Voices of People III: ‘To make peace, build on what works’

Dahlia Shaham: “Two states may be the right format for a sustainable political arrangement… But to think that this separation is like a divorce is to live in a world that doesn’t exist. No political border can separate people that way”

Dahlia Shaham is a professional over-achiever. She grew up in Haifa and served in a legendary, slightly secretive IDF unit. She completed a law degree (LLB) at Hebrew University, worked as an analyst and team leader on social and economic affairs at the Reut Institute, a policy think-tank, and then did a Master of Law and Diplomacy in international political economics at the Fletcher School of Tufts University – all by the age of 33. Dahlia is now a consultant on social and economic development and training programs.

Dahlia Shaham 0511 (Photo: Morag Bitan)
Dahlia Shaham 0511 (Photo: Morag Bitan)

She is the third in my series on regular people in Israel, following my cousin Moshe, a religious/Haredi American immigrant in Jerusalem, and Makarem, a  young Arab lawyer from Jaljulia. Dahlia lives in Herzliya with her husband, a chef, and their cats.

Dahlia’s work has focused largely on macro-economic regional forces and political economy.  I didn’t ask at first about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but she gravitated to it immediately – punctuating her conversation with rushes of hope when describing opportunities, and sighs of deep frustration at the sense of political stagnation.

HOW ARE THINGS IN ISRAEL GOING TODAY IN GENERAL?

The political system and leadership are seriously flawed. But there are things about civil society, bureaucracy, and in parts of the business community that are going well.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE LEADERSHIP?

No one is held accountable and no one is expected to be accountable. That’s partly because of the lack of political stability, and the short tenure of governments and ministers. But a big part of it is our low expectations.

The leadership confuses justifications with end goals. It was really noticeable in the second Lebanon war (2006), or during the Cast Lead operation in Gaza (2009). If you ask “what are the goals of these policies,” they give you justifications, such as “there’s no alternative.” They justify bombing Gaza because of how the other side [Palestinians- DS] behaves, not because they have clear policy goals.

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

We need to discuss a vision of peace, before we try to figure out how to make it happen…What does it mean to have two states side by side, or a society that is not at war? We need to look at the aspects that are not at war, and strengthen them.

LIKE WHAT?

Take bureaucratic examples – the communications authorities, infrastructures, internet, telephone, transportation to some extent. Israel coordinates with Palestinians and Jordanians, and we’re part of many associations with Arab states participating too, where we’re not in conflict. Maybe we need to shine the spotlight there and see what works. Where do we have sustainable co-operation?

When it comes to the United Nations, the UN Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council get lots of exposure – and those are the agencies where we see the same old game repeating itself. But there are numerous other international agencies, within the UN as well, playing a different game, where we’re not constantly fighting. It’s the responsibility of the media to give them space too.

For example, the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Trade – and the Trade Administration – works with the parallel administration in the Palestinian Authority and other Arab countries. There’s a person responsible for trade with Jordan and Egypt…there’s the economic arm of Foreign Ministry, aid projects to Gaza, and Mashav (the Foreign Ministry’s foreign development assistance program) which can work with Jordan. There are networks of civil, infrastructure and commercial cooperation, managed by government agencies. The Annapolis process could have strengthened those connections…

A few year ago the EU negotiated with all the Mediterranean states about trade agreements … And Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, not to mention Morocco and Egypt, were all around the table. That could have been publicized. I heard about it…from someone at the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Trade, but she said it was a sensitive issue and we couldn’t talk about it.

WHAT COULD WE HAVE GAINED?

It would have been a slight crack in the armor of Israel’s besieged mentality.
Let’s not be naïve, this alone won’t lead to peace. But there’s something childish about thinking that any one thing will bring peace; rather, there are islands of peace, where Israelis and Arabs sit on the same side of the road. And we could learn from those islands.

Who remembers that Israeli representatives participated at Dubai for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank forums? Sure, there is so-called “sensitivity” – they say if you expose Israel’s involvement too much, the Arab states won’t come. It’s true that in 2003, Netanyahu (then Finance Minister) canceled and when then-Bank of Israel Governor David Klein spoke, some representatives left the hall and some moved two rows back. So what? They stayed for the rest of the conference. We don’t need to be so afraid of the boycott.

WOULDN’T THE ARABS SAY YOU’RE OFFERING NORMALIZATION INSTEAD OF ENDING THE OCCUPATION?

When I was researching my thesis about business relations between Israel and the Gulf States, I spoke to a government clerk who said the relationship is like a married man with his mistress. Both want to enjoy the benefits of the relationship, but the condition for getting those benefits is secrecy.

He’s partly right. If there’s a franchise of [Israeli businessman] Lev Leviev in Dubai, he’s the mistress and the franchise is the married man. If the franchise is exposed as linked to Israel, clients might leave or burn the shop. But in international forums and organizations, it’s worth seeing if we can call their bluff.

On BDS

What really remains of the Arab boycott? We are very scared of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement (BDS). But unlike the Arab boycott, it’s non-governmental and grassroots. Economically it’s almost irrelevant – mainly it’s just loud, with a high web presence and harsh rhetoric.

Giving BDS all that attention, and the title of ‘de-legitimization’ makes it much more than it is. The truth is that at this point, beyond hurting academic cooperation, boycotts only hurts the poorest and weakest.

LIKE WHO?

Local small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Large Israeli business who want to work in the Western world have solutions; they might face some entry barriers and risk management costs but if they have enough economic interest, they’ll break into that market. Smaller shops can’t do that.

The boycott hurts those who need economic development the most, like Palestinians inside Israel. It stops them from realizing their potential, as Israel’s representatives for export, middlemen [to the Middle East – DS], for example.

Also cooperation initiatives at the lower levels of society get screwed. Consider the initiatives to advance the Palestinian high tech industry. They have to learn the field without having any connection to the Israeli high tech industry – that means non-realization of potential. That’s the cost of BDS.

Put aside the image damage that BDS does. What really damages our image is the occupation. We have the feeling here that words are everything, and diplomacy is just a matter of selling narratives. We’re so wrapped up in our image, but it’s the fact that we’re occupiers that screws us as a society, economy and state.

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT ISRAEL TO DO TO MOVE FORWARD?

I see a dead end. I have no expectation that Israel will do anything.

WHY?

I don’t know whether it’s the current government or the system. But I don’t believe that anyone in the current government believes there is any reason to make any agreements with any Arabs. That was [Ariel] Sharon’s starting point. If you don’t believe in any commitment you get from any Arab, you continue the way things are or you continue unilaterally.

Unilateral action

I think there is a place for unilateral action.

Transfer of authority is one example. The idea that Israel collects taxes for the Palestinian Authority – I didn’t understand it at the Paris accords, and I don’t understand it now…I realize it’s a leverage card for someone, but it’s really a political burden. That could change, as a trust-building measure.

Another example has to do with settlements. What bothers me more than construction is the destruction around the settlements. It’s very hard for any Israeli government to say it will freeze settlements – they just can’t do it… But the destruction in Area C, in the civilian administration – they just destroy buildings, wells, they interfere with Palestinian construction in those areas.

In the South Hebron Hills, there are communities near settlements that are prevented from picking their olives. [Israeli authorities] declare their water wells to be “closed army zones.” There are destruction orders for things that were there before establishment of the state. Why should IDF soldiers have to deal with that? Why destroy stuff? It’s a waste of resources.
The army’s activity in the West Bank should focus on real security, not just for the settlements.

WHAT SHOULD ISRAEL DO ABOUT THE CONFLICT?

We must try to end to occupation and strive for normalization. The Arab peace plan is worth exploring for various aspects. I don’t think any Israeli or Palestinian government can sign an agreement on borders. Both leaderships feel pinned down by the right.

And so unilateral moves have merit…Israel can definitely support [Palestinian statehood] and say that the Palestinians feel they are their own masters…It will be easier for Israel to make its case on security, when it’s state against state, rather than occupier against occupied.

…The less we interfere with their politics and the more we focus on the borders between us, and converge in our respective boundaries, we strengthen the claim that we’re not occupiers. The more we go in, conduct operations inside their territory and blur the borders, and resist their economic independence, it seems obvious to me that we’re going in the direction of being occupiers.

Big Picture

WHAT SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT DO NOW?

I wish Netanyahu would realize that we’re living in a historic time, and that the whole first part of Obama’s speech is important. And he must understand that the security and prosperity of Israel is inextricably linked to security and prosperity and independence and freedom of the people who live around us, first of all Palestinians, and then all the others.

And I would like to hear from Bibi that Israel has a role in the region, as a beacon of democracy and economic progress. When Bibi talked about economic peace, I hoped that Obama, Clinton and Mitchell would hold him accountable. The US made a mistake by insisting on settlements – they lost an opportunity to say “we recognize the vision of this democratically elected leader, there are important aspects of economic peace and we’ll think about how to advance it.”

But Bibi was swallowed up by the paranoid Bibi who thinks Iran is the most important thing in the world.

WHAT ABOUT IRAN?

This might sound delirious, but I think the way to combat the regional threat of the nuclear arms race is through cooperation on nuclear energy. If Israel really wanted to call their bluff, we could say: “fine, if you say it’s just energy, then let’s establish the biggest agreement –  like the steel and coal agreements in Europe in the 1940s [part of the Marshall Plan] – we’ll get the best possible regional agreement, with international supervision, for shared nuclear energy. The condition, however, will be gradual nuclear disarmament and mutual supervision.” That could be a game changer. That’s what transformed Europe, taking the most serious weapons of the time and turning them into an industry, with shared supervision.

Visions of Cooperation

In 1938, my grandfather got on a train in Baghdad – he worked for the British rail company – he stopped in Damascus and Beirut, and got off in Jaffa. He met some crazy Zionists, refused a wild-sounding real estate offer (what a shame!), then got back on the train back to Baghdad.  It’s not so long ago – maybe the region can look like that again.

Two states may be the right format for a sustainable political arrangement… But to think that this separation is like a divorce is to live in a world that doesn’t exist. No political border can separate people that way.

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