ashamed of itself. But these barbs didn’t bother Mishal and the radio interview with Ariel from the Bayit Yehudi political party was like a light at the end of the tunnel. Mishal immediately made an urgent appointment with the minister.
“I told him, ‘I know what you think about me, that everyone calls me a Hamasnik, but I want to tell you that I grew up in Bnei Akiva. I’m from your side. And so I’m going to tell you now using Bnei Akiva jargon what needs to be done. For 100 years already we’ve been trying to find a solution and now it’s your turn. If Bayit Yehudi opens a line of communication with Hamas, this will be a path we’ve never walked down before,’” Mishal said during our meeting.
“So he asked me, ‘And how would this help?’ I responded, saying, ‘You seem to have your head screwed on tightly enough to understand that neither side is going to stop believing in their truth. The Jews believe that every inch of the Land of Israel is holy and the other side thinks that Palestine is holy. But if we try to respect the other side, they will respect us. We can reach some sort of agreement without touching on basic beliefs. Those issues will be dealt with when the Messiah comes.’”
Why do you have so much faith in Bayit Yehudi?
“Bayit Yehudi and Hamas are the only ones who can get the job done. It won’t be a solution based on military slogans or Israel’s security. The reality is much more complex and requires that we take a different approach. For example, when you take aim and then shoot at a specific ball on a pool table, sometimes a different color ball ends up falling into the pocket.
“You need to change your mind-set and be modest enough to admit that the current method isn’t working out so well. You’ve made all the possible mistakes with the Palestinians.”
So who will give in to whom?
“The [Arabic] word hudna means temporary truce: I will conduct a dialogue with you because my situation doesn’t allow me to continue with the conflict. I won’t attack Israel under any condition because I can’t let myself be defeated. I’ll do things that keep the embers burning and that can be interpreted as a deviation from principle, but I can explain this deviation using the Koran.
“In the Koran it is written that if a Muslim commander is facing defeat, he’s required to find a way to reach an understanding with the enemy. You are to use dialogue to stay true to the cause. That’s why Bayit Yehudi and Hamas are the ideal candidates for such a dialogue. Both of them will aspire to reach a solution that can lead to a final agreement that is technically defined as temporary. An ongoing solution.”
That doesn’t seem like a very realistic idea.
“What’s Hamas’s symbol? Al-Aqsa Mosque with the Palestinian flag from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Just like yours. Our Land of Israel is their Palestine. The irony of it is that it was the British who drew these borders.
“When I was young, there was no such thing as a Greater Land of Israel. That only took on momentum after the Six Day War. The dream is to live on the land of our forefathers. We just need to find a solution that’s consistent with the sources.”
Do you think we’ll be able to get both sides to reach an agreement?
“I do. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is known to have said that he’d agree to a 20- or 30-year temporary truce. That’s the model we’ll work on.
“Yassin was ready to sit down at the negotiating table. He understood the limitations of Islam’s power and the benefits of reaching an agreement that does not require that he give up on his principles. He knew that none of our Arab neighbors would come to their rescue and understood the predicament of being the weakest link. He believed that the other side shouldn’t have to give up their Land of Israel ideology just as the Palestinians shouldn’t give up their belief that the land was holy for Islam.
“He wanted to reach an agreement that each side could stomach without calling either side being called a traitor.
How has Jordan survived all these years?
It never tried to alter the Palestinians’ symbols. Their worst nightmare is that one day the Palestinians living in Jordan will take over the country. The Palestinians have never risen up against them.”
Except for Black September in 1970.
“Yes, but that was just one incident. Throughout all the years, the Jordanians have made it clear that they would not touch the Palestinians’ symbols. It was as if they were saying Palestine belonged to the Palestinians, but until you achieve statehood, we’re going to be the ones running the show.”
Jerusalem is still a minefield for both sides, correct?
“If the Palestinians do this unilaterally, they’ll be considered traitors by the younger generation. You must offer them an alibi, just like Israel would need an alibi before withdrawing from certain parts of the West Bank.
“Jerusalem is already divided de facto. It is also a post-Zionist city, since most of its residents are Arabs or haredi Jews. The problem can only be solved from the bottom up. If the Europeans, for example, want to establish a university in Israel, who will be able to stop them? Slowly they’ll turn the city into the capital of the EU.
“When the State of Israel was formed, it didn’t have a capital. [David] Ben-Gurion was afraid that Jerusalem would be internationalized. He understood its importance for the fledgling new state. Only in February 1949 was a final decision about Jerusalem taken. The previous idea had been to build Israel’s modern capital in Mamshit.”
MISHAL, 73, is an interesting person. His opinions can make your hair stand on end, but also make you engage in some deep thinking. The political science professor was born in Baghdad and made aliya with his family when he was six years old. They spent their first days in Israel in a ma’abara (immigrant absorption camp) in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem and then later on moved to B’nei Brak. Mishal did his IDF service in the Paratroopers and fought in the battle at Ammunition Hill during Six Day War as a reservist, where he saw many of his friends die right in front of him.
“Lately, I’ve been suffering from post-trauma,” Mishal admits. “I’ve continued living my normal life and teaching, but I’ve become short-tempered and impatient. Everyone who survived the battle at Ammunition Hill has suffered some sort of post-trauma. It’s part of my story. I experienced war, which always comes out bad. That battle should have ended differently.”
The conflict with Hamas, however, seems to be a never-ending conflict.
“Although Operation Protective Edge increased the friction between the two sides, it also increased public awareness that we are in a vicious cycle with no end game. Today, Hamas is more flexible and willing to talk about using dialogue to solve the conflict.”
Do you think we have a unique opportunity ahead of us?
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The new Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and others who’ve spent half of their lives in Israeli prisons could be called ‘Sabra Palestinians.’ They understand the limitations of power and are relatively flexible and willing to consider holding dialogue with Israel and relay messages to Israel. I think that in the end they will probably join forces with the PLO and as a result there’ll be another split and the distinction between the PLO and Hamas will become blurred. There’s a lot of trial and error going on.
MISHAL BELIEVES that traditional thinking about what constitutes a modern state and the role borders play in the region are unrealistic.
“Since the onset of the Arab Spring, many developments have taken place that could not have been predicted,” he explains.
“People claimed that this was a lot of noise about nothing. Look at what’s happening in Syria – no one even remembers what happened there seven years ago. Many countries in the area are still functioning, but they’re afraid that this phenomenon will reach them, too. They’re working hard to keep their heads above water.
“There are two levels of leadership in today’s Middle East: the top level includes the US, Russia and the EU, and the second level is made up of regional powers, such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. I call this the geopolitical tectonic shift. The Shi’ites in Iran control the area from the southeast up toward the north into Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The Sunnis, which used to be the major power in Syria and Lebanon, have moved south to Saudi Arabia.”
How is Israel handling these shifts and instability?
“Everything has changed. The Middle East is like a laboratory and the Arab Spring is breathing down our necks. There has always been a lack of unity and tension, but these issues have now been brought to the forefront.
“You might not have thought about this, but Jordan, for example, could one day fall into the hands of the Russians and the Iranians. This is the only country in the Fertile Crescent that is not controlled by a superpower. Everyone is trying to predict what a war with Iran would look like. Jordan receives partial support from Israel and the US.
“For Israel, Jordan plays an extremely important role as a buffer zone that protects us from our enemies. Jordan could easily find itself losing control since it is a country of immigrants. No country is invincible.”
Hasn’t the difficult situation in the Gaza Strip caused people there to come up with any alternative plans?
“They aren’t looking for a way out in the same way you are. The question is, what are their expectations? In Egypt, there are entire populations where generation after generation is born and dies in the same place without ever entertaining the idea of doing something different. So of course there’s hope that the situation will change, but we can’t underestimate people’s ability to continue living with the status quo.
“Don’t forget about radical Islam, whose main message is that the West is bad, and that Muslims should go back to traditional ways. Some people in Saudi Arabia have decided that celebrating birthdays is forbidden. Why? Because it shows haughtiness towards Allah.”
Do ISIS and Hamas have a close relationship?
“There are collaborations between the two organizations, but Hamas is treading carefully, because it’s worried about how Egypt will react. There a few radical cells within Hamas that have a connection to ISIS. Support of ISIS grew mostly because Egyptians in Sinai felt they were being discriminated against by the government (they have a secondary level of citizenship).
“Secondly, the volume of smuggling has fallen following the construction of the border wall between Egypt and Israel. If we had just let the smuggling take place, we’d probably have less of an ISIS problem today. Fences are not always a good thing.”
What do you recommend we do?
“Speak with them. I think you’ll find in the end that it was a worthwhile investment. I once heard a lecture by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz at the university. He said that every day in his morning prayers he would pray for the coming of the Messiah, but then say right afterwards, ‘But he won’t come.’
“This everlasting peace that we yearn for – it will never come.”
 Translated by Hannah Hochner.