Another mainstream Israeli voice warns of Apartheid

Jonathan Ofir 

Mondoweiss  /  February 22, 2023

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich published a shocking plan in 2017 to advance Israeli apartheid. Now that it is being put into action veteran journalist Ron Ben-Yishai finally recognizes the danger.

Jimmy Carter is now approaching the end of his life in hospice, and we must remember all those who called Carter antisemitic when he published “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” in 2006. Abraham Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, and Deborah Lipstadt, Biden’s special envoy on antisemitism, should apologize while they still can, Peter Beinart has said, reminding us that Nancy Pelosi, then chair of the Democratic Party, rebuked Carter by saying “it is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel, or anywhere else, that institutionalizes ethnically-based oppression.”

That was a really long time ago, and meanwhile, the human rights community has caught up with Carter’s appraisal. He got it right. Now, with a government that openly declares “exclusive” and “unquestionable” rights for the “Jewish people” in the “Land of Israel” (all of historical Palestine), Nancy Pelosi’s indignation appears as a very dusty statement, not to mention its disingenuous strawman accusation.

In Israel, the term Apartheid is still considered a controversial one among Israel’s elites. Israeli leaders have warned about Apartheid, but as a looming danger– that alas never quite arrives no matter what happens to Palestinians. Those leaders include Prime Ministers from Ben-Gurion to Rabin to Barak and Olmert. The term Apartheid has mostly been used by this Zionist center and left to warn of a one state reality: to say, if we don’t create a two-state solution of some kind, we will end up with Apartheid.

But denial of reality becomes ever harder when masks are falling as fast as they now do. And now comes another mention of Apartheid (still at the level of warning), and although it’s not coming from a Prime Minister, it is coming from a veteran journalist who is elite and mainstream – Ron Ben-Yishai.

Ben-Yishai is probably best known internationally from his coverage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, where he was the first journalist to enter the camps after the massacre. He is centrally featured in the popular 2008 film Waltz with Bashir which covers this episode, and he considers that coverage to be his most important achievement. He has been advisor to the Israeli President, he won the Israel Prize in 2018. As a senior army officer (Lt. Col. in the reserves), Ben Yishai is seen as a respected authority of the Zionist center. 

Two days ago (Monday), the centrist Yediot Aharonot (Ben-Yishai’s former outlet as military correspondent) published an opinion piece by him titled “The judicial revolution has another goal – the Apartheid” (translated from the Hebrew).

Ben-Yishai’s main focus here is on the new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s “Decisive Plan” from 2017. At the time, I covered this plan with a piece titled “Israeli rightist Smotrich lays out the vision for apartheid.” But I am not Zionist elite, so it’s something else that a few years later Ben-Yishai is now openly appraising it as Apartheid. Ben-Yishai says that the highly-controversial judicial reforms that are sparking widespread pro-“democracy” demonstrations in Israel are also about removing the potential resistance of the Supreme Court to this Apartheid plan, because that court “may become a substantial hurdle on the way”.

When Smotrich authored the plan, he was a mere agitating lawmaker, but now he is a minister with various ministerial authorities. Beyond being the Minister of Finance, he also has a specially tailored ministerial post at the Defense Ministry overseeing settlement and housing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Ben-Yishai is saying, that Smotrich is now poised to realize his plan. Ben-Yishai summarizes the plan:

“Smotrich claims that the Palestinians are not and will not be ready, under any condition, to accept that Jews realize their right to self-determination between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. Therefore, by him, the pathways to a solution that have been based upon territorial concessions have failed. These, according to his belief, are complete nonsense, that has ignored the Palestinian religious-nationalist intransigence. Instead of two states for two people, the arduous lawmaker proposed a plan of two to three steps for solving the conflict without Jews becoming a demographic minority. The price: limiting the civil liberties of the Palestinians and a slight hit on the wing to the democratic rule in Israel and our image in the world”.

Ben-Yishai is being typically sarcastic in his last description which is underplayed – he does, as mentioned, see it as Apartheid. But first, he also summarizes the basic points of Smotrich’s “Decisive Plan”:

“This is the essence of the ‘Decisive Plan’: after the state of Israel determines the facts and annexes the territories, the Palestinians would have the possibility of choice between three options. The first: to stay in Judea and Samaria [biblical names for West Bank] and live under Israeli rule and sovereignty in several enclaves – the Hebron area, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin. The Palestinians among these [residents] would not be citizens of Israel but hold the status of residents (like Arabs of East Jerusalem), and this is also under the condition that they don’t show resistance and cooperate. The second option: Palestinians that do not want to live under Israeli rule will emigrate voluntarily and the state of Israel would encourage it with economic grants. The third option is meant to deal fundamentally with Palestinians who would not accept the former two [options]”.

Here Ben-Yishai quotes from Smotrich’s plan:

“When a clear directive is given, (the IDF) will no doubt know how to subdue the terrorists in a short time; to kill those who need to be killed, to collect the weapons until the last bullet and to return security to the state of Israel”.

Ben-Yishai sees the key words in all this to be “clear directive”, whereby “the government would give instructions to the security forces to enact lethal aggression with hardly any limitations in the territories”.

He chides Smotrich for “not addressing too much importance to whether we would be able to look ourselves in the mirror or how the world would react”.

Ben-Yishai points to the first part of Smotrich’s plan, which the journalist characterizes as “settlement victory”. Ben Yishai:

“At this stage, the Minister of Finance and the fresh minister at the Defense Ministry intends to flood, simply so, the areas of Judea and Samaria with settlements and Jewish settlers. When this happens, the Palestinians are supposed to understand that they have no chance to get a state of their own and they would have to choose between one of the three options – a life of subjugation under Israeli rule, emigration or a Shahid [martyr] death”.

He ends his piece by pointing out the importance of the “judicial revolution” in enabling Smotrich’s plan:

“[Smotrich] is determined to realize, for the sake of heaven and the Land of Israel, the ‘Decisive Plan’ and he will not allow [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu or [Defense Minister Yoav] Galant, to stand in his way. The judicial revolution is meant to remove from his path also the Supreme Court, which may become a substantial hurdle on the way”.

Ben-Yishai’s voice is that of the centrist Zionist, who fears that Israel will no longer be seen as liberal– thus his concern about “how the world would react”. But when one reads his descriptions of Smotrich’s plan, it is hard to distinguish much of today’s reality from it. It is already a one-state reality – Smotrich just wants to spell it out. The reality of Bantustan enclaves of Palestinians without rights under Israeli (military) rule has already been the reality for many decades. Those enclaves have even constituted a Palestinian “state” for left-of-center Zionists such as Ehud Barak. The state of limbo imposed on ‘residents’ has been the case for East-Jerusalem Palestinians ever since Israel annexed East Jerusalem (in flagrant violation of international law). The Israeli army is violently assaulting, cracking down on resistance to this Apartheid, and extrajudicial execution of Palestinian suspects is a regular, daily occurrence. There’s no accountability, not even when a famous Palestinian-American journalist is murdered by an Israeli sniper.

So Smotrich’s plan is quintessentially Zionist. And even his second goal — encouraging “emigration” of Palestinians by economic incentive echoes Zionist founder Theodor Herzl’s (“We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country”). It’s worth noting that right now, Israel is already spiriting human rights defenders like Salah Hammouri across the borders (to France).

Still, Israel has so far been framing its deportations, its military crackdowns, its whole occupation, as a temporary state of emergency. Smotrich wants to do away with this: Drop the pretensions and say it like it is – that it’s a state of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea, and that Palestinians need to accept it officially, or leave, or die.

Ben-Yishai is obviously a believer in another Israel, which is less messianic, less explicit in its Jewish supremacy, leaves more space for discussion, keeps at least a semblance of judiciary brakes on the legislative branch, and so forth. But reality can overwhelm anyone’s conceits. That Smotrich agitator with his fascistic manifesto from 2017 is now at the helm of Jewish colonialist settlement and has decisive (pun intended) powers over the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It’s really here, Apartheid is really here, and Jimmy Carter will probably not see peace in Palestine in his lifetime. We can still hope it will be in ours – but first, it’s important to call a spade a spade.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark