Gold: The sad truth is that this is not a territorial conflict, especially as the role of Hamas on the Palestinian side grows. Even the Fatah leadership insists that Israel will have to take in the Palestinian refugees, and even evict Jewish residents from those areas, before they will talk about ending the conflict. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, wrote in the Guardian on Dec. 10, 2010 that there were 7 million Palestinian refugees, and that disregarding "their aspirations to return to their homeland would certainly make any peace deal signed with Israel untenable."
This is an impossible condition for Israel to ever meet, since it would fundamentally change the demographic makeup of Israel itself. Because this is the intent of the Palestinian leadership, this is why it refuses to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, even though the Israelis are ready to accept a Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian leadership unfortunately still hopes to preserve the option of using the Israeli Arab population and a flood of Palestinian refugees in order to convert Israel from a Jewish state into another Arab state.
Slate: Your debate opponent, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, says Hamas has renounced violence as a form of resistance and accepted a two-state solution. Would Israel ever collaborate with a Palestinian government that included Hamas?
Gold: There’s a serious problem with Hamas. Hamas has a national charter from 1988 which calls for the complete destruction of Israel. It even calls for attacking Jews anywhere in the world. If Hamas wanted to make itself into a diplomatic partner, it would have to erase that charter. It would have to accept Israel’s right to exist. It would have to renounce violence and accept all previous agreements. But there is no indication that it will do this. In 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian elections, Mahmoud al-Zahar, the man who became the Hamas foreign minister in Gaza, was specifically asked if he was willing to change the Hamas charter. He said, “Not a single word.” So it seems that Hamas is ideologically rigid and locked into most of its old positions, even though it had every incentive in 2006 to change.
Slate: So last week’s reconciliation was an empty gesture?
Gold: I think Hamas is trying to find language that makes it easier for Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas] to work with them. But Abbas is riding a tiger here. The Hamas leadership would like to ignite an intifada in the West Bank, which while declaratively aimed at Israel, will be intended to create chaos that will bring down Fatah control of the Palestinian Authority and replace it with Hamas control. This will bolster the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' parent movement, in a number of neighboring Arab countries, like Syria and Jordan. Abbas is making a big mistake.
Slate: What actions might Israel take if the Palestinians achieved a status upgrade at the United Nations?
Gold: Well, we’ve already seen many actions the United States has taken in response to [the state of Palestine’s admission to] UNESCO. But Israel will leave itself a number of options to adopt, in the event that the Palestinians continue down the road of unilateralism.
Slate: What might some of those options be?
Gold: I wouldn’t want to try and specify.
Slate: Your debate opponents say that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to expanding the West Bank settlements shows that he is disingenuous about wanting a two-state solution.
Gold: I’ve always believed that the settlements are a side issue. What you have is a territorial dispute: The Palestinians have towns and villages that they’re building and Israel has its towns and villages where it’s building. The borders will not be decided by the rate of construction, but by an agreement that the parties reach.
Slate: The settlements aren’t a strategy to change the demography of the disputed areas?
Gold: Once Israel showed, in 2005, that it was prepared to pull out 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, it’s hard to argue that the settlements are the main factor determining the future borders of Israel.
Slate: But if they’re so insignificant, and they’re the one thing keeping the Palestinians from direct negotiations, is there a point where Israel just throws up its hands and agrees to a settlement freeze?
Gold: In 1993 when the original Oslo Accord was reached between Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, there was no settlement freeze in the agreement. And the two sides negotiated. When Ehud Barak went to Camp David and negotiated with Arafat under the Clinton administration, there was no settlement freeze. And finally when Ehud Olmert negotiated with Abu Mazen back in 2007, there was no settlement freeze.
The settlements are a red herring. The amount of territory they sit on is miniscule—only 1.9 percent of the West Bank. If you’re talking about 1.9 percent, and then somebody adds a few houses, you’re not undercutting the negotiations; you’re just addressing the needs of the people. Meanwhile, the Palestinians want to build a whole new city, called Rawabi, near Ramallah. Why not? They have needs; let them do it! Is that called a settlement?