Interview with Israeli Author Amos Oz Trump 'Doesn't Even Have the Faintest Idea'
In an interview, author Amos Oz takes stock of 50 years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, explains why he penned a letter to Angela Merkel after Donald Trump's election and examines remaining prospects for a two-state solution.
The interview with Israeli writer Amos Oz takes place inside his modest 12th-floor apartment with a view over the Bay of Tel Aviv. Since Donald Trump's election as U.S. president, Oz, who at 77 still has much of his fury and passion, has grown more pessimistic about the future. A German copy of the new edition of "The Seventh Day," a book he originally edited, lies on the coffee table. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, he interviewed Israeli soldiers about their experiences in the war. The conflict ended with occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Oz, you've spent decades championing a resolution of the Middle East conflict. Now Donald Trump has become the first United States president to say that he will no longer insist on a two-state solution. Was that a shock for you?
Oz: It sounded to me like a bizarre sense of humor. He basically said: One state, two states, do whatever you like. I do not think this was a serious statement of American policy. This was him shrugging his shoulders and saying: Who cares about it. I think he doesn't even have the faintest idea of what he wants to do in the Middle East. Maybe he needs more time to think about it. Maybe he will take advice from someone. But he certainly did not say: "Dear Mr. Netanyahu, if you want the West Bank, have it, America will comply."
SPIEGEL: Still, a solution with two sovereign states of Israel and Palestine appears to be far off in the distance. In preparing for this interview, we imagined that you didn't think the events of recent days were very funny.
Oz: No, they are not. We supporters of the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine are now under a fierce attack from the far right and from the far left in Israel and in Europe. If I were a paranoid, I would say that maybe the far left and the far right are coordinating a conspiracy. The far right is saying to us: Forget about the two-state solution, it is going to be a Jewish state from the coast to Jordan. The left wing says you have to forget about Jewish self-determination, you will have to live as a minority in an Arab state -- just like the whites in South Africa. The key word that both have in mind is that the situation in the West Bank is "irrevocable." It is one of the words I dislike the most.
Oz: Because I am an old man and I have seen things get revoked. Things which looked very irrevocable. The morning I woke up and it was announced that Trump was the elected president of the United States, I wrote to Angela Merkel. I said that she -- at least for me -- is now the leader of the free world. Over 70 years after Hitler, a German chancellor, a woman, is the leader of the free world. So don't talk to me about irrevocable.
SPIEGEL: During its eight years in office, Barack Obama's government didn't succeed in advancing a solution. Could the new American president's approach potentially create new opportunities?
Oz: I'd be pleased if you could reveal to me what his government is planning for the Middle East. I don't really know. Judging from what I saw in the quite unusual press conference with Trump and Netanyahu, I don't think there is a clear idea in the U.S. administration about policy yet. Anything could be on the table.
SPIEGEL: There was a sense during the past few decades that the world was getting better and better, that democracy and modernization were progressing. Are we now witnessing a countermovement?
Oz: We got a wonderful present from Stalin and Hitler that they never meant to give us. We were immune for 60 years or so to aggression, racism and militarism. They made us partly immune to these things. Now it appears this Stalin-Hitler present has reached its expiration date. We were spoiled by this. So maybe we are just emerging out of a relatively golden age. I say relatively because this "golden age" also included Vietnam and South Africa as well as Yugoslavia. But we lived through a relatively golden age between the end of World War II and Sept. 11, 2001.
SPIEGEL: But in terms of the conflict in the Middle East, almost no progress was made during that period. Do you see any alternative to the two-state solution?
Oz: I'm afraid I do not. I don't believe in binational states. There are wonderful examples of this, prosperous multinational states: Switzerland, Switzerland and Switzerland. Everywhere else -- be it Cyprus, Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, it ended in a terrible bloodbath. The Palestinians are not going anywhere - -they have nowhere to go. The Israeli Jews also aren't going anywhere -- they have nowhere to go. But we cannot become one happy family, because we are not. So, we have to divide the house into two smaller apartments and learn how to say, "good morning" in the hall every day. Eventually, perhaps we will pop in on each other for a cup of coffee. But we need this semi-detached house, a two-family unit.
SPIEGEL: In the new edition of your book on the Six-Day War, you write in the foreword that after 50 years of occupation in the West Bank you see more apathy, numbness and indifference in Israeli society today. What drew you to this conclusion?
Oz: Correction: I don't like this to be called my book. It's not my book. Together with Avraham Shapira, I am merely the editor of this book, which is comprised of witness accounts from soldiers. Incidentally, I preferred the old title of the book, "Soldiers' Talk," to the new one. But yes, I do think Israeli society is becoming more indifferent. In 1940, Winston Churchill said that the war gave Britain its finest hour. A long war is degenerating -- it ruins the mind and the soul and psyche of individuals and nations. This bloody conflict has been going on for much too long. It is doing terrible things to Israelis, to Palestinians. One of the terrible things it is causing is indifference. People say: What can we do? We have to carry through to the next day and hope that we will be okay tomorrow as we are today and in the meantime, enjoy life.
SPIEGEL: You have written that what is happening in the West Bank borders on war crimes. The majority of Israeli people hold a different view.
Oz: Universally, not only here, people want to feel good about themselves. We all want to feel good to some extent. In some of the Israeli media, but not all, they read about very nasty things done by Israeli settlers and soldiers to Palestinian Arabs. This is a pain in the neck for many Israelis. They say: Leave us alone, what can we do about it? Or they say: Look at Syria, look at Iraq, the West Bank is paradise by comparison. I was one of the first to say, shortly after the Six-Day War, that occupation is corrupting. It corrupts the occupier and, in a different way, it corrupts the occupied.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Oz: It is wrong to take an 18-year-old boy or girl and arm them with machine guns and make them the almighty king of some little Arab village. No young man, and no old man either, should have so much power over the life and death of so many helpless individuals. It is corrupting. It sometimes provokes desperate, savage and indiscriminate violence among the occupied. The Six-Day War laid a foundation of deep hatred toward Israel 50 years ago. I said this at a very early moment back then, when people were chanting about liberating ancestral land. I was quick to say that regardless of the future of these territories, liberated they are not, because the term liberation only applies to human beings and not to land, not to real estate. We have obviously not liberated the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank. We have occupied them, but we have not liberated them.
SPIEGEL: You fought in Sinai. How did that experience change you?
Oz: I never wrote in any of my books about the battlefield. I tried and I could not, because the battlefield is first and foremost horrible stenches, not sights, not sounds, but stenches. They don't travel well into literature. But yes, It changed me, it turned me into a stubborn peace activist.
SPIEGEL: Do you still have memories of the war that continue to cause you suffering today?
Oz: I will share one with you. On the first day of the Six-Day War, I was sitting with some other men, Israeli-recruited reservists, on a slope of a sand dune. Suddenly, mortar shells began to explode in our midst. I raised my eyes and saw these little people on the opposite hill aiming and shooting at us. You know what my first instinct was? Not to shoot back. My first instinct was to call the police -- these people are insane! Can't they see that there are people here? This was the last healthy, human response I had on the battlefield.
SPIEGEL: Corruption investigations are currently being conducted against Prime Minister Netanyahu. How serious do you think the situation is for him?
Oz: I don't envy Netanyahu's situation, because I think he is in hot water. Obviously, this man has a totally different sense of personal morality than some of our previous political leaders. What would I personally like to see? I would like to see this government go straight to hell. And I would have liked to have seen the previous government go straight to hell.
SPIEGEL: Still, large parts of the population continue to support Netanyahu. Do you think Israelis are fundamentally less critical when it comes to corruption?
Oz: I don't think Israelis are less critical of corruption than people in Italy, France or America. Israel is special in a different way. There is a daytime Israel and a nighttime Israel. The first is self-confident, pushy and passionate, like other Mediterranean lands. It is hedonistic, materialistic and almost arrogant. During the nighttime, people are terrified, people are filled with existential dreads. These fears aren't baseless. The Jews have a powerful ally, America, but they do not really have a bigger family in the same way that there is a European family or an Arab-Muslim family. People who fail to understand this ambivalence will never understand this country. They will not be able to understand how Netanyahu could win the last election by saying the Iranians are coming, Islamic State (IS) is coming, the Arabs are coming, and the whole world hates us anyway.
SPIEGEL: Do you think Netanyahu can politically survive the current investigations?
Oz: I don't know. The answer is not here. The answer is that democracy in many parts of the world is undergoing a very deep crisis. Politics is becoming a branch of the entertainment industry. People vote not for the best leader, but for the funniest candidate.
SPIEGEL: Are you referring to the elections in the United States?
Oz: Yes, but not only. Also to your beloved continent. I hope I do not have to refer to Germany.
SPIEGEL: Considering all these circumstances, what hope for peace do you have in the Middle East?
Oz: What is likely to happen? Either an escalation of violence or an entire change in the whole Middle East theater. It may well happen, and I say this to my Palestinian friends, that the Palestinians have in a certain way missed their hour. They had their moment when the world's public opinion was behind them, and a considerable part of the Israeli public was willing to compromise with them. But recently with IS and Islamist fanaticism, it has become easy for the Israeli government to simply push the Palestinian struggle for self-determination into the same ranks as these fundamentalist movements.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean the two-state solution is dead, as many on the right in Israel are already claiming today?
Oz: No. But it's possible a Palestinian state will be installed over the heads of the Palestinians. It could be part of an agreement between the Israeli government and moderate Arab states, but not one between Israel and the Palestinians.
SPIEGEL: How would you describe your personal mood these days? Are you more or less pessimistic than usual?
Oz: I would love to leave my children and grandchildren a nicer world than the one I am going to leave them. But bearing in mind that I was born in the world of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, the legacy I leave them might not be as terrible as the legacy my parents and grandparents left to me.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Oz, we thank you for this interview.