The Guardian / February 5, 2022
While some in Washington DC and US media decry Amnesty’s conclusions, it’s a different story among some Israeli leaders.
Who speaks for Israel? Right-wing lobby groups in Washington and US politicians would have Americans believe that it is them – and not Israel’s own former prime ministers and others who actually live in the Jewish state.
Earlier this week Amnesty International released a report making a 280-page case that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians constitutes apartheid. The response in the US was a wave of orchestrated outrage – outrage that not only denies what many prominent Israelis say is true but, in effect, denies their right to say it.
A joint statement by American groups that claim to be pro-Israel – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful right-wing lobby organisation – accused Amnesty of seeking to “demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel”, a formulation frequently used to imply antisemitism.
Groups that made little criticism of Israel’s military collaboration with South Africa’s white minority regime now profess concern that Amnesty’s report diminishes the suffering of black Africans under apartheid.
As the Guardian’s correspondent in Jerusalem during the Palestinian uprising of the early 2000s, the second intifada, after covering the end of white rule in South Africa, I was struck by how frequently prominent Israelis drew comparisons between the occupation and apartheid. I also noticed how hard pro-Israel groups in the US fought to delegitimize any such discussion.
Yet Amnesty explicitly said that it is not drawing direct parallels with the old South Africa. Its report accuses Israel of crimes against humanity under international laws, including the 1973 Apartheid Convention and the 1998 Rome statute of the international criminal court, which defines apartheid as systematic racial domination.
That did not stop American politicians from piling in with accusations that Amnesty “hates Israel”, although not always to the best effect. The Republican senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas exposed his tenuous grasp on the situation by denouncing the human rights group for “attacking a free democracy where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live in peace”.
If the critics of the report have read it at all, they rarely engage with its detailing of Israel’s system of military rule, segregation and forced removals that treats Palestinians as an inferior racial group. Instead critics are more focused on smearing Amnesty.
A Wall Street Journal editorial, ignoring the report’s substance, called it a “libel” against Israel and claimed that Amnesty is in the company of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran because the human rights group “all but says the Jewish state shouldn’t exist”.
For those charges to stand up, you have to believe Israel has been led by antisemites who hate their own country. In smearing those who lay out a reasoned case that Israel is guilty of apartheid under international law, American critics are conveniently sidestepping years of damning judgments by Israeli leaders.
As Yossi Sarid, a former Israeli cabinet minister, ex-leader of the opposition, and member of the Knesset for 32 years, put it in 2008: “What acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck – it is apartheid.”
Leading Israeli politicians have warned for years that their country was sliding into apartheid. They include two former prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who can hardly be dismissed as antisemites or hating Israel.
“As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” Barak said in 2010. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”
Israel’s former attorney general, Michael Ben-Yair, was even clearer.
“We established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That oppressive regime exists to this day,” he said in 2002.
Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, has said his country has “apartheid characteristics”. Shulamit Aloni, the second woman to serve as an Israeli cabinet minister after Golda Meir, and Alon Liel, Israel’s former ambassador to South Africa, both told me that their country practices a form of apartheid.
Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, published a ground-breaking report last year that described “a regime of Jewish supremacy” over Palestinians that amounted to apartheid. Another Israeli group, Yesh Din, gave a legal opinion that “the crime against humanity of apartheid is being committed in the West Bank”.
The reckoning is not confined to the political class. “The cancer today is apartheid in the West Bank,” AB Yehoshua, one of Israel’s greatest living writers, said in 2020. “This apartheid is digging more and more deeply into Israeli society and impacting Israel’s humanity.”
Those views may be disputed by many in Israel, even a majority. But AIPAC and other US groups – which have spent years shoring up support in America for right-wing Israeli governments intent on maintaining their particular form of apartheid – are not concerned about truth.
Hardline pro-Israel groups are lashing out now in fear that the narrative in America is finally shifting. Americans no longer uncritically accept the idea that Israel is desperate for peace and that the occupation is temporary. More and more Americans now see the system Israel has constructed as oppressive and its governments as disingenuous.
Perhaps most worryingly for the Israeli government’s apologists, an increasing number of Jewish Americans share that judgment. A survey of Jewish voters in the US last year found that 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state”. The days of right-wing apologists for Israel imposing their false narrative may finally be numbered.
Chris McGreal is the former Guardian correspondent in Jerusalem and Johannesburg