Interview: David Pryce-Jones
Vienna-born, Oxford-educated David Pryce-Jones is an editor and reporter for The Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal andThe New Republic, among other publications. Author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs(Ivan R. Dee) and 19 other books, his incisive coverage of the Arab-Israeli wars and the demise of the Soviet Union brought him global recognition. He recently attended the Jerusalem Summit, an international gathering of intellectuals exploring ways “to build peace on truth.”
Q. With new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the horizon, how can we improve on the Oslo process?
A. A dispute like the Arab-Israeli one cannot be solved in public. [Yasser] Arafat would always produce another argument out of his back pocket. When he didn’t want to proceed on five things that had been agreed on he could always try a sixth that hadn’t been agreed to, saying this obstacle cancels out everything else. Diplomacy traditionally belongs behind closed doors. There has to be very careful preparation [on both sides] as to what exactly they are prepared to accept.
Q. So things might have turned out differently at Camp David and Taba had the negotiators better understood Arafat?
A. The Israeli team and the Americans should have discovered in advance what he could give and what he couldn’t give. Once discovered, there wouldn’t have been any point to proceed with Oslo. It was bound to lead into a brick wall. The worst thing that could happen now is to repeat this process with different personalities.
Q. O.K., Arafat’s gone. What’s next?
A. Arafat was a classic example of how the Arab political system works. A person emerges out of the general population and he has the personality to impose himself [on others]. He acquires more power, attracts money and influence and eventually gets a militia that he mobilizes for as much influence and control as he can muster. Soon, the man becomes an absolute ruler. It’s the way they’ve done it for 14 centuries and they have not evolved the institutions that might control or temper that process. There are none of the checks and balances of institutional democracy. With Arafat’s death, the contenders for power are now into asset-stripping to try to acquire ownership of his legacy and power. All of them are in a very delicate position because it is possible that winners will take everything and the losers may go to the wall.
Q. What do you make of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan?
A. Israelis must sit down together, the politicians and the military, and work out what it is they must have. I don’t know because I am not a soldier. I don’t know if that means this territory and this hill and those deserts. They must spell out what Israel must have to be secure. Then they must say to the Arabs: ‘You don’t want to negotiate with us, I’m sorry; we would wish you were part of the negotiation. This is for us, and the rest is for you. Since you won’t negotiate it, we will impose it.’
Q. That is what Sharon is doing, isn’t it?
A. Indeed. It would be better to…get something back from the Arabs. But since that isn’t happening, then separate the two peoples as much as you possibly can, get out of the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, if the Arabs still refuse to engage and give Israel peace, then you must disengage from them and put a wall up, a fence.
Q. What about Hamas? What is at the core of their visceral hatred of the Jewish people?
A. Arab resentment is part of a complicated process. They know that they are heirs to a great civilization. But look at that civilization today. Look around Gaza and see the poverty and the degradation and the burnt-out cars and the graffiti and the mess of it all, not to mention the lack of employment, and there’s no way to escape asking yourself, “If we are as great as we say we are, how come we’re in this position?” At that point, you have a choice. You can say either it’s our fault and we can’t get our act together, or it’s somebody else’s fault. It is far too often human nature to say it’s somebody else’s fault….
Q. So it’s strictly an internal mechanism of denial?
A. Not quite that simple. They look across the fence and see Israel and what a success it is. Resentment coupled with envy leads to hate. Current hate then feeds on historic hate…. We can’t come to terms with these people, we can only kill them…. Then, because it’s too big to be my personal will, it becomes God’s will. As we’ve studied here at the Jerusalem Summit conference, we see how they do selective quotations from the Koran and find texts that justify the hatred and murder, ignoring texts that do not support such views.
Q. You recently wrote, “The state of confusion in Saudi Arabia is coming to a head.” Has this happened yet?
A. Saudi Arabia is one of the great troubles and difficulties of this world. It is there that this Muslim fundamentalist terror begins. It’s where it gets financed. Our petrol dollars are being used to finance terror against us…. It is not a sustainable reality in the long run…for a country to belong to a royal family with no independent institutions at all. There is no political freedom. There has to be change, yet change is impossible. As a result of September 11, the Saudis realized that they can no longer finance terror, breeding terrorists, yet pay no price. The price they’re beginning to pay is to take action against homegrown terrorists. The money is still pouring into these terror groups…but at least the Saudi royal family has begun making serious reforms. They’re going to have municipal elections. They allow a little bit more freedom of association. Cautiously and slowly. But they realize they can’t continue the way they’ve been going.
Q. Can you explain why so much of Europe despises President Bush and the American ethos in general?
A. It’s really weird. I remember how people used to say that [Ronald] Reagan was a cowboy and an idiot. It turns out that Reagan was not at all like that. He was an extremely broad man with a very positive view of the world. The same is true of Bush. He’s a man who is confident…like Reagan was. I think that’s the trouble. The European identity has been dissolved in every country. As a result of World War II, they feel they’ve made such a human hash of it that it was a disgrace to be German, French or Italian. Too nationalist. They had not resisted Nazism with any pride at all. Only the English had done it and then the Americans. European identity was something that had to be rethought. This all resulted in the creation of the European Union, which [was] supposed to give us a new identity without the trappings of nationalism. What it’s actually done is cripple Europe altogether.
Q. How so?
A. It has not given a new identity of any positive kind except in relation to being opposite America. We Europeans can only be great if America is weak. An anti-American feeling at the core of the European identity thus takes root, and here comes Bush, who is confident in the American identity and knows he has to take steps to protect the American people. All this deeply counters the French and German impulse to cobble together a greater Europe.
Q. And closer to home, how are your fellow Brits doing?
A. We are divided on the question. We have a socialist government, and Mr. Blair has taken what would be the traditional British view of supporting British identity and [gone] with the Americans in defense of our own values. His party simply cannot bear this. They are a proper European socialist party, for whom nationalism is anathema. They would drop him today if they thought they could win the next election, but they know he appeals to the British public. They can’t drop him because they might lose. But, boy, can they [and the media] transfer their hatred onto Bush for putting Blair and the party in this awkward position.