By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
If you watched a documentary about America during the Cold War and the people who ran the Vietnam war came on one at a time and called America an Apartheid state and accused it of war crimes against Vietnamese, you might ask, at some points “but weren’t you in charge?” If they told you America’s actions were “worse than Darfur” and “like Nazism” you might ask “you mean, you’re actions, you oversaw it, right?” And you’d expect at some point a resolution to this contradiction.
Israel is a little different. In the latest reminder, former Israel Attorney General and former Supreme Court judge Michael Ben-Yair claimed that Israel “staged” the assassination of Hamas commander Mohammed Deif. Makor Rishon reported that he wrote on Twitter: “There is no agreement and hostilities have been renewed, but who is the culprit? Hamas who wants an agreement with accomplishments or Israel who staged the breach of the ceasefire in order to justify the assassination of Muhammad Al-Daif?” It is his latest statement of claims against the state whose judicial system he once oversaw. In March of 2014 he was reported to have said that the situation in Hebron with Israeli settlers is “Apartheid.” In a 2013 debate on his Facebook page he claimed that “the settlements are the most evil acts since WWII.”
In a an article called The Seventh Day in March, 2002 he writes “We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities. Passionately desiring to keep the occupied territories, we developed two judicial systems: one — progressive, liberal — in Israel; and the other – cruel, injurious – in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That oppressive regime exists to this day”.
Fascinating, moral, declarative.
But Ben-Yair was attorney general from 1993-1996. He is one of many former leading Israeli figures, mostly key players in the Rabin and Peres administrations of the mid-1990s who played an integral role in carrying out similar policies they now condemn.
Another luminary of the left that accused the state of crimes and Apartheid was Shulamit Aloni. Coming from one of the wealthiest communities in Israel, they inveighed against the state. She played a role during the 1948 war as a soldier with the Palmach. In 1974 she was first appointed a minister without portfolio, then again in 1992-93 she was Minister of Culture and Education and Minister of Communications from 1993-1996 and Minister of Science and Arts. She became a board member of Yesh Din, a left wing “human rights” organization, after leaving government. In 2000 she received an Israel Prize from former party colleague Yossi Sarid.
For someone who claimed to be on the “left” and was a minister dealing with issues of “culture”, she was known to be a racist. In 1983 Shulamit Aloni, speaking to a Labor party gathering, declared, according to a New York Times article, that Mizrahi Likud voters were “barbarous tribal forces… driven like a flock… like a roll of tom-toms [drums] in a savage tribe.” In 2008 she expressed her unhappiness with Israel; “The state is returning to the ghetto, to Orthodox Judaism, and the rule of the fundamentalist Rabbinate is only growing stronger.” In 2009 she claimed “Israel is no longer democratic.” She complained of the checkpoints. “The long-term evidence of abuse by soldiers against civilians at the checkpoints – including repeated instances of expectant mothers who are forced to give birth in the middle of the road, surrounded by armed soldiers who laugh wickedly – is no secret either.” In addition she asserted that it was wrong not to separate religion from state and that Israel did not grant equality to Arab citizens.
Another veteran of the 1990s who has accused Israel of Apartheid is Alon Liel, former Foreign Ministry director-general, who claimed in a February conference that, “In the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state – in the hope that the status quo is temporary – is an apartheid state.” His comments were greeted with shock. Liel railed against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and told him he was not welcome in South Africa at Mandela’s funeral in 2013.
In 2014 he penned another piece for i24, claiming “There are a few hundred thousands people left here who are truly interested to put pressure on Netanyahu to make the painful compromises needed for peace. But we are weary, persecuted and humiliated on an almost daily basis.” The “white tribe” as former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti had termed it, the “mayflower” generation, was getting weary. Liel also claimed that any products made across the Green Line should be denied “made in Israel” status.
Liel lives in the myth that Aloni, Sarid and Ben-Yair also parrot back. He claims “As someone who knows the original apartheid well, and also knows the State of Israel quite well – I was born here, grew up here, served and fought for it for 30 years – someone like me knows that Zionism isn’t apartheid and the State of Israel that I grew up in wasn’t an apartheid state.”
Avram Burg, Jewish Agency Chairman from 1995 to 1999 and then speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003 feels the same way basically. “My generation, born in the ’50s…. Back then, Americans and Israelis talked about democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity. It was an age of dreamers and builders who sought to create a new world, one without prejudice, racism or discrimination…. Where is that righteous America? Whatever happened to the good old Israel?” In his book The Holocaust is Over he argued that Israel has misused the Holocaust and selfishly taken this term from humanity. He argues that there were other Holocausts. He claims Israel compares things too often to the Holocaust. And yet he has compared Israeli price taggers to those who wrote “Jews out” in Germany and claimed the conquest of the Golan was an “anschluss” like Hitler did. He bashed American Jews for “manipulations of an Israeli lobby that encourages dual loyalties.” He opposes defining Israel as a Jewish state. He says all this from the comfortable confines of his posh community of Nataf, a Palestinian hamlet before 1948, in the bucolic Jerusalem hills.
Yossi Sarid, Minister of the Environment from 1992 to 1996, and later Minister of Education, also has penned an article claiming “yes, it is apartheid.” In his piece he notes “The white Afrikaners, too, had reasons for their segregation policy; they, too, felt threatened – a great evil was at their door, and they were frightened, out to defend themselves. Unfortunately, however, all good reasons for apartheid are bad reasons; apartheid always has a reason, and it never has a justification. And what acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck – it is apartheid. Nor does it even solve the problem of fear: Today, everyone knows that all apartheid will inevitably reach its sorry end.”
Shlomo Gazit, another one-time honcho in the security apparatus and one-time Haganah member in 1948 and 32 year veteran of the IDF, in July 2011, for example, wrote that “if we don’t separate from the Palestinian population on the ground, Jewish and democratic Israel will be unable to survive.” He bemoaned the Palestinians in the West Bank having to navigate a “legal system that enforces the law in a discriminatory way on the basis of national identity, [which] is actually maintaining an apartheid regime.” Gazit, also a member of Yesh Din, himself played a central role in establishing the Israeli regime that now governs the West Bank. Foreign Affairs has noted that Gazit was “the coordinator of Israeli government operations in the Occupied Territories from 1967 to 1974, was on the ground in the early years of the occupation and has closely followed developments since.” Although he authored the book Trapped Fools: Thirty years of Israeli policy in the territories in 2003, in his opeds on the subject he rarely brings up his own role in being present at the creation of the very system he denounces. During the “prisoner X” affair in 2013 he told of a story, likely related to the first Rabin government in 1976, “Roughly 36 years ago, as director of Military Intelligence, I allowed the detention of a Prisoner X in total solitary confinement. I did it with a clean conscience, and I knew full well the national and security-related ramifications of making that information public.”
What we see when we look at the pattern of Ben-Yair, Burg, Liel, Aloni, Gazit, Sarid is a clear pattern. These were men who served Israel loyally up until the 1990s. Over time they became disillusioned with the country, first in 1977 when Begin’s election and the first handover of Israeli democracy and then again in the 1996 under Netanyahu’s first government and fully after 2000 with the outbreak of the Intifada.
When they speak of “Zionist mayflower” or when Dudu Topaz spoke of “the beautiful Israel” in 1981 and Ehud Barack said “villa in the jungle,” they meant it. They were profoundly loyal to an Israel that they governed and ran. That is why it is interesting there exists a video of Ben-Yair saying that Israel should not give land belonging to Jews across the Green Line to former Jewish owners because it might make Arab claims inside the Green Line legitimate. He speaks about the fear of “opening the case of 1948.”
Their fear is to open the 1948 box, because that is the war they are proud of. Hebrew University Professor, Israel Prize winner and one time 1948 war veteran, Zeev Sternhell, wrote on May 11, 2001 that: “Many in Israel, perhaps even the majority of the voters, do not doubt the legitimacy of the armed resistance in the territories themselves. The Palestinians would be wise to concentrate their struggle against the settlements, avoid harming women and children and strictly refrain from firing on Gilo, Nahal Oz or Sderot; it would also be smart to stop planting bombs to the west of the Green Line.” The insinuation is clear: Inside the Green Line is “good” Israel and outside of it, “bad” Israel, the apartheid Israel all the others speak of.
When this group was in charge the state’s interests were paramount because they viewed the state as themselves. Ben-Yair had no qualms about threatening free speech when he was Attorney General, for which he was roundly critiqued by the National Union of Journalists. Similarly Prisoner X was ok so long as it was “us” doing it. And the “occupation”, the discrimination against Arabs in and outside the Green Line, all of it was ok until 1996. It is true that these voices were all major players in Oslo, but even under Oslo many of the Jewish communities in the West Bank would remain. None of these “moral” luminaries minded their friend Rabin saying “break their bones” when speaking of Palestinians. Similarly Liel talked about apartheid in South Africa, but photos show that this group didn’t mind apartheid when they were in power before 1967 or in the early 1970s.
It is not a surprise that the origins of Peace Now are traced to a 1978 letter by army officers and reservists against Menachem Begin. They wrote “We are writing this with deep anxiety, as a government that prefers the existence of the State of Israel within the borders of ‘Greater Israel’ to its existence in peace with good neighborliness, will be difficult for us to accept.” They accepted it in 1976 when Rabin was doing it, and before that when it was Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol. It had nothing to do with the issue of ‘greater Israel’, Israel was great when they viewed the leadership as representing themselves.
And that is the “black box” of the frequent denunciations of Israel. All of these former leaders played an integral role in crafting the architecture of Israel in the West Bank and inside the Green Line. They were indeed the “mayflower” and the challenges Israel faces today are as much a result of them as other governments. When they had a chance to dismantle the “apartheid” they complain against, they didn’t. Ben-Yair’s complaints against Israel’s ceasefire and how it “staged” the killing of Deif are a political statement against Netanyahu, they don’t have any merit besides speaking to the left. SInce the 1978 letter that is always how it has been. Rabin never “staged” a killing of a Palestinian, because he was “one of us.” Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996 under Shimon Peres and the bombing of Qana? No problem.
Everything in Israel must be understood in light of this pattern. There are responsible politicians who, when out of power, don’t shout apartheid, and then when in power, go right on ahead. But there is a generation that was raised to believe that Israel can do no right and should perhaps be dismantled simply because they are not running it. They view Israel as their toy, and when the toy was taken away by their Zionist cousins, they shout “apartheid” and say “this state is finished.”