Some 20 years after the Oslo Agreements. As it happens, the Embassy was only ending their paper subscriptions to swap to electronical news, from other sources. The attention my comment aroused in social media and newspapers – including several demands that I should offer an unreserved apology – actually led to an invitation to do an interview with the Ambassador. This is why we are sitting here with Israel’s Ambassador Raphael Schutz, with a rolling video camera.
I start by apologising for the misunderstanding. So, who is Schutz, and why is a conversation with him important? After all, through almost 20 years of criticism of Israel’s behaviour – in Morgenbladet, Le Monde Diplomatique, and now in Modern Times – this is the first time such an invitation has come from the Embassy, that a response to the criticism will be given, and for it to be discussed. Schutz has been Israel’s Ambassador to Norway for exactly one year. Referencing the criticism Israel has received in Norwegian media, he says: “Criticism is ok. Criticism is fair – it’s part of human nature. What bothers me, is when it goes beyond critical thinking. When it becomes a systematic campaign which aims to delegitimise Israel’s existence as a state, or as the homeland of the Jewish people. I see the power of definition here, with strong financial and ideological supporters.” The problem arises, according to Schutz, when this starts becoming a political trend or cult, rather than criticism. “If you harass Israel today, there are no consequences. It’s become something that belongs to the radical left. Let me use the episode that occurred between us as an example: It became natural to assume that when we ended our subscription, this was because we are totalitarian – because we are not willing to listen to criticism. Another example is Oslo Documentary Film Festival, which has decided to boycott Israel. Why? I’m not saying that we don’t deserve criticism – we do. But if you read Israeli media, I think you would see that we are our own worst critics. But, from that to the hateful attitudes we’re seeing in Norway, there is an abyss”, says Schutz. I tell Schutz that over the last few years, I travelled around Israel and video interviewied twenty Palestinians and Jews about the Israel/Palestine conflict, in addition to Norwegian diplomats traveling in the area. I have also read Jewish philosophers like Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas. I do not belong to a dogmatic left, but have an open, culturally radical position mainly based on a philosophical background. Schutz, on the other hand, is a diplomat, and has been a diplomat for the past 30 years, including in a number of Spanish-speaking countries such as Colombia and Spain, after starting his career in Chile. Before his Norwegian tenure, he was head of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Europe Department. He has a lot of experience and a solid background to form his own opinions. Still, I imagine there must be more to his engagement.
“The most important element is that I was born in Israel in 1957, when the state was nine years old”, says Schutz. “My parents were refugees from Germany. They arrived with my grandparents to the Palestine Mandate region when they were under a British mandate in the 1930s. The feeling of being a refugee and having to fight for basic rights – a state of your own – is what mainly defines me. I am an Israeli who does not take Israel’s existence as a given. I am also someone who believes that history has shown us that Jews do not only have the right to live in Israel, but also that they should have a full mandate to live in a sovereign state. Because we have seen what happens when we don’t have that”, says Schutz.
“This is probably me in a nutshell. I studied history and political science at the Bar-Ilan University in Israel – actually a religious university with a majority of non-religious students. While I’m an Israeli, I am not a practicing Jew. But nationally, I define myself 100% as a Jew, because Judaism is not only about religion.”
The walls in Israel. Schutz appeared on NRK this spring, as TV program Urix screened an extended version of My Homeland. A propaganda film, in Schutz’ opinion. “I gave a lengthier analysis which wasn’t shown in full on NRK, perhaps due to time restraints. My Homeland was not a critical movie, but a propaganda film with a defined political message which corresponds to the Norwegian media landscape. The movie is divided into seven or eight interviewees, where all of them except one tells the story from the Palestinian viewpoint. The film represents the radical left”, says Schutz. “In the film, an elderly woman from one of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon says that she wants to return to Palestine. But, no one asks why. No one talks about Germans who should be able to return to Poland, or Indians who want to return to Pakistan. The problem is that few Palestinians want to return. Today, there are Americans, Brits and others who come from a background as Palestinian refugees – and who have the same rights as the rest of the country’s population. If there is one place where Palestinians are treated as second-rate citizens, it’s in the Arab countries.” I remind Schutz that the Israeli woman who is interviewed in the film actually says that she hates the walls that exist in Israel – based on her background from being imprisoned during the Holocaust. “Of course”, says Schutz. “The wall, or the separation barrier, between Israel and Palestine has not always existed. We didn’t raise it because we suddenly felt a need to be separate from Palestinians. The wall was raised because we experienced a wave of suicide attacks in 2001-02, which culminated in March, when a total of 100 Israelis were killed by suicide bombers in every large city in Israel. The politicians decided to raise the wall, which has practically saved the lives of thousands of Israelis.”
Schutz mentions similar “walls of separation” in the US, Spain and South Africa. He thinks the difference is that the wall in Israel is saving the lives of the population. “The term ‘the apartheid wall’, as a wall for ethnic cleansing, is not based in reality. I pray for the day when the conflict is over, so that we may have a Palestinian state and an Israeli state, and return to the open borders we had until 2002.” I am not letting go of the topic. That Palestinians are stuck on the West Bank, and in Gaza, which gives them very few economic opportunities, and leads to unemployment and extreme poverty. Gaza is under siege by a blockade – many have called it ‘the world’s biggest prison’. “If you on the one hand look at the right to work in Israel as a Palestinian, and on the other hand, the right to life, I think that the right to life carries more weight,” is the response. “Israel does not only have the right to, but the duty to save the lives of its citizens. We actually left Gaza ten years ago and gave the Palestinians a golden opportunity to live independent lives. Everything was open. No blockade. The vision was that Gaza could become a sort of Hong Kong of the Middle East. But what did they do? First of all, they destroyed all the greenhouses that we had left for them, to improve the farming industry. Then Hamas turned up, with their ideology of fighting against Israel all the time. One of the problems in Palestinian circles is that it’s more important to destroy Israel than to build your own state. Hate and negative attitudes are weightier than the positive ones. Hamas recruits 13-year-old boys for summer camps with weapons, where they learn to hate. We see how they treat gays and women according to strict Islamic ideology.” I ask Schutz, who himself is secular, whether he wishes to comment on the attitude towards women in Israel among the extreme Orthodox, how Tora-readers ask women to sit in the back of the bus, or tell women not to use the same sidewalk as men. “I agree that we have our share of fundamentalists, but in Israel, this group is a minority,” says the Ambassador. “Israel is like heaven for the LGBT-community. Even in Jerusalem, you can see people living openly as homosexuals.”
Israel’s militarism. A completely different, and frequently criticised, side to Israel is its militaristic state. Israel has a highly developed technology, and are indoctrinating the coming generation into military life, where both women and men serve for years, in addition to a month-long repetition every year for the next 25 years. Schutz himself served his compulsory military service between 1975-78. “These were quiet years, I mostly stayed in Sinai, which was later returned to Egypt after Camp David”, he says. “It’s important to understand that we are not Sparta, we are not militarists per se. We need a strong army, or we wouldn’t be here anymore We’re not in Europe. There are forces around us who don’t accept our right to be here, and they’re not used to discussing the issue in an intellectual manner. They communicate with bombs, by cutting off people’s heads. You may call us paranoid, but I don’t agree. What Israel hears from Europe is that it’s our own fault, that the problem is the settlements and so on. Nobody asks about the Israeli perspective, about what we fear and what we are afraid of. The environment we live in does not exist in their mind.”
Yes, it seems to many of us outsiders – including Jewish rabbis – that Jews and Palestinians will never find a peaceful solution, because the hate or the power is too dominating for any solution to be seen. I therefore challenge Schutz as to why they cannot accept an international force, independently controlled, and peace administered from the outside – for example, through a peacekeeping force from the UN placed in Israel-Palestine. “Currently, the UN does not have the mandate to enforce any kind of solution”, he responds. “As Israelis, we don’t trust others enough to hand over the responsibility for our security to someone from the outside. Syria and the Golan Heights are good examples. When Syria started boiling, when militias like ISIS and Al-Qaida got mixed up, the UN ran away. So, we are careful not to believe that someone from the outside can protect us.” Schutz’ own Prime Minister is hardly helping to calm things down. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is being criticised for his propaganda directed at Iran, spreading a fear of possible nuclear weapons in order to strengthen his own position. On this, the US has actually chosen to enter into a cooperation with Iran, as opposed to Israel. “So, we disagree with the US, something that we are most entitled to do in this case”, the Ambassador believes. “The US is a country far removed from Iran, we are much closer. Ali Khamenei says on TV that Israel should be destroyed, so it’s no wonder that we have a different perspective.” Regarding attacks on others, I remind Schutz of Israel’s own terrorists, both the Irgun and the Stern gangs in the 1940s, who killed innocent civilians. They were behind the bombing of the King David Hotel and the murder of the Swedish peace negotiator Folke Bernadotte (see article on page 6). Massacres were carried out against Palestinian villages, and these terrorist acts were carried out by Jews. Schutz thinks that this does not say anything about Israel as such: “All nations have chapters in their history that involves terrorism. But the question is what the size of the terrorist fractions has been. Yes, there have been Jewish terrorist fractions in the fight for independence.”
The Oslo Accords. Norway once played an important role, as the Oslo Accord was being worked out – an attempt to produce a peace agreement with assistance from the outside. The agreement has been harshly criticised for being asymmetrical, as one party was far too powerful, without any real dialogue, and thus no free negotiations whatsoever. What does Schutz think about the agreement today, 20 years after it was negotiated in 1993-95? The Israeli settlements tripled after the agreements, reaching 600,000. The peace agreement can be seen as a cover for extended occupation. Schutz replies: “Regarding your first comment on dialogue. It depends who your neighbour is. If your neighbour was shooting at you, you would probably change your opinion. We need a military force, otherwise we will cease to exist. This is something that I expect people in Norway to understand. In 1994, I was a big supporter of the Oslo Accord. I still believe that two states for two people is the best solution, which was the logic behind the agreement. But you have to understand that ‘Oslo’ in the collective memory of Israel is connected to suicide attacks, with buses exploding in Israeli cities.
This happened immediately after the signing of the agreement. So, you can’t say that the Oslo Accord was a prelude to expansion of the settlements. The fact that we’ve given up territory to Jordan and Egypt says something about how far we are willing to go for peace. After entering into these agreements, we achieved exactly that – peace. The agreement with Palestine was different in the sense that the terror didn’t stop in spite of the agreement having been reached.” Still, why do you need to settle in areas populated by Palestinians? I ask Schutz. “In Israel too, there are people who believe that the settlement was a mistake”, he says. “However, many believe it is their right to be there, and it’s a historic fact that the Palestinian areas never belonged to a Palestinian state in the past. But, more importantly: I consider it a great lie that the settlements are a hindrance to peace. They are not. When we reached a peace agreement with Egypt, we evacuate the settlements. We’ve done the same thing in Gaza. Anyone who claims that the settlements are at the root of the conflict, are mistaken. There was no peace with the Arab states until we dominated the areas.”
What about East Jerusalem, where Palestinians are constantly losing their homes? “No one loses property without a reason. If an Israeli court finds evidence that this was Palestinian, the Palestinian get to keep the property. Look at Susia, which was recently mentioned in the media. Susia didn’t exist before. Twenty years ago, there was no Palestinian presence there, just nomads visiting from time to time. They built there illegally, and claim that they have owned the area for several generations. This is part of a propaganda machine.”
Totalitarianism. I once asked Israel’s former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, about the Camp David agreement, where he explained that they were working on ideas to build a tunnel or a separate highway between the West Bank and Gaza. They were considering to let the Palestinians have their own independent state and economy, their own airport and free harbours. I ask Schutz to comment on any possible future solutions. “Many have talked about the conflict between Israel and Palestine as the mother of all conflicts, and claimed that the Middle East as a region would be different if it ended. I have always considered this to be nonsense”, says Schutz.
“The Middle East has major problems that have nothing to do with the conflict around Palestine. In spite of all the problems we have today, I would say that it’s easier to live in Palestine than in many other Arab countries.” He continues: “Regarding your interview with Barak – I couldn’t agree more. I agree that it’s in Israel’s own interest to have a viable Palestinian state with a viable economy. You could build a tunnel from the West Bank to Gaza, or give free passage. I don’t care. What I do care about, is Israel’s security.” I choose to question the Ambassador about totalitarianism, as formulated by the political thinker Hannah Arendt in her books. Arendt analyses controlling regimes that are based undemocratically on lies, fear, military technology and terrorism, where totalitarianism works in an indirect manner and is less visible than in tyrannical regimes. They feed off ideology and hate towards others. “Hannah Arendt’s philosophy is popular, but it has also been subject to criticism. Don’t make her an icon or bring her into the critical debate. She is not above it. She wrote at a time when the challenges we are seeing today did not exist. She never experienced a reality where airplanes are crashed into skyscrapers”, says Schutz. “Hate or psychology is not what is creating our negative atmosphere. First and foremost, it’s the realities of the world. The Middle East is real. More than 250,000 people are dead in Syria, there’s Nigeria, Libya, Yemen – all these conflicts are part of reality. They are not staged by the right-wingers to create fear. You ask me whether this is being misused by politicians – yes, perhaps. But reality came first.” I remind Schutz that protests against Assad’s regime in Syria started with peaceful demonstrations, as in Homs, where people were singing and dancing before the regime brutally and violently supressed them. “If you are a peaceful demonstrator and you’re being shot at, of course you will defend yourself with weapons. At the same time, many are taking up weapons without having been attacked. Many talked about 11 September as punishment for the US due to their global politics and domination. I consider this to be nonsense”, says the Ambassador. “Europe rose from the ashes after the Second World War and managed to build the EU, which received the Nobel Peace Prize three years ago. People in Europe understood that the only way to build something, was through cooperation and by being constructive. The Arab world is not like that. They don’t have any form of civil society, and no civil rights. The basic foundation for society does not exist. The clearest indication of this is the way they treat women.” This is similar to the discussion about the chicken and the egg – what came first, or who started it. As I described it to his colleague Barak: If you press a human being into the dirt with your boot, he may strike out so he can breathe. Is it right to call him a terrorist? Barak mumbled that Norwegians used to have their Vikings. Schutz comments. «This explains something, but not everything. Ideology also plays an important part. Al-Qaida sees the progress and the welfare in the West, while they themselves are still living in Medieval conditions. So they blame colonialism and attack the West.”
I don’t see how Palestinians would want to give up the Oslo Accord and the benefits it has given them. In principle, we are not interested in dominating the Palestinians
The future. What about the future? Will they ever be able to solve this conflict on their own? Will Norway ever play a role again, as we are still leading the AHLC, the economically necessary donor group for Palestine? When I interviewed former Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, he recognised that they had considered closing down the support, as it only kept up the occupation and made the donors pay for it. And Yossi Beilin from Israel, one of the initiators behind the Oslo Accord, once told me in Tel Aviv that the Palestinian’s strongest weapon was to “return the key” – that is, to close down the Palestinian authorities that emerged with the Oslo Agreement, and simply let Israel take the full responsibility for the occupation, rather than being a Quisling government, like today. I ask Schutz to comment on what will happen if the donor group and Palestine ended their cooperation with Israel. “Well,” he says. “I think it’s difficult to say what Israel would do. I don’t think this will happen, these are some kind of empty words. I don’t see how Palestinians would want to give up the Oslo Accord and the benefits it has given them. In principle, we are not interested in dominating the Palestinians. They should have the same rights and the same duties. But if tomorrow we were to unilaterally end the so-called occupation on the West Bank, we are doomed to experience the same thing that happened when we left Gaza: being attacked. Make no mistake, it will happen.”
In Gaza, pollution and child mortality is increasing. It’s impossible for them to manage on their own, isolated and impoverished
“I think we should be as flexible and helpful as possible in terms of Palestinian standards of living and economy”, says Schutz. “There used to be an airport in the West Bank, and Gaza had access to the harbour from the port in Gaza. But then the Palestinians started using it for arms smuggling. If we can create a situation where this is not happening, I’m for that. It takes two to tango.” Around the world, many Jews are unhappy and frustrated that the militaristic solution ruins the reputation of their Jewish religion and culture. “I think most Jews in the world are very happy that we have Israel, and for the years of independence”, says Schutz. “The exceptions are Anti-Zionist Jews, who contribute to the leftist propaganda, including such people as Noam Chomsky, the idiot Max Blumenthal and the Israeli journalist Gideon Levi. The truth is that in Israel, hundreds of journalists have a different way of thinking about this than Levi, but he and the others I’ve mentioned are the only ones you see in Norway. It’s brain-washing you”, says Schutz. «Of course there are millions of Jews globally who are saddened by the situation in Israel. But I think there are far more who see how successful Israel is economically and culturally, and who are happy about all the positive sides of Israel that no one are talking about. As long as the international community and the extreme political left don’t address both sides – and Israel’s well-founded fear – and only listen to this negative discussion, a solution is far off.” Modern Times regularly print Israeli writer Uri Averny’s texts. “He is a great person, born in 1923 in Germany. I’m glad he is still writing. He has a unique perspective, he participated in the war in 1948”, says Schutz.
A one-state solution? Finally, I touch upon the idea of a bi-national one-state solution, where two states would co-exist – by many, considered to be the only way forward. When will Israel give every citizen one vote, so that they have equal rights? “Show me an example of this actually working”, says the Ambassador. “I South Africa you have the South Africans. In Belgium, you have the Flemings and Walloons. It’s obvious that it doesn’t work. After the fall of Tito in Yugoslavia, people cut each other’s throats until they could develop their own states. As Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Anan understood that reunification of people laid the basis for war, and avoided it. This is also the case in Israel. The world understood that the Jews deserved to be the majority in a state after the Second World War. Now, they want to take that state away from us, and divide it equally with the Palestinians. But demography is slowly working against us.”
In a one-state solution, the far richer Jews would be economically superior. Wouldn’t that be sufficient regulation, I finally ask. What about looking ten years ahead? “Economic superiority does not result in a democratic state. I want a country with 80% Jews. Where a non-Jew can become president or hold other positions. This is the vision of a democratic and Jewish country, without contradictions between one another.” He continues: “We have disappointed a lot over the past twenty years. We were certain that the Oslo Accord would be good and lead to security. I can’t say anything about the next ten years. At the same time, pessimism is a luxury we can’t afford. We have to do everything possible, but there is another player who also has to take responsibility.” On my way out, I ask if they will ever allow Mads Gilbert back into Gaza. Gilbert does not understand international law, says the Ambassador. “He should have remained a doctor.” Whether he will be let back in, is being continuously considered. The conversation is over. I see that both Jews and Palestinians have many arguments and feelings – but you cannot help but despair of these two nations. They are unlikely to ever find a solution, unless a powerful international community seizes responsibility and practically places the region under political administration.
See also the article written in the monthly Norwegian newspaper Ny Tid.