On September 14, 2023, Palestine-Israel Journal convened an internal Zoom roundtable on the topic of “Democracy.” The Palestinian speakers were Wesam Ahmad, Head of Al-Haq’s Center for Applied International Law and Ambassador Hind Khoury, former PLO delegate general to France and former Palestinian minister of state for Jerusalem affairs. The Israeli speakers were Eran Nissan, CEO of Mehazkim, a progressive digital movement and Dr. Alon Liel, former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry and former ambassador to South Africa and Turkey. Also participating were Prof. Stephen Ogin from London and PIJ managing editor Susie Becher. PIJ co-editors Hillel Schenker and Ziad AbuZayyad moderated and also participated in the discussion.
Hillel Schenker: The reason we are convening this round-table is because the theme of the new issue of Palestine-Israel Journal is democracy. Democracy is a major issue on the Israeli internal agenda. It’s also clearly an important issue on the Palestinian agenda, and I would add on the global agenda as well, with the struggle that is going on between liberal democracies and illiberal ethno-national forces around the world. Eran, let’s begin with you as someone who has been involved in the Israeli protest movement and also has thoughts about the nature of what is happening.
Eran Nissan: OK. I want to provide a political analysis of what’s happening in Israel right now. Today is September 14th, and for 37 weeks in a row we’ve seen protests against the current government, the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. The protests started because of the judicial overhaul and the other anti-democratic policies put forward by this government. People looking from the outside see photos of the protests on Kaplan Street in Tel-Aviv and all around the country. One can mistakenly assume that the protest movement is homogeneous, monolithic. You see a wave of Israeli flags and assume that these people are aligned, politically and ideologically. But behind the scenes and under the radar, if you take it not from the perspective of a drone taking a photo, but the person actually marching in the streets, you can see that there is a tension inside of the protests.
The first voice, the dominant voice, is the mainstream voice, the majority, to be honest. It’s what I call the ‘Save Israel camp’ or the ‘Save Democracy camp’. And the second voice, which is also there, is the ‘Fix Israel’ or ‘Fix Democracy camp’. The Save Israel camp is exclusively Jewish. And it speaks in Hebrew and English. Its symbols are the ‘Israeli Flag’ and the ‘Israeli Declaration of Independence’. Its villains, the people who they are protesting against are Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, the Minister of Justice (of Injustice as we say). The predominant chant is democracy or democratia in Hebrew, which is shouted in the streets. The emotions that sit in the heart of the ‘Save Israel camp’ are fear and anxiety. These are members of my family, my friends, these are my colleagues. These are my allies and partners.
Now let’s turn to the ‘Fix Israel’ camp. The Fix Israel camp is not exclusively Jewish. It’s Jewish-Arab. Its villains are not Netanyahu and Levin, but Ben Gvir and Smotritch. It protests not against the judicial overhaul, but against Jewish supremacy. Its chant is not about democracy, but more about equality. And it consists of many actors who have established a place in Israeli society: human rights organizations, anti-occupation organizations, peace organizations, and also people who for decades have been protesting against discrimination against women and the LGBTQ community and protesting and working towards transitional justice and social justice. You hear the Jewish-Arab chant about equality. The emotions are more positive. I would say ‘hope’.
If you would have asked me in the first eight weeks of the protest, I would have said that the tension between the ‘Save Israel camp’ and the ‘Fix Israel camp’ is a Zero-Sum game. That’s why you saw a lot of actors in civil society fighting and arguing, and trying to pressure the organizers of the protest to bring Palestinian speakers to speak about issues that are broader than just the judicial overhaul, how we nominate judges and so forth. And you saw this struggle trying to influence the protest. You saw a lot of people very frustrated that this protest movement is being hijacked by the ‘Save Israel camp’ that it’s only about democracy for Jews. But I’m happy to report, and what brings me a lot of hope and optimism, is that this is not a Zero-Sum game. It’s a spectrum, and it’s dynamic. People are moving along this spectrum. And I can attest this from my own family, my parents, who are less political than I am. And this is not just an anecdote, it’s a representative. People who started marching in the streets to stop bad things from happening now are demanding better things, a better reality. From stopping a piece of legislation it became the demand for a constitution. From just talking about how we nominate judges, we see the conversation about religion and state. We see a discourse about the raging violence in the Arab society. It’s a spectrum, and in the past nine months we have seen the rapid politicization and radicalization of Israeli Jewish population. People who were mainstream. Benny Gatz and Yair Lapid, are now moving to the left and are adopting a much more radical terminology. This is not a superficial let’s just change the sentence of this piece of legislation. But let’s rewrite the social contract that will include a greater portion of the population. It’s not just a struggle between the ‘Save Israel’ and ‘Fix Israel’, between ‘Save Democracy’ and ‘Fix Democracy’.
What we see is the disillusionment of a large portions of the population in Israel that we can no longer close our eyes to the other the systemic discriminations against Palestinian citizens of Israel, to the raging violence in the Arab community, to the broken systems. It is not just about how this government is trying to undermine the separation of powers and the checks balances. But how the architects of this judicial overhaul have a vision for Israel, and in order to get to that vision, they need to weaken not just the Supreme Court, but also free media and public broadcasting, civil society, the academia, and also unionized labor. You see that, people are connecting the dots between these power centers and the attempt to undermine and weaken these power structures. It’s not just about the Supreme Court and a judicial overhaul, but a regime change that will turn Israel not just to an illiberal democracy, but a de facto authoritarian regime.
Hillel: One thing that you didn’t mention was the question of the place of the occupation within the protest movement.
Eran: What we have seen not just in the main Kaplan protest in Tel Aviv but throughout Israel is the emergence of the anti-occupation bloc inside the protests. Even though there are tensions inside the protest movement, there is a realization that that diversity is a source of strength and not weakness. When you march in Kaplan and you see people who are reservists talking from a very militaristic patriotic rhetoric who can stand alongside the anti-occupation bloc with Palestinian flags talking about Jewish supremacy, apartheid, and settlers’ violence. What we have seen is that the anti-occupation movement in Israel is experiencing a renaissance right now. If we can shatter the division of left-wing and right-wing we can look at the apartheid camp and the equality camp. We have seen many people aligning with the equality camp, and when we block the main highway in Tel Aviv, we shout “If we’re there will be no equality we will block the highway (Im lo yehye shivion nachsom at aya’lon, it rhymes in Hebrew) and also “You messed with the wrong generation!” The protest movement is adopting a more radical terminology in rhetoric, and this is to the credit of the anti-occupation bloc, that is the most radical, the most left wing, the most progressive, the clearest voice, speaking out.
Hillel: Wesam, how do you see what’s happening in Israel and how do you also look at what the situation is within the Palestinian society?
Wesam Ahmad: Thank you for the opportunity. Talking about democracy within the Palestinian context obviously is challenging to theorize because the context that we live in prevents the actual practice of any sense of self governance. The initial experiment from the Palestinian side of democracy that I was exposed to early on was the elections in 2006. The international response to those elections was very problematic. Democracy is a messy process, and I think it is important for that process to develop within a society so that it can deal with the consequences. From the Palestinian side it has been very difficult to even engage in that experience because of the occupation and the control that exists not only from the Israeli occupation directly, but the broader imperial dynamics that we can’t ignore that play an instrumental role in shaping how things play out. I think what we see within Israeli society is really a natural consequence of the artificial creation of the Zionist project. It has tried to piece meal various elements of a society in an effort to maintain a facade of democracy. But that democracy has only been for ‘the select few’. I think that is indicative of other liberal democracies that are not truly representative of the people but actually have a strong element of corporate culture and private interest control that dictate the movement of any decision making within a society.
What we are seeing within Israeli society is this natural development over the course of time. Israel has tried to maintain control over Palestinian territory, over another people, denying them their fundamental rights. That has led to an inherent decay from within that is being manifested in reality through the changing demographics within that society. There are a lot of people who have left Israel that no longer want to be associated with it. Those that are staying are choosing to fight and to take a stand against this tide towards the extreme right and the ‘masks off’ policy of this settler colonial regime that is being implemented in Palestine. I think it opens up an opportunity for Israeli society itself to question where it is going as a society and how the Jewish faith is being exploited for these colonial ends, an opportunity to push back against that and expose it. The demonstrations that we are seeing in the streets of Tel Aviv are an important opportunity for these issues to be discussed by the broader global Jewish community and how Israel and the Zionist project has manipulated the faith for colonial ends. This is not unique since all colonial endeavors exploit religion for imperial ends. This is just a particular faith that is being used for that purpose. Putting it in this broader context, seeing the inherent problem of colonialism historically and its contemporary manifestations within the Palestinian context offers an opportunity for those within Israeli society to push against this kind of practice that continues to oppress and deny the Palestinian people their fundamental rights.
For the Palestinians, we are observing these developments within Israeli society, and I think that we recognize that it’s an internal issue that has to be hashed out within Israeli society. But also, deep down we feel like there is a certain element that is missing in the broader discourse around what’s happening. What this new government is trying to do is remove all obstacles to pursue its colonial endeavors, so in reality it’s very much connected to the continuing colonization of Palestine. It is just not front and center in the discussion and as Palestinians we need to ensure that this connection is made in a more direct manner. We have to show that there is a strong connection between these so-called reforms that are being discussed and what is intended for the Palestinian people. The future of the two peoples is very much intertwined with how this will play out. If those that seek a better future want it to be realized, there’s no doubt that’s going to be an uphill battle. But as we say in the Al Haq, we definitely believe that justice is on our side and eventually the tide will turn. It just requires a concerted effort; it’s going to require sacrifice. But we have no other choice. We will not go quietly into the night and accept oppression as the status quo. And I think in order for any future Israeli society to grow as well, it has to recognize that growth at the expense of others is naturally going to have a detrimental impact on both sides.
Hillel: Alon, I understand you want to make some comments on the relationship between what happened in Turkey, and in South Africa with what is happening here.
Alon Liel: Yes, but first some comments about what we heard already, especially from Eran. It’s a very interesting analysis of the two forces inside what we call the protest. I would describe it differently. The real revolution is on the side of the right. The right wants to change things dramatically, and the right wants a new Israel. From 2023 on, not based on the principles of the ‘Declaration of Independence’, and don’t confuse us with the old elites. We want a new Israel. This is the real revolution. The main protest is ‘bring us back to 2022’. Bring us back one year. We want our country back. Everything was OK until a year ago, until they came with this new upheaval. And the third force that Eran spoke about, the joint Jewish-Arab protests, are bring us back to 1967. Maybe some would like to bring us back to 1948, but that is the way I see the forces. The protest is not a revolutionary movement. It’s a very conservative thing. It’s the people who like Israel the way it was until nine months ago. What the right wing is doing is ruining the country.
The struggle that I see myself part of is the anti-occupation struggle, and it should be a Jewish-Arab struggle. I belong to those who think that the revolution of the right stems from the fact that the ‘brand 2022 Israel’ cannot maintain the occupation, cannot preserve the occupation, cannot annex and so on. At these big protests, my impression is that the very conservative forces are about 85% of what we see in the streets. The more radical ones, those who are pushing for pre-1967, who want to end occupation, are at best 15% of what we see in the streets. We don’t see Arabs in the streets, though we see Arab speakers, who are emerging because of different reasons. Some of them because of the violence in the Arab sector, and some are even asked not to mention the occupation. There is no real Arab protest, even for the pre-1967. In every city there is an Anti-Occupation Corner, I’m there in every demonstration. It’s very small.
I have been trying to make some comparisons with South Africa. The South African success to topple apartheid really came as a result of the contact between the forces inside South Africa and the forces outside South Africa. Here it seems as if the Israeli right-wing, which is really creating the revolution, gave up on the world. They say we don’t need the world. We have God, who will take care of us. These are people who don’t even realize the globalization process that Israel went through. They think that what the Jews will do, what the Israelis will do, will pass no matter what the world will say. The main protest, the conservative protest, is connected very well to the Jewish world, because the Jews abroad are also conservative. They loved Israel until 2022 and they want to go back and love the Israel they knew. These masses demonstrating in the cities in the hundreds of thousands are not going to the world to ask for help. They are going to the Jewish communities and the Israelis abroad to ask for help. This is what I call as going back to 67, which I really see as a counter-struggle, not a protest, a counter-struggle to the judicial revolution. The part of the protest that still bases its hopes on the international community is the part that is ready to speak against the occupation abroad or for the Palestinians abroad.
I want to do one comparison with Turkey. In the Israeli apartheid, the protesters are being treated according to Western standards, with minimal arrests and not muchviolence. Although we have Bin-Gvir reaching for a more aggressive approach, we see the protest being dealt with in very Western standards. I saw what happened to the Turkish protest, there have been two waves of Turkish protest in the Erdogan era. One was in 2012 or 2013 in the streets of Istanbul, and the reaction was in a non-western way. The violence was tremendous, the organizers of the protest against Erdogan are still in jail. This includes business people who just helped finance the demonstrations, they were not even in the street, definitely no violence and so on, and some of them are still in jail over 10 years. The second wave was 2015, it was violent and the response to it was in a dictatorial way, hundreds of thousands we’re affected, fired, arrested and kicked out of the country, hundreds of thousands. We see how he ended it, and he won again. There are no protests during the last few years in the streets. The protests have been eliminated. And you saw it with the last elections, he had a big success, double success in his presidential race and in his parliamentary race. He really silenced the opposition in a very brutal way, not in Western standards. So, the question is if things can deteriorate here to the point that Netanyahu government, or who knows, maybe the Bin-Gvir government in the future, can in a country like Israel, arrests tens or hundreds of thousands of people or fire tens of thousands of people like Erdogan did? Or will it act in a more civilized way, and maybe end in a kind of a compromise.
One last comment. What I see recently is that the protest is building a political party, the protest is going into politics, what I call the pre-2022 protests. These forces that want to go ‘one year back’ are building a party on the national level. They are gearing towards the municipal elections which will take place in October. The protest is running in about 60 cities, 60 regional councils. In almost every municipal election the protest is running as a party called Hozeh Khadash: (New Contract). They want to join the existing system in order to change it from within. I don’t see such a trend in the pre-1967 protesters. There are still splits, one party is not speaking to the other. Hadash is not speaking with Balad, as usual. We should monitor the municipal elections in six weeks from today. They are not running in most of the places for the mayor position, they’re running only to the council. But I think that the protest will capture maybe two or three hundred, maybe more council members in the cities of Israel, which will give them a political base. So, the protests entered politics, which means they see themselves fully as part of the system. The system is accepting them, and we’ll see what will happen.
Hillel: Hind, how do you view everything that is going on in Israel and in the Palestinian society, and what has been said so far?
Hind Khoury: I liked Eran’s analysis. Israel is a very important player in forging the future, but I think this is a long time coming, to have real change in Israel. And as Alon said, the right remains extremely powerful and ideologically empowered. And in general, I have to admit that when you say democracy, I think the challenge to democracy is happening all over, and not only on the Israeli side or Palestinian side but even in the Western world. We see the weakening of the nation-state and the strength and the power and influence of the economic elite has only been growing over the last 20 or 30 years. The Palestinians have had a phase of democracy the first intifada, in the sense of working and achieving together. Oslo came as a promise for freedom, and we have been very much disappointed to say the least.
As for Israeli democracy, I think we have no illusion as Palestinians, There may be protests, but in reality, Israel is about Jewish supremacy or Jewish rights. For me the text of the Balfour Declaration is what Israel remains in practice. We Palestinians have been delegitimized since the Balfour Declaration, which continues till today. In the Israeli narrative, we’re not really legitimate. We just came here, as Netanyahu said, after Jewish development, following the first waves of Jewish immigration. What I see in Israel today is a strengthening of the religious narrative that has brought about a division between those who are secular and those who are religious. I could see it coming quite a long time ago, so it was not a surprise. As for occupation, I think the situation will continue to escalate and get worse. Of course, the U.S. can play a role, can change, but it has decided or probably cannot play a role. We saw that the U.S., Washington, was not even able to open a consulate or a Palestinian representative office in Washington. The U.S. conducted a peace process, which we knew very well all the time, was only a process to buy Israel time. And I think the U.S. as Martin Indyk has said, considers the Palestinian issue as an Israeli internal issue. We don’t have that much hope and I think the U.S. decision making is further weakened by internal strife. It looks like Trump may win the next elections, at least it’s a possibility, and the internal strife will weaken the U.S. Palestinians hold their breath, due to the global changes. The global scene is really changing in terms of the balance of power. We’re moving from a unipolar world to a multipolar world, with the new rising powers, Asia, South Africa, Latin America, but mainly Asia. And even in Israel, Netanyahu who’s quite a strategic thinker, is not really taking sides, not clearly adopting the U.S. stance on the Ukraine. In this changing geopolitical map, while Palestinians are not players. But we can navigate and make it extremely interesting. What is happening at least at the Arab level, in the Arab countries, the rise of Saudi Arabia, is extremely interesting. The Saudis are extremely keen on development, with their plan for 2030, etc. They realize very clearly that they cannot proceed with its development without stability in the region. They understand very well that the Palestinian situation, the ongoing occupation, and Israel oppression, has mobilized public opinion in the Arab world in general. And they realize that any future step towards stability in the region would have to include the pacification of the Palestinian situation.
Of course, we Palestinians have no practice of democracy. Unfortunately we’ve gone really backwards since the First Intifada. The Palestinian fractions represented within the PLO, unfortunately are not really active. We have the Fateh Congress coming up, and I don’t know what that will bring. But there is a new blood and a lot of young people who will demand their place in the decision making and the other factions. I don’t see any sign of real work on democracy, involving the public opinion in
this context. I also see that changes in technology, and the role that public opinion all over the world has an impact on forging future developments. But on the other hand I also see the role government is using technology to suppress public opinion. I believe we should stress self-empowerment. I don’t see a political solution in the foreseeable future. Israel certainly is not ready for one, and it is still holding a lot of the cards. We have to concentrate on building the right institutions to improve internal dialogue. We can’t have democracy now, even if there are elections, because we don’t have democratic practices, we don’t have the right institutions. What we had we almost lost over all these years of deformity. I believe we need to concentrate on development. 70% of the Palestinian population is below 30 years old, and they can’t remain without any horizon for development, for jobs, to get out of poverty, to live the minimum of a normal life. It is very important to work on the internal Palestinian situation, that’s an opportunity for us. And what kind of allies we will develop is extremely important. There, are signs of change in the Palestinian Authority, or the President in accommodating the Saudi approach and initiatives. At least we are communicating with them. I think that’s a very important sign. I know that the public is very reactive to these developments, but there are things now that we can do towards self-empowerment that I find extremely interesting if we grab the opportunity. We have centers of excellence. We have young Palestinians who sound like Wesam, and many other Palestinians in NGO’s, in political groups, as thinkers, and activists including in the Diaspora. I think they are extremely impressive in their approach to things. They’re much more analytical, much more information driven. They know the world better. They’re much more practical-minded and well educated. I think this elite will bring about a change.
Just a final word. There’s a lot of talk about elections. I don’t think we are really ready for elections now. A lot more work has to be done, especially since we know that Israel can affect or influence elections today even more than they did in 2006. Jerusalem will never be included, Israel will not allow it, especially with this government. What I would like to see are, like what happened in Europe, maybe before democracies they had benevolent despots. We need good leaders at many levels of society, local governments and of course the leadership, and for this to get good leaders, the people have to be much more proactive. Working more positively with what is makes it difficult to evaluate, but we have to try to make the best out of it.
Hillel: Any further follow up comments by the speakers before we open it up to everyone else?
Wesam: I agree with most of the remarks made by the previous speakers. Alongside self-empowerment and working internally in the Palestinian society. I think that one of the lessons that we can take from the last couple of decades is that the struggle for Palestinian nationhood and for equal rights and for self-determination and against the occupation, and for peace with reconciliation cannot be done separately. In the first couple of decades Israeli Jews were protesting in Israel and Palestinians were protesting in Palestine and the occupied territories. What we need right now is the strengthening of the co-resistance, especially with the rise of anti-normalization and the negative consequences of people who are engaging, not just in dialogue but building joint political power. What we need right now is co-resistance. We need more Israelis going to the West Bank. We need more Palestinians coming and protesting, Palestinian citizens of Israel, but also Palestinians from the West Bank and the other occupied territories. We need a strong Jewish/Arab presence in Jerusalem, because from Jerusalem we can create a political imagination. We have a lot of troubles in our respective societies, but the solution to a lot of the problems must come from building political power together.
Hind: I agree with that. We need to create new allies to move forward, and I agree with you, Eran, we need to work together. I believe in coresistance. However small it may be it has got to start, and both will benefit a lot from that. However, just a small footnote here. We need to see more from Israelis first to encourage Palestinians to believe in a real serious movement for co-resistance. We need to see that more clearly. What you said was very encouraging. I wasn’t that much aware of it. But we need to see to feel its presence especially among Palestinians. So, more communication on that matter on the Fix Democracy protest that you mentioned, I think would be very important.
Wesam: There’s another dimension in terms of the solidarity that we were talking about in the cooperation field, and that is the elephant in the room, the U.S. and the role that it plays, particularly the Jewish population in the U.S. and the important role that it can play in changing U.S. policy. I think there has been greater cooperation with those that are struggling for Palestinian rights, and those within the Jewish population within the U.S. that see this exploitation of their faith. Working together to shift the U.S. position will inherently have an impact on the policies implemented within the Palestinian context and Israeli society as well. Because as long as there is no consequence to the actions that are being taken, I mean simple behavioral psychology, reward behaviors, behavior will continue. Offer a punishment or some sort of accountability for that behavior and then it can change. And I think that change is going to have to come from those that are enabling Israel to continue to act the way it is in the U.S. This is a very important part of the picture.
Susie Becher: Susie is going to fill her usual role of pouring cold water on my Israeli counterparts. I’m used to hearing it from Alon, he was actually a bit tempered this time. I heard a lot of positivity coming from Eran, and I really don’t share it. It’s true that within the protest movement the anti-occupation bloc has grown a little bit. But everything in Israel has moved a little bit, despite what we’re seeing today. In reaction to Bin-Gvir, the public talks about things, at one point you couldn’t even say two-states, that in itself would be considered treason. And today two-states in whatever form it could possibly be, even the ridiculous vision of two states, it’s very common for most Israelis to talk about two-states. That’s just one example. Things creep along all the time, and yes, there is a bit more talk about the occupation and the need to end it and tying it into the protest movement. But we don’t have time for the pace at which those changes are happening. And even the international community, which Alon hung some hope on, they are standing up and taking a very strong position against this judicial overhaul. But they keep talking about democracy in the sense that Alon and Eran said, like going back to what we had a year ago, or they’re talking about common values. But they themselves, the leaders of the world, are not tying the protest movement to the occupation, and to the ultra-right annexationist course. So, I don’t expect much from them. And Alon kind of jokingly said 48, and here’s my personal example of how we all creep along. We got used to firmly believing that the core problem is 67 in the occupied territories.
In recent years, I have come to the realization, that for Israel to be a true democracy, we have to address 48. We have to look at why the Arabs aren’t participating in the protest. We have to publicly take a long, hard look at ‘Jewish’ and ‘Democratic’ and really question whether they can be side-by-side. If so, how, and then for democracy having priority whenever the two clashes. That’s the only way to achieve a democratic Israel. That is very far from the “government of change” that we had a year ago. Take the national anthem. How are we sitting here 75 years after the creation of the state still singing about “the Jewish spirit longing for return to Zion,” while 400,000 people are marching and talking about democracy. It’s not just the occupation, it’s not just the OPT, it’s 48. We have to look at it. I agree with Alon that the movement started to translate into politics, and actually when you look just at the polls that we have at the moment. I think it’s a very disturbing picture. I heard a webinar with Tom Friedman yesterday, and Tom Friedman was saying he’s focused on Bin-Gvir and Smotrich. We have to get rid of Bin-Gvir, they are the devil. They are going to bring the end of Israel. And if we can get rid of them, if we have a national unity, emergency coalition with Benny Gantz, Yariv Levin, and with Netanyahu, it’s better and we should go for that. That is not going to bring an end to the occupation and it is going to eventually lead us to serious violence. I really see Armageddon, I told you I have a very bleak outlook. The polls are showing Gantz has become the great hope, and he doesn’t support two states. Lapid supports two-states as long as they don’t include dividing Jerusalem. Gantz sort of supports the Trump Plan like he’s ready to give the Palestinians Autonomy. This is what’s going to save us? This is what’s going to resolve the conflict?
If we’re looking for signs of hope, I actually see them in the high school students from Tel Aviv who stood up and signed this paper ‘vote refusal’. Those kids didn’t go from the protest to making the connection to occupation. They started with the occupation. They were an anti-occupation group who then decided they’re going to connect it to the protest. And when they say refusal to serve, they make it very clear, not like the pilots. who don’t really mean refusal. The kids are saying, yes, it’s refusal and that’s what we’re doing. We’re not going to serve. The pilots keep saying we’re not going to do reserve duty. We’re volunteers. And of course, if there’s a war, we’re going to show up. These are two very different outlooks here.
Finally, I want to touch on two points that Hind mentioned. First the Saudis, I don’t hold any faith in the Saudis. The Saudis are way more interested in closing the deal with the United States than saving the Palestinian people. Now they’re not stupid. They know that they have to speak very strongly about that. They aren’t saying peace, they’re saying some kind of important concession, significant something, nobody is saying a peace agreement, and except for the Palestinians nobody is talking about statehood, recognition of statehood, I’m very frightened that the Saudis actually might get this deal and receive from this wonderful world pacification of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Abbas is looking for something, but he’s also playing along, and to my mind this could actually just cement, not the status quo, but minor improvements for the Palestinians as being that’s all that they’re going to get for generations to come. It feeds right into what Wasem said about rewarding bad behavior. Israel’s bad behavior is getting rewarded. The last thing is elections, I really disagree. I think the world is watching. I don’t have to tell you about the younger generation in Palestine, you know that better than me. But I heard them speak about getting rid of this leadership that they want to take the reins and rightfully so. As an Israeli peace activist, I’m part of a group with Alon, we do advocacy around the world, and we keep getting asked by our interlocutors, who are you going to speak to when the Palestinians don’t have a legitimate government till now? We kind of managed to finesse it and talk about, well Abbas is still an elected leader, and we all think that he may be the last leader with which we could possibly make peace. But this man shot himself in the foot last week with the statement that he made about the Holocaust, the whole world is writing him off. A change of leadership in Palestine is really urgent, and as Israeli peace partners to the Palestinians were even crying out for a leadership that we can work with.
Alon: I’m very interested in Eran’s comments on the issue of Jewish- Arab cooperation. I deal with it almost full time now. Unfortunately, what happened with this new government is that the Jewish-Arab split has been deepened. We see what’s going on in the Arab politics in Israel and in Jewish politics in Israel, Zionist parties do not have Arabs, and non-Zionist parties hardly have Jews, and this is the reason we think something new has to emerge. I will only say a few sentences about Jerusalem. We have a test case now in Jerusalem with a Palestinian list and it’s an unbelievable chance to place one or two Palestinians on the Jerusalem Council, I know that Abu Mazen (Abbas) will be against this, but it’s time for a change. I’m working on it very hard and I think if it will happen. It’s also happening in a few other places now, especially in the big cities in Israel, with a Jewish- Arab list in Haifa, with a Jewish-Arab list emerging in Tel-Aviv, of the Jaffa Arabs and with Hadash with Kol Ezracheha - (the All of its Citizens party) and so on. So, we have the beginning, and in six weeks we will know if this failed or succeeded. I am a big believer in Jewish-Arab political cooperation, not culture, social, but political cooperation, and let’s hope we get some encouragement from everybody who thinks alike.
Hind: I would like to respond to Susie. I see her point of view both on the Saudi question and on the elections question. I will start with elections because of course we want elections. But I think considering the situation that our internal dialogue is in, which is stuck, and our institutions are still weak, we need to first strengthen the practice of democracy and the institutions for democracy. It’s very important. We need to be aware that to have elections and to have the results that would be beneficial to us and not being used by others, including Israel, we have to be much stronger. But elections can be conducted in the unions, federations, local governments and others. On the Saudi front, first let me say that the future we expect, if it’s not two states, we have a one state reality, and it will have to be a struggle against apartheid for Palestinians and we know the scenarios in front of us. The Saudis can’t just make decisions like the Emirates did. They may not be interested in the Palestinians, and are interested really in their own their geo-political interests, but they are the leaders in both the Arab and Muslim world. Their decision and what they do will have an important stamp on how things evolve, so theirs is not a very light decision. They cannot take a stance against the Palestinian cause for justice because it will stamp their reputation forever. I think they are aware of that. Mohammad Bin Salman is aware of that, and I also heard the Saudi Ambassador in the U.S. Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, and a few other young Saudis. They are aware of these issues, and the fact that they went and established relations with Iran to talk and to use diplomacy, is another very important sign as to where the Saudis are heading.
As for Alon and cooperation, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation to forge a better future, I don’t think that introducing Palestinian candidates in the elections for the Jerusalem council is the way to go. This is certainly normalizing the occupation. I met some of them, and found them totally unimpressive. Somebody has convinced them to do this, but they can’t play a role, they can’t protect Palestinian interests. It will only provide a lip service for a peace process and speak for Israeli democracy. If there is cooperation, it would have to be agreed as to how we go about it, how we go about protecting both interests and not because Israelis have come up with brilliant idea of yes, we need to have joint concepts, etcetera. I think this will not work. It may, but it will not make any sense and Palestinian public opinion would be far from supporting something like that.
Ziad AbuZayyad: In response to what Alon said about the elections in Jerusalem, I’m not against municipal elections in Jerusalem as long as those who run for the municipality are Arab citizens of Israel. Because Arab citizens of Israel have the right, they are Israelis and they can participate in the Israeli elections. But I am against trying to mislead the public opinion by saying that there are Palestinians participating in the municipal elections in Jerusalem for the first time since 1967.
If you say that Palestinians for the first time since 67 are participating in the elections for the municipality and say that they’re changing the status quo and changing their position, this is not true, because Palestinians of East Jerusalem do not recognize Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem and are still boycotting the elections. But if an Arab, who is an Israeli citizen from inside Israel, who resides in East Jerusalem and wants to run to the City Council, why not? Let him run.
I don’t have the exact statics, but some people say that there are about 55,000 Israeli Arabs living in Jerusalem, and candidates can count on their votes, and if they participate in the elections, they can have seats in the City Council, and can have influence on the Council decisions, I welcome that. But I don’t agree with anyone who speaks about Palestinians changing their position and vote in the municipality elections while that is not the reality. I don’t rule out the possibility that there will be some people from Jerusalem, from occupied Jerusalem, who may go and vote for their own reasons.
Elections in occupied East Jerusalem are a political issue of legitimizing, or rejecting-to-legitimize, the occupation of East Jerusalem. What I say is that Jerusalem is an occupied city from 1967. Israel presence in East Jerusalem is illegal. Israeli laws have no legal constituency over East Jerusalem, and therefore we cannot participate in the elections in East Jerusalem as long as they are done under the umbrella of the Israeli legal constituency. This is our position. I am fully for running elections for a separate city council in East Jerusalem conducted according to the Jordanian law which was applied in the city till its occupation by Israel in June 1967.
In all cases, I think we missed the opportunity of the two-state solution. And at the same time, the one-state solution is too far from us. So we lost the two-state solution while the one-state solution is not achievable. We are in an interim period. And in this interim period, I strongly believe in the joint struggle between Arabs and Jews, mainly inside Israel within the 67 borders. And I don’t exclude the possibility that a day will come and Arabs and Jews, not only in Jerusalem, will jointly struggle against extremism, racism, and fascism. They will join the ranks for democracy, justice and peace for all.
I don’t know how long the current situation will continue, and when there will be a leader from the Palestinian side who will say, OK, officially we want to abandon our demand for a two-state solution. Officially we want to abandon all demands for a state. We want to merge with Israel. We call for a joint struggle with the Israelis for equal rights and living together in a state of its citizens. If this happens, then we will participate in everything, including municipal elections. But as long as the position of the PLO is that we are for a Palestinian state, we are committed to the position of our legal legitimate representative which is the PLO. Having said this about the municipal elections, and about joint struggle inside Israel, which as I said I’m fully for it, and I wrote an article in Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 27 No. 3&4, Time for Jewish-Arab Joint Struggle Against Fanaticism and Racism https://www.pij.org/articles/2198/time-for-jewisharab-jointstruggle-against-fanaticism-and-racism.
Now is the time for us to join ranks, and struggle together. This is something which I fully support and agree on.
Hillel: I’d like to also make a few brief comments. In Israel there are two main slogans that are shouted at all of the protest demonstrations. ‘Democratia’ (Democracy),
and ‘Busha’ (Shame) connected to everything that the extreme right-wing government is doing. This is the first time that there has ever been the beginning of a serious discussion about the nature of democracy in Israel, which in itself contains a lot of potential. And so far, no one in this discussion has referred to what happened just two days ago. On Tuesday, September 12th, all 15 justices of the Supreme Court sat for 13 hours to discuss the challenges to the government’s repeal of the reasonableness clause, the first element of the government’s attempt to undermine the independence of the courts, one of the fundamental components of Israeli democracy. The Israeli public was transfixed, watching, seeing this discussion broadcast live. And one of the things that we saw lawyer Ilan Bombach say representing the Israeli government was a challenge to the very legitimacy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence! He said who nominated, who chose those 37 people, who gave them the right to even sign that declaration, and why should we be guided by its principles? Of course, among those principles are that “The State of Israel…will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations…” Those principles are the very essence of democracy. This challenge to the legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence shocked many Israelis. What we have now is the beginnings of a very serious discussion. And if we have a serious discussion about the nature of democracy, eventually it will have to get to the issue of the occupation. How can you have a democracy and an occupation at the same time? I think that there is a tremendous amount of potential in the dynamic of what is happening here now. And I think that new leadership will emerge as a result of this protest movement with the potential of providing hope for the future.
Ziad: I think that Israel now is at a turning point, whether it will become a Halacha state run according to the Torah (Jewish religious law) or will become a democratic state, and I think that democracy and occupation cannot live together. You can either be a democratic state, or you can be an occupying state. And therefore, combining democracy with the struggle against the occupation is something very, very essential and very necessary. I’m a little bit encouraged that the protest movement, did not mention the occupation when it started and now I hear some voices speaking about the occupation, I think a Halacha state, is a disaster for the Israelis and for the Palestinians. And the struggle against it is very important for the interests of both sides. Maybe we have now, to join the ranks and struggle together against what they want to take us to.
Hillel: We have one guest observer, an author in the issue, who is sitting in London. Steve, do you want to make any comments?
Steve: Yes, and it’s an honor to be here. Thank you for inviting me. I was in Israel over the summer and actually went to every demonstration in Kaplan between the end of June and the beginning of August, including the midweek demonstrations. I talked to a lot of people there, and I got the impression from the anti-occupation bloc that yes, in the beginning they were greeted with great hostility and a lot of people were even spat at. Not everybody was happy with them being there, but they became an accepted part of the democratic protest about democracy. I was at a Yiddish program at Tel-Aviv university, and I learned from a friend of mine who was one of the organizers, that her daughter and her daughter’s friends said it’s cool to be part of the antioccupation bloc. So, they want to be there. It’s a cool thing to do. It’s just a small thing, but it’s an interesting development. When I traveled up to Nazareth and spoke to Palestinians there, I said I’ve been at every demonstration in Kaplan. Does it mean anything to you? And they said, no, it doesn’t mean anything to us. And I said how would it be if there was no prejudice towards Palestinians,
and the knowledge that equality in Israel was a focus of the protest? And they said of course it would mean something to us. But currently it doesn’t mean anything to us. And I completely understood that.
At the pro-democracy protests in London there have been speakers talking about the occupation. The expatriate Israelis have been very active in the London protests. They gave Netanyahu a very hot reception when he was there a few months ago, besieged him at his hotel. And yes speakers there have been talking about the occupation for quite some time. Perhaps not to the extent that we would like, but at least it’s been there in the London protest. The wider Jewish community, of course struggles with the issue of raising its voice because for decades it’s been told not to criticize Israel from the diaspora. You mustn’t criticize Israel. They’ve struggled with even with the prospect of criticizing the current far right government. But that’s changing now. It’s been a long journey, but one of the two major Jewish newspapers now has articles which are critical of all sorts of aspects of Israeli policy, including the occupation, that they wouldn’t have had before. So yes, it’s moving much slower than what one would like, but I do think things are moving. But it has to be seen in the context of the diaspora having been told don’t raise your voice against Israel for decades.
Ziad: Thank you very much, Eran and Wasem, Hind and Alon, for your contributions, and Susie and Steve Ogin, thank you very much. I think we had a very good discussion.