Video Interview with Einat Wilf

by December 2023

A transcript of the video is below.

My name is Einat Wilf. I am a former member of Knesset on behalf of the Labor Party, and I am the co-author of the book The War of Return.

Ksenia Svetlova: It seems that you are going the extra mile to explain what is happening in Israel. And the state fails in this. Why does Israel fail, after such a horrible massacre against Israeli civilians, to explain what exactly happened on October 7?

Einat Wilf:  It’s a combination of things. One of the things that I do, mostly on Twitter, is provide context, really go deeper into the conflict, into the Palestinians and what they really want, the history of the rejected peace agreements, which is something, for example, that you’re absolutely right. Israel should have done much more to constantly emphasize that it made good faith, serious peace offers and they were rejected again and again. That’s an important story to tell.

The entire story of Zionism, how it was built, how it was created, I find that now is the moment when more people are willing to listen and I use it as an opportunity to provide context.

You are absolutely right that this is one failure, the failure to constantly provide history and context. Too many people are focused on what’s happening at the moment. I think also, there is an issue of where I have a friend who says that the problem is not the supply, it’s the demand. We might want to supply certain stories, but unfortunately, the demand in the world is still for stories that fit a narrative of evil Israel, immoral Israel. And we have stories of foreign journalists who say regular stories about Israel rarely get a hearing, stories that show how evil Israel. There’s always a demand. B

Even given that in many ways, the stakes are against us and the cards are stacked against us, I will say this. When our future, when our entire depended on telling our story well, we had the best people. We had Herzl to tell our story. We had Weizmann. We had someone like Abba Eban. We had Herzog. We knew that we had to put our best people to tell our story. And for quite some time now, we stopped doing that. We sent mediocre people at best looking at these positions as positions that you give as a political give and take rather than an opportunity to tell our story.

If something needs to change, and a lot of things need to change, but if something needs to change it is the understanding that our security and our very existence depends on our ability to tell the story of the Jewish people, of Zionism and of Israel.

Ksenia Svetlova: One way to explain ourselves, I think after that settled when we woke up and we understood, slowly, the horror of what happened, the next tribulation was the deniers, the lack of interest in Israeli dead, in Israeli women who were raped. I’m asking, is this something you would foresee knowing the situation on the campuses, the growing antisemitism? Did we miss at some point the point of no return?

Einat Wilf: If there is something that unfortunately didn’t surprise me it was the response of the world, because this is something that has been decades in the making, and I’ve been following it very closely. I’ve called it the Placard Strategy because you see it best and most visually on placards in anti-Israel demonstrations. Those placards say “Israel” or “Zionism” or the Star of David and then an equation sign. Then on the other side of the equation the strategy has been so effective that we all know what’s on the other side of the equation: racism, colonialism, imperialism, apartheid. Then it escalates into genocide, Nazism. Or you have the American flavor of white supremacy. Those words are chosen, not because they reflect reality, and you have to be in Israel one minute to see that they don’t. They’re chosen because they’re accepted as evil.

The Placard Strategy works by creating this refrain in people’s mindset: Israel, Zionism, Star of David are evil. Israel, Zionism, Star of David equals evil. At one point if you begin to believe that there is an evil out there, well then they had it coming. The immediate response is they deserve it. Of course they deserve it. They’re evil. Look at all the things that they are. The response is actually the direct outcome of the long established process of making sure that people believe that Israel, Zionism, Star of David are equivalent with evil.

Ksenia Svetlova: How much do you think this “Palestine, from the river to the sea” and all of that, is antisemitism and anti-Zionism, hate of Israel. And how much of it is the making of our government and the [West Bank] settlers?

Einat Wilf: Certainly, our government doesn’t help, but at the end of the day I would put very little on it. I have a lot against this government. It’s a government that I would like to see gone sooner rather than later. I think it has been delinquent, not only up until October 7th, but especially since it has not risen to the moment.

The response, because I’ve been following it for years, I saw governments in Israel change. I saw policies change. I saw the Abraham Accords being signed. I saw a lot of things changing and the Placard Strategy didn’t change. The Placard Strategy has been in existence at least since the ’60s. It was actually originated by the Soviet Union.

You had numerous Israeli governments, left wing governments, right wing governments, governments that tried to make peace. So at the end of the day I think it has to go to the bigger issue to the idea that this is a demand rather than a supply. There is something deep in the western psyche also in the world of Islam, a desire to believe in the immorality, in the failure, in the evil of the Jewish collective. And stories that fit that are stories that are more accepted than other ones.

Once you see how anti-Zionism, how the Placard Strategy has been developing through decades, Zionism is racism, was in the United Nations in the mid-’70s, a very different government. Once you see that it was something that was built consistently for decades, it’s very difficult to attach it to one specific government. It’s convenient. It’s a great excuse, but it doesn’t really explain it.

Ksenia Svetlova: For the sake of our listeners and viewers –  it’s war, that airplane noise that we hear now?

Einat Wilf: All the time. There are helicopters, airplanes but there’s also life. There is still life.

Ksenia Svetlova: The war is still going and it’s not clear what will happen in the northern front that can erupt at any time. It’s hard in the scope of war to see the distant future. I know you are dealing with the question of the future of the Jewish people and the Nation of Israel. How do you see it? How do you picture Israel? Where should it aspire as Israel? The conflict, the relations to the world and in regards to itself?

Einat Wilf: One of the things that I’m really interested in now, especially how in the midst of World War II, in the midst of the death and destruction, you had leaders that were able to imagine the future and to imagine the future of peace, which seemed crazy and radical.

My vision of what I call a radical positive future is one that I call Arab Zionism. That has actually always been our ideal. The Jewish people, as long as we care about this land and being here and being sovereign here, we are destined to be a national, linguistic, religious ethnic minority in the Arab and Muslim world. Even if all Jews immigrate to Israel tomorrow, we would continue to have lots of babies, we would be a Jewish minority in an Arab and Muslim region, which means at the end of the day our ability to thrive here depends on being accepted in the region, but accepted as equals, as equal nations and equal people.

This is the radical positive vision that hope for and I try to work for, one in which the Jewish people are accepted in this region, not as it is mostly now. We are viewed as foreigners, as interlopers, as people who came to a place to which they had no connection. All the things that call us white or European, or colonialists, or crusaders, they’re all about saying we don’t belong here. And the alternative vision of that is the vision of Abraham, the vision that says actually the Jewish people have a long history here. They belong here and the Arab world and the Muslim world embraced us because we belong here, because we have a history here. That’s the vision that I want to promote.

And in that context, the Palestinian people for a century, since the 1920s, have been constructed as a people whose single purpose as a nation is to throw the Jews out, is to ensure that the Jews don’t have a state and that once the Jews have a state to undo that state. That’s a terrible thing for a people to have and it’s a destructive one. It brought only destruction to the region and certainly to us and to the Palestinians.

The ideas that if the Palestinians can finally become a people who are more focused on constructing their own future rather than destroying what we built, then we could really live here together. There was a never a question of enough space or enough room. That was always the case. Now that we’re 14 million it’s still the case. It’s only about the ideologies that the people prioritize.

The more that the Arab world and the Muslim world sends the message of the Jews are not some temporary interlopers that need to be thrown out, they’re actually a people with a long culture and history in the region, the more that the Palestinian people can restructure themselves as a people who are not focused on destroying the Jewish state. And that’s the vision that I’m promoting, even if it’s a hundred-year long vision. I call myself a long-term peace activist. But sometimes crazy things happen within a decade. Either way this is the vision.

Ksenia Svetlova: Was the Abraham Accords the right step towards this direction?

Einat Wilf: Absolutely. Anything that leads the Arab world to embrace us, even the name “Abraham”, I think was especially significant. I know the UAE is a small country, but it’s an influential country that chose a direction for the Arab world and the Muslim world where they have a different conception of Islam, a different conception of Arab identity. I sometimes call the Abraham Accords collateral benefit, saying we’re not the central story here. The central story is Arab leaders who are rethinking Islam, who are rethinking what it means to be Arab, who are basically saying that anti-Zionism doesn’t have to be the core of Arab. That Islam is compatible with the acceptance of the Jewish people in their land. That’s what matters.

I think what matters is the bigger trajectory of Islam, of the Arab world and then part of it will be the acceptance of the Jewish people here, a very important step. It’s not a coincidence that the Palestinians who really, for a century, have been fed on this idea that their entire purpose and goal in life is to destroy the Jewish state. For them, the Abraham Accords were experienced as a sense of betrayal. I understand that. It is a betrayal in the sense that they were used to being supported in trying to the Jewish state. But I hope that ultimately the Palestinians will go in the direction of the Abraham Accords rather than the Abraham Accords going in the direction of the Palestinians.

Ksenia Svetlova: You can say now that all of the Arab states are very worried because of the war in  Gaza which  influences them in a negative way and destabilization. Hamas trying to destabilize Jordan and Egypt and Morocco and other countries. Many of them would say “we give you a  kind of secure guarantee to make things better with the Palestinians.  But you didn’t even try. Instead, you have this radical right government. They said it’s enough for us to have Abraham Accords with remote countries, not with a nearby nation”.

Einat Wilf: I certainly think that there has to be a whole rethinking of what we call peace in this region. A lot of it has to do with Israel. I believe that for too long we’ve accepted very low standards. We call what we have with Egypt peace, even though it’s not. It’s a good no-belligerency agreement, but it’s not necessarily better than the one that we already had with Egypt in 1975.

We gave the entire Sinai Peninsula down to the last square inch and Egypt remains the number one producer and promoter of anti-Semitic content in the Arabic language. Egypt and Jordan together are the most hostile nations to Israel in international bodies. There is no cultural relations, no tourism. I think we also have to be clear of what peace looks like, not just from the Arab side that they have demands. We also have demands and expectations, and I think we’ve gotten used to very low standards.

I also absolutely agree, the kind of government that I would like to see in Israel, the kind of leadership that I would like to see in Israel is one that isn’t once very right wing and very left wing. Very right wing in the fact that we insist that nothing less than complete Arab and Palestinian embrace and acceptance of the Jewish right to self-determination is acceptable. That has to be the standard. Sometimes people say, what? You expect Palestinians to be Zionists? And my answer is of course. Israel is expected to recognize the Palestinian to self-determination, but somehow it’s a crazy idea that Palestinians will recognize the Jewish right to self-determination. That’s what we need to talk about.

I think we need to have a right to government in the sense that we have standards, and the standard is one of full embrace and acceptance of the ideal of practice of Zionism, the Jewish right to self-determination. And we need to have a very left-wing government that says once we are accepted we also understand that the price of that is partition, is dividing the land, is equal standing with the Palestinian people. They govern themselves, we govern themselves. We are equals in this land in terms of our sovereignty.

So what I would like to see is a radical positive vision that it’s also with an insistence of what is expected from the other side, and I think we haven’t done either one well enough.

Q. I’d like to as you about a question about UNRWA [the UN Relief and Works Agency]. Now we are in the midst in the war with Gaza and more and more details about UNRWA used by HAMAS are exposed. Who do you think should be the substitute for UNRWA? What’s the outcome?

Einat Wilf: Once we understand what UNRWA is, the question of the substitute disappears. UNRWA is essentially an organization, still temporary, that was hijacked by the Palestinians, beginning in the ’60s, to become a Palestinian organization. It’s a Palestinian organization, and we should be very clear on it. It’s run by Palestinians. It serves Palestinians. It’s essentially the education system and the welfare system of the Palestinian people waiting to take over the State of Israel. That’s what UNRWA is.

UNRWA only exists in order to basically allow the Palestinians to say the war of 1948 is not over. Even into the fifth generation, we are still refugees from that war. One day we will return and liberate Palestine from the river to the sea when Israel is gone.UNRWA was basically the anecdote to the loss in 1948. In 1948, they wanted to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. They failed and UNRWA was established as a way of saying we’re not done. We’re going to wait and wait generation after generation.

Ksenia Svetlova: Was there also a general background of support of the Arab countries and the Eastern bloc?

Einat Wilf: Absolutely. But it became the vehicle through which this international legitimacy and support were given. And what’s important is if it were only the Arab and the Soviets, that’s one thing. But what UNRWA is, and that’s the most valuable thing that UNRWA gives, it’s not the money, it’s not the education, it’s not the welfare. It’s the international legitimacy under the letters “U.N.”, funded by western states. That’s the value. Because from the Palestinian perspective, they look at UNRWA and they say the world is with us, the letters, “U.N.” The west is with us because UNRWA is funded by Europe and America. So for them, it means that America and Europe are actually behind the idea that Israel is temporary. That’s where the damage is.

Once you understand that this is what UNRWA is, then there is no need to replace UNRWA. There’s actually only need to get rid of it. Because once the Palestinians begin to understand that they are not refugees from a war that ended 75 years ago, just like Germans and Poles, and Hindus and Muslims, and Ukrainians and Bulgarians, and Italians are not refugees from the 1940s. They are not. All these other refugees got a very clear message. The war is over. Wherever you are is wherever you stay and you move on. Even if you lost your home, it’s sad, it’s tragic, but you move forward.

The Palestinians are stuck in this backward looking limbo and that’s why the war continues. They are not refugees. They do not possess a right of return. No one has a right of return to another sovereign country and they are not special. Once they begin to internalize it they become a forward looking people, a people who are focused on building for themselves rather than destroying for others.

Ksenia Svetlova: You didn’t need an UNRWA for Jewish refugees.

Einat Wilf: Of course. Because, again, you didn’t need UNRWA for Jewish refugees because the State of Israel was a forward- looking state. It absorbed them and it moved forward. This is the idea. Once you have a forward-looking people then they have their own schools and their own welfare system. We even saw how terrible UNRWA is in the fundamental sense that it basically allowed Hamas to say we’re not responsible for Palestinian civilians. This is not just Hamas. This is an old Palestinian view that basically says they’re not responsible for anything. Never. The wars they engage in, that’s not their responsibility. The outcome of the wars, it’s the world’s responsibility.

Hamas can say, we invest all the money, all the efforts in building the tunnels because our job is to liberate Palestine from the river to the sea for the sake of the Palestinian people and the things that a normal government would have to do, like education.

We saw this war how UNRWA was terrible in the context of Hamas. Hamas was able to say, we’re not responsible for Palestinian civilians. And that’s not just Hamas. This is an old Palestinian view that they are not responsible for anything. They will wage wars. They will lose them. They’re never responsible. In their vision, the world is responsible.

Hamas can basically say we’re using all the money, all the cement to build tunnels, to build an army so that we can liberate Palestine from the river to the sea on behalf of the Palestinian people. And the things that Hamas would have had to take care of like education and welfare, and health care, are basically outsourced to UNRWA.

UNRWA has allowed the Palestinians for decades to basically let of any responsibility of the coming of self-governing people. Once you understand what UNRWA is the whole question of what will replace it goes away. There’s actually no reason to replace it because it only ever did bad things.

Q: The last question is which is important to many readers of JST –  Israel’s future.After 1973 very important political changes took place. Do you expect that something like this can happen now as well?. Is this the right time for elections? Do you expect some type of revolution?

It’s really tough to know. I know on a personal level this government has to go and we see it also in the polls. It started way before October 7th. This is a government that does not enjoy legitimacy of a substantial plurality. It’s certainly not a majority for the citizens of the country.

When you have such a big gap between where the people are and where the government is, I have to say I don’t think in Israel’s history there has been a bigger gap between the spirit and the quality of the people, and the spirit and the quality of the government. The only way many ways to close it is with elections.

We need to remember, in ’74, the elections brought a massive victory to Golda’s government because, by the way, we were clearly victorious in the Yom Kippur war and the change only was in the ’77 elections.

We can’t know what will happen. Everything is still fluid. In many ways, we really haven’t processed October 7th. We’re still in shock. There is a sense of presence, continuous. It’s not clear that elections will bring a big revolution. Sometimes things take time. But it’s very clear to me that we need different ideas and a very different quality of leadership. At the end of the day, Israel is not a country that can afford mediocre leaders. Other countries, they can have clowns. They can have cowards, they can have mediocre leaders, they’ll be fine. We won’t. I think beyond any specific idea or ideology, the quality of our leadership needs to change dramatically.

Ksenia Svetlova
Ksenia Svetlova is the Executive Director of ROPES (The Regional Organization for Peace, Economics & Security) and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. She is a former member of the Knesset.
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