This new Israeli Government? ‘They don’t care about the world’—Israel ex-Ambassador

This is an address by Alon Liel, a leading member of the Policy Working Group in Israel, an NGO that works to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, now in its 56th year, and opposes Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Sir Vincent Fean, former British Consul-General in East Jerusalem, now vice-president of the Balfour Project charity’s Board of Trustees, introduced Alon to the Balfour Project’s Advisory Forum in a virtual Zoom meeting on December 6, 2022.

VF: Alon’s career has been in the Israeli diplomatic service, including a stint as ambassador to South Africa. And he recently gave an interview to South African media about the parallels and the differences between the experience of apartheid in South Africa and what’s going on in the West Bank today. He is a member of the Policy Working Group with Ilan Barouk, another former Israel Ambassador to South Africa. I’d like to thank Alon for the intervention that the PWG made to help to prevent the move of the British embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Just to complete the CV, in the time of Ehud Barak (1999-2001), Alon was permanent secretary, director of the Israel Foreign Ministry. So he’s an insider, who’s retired, and is now trying to influence policy from the outside, as I suppose most of us are: he in Israel, we in the UK. Alon, the first question is on the recent (November, 2022) Israeli elections, which have seen a large move to the right. In Israel, what would you say are the implications of that?

AL: These elections created an entirely new and unprecedented situation. First of all, in most countries the citizens are voting about their own fate, about their own future. Here in Israel, we are voting about the future of two peoples. Not only Israelis, but also Palestinians. They don’t vote, they don’t have elections of their own. And when we voted this time, we voted on the fate of everybody between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The outcome was, as you well know, that there was a strong shift to the right, by the way, not by a big popular majority. But it so happened that two of the party’s anti- occupation parties didn’t meet the 3.25 per cent threshold. If they had both met the threshold, it would have been a tie, but they didn’t. And the victory of the right to the extreme right is the overwhelming result.

Now. It’s not only that we have different parties, or different personalities, that are very, very different in their nature, even from the previous government, which was a mixture of right and centre-left. But regarding the Palestinians, we have a dramatic change, a very dramatic change. The next coalition will be such that the two most controversial racist figures will hold two responsibilities. One will be the Minister of National Security. And the second will be the Minister of the Treasury, but responsible also for the occupied Palestinian territories. Now, this is not only a political change, it’s a legal change. Because, as you know, we captured these territories back in 1967. There was a certain interpretation of the Geneva Convention that said that when you occupy territory, and you do it on a temporary basis, the military has to run the show. And until these last elections, our military ran the show, we had the army present in the West Bank, and the civic administration was a military civic administration, a general was the head of it.

Now, the control of the West Bank is moving to a civilian head, the control is moving to politicians, not only that do not care about the Palestinians but many of them are settlers themselves, and so on. But it’s an administrative, regulatory change that moves military control over to the heads of the civilian government, which means, for all purposes, practical annexation of the territory. It’s not a declarative annexation. But when you move the control to the political hands, to political figures, and they run their country in control of the border police, for instance, they’re civilians in control of the army, of military units, beyond the Ministry of Defence, beyond the Chief of Staff, meaning we see a change that is really very dramatic, and can have, of course, many, many effects on the ground. And I’ll spell some of them out.

First of all, a big push for the settlements. These are the ministers, these are the parties of the settlers, they get control of the West Bank. So they get the control of the wellbeing of the settlers, on the expansion of the settlements and on the treatment of the Palestinians. Now, this, of course, puts these politicians, with this political line, in direct confrontation with the local population, and the army is kind of shoved aside. You know, one of the big arguments as a result of the elections is who will run our army. Because there was no such argument until now that the Chief of Staff is running the army. But now the Chief of Staff and even the Minister of Defence will not be in control of the whole army, especially not in the matter of dealing with the territories. So this is a dramatic change.

I don’t know how the Palestinians will react. Their reaction might be in two different directions. One, a total collapse of the Palestinian Authority. The PA had a kind of reaction that said, look, as long as we had to deal with the military administration in discussing the issues of our security we could handle it. But now, when we have to deal with a racist politician, we don’t want to deal with them. One of the possibilities will be a total collapse of the PA and a more direct handling of the daily life of the Palestinians by the new Israeli government, including essentially civilian things like health, education, and such matters.

This is a dramatic turn for the worse.

Another possible response, and we see it emerging—though I don’t know if this will take shape—is more violence by the Palestinians. We are seeing more incidents, more violent incidents already. But I think that the political Palestinians are, of course, very much aware of the balance of power and very much aware of the possible aggressive Israeli response. So I don’t know if it will take this direction. But just to sum up, and I’ll be glad to elaborate in more questions, I don’t want to say a U-turn but a it’s a dramatic turn. Until now, things were not proper on the West Bank, but this is a dramatic change for the worse.

VF: Thank you, Alon.  Concerning, the marginalization of the peace camp. You mentioned the threshold and the fact that anti-occupation parties failed to break through Knesset vote threshold. But over the years, maybe since the Second Intifada, what we used to call the peace camp is getting smaller and smaller. Could you say a word about the trend towards if you like nationalists voting, which seems to be what’s happening.

AL: First, as to what happened in these elections, Meretzs is, of course, one of the two parties that I mentioned that didn’t meet the threshold. And this is terrible, because they will probably dissolve, I don’t think the party can continue to exist. The reason is that all the polls showed that they met the threshold, even quite comfortably. And the result of it was that they took huge loans, because if you meet the threshold, you get the money back. And once they didn’t meet the threshold, they entered enormous debt that I don’t think the party can recover. So just to remind you, this was the only left party, Zionist left, Jewish Left Party, the only one—even the Israeli Labour party didn’t deal with occupation at all, even inside Meretz. We already had people that thought we should move to over the centre. But this is an important blow to the Jewish Zionist left. This tendency is a tendency of the last 20 to 25 years already that the right wing is getting stronger. And there are many reasons, of course, some of them demographic. We have a nationalistic religiously Orthodox coalition that includes the Orthodox community and the ultra-Orthodox community. And they’re growing demographically by far more than the rest of the population. I think an average ultra-Orthodox family has seven, eight kids. And this is showing the growth in numbers, in the alliance, the plenary, the very strong alliance that Netanyahu created in the last three decades between the nationalists and the old orthodox; this is demographically stronger, they have more young people. And I think also the fact that they had the leader, who is considered by about half of the Israeli population very charismatic and effective, and a strong leader. And the left didn’t produce such a leader. So these were some of the reasons that things started shifting to the right.

Another reason I can give you is the very big economic success of the country. The country is doing very well. The standard of living is growing, infrastructures are improving, we have a gap between rich and poor, but the macro figures of the economy are very good. And the high-tech industry has developed, we have become a very technological country, our military industry is doing very well, our intelligence services are excellent and have their leverage. And as a result of it the country is getting stronger, and more successful, and the world responds to this. It is more popular in the world and in the  Middle East. And people say this is a formula that is working. So why change? But the sad story is that today we have, in fact, only one anti-occupation party in Parliament. It is small, five members out of 120 and it is an Arab party. Okay, again, on every answer, I’ll be very glad to elaborate at a later stage.

VF: Can I take you on the point of Arab and Jew? And the question as to whether in the future it’s possible to envisage a party, which combines the two, if you like the Jewish left, and the Arab, Arab Palestinians? I know it’s on your mind. Could you say a word about that?

AL: Much more than a word. In these elections, in the last elections, among many things that happened, we saw a much clearer division between Arabs and Jews. Arabs voted for Arabs and Jews voted for Jews. As a result of it, we have now two Arab parties…one can be defined as anti-occupation. The second is more civic, is more fighting for a budget for the Arabs and civil equality but not dealing with the occupation. But the 10 members of the two Arab parties are completely isolated in our parliament. Nobody is considering them as a potential partner for anything. So in fact, we have instead of 120 seats in parliament, we have 110 members. They get the salary as a Knesset member, but they cannot combine with anything…nobody needs them. As a result, some of us, including people who were Meretz candidates in safe places until these elections, are launching this week a party that we registered already, a Jewish-Arab party on an equal basis. This will be called All its Citizens, or maybe the Citizens Party, meaning equality between all citizens. If you have if some of you have friends in Israel, we are organising a conference on the 16 December in Tel Aviv. Israeli friends of yours are invited among the names you might know, that are involved. It’s not easy, because the Arabs have three parties, three separate parties: one is an Islamist party, a religious party. So obviously it’s difficult for them to cooperate with Jews politically. And the one that didn’t get into the Knesset this last time is very nationalistic and never really cooperated with Jews in the past…we’ll see; it’s only the beginning.

VF:Yeah. You mentioned the fact the fact that economically and even in terms of international relations, with the Abraham Accords, Israel is thriving, and Western governments are very reluctant to exert pressure on Israel, for many reasons. Would you think that maintaining the differentiation between the Green Line sort of 1948 Israel, and the settlement enterprise, the settlement project, is important? And in that regard, would banning settlement products, which is I think SNP Lib Dem Liberal Democrat policy here in the UK? Would that have an impact on the mentality, on the thinking of Orthodox rabbis?

AL: Really, before I tackle the question, you must understand this newcomer into the Israeli political arena, and their decision making: I put it a little bluntly, they don’t care about the world. I would even push it a little further. They hardly know there is a world. They live in their own world. It’s very different from the Israel you knew, very different, even, from a leader like Netanyahu, who grew up in the United States, who was the deputy ambassador in our embassy in Washington, who was our ambassador to the UN, and knows the world very well. These people do not show any interest in the world, by the way, not also in the Jewish Diaspora. The secular Jewish Diaspora. These are people that get their instructions from God, from the Bible: the international community, international pressure, it’s not relevant to them. I don’t know how much they are even fully aware of the whole international mechanism that the world has built since the Second World War. So if we spoke in the past, of international pressure, of boycotts, this is a different way of thinking…for these people…it will not impress them. On the other hand, they will use it even more than the previous government to prove to the Israeli public that the world is anti-Semitic. And as Jews, we will always be criticized, and so on. So this is this is a little bit about the type of the people.

The governments of the world need Israel…it has gas and weapons.

But now about the world, all of you. I’m speaking now of governments, governments have now their own problems, with Russia and Ukraine, with the energy problems, with this coming winter. Governments, as you know, in Britain, have to take care about the emergency needs of British citizens. And they need the world, they need the United States, they need even Israel, where the stronger Israel is, the more it is needed. In Europe and in Britain, the volume of trade is big. Israel has gas now that it is exporting in the form of LNG to Europe, as well as weapons. The West wants Israel to supply weapons to Ukraine, to support the Ukraine on humanitarian aid. I mean, imagine Vincent, you are the Prime Minister, and somebody comes to you with a list of benefits that the British Government has from the Israeli side, and with the list of benefits it has from the Palestinian side. On one side, you will see a very impressive list. On the other you will see nothing, nothing. So it’s very difficult for every government in the world, every government in the world unless it is a functioning only on ideological motivations. Any government that is functioning on a realpolitik policies, it’s very difficult to confront Israel. Now, it will be even much more difficult with this government. Because when I told you that this government doesn’t care so much about the international community, the response of this government can be much more aggressive than when revious governments responded. So I think we shouldn’t expect too much from governments.

But as you know, the world has changed and governments are not the only player on the globe. And when it comes to civil society, civil society organisations, human rights organisations, religious organisations, the media, here, I think, a lot can be done, because this will have an effect on the image of Israel, or the overall image of Israel. And even if governments are kind of paralysed, I don’t think all Israelis will love a change to their overall image via ongoing criticism. You know, we are a very global country, we are strong, but from this aspect, we are also vulnerable. Take for instance, the World Cup. Some 20,000 Israelis went to Qatar. They felt and feel very uncomfortable. They’re very unwelcome. We always had tens of thousands of Israelis going to World Cups; I was among them. I was in South Africa for the World Cup and in Russia four years ago. But this time it was difficult. Some of these fans came back in the middle and people said, what’s happening? Why do they hate us so much? So obviously, most of the people will say nothing will help us, we were born Jews. We will die hated Jews. And that’s it. But I think it has some impact in companies, Israeli companies that are based on tourism, based on international commerce, based on a selling technological products, any kind of response, non-governmental response, especially from the business community, but also from civil society organisations will have some impact, especially on the half of the population that is against this government. But we are so disillusioned from world behaviour, that to tell you the truth we don’t have high expectations.

VF: Now. Can I take you back to your speech? In your talk at the Balfour Project conference at King’s College London, in 2018, I remember you said, and it struck me, that if Britain as a government recognised the state of Palestine alongside Israel there would one day be a Palestinian state. We are hoping that the next government, if it changes colour, might recognise the state of Palestine. It’s not a given, not a given. Keir Starmer is a very cautious man. And the people around him are telling him to be even more cautious. But it is SNP policy. It is Lib Dem policy to recognize the state of Palestine alongside Israel. This brings me to a question: is the two-state solution in your head dead or alive? What are we working for?

AL: Let me let me start by answering by pulling it to the two extremes. First of all, the fact that Britain didn’t move its embassy to Jerusalem. I don’t want to say it’s a miracle. But it is it is of crucial importance. If this would happen. It would be a big step toward the mortal blow of the two states idea. So the prevention of it, I welcomed it. But I hope it will not come back on the on the agenda of this British administration. But first of all, thank God this didn’t happen. On my previous remark, I still say if Britain will recognise Palestine as a member state of the UN the effect will be unbelievable. I would think that such a thing, if they do it and stand behind it, will create a Palestinian state. And I will explain:  first of all, I don’t think it will happen. I don’t see such a thing in the pipeline. But you asked the question, if your government will do it, stand behind it and say, we promise that in the Balfour Declaration, we’ll give the right of self-determination to the Jewish people but not at the expense of the indigenous population; therefore we recognize the state of Palestine…first of all, Israel will kick out your ambassador. No kidding. And we’ll pull back our ambassador from London. Now, if the British government can tolerate it, the international impact will be unbelievable. Unbelievable. Because then some countries that were afraid to do it will also do it.

British recognition of Palestine would be a game-changer.

This will be unbelievable. Again, I don’t see it happening. But I want to explain here that what Trump did, by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and in this the United States was not followed by anyone in the world except two Latin American countries. Nobody in Europe followed it. Nobody in in the western world followed it. Nobody. So here if Britain would have joined this would have been an unbelievable development. So only the Americans have the Embassy in Jerusalem now. And as you see Biden didn’t change it, the Democratic administration didn’t change it. So I can attribute a lot a lot of importance to such a British move. And if if this will happen, it will be a game-changer as to the two states. Look, there is nothing on the ground in Israel that is pointing in this direction. And the fact that we have such a government that is going probably to not only practically annex but also legally annex Zone C, Zone C is 60 per cent of the West Bank, we are not headed toward a two-state…but I still think this should stay the goal. Even if it looks at the moment unachievable, because what does look achievable? What does look achievable is Israeli control of the whole territory, meaning in fact, one state, meaning in fact, an apartheid state. I don’t think that can last forever, but it is also is so immoral, so unjust that the two states is still the cleaner outcome; the more functionable thing, although we are far away from it politically.

VF: My last question is about apartheid, and on the meaning of apartheid. Given your experience, could you say what you think our approach, the bulk of project approach should be on the word. There are some in our country who call Israel an apartheid state. There are others who say that what we’re witnessing in the West Bank in particular, but also in Gaza in a different way, is the practice of apartheid. But do not label Israel as an apartheid state, per se. Our own government does not use the word. What would your advice to us be?

AL: First, I think you know, Vincent and maybe many of you, that we the Policy Working Group, which is a group of ambassadors, retired ambassadors and academicians, we use the term apartheid only on the situation on the West Bank. And we see the situation there. Even similar to the South African apartheid, although for us apartheid is far beyond the South African apartheid, but they’re nominally even nominally 15 per cent of the population, or maybe now 16-17 per cent of the settlers are controlling the lives of over 80 per cent of the population, backed so far by the military, the military, takes care of the security and so on. And they, we saw it as West Bank apartheid. And we so far rejected the definition of the whole country is where there’s apartheid, because still, the Arab population can function, is functioning, is voting, the Arab Israelis. I mean, we’re very cautious about it. I think we are about to cross this line. Because what I described as an answer to your first question is happening. And if there is a spillover of the political, a control of the country of Israel, the political, on the West Bank, not the military, the political, then the responsibility of Israel, to the West Bank, apartheid is direct responsibility. It’s not channeled through the military. It’s a direct responsibility of the state, of the government, of the cabinet, to this West Bank, and I think it will be much easier for the international community to define Israel as apartheid as a result of the changes, not only because of the result, the nominal result of the election, but of the actions that the new coalition will do regarding the control of the West Bank. So I think, first of all, I think we should see another two or three weeks, we should see the full structure of the government. Netanyahu realizes that this could be extremely, extremely problematic, internationally, the civilian, direct governmental control of the lives of the Palestinians, not control by the army. The guy that has my position of 20 years ago, the Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said recently that thing that we’re most worried about is that Israel will be defined as apartheid internationally.

We know a lot, a lot. And I told you quite a lot about what was already given to these new parties, the right-wing parties, we have to see it happening, we have to see this government sworn him. And if it is true, that these two racist leaders or racist parties will come to fully control the West Bank, I think Israel will be becoming an apartheid state. And my recommendation to the Balfour Project is, first of all, to use the apartheid term on the West Bank, because this is apartheid. But I would hesitate to use it about Israel if the military is still controlling the West Bank. But the settlers, the settlers in the municipalities, and the backing the settlers are getting from the government and so on, all this makes the occupied territory apartheid. But I think if this will be completed this change, of moving from military control to governmental civilian control of the West Bank, then then I think more bodies in the world will be free to use this word “apartheid”, and you will take your decisions about it.

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