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Shir Hever: Most Israelis believe to maintain a Jewish majority requires a show of negotiations but a real permanent occupation of Palestinian territories

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

The results of the Israeli elections will soon be known. It’s expected that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be reelected. The main battle seems to be all on the right, between one right-wing party and the other.

Now joining us to talk about why this is is Shir Hever, who now joins us from Germany, where he’s completing his doctorate. Shir is an economist. He’s studying the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He works for the Alternative Information Center, which is a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization dedicated to alternative information and analysis. Thanks for joining us, Shir.


JAY: So how do you account for this situation, that the whole battle is between the right and the further right? You could even say the further right and the even further right.

HEVER: The political map in Israel is not a very usual kind of political map. It seems to have a very key part of it missing, basically. The whole left, progressive left is just extremely small. And one of the main reasons for this is the structural way in which the Israeli political system is built.

The Israeli political system is actually in control over a population of 12 million people. And among these 12 million people, only about 7 million are Israeli citizens. And the rest are not citizens; most of them are Palestinians in the occupied territories and therefore have no vote.

Among these 7 million Israeli citizens, there is about 1.5 million who are also Palestinians, but many of them have been completely disillusioned, and they have very low voting rates. On average, only about 50 percent of those eligible to vote actually used their right to vote.

So basically that means the Zionist parties have a kind of automatic majority, which has not been challenged since the founding of the state of Israel. But, of course, even within the Zionist movement, the different parties used to have more divergent views about what is the best way to promote the Zionist agenda, what is the best way to promote the idea of a Jewish state.

I would say if people think of a Jewish state in the sense of a state in which Jews have extra rights and everyone who’s not Jewish is a second-rate citizen or cannot have a full and equal share of the power, then all of these parties are equivalent to quite extreme-right parties in other countries in the world. So we’re already talking about a very narrow kind of argument or public debate between parties which are in complete consensus about this idea that the state should belong only to one ethnic national religious or even racial group.

JAY: So how does Israel get to a situation where there’s not even a left of center that’s in meaningful contention in terms of the elections? And certainly what would you call a more left or even left social democratic or, you know, something more equivalent to sort of the social democrats you might find in Europe have no position at all in terms of competing.

HEVER: Well, that’s another thing that’s quite interesting about the Israeli political sphere is that the economic questions, the social questions, are separated in a very artificial way from the national or security question. So you could be left and right on the national and security issues, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate to views which are more progressive socially or not.

This creates very odd situations in which members of the extreme-right, racist parties are cooperating with Palestinian members of parliament on issues of social interest, things like minimum wage or unemployment benefits. But when it comes to the issue of Palestinian statehood, equal rights for people who are not Jewish, and so on, they would be on the very extreme sides of the same map.

But what Israel used to have is a kind of center—center by Israeli terms, I mean—which encompassed an idea that Israel could be a sort of mild social democracy or mild welfare state by European standards, and at the same time to promote a version of Zionism which is often called the pragmatic Zionism, which is to find the smartest way and the most subtle way to control the Palestinian population, to make sure that Israel remains a Jewish state and maintains its demographic majority as a Jewish state without taking steps that—you could imagine what kind of steps they could take in order to maintain their demographic majority, but without taking those steps that would ostracize Israel in the world community.

So, yes, continue the occupation, but keep up the appearances as if Israel would like the occupation to end, would like to continue negotiations with the Palestinians.

This was the main platform of the Labor Party. This was the main policies of Israeli prime ministers like Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

And that came to a crisis ten years ago—12 years ago, actually, with the beginning of the Second Intifada, because Ehud Barak took this idea of pragmatic Zionism to an extreme, and by doing that, he exposed the inherent contradictions in this idea that Israel could somehow manipulate the Palestinians into playing their role in this charade of fake negotiations, fake peace process, while Israel continues to put the facts on the ground.

And behind this kind of perception that there is a pragmatic or enlightened way to be Zionist and maintain Israel’s Jewish majority is a very patronizing approach. And Barak is really the embodiment of this approach. He basically said, I’m going to make the Palestinians an offer they cannot refuse, the best offer they will ever get. And he put that offer in the negotiations and basically said, take it or leave it; there is not going to be any negotiations about this offer; you have to accept it. And that offer was an offer which doesn’t actually give the Palestinians sovereignty. It gives Palestinians in the occupied territories some kind of autonomy, a demilitarized state surrounded by Israeli territory on all sides.

And of course the Palestinians rejected that plan, because the fact that maybe also Yassir Arafat, who headed the Palestinian Authority at the time—maybe he also believed like Barak that no Israeli prime minister will ever make a better offer. But that’s beside the point. This is still an offer they cannot accept. And when they rejected that offer, Ehud Barak said, well, in that case, there’s no partner for peace.

And this phrase, “There is no partner for peace,” has become a catchphrase for the Israeli right and has become the centerpiece of Israeli political ideology ever since that collapse of the negotiations. Basically, the whole idea of the center of the Israeli political map, the so-called Zionist left or Zionist center, was that Israel could pretend to be a democracy and pretend to be part of Europe, while at the same time maintaining 19th-century policies of colonization in the occupied Palestinian territories.

JAY: Right. The other part of the sort of official Israeli narrative on no partner for peace is Gaza, that Sharon gave Gaza back to the Palestinians and look what happened.

HEVER: Yeah. Well, actually, Barak has already begun to adopt a different kind of strategy. Instead of negotiations, he adopted this idea of management of the conflict, how to manage the conflict. That means how to use technological means, military superiority, and investment in things like the Wall of Separation, which Barak started building in the West Bank, to try to create a situation in which even if the conflict will last forever, Israel will just be able to live with it.

And Sharon took this even a step further. Sharon replaced Barak, because Barak basically lost his vote base. He told his own voters: our entire analysis of the situation was wrong; there can be no negotiations. Well, of course, why would they vote for him again? Instead Sharon said, we don’t need to negotiate at all; we don’t need any kind of peace talks or any kind of settlement with the Palestinians to begin with; let’s move on directly to managing the conflict while expanding the settlements, while expanding our control over the Palestinian territories.

And Sharon made a very important speech at the Israeli Parliament in 2004, in which he said, if we count everyone between—everyone under Israeli control, then Jews are almost no longer a majority. When he made that speech, Jews were a little over 50 percent of the population. Now they’re already 49 percent, so they’re already a minority. And he said, well, in that case we have to get rid of some of those Palestinians to maintain our majority. And rather than trying to expel them, he decided to withdraw just from the Gaza Strip and create the appearance as if Israel no longer occupies the Gaza Strip.

JAY: The Labor Party’s position on—you know, in terms of how to deal with the Palestinians, it’s not very different than Netanyahu. It’s practically indistinguishable. But in terms of economic policy, at least they espouse something that looks like a little bit more social democrat, a little bit more reformist in some ways. This election campaign, they tried to kind of jump on the enthusiasm or momentum that had happened from those mass demonstrations against Netanyahu’s economic policies. But it hasn’t seemed to have done anything for them in terms of their electoral results.

HEVER: I think a lot of people in Israel have become very disillusioned and very depressed when it comes to the economic issues. They know that actually, just like you said, there is no real difference between left and right or so-called left and real, very real right regarding issues of the negotiations with the Palestinians, the peace process, the occupation. There is actually also no real differences regarding the economic policies. And the Labor Party, when it was in power, was in no way less neoliberal than the Likud Party. And many of the biggest privatizations were done by the Labor Party.

Now, the current leader of the Labor Party does indeed have a record of supporting social democracy and talking about it. But on the other hand, she also knows that she can get no funding for her party and no support from any of Israel’s business people, who have, of course, control over the economy, unless she makes certain points or unless she avoids certain sensitive issues. So, basically, she continues to promise she’s not going to raise taxes.

And in her platform, Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labor Party, offers to increase the government budget by about ILS 130 billion (which is over USD 30 billion) and to use that money for social purposes. But because she doesn’t offer to raise taxes and she doesn’t want to talk about the deficit, her only way to generate that sort of income is by reforming the existing tax system in such a way that people who are avoiding paying taxes they already have to pay under the existing laws would have to pay them anyway, basically closing loopholes.

JAY: Right. So let me just ask you one final question. Assuming, as most people are predicting, the government is going to be formed by Netanyahu’s Likud and the far-right nationalist—I should say, the further far-right nationalists—are we likely to see a change in the way Israel’s governed?

HEVER: I think from the point of view of Netanyahu, I believe he opposes any kind of change. He would not like Israel to further drift in the direction of the very extreme right, because he knows that this would further isolate Israel in the international community. And, of course, he doesn’t want to go in the other direction, because he’s ideologically opposed to any kind of concessions to social democracy or to Palestinian rights.

But we also know that Netanyahu is not a very strong leader, despite how he tries to market himself. He always kind of molds himself to the political pressures around him and eventually becomes a sort of figurehead for the political pressure groups that are able to influence him. So a strengthening of the extreme right does indicate a certain change in Israel’s policies, especially in the direction of no longer caring about what kind of international response could there be for Israel’s policies.

And Netanyahu’s already signaled to that direction by deciding to build a new colony in the E1 area, which threatens to disconnect the West Bank into two parts, north and south. And because of this kind of policy, that—this was something that was severely criticized by European countries, for example, because it kind of threatens to bury the whole two-state solution.

But European countries are also quite careful not to criticize too harshly just before the elections. They didn’t want to be seen as if they were interfering in the Israeli political process.

After the elections, I think there could be a different story. These countries will have no longer any reason to hold back. And if Israel basically makes it completely clear that they have no intention of a two-state solution, no intention of ending the occupation, I think then there is a chance for harsher international sanctions against Israel and very severe isolation, diplomatic isolation [crosstalk]

JAY: I guess it’s still to be seen whether that will change U.S. policy in any way. Thanks very much for joining us, Shir.

HEVER: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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