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Shlomo Ben-Ami
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister and current vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace.

Project Syndicate: You’ve predicted that Israel’s next government will engage with the United States regarding President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” – a plan, devised by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, that focuses on strengthening the Palestinian economy. What might such engagement entail, and how would it affect the situation on the ground, particularly given that the Palestinians have rejected the Kushner plan, which they are expected to “ignore altogether”?

Shlomo Ben-Ami: Given the failure of all previous phases of the Israel-Palestine peace process, even when plans came very close to meeting the Palestinians’ core requirements, nobody truly believes that Trump’s Israel-tilted deal is viable. But the Israeli government is not about to eschew engagement with the Trump administration, especially now that the latter has broken with decades of precedent – and an overwhelming international consensus – to declare that Israeli settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories is not necessarily illegal.

The two-state solution along pre-1967 borders that the Palestinians seek is not on the agenda of either of Israel’s major parties. While neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party has managed to form a government, and Netanyahu has just been indicted on corruption charges, there is no reason to believe that Israel’s next administration will not rush to capitalize on the Trump administration’s stance. This is all the more true since, given Trump’s capriciousness, there is no guarantee this window will stay open.

PS: “Trump may proclaim himself a master of the ‘art of the deal,’” you wrote last month, “but, compared to the Iranians, he is an apprentice negotiator.” Let’s imagine that the task of securing a new nuclear deal with Iran were delegated to a master negotiator. What should their priorities be, and what concessions would be unavoidable?

SBA: It is not clear that the Iranians would be willing to negotiate with Trump at all. Trump grossly miscalculated Iran’s staying power, particularly since he has removed the use of force from the equation. So, while he thinks he is backing the Iranians into a corner, he may find that they are waiting him out, in the hope that the next Democratic administration – ideally, after the 2020 US presidential election – will endorse the old agreement.

If Trump pushes for negotiations before the 2020 election, he will betray a political desperation that Iran will exploit by pushing for an agreement that includes only cosmetic changes to the old deal.

In my view, the only sensible approach would be to pursue a grand bargain covering a variety of regional issues. If Iran wants to be welcomed back into the regional and international fold, it would have to halt its nuclear and ballistic-missile program and adhere to broader rules constraining its foreign policy.

This could include an agreement to end the war in Yemen, conditioned on respect for the Iran-backed Houthis’ political legitimacy, or an end to Iran’s operations in Iraq and Lebanon. Israel might also be convinced to accept a restricted Iranian presence in Syria.

But striking such a bargain – with the buy-in of Russia and regional actors, and European support – would require deft international diplomacy. A master negotiator might succeed, but Trump certainly would not.

PS: The US and the European Union have ramped up sanctions on Venezuela, a move you called for in March, in order to drive President Nicolás Maduro from power. In the meantime, however, the measures may be worsening an already appalling situation for ordinary Venezuelans. How could foreign powers maximize pressure on Maduro, while minimizing the short-term human costs?

SBA: As Iran and North Korea have proved, not even the most stringent international sanctions can drive out a regime that retains control over the tools of state repression, is backed by the military, and receives financial and political support from Russia, China, or both. Moreover, tough measures – such as, in Venezuela’s case, a ban on oil imports – do not hurt only the regime; they also devastate ordinary Venezuelans. As refugee flows increase, neighboring countries suffer, too.

To be sure, external pressure remains important, especially from the “group of Lima,” which comprises Latin American democracies. But the Venezuelan people cannot stop fighting. Only combined internal and external pressure can spur the military to rethink its loyalty to Maduro’s regime or lead to new elections. Fortunately, the toppling of Maduro’s leftist ally in Bolivia, Evo Morales, seems to have reenergized the flagging Venezuelan opposition movement.

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Ben-Ami recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Ben-Ami's picks:

  • Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

    Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

    This extraordinarily important book devastatingly exposes the dark underbelly of the global elite. You always knew that Davos must be a scam; read this book, and you will know exactly how – and why. We should make sure billionaires pay their taxes before we admire them for the good that they (claim to) do.

  • Gershom Scholem: From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back

    Gershom Scholem: From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back

    Gershom Scholem was a German-born Israeli philosopher and historian, who split from prominent friends and colleagues like Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin by becoming a practicing Zionist, emigrating to Palestine in the early 1920s, and helping to found Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This book describes how Scholem became disenchanted with Zionism, and returned to Germany, a journey that reflects the existential dilemma faced by many other Jewish intellectuals.

  • The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

    The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

    This is a history of the present with a keen eye on its origins in the past, a tour d’horizon of the politics of authoritarianism from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Donald Trump’s US. Beyond offering enlightening insights, particularly regarding Putin’s neo-imperial policies, it confirms that trust and truth are the building blocks of a democratic order.

From the PS Archive

From 2016
Ben-Ami recalled that the right has often used economic grievances to pursue socially regressive ends. Read the commentary.

From 2017
Ben-Ami argued that the Trump administration should support independence for the Kurds in northern Iraq. Read the commentary.

Around the web

Seventeen years after leading the Israeli negotiating team at the 2000 Camp David Summit, Ben-Ami assessed prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Watch the interview.

Ben-Ami applies his conflict-resolution expertise to managerial challenges and international politics. Watch the speech.