Interview by Manuel Garcia
“Well, every Israeli—by definition—is involved in the conflict,” she answered, laughing and smiling, to my question of what brought her to get involved in the conflict. In hindsight, it was a silly question. For MK (Member of Knesset) Dr. Einat Wilf, there was no “defining moment” in which she felt the duty to be involved in politics; it was rather a process which involved her academic background and work experience around the world.
Dr. Wilf proved a perfect candidate for an assignment I had to complete for a seminar about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: to conduct an interview with a person who is active in the conflict. I had therefore been looking for a Member of Knesset who addresses issues I am interested in, like public diplomacy, education, and political opportunities. As a member of the Knesset, Dr. Wilf serves on the committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense, the Knesset’s Forum on International Relations, and the Lobby for Equality and Pluralism. She was a member of the JPPPI (The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute), a think tank which identifies challenges to the future of the Jewish people, analyses them, and proposes policies and alternative modes of operation. She also served as the Foreign Policy Advisor to Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres between 2002 and 2006. Dr. Wilf holds a BA in Political Science and Fine Arts (Harvard University), an MBA (INSEAD), and a PhD in Political Science (University of Cambridge). The next few pages will present my insights from an interview I have recently conducted with her over Skype and telephone.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict dominates meetings of at least one committee out of eight on which Dr. Wilf serves. Discussions in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee are dedicated almost entirely to the conflict—a situation Dr. Wilf believes to work to Israel’s disadvantage. She laments the absence of discussions about how to establish and maintain strategic relations with other countries—an issue discussed “through the prism of the conflict.” Discussions revolve chiefly around countries’ proneness to vote against Israel in UN resolutions. In her work in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Dr. Wilf has therefore focused her efforts on what she calls “the intellectual defense of Israel” or “the intellectual battle.” She reflects her concern about the uphill battle Israel now faces, and argues that Israel will be less subjected to conventional warfare or even terrorism, and that the conflict will grow into a war of legal means, backed by social media, academics, and NGOs (Concordia University was one example she used.) MK Dr. Wilf attaches importance to convincing Members of Knesset in general, and the Israeli government in particular, that this intellectual battle is of vital significance. She strengthens her position by advocating for a development of a doctrine, one that will dictate how to “fight” this Public Diplomacy battle effectively.
When asked what prevents Israel from presenting itself to the world in good light, Dr. Wilf emphasised the government’s “[in]sufficient recognition” that public diplomacy is critical for the state’s future. Until the Six-Day War, she notes, public diplomacy was exalted and received high priority in past Israeli governments. But of equal, often higher priority was security, which has since become a central issue in Israel. Expressing cautious optimism, Dr. Wilf identifies a gradual shift in the government’s attitude towards public diplomacy. Urging leaders to appreciate the importance of public diplomacy, she calls for a more efficient use and allocation of Israel’s financial and human resources. As mentioned above, Dr. Wilf deems public diplomacy a battle Israel needs to prepare for and win not only from a defensive position, but also from the offense.
Both Palestinians and Israelis have no interest in reaching a final agreement. When asked why, in her opinion, Israel and the Palestinian Authority do not negotiate an agreement, Dr. Wilf expresses no optimism. She decisively dismisses the suggestion that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition or the Palestinians’ tenacious grip on preliminary conditions to the negotiations pose a challenge to peace. In her opinion, both Israelis and Palestinians have become increasingly apathetic. Israeli apathy stems from the fact Israel’s security is not challenged like before, and Palestinians simply prefer a stalemate rather than have the (violent) alternative. In her opinion, the Israeli public “has given up on the possibility of an agreement.” Therefore, Dr. Wilf explains, there is no real pressure on any side to reach an agreement. The Israeli public brings no pressure to bear on its government, and the opposition merely criticises Netanyahu for not doing enough for peace. The opposition, she argues, deludes itself in thinking that its occasional statements reflect pressure on the government when, in fact, it reflects the former’s actual inability to put forward a peace plan. Dr. Wilf dares the opposition, especially Kadima, to meet Mahmud Abbas and jointly draft a peace plan. Similarly, she argues, the American pressure on Netanyahu does not suffice, since it requires the Prime Minister to make no dramatic moves, but merely offer some concessions. She does maintain, however, that no one should put pressure on Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement since they are not interested in doing so; diplomatic pressure would simply be “counterproductive.” When asked whether Israel should consider conducting negotiations with Hamas over an agreement, Dr. Wilf dismisses any final agreement with the organisation as impossible, but sees interim agreements as viable alternatives. For example, she says, to ensure Israel’s security is maintained, the Israeli government could agree to lift the blockade from Gaza in exchange for guarantees from Egypt or Turkey that no weapons will be smuggled into Gaza.
Dr. Wilf disapproves of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian educators while the conflict is ongoing. She is aware of cooperation between educators who seek to come up with solutions to the conflict by composing a joint narrative for both sides to be represented in school books. She deems these initiatives futile since peace, in her opinion, is a top-down process, not a bottom-up initiative. Dr. Wilf does recognise the importance of composing a joint narrative, but nonetheless believes it should happen after Israelis and Palestinians make peace, since only then will both sides have the power to bring about a change. She couches her argument in both sides’ ability and inability to self-criticise. Israeli society is well-established and rooted, whereas Palestinian society still builds itself. The former therefore features ability and willingness to be self-critical, while the latter’s mobilised and not yet consolidated society does not allow for self-criticism. Criticising Israel for that feature, she shows understanding for Palestinians’ inability to be critical of themselves. It is this inequality which prevents both sides from accepting each other’s plight and narrative, and from incorporating those into Palestinian and Israeli education systems. Only when mutual recognition is achieved, she discerns, can educators from both sides establish relations.
Israel could use the Palestinian statehood bid to its advantage. Dr. Wilf believes both sides are making smart moves—the Palestinians, when using the international platform, and the Israelis, by trying to circumvent the bid. Realising that violence has not worked and even “undermined their cause,” Palestinians do well when fighting their battle where they enjoy great sympathy—the United Nations. Dr. Wilf looks at the statehood bid in terms of loser versus winner, whereby Israel loses. To reverse the effect, she calls for an attack, especially on the perpetuation of the refugee problem through UN agencies like UNRWA. Now that Palestine has become a member of UNESCO, she suggests, Israel should attack Palestinian education books which (still) portray it as the enemy and do not reject the use of anti-Semitic rhetoric, thus not allowing for any kind of openness and understanding. “A form of diplomatic and legal war, which has nothing to do with the achievement of statehood,” she argues, the Palestinian statehood bid ought to be fought against.
To the untutored ear, Dr. Wilf’s rhetoric sounds disturbing. Her use of words like “battle” and “offence,” and disapproval of educators’ discussions on how to end the conflict can make readers unfamiliar with Israeli politics believe she subscribes to a right-wing view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My main insight of this interview is that Dr. Wilf is a realist. She realises the conflict has transformed, and believes Israel should reorganise the means with which it fights for its existence. Dr. Wilf remains resolute in her belief that a final agreement can be reached, but under certain conditions and not at any price.