We first met Gershon at a screening in Ramallah of the first film from our new series on global leadership, "The Price of Kings". As an Israeli negotiator he was curious to see the reaction of Palestinians to a film which revealed and re-evaluates, warts and all, Yasser Arafat as a leader - especially since this would be the first time they'd see his wife, Suha Arafat talking frankly about her husband, corruption, "terrorism", his death and secret struggles. We'd just shown the film in both Jerusalem and Jenin and one thing had become clear through post-screening Q&As - all opinions on the middle-east conflict are held passionately - especially in regard to the peace process and Palestinian-Israeli leadership.
With Israel's elections looming, Gershon gives us the low down on Israel's current leadership, a logical extension from Film 2 on President Peres as well as Film 1 on Arafat and how leadership can lead to six decades of conflict or end it.
What's your forecast for the election and peace process afterwards?
Right now, it looks like we’re going to have a government formed which would have strong objections to negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians, even more so than the outgoing government.
You’ve called for Netanyahu to clarify his position on a two state solution to the electorate. Why?
There has never been a decision of his government behind the two state solution. It’s been a policy statement by Netanyahu but it’s never been backed up by the decisions or actions in the government of Israel. Netanyahu’s record over the last four years doesn’t give Israelis and more importantly anybody else a reason to believe that he supports a two state solution.
But two years ago, Netanyahu affirmed his commitment to a two state solution in his Bar Ilan speech.
It would be hard to argue that his actions go along with the vision of a two state solution. Someone who was committed to advancing the two state solution would have acted differently in terms of settlement policy - settlement expansion and would have found a way to engage in real negotiations with Abu Mazen.
So why the pretence ?
Saying he's for a two state solution removed international pressure. And his strategy has worked, there's been no real pressure on Israel from the international community over the last four years and it's given Netanyahu more time to waste. I think Netanyahu needs to be called on it, and right now that's not happening with the electorate. It should be the front issue on the agenda but because the Israeli public doesn’t believe peace is possible they’re not pushing on it. Even though a survey published this week shows that a large majority of Israelis would vote for peace, if there was a package on the table.
You don't think it’s a question of courage?
Well, even before the courage there has to be a decision that he's willing to pay the price. That’s what it was with the Shalit dilemma. The price was known, it was known for a long time and Netanyahu had to come to the conclusion that he was willing to pay the price. After that decision, through the negotiations there were ways of mitigating any risks and dangers. But nothing could be done until he made the decision that he was willing to do it.
Are you saying he hasn’t made the decision yet on a two state solution?
Yes, for the past four years, the best situation possible vis-à-vis the Palestinians, in Netanyahu’s mind was keeping the status quo. Netanyahu came into office with the idea of an economic peace. The Palestinians understood with Bibi they weren't going to make any political progress so went with building the economy, the society. That had a lot of support from the Palestinians and they cooperated with rebuilding law and order, rebuilding institutions of the Palestinian Authority. But that ran its natural course and ultimately without political progress they turned to the UN. Last year they failed, this year they sort of succeeded. Now we’re facing the possibility of going back toward another round of violence, with each side taking steps against the other and that damage the peace process.
If he's not for a two state solution, presumably, that means he's for a one state solution?
No : If a one state solution means everyone between the river and the sea will be living with dual citizenship, this is not what Netanyahu wants.
Are you saying he's in denial ?
I think in his dreams, he sees a situation where Palestinians accept limited autonomy in their own regime, the Palestinian Authority continues to function, but sovereignty and control over borders etc. remains in Israel’s hands. Effectively a continuation of the status quo. I don’t know that it's denial, I think it’s been the goal of his administration to manage the conflict as well as possible to keep the violence down and keep everyone as happy as possible without any uprisings.
Is that negligent as far as his leadership goes?
One could make the argument that it’s the most responsible thing possible - if you believe an agreement is not possible, the situation not resolvable, then you'll want to simply manage it for as long as possible.
Is that putting off the inevitable ?
Delaying it, postponing it, pushing it away as long as possible and helping to mitigate it.
Do you think that's the reason Netanyahu hasn’t made a two state solution the front and centre electoral issue?
Netanyahu has been striving not to have anything be an electoral issue. He’s riding on the fact that this has been the quietest period in Israeli history for 20 years.The economy is basically good when you compare it to the rest of the world, we have our economic problems but he can say, "Look at this responsible leadership, we brought you more school hours, more healthcare, more this, more that, more of the other.
So there's an acceptance of the current situation?
I think the status quo is like the holy cow here, that everyone wants to worship and pray to, hold onto as long as possible. This is conflict management. Go to Tel Aviv and life is wonderful, so why not extend it for as long as possible? It’s not like living in the occupied territories, where you can’t avoid the conflict with Israel. Historically, the Palestinian issue has destroyed Israeli governments and Israeli Prime Ministers, it’s almost a sure thing that’s going to create failure for you so why even venture into it. That’s what Aaron Miller says about US presidents also, it’s the thing that every American president wants to do but failed on, so why even go into it? There's also a combination of ideological reasons. He’s been struggling with having to give up positions that he’s held onto his whole life with regards to greater land of Israel.
But if settlement building continues that diminishes the chance of a two state solution ?
It’s not only building the settlements, once the current Palestinian leadership is no longer around, the next generation of Palestinian leaders are going to be more radical. What’s acceptable today in the framework of an agreement will probably not be acceptable tomorrow. And as the Palestinians become more radical, more extreme, so will Israelis. There are two problems with the current direction. The first is the conclusion that what we are creating is the new apartheid - it's inevitable the world will come to this conclusion if we don’t find a way of ending the occupation - and then Israel will face enormous international pressure. The second is a question of life within the borders here. How do we maintain a democratic state that retains democratic values when we have such a large number, millions of people, living under our authority, without full equal rights.
It doesn't sound like you see much future in Netanyahu's leadership with regard to the peace process ?
There’s been zero leadership with Netanyahu regarding the peace process. In his first term he signed the Wye River agreement and it was mostly implemented which was surprising. He even confessed at the time that Arafat was a friend. Again, surprising. But in this term of office, the longest of any Prime Minister for a long time, he’s shown zero leadership, zero courage, zero will power to make peace.
Why do you think there was a change between the two terms?
Netanyahu's first term was pre-second intifada. The intifada destroyed the belief that peace is possible, that we have a partner for peace. It destroyed the Oslo agreement as a symbol and stepping stone for making lasting peace. The second intifada did such tremendous damage and it was very clear that Arafat was to a large extent supporting it - he let it get out of control. That made peace impossible in this period of time and also subsequently took a toll on Abu Mazen's negotiations, which had the effect of strengthening the myth that the Palestinians are not partners and will never reach an agreement.
Across our first 3 films we came to the conclusion it was all down to political will - especially with film 3, where President Arias successfully defies the superpowers and brings peace to Central America when he didn't even have an army. Is that the case ? Is it all down to political will ?
The whole issue with Netanyahu is political will, the moment he decides that he wants it, that he’s willing to do it, he can make it happen. I tell my friends in the peace camp, they ask me "How do we influence public opinion?" and I tell them there’s only one person we need to influence - Netanyahu.
Do you think only a man like Rabin could do it?
No, I think Netanyahu has the same potential quality as Rabin to do it. Rabin could do it because he was a military man his whole life, built up the army - the kind of person who could say, I fought for Israel’s defence my whole life and now I’m going to fight for Israel’s peace. Netanyahu's the same kind of person, he spent his life fighting for and defending the land of Israel, the issue is the political will.
You've said your vote in the election will go with the candidate who presents a future of promise, peace and understanding with our neighbours. Who is that?
Well, that’s the problem. Netanyahu's the only man who can do it, but has not and I will not vote for him. I met Abu Mazen last week and gave him a list of questions Israelis ask and I said it would be great if you could give me written answers to these questions and when you’re thinking about the answers - remember your target audience is Netanyahu. You have to be writing to him and you have to convince him. Only the right wing can do it. In Israeli society today, if anyone except Netanyahu made the concessions to the Palestinians that need to be made, it would drive Israeli society in half, it would be split and torn apart, maybe to the extent of physical violence and civil war. But if Netanyahu were to do it, he would take with him the large majority of the public, including the right wing.
Why wouldn't international pressure convince him?
There’s been nothing at all you could view as pressure. It’s been non-existent. Except perhaps the last UN vote and that’s not exactly pressure but that's a signal, but it’s completely insignificant in terms of Israeli life or even the Israeli government. I do not foresee any significant international pressure against Israel in the coming period.
So was UN recognition of Palestine as a non-member state a good or bad development ?
It should have been a good thing. It should have been accepted, applauded by Israel. In fact Israel should have been the one to offer full membership to the Palestinians and the United Nations because this sets the two state solution in stone, it removes the issue of Palestinian statehood from the agenda and it becomes a state to state conflict where you negotiate borders and modalities of living together and Jerusalem and the other issues. It should have been widely accepted. At the moment though, Netanyahu sees this as "they did it to hurt us and now we have to do something to hurt them". So now we’re stopping the flow of money to the Palestinians and that's going to hurt Israel because they don’t have money to pay the security officers fighting against terrorism. This is the direction that could give birth to the another intifada.
Do you see any reason to hope for a better future/leadership?
The Israeli side has a great deal of power and influence to take positive reinforcing steps that could lead to positive responses from the Palestinian side. Currently we are living the exact opposite dynamic with each side providing further evidence that there is no partner on the other side for peace. I expect and hope that a leader such as Netanyahu will see that futility of the current dynamic and break the mould – reach out and engage President Abbas in a genuine peace process. So far there is no real reason for optimism. But as I suggested earlier, Netanyahu went against his own positions in the past when he decided to release 1027 Palestinian prisoners, more than 400 who had killed Israelis, in order to free one Israeli soldier. He made a leadership decision in doing that, so we know he has the qualities of what makes a real leader. He sees himself in historic proportions, until now this has been translated into preventing the Iranian bomb. Hopefully he will understand that the real historic task he must take on is making peace with the Palestinian people.
Coming next : On the sofa with the man who nearly finished the Middle East conflict