Former Ambassadors Call It Like They See It
Apartheid in Israel is controversial when it comes to contemporary discussions of the country. It wouldn’t be surprising to encounter a litany of hurriedly offered reasons why the concept is not applicable to the country’s circumstances. (Especially on the improbable occasion the topic does come up in polite, pro-Israel company.) And it’s not difficult to understand why Israel’s supporters are made uncomfortable by the term.
A system of rule that is inherently unequal and discriminatory is anathema to a free and democratic society. Systematic inequality and discrimination should not be permitted, much less condoned, in a civilized, enlightened country that espouses democratic ideals.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has maintained a parliamentary democracy as its system of government. Yet, it has become impossible to argue that Israeli policies governing Jewish settler and Palestinian communities in the West Bank are appropriately equal, fair, or just. In fact, the disparity is quite striking.
And that’s not just a fringe opinion.
Is Israel an Apartheid State? Calling It What It Is
“For over half a century, Israel has ruled over the occupied Palestinian territories with a two-tiered legal system, in which, within the same tract of land in the West Bank, Israeli settlers live under Israeli civil law while Palestinians live under military law. This system is one of inherent inequality… Settlements are built and expanded at the expense of Palestinian communities, which are forced onto smaller and smaller tracts of land.”
If you’re expecting these words to be ascribed to some radical, far-left activist group, you may be surprised. These words, published on an independent South African news blog, belong to former senior members of Israel’s foreign service.
And not just any senior members. They belong to Ilan Baruch and Alon Liel.
What International Law Says
Dr. Liel happens to be a former Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And both men have observed first-hand the results of apartheid laws and inequality in official government policy during their service as Israeli ambassadors to South Africa.
In their June 2021 GroundUp post, Baruch and Liel conclude that Israel’s “occupation is not temporary, and there is not political will in the lsraeli government to bring about its end.” Their words echo and reference an April report from Human Rights Watch, which found that Israeli policies in the West Bank now meet the legal definition of apartheid under international law.
“Israel is the sole sovereign power that operates in this land, and it systematically discriminates on the basis of nationality and ethnicity. Such a reality is, as we saw ourselves, apartheid,” write the former ambassadors.
More recently, a former Attorney General of Israel, Michael Ben-Yair, went a step further to say that policies in Israel-proper, not just the West Bank, amount to apartheid.
“The apartheid regime is in all areas controlled by Israel, between the sea and the Jordan River,” said Ben-Yair in remarks translated from Hebrew. “The distinction… between democratic Israel and the West Bank that it controls is wrong.”
Reconsidering the Status Quo
When Israel’s own ambassadors and premier legal authorities are using the “A” word to describe West Bank policy, it might be time to seriously ponder the implications. Perhaps it might even be time to rethink how best to help the Jewish state grapple with the harsh responsibilities of self-governance.
In doing so, we may want to once again follow the words of Baruch and Leil. They encourage us to “work towards building a future of equality, dignity, and security for Palestinians and Israelis alike.”