Prof.Ben Ami, can you give us your opinion on the great strategic game of technological innovation that affects all aspects and areas of our human coexistence, considering that Israel is an extraordinary technological hub?
Innovation and technology represent the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This one, however, would be based on the replacement of humans by automation and Artificial Intelligence. Those societies that would fail to catch up would be left behind. Commodities would always be important but far less than in the past. The poorer nations are those that have plenty of natural resources such as oil and minerals, but no advanced technologies which spring naturally out of a modern educational system. In a digital world, small countries like Israel can fare better than big powers that remain stuck in the old economy. The real battle these times between China and the United States is a competition over advanced technologies and Artificial Intelligence. These have both a major potential of weaponization as well. Israel and Iran are fighting today through cyber warfare and advanced military technologies that hardly cause human casualties. In the Middle East we are witnessing these days the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict (while the cause of Palestine is being relegated), and the reason is essentially the acknowledgement of the Arab world that Israel has become, thanks to her advanced technology, an unbeatable power and an ally more reliable perhaps than the United States that had been withdrawing anyway from the region and pivoting to the East to face China’s rise. Israel’s digital economy is generally not affected by regional instability or even war; in fact it sometimes thrives precisely in looking for technological solutions to existential problems. Or take the case of Russia. She continues to be an important power only because she possesses vast nuclear capabilities, not because of her economy which is stagnant and based essentially on the export of energy. Russia is a negligent power in the world economy, and is practically absent from world trade. Lenin used to say that “Communism is the Soviets and electricity”; Putinism is about “contaminating fossil energy and nuclear power”. This is not the best introduction to the world of the future. The Soviet Union collapsed because she failed in her economic competition with the West; both her model and its performance were flawed. However, those societies, mainly in the West, that lead the technological revolution are not free of serious dangers. They all have a major challenge at home; ie. to produce a new social contract capable of offsetting the destruction of jobs by automation (it was automation, not China, as Trump argued, that had destroyed blue collar jobs in America). A digital economy, indeed, tends to widen socio-economic disparities and inequality. It was Justice Louis Brandeis who famously said that “we may have democracy , or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both”. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is today mainly related to access to advanced technology. Donald Trump, and many other authoritarian populists in Europe are the products of such disparities. The rate at which individuals create much of the wealth in the West depends on the technology available to them. The role of technology grows exponentially, but, alas, is not available to the masses. This requires massive investments in education, in the reduction of poverty and in creating social safety nets for those left behind. The evolution of technology is the most powerful power in history, and those who possess it will dominate at home and abroad. The best way for the tech industry to tackle inequality is to innovate in ways that do not just replace people but empower them to partecipate.
The Middle East is a land of ancient conflicts. Prof. Ben-Ami, how will the US attitude could change with the new Biden-Harris administration?
It will change but not in a radical way. The gradual withdrawal of the US from the Middle East started with Obama (as part of his Pivot to the East strategy and as a consequence of the American failure in both its Middle East wars and attempts at an Israeli-Arab peace) and was pursued with particular emphasis by Trump. What Biden would probably do, however, is putting an end to Trump’s complicity with Turkey’s Erdogan. Biden is on record of being critical with Erdogan’s onslaught on the Kurds as well as with regard to his flirtation with Russia. He would also renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal that Trump had withdrawn from. He would aspire, one should hope, to reach a settlement that goes beyond the nuclear issue and establishes rules of conduct for Iran in the broader Middle East. After all, Iran has become a destabilizing power in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza even without having a nuclear device.
On Israel-Palestine, I do not see a return to the Clinton days of deep, proactive involvement in the quest for the two-state solution. Israel, however, would no longer be able to do as it wishes in the occupied territories. The Biden administration might not engage in a peace process in the old mode, but would do its best to prevent Israel from blocking entirely the path to a two-state solution. I also believe that Biden would not reverse the gifts that Trump had given Israel, ie. the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, sovereignty on the Golan Heights angd all kind of other goodies. He would, however, reverse some of theolicies on Palestine: reopen the PLO embassy in Washington, resume financial assitance to the Palestinians and the political dialogue with them.
How will Israel’s policy change with respect to the Palestinians in particular?
As I said, Israel would be careful not to alienate the administration with “fais accomplis” in the territories, restrain her expansion of settlements. It would also probably resume the political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority. In fact, President Abbas has already welcomed the incoming administration with a decision to resume security coordination with Israel. Another thing Israel might do is work to prevent the new administration from doing away altogether with Donald Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century”, which is vastly favorable to Israel. Difficult, though, to see a Democratic administration concurring with such a one-sided plan. Not that this would make much of a difference given that the two-state solution has become already a practical impossibilty. Israel would be pressured by the new administration to avoid unilateral moves, to improve the living conditions of the Palestinians and in general make the occupation liveable. Yes, this is an oxymoron , but I frankly do not see a final settlement in the offing.
The Abraham Accords certainly represented a very important point of the Trump administration’s policy in relations between Israel and the Gulf countries. How will these agreements evolve with the new administration?
Biden has welcomed the Abraham accords, and I sense that he would encourage their extension to other Arab countries. If we are willing to look at Trump¡s legacy without prejudice, we would have to say that in his own chaotic way he might have laid the ground for an interesting change of paradigm for the solution of the Israel-Palestine dispute. We always worked under the premise that the solution of the Palestinian problem was the key to a broader peace with the Arab world. What we are seeing these days is the other way around. The Arab-Israeli conflict has, for all practical purposes, ended. This reversal of paradigms might create new avenue for the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the Biden administration might like to explore. I do not discard that Saudi Arabia might soon join the bandwagon of the Abraham Accords. Muhammed bin Salman is a “persona non grata” among democrats. Peace with Israel and a more active involvement in the Palestine problem might solve MBS dilemma in Washington. To gauge this possibility you might like to look back at the origins of the 2002 Saudi Peace initiative that become an all-Arab peace initiative with Israel. It was born in the wake of the massive terror attack of 9/11 as a way for Saudi Arabia to launder her image in the US given that most of the perpetrators were Saudis. Palestine for the Arab regimes was always just a tool and a pretext, never a cause they were genuinely committed.
Prof. Ben-Ami, let’s leave the Middle East. I ask you to reflect on the future of multilateralism in a world affected by the pandemic.
The current pandemic is more likely to reinforce three preexisting – and highly destructive – trends: deglobalization, unilateralism and authoritarian, surveillance capitalism. Almost immediately, calls for reducing dependence on global value chains – already gaining traction before the crisis – began to intensify. Efforts by the European Union to devise a common strategy have again exposed the bloc’s old divisions. Also, under the cover of the fight for life, authorities even beyond just China or Russia trampled on liberties and invaded personal privacy.
A pandemic would seem like an unmissable opportunity for cooperation. Yet it has been met with border closures and competition over supplies and future vaccine doses, not to mention curbs on civil liberties and expansion of surveillance capabilities, including in democracies. Simply put, just when we need global cooperation the most, our broken multilateral system has driven us back to the bosom of the nation-state.
So, the world seems to be returning to a Westphalian order, in which sovereignty prevails Jover international rules. Trump’s “America First” stance fits neatly within such an order. And while China touts international cooperation in some realms, multilateralism is a fundamentally alien concept to her political vocabulary. It would oppose the revival of a world order based on liberal precepts. Other big nationalist powers (such as Brazil, India, Russia, and Turkey) and smaller ones in Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland) move broadly within the same illiberal realm.
A post-Trump order looks more like the inter-bloc competition that emerged after 1945 than the post- Cold War liberal euphoria. The Biden administration should aspire to lead the world’s democracies in their competition with a rising authoritarian bloc, while upholding the multilateral institutions and structures most essential to peace. At the same time, it would need to treat America’s alliances more as collective enterprises, which the US ideally leads without dominating. From the allies’ side, this shift has already begun, with European leaders, especially French President Emanuel Macron increasingly recognizing the need to take Europe’s security into their own hands. The US should work with an empowered European Union to contain Russia’s revisionism on NATO’s borders and end its hybrid war on Western democracies.
Similarly, to manage its ongoing strategic confrontation with China, the US will need to work with its Asian allies, such as a rearmed Japan and South Korea. With China having all but abandoned its “peaceful rise” strategy, avoiding violent conflict will be a delicate balancing act.
More broadly, the US will need to galvanize the world’s liberal democracies to forge a bloc capable of standing up to the world’s authoritarians. This should include efforts to counter the forces of disintegration within the EU and, potentially, to transform NATO into a broader security alliance of democracies.
Crucially, the two blocs would also need to cooperate effectively in key areas of shared interest, such as trade, non-proliferation, climate change, and global health. This will require diplomatic skills that Trump could scarcely imagine, much less muster.
Shlomo Ben Ami taught at the History Department of Tel Aviv University, where he also headed the Graduate School of History. He is the author of studies in the Spanish history and fascism. Among others he wrote The Origins of the Second Republic in Spain, and Fascism from Above, both published by Oxford University Press. In 1987, he was appointed to be Israel’s Ambassador in Spain, where he served until December 1991. He was a member of Israel’s delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference. In 1993, he headed the Israeli delegation at the Multilateral Talks on Refugees in the Middle East held in Ottawa, Canada. In 1993, Professor Ben Ami created The Curiel Center for International Studies at Tel Aviv University, which he headed until 1996. In the same year he was elected to the Knesset, where he served as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In 1999, after Labor’s landslide victory, Professor Ben Ami was appointed as Minister of Public Security. In 2000, he became Foreign Minister. As such he led the peace talks with the Palestinians throughout the last two years of the Clinton administration. He conducted the secret negotiations with Abu Ala in Stockholm [The Swedish Channel], and participated with Prime Minister Barak in the Camp David Summit, after which he led the Israeli team in all the different phases of the negotiations with the Palestinians, including Taba. He was a central actor in the shaping of the so-called Clinton Peace Parameters. Professor Ben Ami published in France a book, Quel avenir pour Israel?—Presses Universitaires de France, 2001, analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian situation and Israel’s regional and international dilemmas. His thorough account of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the last two years of President Clinton in office was published in Hebrew:A Front Without a Homefront: A Voyage to the Boundaries of the Peace Process (Yedioth Ahatonoth, Tel-Aviv, 2004). His comprehensive overview of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the quest for peace- Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. The Arab-Israeli Tragedy -was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London, 2005) and Oxford University Press (New York, 2006). Prof. Ben-Ami served as a member of the international board of The International Crisis Group; he is now a member of the board of senior advisors of ICG. Throughout 2009, Prof. Ben Ami served in the Advisory Board of The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is a signatory to, and active member of, Global Zero, an organization created to promote global nuclear disarmament. He is also a special advisor to the United States Middle East Project. Prof. Ben Ami is a regular contributor to Project Syndicate on Strategic Affairs. He has also been serving as an advisor to the Colombian government on the peace process with the FARC guerrilla. He currently serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace (Citpax) of which he is a co-founder. Through the Center, Prof. Ben Ami has been involved in conflict resolution processes such as among others, in Colombia, Dominican Republic (the tensions with Haiti), Bolivia (intercultural issues ), Russia-Georgia, Lybia. Spanish Sahara, and Israel-the Arab world.