SPIEGEL Interview with Boutros Boutros-Ghali 'Israel Has a Habit of Closing its Eyes to Hard Facts'

The Israeli military strike in Gaza will have "unforeseeable consequences" for the region, warns former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he discusses the short-sightedness of Israeli politicians, Egypt's role and his muted hopes for peace.

A Palestinian man looks at a destroyed Hamas security compound after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City.

A Palestinian man looks at a destroyed Hamas security compound after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has Israel's current offensive against the Gaza Strip put a final end to the Middle East peace process?

Boutros-Ghali: We will know very soon. But it is already clear at this point that Israel's attack on Gaza has been a catastrophe. This military operation has given a boost to fundamentalists not only in Palestine, but also in every other Arab country. I have a hard time believing that Israel hasn't noticed this. In their attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the Israelis must have learned the lesson that actions like these only strengthen the position of the integrists. During that period, Hezbollah increased its influence and grew to become the strongest political forces in Lebanon.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But couldn't Lebanon be considered a special case?

Boutros-Ghali: No. The war in Gaza strengthens the position of radical Islamists in the entire Arab world in the same way that the war against Hezbollah did two years did. Moreover, it also weakens the position of Abu Masin (Mahmoud Abbas), the president of the Palestinian Authority, as well as the moderate parties in Arab countries and Israel who have been calling for dialogue and genuine peace negotiations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds very pessimistic. Hopes for peace can't just disappear overnight.

Boutros-Ghali: Today, I would prefer to defer that judgment to God.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you truly unable to see any silver lining on the horizon?

Boutros-Ghali: A genuine improvement in the general situation will probably only be seen by future generations. If I were to paint a rosy picture, I wouldn't be telling the truth.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you have such a negative view of the future -- especially you, who have earned a reputation for being a person of hope in stormy times? Right after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when no one wanted to believe in the possibility of peace, you helped former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to sign a peace accord with Israel at Camp David, a pact which continues to be honored to this day.

Boutros-Ghali: It is different this time. The current decision-makers in Israel, who ordered this attack on Gaza, haven't thought about the future. That was a mistake of momentous consequence.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What has led you to this conclusion?

Boutros-Ghali: Israel has a habit of closing its eyes to hard facts. In geographical terms, the Gaza Strip represents almost exactly 2 percent of the total area of Palestine. There is no getting around the fact that this area would have to be greatly expanded as part of the scope of a genuine peace agreement. An additional fact on the ground, which the Israelis prefer to forget about, is the 1.3 million Arab Palestinians who remained in their villages and cities when the state of Israel was founded in 1948 and who make up about one-fifth of Israel's current population. By around 2060, the Palestinians will account for roughly half -- if not more -- of the inhabitants of Israel and the areas occupied by Israel.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: According to that theory, this demographic development will put an end to the dream of having a state with a majority Jewish population, something which greatly concerns the Israelis. But does it have any bearing on the current conflict?

Boutros-Ghali: The growing imbalance between Jews and Arabs in the area controlled by Israel is of decisive importance for the near future of the Jewish state. Already today, you can see that the Zionist idea of having a purely Jewish state is not going to work out and that this (demographic) development renders the idea no longer tenable. The fuse is already lit. Emigration from Israel is already on the rise -- and not just in the wake of crisis situations. More and more parents are losing faith in the future and want to spare their children from having to live a life marked by constant fear and a lack of peace. But Israel's current leadership appears to be solely motivated by a concern for election tactics. Given the scale of the damage that has already been done, that is irresponsible.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Israel wants to put an end -- once and for all -- to the rocket attacks carried out by Islamist militants.

Boutros-Ghali: What the military is currently doing is causing a hundred times more damage and will have unforeseeable consequences for the entire region as well as, of course, for the Israelis.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamist hardliners -- not to mention Arab nationalists -- have been accusing Egypt of abandoning the Palestinians. Is that a correct accusation?

Boutros-Ghali: Egypt's borders are open day and night to all Palestinians who are sick or have been wounded. Egypt is sending all sorts of aid into the Gaza Strip.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, Hamas is calling on Cairo to open its borders to all Palestinians.

Boutros-Ghali: Humanitarian aid, food, medicine, teams of doctors, fuel supplies, treatment for the wounded and ill in Egyptian hospitals -- all of that is already being offered. But there is no doubt that having borders that were completely open and no longer controlled would lead to the infiltration of armed terrorists. Memories of the bloody attacks on tourist hotels in Sharm al-Sheikh and other Sinai vacation destinations are still fresh in our minds.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some have demanded that the Egyptians withdraw from their peace agreement with Israel.

Boutros-Ghali: Calls like that are senseless. Egypt's peace treaty with Israel has helped all Arabs. What other Arab country besides Egypt can have credible contacts with Israel and negotiate the opening of borders and an incremental lifting of the blockade? Calling off the peace with Israel would have terrifying consequences for all Arabs and the Israelis; our children and grandchildren would curse us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will US President-elect Barack Obama do something decisive to bring an end to the conflict in the Middle East?

Boutros-Ghali: The Americans are completely preoccupied with the global financial and economic crisis. The new administration will devote 50 percent of its activities to these issues. Likewise, American engagement will also be called for in other global crises in Latin America, Africa and Asia as well as perhaps in conflicts in Somalia, East Africa, eastern Congo, India, Pakistan and the Caucasus.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And in the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well?

Boutros-Ghali: Not much has changed in the United States since my term as secretary-general of the United Nations. The American public is not particularly interested in the Arab world, and the pressure exerted by the Jewish lobby is as strong as ever. However, it is unfortunately the case that Israel only responds to pressure if it is coming out of Washington. Given the current disaster in Gaza and the absolute split between Palestinian camps into that of the Islamist Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, which continues to be open to negotiations, Washington will do nothing over the next three or four years to facilitate the resumption of peace negotiations. Events in Gaza have set us all back by years. Unfortunately, to hope that the Europeans might play an effective role is just wishful thinking.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the Arab world already so divided that it can't muster itself into a strong, united position?

Boutros-Ghali: Working together, the Arabs put a good peace plan on the table that envisioned recognizing Israeli sovereignty within the pre-1967 borders in return for an independent Palestinian state within these borders. Israel made the mistake of ignoring this offer.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you foresee as happening in 2009?

Boutros-Ghali: I anticipate across-the-board changes for the worse for all countries in the Middle East. In the Arab world, religious extremists will become even more popular, particularly given the fact that over half the population is made up of easily influenced teenagers. In Israel, the extremists who are set on continued violence will gain ground. The extremes are getting more extreme; and, in the short term, all-or-nothing politicians will be viewed as heroes. But the innocent masses will suffer more than they did before.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a former secretary-general of the United Nations, what conclusion have you drawn about this conflict, which you once tried to solve?

Boutros-Ghali: For the foreseeable future, I don't see an era promising happiness. It's true that the curse of the colonial era disappeared half a century ago, and the Cold War is behind us. Millions of people expected a world that was better, more socially just and marked by technological progress. However, the unfortunate result has been that the age-old ills of mankind -- growing social disparity, inflammatory national and religious ideologies, cultures closing themselves off to outsiders -- have once again foiled these hopes. It is a shame that I will surely not live to see the dawning of a truly better world.

Interview conducted by Volkhard Windfuhr. Translated from the German by Josh Ward.


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