- Interview by
- Jordan Bollag
Last month, despite unprecedented mass protests, strike threats, and military resignations, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel passed a controversial judicial reform law through the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions. Dubbed a “judicial coup,” the law is seen by Israeli liberals as an existential threat to Israeli democracy, and it has intensely divided Jewish Israeli society. But “pro-democracy” protests against Netanyahu exhibit a glaring omission: the Palestinians, for whom Israeli democracy has never really existed.
Sami Abu Shehadeh is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, a former member of the Knesset, and the leader of the political party Balad (the National Democratic Assembly). While Palestinian citizens of Israel face institutional discrimination and the state openly proclaims itself “not a state of all its citizens,” Palestinian citizens have voting rights and are much better off than their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The latter live under military occupation, displacement, blockades, and frequent military attacks, and have no rights at all under the Israeli state that rules them.
For Jacobin, Jordan Bollag spoke with Shehadeh about the current political moment in Israel and how Palestinians feel about a conflict over an Israeli “democracy” that has never truly included them.
What is going on in Israel? What’s your reaction to the passage of the judicial reform law?
What’s happening in Israel is a very complicated situation, but those who are reading it as something new are far from reality. What we are seeing now are the results of at least two decades of deterioration toward the fascist right, and the extreme national religious Jewish groups controlling nearly all the important decision-making processes in Israel. We are also seeing deterioration of political discourse in Israel into a fanatical, religious way of reading reality and dealing with it.
There has been a long process of religious national extremists — Zionists — taking control of all the important decision-making processes and being overrepresented in all the Israeli ministries, in all the important places in the Israeli government. These new elites are fighting with the old elites; the old elites that established the State of Israel were liberal Zionists. From a Palestinian point of view, both of them are settler colonialist, and both of their agendas are built on Jewish supremacy.
The struggle between them is about what kind of Jewish supremacy they want to lead in this part of the world. The old elites want to have Jewish supremacy built on race, but which deals in a liberal way with the Jewish people who live here, and the new elites want to lead a Jewish supremacy that is established on a fanatical national religious discourse. They are struggling over the identity of the apartheid state they want to lead in Israel.
We’ve seen massive protests and threats of strikes and military resignations in response to the judicial reforms. How do you, as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, fit into this oppositional pro-democracy movement?
We’re not part of the protest movement, because its political demands are very far from our political demands. The old elites, who are trying to gain back control of the state, do not want to build a state and society on the values of justice and equality for all. The only thing they want to do is to go back a few months before the last elections in Israel. From their point of view, the old racist apartheid regime, as long as it only destroyed Palestinian lives, was bearable. It was something that they could live with.
For us, as the victims of this racist apartheid regime, we don’t have any good past in Israeli history that we want to go back to. Our political agenda is totally different. We are aiming at building a better future, which is built on the values of human rights — mainly on justice and equality for all the people who are living in this part of the world.
We want a serious change inside the Israeli government, to change it from a state that is built on race, a Jewish state, into a normal democracy that is built on justice and equality for all, that deals equally with all citizens, whether they are Jewish or not. We are the indigenous population in this part of the world, and we are not Jewish. We are 20 percent of the population of this state, and we want to have a better future for all, for Jews and for us. We believe that we should have a political project different than what has existed until today because both sides — those who are for the judicial changes and those who are against the judicial changes — each want a system of Jewish supremacy.
The Arab Palestinian minority that represents 20 percent of the population in the State of Israel — it is not just that we are not part of the protest movement, but that we are not [seriously involved in Israeli institutions at all]. If you check all the ministries since the establishment of the Israeli state, we have barely existed. If you check all the heads of these ministries, we were never represented there. If you look at any important decision-making process that has to do with planning the present and the future of the state and society in Israel, we are not there. Not in the media, not in the culture, not in sports, not in anything.
When the mainstream media talks about the pro-democracy movement, they’ve mostly focused on Netanyahu and his personal corruption as the reason for the judicial overhaul. But it’s also become clear that the reforms have been pushed by ideologues like Justice Minister Yariv Levin specifically to stop the court from protecting Palestinian rights, to facilitate more legal settlements, to block Arabs from Jewish neighborhoods and Palestinians from Israeli highways.
On the other hand, the Israeli Supreme Court very rarely protects Palestinian rights anyway. Given this reality, how do Palestinians navigate the current moment?
You are right: the Israeli high courts, in all the important big issues that have to do with the Palestinian question — we did not have justice there. But still, we don’t want the situation to get worse. Those who will be affected first and foremost by this weakening of the judicial system in Israel will be the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line: Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinians who are living under the occupation of 1967.
I’ll give you a few examples. First, I am the head of a political party called the National Democratic Assembly [Balad]. Since we established our party — because our main agenda is changing Israel from a Jewish state into a normal democracy, a state of all its citizens — all the Zionist parties have been against us. Under Israeli law, the Elections Committee is composed of members of the Knesset. So every election they ban us from running in the elections! We used to apply to the high courts, and the high courts would give us the right to at least compete in the elections. With the new judicial reform, we will not be able to do that.
In any political system, there are checks and balances that can defend individual citizens or groups against oppression. Usually the main thing is a constitution. In Israel, there is hardly a constitution, so there is nothing that can save or defend our rights. Another important form of checks and balances is having different systems [e.g., the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary] balancing each other. In Israel, this also does not exist, because the government and the parliament are the same.
The only place that we could seek justice, or at least reduce the system’s oppression of us, is through the high court in Israel. The new judicial changes want to remove a lot of authority from the high courts. So we’ll not be able to do the minimum we did before. We did not win all of what we wanted there, but at least we had a place that we could try to defend ourselves. If the judicial reform passes, we will not have even this minimum.
These reforms surround the court’s powers in interpreting the “reasonableness” of laws. But the court has only needed this power because Israel does not have a written constitution, which may be difficult for an American audience to understand. Why doesn’t Israel have a constitution, and what are the implications of this?
Israel does not have a constitution for a few important reasons. The Orthodox religious groups in the old times dealt with Zionism as a secular movement: they accused Zionists of infidelity, of not believing in God, and they did not think that there could be a consensus between themselves and the Zionists. Writing a constitution would’ve wrote the religious groups totally out from the state and society at that time. So in order to keep them as part of the project, the founders did not write a constitution.
This is one reason. Another important reason is that the State of Israel, from the beginning, was built on Jewish supremacy. [Israel’s founders] could not write a democratic constitution because they knew from the beginning that they were building a system on Jewish supremacy that discriminates against 20 percent of the population, who are considered the indigenous people in this part of the world — the Arab Palestinian minority.
Another important thing is that after the establishment of the Israeli state, Israel put that 20 percent of the population under military control. Imagine a state controlling 20 percent of its citizens with a military system; this could not work with a constitution.
Nowadays, when we are talking about a democratic constitution, unfortunately we don’t have partners among the Zionists. The vast majority of the Zionist parties are ready to compromise on different systems, but all of them must maintain, according to the Zionist parties, Jewish supremacy. Keeping any kind of Jewish supremacy means that the system cannot have equality among its citizens. No equality, no democracy — it’s as simple as that. The Zionists were quite aware that they had a problem with the value of equality from the beginning.
In the wake of all this turmoil, we’re seeing high-tech companies moving assets out of the “start-up nation” or leaving entirely, and the Bank of Israel is warning of economic risks from the judicial overhaul. With assets leaving the country, the Netanyahu government has ironically accomplished what the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been working toward for years. And in the New York Times, Bret Stephens lamented Israel’s “self-inflicted wound” as more damaging than BDS.
Does this instability in the Israeli state present opportunities for Palestinian movements, and is there an upside to all of this?
I don’t think there’s an upside to all this. There’s a proverb that we use: the train has already left the station. What we are seeing inside the Israeli state and society is quite similar to Italy on the eve of fascists controlling the state. Unfortunately, there is no serious, rational democratic movement among the Jewish majority that can salvage the situation and lead us to a better place. Of course, on the margins, there are great activists — great people trying to build something better — but these are totally marginal, and their numbers are very small.
Is there an opportunity for the Palestinians here? I’m seeing a very big opportunity. I think that what’s happening now is helping the world to see what we have been warning them about for decades, is helping the world to see the truth, to see the real face of the State of Israel, to see the apartheid system that was built in this part of the world, to see the racist elements of the Zionist project, to see the way Israel has been dealing with Palestinians for decades.
Unfortunately, when the victims were Palestinian, the world did not care much. Now, when this system is also affecting Jewish lives, the world is talking about it much more. It’s important — it’s our duty now as Palestinians to again go and explain what has been happening here for decades, and all the evils that have been ongoing for a long time. Also, it is our duty to open a horizon and give hope for a political project that can build a better place for everyone. This political project must be built on human rights and on the values of justice and equality for all. I know that we are very far from reaching such a vision, but at least there should be people who are opening this horizon to Arabs and Jews alike.
Do you think this moment could serve as a catalyst for a Palestinian mass movement that fights for real democracy?
A Palestinian mass movement with also the small number of the people I mentioned before — our Jewish friends who do not want to have a political system built on Jewish supremacy, people who believe in justice, people who believe in equality for all and who don’t want to be racist and don’t want to live in a racist system. I think it should be the work of all of us together, to open this horizon for a much bigger group. But those who will be leading it probably will be the Palestinian minority here, because as victims of this racist system for a long time, we have the [greatest] interest in making change.
As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, you are a second-class citizen of a state that openly claims not to be a state of all its citizens. Still, you enjoy rights that millions of Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza do not. How are the different classifications of Palestinians experiencing this moment differently? What are their different concerns with the judicial overhaul, and what can be done to unite your movement inside the Green Line in Israel with movements in the West Bank and Gaza?
The State of Israel has developed five different systems of apartheid. You have the situation in Gaza: two million people in the biggest prison in the world put under siege for this long time and with all their difficulties and problems. Then you have another system controlling my people in the West Bank, three and a half million people under occupation who are not allowed to vote, who don’t have basic rights including freedom of movement — we’re talking about people in the twenty-first century who don’t have the right to move.
You have another kind of apartheid system dealing with four hundred thousand Palestinians who are considered “residents” living in East Jerusalem, but they are not citizens, and they don’t have the right to vote. Then you have another system that controls the Palestinians within the State of Israel: the 20 percent of the population who are considered citizens and who have the right to vote, but who are discriminated against in all fields of life. And then you have another political system that controls the lives of Jews all over — in the settlements, inside the Green Line.
It Is a very complicated situation. We should be able to collaborate with all the Palestinians that seek the same as we do: those who want to have a normal democratic system in this part of the world that will deal equally with all of its people, no matter if they are Palestinians or Jews or foreigners or anyone. The state would be neutral: it will not deal with the citizens according to their ethnic identity or religious identity or any other identity. People here should have their rights because of their citizenship.
Among the Palestinian people, not everybody agrees on this, but there are big groups that want this, and they can be partners in our struggle. Anyone who believes in justice and equality for all can be our political partner, whether they are in the United States, in Europe, in China, or in historical Palestine, whether they are Palestinian Arabs or Jewish. What counts here is if they can be partners in a democratic project in this part of the world.
There are now rumors that the court may strike down the judicial reform law and that, if it does, Netanyahu may refuse to abide by the ruling. Do you think that, if this happens, there will be a major “constitutional” crisis?
First, it’s very important to remember that what has passed until now is a very small part of the whole judicial revolution that the fascists controlling the State of Israel now want to carry out. This is only the start. So we are in the middle of a very big hurricane whose end we do not see; we don’t know exactly where is it leading. There are two parts in society struggling for and against these changes, and the situation is deteriorating very fast.
It’s hard to know where will it lead exactly. There are different scenarios. The army in Israel is involved in everything; this is a very militaristic society. Will the army decide to be a more proactive player [and try] a little military coup? We don’t know. What about the economic elites? We are not sure of those who are supporting Netanyahu. What are their red lines? Will they continue supporting him in everything, or might he have a serious problem in his coalition? It’s a parliament of 120 seats, and he has 64; if five members turn against him, the whole situation will change dramatically.
The most important thing, in my point of view, is that unfortunately the political discourse in Israel is totally controlled by fanatical, national religious groups who are using irrational discourse, which is built on religious myths and religious narratives. It’s hard to discuss things with them rationally.
If you think that the Netanyahu government might fall, whether in the next election or sooner, do you worry that Israeli liberals and the international community will “go back to brunch” and everything will go back to business as usual — no more concerns about Israeli democracy, and Palestinians will be forgotten?
If we have the elections, we don’t know what the results will be, but one scenario is what you have been discussing now. Unfortunately, I think that the majority of the world is dealing with Palestinians in a racist way. They don’t see us as equal human beings. They are more interested with what happens to the Jewish people. They are forgetting that there are victims of this Zionist project, and we are paying the price.
At the same time, I think that the gaps between the two sides in Israel are irreversible. This is a very old disagreement between religious and secular groups within the Zionist movement, and I think that the gaps between them have been deepened a lot in the last few months.
It will need a lot of time if there will be any chance to fix it. I think that the only positive path out of all that’s happening here, not just with the judicial issue . . . what we should be thinking about is a historical compromise between the two peoples living in this part of the world, a historical compromise that will guarantee the rights of both sides and give a political solution for the crazy conflict that has been going on all this time. The historical compromise must be built on mutual respect and acknowledging both groups: each group should acknowledge the rights of the other, as individuals and as a group, to live and develop here on the values of justice and equality for all. Without a serious democratic political project, we will continue in this vicious circle of violence for a long time.
Anything else to add?
Now we have decided in the National Democratic Assembly, my party, to open a frank, clear, and respectful dialogue with our Jewish friends and those who are interested in developing a serious dialogue on democracy and the meaning of democracy, on the values of justice and equality for all, on our political project, and also on thinking about a democratic constitution. We are starting this now; we will start the first such seminar in Jaffa on August 13, but then we’ll be also having such seminars in Haifa and other cities, to start building a group of citizens who believe in a civil society and in a democratic state and are ready to consider a political solution that is built not on supremacy but on equality.