Conor Cruise O'Brien, born in 1917, is an acclaimed author, public intellectual, international statesman and former government minister in Ireland. He was a member of the Irish delegation to the United Nations from 1956 to 1961 and represented Dag Hammarskjold in the breakaway province of Katanga during the Congo crisis. He has been vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at New York University and editor-in-chief of the Observer in London. He is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and writes regularly for newspapers and magazines in Europe and North America. His more than twenty books and plays include To Katanga and Back, Herod: Reflections on Political Violence, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, and his biography of Edmund Burke, The Great Melody. His most recent book is entitled Memoir: My Life and Themes. His main work concerning the Middle East is The Siege: The Story of Israel and Zionism (1986). He was interviewed in New York City on March 14, 2000, by Daniel Pipes and Joseph Skelly, the editor of Ideas Matter: Essays in Honor of Conor Cruise O'Brien.
Middle East Quarterly: The Siege postulated that Israel's isolation in the Middle East was an unalterable fact of Middle Eastern politics and one that would persist "in some form, into an indefinite future"1—despite the Israeli-Egyptian rapprochement and some subtle hints of moderation heard at the time. Nevertheless, you recognized that "in certain conditions the siege could become – for a period, at least – a largely latent and metaphorical affair." How do your thesis look fourteen years later?
Conor Cruise O'Brien: Well, of course, there have been developments that I didn't anticipate. I didn't anticipate the agreement between Arafat and Israel, because it came about as a result of the Gulf War. Nobody expected the war or the isolation of Arafat after it. He had to come in from the cold; he was flat broke; and therefore he went to Washington more or less on hands and knees and asked them to broker a deal. Israel also had strong reasons for maintaining good relations with Washington on acceptable terms, and they did. The agreement hasn't worked very well, and it's not very complete, but it's there.
Apart from that, it is true that Israel has not achieved peace with all its neighbors, because Syria is a holdout. And it's probably true that if, God forbid, relations between the United States and Israel should break down, and Israel no longer had any backing from Washington, all the Arab states would join in a combination against Israel. Fortunately, that hypothesis is quite remote.
MEQ: So the isolation does persist?
O'Brien: The isolation does persist. But there are circumstances in which Israel could get an agreement with Syria. It would be at a pretty stiff price, but you could get it.
MEQ: And that would end the isolation?
O'Brien: It would end the isolation in the region of the Fertile Crescent. Israel could be in peace with all her immediate neighbors.
MEQ: What would such a peace really mean? Wouldn't it be merely a piece of paper?
O'Brien: No, it could be more than that. After all, the peace with Egypt is peace: it has held. Israel and Egypt used to be at war, or at the threshold of war.
MEQ: But one could argue that there has been no more war between Syria and Israel in twenty-five years than there has been between Egypt and Israel.
O'Brien: There has been no direct war, but most the paramilitary groups that regard themselves as at war with Israel are subsidized and supported by Syria. Damascus keeps that going, and it won't stop until there is a settlement with the Golan Heights.
MEQ: But wouldn't that just lead to deterrent peace—similar to the peace between the United States and Cuba—as opposed to harmonious peace, which is what we have with Canada?
O'Brien: Well, it wouldn't be anything like the peace between the U.S. and Canada, no. The Arab world has never accepted the legitimacy of the existence of Israel and is not likely to do so. These things are handed down from generation to generation.
MEQ: So, aren't you implying that the isolation will continue?
O'Brien: Well, in a sense the isolation will continue, but it will not be any longer isolation under threat of, and sometimes more than threats of, reality of, military action from Israel's neighbors. The more distant Muslim countries, such as Iraq and Iran, will continue to be hostile and will continue to try to stir up hostility against Israel; I don't see any early settlement to that. But I do see a prospect—under certain conditions, such as the deal with Syria, of Israel's having tolerable connections with all its neighbors, Egypt-style, if you like. They won't be cordial relations, but they will work.
Hostility to Israel
MEQ: What are the origins of Israel's isolation? How much of Israel's isolation goes back to bias? Does the country suffer from anti-Semitism on an international level?
O'Brien: Well, anti-Semitism is undoubtedly there. Let's go back to the very beginning, the time of covert Zionism — the build-up of Zionist settlements in Palestine more than a century ago. The settlements were established mainly by bribing Turkish officials to turn a blind eye to them. Then, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, things changed greatly to Israel's disadvantage. And this was because of the liberalization of the press, which was run by revolutionary governments. An Arab press, as distinct from an Ottoman press, developed, a press in the Arabic language. The Arab newspapers all denounced the Zionist movement, inciting against it and prophesizing its destruction at the hands of the emerging Arab states. That set the tone which then continued and intensified after the foundation of the State of Israel, culminating in the attack on Israel by all its Arab neighbors after the British withdrew in 1948. The defeat of the Arab countries came to be called an-nakba, the disaster, and then all the Arabs' rhetorical energies and some of their other energies were devoted to canceling out that disaster. That psychology has undergone various mitigations and other evolutions, but it's still very much around, as the event of a weakening of the State of Israel would show.
MEQ: Is there a Muslim-Jewish dimension to this problem?
O'Brien: Rooted in the political and linguistic realities of the region, Muslims and Jews are not about to be reconciled. The Arab propaganda against Israel is brutally anti-Judaic: It includes justifying the Holocaust and circulating again the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—and believing in this admitted forgery.
MEQ: How much does Israel depend on the United States?
O'Brien: Very much. It exists in a kind of symbiosis with the United States. That is one of the reasons why it is not being attacked by Arab neighbors who very much dislike its existence. So if that relationship should break down, which is very unlikely, there would again be a serious, terrible threat to the existence of the State of Israel. That's a theoretical catastrophic possibility; it doesn't appear to be in any sense imminent.
MEQ: Where do these attitudes leave Israel? Is it still a country in jeopardy, or is its long-term existence now reasonably ensured?
O'Brien: Yes, Israel will be around for a long time.
European and American Attitudes
MEQ: Has the Roman Catholic Church undergone a shift in attitudes following the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994?
O'Brien: Yes, there is a shift, and we experienced that in Ireland. For a great many years, the Irish government supported the view that Israel's position on Jerusalem was unlawful, and therefore Israel could not be recognized. There were no diplomatic relations for a long time, then there was only an attenuated form of diplomatic relations. Now there is an Israeli ambassador in Dublin, fully accredited, and relations with Israel are much more relaxed. They occasionally deteriorate when there is some clash involving Israel and United Nations forces. If relations are somewhat strained, though, they not so strained as they used to get under comparable conditions in the old days. So, in my lifetime, there has been a definite and clear improvement in the relation.
MEQ: You've spent a lot of time in the United States. Could you give us some thoughts on the differences between attitudes towards Israel here and in Europe?
O'Brien: They are very different. Most European Jews are simply not there anymore, because they were wiped out, whereas here, in the United States, Jews are an important factor. Although a majority American Jews didn't always support Israel, they came to support Israel when it appeared that the British government was backing the Arabs against Israel. At the Biltmore Conference of 1942, the representatives of American Jewry came out strongly in favor of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. The recognition that followed was partly a result of that pressure and that force, and the force is still there. The identification with the State of Israel of this really large block of voters in key states is a critical part of that country's security.
MEQ: You imply it is just a matter of nose counting? Wasn't there a strong Christian Zionism in America going back to before there was any kind of significant Jewish vote in the United States? One thinks of the Blackstone Memorial of 1891, in which many of the most powerful leaders in the country called for "an international conference to consider the condition of the Israelites and their claims to Palestine as their ancient home[DP1] ."
CCOB: Yes, that pro-Zionist sentiment was always around.
MEQ: And it didn't have a parallel in Europe.
O'Brien: No, it didn't.
MEQ: Still today some of the strongest supporters of Israel in America are among the Christian Right; again, there is no parallel in Europe, correct?
O'Brien: Very true. This reminds me of my travels in Israel with some leaders of the American Christian Right. I found the experience a bit weird. As we drove along, they said things that I found quite congenial and acceptable politically concerning their support for the State of Israel. Then, as we were returning to Jerusalem, their conversation took a different turn as they explained why they favored of State of Israel. This had to do with their belief that Israel is being prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The first stage will involve tearing down the Arab temples on the Temple Mount. The next stage will be the Second Coming.
MEQ: Such views are virtually non-existent in Europe, right?
O'Brien: It's not nearly as significant, certainly not. Most people wouldn't even be aware of it.
MEQ: And this comes out of an American history of Christian Zionism?
O'Brien: Yes, right.
MEQ: Looking at Israel itself, some say that the Zionist spirit that built the country is now defunct. It's a country where people are absorbed with making money, and Americanization has taken hold in terms of consumer culture and individualism. Would you agree that this is a profound change, or would you say that things are basically as they used to be?
O'Brien: That's a very complex question; I'd much rather listen to a group of Israelis discussing it than try to answer it myself.
Zionism, in my view, still goes pretty deep. Most Israelis today are not formally religious, but then most of them never were. Some of the rabbis, quite early on, said that the Zionists didn't notice that they were about God's business. The religious feeling was strongly present among all the senior Israelis, and I don't think it's gone away altogether, but it may have weakened. But in moments of crisis, when Israel seems to be isolated and threatened, it comes back.
MEQ: As you pointed out, the essence and heart of Zionism used to be among the secular; now it is among the religious. Is that going to work?
O'Brien: Again, it's a very complex relation, because many of the most fervently religious Jews don't accept the existence of the State of Israel, will not serve in the Israeli armed forces, and appear to be outside the consensus altogether. Whether they're really out of the consensus, I'm not sure. If you take their declarations literally, they are. But when Israel is under direct threat, most Israelis, including them, tend to close the ranks. In more relaxed moments, they indulge in this business of not being part of Israel at all and not recognizing the Israeli state.
Two Peace Processes
MEQ: In the past you were very skeptical about the land-for-peace formula. You argued that "Israel could indeed surrender territory," but would not "get in return anything that could properly be described as peace. Israel could get peace of sorts with the particular Arab states who signed up for a deal. But other Arabs who did not sign up for a deal would continue to engage in terrorism, and the Arabs who did sign up would be likely to collude with the terrorists, partly out of fear of those fearsome people and partly out of a sneaking sympathy with them."2 Do you still maintain this to be the case?
O'Brien: Generally, yes. Particular pieces of land in a particular context—for example, the Golan Heights—could be exchanged for a kind of cold peace. But in the region as a whole, it's not possible. Israel did deliver a certain amount of land to Arafat and it hasn't really got a solid peace in return because terrorist organizations, based on the territories which it gave up, are still active against Israel, with the connivance of Syria and the secret collusion (or impotence) of Arafat himself. So it's very difficult to get clean-cut solutions. The best of them is with Egypt, because Egypt neither carries out attacks nor connives at attacks by others.
MEQ: Although you have expressed guarded support for negotiations between Israel and Syria, you oppose the peace process in Northern Ireland, suggesting that while the former may lead to "stability in the Middle East," the latter "will not lead to peace" in Northern Ireland.3 Please explain.
O'Brien: Well, the Irish peace process that we've known up to now, and that has now collapsed, was based on getting Sinn Fein, the political front of the IRA [Irish Republican Army], involved in the administration of Northern Ireland, even as the IRA itself, Sinn Fein's master, continues to hold all its weapons. That effort has not been sustained, and there are grave dangers now.
Instead, the government should comprise the Catholic party and the Protestant Unionists, without paramilitary affiliations. The only democratically healthy form of government in Northern Ireland would be one in which two political groupings, which have no paramilitary associations, ruled together: that would be the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the Catholic party in Northern Ireland, and another Unionist party, perhaps the Official Unionists. These two should form a government with the associates of paramilitary parties rigidly excluded. Then, if the excluded paramilitaries resumed military operations, they would be dealt with by the security forces, with whatever additional backing these might require, perhaps internment without trial, until the security authorities thought the paramilitary operations would not to resume. If that were done resolutely, you could have peace in Northern Ireland within at most a couple of years and an end of paramilitary blackmail.
The key should be respect for democracy and for democratic institutions and exclusion of undemocratic forces from the cabinet. And that's not what is happening.
MEQ: What perspective does this give you on the Israeli-Syria negotiations? Damascus is not exactly democratic.
O'Brien: No, they're not democratic in Syria, and they're not likely to become democratic.
But the Irish and Israeli cases are widely different. In Northern Ireland, the conditions are such that a democracy based on the unarmed sections of the Protestant and Catholic traditions could be built. In contrast, if Israel is to achieve peace, it has to be negotiated with a party that is essentially totalitarian. So, although there are some resemblances between the two situations, they are also quite widely different in character.
1 Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Siege: The Story of Israel and Zionism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), p. 656.
2 Conor Cruise O'Brien, Memoir: My Life and Themes (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1998), p. 372.
3 Conor Cruise O'Brien, "Barak the Man to do Business on a Middle East Pact," Irish Independent, July 31, 1999.