What motivated you to become interested in the study of Islam?
During college, I traveled in the Middle East and Africa and was curious to understand more. As a result, I switched from being a math major to studying the Middle East and Arabic. Primarily, I tried to understand the impact of Islam on the life of people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, not so much the theology but the historical role of Islam. My Ph.D. was precisely on that subject — understanding the role of Islam in politics and public life. I've never left the subject, but I've moved on to do other things as well. One of those is founding the Middle East Forum.
What kind of views do you hope to promote through it?
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the signing of the Oslo Accords, I thought it was a good time to start a think tank that looks at the Middle East specifically from the point of view of American interests. As a historian, it takes a historical perspective of the big picture. It's changed over 29 years, but the basic idea of looking at American interests remains in place. The major addition has been to look also at Islam in the West.
You're recognized as an expert in the field and an outspoken critic of radical Islam, which is responsible for much of Islamic terrorism. How do you explain the roots of terrorism as it relates to the Islamic religion and culture?
Islam is the most political of religions, whose public laws are very much alive. To apply Islamic public laws, you need to have a Muslim ruler. So, Islam by its very nature includes a drive to power. It means if non-Muslims are ruling — to replace them with Muslims; if Muslims are ruling — to replace them with rulers who will apply the laws. It's a powerful dynamic in Islam. The modern Islamist movement takes this and makes it central to its program — it's power, power, power. It's influenced by 20th century radical movements of the West, like fascism, so that you have something like the Taliban or ISIS where Islam is everything, just like Marxism is everything. There is no alternative to it, whereas traditional Islam was far less demanding.
You once said that "radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution." How many moderate Muslims are there compared to the radicals and how can they moderate Islam?
When I came up with that formulation 20 years ago, the moderates were indeed scarce. They are far more apparent now than they were then. They have more of a voice, are better organized and more on the offense now. You can see them in governments, like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to mention two powerful figures. You also see this in the West. In the U.S., there are now visible, articulate Muslims who are fighting the Islamist variant with books and platforms. But there's a long way to go.
Do you see the Abraham Accords as a successful derivative of this process?
Yes. The process really began under President Obama with the U.S. government deemphasizing the Middle East on the one hand and seeking to appease the Iranian government on the other hand. This alarmed many in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf, and Israel was there as an alternative to the U.S. It was less the weakness of Islamism and more the weakness of the United States that caused the Emirates and others to rely more on Israel.
In an address to AIPAC, Netanyahu recently said that he's optimistic because "Arab leaders have changed their views regarding Israel and now see us as partners, not enemies." Yet Israel was roundly condemned for Ben-Gvir's visit to the Temple Mount by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. How reliable do you think these Islamic countries are as "partners" if they ever feel that their religion is challenged?
I had a piece two months ago in Commentary, called "Israel's Partial Victory," where I made the argument that the Arab states were at war with Israel for 25 years, from 1948 to 1973. It's 50 years that they have not been at war, with two minor exceptions in 1982 and 1991. They have given up. Not every one of them, not the Syrian government. But in general, the Arab-speaking governments have come to terms with Israel. It's real. The Israelis are selling them major armaments. You don't sell major armaments to a government you think might turn around against you.
But as you point out, there are real disagreements, and Jerusalem in general and the Temple Mount in particular are probably the most emotional and divisive of them. Generally, what's been the pattern is that the Arab states have better bilateral relations with Israel than multilateral. When it comes to the Arab League, Islamic organizations, or the U.N., they invariably are negative about Israel, but when its bilateral they tend to be positive. There are tensions, but I don't think they're severe enough to jeopardize the relationship. What could jeopardize it is if the Iranians get even more threatening and the Emirates and others get scared and pull back from Israel.
On the flip side, what if the Iranian threat disappears, perhaps as a result of regime change due to ongoing demonstrations, and what if what initially brought these countries together with Israel dissipates? Are there enough economic and other motivations to justify the endurance of the Abraham Accords?
That's an interesting question. I'm inclined to think yes. I think that this is a longer-term dynamic and it's proceeding. The Iranian common enemy is an incentive. But take it away, I don't think good relations will disappear. The Palestinian issue remains a problem, but it's not enough to stop them. There is a long-term shift by the Arab states from the ferocious enmity of the 1948-73 period to generally calmer relations, including six peace agreements.
You have advocated for what you call the Israel Victory Project relating to Israel's relationship with the Palestinians. Can you describe what it is and what kind of support it has garnered both within Israel and without?
Many people have spoken about the need to impress on the Palestinians that Israel is there and its government can't be defeated. Israel Victory takes it a step further and says that not only do the Palestinians have to understand that Israel won't be defeated, but the Palestinians need to be defeated. That's going further than anyone else does.
Our efforts in the U.S. Congress were fairly effective. In 2017-2018, we had a caucus of, at its peak, 35 members in the House. We have since abandoned that and focused on Israel, the Knesset, and many other institutions. We are finding that there is a broad sympathy for the idea, which is a quite radical idea.
How would you define defeat?
Very simply — defeat is imposing your will on your enemy, whatever that might be. In this case, it would be accepting that Israel is there and permanent. My research suggests that through the past century about 20 percent of Palestinians have accepted that. Arabs played a very important role, especially in the pre-independence period, when they sold land, intelligence, and arms, and provided all sorts of assistance to Jews. The rest are in denial, and the goal has to be to increase that 20 percent to 40-60 percent.
How do you do that?
That is the challenge. First you have to make it your goal, which the Israeli government has not. Take Gaza. The current goal there is just to keep things quiet. My argument is that the Israeli security establishment — the IDF, intelligence services, police, and other agencies — just wants quiet. It wants no rockets or missiles coming out of Gaza and that's acceptable to it. I'm saying this is not acceptable.
My argument is that there are three dangers: One is violence, be they missiles or knife attacks or anything else. The second is, once again, the U.S. and European governments queuing up to have a peace process, which I call the war process and which is counterproductive. The third and, perhaps, most important, is the virulent hostility towards Israel around the world — on the left, among Muslims, from the far right, among various assorted dictators, and among certain Christian elements. No country has such hostility towards it as Israel has. So far, that hasn't had that much impact. Israel is flourishing, and so Israelis tend to shrug it off. I'm saying don't be so cavalier.
But doesn't the fact that the majority of Israelis voted for a right-wing government demonstrate their awareness of that danger?
No. Efraim Inbar, a right-wing strategist, calls the Palestinians a "strategic nuisance"; that is, you live with it. The violence is a problem, but more than that it generates a hostility against Israel, which Israelis tend to ignore, including the current government. They're focused on the violence, but not on the international repercussions. I think there is a shrugging off of this danger.
Do you think "shrugging it off" can be Israel's response to that threat, precisely because they recognize international opposition? Could they be treading lightly regarding the Palestinians so as not to inflame worldwide criticism?
No, my sense is that on the predominant right-wing (the left-wing has essentially vanished, in the electorate anyhow), there is an indifference to this. They say, "Let the world say what it wants, we have what the world needs, we are strong, and we can ignore this, pretty much." I'm saying, no, you can't ignore it. Because while Jeremy Corbyn did not become prime minister and Bernie Sanders did not become president, the view that they share is a powerful one and could well become government policy. Israel is in danger from this. It hasn't happened yet but that doesn't mean you can shrug it off.
What are Corbyn and Sanders interested in? One thing only — the circumstances of residents in Gaza, the West Bank, and eastern Jerusalem. That needs to be addressed and what I'm offering is a way to address it. If you can convince those residents that they've lost, then the international pressure will diminish.
Do you think Jew-hatred or self-hatred plays a role in this international pressure, which has morphed into calling Israel an "apartheid" state?
There is an element of Jew-hatred to be sure, I do not deny that. But unlike the Muslim hostility towards Israel, which tends to be about the very existence of the state, leftist hostility tends to be about Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. Most non-Muslim toxic hatred of Israel is not wanting Israel to disappear; Sanders doesn't want it to disappear. There's an anger about the plight of the Palestinians.
For example, Gaza has been out from under Israeli control since 2005 but it's still portrayed as an open-air prison of Israel. You have to scratch your head. And there are plenty of goods going back and forth from Gaza to Israel, which don't need to be; Israel is under no obligation to provide trade or anything else. Antisemitism has to do with this, but I think no less important is anti-Western imperialism.
"Apartheid" is not a coincidence. It was a word used by the Dutch descendants in South Africa. Israelis are seen as Europeans, never mind that many are not. The U.N. justifies it as decolonization. There's the sense that Israel is the last bastion of European colonialism and must be destroyed or transformed like South Africa. To have full Palestinian integration, you must take away Judaism, the Law of Return, and Hebrew.
To fight against this, Israel Victory seeks to convince the Palestinians that they've lost. Not just in terms of violence, but no less important is the delegitimization that takes place in college campuses, international organizations and beyond.
How realistic is Israel Victory if much of the world supports the Palestinians and the U.S. still promotes the two-state solution?
That's not support for the Palestinians as such; that's giving them benefits in advance and hoping it will lead to good things. I wouldn't say the two-state solution, which, by the way I support, is by itself a bad idea. I support it in the sense of ultimately, when the Palestinians do accept Israel, then fine, they can have a state.
What practical measures would you recommend to enforce this goal?
I have a whole bunch of practical measures, but I want to de-emphasize those because I'm not an Israeli nor a colonel nor do I think it's too helpful to get into the details. I want to establish the goal of victory, the goal of compelling the Palestinians to accept that Israel is there permanently.
That said, let me give you one illustration. Israel should tell the government of Gaza — Hamas — that a single rocket or missile coming over from there means one day without any water or food or medicine or energy. Two missiles will be two days. I think there will be a lot of anger towards Israel for this, but the steps will be effective and won't require military force. It's worth the criticism to convince the Palestinians that they have lost.
While this would actually exacerbate conflict on the world stage for Israel, which you said Israel needs to be mindful of, you think that in the long run it will be effective and therefore worthwhile?
Exactly. There is a tension between these two points. You're sharp to pick up on that. The international environment is extremely important in the long term, but in the short term, yes, take your chances and aggravate it. You don't have to worry about international opinion every moment; but yes, in the longer term, I think the prospect of Sanders or, even worse, Corbyn-style leaders is real and needs to be addressed.
Do you think the Netanyahu government is on the right track with its punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority (PA) for its move at the U.N. to drag Israel to the International Court of Justice in an attempt at delegitimization?
I am impressed by several of the measures, particularly taking away privileges from the so-called PA ministers, taking money away, and MK Smotrich saying he doesn't care if the PA exists or not. I generally like the approach but it needs to be put in context of the larger goal. These are just piecemeal policies. There used to be a goal of deterrence from 1948-1993. Then there was a goal of appeasement and land withdrawal. Now there's no goal.
But there is a long history of anti-Israel indoctrination among the Palestinians that's very hard to uproot. How do you change such a mindset?
In part through economic measures, by articulating it, by making trouble for Hamas and the PA. Israel has incredible power and a whole range of steps. It has to do it smartly, wisely, and tactically.
Instead of offering economic incentives like the Trump peace plan, you're suggesting the opposite — economic punitive measures?
Yes. Look what happened last year with Russia. Putin did something horrible. Look how the world reacted. It didn't offer him new contracts and money. It cut off economic connections. Going back a century, the Labor Zionists tried winning over the Palestinians with economic benefits, clean water, electricity, and plenty of food, and thought they would reconcile themselves to their presence. That didn't work. It didn't work in Oslo or the Trump plan. But it persists. Everybody says let's reward the Palestinians. I say no. Give them nothing, make them go through defeat, let them feel the pain.
Then, once they've conceded, you can have Oslo-style agreements and benefits. It's completely illogical to benefit your enemy while you're at war with it. This is an only-Israeli idea. The Marshall Plan only happened after the defeat of the Axis. We need to make them pay a price for continuing to want to eliminate the Jewish state.