Editors’ note: Amid surging violence between Hamas and Israeli forces, JURIST is seeking perspectives from around the world. Neither this nor other interviews and commentaries related to the ongoing conflict constitute JURIST editorial policy, nor do they necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial team.
Jeffrey Sachs is renowned for his innovative approaches to combating global challenges, including extreme poverty, climate change, financial crises, and public health issues. A distinguished economist, he holds the position of Director at the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Sachs’ numerous accolades, including the Tang Prize in Sustainable Development, underscore his influential role in advancing sustainable development and global progress. Sachs spoke with JURIST’s Deputy Managing Editor for Interviews, Pitasanna Shanmugathas, about his views on what it will take to bring an end to the recent escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
JURIST: Academic Noam Chomsky once suggested that a way to end terrorism is to cease participating in it while also examining the underlying causes that give rise to it. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, characterized the October 7th attack by Hamas as not having happened in a vacuum but having been the product of 56 years of a brutal Israeli occupation. When the Irish Republican Army (IRA) engaged in acts of terrorism against the UK government, eventually members of the Labor Party and the Conservative Party decided to set aside their political differences and worked together to address the legitimate grievances underlying the IRA’s atrocities. This collaborative effort led to the Good Friday Agreement, which contributed to relative peace in Northern Ireland. Professor Sachs, why do you think Western governments haven’t employed a similar approach, a similar mindset, as a way to end terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians?
Sachs: The global community overwhelmingly wants a political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, based on the two-state solution embodied in many UN General Assembly and UN Security Council resolutions, but the Israeli government has pursued the status quo: an apartheid state in which Israel rules over the Palestinian territories and settles in them. There are now reported to be more than 600,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, more than 400,000 in the West Bank, and more than 200,000 in East Jerusalem. The US has backed Israel at every turn, diplomatically and militarily, so that Israel is not pressed into a political settlement based on the two-state solution. So far, the Israeli intransigence, with the US backing, has proved sufficient. Yet the explosion of violence on October 7 till now, proves that the status quo cannot hold.
JURIST: Recently, academic Norman Finkelstein has said of the current Israeli bombardment of Gaza, “what we are experiencing is the third great expulsion—there was the [first] expulsion in 1948—about 750,000 Palestinians, [the second expulsion in] 1967 between 300,000-400,000 Palestinians were expelled after the 1967 war, and now about a million or more Palestinians in Gaza will be expelled from half of Gaza that will be annexed by Israel as its new security zone and probably the international pressure will be overwhelming on Egypt to open the border with Gaza and half the population will be forced into exile again. That’s my guess” Would you agree with Finkelstein’s prediction?
Sachs: I believe that the global pressure on Israel to stop its assault on Gaza is likely to come before Egypt opens the borders to half of the Gaza population.
JURIST: Prof. Sachs, you have asserted that Israel will fail in its goal of militarily defeating Hamas. Why do you believe this is the case?
Sachs: There are two issues: military feasibility and costs on the one side, and diplomatic and geopolitical costs on the other. For Israel to defeat Hamas militarily would entail the mass destruction of the civilian population of Gaza. It would also come at a high military cost (in dead and wounded) to Israeli forces. This could happen, of course, but my guess is that the diplomatic and geopolitical costs to Israel, and to its lead backer, the United States, will prove to be too high. We should also take into account that if Israel continues to pursue a devastating assault on Gaza, the war could spread more generally to other parts of Israel and other parts of the Middle East.
JURIST: What steps do you believe need to be taken to put an end to the current conflict?
Sachs: I believe that the world community needs to adopt a clear plan for a political, humanitarian, security, and economic solution to the crisis. This sounds complex, but I believe that the contours of such a plan are already clear, and I have outlined them myself in a short op-ed here. The basic idea is a two-state solution, with Palestine a UN member, and with its capital in East Jerusalem and with sovereignty over the Muslim Holy Sites of East Jerusalem. This would be combined with the disarmament and demilitarization of military forces fighting Israel; an end to the sanctions against Iran; a mutual recognition of Israel and the Arab states (and Iran); and an economic fund to rebuild Palestine. All of this may sound fanciful, but it is the opinion of the vast majority of UN member states and of people around the world. By the way, I am also sympathetic to arguments for a one-state solution, based on a bi-national democratic state. Yet it seems that the vast majority of both Israelis and Palestinians prefer a two-state solution to a one-state solution. Either could work, yet the two-state approach is by far the most likely practical way forward for countless reasons, including the fact of decades of UN and other diplomacy, and of course the views on the ground.
JURIST: It was recently announced that the Biden administration is looking to conduct arms deals with Israel in complete secrecy without any accountability from Congress or the public. Josh Paul, a former US State Department official who recently resigned due to the Biden administration’s policy of supplying arms to Israel amid its ongoing Gaza offensive, expressed his astonishment, stating, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” If the Biden administration proceeds with this approach, what are your views on the potential consequences it might bring about?
Sachs: The Biden Administration is a shocking failure in diplomacy and foreign policy. Also, secrecy is built deeply into the US security state. Congress is basically useless in overseeing the Administration – any Administration. It’s all very troubling. The US has forgotten diplomacy, that is, real diplomacy, in which it really negotiates with other countries, and actually listens to them.
JURIST: What are the geopolitical implications of the United States being bogged down in militarily supporting both Israel and Ukraine in their respective military offenses? The fact that the United States is bogged down in this manner has prevented them from expanding on their pivot to Asia strategy—much to the relief of China, furthermore, given the almost exclusive media attention being paid to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, it must come as a great relief to Putin that his crimes in Ukraine are being ignored. Your thoughts.
Sachs: Of course, the much-vaunted “pivot to Asia” in a military sense is utterly stupid, let’s be clear. All the talk of war with China is nothing less than insane. China is not an enemy of the US, period. If it becomes an enemy, that is only because of the primitive approach of the US. In general, the war in Ukraine should be ended by diplomacy (starting with the US reversing its attempt to expand NATO to Ukraine), and the tensions between the US and China should be resolved through diplomacy as well.
The basic problem of US foreign policy is that it is trying to achieve hegemony in a multipolar world. The US has neither the economic, military, financial, nor technological means to be the world’s hegemon, but is also has no deep national interest in trying to be the world’s hegemon. Yes, the belief by people like Biden that the US is the world’s leader and the “indispensable” nation, is still part of the Washington scene, or I should say the Washington delusion.
JURIST: Even amidst the current unprecedent domestic US opposition to Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, the United States continues to be willing and eager to support Israel military and diplomatically. Many people have asked this question, but in your opinion, what will it take for the US political establishment to reach its breaking point—for the US establishment to say, ‘it is no longer tenable to provide Israel with a blank check, we can no longer military and financially support Israel’s occupation.’?
Sachs: I think we are very close to this point. The rest of the world is very clear: there needs to be a political settlement of Israel and Palestine. That will put real pressure on both the US and Israel to get more realistic, and fast. I’m not pessimistic on this point. The clarity at the UN on the need for a new approach is certainly taking hold.
JURIST: In most societies, the younger generations are more progressive, inclusive, peace-loving, tolerant. That is not the case at all in Israel, whereby the younger generations overwhelmingly support the government’s offensive against Gaza and repression of Palestinians in the West Bank. Let’s say one day the United States puts meaningful pressure on Israel to negotiate a two-state solution, how could such a solution ever be accepted domestically in Israel when you have broad segments of the population that are so rabidly extreme and anti-Palestinian?
Sachs: I think we shouldn’t blithely presume to know what people will oppose under very different circumstances. Let’s think it through. Suppose that the Arab nations recognize Israel, suppose that Iran recognizes Israel, suppose that Hamas is demobilized and disarmed, etc. In that context, I believe that the majority in Israel would say, yes, it is better to have two sovereign states living side by side, than the status quo. So, what I have in mind is a package deal, that is win-win-win for all of the stakeholders. Yes, there may be some loud holdouts, such as religious zealots who believe in all-or-nothing solutions. Yet civilizations survive when large majorities restrain the violent zealots on various sides of a conflict from provoking endless war and bloodshed.