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‘Open your eyes’: Ex-Israeli diplomats warn of dictatorship as Netanyahu visits UK

Former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa tell MEE that the fate of Israelis and Palestinians under the occupation is in the balance
Mounted police are deployed as Israelis block a main road to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, 1 March (AP)
Mounted police are deployed as Israelis block a main road to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, 1 March (AP)

For all their careers as diplomats, Alon Liel and Ilan Baruch advocated Israel’s case. Both served as Israeli ambassadors in South Africa, and Liel rose to be director-general of the foreign service.

Today, they are using all their diplomatic skills to destroy their government’s case before the international community, and last week were in London ahead of an expected visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.

Liel and Baruch are on a mission: to alert MPs and British Jews who support Israel to what is happening. They say the fate of 5.3 million Palestinians under occupation and the fate of Israeli Jews are both in the balance as Israel lurches towards an openly declared and law-based Jewish supremacy.

'You are either pregnant or not, I don’t see any possibility of a compromise'

- Alon Liel, former diplomat

Back in Israel, hundreds of thousands of people are massing in protests as Netanyahu’s government, buttressed by far-right parties, attempts to override the authority of the courts.

The Netanyahu government’s bills include clauses that will allow Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to override the Supreme Court by a simple majority of 61 votes out of 120 MPs. It will also give the coalition lawmakers de facto authority to appoint judges.

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This is not business as usual, the former diplomats claim.

It’s not just another political storm whipped up by a prime minister in his sixth term of office. And it will not fizzle out in compromise as US President Joe Biden so fervently wishes. On Monday, protestors rejected the slight softening of the government’s judiciary bill, which is set to overhaul the powers of the courts.

What is going on in Israel is an existential battle between democracy and dictatorship, Liel told Middle East Eye.

“You are either pregnant or not, I don’t see any possibility of a compromise. And even if some of the politicians associated with Netanyahu add one clause or remove another, the public will not accept it. It cannot be done,” he said.

Liel described the situation as an "all-out clash" between democratic leaders and a dictatorship. "Only one of the sides will win. I cannot tell you who."

A danger to Palestinians

No bad thing, Palestinians under occupation might be tempted to think. Under a “democratic” Israeli government led by a centrist prime minister, last year was the deadliest for the occupied West Bank since the Second Intifada, the majority of Palestinian victims being unarmed. 

According to an Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, less than one percent of soldiers accused of harming Palestinians between 2017 and 2021 were charged. If this is how Israeli courts should function, then Palestinians could be justified in thinking that liberals in Israel can throw their indignation in the garbage bin.

But, argue these former diplomats, Palestinians under occupation would be gravely underestimating the danger they are in.

The coalition agreement between six parties that set up the most extreme government in Israeli history does two things that fundamentally change the rules of the game for Palestinians under occupation.

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It explicitly declares exclusive rights of self-determination for Jews in the entirety of the land occupied by Israel, and it makes the occupation permanent. By granting a civilian politician, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, enforcement powers over illegal construction, settlement planning and land allocation in the West Bank, it breaches the Geneva Accords which say occupations are temporary and have to be run by the military.

It is the same principle of international law which Nato is using to demand the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, Baruch adds.

The former Israeli diplomats say both moves are the precursor to Israel declaring itself a Jewish supremacist state in name and law, as envisaged by Smotrich in his 2017 far-right manifesto. On Sunday Smotrich said: “There’s no such thing as a Palestinian people.”

South African apartheid was not just about defending whites from the black majority, Liel recalls: “It was about establishing the supremacy of whites for the good of all. Exactly that is now happening in Israel, where to be called a Jewish supremacist is deemed a badge of honour for at least one half of the country.”

Baruch adds: “This gives the Palestinians three options: Either to accept inferior status so that they should not expect any right to vote or be represented in the Knesset. Or accept emigration, assisted by the Israeli government to other countries. Or if opting for resistance, they will face the IDF crushing them.”

Weaponising antisemitism

Already tens of radical draft laws have passed their first reading and on Thursday morning the first law was voted through in its entirety, met in Israel with a general strike.

Liel says: “So my message to Britain and British Jews is ‘Open your eyes. If this agreement goes through, a big part of the Jewish community will have difficulty of identifying with Israel as they did for the last 75 years’.”

In their analysis, the occupation changed the nature of Israel. "We think the world needs to wake up to a situation whereby aggressive occupation demands the transformation of Israel into an illegal, authoritarian regime,” Baruch said.

 'The government of Israel is manipulating the term antisemitism to avoid criticism for the policies of Israel'

- Alon Liel

Liel tore into the way Israel and its supporters shield themselves from criticism by alleging their critics are antisemitic. “The government of Israel is manipulating the term antisemitism to avoid criticism for the policies of Israel.”

He pointed to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, labelling “ridiculous” seven out of its 11 controversial examples that are expected to be followed.

One of them states that it is antisemitic to accuse “Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations”.

“What did we do as diplomats? What is the Jewish Agency doing? We demand loyalty from the Jewish world. We expect Jews to come to Israel. We subsidise them coming,” Liel said.

“When there was a clash between Israel and the United States administration, we enlisted the Jewish community to be on our side and to demonstrate, even to go to the Congress and demonstrate. So, the issue of dual loyalty is created by Israel. So now it’s called antisemitism. We created it.”

Ilan Baruch, Alon Liel and Susie Becher of the Policy Working Group in London (Twitter)
Ilan Baruch, Alon Liel and Susie Becher of the Policy Working Group in London (Twitter)

Baruch resigned on principle from the Israeli foreign ministry in 2011, explaining in a series of interviews that Israel had dropped its decade-long commitment to a two-state solution. 

Liel, former director general of the foreign ministry, played a key role in a campaign to get the UK parliament to demand recognition of a Palestinian state, a move that prompted other European parliaments to do likewise.

Today they are members of the Policy Working Group (PWG), a collection of Israeli former diplomats academics, journalists and political activists who advocate for peace between Israel and Palestine based on the two-state solution.

Susie Becher, PWG communications director, said their aim was to persuade the international community to exert “some degree of accountability on Israel”. All members are in favour of the current investigation by the International Criminal Court into alleged war crimes by Israel in 2014. 

Becher suggested the European Union could respond in kind to Israel’s decision to declare EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell persona non grata for a column he published declaring his vision for peace.

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