Palestinians giving up on statehood, ex-security chief says

Yuval Diskin, who headed the Shin Bet agency, waxes nostalgic about the streets of Nablus, but warns a single state will be ‘unsustainable’ for Israel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Yuval Diskin, a former director of the Shin Bet security agency, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, December 4, 2013 (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
Yuval Diskin, a former director of the Shin Bet security agency, speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, December 4, 2013 (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

The death of the two-state solution among the Palestinians is no secret to the Israelis, nor is it mourned by government officials. To the political echelon, the threat of a binational state is not sufficiently tangible, and the possibility that radical Islam will take over the West Bank if there should be a peace agreement seems more real.

But things sound different in the defense establishment, and particularly among those who have left it. Quite a few former generals, Shin Bet directors and Mossad chiefs have warned any number of times that maintaining the status quo in the territories, which has become a kind of strategy in Netanyahu’s era, could change the face of the State of Israel.

“I’m hearing from various Palestinian officials with whom I am in contact that they have given up on the two-state solution as an option for resolving the conflict,” says former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, 59, who now owns a hi-tech firm in Herzliya. He says that he avoided contact with the Palestinian side for three years after he retired as head of the Shin Bet, “certainly during a time of negotiations, so as not to seem like I was interfering with the process. I resumed contact about a year ago, mainly on the level of keeping up to date, and I certainly feel the pulse. I visited the territories this year, but not Ramallah. I was in Hebron and on the outskirts of Nablus as well.

“I don’t think that the Palestinians have some big plan today about how to act,” Diskin says. “But I do think that there are obvious things that I have been hearing for some time. The threats of PA President Mahmoud Abbas to internationalize the conflict — we’d heard for years that he had been pondering that as a strategy. The fact that he is going intensively in that direction shows mainly his despair with the peace process.

“Another thing that Abbas threatened to do fairly often and did not follow through on, and Israelis thought he did not really mean, was to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and give back the keys. I don’t think that’s an impossible scenario. There are situations of crisis and desperation that if he gets into them, he will go in that direction.

“Yet another thing is this giving up on the two-state solution. More and more Palestinians think that this is actually not so bad for them. As they see it, going into a compelled situation of a binational state is not so bad for the Palestinians, and the only side that will lose is Israel. And yes, in the immediate sense, maybe the Israeli side will lose less. But in the end, a situation will be created on the ground that will be unsustainable for Israel.”

New construction in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, with the Arab village of Wadi Fukin in the foreground, on June 17, 2015 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
New construction in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, with the Arab village of Wadi Fukin in the foreground, on June 17, 2015 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

How do you explain the escalation specifically in Jerusalem?

We ought to look very closely at Jerusalem. That is actually a reality of a binational state. In other words, either it has no borders or it has borders that are not logical. Two populations live there, and it is a laboratory for what happens when the frustration bursts out onto the surface. This is an opportunity for us to understand how the reality of a binational state will look without a solution.

Diskin has expressed harsh criticism against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quite a few times in recent years. When I mention the prime minister’s name, Diskin is careful not to criticize him directly.

I do not want to make this a discussion about Bibi [Netanyahu]. I would rather focus on the strategic problem. Supposedly, we have been dragging out the current policy [of the status quo] for many years. It has lasted, and we have managed to contain the situation in the West Bank. But what is happening on the ground is a significant change that is hard for us to digest, like that picture of a cat turning very slowly into a dog. In each picture, you see only the tiny changes that turn it into a dog, but at a certain stage, what you have is a picture of a dog, not a cat.

That is what’s happening on the ground. The feeling that we are supposedly managing the conflict and freezing the situation — it means nothing. We are in an empty process, for all practical purposes. And the dog, in this case, is the binational state. In the end, we will not manage to make the separation, and that is, unfortunately, where we are headed — or, to put it more accurately, it is where we are being led. Why do I say we are being led? I would be happy to be able to say that someone had a clear strategy. But I am convinced that not even Bibi and Bennett want a binational state.

I admire both of them as intelligent people. But “managing the conflict” means nothing. Mixing both populations, Jewish and Palestinian, will lead to the disappearance of the Zionist dream and the democratic Jewish state here in the Land of Israel. It will be impossible to fulfill that dream here if we should become a minority here. In addition, the situation of “managing the conflict” means enormous security risks. Of course, there is also the growing international pressure on Israel, which reflects an atmosphere that is based partly on lies and partly on facts. So this idea of “managing the conflict” is nonsense. And now, there is also the question of how much time it will take for us to realize that what we have here is a dog — in other words, a binational state — and that we cannot go back to a situation of separation or to “the Jewish state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013 (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013 (Flash90)

So what is your solution? Can anything at all be done, considering the situation on the ground?

In my opinion, the two-state idea is becoming increasingly unrealistic. I warned two years ago that we were approaching the point of no return, and things have happened since then that have only complicated the situation even further. I have been saying for a long time that a bilateral solution is no longer possible. It is impossible to put a Palestinian leader and an Israeli leader in a room to sign a paper and carry it out. The establishment of a Palestinian state depends on a great many factors, such as the Arab states and the international community, and there must be an incentive for all those parties to preserve a peace agreement.

That is why I have been saying for years that we must work toward a regional solution. We need to regularize our relations with the Arab states and work on the Palestinian issue as part of that process. But there is no chance of resolving the conflict within several months or a year. We need to coordinate expectations and realize that not everything can be concluded here and now. That is why, at the moment, we need to freeze construction outside the large settlement blocs, improve the Palestinian economy, deal with infrastructure and, of course, deal with the regional players, Jordan first among them.

Because of Jordan’s economic sensitivity and the regional problems it is facing, I would not go to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without first strengthening Jordan significantly. That would be an impossible situation without a Jordan that was stable and strong. And no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can last without a regional solution.

How do you interpret the population’s hostility toward the Palestinian Authority?

It is nothing new, and it has been a terrible failure of the PA since its establishment. Its corrupt image has stuck to it, as reflected in the 2006 elections [when Hamas won]. That image has not changed much, although the security agencies are much more professional, with a good and reasonable command that receives clear instructions. While it’s true that some of the credit for the current relative calm in the West Bank should go to the Israeli security establishment, everybody knows that if the Palestinian security agencies had not been operating from 2008 onward, we would not be enjoying a situation of relative calm in the West Bank. Their contribution over the past six years has been significant. Statements such as these are not made in public so much, but they are made behind closed doors. If the PA should cease to exist, our own situation would become a good deal worse.

You know the territories well. Which place do you consider the most beautiful, or even beloved?

I define myself as almost a Nablusite. I started as a coordinator in the Shin Bet, and the place I love best is the casbah in Nablus. That is the most beautiful place to me, and one of the places I liked most to walk around in. The last time I was there was in June 2000, when I completed my term as director of the Jerusalem district. I was invited there to say goodbye to the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in Nablus, and part of the farewell was a walking tour of the casbah.

Sunrise over Nablus in 2011 (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Sunrise over Nablus in 2011 (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

It was a quiet time, and Nablus was thriving. I walked around there with several other coordinators and investigators from the 1970s, and quite a few people spotted us and came over to us — people who had been investigated in the past. They came over to us, embraced us, invited us over. There was an almost euphoric feeling of reconciliation in the air.

The [second] intifada broke out four months later.

What do you think of the talk about behind-the-scenes negotiations between Israel and Hamas about a ceasefire in Gaza? Would you talk with Hamas?

As head of the Shin Bet, yes. That is the job: to create channels that will enable the conveying of messages. It is legitimate to talk about preserving a reasonable standard of living in Gaza while at the same time creating calm in Israel. Can peace be made with Hamas? I don’t think so. I would be happy not to see Hamas in Gaza. We had opportunities to overthrow them, and I think we should have done so [Diskin is referring to Operation Cast Lead, which took place in late 2008 when he was head of the Shin Bet], but as part of a process. In other words, I would not work for their overthrow without creating alternatives in terms of who would be in control there afterward. We may have to do that in a certain situation if Hamas does not keep things quiet.

Impossible, not a catastrophe

At the end of the meeting, when I ask Diskin about his solution to the situation, he emphasizes that talks with the Palestinians must not start with an attempt to resolve the core issues.

“Starting talks about the Holy Basin [roughly, the Old City] in Jerusalem and the right of return on the first day will blow everything up,” he says. Once again, he emphasizes the need for separation from the Palestinians. “We have to separate from them, let them live in their own state, so that we can have Israel here, a democratic Jewish state. Otherwise, the situation will become impossible. Not catastrophic, but impossible. With the passage of time, the small chance for a two-state solution will become a de facto binational state. It will be very painful and could put Israel into a situation of terrible complexity. We have a wonderful country here, and it would be a shame to risk it.”

We also cannot ignore the elephant in the room. Quite a few rumors have been going around the political establishment that Diskin’s role in the next election will be something other than that of observer or commentator.

Will you be going into politics? I ask

“If I decide to go into politics, I will announce it,” he says. “My cooling-off period [before being allowed to enter politics] expired in the last election. I had many offers that I refused consistently. I admit that I’m going through a paradoxical process. I want to have an influence on the one hand, and I think that I have the tools to have an influence, politically and in terms of security. On the other hand, I have a lot of revulsion and antipathy toward the political system. I am looking now at both these forces and deciding which one is stronger. That is definitely under significant consideration. It could go either way, so I wouldn’t advise anyone to bet on it.”

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