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The Hilltop Youth and Jewish Terrorism

The following is a transcript of Episode 89 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, president of Shalom Hartman Institute North America, and we’re recording on Monday, January 31st, 2022. 

The Jewish news media is jumpy these days. Tomorrow, another human rights organization, this time Amnesty International is set to release a report, condemning Israel as an apartheid state, and apparently going further than any other organizations and individuals in its report in claiming that Israel is not merely practicing the crime of apartheid in the West Bank, not merely constituting an apartheid state, but actually constituting Israel as an apartheid state since its founding in 1948.

This allegation means to include Israel’s actions towards Palestinian citizens of Israel, inside Israel proper, that is to say, not merely in the West Bank, but in all of Israel. And the allegation from Amnesty, allegedly dates itself back to the founding of the state of Israel itself. And my personal view is that these accusations have essentially become Rorschach tests. Critics of Israel welcome them, celebrate the new publication of such a report because they become additional footnotes to support a position they already hold. Whereas supporters of Israel tend to experience them very differently. Evidence of something else entirely, perhaps a slippage towards the delegitimization and demonization of Israel, perhaps even antisemitic, in seeing Israel and painting Israel as the worst state perpetrator in the world of this kind of inequality. 

But in between those two poles and amidst all the rhetoric and reports, there’s daily life for Palestinians and for Israelis in the West Bank. And there’s mounting evidence that certain aspects of the status quo, which have included enormous political stagnancy that stretches back a generation, that that status quo is furthering away.

Over the past year and change there’s been a steady increase in anti-Palestinian violence, committed by Israelis. This includes attacks on people and property, and it’s often directed at Israelis as well, who are engaged in nonviolent shows of support for Palestinians. It’s oftentimes referred to with the shorthand of settler violence but as the Times of Israel reported back in December, not all the perpetrators who tend to be young, people are actually settlers. Many of them may be part of that loose network that is called Hilltop Youth, disaffected young people who stake out positions in illegal settlements, but that that group is oftentimes joined in their anarchic behavior by other disaffected young Israelis from inside Israel proper. 

This phenomenon of violence is enough of a phenomenon to be worth discussing after all the number of these incidents increased by over 50% in 2021. But it’s compounded by the fact that the incidents often proceed uninterrupted and then go unprosecuted by the Israeli military and the Israeli police, which in turn lends some of Israel’s critics the ammunition to argue that it’s actually tacitly approved of by the state. The Israeli public officials who have spoken out most of us seriously against this violence have endured significant political consequences.

And even as is the case with the Israeli police minister threats to their own safety and the prime minister Naftali Bennet has struggled to call it by name, but I want to suggest today that it’s more than just a news story for us to consider and to talk about. I personally tend to experience these kinds of stories as Zionism’s heart of darkness.

After all Zionism was the opening for the Jewish people to pursue a process of self-determination and that translated quickly into the need for sovereignty and access to power. I think that’s a good thing, but since 1948, and especially 1967, there’s no way to talk about sovereignty or power without talking about Palestinians, those over whom Israel is sovereign and those whom against Israel exercises state power.

What happens when this kind of violence becomes so common that it’s banal, when are we forced to question our assumptions about what aspects of sovereignty and power are necessary and which aspects of it are irredeemably corrupting? And by the way, settler violence is becoming a Rorschach test on its own as well.

 On the right, it oftentimes gets dismissed as a kind of crime, or it’s argued that Palestinians commit attacks against Israelis too, which of course is true. Or you sometimes hear the phrase, not all settlers. Meantime on the left, this kind of violence is a data point to a larger argument about the fundamental illegitimacy of the settlement project, and maybe even a Jewish ethno state more generally. 

I’ve been grateful to read and follow the coverage of the Times of Israel on this crisis. Times of Israel can’t be dismissed on either end of the political spectrum. It has to be taken seriously. And I’ve noticed that it as a publication has taken this phenomenon seriously in both its news and opinion platforms.

And today I’m excited to process all of this with Haviv Rettig Gur, a senior analyst for the Times of Israel who can hopefully help us understand more about this phenomenon and all of its related epi phenomena as relates to the story of contemporary Israel. So Haviv, thanks for being here.

Maybe I could start by asking you, what do you think are the forces at work that are making this phenomenon grow? It’s that it’s always been there. There’s always been these kinds of incidents and episodes, but it is quite newsworthy that in 2021 there were so many more than before, and it seems to be almost like a daily occurrence, some violent act against Palestinians or against Palestinian property in the West Bank.

Haviv: Thank you for having me. That, that’s a fantastic question. And it touches on some of the larger elements of this phenomenon that are really its most disturbing elements. One answer as to what is making it grow is that we don’t, not only do we not know exactly what’s making grow, we don’t know how much it’s growing.

We have very poor data on these attacks. And the reason we have very poor data on these attacks is very profound and significant and should tell us a great deal about their nature and about Israel’s difficulty in reigning them in and in really dealing with them and even discussing them in any serious way.

The Israeli, and this was a story we covered at the Times of Israel which I thought was a very important story. The Israeli officials, Israeli police, Israeli army, uh, various institutions of the state, the Shabak, which has a section devoted to Jewish terrorism, the deal with these attacks have, for some strange reason, it turns out refuse to count them properly.

There is no clear logging. There is no clear tracking in the Israeli military, in the Israeli police, they have contradictory numbers. They don’t have data sets that you can go into and, and extract from them about the kinds of attacks and what they mean. So we have activist groups, Palestinian groups, Israeli groups, that are activist groups that count some of them.

And those, it’s not that they’re unreliable, but it’s, it’s their own methodologies are very different. So. It’s possible that the attacks are growing in scale. It’s possible that the Palestinian capacity to magnify the, the public relations aspect, in other words, to get the news out that this is happening is growing in scale.

And we just don’t know. Now I’m not saying we just don’t know, therefore, maybe we’re okay. Maybe everything’s fine. The fact that the Israeli military and Israeli police are devoted to, you can’t not track this by accident. The fact that they are determinately, not tracking, this is a big deal.

And just a data point that should sort of hint at the significance. We had a cabinet meeting yesterday of the Israeli cabinet in which the chief of staff of the IDF and the minister of public security, it was the cabinet minister in charge of the police, actually bickered in front of the rest of the ministers of the Israeli cabinet over the question of who is responsible to reign in Israeli violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. And the army chief said, you know, soldiers don’t have the same legal powers as cops to arrest people. This is something that police need to do. And the police said, you know, the military is sovereign in the West Bank, under the laws of belligerent occupation, which Israel in many ways, and in certain circumstances applies to the West Bank, What are you talking about? It’s your responsibility? And they actually had this fight until prime minister Naftali Bennet intervenes. 

So this is something that is on the government’s agenda and at the highest levels of Israeli government, there’s bickering and there’s, there’s a lot of disquiet and a lot of uncertainty and, and a lot of incapacity, they don’t want to deal with this. And, and I think that’s significant. 

Yehuda: Yeah, actually, there’s a really fascinating new story up on the Times of Israel today, actually about an incident that I believe took place either yesterday or today in the West Bank where the soldiers in a rare display of this, actually arrested the perpetrator. They don’t actually have policing powers over Israelis in the West Bank, which is part of the complicated piece here.

So they brought him to a checkpoint. They handed them over to Israeli police and then the Israeli police released him. So you got like in that story, right? You get a window into the legal dynamics that are at play in the West Bank, between the army and the police, and possibly even the political dynamics that are at play of when does the army actually even feel incentivized to intervene in moments like this.

So you’re flagging that like one piece of the story is that the Israeli government and security apparatus will not, or has not figured out either how to count the issues that are at play or even how to effectively prosecute the issues at play. Right. But that, and that you have to, you have to re you have to process that and say like, why, why on earth do they not want to, it looks terrible. Right?

Haviv: It’s not that they’re unable, you know, we in Israel I believe it’s a statistic I saw a while ago. I think it’s still true at the highest per capita number of lawyers in the world. And there are a lot of lawyers in the police and a lot of lawyers in the army and the military forces in the West Bank.

And they could figure out a way Israeli soldiers in the West Bank have arrest powers, including against Israeli civilians and what they don’t have as the capacity or ability to investigate. And they don’t have the ability to really jail and all of that. And for that, they need to cooperate with the police, but the police and the army, you know, I hate to bring it up.

But it’s kind of a basic premise of democracy, which is that representation is the mechanism that makes it work, right? The Israeli military has a boss and the boss has to run for election. And therefore the Israeli military is very keen on not hurting the people who will elect their boss, right. When it comes to Palestinians, institutionally, structurally, every single person along the chain of events can be a good person.

 Institutionally there isn’t that pressure. There isn’t someone in the Knesset who will scream and rage and bring the military chief to a, to a Knesset committee meeting where he will be yelled at if something happens to Palestinians. And that is you don’t get away from that. That’s fundamental. That’s a problem that the army has had in the West Bank.

The army is bad at managing civilians. It will always be bad at managing civilians. So the Israeli state is so hands-off so neglectful of this issue that even good data is missing, is sort of as my original point. And that tells us the scope of, of the lacuna here.

That’s one thing, the other point, which you raised, the very first thing you asked, which I never answered is why is it increasing. You mentioned some of this at the very beginning in your introduction, but the Israeli the attacks on Palestinians, the so-called price tag campaign, the tag mechir, groups of young people, a lot of them are not settlers by the way, the vast, vast majority of settlers not only have nothing to do with this, but think that it actively hurts them more than it hurts anyone except the Palestinian victims in terms of Israeli politics, but the price tag campaign of these attacks of this terrorism targeting Palestinian villages, targeting Palestinian civilians is also consciously, openly, publicly, explicitly targeting the Israeli government, targeting the Israeli military and it is hurting Palestinians as a way of getting at the Israeli government and the Israeli military. 

There is a narrative on the far right, on that edge of the far right, that is carrying out these attacks that says that the Israeli government serves the, some kind of imagined left or some kind of imagined, you know, judges or court or the them, the them of an extreme right organization or an extremely political movement.

And that it hurts Jews in order to serve them. And the way you hurt left-wing Jews, which can include right-wing government. Right. They, they did this against Netanyahu governments as well, is you hurt Palestinians because that they’ll feel, but when Jews are hurt, they won’t, right. It’s this whole narrative that sets themselves up as the victims and the targeting of Palestinians as a way to get at the Israeli military which rules the area and, and at the Israeli government and Israeli politics.

So there’s a very complex narrative and dynamic happening here. And it is in part a rebellion against the Israeli state. These are you called the anarchic. These are anarchists and they’re anarchists against the Israeli state. Just as much as they are racist, violent, you know, attackers of Palestinians, targeting Palestinians.

Yehuda: Right. I mean, and in this respect, it reminds me of other major episodes of both Palestinian terror against Israeli civilians and these cases as well, where extremist forces use this kind of terror to continue to polarize the Israeli and Palestinian people from one another. That so long as there is continued kind of violence and hate, that’s directed by Palestinians towards Israelis and Israelis and Palestinians that prevents any transformation of the political status quo.

The problem though, right? The problem is, and here, I’m genuinely curious for the coalition side of this. If you’re a right of center politician in Israel as Naftali Bennett is and you have explicitly indicated that you will not change the status quo. Right. What, you will not change the status quo. You, you will not preside over a Palestinian state on your watch.

That depends on a continued belief in the general public, inside Israel and outside Israel, that the Palestinians are incompatible as peace partners, that Israel’s hands are clean in terms of how it governs the occupation and that it’s powerless to fix it. These incidents and episodes really damage the story of a right wing position, which sees itself as morally superior to the left-wing alternatives.

The thing I can’t fully wrap my head around is the people you indicated most settlers are scandalized by these actions, they feel that it embarrasses them. It puts them, it makes them look bad. I would think that that would be the case for anybody on the credible Israeli. Right. I don’t mean the extreme right.

But anyone on the credible Israeli right. Who wants to depict themselves as, we’re not an apartheid state, we are doing the best that we can under circumstances beyond our control. Why not use this as a kind of example of how we crack down on, on betrayals of the kind of benevolent occupation that we hope to sustain?

Haviv: I want to tackle the question of why is it so hard to just crack down on them? They are an embarrassment to Naftali Bennett, as much as they are an embarrassment to the left. 98% of Israeli politics is against these guys. Bezalel Smotrich even, who is the far Right, of Israeli, even when he you know, says they’re not getting fair trial or whatever, also tries to calm them down and stop these attacks. Why can’t they be reigned in? There is a basic paralysis fundamental to the structure of Israeli politics. And it is basically our tribal system. We are a very, very strange democracy. We are a strange democracy that isn’t really based on any of the things that Western democracies are usually based on.

In other words, we don’t have a very strong constitution that’s really fleshed out. We don’t quite know what the system of government is, what each department of government, what each part of government, how it reigns in all the other parts of government. We have one of the simplest electoral systems in the world, you know, and we have almost no institutions. The government by definition has to have the majority in the Knesset and therefore the Knesset in the government. Usually this is a very odd exception, usually don’t reign each other and don’t have the ability to check each other. We have a court that checks the other branches of government, but can’t really it faces a lot of blow back when it tries to.

And so we have this system of government that doesn’t work by reigning in different institutions. We have a nationwide single constituency electorate. So we don’t have the kind of divide you have with the local election system in the United States, where you have layered divisions of the population by geography or in Britain where you have local representatives.

We don’t have almost any of the institutions that put checks and balances into a political system to create a democracy that has those checks and balances. What we do have is a society as a society deeply divided into really profoundly antagonistic tribes within the Jews. We have the Haredin and we have the Religious Zionists and we have various kinds of the secular left and, and, and the, the Mizrachi and the Ashkenazi, the, you, you cross the ethnic divide to the Arab community and you meet all kinds of different tribes. The Bedouin in the south are a radically different kind of society from the very highly educated urban Haifa Arab elite in the north. We have a society that is deeply divided into these very different subgroups and subcultures, and an electoral system that expresses that.

So the Sefardi, Haredi political party Shas is distinct from the Ashkenazi, Haredi political, and that’s distinct from each one of the tribes in our country. And our society is, comes to the Knesset as a representative of that cultural subgroup. And I say all that, not to get away from the question, why can’t Israel reign these people in, but because the heart of the problem is in there. 

By the way, the heart of most problems, most things that Israel is unable, over seven generations or six generations to solve, you find the problem in that in that tribal divide. The main check and balance that we have, the main way that minorities in Israel prevent the majority from oppressing them is at the cabinet table. Is at the coalition negotiating table. 

The Israeli electorate elects representatives of the cultural tribes to the Knesset. They gather around a table after every election. And they essentially dole out the powers of government. One tribe, one political cultural tribe within Israeli society gets to run the police. Another cultural tribe gets to run the schools. A third cultural tribe gets to run the army. That is literally how the system functions.

This makes perfect sense to anybody familiar with the country called Lebanon. This makes a great deal of sense to anyone familiar with how Iraq functions or how Syria fails to function. We are in that sense, profoundly Middle Eastern and our society functions in a lot of ways that can be invisible to Westerners when they try and understand us because there’s a deep seeded sort of Arab, cultural, assumptions and ways of doing business and structures to our identities that are hard to see from the outside, certainly from the west. 

We have a peculiar political system in which all of the different tribes protect each other. So for example, Likud the right wing center, right Likud party tried to pass a law several times over the last decade that would lower the volume on the Muslim call to prayer, the muezzin. When a Muslim community, Jewish community llive next to each other, at 5:00 AM hearing the muezzin is, is a little disturbing to the Jewish residents who live near the mosque.

And so there was some, you know, real concern here. Some of the push to lower the volume of the muezzin was a little bit of an ethnic issue. It was a little bit of even a racist issue. And the political forces that consistently torpedoed all of the legislation that would have allowed the government to allow the police to lower the volume of the, of the Muslim call to prayer in the country have been the Haredi parties, the ultra-orthodox parties in Israel and the Muslim parties in Israel coordinate constantly on all kinds of issues. The radical, extremist, anarchic right from which the Hilltop youth and the violent extreme of the Hilltop youth are drawn, who commit these crimes are are protected, are seen as sons of, they’re almost always boys, are seen as sons of one of these tribes. And it is very difficult in the Israeli Knesset to gang up on a group that is doing something that even if the majority think are not the right thing to do, to gang up on them and change their ways or force them to change.

And the reason that’s very difficult is that all the other tribes are then concerned that the next tribe to to be ganged up on is themselves. So the Haredi parties watch uh, you know, potential crackdown on these wild cat outposts from which these violent youths walk out and commit these crimes.

And they see that a conservative legislative or a law enforcement or government attention focused on reigning them in as something that will then be turned onto the Haredi community, where there’s a great deal of law breaking in their particular ways and in their particular issues. So we are a country deeply, deeply divided into these tribes to the point where each of us has a different education system.

There’s a secular education system, and a Hardei the education system and a religious education system, and a slightly more religious, than the Arabs have their own Arabic language education system with its own subdivisions. Our kids are raised to belong to these different subgroups, and that makes it very, very difficult for a government to piece together the kind of political coalition that can act on anything that is divisive.

Throw the occupation into that issue. Throw the fact that Haredi children don’t learn math or English after the fourth grade into that, incapacity into that sort of inability of Israeli politics to set a goal and, and follow it through. I think this falls in between those seats, in other words, Bennett wants to maintain in the future a path back to the Israeli right. Well, on many issues, he’s on the right end of the Israeli right. Can he be seen as a prime minister who sent the police to, you know, break the bones of Hilltop youth, our good boys and then have that political future. So there’s this, for him, there’s that reckoning. Now Ra’am has no such compunctions, but Ra’am understands that if the government now cracks down on them the next crackdown will be in the south, among the Bedouin, various kinds of law breakers, or whatever that are Ra’am constituents and Ra’am’s tribe.

Yehuda: So that loops us back around to something you said earlier, which is there’s also no political constituency for the Palestinians in the West Bank. So it’s not like there’s some coalition negotiations that are taking place between your needs versus your needs.

They’re simply unrepresented as a political force. And I would ask, I would ask though on top of that, so you’ve divided Israeli society into a set of kind of tribal stakeholders and a lot of sub interest groups, but I don’t know. You can tell me what you think I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think I am.

I think one of the other things that’s changed over the last 30 years is that the boundary of like quote unquote settlers, is a much more pronounced from outside Israel than it is actually inside Israel. So Israelis who are not on the far left of Israeli society are much more likely to have family members who live in settlements have coworkers who live in settlements, like if you followed settler discourse in the west outside of Israel, you would think it is a far more marginal, politically extreme set of the population than it actually is within Israel.

And I wonder whether that’s part of the play here also, a kind of anxiety about a police presence that’s going to implicate the settlement settlers and settlement movement because of the ways in which other aspects of Israeli society are actually interwoven with the settlement.

Haviv: I don’t think so. That’s an interesting you know ,thing that maybe we can even investigate with some serious polling. I haven’t seen polling like that. I don’t think that that the issue is that, so to speak settlements have become normalized in Israeli society.. And I’ll tell you why.

There are roughly speaking three kinds of settlements. In the immediate aftermath of the 67 war, or certainly by the early seventies left wing governments put small small villages, small farming communities along what they thought would be a security border in the future based on something called the Alon plan, which we don’t have to get into now, but basically that Israel would maintain control of the Jordan valley as a security at security control, at least.

And you know, it’s not clear what, what what would happen with the Palestinian population centers of the West Bank, but Israel would hold the Jordan valley as a security border. And so it puts small left-wing, you know, settlements of bands of young people who were also reservist military people along that border. You have, for example, a tiny little settlement in the Jordan Valley called Miran, which consistently over the last 54 years has voted left wing, including when left-wing governments have wanted to take it down. They vote for governments that want to take it down because 54 years ago, they were sent there by left-wing governments and they have maintained their allegiance to their left wing tribe. And so that’s one kind of settlement and you see that in the Jordan Valley and in a couple other places around Jerusalem. 

And then you have the second kind of settlement, nd that is literally just the demographic housing settlement. The two largest settlements that between them have about a quarter of all settlers are 2000 feet from the green line. They are Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit. There are two cities right up against the green line and they are both Haredi cities, and they’re incredibly young, they have something like an average of nine children per household. Average median age is between 11 and 12 years in the city as a whole. And these are cities of tens of thousands of people that are just a place for Haredim, who are not, certainly not when they founded, but the Ha, the politics have changed over the last 20 years, but are not ideologically right-wing, they’re not ideologically committed to it.

Right? Most of the settlers are either that early left wing settlements that vote to this day to be removed, or, which is the vast demographic majority though, the cities and towns right up against the green line that are just housing, they’re just there because there was an apartment to be bought and they needed an apartment.

And then you have probably a quarter of settlements which are the religious Zionist ideological settlement movement. And these are settlements from Eli and Nokdi and all these places, which I don’t know if listeners would recognize, but these are settlements that are intentionally placed right in between Palestinian cities in order to make a Palestinian state untenable in the future.

That is their purpose. That is their explicit expressed purpose. The the Hilltop youth, a violent price tag attackers, these Jewish terrorists. They come only from that third group. And they come from the fringe 5% of that third group, the vast majority of that third group, which is designed to make a Palestinian state untenable, feel that they hurt the cause and are horrified by their actions.

And if you told them this is settler violence, they would tell you, you have no idea what you’re talking about. I have never met a violent person in my settlement like these people, these are essentially social work problems. These are punk kids who have nothing else to do and bad people have taken them under their wing and diverted them to, this is how gangs formed in American cities. If America can’t solve gangs why do you think we can solve this? Now that is how it’s framed among the settlers. And settlements have been utterly normalized in the sense that no one knows Beitar. I mean, literally people who live in Beitar Illit don’t realize that they live in the West Bank. It’s it’s just right there. It’s not. So in that sense, yes. By the way, the neighborhoods of Jerusalem as well. Personal story, my father in the seventies was a, a parliamentary aid to Yossi Sarid of the Meretz party.

My father wanted a Palestinian state before it was cool in Israeli politics to want that, which would have been, I guess, the nineties. I grew up in a left wing home. I also grew up in Gilo because we were working class Israelis and working class Israelis bought apartments in a place called Gilo, which I never knew until I was in an adult, was over the green line. In other words, in that sense, it’s normalized in places like Jerusalem, right over the green line. 

But what we’re talking about, the group that we’re talking about is emphatically not normalized. You take a poll of Israelis, they will tell you this. These are not us. They don’t represent us. We don’t know these people. 

Yehuda: Okay. So let’s go back to where I started though. You have this, this as a, I think a very significant phenomenon that as I said, I, whenever I see these stories, it’s not just that I feel embarrassed by them. I really do feel like they’re kind of a black hole of the whole story of the Jewish people acquiring power.

It’s the whole question of like, for the first time, when you actually are capable of punching up with some measure of tools and weapons at your disposal at minimum to protect yourself, right? You see these manifestations of punching down against Palestinians who are under your rule, but you named, Haviv, four features, so far, that are kind of unusual about this story. And I want to put them together for you if I can. 

You talked about the settlement project creating a lack of contiguity, right? An ideological settlement project that you can’t even tell in certain places, right? We’ve totally normalized aspects of the settlement project, as part of Israeli society, you talked about that there’s a gap on information between the army, which doesn’t keep these records, but the NGOs do, but there’s been a consistent attack on the NGOs for being anti-democratic. So even the very NGOs who could be kind of policing, this are being held down.

You talked about the aspects of Israeli democracy, which are unusual and tribal. And you talked about the fact that the military is going to relate differently towards the people who are ostensibly part of their electorate, as, as opposed to Palestinians taken together, Haviv, this is a pretty damning critique of this whole system.

This is the stuff that becomes the raw materials for why someone says you have structurally unequal rule between Jews in the West Bank and Palestinians in the West Bank. And for lack of any other terminology, that’s the terminology that we come to with apartheid. Now, there are a whole bunch of reasons why people might be wanting to throw that terminology there, but I’m trying to like hold together the data that you’re suggesting as to why this has become common and serious.

And I don’t know what to do with the reality that we’re then looking at, which is wow, the state that has all these reasons why it has allowed this to proliferate and won’t get it under control, it’s like a pretty deep indictment of the very system under which this stuff is proliferating. What do we do with that?

Haviv: Well, I don’t know that I can help you. For 54 years Israel has, or 55 soon, Israel has ruled a territory without a very large number, most of the people living there, being citizens of that territory. As long as that was a temporary situation, it was within the laws of war. I am not all that impressed by the idea of international humanitarian law. I know a lot of lawyers will get angry at me for saying that, but international humanitarian law only applies to weak actors. They don’t apply to Russia somehow or to China somehow. So it’s not law in the sense that we would like to think of a law as something that also the powerful have to obey.

But things like Fourth Geneva were adopted by Israel into Israel’s domestic law, and domestic law I take very seriously. And so the institution of belligerent occupation, the responsibilities that Israel owes to the people that rules over the responsibilities include that it is a provisional situation.

In other words, it has to end and they have to end as citizens of something that didn’t go away and it won’t go away and we don’t have to sugarcoat it and we don’t have to let Israel off the hook for it. 

Something very big happened in 2000 in the year 2000, 22 years ago, that very big thing, we still live in its shadow. It’s been forgotten overseas. It still fundamentally shapes Israeli politics. And that is the second Intifada at the height of the peace process begins this campaign of 140 suicide bombers that shatters the Israeli left. And actually the Israeli left hasn’t won an election since the second Intifada and shatters the belief among Israelis that on the Palestinian side withdrawals will be reciprocated with peace.

And what that has done is essentially cleared the Israeli public discourse of anyone who is seriously and convincingly can argue that if I pull out of Gaza, Gaza will be better for it and I’ll be better for it. And now if I pull out of the West Bank, you know, the West Bank will be better for it. And I’ll be better for it. 

In 2006, a few months after the Gaza disengagement, Ariel Sharon, who pulled out a Gaza when he was head of Likud. But then left Likud, formed Kadima in late 2005 and then had his stroke. And then there’s the number two in the Kadima party. A man named Ehud Olmert is running for election.

And right, before the 2006 election, Ehud Olmert gives a speech. And in that speech, he says, he says explicitly Ariel Sharon wanted to pull out of the West Bank as well. I am going to pull out of the West Bank. He called it his, what’d he call it? You can never say withdrawal if you’re an Israeli politician.

So he called it, tochnit hahitkansut, the ingathering plan. The, um, the convergence plan, I think it was translated, which is such a stupid word. I mean, the Hebrew word was even dumber so, you know, that’s not a criticism of the translators. The convergence plan, he called it, it was a plan to pull out of 90 something percent of the West Bank.

He said it two weeks before the election. And he announced it as his program. And he said, if you don’t want me to do it, don’t vote for me. And if you vote for me, don’t tell me, I didn’t tell you. Criticism of Sharon was that he wasn’t elected in 2003 to pull out of Gaza, he surprised everyone. 

Olmert wins the election. He not only wins the 2006 election. He then puts the labor party in the defense ministry, the party that can no longer win elections. After the second Intifada, after the shattering of the peace process into these just, you know, massive rivers of blood and explosions in the middle of our cities and targeting of our children.

He, he then wins the election, puts labor in the defense ministry, which is to say the agency that will carry out the withdrawal. And that’s the identity of his government. I think he forms the government in March. By June, Hamas in Gaza, carry out the very first tunnel operation coming out from the other side of the border.

They killed two Israeli soldiers. They kidnap the third. That’s the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. There’s now a shooting war in the Gaza border. And then in July 12th, Hezbollah, we had pulled out a south Lebanon six years earlier, to the international line, according to the UN, we have a whole note from the UN about it.

Hezbollah carries out its first attack across that border and suddenly it Ehud Olmert, a man elected to pull out of the West Bank, finds himself in a shooting war on the two borders from which we had just unilaterally withdrawn as he wants to do in the West Bank. Now, you know Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history and former chief of staff of the Israeli army, carried out the pullout from south Lebanon and told Israelis, don’t worry. I’m Ehud Barak. If they shoot rockets at us across the international border, I’ll smash them. I’m paraphrasing, of course, and the world will be on our side because we pulled out, what more do you want? Right?

Ariel Sharon implicitly and sometimes more explicitly said, don’t worry, I’m pulling out of Gaza, but I’m Ariel Sharon. I’m the major general, and the great hero up to this day, studied at West Point. I’m the great military tactician. If they shoot at us from Gaza after I pull out, we’ll smash them, it would only hurt them.

Ehud Olmert, I think was a journalist in some army magazine. He was a lawyer. He became a mayor, a health minister, and he was a perfectly normal political career in any other country, but he wasn’t that general that they were, and he finds himself now with, there was no iron dome in 2006. And so during the month long, second Lebanon war in the summer of 2006 hundreds of thousands of Israelis flee their homes.

Because no matter how much Olmert bombs Lebanon and bombs Gaza. And he did because he had to show that he could restore deterrence because he has to show that we can pull out of somewhere and deter them from attacking us because he’s about to pull out of the West Bank. So he smashed Lebanon to the point where I think every single bridge in Lebanon was destroyed, just as a point. 

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis didn’t experience that war as the restoration of deterrence, they experienced that war fleeing their cities for a month because there were thousands of rockets raining down on them and nothing Israel could do could stop it. So Israel doesn’t approach the West Bank as a neutral forgetful, you know, everyone else gets to come back to this every 10 years and gauge their moral compass. We have to live here and we have to live in our memories and in our experiences. My little brother watched a bombing take place that killed the daughter of the science minister at the time in, in the second Intifada. I stood at a checkpoint in the West Bank that we had a wounded soldier because a car with enough TNT for five bus bombings blew up at that checkpoint.

And so we’re having a conversation across much more than just, you know, I dunno what linguistic divide. So for the Israelis, the part of Israeli society that wants to separate from the Palestinians for their sake, for my sake, because I’m a progressive and it’s the moral thing to do, or because I’m just in his ordinary Israeli who doesn’t want to deal with this conflict anymore.

Doesn’t want to set. My, my oldest is 11. You know what I mean? I feel like I have seven years to solve this thing before he is the occupation army. Those ordinary Israelis. They don’t have answers. If I pull out of the West Bank, what happens in the West Bank? I’ll give you a hint. 

Mahmoud Abbas is now in the 17th year of a four year term, right? He won’t call elections. And the reason he won’t call elections is that Hamas will win the elections. We have pretty good polling on that. Well, why can’t I pull out of the West Bank? The West Bank is not Gaza. The West Bank is 16 times the size of Gaza and it’s the Highlands overlooking all of my population centers. Withdrawal has been rendered unsafe.

Now, everything I just said is not an objective historical truth that everyone has to now acknowledge. Everything I just said is the most profoundly believed fact about the Palestinian situation and the West Bank situation by the mainstream of Israeli Jews, which I think, a probably educated guesses, is 80% of Israeli Jews.

There are other narratives among the Jews on the left, on the right. There are other narratives among the Palestinians, of course, but that is where Israelis approach this issue from. The West Bank is a temporary thing. We tried to pull out. They didn’t let us because of their own dysfunction because of their own divide, something in Palestinian politics prevents them from being able to reciprocate our withdrawals, not even with peace, we don’t need love. We don’t need joy and we don’t need happiness. All we need is security. They need to leave us alone. They can’t reciprocate with what the Israelis need. 

Yehuda: There’s three holes though, Haviv, there’s three holes. The first is the settlement project. The first is a settlement project, right? It’s one thing to say, Israel has genuine fears that withdrawal from the West Bank or transformation of the conditions will result in a Hamas state.

And it’s a good reason to believe that. Right. And therefore, we can’t do that. So, okay. Now explain the settlement project. The second thing is right. Like once that once you’ve explained, well, maybe I need settlements. Why does the presence of settlements require a ruthless military rule by Israel over the civilian population of the Palestinians?

And the third is where we started, which is how is it all justifiable that Israel turns a blind eye, not towards the actions of its own soldiers, right? But to the actions of its own civilian population in carrying out essentially revenge fantasies against the local population, you would think that because of the whole narrative that you told Israel’s belief in securing, ah, militarily, the West Bank would make Israel hyper conscious of not allowing the narrative to shift around its own culpability vis-a-vis the Palestinian people in the same way that Israel has experienced Israelis experience the culpability of the Palestinians around terror towards Jewish civilians. You would think all of that is a really strong argument for a transformation of certain aspects of the status quo under which the occupation is being governed. And those simply don’t exist.

Haviv: Excellent questions, fundamental questions. I think the most important questions. I don’t I want to argue that anything I’ve just said is in Israeli policy argument for staying in the West Bank. There are, for example, on the left former generals, former heads of the Mossad who say, no, everything I just said is correct.

You still pull out of the West Bank because it is more destructive to stay in the West Bank than to suffer the consequences of withdrawal. And the consequences of withdrawal will be devastating by the way, devastating to them. Because if we get a rocket war of the likes that we’ve seen from Gaza in the last few years, or of what we saw in 2006 in Gaza in Lebanon, if we get that from the West Bank, we have to go back into the West Bank, not to stay, but there’ll be incursions.

There’ll be real war. It will be bitter and it will be horrible and it’ll be more horrible and bitter for the Palestinians than for us. And it’s still good to get out of there because then we won’t control them for another generation and another generation after that, etc. So th th that wasn’t the policy argument.

That was an argument that the Israeli public, the majority of the Israeli public does not feel that it has any answer to your questions. It doesn’t think it knows what’s going to happen in the West Bank. It is deeply confused. It is deeply frustrated. It thinks it is willing to sacrifice, and it has sacrificed.

And there hasn’t yet opened up a window on the other side, not that allows the Israeli sacrifice to end in, you know, perfect conditions for Israel, but that allows it to end in anything but horrible bloodshed. And so that confusion essentially paralyzes the discourse. 

You hear a lot in the Israeli left, how come we never talk about the occupation? Well, that’s a fantastic question because Israelis are still sending their kids to this army, to the, to the, to these operations, to, to, to standing at these checkpoints. How come they’re not talking about it? That’s awfully odd, right? The answer is they just can’t even conceive of, they’re deeply frustrated and confused, and can’t conceive of the solution.

So. Settlements. The simple answer is that is a tribe that is a particular tribe in Israeli politics and Israeli politics are geared. They’re built, they’re structured. The underlying logic, conscious logic behind our electoral system is that no tribe can step on any other tribe. That’s how this electoral system works.

Welcome to the first Arab democracy. I say that a little bit flippantly. There have been Arab democracies. Also, half of Israel is Mizrachi comes from the Arab world. But what I mean is that the basic fundamental tribal way that Arab societies divide themselves are the way our society is divided.

And if you don’t understand that you don’t understand any of the negotiating that happens at the coalition table in the Knesset, right? So the settlements grow, by the way, under labor governments, they grow under prime ministers who talk about them as a disaster and who are negotiating their removal and who carry out their removal.

A prime minister who is withdrawing settlements is allowing settlements to grow that very week because prime ministers in Israel only control some aspects of government that are held within the orbit of their party or their tribe, and don’t control other aspects. 

And so the Israeli state is governed by this weird hodgepodge coalition of subcultures, that means that nothing never happens consistently or well. Israel is always doing all the things all at once throughout its history. We have interviews that were published a few years ago from the seventies of Yitzchak Rabin when he’s prime minister from 74 to 77 saying, what are these settlers think they’re doing over there in Hebron?

What do they think? It’s not going to end in disaster? How do they think it’s going to end? He of course allowed it all to happen because he had coalitions to deal with. And he had to deal with all the weird fractiousness of Israeli society. So there’s an incapacity on our side. Now that that doesn’t justify, it diagnoses.

You have to have a diagnostic understanding of why the Israelis, even when it is manifestly in their interests, somehow don’t do what they claim to want to do and what they believe themselves to want to do. And what they’re polling suggests is a majority opinion among their population. So that’s why do settlements grow?

Why is there a blind eye turned to these violent youth. I just, I think you and I are going to meet in the same place. This is a lacuna of democracy. They are not represented, the Palestinians. They don’t have anyone to go to. At the end of the day, when a local military commander makes his decisions, he has to decide whether to physically go and fist fight with Israelis or ignore the situation.

And the Palestinians who are hurt don’t have any influence over, over his life or his authority or the structures that he is answerable to. There’s, there’s no way around it. It’s a 54 year occupation. It doesn’t stop being an occupation. And by the way, the right says things like Naftali Bennett says, “You can’t be an occupier in your Homeland.”

Let’s imagine that we have perfect rights to this land. And it’s ours completely a hundred percent in some imaginary legal world where these, where they decide these things, the people that we’re not giving citizenship to. And then we ourselves, as Israel, as a state are applying the protections of belligerent occupation while denying that the land is occupied. 

Those people are occupied, either they’re occupied or they get citizenship. I want to just, as just a data point on this. You’ve heard of Khan al-Ahmar, the little Bedouin hamlet on road one from Jerusalem down to Jericho Khan al-Ahmar is a fascinating case study. 

They are Bedouin who have settled down in that spot at least since the seventies. And there have been right wing court cases demanding that they be removed because they built their little shacks there illegally. Now they can’t get permits to build because no one in the institutions of the Israeli military governor of the West Bank feels that they have to answer their requests because they don’t have representation that the army is answerable to et cetera, everything we just said. So they can’t get permission to build. They build illegally and right-wing advocacy groups like Regavim, sue to get them removed. And the people of Khan al-Ahmar have done something brilliant. These Bedouin whose Hebrew is poor are incredibly intelligent politicians and they have played the Israeli system to the hilt.

And that’s why Netanyahu promised over the last 10 years, something like 15 times to the settlement movement leaders, that he would remove this hamlet and has been unable to remove it. They have said, listen, I cannot leave this place willingly or Palestinians will turn against me.

Bedouins occupy a very marginalized place in Palestinian society as well. They’re not just marginalized by the Israeli Jewish presence there, they’re marginalized very much by Palestinian society. If I cross the street because the Israeli army asked me to, they will kill me. Someone in Palestinian society will kill me. So, if you want me to leave this place, you want me to leave this little village on the side of the highway, that’s bothering somebody, you give me an Israeli ID card. I will move to the Negev. I will move to Arad. Coincidentally, they don’t say it out loud, but then they also get the Israeli welfare state.

I will leave this place. And you could do with this place whatever you want. But give me that. Give me that. Why do they want it? Because then no Palestinian will come and kill us, right? That’s a, that’s a, a way for them to say to the Israelis, how dare you make demands of me if you don’t protect me, how dare you demand responsibilities, but not rights. So you, you can’t escape it. It’s not going to go away. In something like, I think it was in 2014, but Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech, an absolutely fascinating speech that was completely ignored by the global media, in which he said, I’m paraphrasing.

I can actually get that speech for anyone interested, in which he said, maybe this idea of a Palestinian state is not workable and maybe we have to start thinking of other options. My boss at the Times of Israel, David Horvitz was the only journalist I know of who noticed this very quiet speech sort of set in the sidelines of something.

And he wrote an opinion piece that said, Mr. Netanyahu, you know, welcome to the party. Well, welcome to a whole new conversation, right. Is that what you think, is that what’s happening? There is this danger if Israel no longer even pretends to want a Palestinian state. That Israel no longer has answers to all the questions that you’re asking.

And is that where Israel stands? We’re in this coalition now that is an extreme version of what every coalition in Israel’s history has been, which is to say it is completely unable to move in any direction on any issue that anyone in the coalition disagrees with, but that’s been basically the situation of all Israeli coalition since Israel was born.

And so it hasn’t been able to tackle fundamental issues, again, not just the question of the Palestinians, but also fundamental issues like writing a constitution, you know, or writing you know, the rules around, you know, we don’t have a right to equality in Israeli law. You can sue for discriminate. So we do have a right to equality, but it’s not written into law because nobody could agree on how to write it in a way that doesn’t take away from the Haredim their rabbinate. Right? So we are a society that just has this profound incapacity to solve major large profound problems and questions.

And this is maybe the biggest one. And when it comes to the rights of Palestinians, I don’t think Israel has answers. And I think we need to be talking about that internally, by the way, I don’t mean that Israel doesn’t have answers to answers to Amnesty. Israel doesn’t know what it’s saying to itself, and it’s stuck in this sense of incapacity and frustration and really it believes it is unable to solve this problem. 

Yehuda: Right. So that’s an interesting place for us to conclude. I’ll ask you one last question. So it strikes me that given how quickly Israel repudiates the accusations of apartheid, right? Basically dispenses with them, dismisses them, accuses them of being an antisemitic. 

Those accusations of apartheid do very little to actually agitate the Israeli public. If anything, all it does is affirm “everybody in the world hates us.” Therefore, any moral arguments that they’re making, we can’t hear. I tend to view that as the main reason why I don’t find the terminology that useful, because I think it helps people far away to have like a coherent story that they tell for themselves about it, but it doesn’t actually change the reality on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians.

But I genuinely am curious if you think there is anything that can happen from the outside that would actually help Israelis come to the conclusion that they have more agency at their disposal to move beyond their own constraints, to actually address these as political and social problems that need to be remedied.

What’s another way of saying, it’s not going to be Amnesty International releasing a report that calls Istael apartheid, but it might be something that comes from the international community that helps Israel to facilitate that process of, of bringing about its own repair.

Haviv: I’m going to say something mean. I don’t think we have even begun to do the most obvious and basic and simple things that a peace process involves. And I am an Israeli. So please forgive me, dear listener. Don’t take it too seriously. Take it with a very large grain of salt. 

I blame the Palestinians. And the reason I blame the Palestinians. I blame something very specific in Palestinian discourse. For a century, when you follow Palestinian discussions around Amin al-Husseini the leader of the Palestinians and the thirties and forties, and then you follow the discourse around during the Algeria war in the fifties and sixties. And you read Yasser Arafat’s speech at the UN in 1974, where he really laid out this vision.

There has been this Palestinian interpretation of Zionism and of the Jews of Israel that has been very consistent and Islamists and using Islamist vocabulary, and Marxist, using Marxist revolutionary vocabulary, have said it in different ways, but they’ve always said the same thing. And this is the Palestinian understanding of us.

And it is an understanding that says something like Zionism is French Algeria. It is a colonialist enterprise of people who, if you push them and push them and push them, they will eventually leave. They are convinced of it. They’re convinced in the forties, they talked about us as agents of empire.

And it made sense. We work very closely with the British empire to create institutions and settle Jews in this country. And then in the seventies we were colonialist and that it was, made sense to call this colonialist. The colonialists were all dismantling everywhere in the third world.

And so that was the hope and aspiration for us. And they called us all these names. These strategies always failed because they were, they ended up being for Palestinians, a way of avoiding, an absolutely excruciating and galling reality, which is that, you know, the Jews of Israel are essentially refugees who have nowhere else to go.

And they came to Israel. You know, when you opened up for Jews, multiple options for migration from Russia or from Iraq, or from Germany, most did not go to Israel ever. The three-year and a half, 4 million Jews who came to Israel over the last century, had nowhere else to go. Literally, literally had nowhere else to go.

And so the Palestinians have had these campaigns against us that it tried to name us and define it. We are a colonialist, settler colonialist enterprise. Well, what’s the mother country we can all go back to? The French Algerians, a million and a half French Algerians in 1962 pack up their homes. They’d lived in Algeria for 132 years.

And then in 1962, they pack up their homes in a million and a half people go back to France. Where’s our France, right? We are settler colonialists, but with, with nowhere to go, what does it matter that you called me a settler colonialist? You, you, you had this fantasy in your head, this moral cartoon running in your head, but you haven’t dealt with me.

Whenever they understood us, as you know, we were agents of the British empire until the British turned against us. And guess what? Then we turned to the Soviets for help. And when the Soviets turned against us, we turned to the French. And then when they turned against us, after 67, we turned to the Americans, who, whose empire we agents up, right?

The Palestinians have had theories of us that have served as ways to avoid engaging us and seeing us for what we are, which is a people, a real nation with nowhere else to go. Our story is a little strange. Our Homeland was a place where we had to come back to, but that’s what it is. And we behave that way and we respond that way.

And so all of their strategies to dismantle us into de-legitimize us, you can call me, if you call me apartheid as a way of scaring me into giving the Palestinians the rights they deserve in the West Bank, assuming I, as a country, don’t leave the West Bank. It does have to end with Palestinian rights. If you’re trying to scare me to get me to do that either to pull out or to give them rights.

In other words, to force a decision, you know, great. Maybe your tactic will work. Maybe your tactic won’t work. But if what apartheid means is Israel as a Jewish state, the law of return is illegitimate, Jews don’t get a state, they’re not categorically. The kind of thing that gets to have a state, Zionism is imperialism, colonialism, whatever, if that’s what it means.

If it’s trying to push pigeonhole me into, you know, one of those intellectual categories, not because it’s intellectually serious, but because you’re trying to say that as apartheid could be dismantled and the south African people remained, as Nazi-ism could be dismantled the German people remained as, you know, colonialism could be dismantled in Algeria, the people remain.

So Israel will be dismantled and Palestine will remain because Palestine is the authentic thing. If you’re sending up that kind of intellectual structure,  you are pushing the Palestinians into one more round of the same strategy of trying to define us away with vocabulary that’s going to fail them. We have nowhere to go.

They have to talk to us. The Palestinian national movement has not engaged Zionism, has not engaged Israeli politics. If you go to people like Martin Luther King, you go to people like Mohandas Gandhi. They had strategies that deeply they would, they were deeply strategic thinkers. We think of them as sort of moral paragons, but long before they were moral paragons, they were very shrewd tacticians, Martin Luther King chose the cities he marched in, Selma, Birmingham, because of their violent police forces to get that violence so that he could hack the psychology of white America. He engaged the other side. He tried to interpret it, to understand it, to affect it. Gandhi spoke constantly, everything he did. The, the, the cotton boycott, everything he did, was addressing British public opinion. 

There is no such campaign among the Palestinians to engage forcefully in mean ways. It doesn’t have to be gently and politely Israeli public opinion is really public opinion doesn’t exist. Amnesty’s new apartheid. It’s not just Amnesty. It’s human rights watch. And it’s B’Tselem, they all got together in a room and coordinated this, and that’s, right, obvious to everyone, but the theory behind it, it’s basically sparked by Palestinian advocates, activists, and it’s the same old Palestinian strategy. Now we’ll call them a new thing that falls apart and then they’ll fall apart for us.

So there’s a tragedy here and it’s a tragedy of non engaging Israeli politics. Israeli politics is shattered by the way. The second Intifada, the election before voter turnout was something like 78%. It had never been below 77% for decades. Israeli voter turnout was always very, very high. 

Since the second Intifada the turnout, the election right after it was something like 62% and then 65, and back down to 63, we lost something like 16% of the electorate overnight that just don’t, no longer voted. We still haven’t recovered. And we have political parties, Kadima was 28 seats and in one election cycle dropped to two, it was a quarter of the Knesset, and then evaporated. 

Likud in 2006 is 12 seats, today it’s 30 something. Israeli politics have become this weird wild shifting. Israeli voters are unmoored from old understandings, and there was, the second Intifada shattered Israeli politics. Palestinians, if I was, if someone appointed me advisor to the Palestinian national movement, when I would tell them was Amnesty UK is not going to rescue you.

The Israelis have a real problem. Address it, by the way, they have a real problem internally with even making decisions about things that fundamentally affect them and have nothing to do with you. Nevermind things that have a lot to do with you, address it, engage them, become a player in Israeli politics.

That is what Gandhi did. That was what Martin Luther King did. You want to start taking names from history of successful campaigns? Take the ones that acknowledged that the other side existed and, and engage with it in profound and tactical and serious ways. That’s what I have to say about apartheid. And that’s what I have to say about how you move the needle.

The ball is in the Palestinians court, even though they’re weak. And even though Israel can’t even reign in these little, I don’t want to say curse words. Um, uh, Jewish terrorists, who every Israeli is ashamed of, especially their own parents. Even though Israel is incapable even of doing that. Or maybe because of that, the Palestinians have a capacity to profoundly influence Israel and they’re dropping the ball on that because of this vision of Israel as something that ultimately is a figment and can be just wished away. 

Yehuda: Well, thank you very much to all of you for listening to our show this week and special thank you to my guest Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel. 

Identity crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M. Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by Socalled.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs, to find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at

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The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics