The Skeptical Realist: Interview With Martin Sherman
Ministerial adviser to Yitzhak Shamir, lecturer in Political Science, International Relations, and Strategic Studies at the Tel Aviv University, Martin Sherman was the first academic director of the Herzliya Conference. He is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies whose declared aim is to “confront, contain and counteract the ‘intellectual surrender’ to the dictates of post-Zionist political correctness often reflected in the conduct of official Israeli policy-makers and in the content of official Israeli policy-making.”
This interview examines his views on the latest developments in Israeli foreign policy.
The news that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have agreed to develop full diplomatic ties has been hailed by most commentators as a turning point for the Middle East and the future of Israel. Not so much for you. Can you explain to us why?
I think the agreement with the UAE is a positive step, but I am not one of those who joins in the general euphoria. Basically, what Israel is doing is formalizing the existing relations, so, in other words, it is formalizing something which is already ongoing. It may help a little bit, but the UAE is a country of one million citizens and nine million expatriates and migrants, some of them living in very poor conditions. The GDP per capita in Israel is slightly above that of the UAE, so I don’t see this as being a great bonanza.
It will have positive effects but we signed peace agreements that should have been far more impactful, for instance the one with Egypt, which is the largest Arab country in the world, and that didn’t turn out to be really something spectacular; it is far more a non-belligerency agreement than a peace agreement. We were very lucky that the thing didn’t dissolve once the Muslim Brotherhood took power. It has been a stroke of good fortune that Egypt was taken over by Al-Sisi and prevented the deterioration despite the peace treaty.
I think perhaps that the main importance of this agreement is that it could be a prop in choreographing a bigger drama — and that is how it will impact the November elections in the United States. Because if this is perceived as a foreign policy success that helps nudge Trump to victory, then it is a very strategic win for Israel.
If Trump wins we will be able to feel relieved; if Biden wins, we will have a lot of trouble in the next four years or possibly eight years, because the Democratic party has become in many ways an anti-Israeli party. So if this agreement is perceived as a success for Trump, this will be it’s major strategic benefit for Israel.
There could also be all sorts of economic spin offs for tourism. Israel has managed to develop from a poor agricultural country to a post-industrial modern economy without having much relations with Arab countries. So I will be very restrained in opening up the champagne bottles.
In her piece about the agreement published in Israel Hayom, Caroline Glick wrote that the heart of the matter is the Palestinian veto — in other words, the proposition that Israel’s right to exist is contingent on its satisfaction of Palestinian claims against it. Do you agree?
There is a certain amount of truth that this agreement was concluded without any concession on the part of the Palestinians, but you can say the same thing about the Jordanian agreement. I am not sure that much was taken into account. Some people might argue that the Jordanian agreement was a derivative of the Oslo agreements. If it was not for the Oslo agreements there would not have been a Jordanian agreement.
I think that it is undeniable that the Palestinian issue has lost some of its centrality on the international agenda. But the fact that the agreement was tied to sovereignty seems to undercut that somewhat because some concessions were made on the Palestinian front in giving it up; and this is problematic because there are a number of factors that militate towards undertaking an extension of sovereignty sooner rather than later.
One of them is that there might be a change of administration in the United States in November, and if the extension of sovereignty is not executed before the elections and Joe Biden wins, we can forget about extending sovereignty for the foreseeable future. The second factor is that before the elections Trump needs the Evangelical vote, and the Evangelicals are very pro-sovereignty. So this might be the time to push sovereignty before November. The third thing is that if this agreement has been portrayed as fulfilling the national interest of the Emirates, why should Israel have to pay anything to help the Emirates pursue their national interest? It shouldn't pay any price.
Moreover, the attraction of Israel for the Sunni so-called moderate states is that it is a strong partner. But if Israel is forced to make concessions to the Palestinians, it will make it more vulnerable and far less attractive as a strong partner, because it will need to devote much of its resources to dealing with the Palestinian front, rather than dealing with the common front against Iran. There is a sum of factors which militate in favour of extending sovereignty earlier rather than later.
If Trump wins and you can have both relations with the Emirates and sovereignty, that’s fine. But if you need to give up sovereignty for formalizing relations which exist without the agreement, that is a price too high to pay, because it’s a vital national interest for Israel to prevent any hostile takeover of Judea and Samaria — the highlands overlooking the coastal plain and a bulwark against any incursion from the east. Extending sovereignty over those areas would be an important step in fulfilling that national interest and backtracking might imperil its eventual implementation. While I view the agreements generally as something positive, I have many reservations as to how significant they are going to be.
Do you also have reservations about the possibility that the United States might sell to the Emirates F-35 planes?
At the moment, it does not seem to be directly tied to the agreement. Some people claim that it won’t be a danger to Israel because the range of those planes is not long enough for them to reach Israel without refueling. This is not my major concern because every time an Arab country has signed an agreement with Israel, for some reason they have always been rewarded by modernizing their army. The same thing happened with the Egyptians and it was probably a greater danger.
However, this agreement cannot suspend the provision in American law that Israeli security and its technological edge must be taken into account before any deal is done. I am not sure this is an immediate threat. Giving up sovereignty is a very very high price to pay — more than the modernization of the Emirates military technology. Israel managed to overcome technological threats quite successfully, so unless there is a revolution in the Emirates, I think that these planes do not constitute a big threat for Israel.
For the first time since 1967 an American president, Donald Trump, has made the unprecedented move of making the Department of State declare that the settlements in Judea and Samaria are not in breach of international law. As a consequence he gave a green light to Israel to extend its sovereignty over 30% of its territories. It was a historic shift, but now the picture has changed. Would you like to comment on this?
Let me say at least two things. Certainly, the Trump administration has been the most positive strategic development for Israel in many decades. There is an entire procession of major moves that it has made which have been very positive for Israel, from recognizing Jerusalem as its capital, to moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, from recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, to defunding UNRWA and the PA, and pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal. These have all been great strategic wins for Israel.
On the other hand, Israel has been very reticent in pushing forward its own interests. Trump is probably more pro-Israel than the Israeli government itself. The recognition of Jerusalem and the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem, I think, was much more an American initiative rather than the result of Israeli pressure, and the same goes with UNRWA. Everyone knew what a farce UNRWA was, and Israel never really put that on the front burner of its public diplomacy.
Israel could and should have been far more assertive, pressing for sovereignty. The bottom line is that Israel cannot allow that territory to fall into hostile hands, therefore, eventually, the only solution is for Israel to extend its sovereignty over it, and this has not been made clear enough or presented robustly enough by Israeli governments for a long time. I have not seen Netanyahu being really greatly enthusiastic about the whole idea.
In politics, one often follows the line of least resistance and I think that when the Americans saw that there was not great enthusiasm on the Israeli side they tried something else, basically they choreographed an alternative, saying that sovereignty has been delayed, giving in exchange a political success to an important Arab country. I hope that this is just a delay. A lot depends on the result of the November elections in the United States.
Israel’s strategic position has improved tremendously since 2014 and 2016 by events that were not the result of Israeli policy. The first was Al-Sisi seizing power from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the second was the totally unexpected victory of Trump in the American elections. As I said, both these events were not the result of Israeli policy, but they improved Israel's strategic position immensely. I would have been much happier if the improvement in Israeli strategic position was a result of purposeful policy but basically Israeli foreign policy seems to be, at best, managing the status quo.
This brings us to the next question. What is your general assessment of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy in relation to the settlements and to Gaza?
Let me say this at the beginning, I am not an uncritical apologist for Netanyahu but on the whole Netanyahu has been a transformational Prime Minister for Israel. He achieved major successes in virtually every field: he extended Israel’s diplomatic reach in many places in the world, South America, Africa, India; he managed to sit out the very hostile Obama administration; he managed to basically neutralize much of the EU opposition to Israel by driving a wedge into the Union, by setting up friendly relations with Central East European countries and reducing Israel’s economic dependence on hostile EU. As far as terrorism goes, there have been flare ups, but he has reduced terrorism to barely perceptible levels in most parts the country.
This being said, my major criticism of him — which is connected to your question — is that he hasn’t invested enough in Israel’s public diplomacy. I think that public diplomacy is a strategic tool. I have been saying for years that if Israel were to invest one percent of the state budget in public diplomacy, that would be over a billion dollars. With a billion dollars, you can win a lot of hearts and change a lot of minds. And we just haven’t done that, and that has certainly reduced Israel’s freedom of movement on many other fields.
I don’t think Netanyahu has been robust enough in advancing the settlements. For example, taking land for peace off the table would have had a very positive effect on the housing prices in Israel, because this would have provided a large supply of housing near the center of the country. Judea and Samaria are very close to the major population center of the coastal plain. That is one of my major criticisms of Netanyahu.
As for Gaza, the problem is not operational — it’s conceptual. As long as you conceive the Palestinians as being prospective peace partners rather than what they themselves say they are — implacable enemies — you will never be able to formulate an effective policy. If you just try to keep the violence down to an "acceptable" level it will continue to grow. When you meet violence just with minimum response, you don’t deter it, you just immunize the other side against fear, so that when violence breaks out again it will escalate.
If you look at the military capability they have in Gaza now, it is far beyond what anyone could have imagined. If anyone would have predicted in 2005 that the future of Gaza would be what it is now, he would have been dismissed as an unrealistic scaremonger! But that is what you have today. I believe there is no consensual solution for Gaza. The only solution is to take it over and conduct an initiative for large scale emigration from Gaza to other countries. If you look at the public opinion polls and if you look at the desperate efforts of many Gazans who are trying to flee the place, I think that instigating large scale immigration will be much easier than what most people imagine.
So do you favor Israel taking over Gaza again? Do you think this can be done together with Egypt?
I don’t know what will happen in Egypt. Al-Sisi won’t stay in power forever. The Muslim Brotherhood is down in the country right now, but it is not out. If two months before Mubarak was ousted you said it (his overthrow) was going to happen, no one would have taken you seriously. Some of the most informed pundits dismissed the possibility of Mubarak being ousted, even the day before he was. There is a tremendous economic crisis in Egypt, I don’t know what is going to happen with the Ethiopian dam on the Blue Nile; if it reduces the flow of the Nile to Egypt, Egypt will be doomed. Egypt is facing tremendous problems. I think the future of Egypt is very bleak.
Getting back to what you said — no, I don’t think Egypt should be a partner in the takeover of Gaza, and Israel can’t avoid it. If this carries on, Jews will begin to leave the Negev and the South. Why would you want to bring up your children in that kind of atmosphere if the government is tolerating it? By not having a massive military retaliation to balloons and rockets, you are legitimizing setting Israeli fields on fire. It's just pure luck that houses have not been set on fire. You are also legitimizing rocket fire. Why should the Palestinians be allowed to even drop one rocket on Israeli settlements?
Getting back to the UAE-Israel agreements, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs has stressed that the country that warrants the agreements is the USA. Jared Kushner has said the same thing. It seems that Israel is tied to an American obligation.
America certainly has great influence on Israeli policy — this doesn’t mean that they have total control of it. Under this administration, as I have said, the United States is more pro-Israel than the Israeli government. I think that nothing of what Israel has achieved under this administration would have happened on Israel initiative itself. Israel has been very reticent in pushing its own interests.
The key is to invest in far more resources and far more resolve in its public diplomacy. Yigal Allon, the late Labor Foreign Affair Minister, said that the Arabs can lose many wars and still survive, but Israel cannot lose a single war because it will mean the extinction of most of its population and the destruction of the Jewish state. I think that Israel's successes have somewhat blinded people to the reality of its vulnerability.