Published on Haaretz
Once again, the Israeli government is putting the left on the defensive by questioning the legitimacy of a citizen’s right to speak out against the occupation. That’s been Netanyahu’s strategy all along.
It should be obvious to every thinking citizen in Israel that Likud chair David Bitan’s call to strip the citizenship of Hagai El-Ad, the director of B’Tselem, is a far greater threat to Israel and Israel’s increasingly beleaguered democracy, than El-Ad’s decision to speak the truth about Israel’s ongoing occupation and settlement enterprise at the United Nations. (Full disclosure, the foundation that I represent, the Moriah Fund, supports B’Tselem with annual grants.)
Bitan, like Donald Trump, seems not to understand that in a democracy, citizens are allowed, and even encouraged, to express their political views. Threatening freedom of speech of a citizen by calling to cancel someone’s citizenship because their position diverges from the government line is a grave abuse of power, and in a normal democracy, Bitan himself would be removed from office, or at the very least, censured by his political superiors.
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Don’t hold your breath. The attacks on El-Ad and B’Tselem must be seen in the context of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s latest propaganda ploy, spreading the lie that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace. This calculated piece of convoluted reasoning appeared in a video on Netanyahu’s Facebook page a few weeks ago, the same venue that Netanyahu used to get himself elected by using a racist and anti-Democratic lie; that Israeli leftists were bussing Palestinian citizens to the polls in droves and only a military style “call-up” could save the Jewish state from its own non-Jewish citizens exercising their right to vote.
Netanyahu is now outraged that B’Tselem’s director chose to deny the government’s latest claim that settlements are not an obstacle to peace – no one, including B’Tselem, argues that they are the only obstacle to peace or that the Palestinians don’t also have a lot to answer for – in the very public forum of a United Nation Security Council committee. Netanyahu went after El-Ad and B’Tselem last week on his Facebook page and now Bitan has escalated the offensive.
The attacks are designed to distract the Israeli public from debating the substance of El-Ad’s testimony; the argument that without international pressure, Israel’s government is not going to make a real effort to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian, to release its grip on Palestinian territory in the West Bank, or to end the occupation, which is now in its 50th year. It is obvious to every citizen of Israel who listens to our government leaders speak in Hebrew or reads the Hebrew press that the current government has no intention of doing any of these things; not now, not ever.
Branding critics or the left as a whole as unpatriotic is not a new tactic for Netanyahu. Since he took office for his latest Prime Ministerial run seven years ago, his Likud has led a relentless assault on the left’s legitimacy, not the legitimacy of leftist positions, but the legitimacy of the left to take part in Israel’s political discourse. By putting the left on the defensive and forcing them to justify their right to speak out, right wing leaders can avoid spelling out their long-term vision of Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians; the goal is to avoid debating the future of Israel’s occupation and settlement policy.
El-Ad knew that his appearance at the UN would be unpopular back home, and undoubtedly knew the right would go on the warpath. Some on the left in Israel were not thrilled by B’Tselem’s decision to testify at the UN with its knee-jerk anti-Israel bias, the UNESCO Jerusalem resolution only the latest case in point.
Leftist critics fear that El-Ad provided fuel for the right’s smear campaign of leftists back home as unpatriotic, hindering rather than prompting the kind of debate over the Occupation that Israel desperately needs, a discourse in which leftist and centrists in Israel might find significant common ground.
And indeed, here we are again, debating the legitimacy of a citizen’s right to speak out, and not debating the future of our occupation. Some leftists also disagree with the tactic of arousing international pressure to change Israeli government policies, preferring to persuade hearts and minds back home. If the right wasn’t so committed to its jingoist smear campaign, Israelis might be able to debate these points as well.
El-Ad has decided that the stakes are too high for B’Tselem to toe such a middling line, and like Americans for Peace Now (APN), which also gave testimony (and which the Moriah Fund also supports), they sounded the danger of the Occupation even in a forum so often considered hostile to Israel. El-Ad and Lara Friedman are right that Israelis have grown so complacent about the occupation and hopeless about the prospects for peace that they don’t even notice the government’s duplicitous machinations anymore, whether retroactively legalizing illegal outposts or building in settlement blocs it doesn’t expect to ever relinquish.
El-Ad also has been making the case in recent years that the Israeli human rights community, which he is part of, and its careful documentation of Israel’s abuse of Palestinian rights, has been exploited by successive Israeli governments to whitewash Israel’s image as a healthy democracy while Israel continues to perpetrate those same abuses. So he would be the last one to want his appearance at the UN to be brought as evidence of Israel’s commitment to free speech. Thanks to David Bitan’s outrageous assault on Israeli democracy and the Prime Minister holding Bitan’s leash, El-Ad won’t have to worry about that.