Assaf Sharon is a professor of philosophy at the University of Tel Aviv and founded the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, a think-tank that works to foster debate and renew the political discourse in and about Israel, particularly regarding the Israeli approach to the stagnating Palestinian question and the increased militarization of the country under Benjamin Netanyahu. Reset DOC spoke with Assaf Sharon following the October 7th attacks by Hamas into Israeli territory and during the subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip by Israel in response.
Your work at the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy also deals with problems that we have in many Western countries: dissatisfaction with the ruling class, populism, the growth of an extreme right, radical polarization. But in Israel there are other factors that break any usual academic perspective. There are those who want to destroy the state, and there is the terrorist aggression of Hamas. Is there a connection between these two levels?
For Israelis the connection is immediate. The people associated with the judicial overhaul and the populist tendencies in Israel are now being held responsible for this incredible security failure. But I suspect your question is about a deeper connection to political and cultural trends, which in this case may be less direct, but still exist. Populism, with its various interpretations, often includes an anti-liberal aspect. However, this particular right-wing, nationalist, traditionalist, and anti-liberal populism that we all have in mind these days comes with a lot of self-deception, though. It is no coincidence that it is closely intertwined with the rise of conspiracy theories, with disinformation campaigns, with incitement.
There is a very strong idea in Israel that anyone who disagrees with Netanyahu’s right-wing government is immediately branded as a traitor, a fifth column, an Arab lover. This political culture of delegitimizing the opposition or any criticism on the one hand, and completely flooding the public consciousness with conspiracy theories, false accusations and misinformation on the other, weakens democratic values. It also weakens the kind of professionalism that is needed to deal properly with all kinds of issues. In the case of Israel, obviously security obviously is paramount. I.e., in the south (where Hamas attacked on October 7th) the security situation has been mismanaged for a long time. Many military units were mismanaged and inadequately trained, and many units that should have been in the Gaza region were moved to the West Bank for political reasons.
Many observers have already highlighted this problem, but the fact is that right now there is a battle to be fought to stop Hamas, and this calls for unity against aggression.
There is now a great tendency to silence politics: we must all be united in this struggle, this is not the time for politics. Obviously, this serves the interests of the people who are being held responsible, and I think it has been quite effective in the last week, but I do not think it will last long: we are going to see the divisions and the politics resurface for two reasons. First, because there are different ideas about what needs to be done – and these are fundamentally political. Second, because the current government, and particularly the person who leads it, Netanyahu, is basically doing everything possible to stay in power. Every day new incidents and new stories emerge about how busy he is managing his political survival rather than managing the security and war situation. I think there is a growing discontent. Many of my friends, for example, people from the center or the left, have never been friends with Netanyahu. However, they have said that in the last ten days we will put this aside and do what needs to be done. However, they continue to see what Netanyahu and his cronies are doing, that they are playing these little policies. That is why I think there is a growing discontent among people who are willing to put politics aside for the sake of war, but they do not see their willingness being reciprocated by the government.
If we look at the rise of fundamentalist forces in Israel linked to the more orthodox and strict interpretation of religion, one wonders if it was not possible to somehow stop it.
In the 1990s, the liberal camp in Israel was very much identified with the Oslo peace process. When the Oslo peace process collapsed in 2000, exploding violently, the liberal camp lost credibility and confidence. I would even say it lost its identity. All this contributed to the weakness of the liberal camp. However, what we have seen in the last year is that when it came to the showdown, when this anti-liberal trend, the judicial review, occurred, there was a great mobilization with intense energy on the part of the liberals. The interesting aspect of the current situation is that many of the communities most affected by the attack on Gaza were kibbutzim, which are very leftist, very close with the labor movement and the peace camp in Israel. Now, of course, these communities are in the spotlight. Many of the dead and kidnapped come from these communities. What we have seen in the last week is that senior ministers have been very reluctant to go out, to engage with these families, with the refugees, with the displaced communities in the south. And when they have tried to do that, very often they have been shouted down. Almost every day there is an episode of one minister or another going to a refugee center or hospital and being shooed away, shouted down by these refugees and their families.
Looking back, a first major change in Israeli politics occurred in 1977, when the Labor government was voted out and Begin became prime minister. This was a direct result of the failure of ’73: the Labor government, which had a kind of monopoly on the security of the country, lost its credibility with the great debacle of the Yom Kippur War. I think something similar is happening now, only in the opposite direction, with Netanyahu and his government. Even those who thought they were corrupt, untrustworthy, populist, many have said that is true, but we trust them for security. And Netanyahu has presented himself as Mr. Security for four decades. He understands terrorism, he is tough, he is realistic. What happened last Saturday completely debunked that idea, and losing credibility on security in Israel is not something we can recover from.
The same question should be asked on the Arab and Palestinian side. Blame cannot be placed solely on the Israelis for the fact that a Palestinian State did not come into being. At the time when we had almost reached a solution, religious extremism on both sides eliminated Rabin and also the Egyptian President Sadat. And the process that could have led to the two states came to a halt.
There are two things to say. I remember in 2006 the Americans were pushing for elections in the Palestinian territories. Some were saying: there is a serious possibility that Hamas will win these elections. That is, it is a bad idea to hold these elections. The responses were of two. Some said, “No, don’t worry: Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, is solid, it won’t lose.” Others said, “It’s okay if Hamas wins, it’s fine.” There were people, especially on the left, like the far left, who sometimes had this romantic idea of Hamas as a kind of community organization, as opposed to the corrupt leaders of Fatah. And of course that backfired. But, above all, people like Netanyahu himself and all the Netanyahu governments saw Hamas as a partner. When you mentioned Hamas and religious extremists being an obstacle to peace, this is exactly why. And Netanyahu said it himself, and many around him repeated it. Netanyahu said “Hamas is better for us than Fatah, because Fatah wants to negotiate, and that means dismantling settlements, ceding land in the West Bank, a two-state solution.” He himself said, paraphrasing, that if you want to prevent a two-state solution, you have to strengthen Hamas and weaken the PA.
My answer to his question is that, on the fringes there are romantics who have never appreciated the seriousness and gravity of the danger of religious extremists, fanatics, both Jewish and Muslim. But above all, there is a very deliberate and intentional policy, which has been the explicit policy of the Israeli government under Netanyahu for the past 14 years, to strengthen Hamas and weaken the PA because Hamas can be dealt with by force. There has been arrogance. They never realized that Hamas could become a serious threat. There have always been these cycles of violence, they will fire rockets, we respond with bombs, but there is no real serious threat. And thus we were not dealing with a peer. This is explicit: is not up to interpretation. They have said it very explicitly several times. They prefer Hamas because that prevents a two-state solution.
Do you think that in the future (perhaps not the near future) Hamas can be de-radicalized? Do you think it can be transformed into a political actor capable of making compromises? Namely what happened with the IRA in Northern Ireland. Or will this never be possible?
I am not an expert on Hamas or Islamic terrorists. From my understanding of the situation, you have to make a distinction between terrorists or armed resistance, whether justified or unjustified, and organizations that use violence, even indiscriminate violence, even against civilians for political purposes, like the IRA that you mentioned, or the ANC or many other such organizations such as the PLO in the past. We have to distinguish these movements from genocidal movements like Daesh, for example, ISIS. Similar organizations that have a worldview and basically a belief that includes the eradication of certain types of people.
And what we have seen from Hamas, which is not the Hamas at its founding in the 1980s or 1990s, but the current version of Hamas, which has changed over the years and has been influenced by the Wahhabis to a large extent as well as the Qatari and the Islamic State ideology. What we see now is a different kind of Hamas. It is a genocidal organization. The kind of atrocities they committed had no political purpose. They were directed and motivated by the belief, the faith, the belief that killing Jews or at least Israeli Jews is a mission, a sacred mission. And unless Hamas undergoes a radical transformation to become a political actor again, and if it is willing to respect some of the constraints of civil society, I do not see it as any different from the Islamic State. And I do not think the Islamic State is an organization that can be negotiated with or dealt with. It simply has to be eradicated.
ISIS can only be eradicated. And even in the case of Hamas defeating it is necessary for any possible better future. But what do you think about the state of opinion in Western countries in relation to the Palestinian issue. We see very strong general support for Israel in Europe and the United States, but also a polarization between the extreme right and left wings. We are seeing demonstrations against Israel’s policy in the territories on the one hand, which do not make much distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people, and any defense of Israel for which any criticism is dismissed as dangerously anti-Semitic. How would you stop these paralyzing attitudes and encourage strong and wise support for Israel that still maintains a moderate position on the response in Gaza.
It is very difficult to walk this fine line. And when emotions are as high as they are right now, it is even more so. However, I think one has to be honest and consistent. I find it very disheartening to see many of my colleagues and friends in the West, especially in universities, who find it so difficult to condemn Hamas without hesitation for what it has done. I see it as a mirror image of the kind of McCarthyesque reaction that you mentioned; when anyone who expresses any kind of criticism of Israel or its government or Netanyahu is immediately branded an anti-Semite, etc.
I see these twins who cannot get rid of this childish and simplistic idea that it has to be pure good versus pure evil. It is always black versus white. We have to insist that the world is more complex than that. No one is a saint and no one is purely a victim. It is a complex situation. Some of my left-wing friends tell me that I am a dirty Zionist and that I am an apologist for Zionism and some of my right-wing friends and most of my family tell me that I am a traitor and that I am an Arab lover, etc. I honestly don’t think there is a way out. I don’t think there is a solution. There is only to stand and make your case, be honest and consistent. There is no escaping this kind of propaganda.
In a short-term perspective, do you think there is still room for de-escalation, that is, to not have a ground invasion. Also, is there still room for the two-state solution in a medium- and long-term perspective?
It is very difficult to speculate. There will be a ground operation, I am almost certain of that. In terms of public statements and expectations, I do not see how the Israeli government can avoid some kind of ground operation. The real question is whether a significant reoccupation of the Gaza Strip can be avoided. The answer at the moment is yes, although the situation is uncertain. The military is very gung-ho and ready to take over the entire Gaza Strip. The way this could be avoided is the extensive diplomatic effort that is going on right now. If they find a way to get civilians out instead of being taken hostage, to disarm Hamas in some way and to impose some kind of government in Gaza, which is not Hamas, with international involvement, I think we can perhaps avoid a complete reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. As far as the two-state solution is concerned, I have never argued that the two-state solution is dead. I think it is in a coma, but it is not dead. Some people made this analogy in 1973, which was the worst defense debacle in the history of the state, at least until last week. In the end, the peace agreement with Egypt came out of it.
One might think, therefore, that this is not going to happen any time soon, after all. But if Gaza is resettled and reorganized in some way, and if the right connection with the West Bank is made, this could be an opening. Because what has really collapsed here is the idea led by Netanyahu and the Israeli right that we do not need a two-state solution. Like I mentioned earlier when I talked about Netanyahu supporting Hamas. So the right-wing’s idea is that we do not need to resolve anything. We do not need a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians because we can handle it. Netanyahu called it conflict management, and the whole concept collapsed last Saturday. This conflict is not manageable. The price of managing it is too high. And now in Israel this notion has been completely debunked. And what you hear in the public sphere are two sets of ideas: the weaker one for now in Israel, is that you have to solve it or have a two-state solution. The stronger one is something like ethnic cleansing. I do not think ethnic cleansing is feasible, I think this is more of an outburst than a serious proposal. At least I hope so. So hopefully this can contribute, over a long period of time, to the materialization of some form of agreement, some form of two-state solution. But that will take time and effort.
Cover Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the state commemoration ceremony for fallen soldiers on the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war at the Memorial Hall on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 26, 2023. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
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