Beginning of the end?
Israeli professor Zeev Maoz, newly hired by UC Davis, views the prospects for post-Arafat peace with cautious optimism
When Palestinians go to the polls to elect a new leader this weekend, Zeev Maoz will be following events closely, albeit from a greater physical distance than in the past.
“The world is a small place now, so you can still know about things as they happen,” said the Israeli professor, who joined the UC Davis faculty four months ago to teach political science. The former head of a major Israeli think tank and author of five books on international relations, Maoz will be giving a public lecture next week as part of the university’s “PolicyWatch” series. He has a title—“The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict after Arafat: The Beginning of the End?”—but the speech itself won’t be finished until after this weekend’s election results are known.
Which begs the question: What’s left to know? After all, Mahmoud Abbas, who was selected to head the Palestine Liberation Organization after Yasser Arafat’s death, surely has a lock on the January 9 presidential election, following the recent withdrawal of his main political rival, Marwan Barghouti. At one point, both candidates were polling neck and neck, even though Barghouti is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail. Now, Abbas’ victory is a fait accompli.
But Abbas doesn’t need just a victory; he needs what George W. Bush has been bragging about: a mandate. And in Palestine’s current political environments, that’s going to be tough to pull off.
“As of right now, Hamas is still boycotting the national election,” said Maoz of the Islamic militant group, which ran its own candidates in recent local elections. “They won in seven out of the 26 West Bank elections, and the West Bank is not really the center of the Hamas strength. So now, if the Hamas boycott the election, and the turnout rate is low, this gives us a signal as to how much discretion Mahmoud Abbas might have once he is elected.”
Asked what would be considered a low turnout in the national election, Maoz pointed out that the turnout rate in the local election was 81 percent. “So, anything below that—you know, below 70 percent—would be really low.”
The irony, of course, is that such a turnout would be unheard of for a U.S. election.
“Oh yeah, but they don’t have a voter-registration system,” said Maoz of the Palestinians. “This is a very important, symbolic election. The question is whether Abu Mazen [as Abbas is commonly known] gets overwhelming support by people showing up and voting, or whether people just abstain and basically vote with their feet. That will be a real important indication of how much leeway he may have in terms of negotiating with the Israelis.”
Growing up in Israel, Maoz had ample opportunity to study international conflict up close and personally.
“It’s the typical Israeli life story,” he said. “I grew up in Israel. I served in the army. I was involved in fighting in three wars. I went to school, to the university and so on.”
After doing his graduate work here in the United States, Maoz returned to Israel and specialized in international diplomacy at Tel Aviv University. “I was for three years the head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, which is the major Israeli think tank on security affairs,” explained Maoz. “And, in the course of this service, I worked together with a number of Egyptian scholars, military people, diplomats, Jordanians and Americans.”
These unofficial diplomatic dialogues brought Maoz into close contact with prominent Israeli policymakers. “I know most of the political and military leadership in Israel personally,” said Maoz. “You have to realize it’s a much smaller country. People know each other, and everything that happens has an immediate impact in the sense that you know people that are involved in things that you see in the news. It’s only a country of 6 million people, as opposed to 280 million here.”
Of the leaders he’s met and worked with, Maoz said, “I don’t think they are very different from you or I. A lot of them have dedicated their lives to a single cause—be it politics, military and so on—and they’re very much engaged in what they do. They’re no smarter—and, in most cases, not even as smart—as the average person.”
Maoz laughed and backtracked a little. “I have very little respect for most politicians and many generals,” he admitted. “But you know, obviously, there are quite a few people who are very smart and very capable and so on.”
Israeli universities reflect the spectrum of public opinion, ranging from extreme doves to extreme hawks, said Maoz, who considers himself a dove. “When it comes to the dialogue within the university, people try to maintain a certain level of objectivity and a certain level of civilized discourse—which is not the typical thing you see in the Israeli society.”
Yet, as divided as opinion may be in both Israel and Palestine, Maoz admits to a degree of cautious optimism that diplomacy ultimately will prevail. “I am more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time,” he said, “because there’s a convergence of things that have happened over the last year or so that suggest the parties are exhibiting battle fatigue and are ready to reopen negotiations. We have reached the conclusion that we cannot solve the conflict through military means. And there is strong evidence that the Palestinians have begun to reach the conclusion—not only Abu Mazen, but the general Palestinian public—to realize that intifada didn’t bring them many achievements. This is the beginning of a mutual realization that things need to be changed around, so this gives me some reason for optimism.”
Still, with a tenured position at UC Davis, and his adult children already living in the Sacramento area, Maoz said he’s here for the long term. “I enjoy the peace and quiet,” said Maoz, who has just finished a new book, Defending the Holy Land? A Critical Assessment of Israeli National Security and Foreign Policy, 1949-2003. “And sometimes, it’s an advantage to be away from things that you’ve studied and been immersed in personally.”