Interview with former Knesset Leader 'We Are Such an Angry People'

In a SPIEGEL interview, former Knesset president Avraham Burg discusses the right-wing surge in elections, the "monopoly of the Holocaust" on Israelis' everyday lives and opportunities missed by the Palestinians and Israel.

Avraham Burg on the election of the right-wing parties and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu's imminent return as prime minister: "The Israeli society has been kidnapped by the settler movement."

Avraham Burg on the election of the right-wing parties and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu's imminent return as prime minister: "The Israeli society has been kidnapped by the settler movement."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Burg, a majority of Israelis voted for right-wing parties, and now Benjamin Netanyahu is prime-minister designate. As someone who supports the Israeli left, are you feeling a bit lonely these days?

Burg: I feel I am losing my political, ideological and spiritual home. My political home today, the Meretz party, shrank to only three seats in the Knesset. As an Israeli I feel lost because so many of my fellow countrymen are in love with war -- as the solution for everything. But the most existential loss is spiritual: For me, being a Jew is being a universalist, a humanist. I can't understand any Jew who votes right-wing. I can't understand how a Jew can speak a language of xenophobia. And yet so many of them just did.

SPIEGEL: You're referring primarily to the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, whose Israel Beytenu Party became the third-strongest in Israel's parliament.

Burg: If you had told me 20 years ago that a day would come when this racist ideology would be represented with 15 seats in the Knesset, I would have said that was impossible. Now it's as if the crossing of this red line were natural. Lieberman doesn't talk about the West Bank and the borders of 1967. He brings us back to 1948, when tens of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes. Now Lieberman wants the remaining Israeli-Arabs to leave the Jewish state.

SPIEGEL: How could an election result like this have happened?

Burg: The Israeli society has been kidnapped by the settler movement, which follows a one-state solution of the biblical Eretz Israel. Likewise, the Palestinians were kidnapped by Hamas, which follows the Greater Palestine vision on the basis of the Islamic sharia law. And in both societies there is kind of a Stockholm syndrome: We have affection for our abusers.

SPIEGEL: You wrote that you would consider emigrating if the idea of expelling Israeli-Arabs were to become a government policy. Have you started packing your suitcase?

Burg: No. I try to calm myself by drawing a new red line: Lieberman is not yet the prime minister, he is not yet the majority. I still have hope. Let me use a metaphor: I was there at the delivery room when my children were born. Each time, I asked myself: How can it be that it takes so much pain and so much blood for such a beautiful thing to arrive in this world? The crisis in Israel could be a chance. One of the reasons Lieberman was able to become what he is today lies in the fact that nobody objected to him. Now I feel that a new moral elite could be born in Israel. Lieberman is part of the pain. But time is working against us. The days of the two-state solution, the co-existence between Israel and a sovereign Palestine that we are striving for, are numbered.

SPIEGEL: At least Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party will now be the largest in parliament. Livni wants to continue negotiations towards a two-state solution.

Burg: And how does she plan to do that with Netanyahu sitting at the cabinet table?

SPIEGEL: The peace treaty with Egypt, Israel's most important, was negotiated by the right.

Burg: But the idea of "Land for Peace" came from the left. It was only implemented by the right.

SPIEGEL: But the left failed with the Oslo peace process.

Burg: Oslo itself was a great event. For the first time, the two sides met on the basis of a vision of a two-state solution. The mistake behind the creation of the Palestinian entity was that it was more a real estate arrangement and not the beginning of a reconciliation between two enemies. And between the time of Oslo in 1994 and Camp David in 2000, Israel doubled the presence of the settlements in the occupied territories. For the Palestinians, that's the icon of occupation. At the same time, the Palestinians did not put an end to incitement and the culture of hatred in the mosques and schools -- so the collision was inevitable.

SPIEGEL: With the victory of the Israeli right during the election, the unilateral approach of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who led the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, also failed.

Burg: The notion that there is "no partner" was invented by Ehud Barak and the Labour Party after the failure of Camp David. It was also the left that started to plan the separation wall.

SPIEGEL: You were once a prominent member of the Labour Party. You might have become prime minister one day. Why did you leave politics?

Burg: I felt the political walls were closing in on me. I had to make too many compromises. Instead of developing visions, I only thought of the next press release. I realized that Israel is a very efficient kingdom with no prophecy, without any direction.

SPIEGEL: The reason for this, you argue in your book, "The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from Its Ashes," is the "absolute monopoly of the Holocaust on every aspect of our lives." What do you mean by that?

Burg: Israel is like an abused child who becomes a violent parent. If there is a collective like the Jews which was so brutally abused, is it possible that this collective will never be able to liberate itself from the trauma? Is it possible that this nation will never get out of this vicious circle? I at least do my utmost to help us get out of the trauma.

SPIEGEL: "The Shoah is more present in our lives than God," you wrote. That sounds like blasphemy.

Burg: How can the truth be blasphemous? Everything is constantly compared to the Shoah. Take Netanyahu. He compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad to Hitler.

SPIEGEL: You don't think that the Iranian regime is threatening Israel's existence?

Burg: I do, but if everything is compared to the Holocaust, then you would also have to reject the alternative offered by US President Barack Obama for a diplomatic process and take immediate harsh measures to prevent the next Holocaust. Moreover, when you use the Holocaust as a total example to compare everything against, by the end of the day you annihilate so many things. You say to yourself, Gaza? Well, it was not nice, but it wasn't the gas chambers, either. This is the logic: Because nothing is the Holocaust, everything is permitted.

SPIEGEL: But you also use these comparisons. You write that Israel is deteriorating like the latter days of the Weimar Republic. You ask what the actual difference is between the Nazi's, who screamed "Juden raus" (Jews get out), and Israelis who are yelling "Arabs get out."

Burg: In Hebrew, there's a saying: "Lets not wash the dirty laundry outside." But because the international media is watching Israel so closely, we don't even do laundry inside our homes any more. After a while, it starts to stink.

SPIEGEL: You write that: "Present-day Israel and its ways contribute to the rise in hatred against Jews." How would your father, a Holocaust survivor from Dresden, have responded to a sentence like that?

Burg: My father used to tell us that the two most important writings that shaped the politics of the Jewish people were published in Germany: Theodor Herzl's "Old New Land" and Hitler's "Mein Kampf". In Germany at the time, there was a dramatic race between the liberal spirit and national trauma. Eventually, the trauma won. In Israel we have the same competition pitting the greatest hope against the deepest trauma. From my father I took this message: Make sure that hope wins this time.

SPIEGEL: "The guilt complex over the Shoah," you argue in your book, "created a national obsession of exaggerated securitism that often morphs into primitive belligerence."

Burg: We are such an angry people, we are so aggressive.

SPIEGEL: Israel tolerated rocket attacks on its people for eight years before it went to war against Hamas in Gaza.

Burg: The rocket shooting was intolerable for the people of the south. But let me remind you: In five out of the eight years, we were the occupiers of Gaza. So in eight years a couple of thousands of rockets, around 30 people were killed and many were traumatized. And you therefore kill a thousand and demolish a region? Where are the proportions?

SPIEGEL: Israel left Gaza in 2005. Instead of building up the coastal strip, though, Hamas continued to shoot. It seems that former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban was right when he said: The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Burg: We Israelis are world champions of missed opportunities as well. First we didn't want to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Later we did. Now history is repeating itself with Hamas. On the day Gaza becomes a stronghold of al-Qaida, we will discover that Hamas was not that awful after all.

Interview conducted by Christoph Schult


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