The Mirage of Peace: A Conversation with David Aikman

Katherine Britton | News & Culture | Friday, January 08, 2010

<i>The Mirage of Peace</i>: A Conversation with David Aikman

January 8, 2010

Bestselling author and former TIME correspondent David Aikman recently talked with about his new book, peace in Israel, the land's forgotten Christians, and what American Christians are missing in the debate. As a Christian and journalist previously based in Jerusalem, Aikman offers his perspective on Israel's tenuous existence.

CW: When I first got this book on my desk, it looked like another political commentary on the Middle East. However, when I looked closer and started reading it, it reads much more like a history text. 

David Aikman: I think that's probably because I'm a historian. And because I have a strong bias toward the necessity of historical background in order for one to understand anything that's going on in the present time.

It's obvious that nothing happens in a vacuum and if you know the background to any situation that's taking place, whether it's political, development, or somebody changing their job—which is something that is quite domestic—if you know something about the previous story of the politics or the person in question, some things don't seem quite so surprising as they might have seemed.

CW: That seems especially true of the Middle East. In your introduction, you write that you tried very hard to make sure you represent all sides fairly. With that in mind, I'm curious about the chapter on Israel and Palestine. How do you think a Palestinian would have written that chapter differently? 

Aikman: Well, I think he might have taken issue, depending on how extreme he was. If he belonged to the organization Hamas, which runs Gaza, he would have said, ‘The Jews don't have any right to a state of their own. They're not even a people, they're just a religious group. We Palestinians have suffered at the hands of the Jewish invasion of Palestine and we should kick them all out.' A more moderate Palestinian, I think, would perhaps take issue with some of my comments on the Palestinian leadership in the 1920s and ‘30s—although perhaps not—in which I say that the Palestinian people were very ill-served by the kind of leaders who showed up to negotiate with the other powers. The classic example is the 1930s when the British came up with a proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab areas. And the Jews reluctantly agreed. And the Palestinians flatly refused any kind of compromise.

The former foreign minister who is dead now, Abba Eban, used to joke that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And I believe that's the case.

CW: You raise an interesting point - that the state of Israel has been a kinder tyrant, if you will, than the Arab states surrounding Israel have been to their own people. In spite of this kind of treatment, Israel shifted from being "the underdog whose very survival was threatened" to the "regional bully." How did that come about?

Aikman: I think the reason for the turnaround in Israel after the Lebanon invasion [in 1982] was that it was easy to see Israeli tanks and infantry surrounding Beirut. And it was easy to see Israeli tanks firing on the city. And of course, if you've got cameras within Beirut, you could show the civilians who were injured in the fighting. Israel was perceived as this sort of overwhelmingly powerful military juggernaut that had swept into Lebanon and imposed a solution on Beirut.

So that was the perception that actually a lot of American television news stations carried. And then of course Israel remained partially in Lebanon until 2000, when it precipitously withdrew. Because Israel, fortunately, has won all the wars it's had to fight, at least all the wars against actual Arab states, and the reason is if Israel didn't win any of the wars, it would cease to exist as a state. So it doesn't have any options.

CW: Which is why you say 'fortunately.' 

Aikman: That's right. Israel, any time it goes to war with an Arab state, faces an existential challenge. It might not exist if it loses. So I think as a result of Israel's very success in these conflicts, it has been changed in people's minds from an underdog - which many Americans saw it as in the ‘60s and ‘70s - to a sort of regional super power that can impose its will virtually without restraint on any of its neighbors. That's not the case.

The last thing the Israelis want to do is preside over the daily lives of ordinary Arabs. So for that reason, the Israeli government ordered the withdrawal of all civilian settlers in the regions close to Gaza. Of course, they weren't within the city of Gaza itself. Unilaterally, without any concessions whatsoever by the Palestinian side. And what did Israel get? Israel got just a barrage of rockets from Gaza that finally provoked it into responding with a land incursion into Gaza in 2008.

CW: And that particular military strike was still perceived as initiated by Israel, whereas the missile strikes were viewed as instigated by Hamas, so there was a lopsided response that was portrayed in the media. You don't think that's accurate? 

Aikman: Well, I think it's dishonest to criticize Israel for any of the civilian casualties that the Palestinians suffered as a result of the incursion into Gaza if the preceding eight years of rocket attacks upon Sderot, in southern Israel, in which there were not many fatalities, but the lives of the children of Sderot were completely transformed by having to live virtually day-in and day-out in air raid shelters. They were unable to live a normal life. That was really overlooked by many of the commentators.

CW: Talking about overlooking things - I think the American Christian population tends to look at Israel a bit differently than the American media. What do you see in evangelical circles that even Christians who are supportive of Israel are overemphasizing or missing from their perspective? 

Aikman: Americans who support Israel's right to exist - I agree with them, I support Israel's right to exist - but I think sometimes pro-Israel American Christians have neglected the fact that the Palestinians have a point of view. And that daily life - if you're a Palestinian, having to move around the West Bank with fairly frequent Israeli military checkpoints - is just a very unpleasant experience. I mean I've talked to Palestinians who are people of very dignified presence, maybe middle-age, and have high professional achievements, and they've had to get out of their car and be body-searched by some 19-year-old who's probably come to Israel in the last two or three years and certainly doesn't speak Arabic and probably doesn't speak Hebrew very well.

There is a sense in which Israel's overwhelming military power is sometimes reflected in a certain arrogance by Israeli personnel manning these checkpoints. I know that the Israelis are very much aware of this. They try to reduce the number of checkpoints but inevitably, if you are in charge of the military security of a certain area, you're going to be perceived as oppressive and arrogant by the people whose activities you are controlling.

CW: So what is a better solution, knowing that Hamas still exists, they're still trying to send in suicide bombers, and they're willing to take out their own people? But still trying to coexist in some kind of no-man's land? 

Aikman: Well, I think American Christians should encourage Israel and the American government - to the extent that Israelis will even listen to them - to be willing to talk to Palestinians as far as the Palestinians are willing to talk. And Americans should really require their own government not to pressure Israel in a very arbitrary way. Not to threaten Israel with economic consequences if it doesn't cease altogether its settlement construction and projects in the West Bank.

My basic principle is that Israel and the Palestinians will be able to come to a peaceful accord on the creation of a Palestinian state. I mean even Benjamin Netanyahu, the conservative current prime minister, has agreed to that in principle. But both sides must negotiate on a fair basis between each other. It's not good if the United States, out of a misguided sense of desiring to push the project forward, tries to impose conditions on either side.

CW: The title of your book is "The Mirage of Peace." So perhaps there is more hope than a mirage can offer, but it has to be under certain conditions? 

Aikman: I think there is a hope. I called the book "Mirage of Peace" largely to draw attention to the fact that people are often naively led to believe that you can kind of wave a wand of American diplomacy and somehow solve all the problems, which you obviously cannot. And it's, I think, better to try and resolve the problems of an area aware of the profound animosities and historical difficulties of all the sides than to believe that the Middle East is a sort of area where you can have the normal give and take of negotiations that Americans are used to when you clearly can't. If one side has a winner-takes-all approach to the results, you aren't going to get a solution.

CW: But in spite of one side having a winner-takes-all mentality, you still think that some kind of coexisting is possible? 

Aikman: I do, because most Palestinians don't want to see the state of Israel removed. Ordinary Palestinians living in the West Bank have actually come to appreciate Israel because it's the country where you have genuine freedom of speech, genuine political democracy, and there are Arab members of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. And the Arabs who live in East Jerusalem, interestingly enough, to a man don't want to be part of a Palestinian state because they know that their political freedoms would immediately be curtailed. They would not have access to the very advanced Israeli medical system that they currently have, and economically, their conditions of life would deteriorate. So they would rather things continue as they are.

CW: I'd like to also ask you about a particular group of people that is not addressed in your book per se, that being Christian groups that exist in places like Gaza and the West Bank, Bethlehem. They are not exactly living under the best of circumstances. 

Aikman: That's true. I have met with many Christians in the West Bank and I'm sympathetic to all of the issues. But they are also under intolerable pressure from Islamists who want to curtail both their physical presence in the West Bank - basically to bully them into leaving - or to restrict their freedom of activity. And I think the situation of Palestinian Christians is deplorable. It was much better when the Jewish state actually occupied places like Nablis and Ramallah (SP) and Bethlehem than it has been under the autonomous control of the Palestinian authorities. Palestinian authority have been very restrictive toward the activity of Christians.

CW: Like you said, it's a very sad state for them and yet they're just so overlooked in American circles. 

Aikman: Certainly, and what about the Christians in Iraq? Even more tragic situation.

CW: I have to wonder if American Christians can be so sympathetic to Israel that they forget that they are other people quite nearby. Do you think that's true? 

Aikman: That may be the case. I've seen that criticism actually from American Jews. American Christians are so supportive of Israel, that they overlook their own kind - their own brothers and sisters - in the Arab world.

I think American Christians who support Israel are very aware that the government's view of Israel is much less sympathetic than most Americans and certainly most American Christians. And the media's view of Israel is much more critical and skeptical. So I think American Christians feel like they have to compensate by being so supportive of Israel that they overlook Arab Christians in the area.

CW: Let's broaden the focus a little bit. Where do you see the Israel-Palestine peace process going in the next 50 years? 

Aikman: I think an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is within reach. I mean the fact is, in the year 2000, the Israelis had agreed to return to the Palestinians something like 93 percent of the West Bank that they controlled. They even were willing to cede control of part of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. And that was the best deal that the Palestinians had ever been offered. And once again, Arafat turned it down. He thought that if he accepted this, he'd probably be assassinated, because there are always some Palestinians who want the whole thing or nothing at all, ready to be violent for that purpose.

I think if you could resolve the issue of the Palestinians having control of Gaza, if the Palestinian authority were to establish its jurisdiction over the Gaza Strip and negotiate in good faith with Israel, an agreement would be possible. But as long as you've got about half the Palestinian people under the control of Hamas, totally rejecting the possibility of any compromise with Israel, you're not going to have an agreement. Which I think is tragic.

CW: I'll let you have the last word in our conversation today. What would you like to tell our audience about the book or about the topic today? 

Aikman: To give some kind of optimistic note to listeners, I would say watch out for what's happening in Iran, because you have a rapid - even explosive - growth of Christianity in Iran. It's completely underground. It's very similar to Christianity in China, of which I'm rather familiar. That could change the entire situation in not just Iran, but also the whole Middle East, although I don't think that's something we should look forward to in the immediate future.

As to my book, I don't know of any book that deals with the historical and cultural background and religious background of all the countries in the Middle East in both a comprehensive and a fair way. I would say if anybody is going to the region, whether as the soldier or a businessperson or a student or a diplomat, this is one book that will inform them more completely than any other.