Shlomo Ben Ami: ‘Hamas’ infamy will remain for many years like a wall between Israelis and Palestinians’

The former Israeli foreign minister considers the attack by the Palestinian militia one of the greatest crimes against peace and accuses Netanyahu of having strengthened Hamas by ignoring the Palestinian National Authority

Shlomo Ben Ami
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami during an anti-reform demonstration in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, in April 2023.Eyal Warshavsky (SOPA Images / LightRocket / getty)
Juan Carlos Sanz

At 80 years old, Shlomo Ben Ami is as indignant as a twenty-something when he underscores the arrogance of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a trigger for the cycle of revenge and violence between Israelis and Palestinians that his country is now experiencing. “It had not been seen since 1948,” laments this historian trained at the University of Oxford who was Israel’s first ambassador to Spain and the last minister of foreign affairs of a Labor government before the Second Intifada (2000-2005) ruined the hopes of the Oslo Accords.

Ben Ami, who was also vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace in Spain, was born in the international zone of Tangier during the era of the French and Spanish protectorates over Morocco. Ben Ami speaks by phone in fluent Spanish from his current home in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

“Over the years, Netanyahu has ignored Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority with the strategy of strengthening Hamas as the best way to eliminate the two-state solution, given the existence of a radical and fanatical group in the Gaza Strip,” he argues. “But the Islamic movement had given us a strategic surprise by not participating in the Islamic Jihad’s offensives against Israel in recent years,” Ben Ami says. “And also a tactical surprise, by now entering Israel through the traditional fence, instead of through tunnels under the underground barrier.” The defensive system was built last decade at a cost of more than $1 billion under the Netanyahu administrations. “There has not been a serious military deployment on the border (of the Palestinian enclave),” he emphasizes.

Ben Ami believes that the conservative prime minister’s policy in Gaza completely lacks a solid basis.

“Wars have a political objective. For Hamas, it is about stopping the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, emptying Israeli prisons of Palestinian prisoners through the exchange of Jewish hostages, and seizing political hegemony in Palestine spurred by the cause of Jerusalem and the iconic Al Aqsa mosque,” he says, alluding to the Islamic religious buildings located on the Temple Mount. “Netanyahu is just reacting, he has no political objective, especially after having relentlessly provoked the Palestinians for years,” he adds.

Ben Ami maintains that the conservative leader discarded the idea of a two-state solution for the region a long time ago, and now limits himself to managing the occupation, considering that there were no conditions to sit down and negotiate. “But it has failed, since it has intensified the occupation, making it irreversible through the expansion of settlements while tolerating the violence of the settlers.”

Unprecedented barbarism

The historian and politician considers that “Hamas has been able to create a set of understandable and logical objectives in its strategy in Gaza, but its final tactic has been barbaric in a way that had not been seen in decades. Cold-blooded murders, kidnappings, rapes... The infamy will remain for many years like a wall between Israelis and Palestinians.” It will end up taking away arguments from Israelis who believed in reconciliation, and force many others to support Netanyahu in this war, he says. “It is one of the greatest crimes that Hamas has committed against what remains of the camp of peace supporters in Israel.”

In his opinion, the Israeli Army has become a law enforcement agency in the West Bank that constantly protects settler groups that instigate violence. “The weakness of the Palestinian Authority, caused by Israel, has brought the focus of Israel’s military deployments to the West Bank,” he says. On the other hand, he thinks that not enough attention has been paid to security around the Gaza Strip.

He also warns that the Palestinian population in general lives under a feeling of frustration and anger at the practices of the Israeli occupation. “It cannot be denied. For the occupying force and its civilians to be humiliated in such a way as has happened now, I don’t think it will spark rejection in the Palestinian population.”

Drawing from his own experience, Ben Ami notes that time is a healer of all wounds, no matter how deep. “If there are ever leaders with vision, what has happened now in and around Gaza should not be an obstacle to a future agreement. There has been much more blood between Germany and France throughout history than between Israelis and Palestinians,” he says. “But we have plenty of propagandists like Netanyahu, and murderers like those in the Hamas military leadership. With them, we can hardly think of a vision of the future. We lack leaders.”

For all its shortcomings, he trusts Israeli democracy to correct the flaws. “Now there is a type of government with people who live on a different planet, who do not work, who do not share the effort of military service,” he says, alluding to the presence of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the most right-wing Cabinet in the history of Israel.

When asked if the failure of Israel’s intelligence services is due to the fact that they have been concentrated more on the West Bank than on Gaza, he replies: “Before the Yom Kippur War (1973) there was no lack of intelligence in the ministers’ meetings, but despite having information, it was viewed under the strategic concept that the Arab countries had no military option against Israel.”

He continues: “Something similar might have happened with Netanyahu’s decision to focus on the West Bank, where he perceived a very active Palestinian resistance, and relegate intelligence on Gaza. Hamas was apparently tamed, focused on economic development and receiving money from Qatar in broad daylight.”

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