Daniel Johnson talks to Tzipi Hotovely, deputy foreign minister and rising star of the Jewish state, about her country’s past, present and future
Daniel Johnson: One of the issues that I know you’ve been very much embroiled in is this question of whether Israeli law will apply to the West Bank. This is clearly in the interests of not just settlers but Arabs too, Palestinians as well, so how are we going to resolve that and how are you going to present this to the world not as a bid to move the goalposts, but simply as doing justice?
Tzipi Hotovely: For many years the real argument about the settlements was not made. We made security the only issue. But since I got to the foreign ministry, I have put the issue of justice on the table. I think it’s very important to do so because if you make security the top issue then you end up with many countries saying, well, if this is not your land, we don’t care about your security interest, we might be tolerant about it but just give this land to whoever it belongs to. So I stood in the foreign ministry in my first speech and I said, “This is our land, this is the land of the Jewish people.” I think that, as simple as it sounds, this is a real revolution in the way we defend the case. For many years we said, “This is a conflict area, there are 200 areas under conflict in the international arena, please look at that like you look at any other.” What I am saying is, “No, this is where Israel started.” You can’t defend Tel Aviv if you don’t defend Hebron and Jerusalem, because this is where the heritage started.
There are two Israeli stories. One is of modern Israel — a modern state, re-established in 1948, the Zionist story of 100 years. This story is problematic — you know why? Now I am, of course, a big Zionist, and I think the Zionist movement is maybe one of the biggest miracles of the 20th century if not all humankind, this revival by re-establishing a state after 2,000 years in exile. But what is missing from the story is: what makes a bunch of people coming from Russia, Yemen, Morocco, Britain, from America, re-create a state in the Middle East?
I love telling this story: Arthur Balfour is asking Chaim Weizmann why he insists on establishing Israel in this region, because this is a very problematic area. And Weizmann said, “Would you like to have Paris as your capital?” To which Balfour replied, “Excuse me, Mr Weizmann, London belongs to the British people.” So Weizmann looks at him and says, “Well, Jerusalem belonged to the Jewish people way before London was established.” I use that as an anecdote when I meet audiences because I want them to have the sense of feeling that this is not occupation. We are not occupiers in our own land, as I always say. I fight this concept of occupation. This year is the 50th anniversary [of the Six Day War]. The thing that I put on the table in the foreign ministry is to fight the very basic idea of occupation. We’re not occupiers, even according to international law. Because there was never a Palestinian state.
Another Weizmann story I like to tell is his response to a member of the House of Lords who asked, “Mr Weizmann, why do you insist on having Israel in the Middle East, this is a very dangerous area.” He said, “Excuse me, Mr Minister, why do you insist on going all the way to Brighton to visit your mother, there are so many old ladies in London?” Those are just stories that give you the sense, the feeling, that the connection, the bond, is much deeper. I mean, some people say that Israel was established after the Holocaust because the world felt bad about the whole thing — I don’t like that narrative.
DJ: No, that’s a bad narrative.
TH: That’s a bad narrative! I think we should tell the big story and the big story is 3,000 years of Jewish history. You know something, even through the exile, the Jewish people have the record of the highest percentage of Nobel prizes. We have 188 Nobel prizes — including Bob Dylan’s — and we have 12 from the young Israeli country that was re-established in 1948. This is amazing. It means something. I always say the three biggest revolutions of the 20th century were Einstein’s, Freud’s and Marx’s, no matter whether you like their revolutions or not. And they were all Jews. I think there is something revolutionary about Jewish thought, Jewish DNA. And I think this is what Israel, the modern Israel, also has in its DNA. We want revolution, we want a better world, and we always struggle to innovate things that will improve the world.
I think that by taking the Israeli policy in conflict to the centre we lost the real narrative of our country. The real narrative, besides of course the history, is why we are there. We are there to give the world universal solutions and ideas. I would say we are a thinking hub of Western civilisation. And I think this is part of what I would like to put at the front of the foreign ministry. After making a very clear statement of the fact that this is our country, we don’t apologise for it, we don’t apologise for being occupiers because we’re not, we would like to have co-existence with our neighbours. We have proved throughout all the years of our existence, from the declaration of independence of David Ben-Gurion to our current Prime Minister, that we want peace. I think we will prove that to the world. We don’t need to re-approve that message all the time. It’s very clear that most Israelis want to live peacefully and we are also willing to defend ourselves if it’s needed.
DJ: Now — the obvious objection that you’re going to get from so-called members of the international community is, OK, so where does that leave the Palestinians, because, you’re right, they never had a state, but they do now feel that they have an identity, a nationhood, just as Israelis do, so what are you going to do about that? Will you incorporate all the Arab citizens in the West Bank?
TH: No, no.
DJ: You’re not suggesting that.
TH: No, no one has such an intention. First of all, the settlements will remain. It’s very clear that we are a right-wing government and I would say eventually it will be under Israeli sovereignty, whatever the agreement, as long as my Prime Minister is leading it. It’s very clear that removing settlements is not the solution because we saw what happened in Gaza.
DJ: Exactly, yes.
TH: We were told that Gaza would become the Middle East’s Singapore. There are no similarities between Singapore, a modern, successful country, and Gaza, which is this horrible place of terrorism taking control by democratic elections. So everyone is aware of the catastrophe of Gaza and I think that if this is what the Palestinians are capable of when they have been given choice and elections and so on, Western societies should ask themselves, is this what we really want in the Middle East? More and more pockets of land ruled by terror organisations?
Let me tell you something about thinking from the other side. I always like to think about what is motivating them. They all intend good, some of them are anti-Semitic, but let’s put that aside. I think what they really want is the benefit of the Palestinian people. They want them to have a better future, a better life. You know something? So do I. I too would like my neighbours to have a good life. But only offering them international forums to solve their problems is like treating a grown-up as a child. It is saying, we’ll take responsibility for you, we’ll give you money. No! They’re grown-ups. They need to take care of their positive agenda. What is the Palestinian positive agenda? Their agenda is internationalisation of the conflict, to make the world solve their problems, make the world put money in. We built our country with a lot of creativity and, of course, co-operation with the world but eventually it was based on things which we created. I think we should encourage that on the other side. What the world must realise is that without having these foundations in Palestinian society, you’ll end up with another Gaza. No one wants another Gaza. It doesn’t create a better life for Palestinians. It doesn’t create stability. So I think those are the two main issues: one, what is the future of the young Palestinians? And the second is, what will promote stability? In order to have a good answer to those two questions you need to think long-term, you need to remove the question of settlements because it is really irrelevant, I’m sorry if I’m saying something controversial but it is really irrelevant, we saw that in Gaza. And we should take care of the relevant things — education, leadership, responsibility, a positive agenda, all those things that are missing from the picture today.
DJ: What about the religious aspect of this? Many of us were very shocked by the Unesco statement about the Temple Mount.
TH: We weren’t shocked, by the way. We have seen the politicisation of the organisation.
DJ: You’ve watched this over the years.
TH: Yes, yes.
DJ: So it’s no surprise but it’s very depressing when it happens.
TH: But it discredits those organisations.
DJ: I agree, but nonetheless it’s a fact that you are in a minority in the UN, and even some of the European countries sometimes vote against Israel in these forums. So that’s one problem for you as a diplomat but the deeper problem is we are living through — not just you but all of us — this incredible and rather terrifying wave of radicalisation, whatever we want to call it, across the Muslim world. We’re seeing it not just across the Middle East, but much further afield than that, in Asia, and Africa, and even in Europe, so if this conflict becomes a religious conflict, that’s more dangerous, isn’t it? We can all argue about borders and status and purely political issues but we surely don’t want this to become even more than it is, a religious conflict between Jews, Muslims, Christians, as for example IS very much wants to make it, but also in a different way Iran, and perhaps other Islamic states too. How can Israel, which after all is formally speaking a secular state, although it has a Jewish identity, avoid the danger that the whole conflict becomes a religious one?
TH: The truth is I don’t think we can control deep streams of radicalisation that are developing on the other side. We can only do what we can do. We can do things to make sure that our side will always be open to peace and that the international community will put the emphasis on the right questions. But I think the big civilisation clash is much bigger than was described in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations because Huntington was describing a world civilisation clash between countries that are far away. Today we have a clash within Western society. So I would say the questions about the civilisational clash are much bigger than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Europe is also facing a very strong clash of civilisations, I see that in France, I see that in Germany. I know that Britain was quite cautious about the way it treated the humanitarian crisis in Syria, but in general I think that the West hasn’t created sufficiently sophisticated tools with which to approach this civilisational clash because we are so programmed in the liberal way of thinking. Look at Merkel’s decision about burkas and burkinis. You have this freedom of religion from the one side, you have the idea of the ability of women to dress the way they want, you have all those liberal values and you have Islam. And you don’t know how to deal with it because this is a contradiction of the very fundamental beliefs of liberal thought. I think liberal values are being challenged today more than ever and we all should reprogramme our thinking about the civilisational clash. This is not just about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s much bigger than that.
DJ: One of the values on which Standpoint was founded was the idea of the Judaeo-Christian legacy, from the Biblical era, and how important it is that at this time when we do face these threats that Jews and Christians should work together very closely. I know we haven’t always in the past but today we face very similar threats. Israel has been a beacon of toleration and more than toleration, of affirmation, of different faiths while preserving its Jewish identity. Is there more that Israel can do in the face of this persecution right across the Middle East? It started a long time ago but it got very much worse after the Arab Spring, and then with the rise of IS. It’s very frustrating for us sometimes in Europe that our governments are not doing very much about these persecuted minorities. Most Jews were expelled a long time ago from many of these countries. Israel has an exemplary record on this but is there anything you can do to set an example to other Western countries? We are, it seems to me, watching while something really terrible is going on, just as we did in the 1930s when Jews were the main victims.
TH: I must say that those are the questions at the international table. They want to learn from us, they want to learn how to deal with terrorism, they want to learn cyber protection information. Since the Second World War Europe has tried to build some kind of project of a better world, one with no borders, and what happened? It started with 9/11 in America but it went all the way to the major terror attacks in Paris and London, and the feeling at the moment is it’s as if someone broke into your house. You feel as if your house is not protected any more and I think Brexit reflects some of this feeling. People want to protect their houses. Israel knows how to protect the house without just closing all the doors — you close the doors to the bad things but you’re still very open to ideas, to interactions, to international transactions, to Asia — economic relations with Asia are flourishing. We really know how to play this delicate game of being open to the world on the one hand but not breaking your house and the alarms and all the things that protect your identity.
DJ: Your family was originally from Georgia, and I want to ask about Russia, which suddenly in the last few years has started playing a big role in the Middle East again. Prime Minister Netanyahu has reached out to Russia, has visited Moscow on a number of times, and clearly wants to have good relations with Russia, but on the other hand you have to balance that with relations with America and Europe, with the West. How do you see that developing? Do you see Russia as making a useful contribution or is it a problem?
TH: The mess in Syria is a major problem of Western civilisation. The whole impact of the immigrant crisis is coming from the crisis in Syria. So we must put the finger on where it starts. The main problem is the instability of the region, the main problem is Islamic radicals taking over, the main problem is our countries falling apart, leadership falls apart, leadership that is abolishing human rights in the most cruel way like Assad was doing to his own people, half a million people being killed in five, six years, those are the real big problems. Now, Russia gets into the picture because of the vacuum that the international community has created. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Putin co-ordinate and co-operate because one thing that is definitely on our table is that the safety of our country is influenced by what is happening in the north.
At the moment it is a very delicate cooperation that is based on military co-ordination in order to make sure there is not an Israeli-Russian clash. In general in international processes we don’t control anything. We don’t control most of the problems in the region, we don’t control what happens in Syria. We do not control the fact that Assad is a Russian ally. So Russia is becoming a strong player in the Middle East. I’m not saying we are happy about any international involvement in the region but just this one, I think, needs a lot of cautiousness by having this military coordination, because it has a strong influence on our safety and security.
DJ: Another close ally of Assad is Iran. What would you like to say about the Iranian problem, which for most Israelis has been the biggest threat in recent years?
TH: This is really maybe the flagship issue of my Prime Minister. I think he’s excited to meet President Trump for many reasons but the Iran issue is still the top issue between Israel and America. I’m not going to make any expressions of expectations because I think the two leaders should speak in a closed room but it’s definitely still the first and top issue.
DJ: We haven’t talked about moving the embassy. That’s very important in two ways — one is, will this happen, and if it does happen how will Israel acknowledge this, is there something Israel can offer as a gesture? But also I want to ask about relations with the UK — would you like the British to follow suit after Brexit if Trump does decide to move the embassy? You mentioned Brexit and this reassertion of the nation state is very important because Israel is a nation state, and Europe, as you say, is a kind of utopian post-national organisation.
TH: But not any more.
DJ: Not any more. And the British clearly feel much more comfortable, like you, with the nation state. Do you think there is a chance that not only the US but Britain too will make this move?
TH: First of all it’s one of the most important issues for Israel — the international standing of Jerusalem — because for us Jerusalem is the Zionist story itself. The very simple meaning of the word Zion is Jerusalem. It’s the biblical name for Jerusalem. And you can’t speak about Israel’s identity without Jerusalem, you can’t speak about Israel’s history without Jerusalem, this is why it’s so fundamental and so important. And I think Trump is serious about it, I think the Israeli Prime Minister is serious about welcoming this very important historic move, and I think history plays a part too because this is the 50th anniversary of freeing Jerusalem and Jerusalem being united, and nothing can be more symbolic than that. Of course I think all the countries should follow. If you ask me about Britain, absolutely. It’s very embarrassing for me to get cards from ambassadors that have “Tel Aviv” written on them — you know, if I’m the ambassador to Britain, like writing Manchester or Liverpool. It’s ridiculous, you’re not going to do it in any other country, you can’t write Cannes when you’re in France, you can’t write LA when you’re in America.
DJ: This is true. But Jerusalem has a special significance for other faiths as well and this is where it’s a problem.
TH: Yes, but I want to tell you something about the way we see it. The only way to make sure that all religions will feel comfortable in Jerusalem — and this is historically proven — is with Israel’s sovereignty. You lose Israeli sovereignty, you have a mess, and you also have shootings from the houses of Gilo [in East Jerusalem] as we had ten years ago. It was horrible. Whenever we lose control on the east side of Jerusalem you have shootings at the houses on the west side of Jerusalem. This is something that can’t happen. I would say one thing that my Prime Minister stands behind. I will never allow any international force to defend my people because this is why the Jewish state was established. If we want, of course we can have allies or people that will cooperate with us but our defence should be only in the hands of a Jewish army.
DJ: I think you were once quoted as saying that you would like to see the Israeli flag fly on the Temple Mount.
TH: I think I made it very clear. I said that only Israeli sovereignty on Temple Mount will allow all religions. This is what I said about Jerusalem. This is the only way to make sure that all religions can have freedom of religion in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount.
DJ: Absolutely. But when I was on Temple Mount a few weeks ago I tried to enter the Dome of the Rock and I was told at the door only Muslims are allowed in here.
TH: I think there are certain hours.
DJ: We were observing — I was with a professor from Oxford and it was a purely scholarly kind of interest — but they said no for political reasons because ever since [former Likud leader] Ariel Sharon came [in 2000] we don’t allow non-Muslims. Now I know this is nonsense but this is what they believe.
TH: No, it’s not nonsense, I’m just saying that I think the fact that it’s not open all the time to everyone is a problem.
DJ: It’s a problem. The Western Wall, for example, is open, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open, anyone can come to the other shrines.
TH: I didn’t know that tourists were also having this experience. I knew that Jews were having this experience.
I just want to thank the Prime Minister, Theresa May. I was at the Conservative Friends of Israel lunch and I was deeply impressed by her strong commitment to Israel. I think that Britain-Israel relations after Brexit will have more opportunities to get close.
DJ: I’m interested you thought that because I thought it was an unusually warm speech. It clearly came from the heart. This was not just being diplomatic and polite, she clearly feels strongly about Israel.
TH: This is what I felt — exactly what I felt. I felt she was bringing her personal experience by visiting there and she felt the right way about issues like terrorism.
DJ: She went out of her way to say, we don’t want our money going to Hamas and people like that, which is a big problem, because as you know a lot of their money does come from Europe.
TH: This was one of my initiatives in the foreign ministry and I thank Britain for taking it up.