Speaking to Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio, Gideon Levy, columnist at Israeli newspaper Haaretz, provides insight into Israel’s recent elections and the direction his native land is headed (Gideon Levy interview, The Sunday Edition, CBC Radio, 29 March 2015). Below is a transcribed version of the interview:
Michael Enright: Before we break out details of the election and the aftermath, just give me your initial take on what happened during the election.
Gideon Levy: I think the picture is quite clear now, and I’m happy it’s so clear. Israel is going for more and more nationalistic, right-wing, militaristic, and sometimes racist directions, and those elections reflect it very well. Benjamin Netanyahu is not the most beloved Israeli politician, by all means not, but he found the secret. First you spread fears over the years, and then you present yourself as the one and the only one who can save the nation from those existential threats. He did it systematically, and he won again.
Enright: In 2009, he was in favour of statehood for the Palestinians, then he was against it, and now he says he’s for it again. Where does he stand on statehood?
Levy: Benjamin Netanyahu never stood for a two-state solution.
Enright: In 2009, he made a speech that it’d be okay, he could live with it.
Levy: Sure, sure this was the lip-service when he still was afraid and scared from President Obama who first came then to power, and he saw that he must do something—at least say something. He never meant it then, and how do I know, I mean, who am I to judge him? Look at his performances. Did he ever do one thing to promote it? Not at all. Did he do many things to sabotage it, like building more settlements and try to sabotage any kind of negotiations with the Palestinians? Yes. So he never meant to do it, and I’m very, very happy that this masquerade came now to its end. By the way, I’ll tell you more than this: no Israeli Prime Minister before him meant to really implement the two-state solution. None of them.
Enright: Going back to Ben-Gurion?
Levy: Ben-Gurion was before the occupation. Going back to Yitzhak Rabin and to Shimon Peres and to Ariel Sharon and all the others.
Enright: What about Netanyahu’s apology to the White House? He said he is sorry; he has backtracked on both the comments about the wild Arabs flocking to the polls and on two states. Do you believe him?
Levy: No, this is a lip-service, and also President Obama doesn’t believe him and rightly so. But I think the coming two years will be tough for Netanyahu.
Enright: But it worked. It worked for him. He got a huge number of votes, clearly suggesting Israelis are very concerned about security, very worried about what you referred to as an existential threat, and that Netanyahu is the Iron Man who can protect them.
Levy: Remember this scene, this unforgettable scene in Charlie Chaplin’s film in which the child is going and throwing stones and breaking shops’ windows, and then comes his father to repair them? Netanyahu did both. First, he threw the stones at the windows, and then he presented himself as the one and only who can repair it. […] That’s the name of the game—that’s the name of the game by the way of many leaders in some other countries as well—first to spread those fears (part of them justified, most of them very exaggerated), and then to claim that I’m the only one to save you.
Enright: How are they exaggerated? If I have a family and I live in Ashdod or Ashkelon in the South, and since Sharon went out of Gaza, the rocket fire increased, why shouldn’t I be worried if I’m Israeli?
Levy: First of all, you should be worried. But you should ask, why do they launch their rockets? You should ask, what other choice do you leave the Palestinians in Gaza living in the biggest jail on Earth? Let’s be frank, whenever they stop launching rockets, the world and Israel is forgetting them. Look now—they’re again forgotten. So they’re launching rockets but let’s remember; those rockets are one of the most primitive weapons on earth. The Qassams. They might hurt, they might kill—no doubt it’s an impossible reality to live under this threat—but it has nothing to do with an existential threat. Don’t forget: Israel is a regional superpower, which possesses any possible weapon on Earth. Don’t tell me that those rockets are an existential threat, and Mr. Netanyahu, if he’s worried so much about this threat […] should open up Gaza.
Enright: Let the pressure off.
Levy: Absolutely. Let them have some kind of perspective, some kind of openness to the world.
Enright: You wrote that Mr. Netanyahu, in getting re-elected would be bad for the occupation, but you also said a vote for Labour and left-leaning coalitions would be worse. How so?
Levy: Absolutely. How so? Because we know the DNA of Labour. Labour is the founding father of the occupation project and of the settlements.
Enright: The founding father of the state, as well.
Levy: The father of the state, and we know what Labour did to put an end to the occupation, namely nothing. The only difference between Labour and Likud is in their rhetoric. Labour speaks softly, Labour speaks about peace, Labour spreads all kinds of clichés and does nothing.
Enright: But what about the relationship between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat—that was doing something, wasn’t it? Oslo was doing something.
Levy: Doing something, but not enough. […] And looking backwards, I tend to believe this was a trap, because if Yitzhak Rabin really meant to go for peace, why for God’s sake didn’t he stop the settlements project, which is the best indication to see what are Israel’s real intentions. Anyone who builds in the settlements does not mean to return this land.
Enright: For you the settlements are the central issue. You described it as the elephant in the room, but then you went on to write that it’s not the settlers who are the primary culprits, but rather those who cultivate their existence.
Levy: Absolutely. We are all settlers. All Israelis carry the same responsibility for the occupation project. You can’t put the blame on the settlers’ shoulders only, because Israel is financing them, Israel is encouraging them, Israel is supporting them and defending them, and they are part and parcel of the Israeli society.
Enright: But when we talk about settlements, it’s really a misnomer. Years ago I was in Ariel, […] that’s not a settlement, it’s a small city, and some Arabs live around it peacefully… that’s not going to go away. These places aren’t going to be torn down.
Levy: First of all, it’s a small city on a stolen land. The villages that you saw around Ariel, those people there possess this land, and this land was taken from them by force. Secondly, it is violating the international law, because international law does not allow [moving] population from the occupier to the occupied land. Israel ignores this international law. And, above all, yes, I tend to agree with you, it will be very hard to evacuate over half a million Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and therefore I am starting to lose hope in the two-state solution.
Enright: Is it your view that it would be an actual political impossibility for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to live peacefully alongside the state of Israel and the settlements?
Levy: First of all, it’s not about peace. First of all, it’s about justice. You know, peace will be the bonus. First of all, we have to achieve some kind of justice to those people who live under a very, very brutal regime for so many years without having any rights. So before we talk about peace, we have to talk about implementing some kind of justice, even a relative justice, not a total one. And once this justice will be implemented one way or the other, the two-state solution or the one-state solution, then I think relations will improve, yes.
Enright: But during those years, Palestinian schoolchildren were learning that Israelis were the Devil, that Israel itself should be destroyed; there are various charters that call for the destruction of the state. That, to me, does not suggest that Palestinians are willing and capable of living peacefully alongside Israelis.
Levy: Take my word: after so many years of covering the occupied territories, and the Palestinians, there is a big majority, not all of them, but […] a big majority of Palestinians who want to live in peace with Israel.
Enright: Including young kids?
Levy: Including young kids if you just change their reality. […] Those young kids, they don’t need much to hate Israel, you know? It’s enough for them to wake up in the middle of the night and to see Israeli soldiers humiliating their parents in front of them. It’s enough for them to get out of their school and to see Israeli soldiers beating some of them, shooting some of them from time to time. If you want to change this, you have first of all to change reality, and then I believe things can change.
Enright: Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister, the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, said to me one time that if he grew up in the camps, in Gaza, that he would probably wind up a terrorist.
Levy: Yes, he said this first, with all the modesty, in a TV interview with me, and there was a big scandal after it, and I highly appreciate his answer because this was the only possible answer to the question. Ehud Barak, as you said, is a decorated fighter. He wouldn’t be a collaborator, he wouldn’t become a pianist, or a poet, he would become a fighter. The Palestinians do not possess an army, and their only way to struggle for their liberty, for their rights, is through what we call terror organizations […]. What other option did we leave them?
Enright: Why does it seem to be so hard or even impossible for people to hold these two things in their minds at once: one, Israel has a right to exist, and a right to freedom from violence from Palestinians, and two, Palestinians deserve better than a miserable, impoverished existence. Can’t both of those ideas be true at the same time?
Levy: Sure, they can be true, but Israel has to give up her dreams about possessing so much real estate.
Enright: But they won’t.
Levy: If they won’t, they’ll have to learn it in the hard way. If they won’t, the world will have to intervene. Is it acceptable that [there is] one piece of land, [and] two people start sharing this piece of land, and one person gets all the resources and all the rights and the other person gets nothing?
Enright: What about following the second Intifada—the bombs on the buses in downtown Jerusalem; the rhetoric, which was violent and anti-Semitic—how are ordinary Israelis supposed to respond to that? You said in one column that we beat our enemies, but we never listen to them. Why would you listen to somebody who wants to destroy you?
Levy: You don’t have to listen to him, but if you want really to […] solve the problem once and for all, you have to ask yourself: what brings a young Palestinian who was not born to kill […] to sacrifice his life and to do those terrible atrocities and crimes against civilians in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, everywhere? If you will not ask why, you will never solve it. […] You have to come to the conclusion that you pushed him to the corner […] in which he has nothing to lose, and if Israel wants really to change this reality, it has to give a chance for the Palestinian people, for the Palestinian young generation, to have some kind of perspective, some kind of future.
Enright: There are a lot of people in the world who hate Jews. Are you playing into their hands?
Levy: I think who plays into their hands is Netanyahu, his policy. When you bomb Gaza, when you show the world those horrifying scenes in Gaza, of hundreds of women and children which are killed for nothing, of thousands of buildings which are destroyed, then you play into the hands of anti-Semitism, not me.
Enright: What did you make of his, call it an invitation, that, after the Charlie Hebdo thing, that the Jews of Europe should make Aliyah to Israel.
Levy: I would like to ask you, 48 hours before, he said that Israel is in an existential threat because of the nuclear bomb of Iran. And within 48 hours all of a sudden this dangerous place which is in existential danger became a rescue place for the Jews of the world?
Enright: I want to get personal, as they say. This is a quote from one of your columns. You said that “I was not brought up in a political family, I was a good Tel Aviv boy, I had good mainstream values, I was totally blind to the occupation.” You described yourself as having been brainwashed. What changed? Was it one event? Was there a Pauline conversion on the road to Ramallah?
Levy: No, it was the fact that I started to travel to the occupied territories, first by incident, and then, more and more so systematically. The more I saw, the more radical I became. The more I saw, I got to the decision that I’m going to dedicate my professional life to cover the occupation, to prevent the Israelis of the luxury that they will claim one day, “No, we didn’t know all this was happening […] on our behalf.” And still I can tell you that the more I saw the more radical I became.
Enright: You’ve been called a traitor. About a year ago we had Ari Shavit on the program. He called you out on a television show; he said you were an absolute demagogue, and that you were worse than the most extreme Palestinians.
Levy: First of all, I will not answer Shavit. […] With propaganda journalists I don’t discuss, I do my job.
Enright: … You [both] work for Haaretz!
Levy: Sure, but we differ in many, many things. We have also some kind of personal good relations, but politically we differ a lot because Shavit still believes in the old way of Zionism, of shooting and crying, of covering up every crime by all kinds of beliefs […] and I am not there….
Enright: You’re not a Zionist.
Levy: I would not say so because I do not know what it means to be a Zionist.
Enright: Labour Zionist, or a socialist….
Levy: I am for sure not what people like Shavit call Zionists. […] If Zionism means the continuation of the occupation, I’m not only not Zionist, I’m anti-Zionist. If Zionism means the right of the Jewish people to have its own state, then sure, I’m a Zionist. I was born there, I’m part of Israel. I’m not sure if Zionism applies today as it did before. I think we have to forget about this term. The Zionism is about [the need] to create a state. This state is there, and from now on we have to talk about universal values and not to get into those paths in which Zionism is a cover-up for all kinds of things.
Enright: You have received death threats; you’ve been shot at by members of the Israeli Defense Force. Amira Hass was on the program some time ago, and she has received death threats. Are you the only two Israeli journalists who regularly cover the West Bank and Gaza?
Levy: Unfortunately so, we are […] exclusive. Usually it’s a dream of any journalist. It’s not my dream, it’s my nightmare that I am always exclusive, but yes.
Enright: What about […] other journalists? How do they cover the West Bank?
Levy: They don’t. They cover it through the press releases of the military spokesperson, they cover it by joining military units, […] and they cover it over the phone. You know, here and there they cover also Palestinian politics. But the role that I took upon myself to rehumanize the Palestinian sacrifice, which is so dehumanized in Israel, unfortunately except for me and Amira, almost nobody’s doing it, and […] I’m very, very sorry. I wish there would have been more journalists.
Enright: The reaction among not only Israeli Jews but American Jews has been against you, has been profound. There was one right-wing American Jew who said that he hoped your children get cancer. How can you live with that kind of vituperation?
Levy: This was one of the most polite reactions I got, and the most sensitive one. Look, I know I create all kinds of emotions, and I must tell you one thing: the more aggressive those people are, the more I’m convinced that they know that something is burning under their feet, because someone who is really confident about his justice doesn’t need this aggression toward a small minority, one voice which calls for a different thinking.
Enright: The ultra orthodox, the Haredim, don’t believe in the state of Israel. Do you believe in the state of Israel? Its existence?
Levy: First of all, it’s not a question of belief. The state of Israel is there to stay.
Enright: It’s not going away.
Levy: It’s not going away. It’s a regional superpower with the total automatic blind support of the United States like no other state in the world.
Enright: Surrounded by hundreds of millions of people who’d like to destroy it.
Levy: Most of those hundreds of millions of people are now busy with totally different problems, like their freedom, like their regimes, like what’s happening in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, you name it. They are not waking up every morning asking what to do with Israel.
Enright: All right, but Hamas has said it wants the land between the river and the sea. That’s what it wants, […] it doesn’t want any Jews in it. You’re going to talk to them, you’re going to listen to them?
Levy: First of all, you talk only to enemies; […] you do not need to have a peace negotiation between Norway and Sweden. You need a peace negotiation between enemies, and PLO was once perceived as the same enemy. I am not in favour of Hamas positions, by all means not. Hamas is by far not my cup of tea, but they are there, and if you want to solve something, you have to talk. If you don’t talk, nothing will be solved.
Enright: I want to talk about the boycott that’s been suggested, that you’ve suggested, and I’m quoting you now, “Anyone who really fears for the future of the country needs to be in favour of boycotting it economically.” Democratic states don’t usually boycott each other. How does beggaring the state of Israel lead to peace?
Levy: The boycott was very effective in South Africa, very effective.
Enright: Canada led the boycott against South Africa, Brian Mulroney, but that’s where you had a criminal regime keeping down the majority […] population of the country. It’s different in Israel, is it not?
Levy: It is not the same, because Israel by itself is not yet an apartheid state. But the regime in the West Bank and the regime in Gaza is kind of an apartheid regime. What is it, if not an apartheid, when one people doesn’t possess anything, not resources and not rights? And I ask, why was it legitimate to do it against South Africa, and it’s not legitimate against Israel? Do you really believe that the change will come by itself? I wish we didn’t need it. For me, as an Israeli, to call for boycott is very problematic because […] by myself, I don’t boycott Israel, I live there. But I can tell you that you have to shake Israel because Israel needs someone to save it from its own hands.
Enright: Now, I have no way of proving this empirically, but to my reading, [there are] a lot of people calling for boycott of Israel. Underneath that is a skein of anti-Semitism, that they simply do not like Jews, and they do not like Jews in a state of their own. Do you agree with that?
Levy: Absolutely, I absolutely agree with this.
Enright: So you’re in pretty bad company, aren’t you?
Levy: I’m in pretty bad company. I think the collaborators with the Occupation are in much worse company than me. I am in company with organizations like Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, who brought me here, who don’t stand for the destruction of Israel and still stand for justice and peace in the Middle East. So the fact that some anti-Semitic elements, which I don’t deny are there, are using and misusing this cause does not mean that we should stop our struggle.
Enright: Stephen Harper called Prime Minister-elect Netanyahu after the election, congratulated him, and said Israel has no greater friend than Canada. If that is true, what is Canada doing right, what is Canada doing wrong in its relationship with Israel?
Levy: Canada in its behaviour, I’m afraid to say, is anything but a real, genuine friend of Israel. Supporting the occupation, supporting the crimes, and supporting the settlements, is anything but friendship toward Israel. I think it’s not by mistake that there are so many similarities between Mr. Harper and Mr. Netanyahu. I think they share many [of the] same values. Both also [are] using spreading fears as a systematic way to survive in power. I think that by the end of the day, anyone should ask himself if this automatic and blind support is friendship. Would you support a real friend of yours automatically and blindly? Would it be friendship? Or would you criticize him when you feel it’s needed? Today, this kind of support—which ignores the crimes of the occupation, which ignores what Israel is doing to another people—is not friendship.
Enright: Do you ever say to yourself, or think in the quiet moments of the evening—
Levy: Which are never there.
Enright: Which are never quiet—that you might be wrong? [That] you might be wrong in all of this, and that there are genuine fears, genuine concerns and genuine hatreds on the other side of the green line, and that there are people in madrassas and around the Middle East who want to destroy you and all your kind?
Levy: I’m sure there are people who want to destroy me, and this does not make me more wrong or less wrong. They want to destroy, and I have to do anything possible to protect myself, but at the same time, I will never protect myself only based on military power. This will never work. The only guarantee for the existence of Israel for the long run is making it a just place based on justice and international law.
Enright: Would you be comfortable if someone said that you are a loyal son of Israel? Are you?
Levy: I’ll tell you one thing: There is no one who is more loyal than me, there is no one who cares more than me about the future of Israel, there is no one who is more attached than me‐there are many as attached as me, obviously‐but no one is more attached than me. No violent settler cares about the future of Israel more than me. By the end of the day, I perceive myself—people might laugh at this—[…] as an Israeli patriot because whatever I do comes from within, not from the outside. It is about care about this place. I want to be proud of Israel. I want to be proud of my country, and I am deeply ashamed of it.
Listen to the CBC Radio interview here: Gideon Levy (interviewed by Michael Enright)