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Diana Buttu & Gideon Levy: Israel’s New Far-Right Gov’t Entrenches Apartheid System with U.S. Support

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Far-right Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Tuesday visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem is being roundly condemned across the Middle East. Ben-Gvir is a key part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government, which includes ultranationalist and ultraorthodox parties that are calling openly for the annexation of the West Bank. “The international community has to speak with one voice in rejecting this extremism and rejecting those terrorists and those elements of fascists in the Israeli government,” Palestine’s ambassador to the U.N., Riyad Mansour, urged Wednesday. In 2007, Ben-Gvir was convicted in an Israeli court of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization. In 2021, he relocated his parliamentary office to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, where settlers have attempted to violently evict Palestinian residents from their homes. As the newly sworn-in minister of national security, Ben-Gvir will now be responsible for border police in the West Bank. We speak to Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist and author, and Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization, about Ben-Gvir’s visit, Netanyahu’s new government and surging violence against Palestinians.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations Security Council is preparing to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the recent visit by Israel’s new national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem. His visit was condemned across the Middle East. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry called his visit an “unprecedented provocation.” The militant group Hamas warned Ben-Gvir’s actions could lead to more conflict. Jordan has summoned Israel’s ambassador to protest the visit, with Jordan’s Foreign Ministry decrying it as “scandalous and [an] unacceptable violation of international law.”

Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam. It’s also one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Temple Mount was the site of a Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago. On Wednesday, Palestine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, condemned Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit.

RIYAD MANSOUR: The attack is not only against our holy sites in Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the Haram-e-Sharif. There are — because of this environment of extremism that this Israeli extreme government, the extremest in the history of Israel, is providing, is leading to additional aggression against our Christian sites, Christian graveyards. You’ve seen by now that there are crosses over, you know, graveyards being trampled upon and attacked by extreme settlers. This is a toxic environment. The international community has to speak with one voice in rejecting this extremism and rejecting those terrorists and those elements of fascists in the Israeli government.

AMY GOODMAN: Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque came just days after he was sworn in as part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government, which includes ultranationalist and ultraorthodox parties that are calling openly for the annexation of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s selection of Itamar Ben-Gvir as his national security minister has sparked widespread condemnation. In 2007, Ben-Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization. Ben-Gvir lives in an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. In 2021, he relocated his parliamentary office to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, where settlers have attempted to violently evict Palestinian residents from their homes. For years, Ben-Gvir hung a picture in his home of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli American who killed 29 Palestinians at a mosque in Hebron in 1994. The Jerusalem Post’s editor-in-chief described Ben-Gvir as, quote, “the modern Israeli version of an American white supremacist and a European fascist,” unquote. Ben-Gvir will now be responsible for border police in the occupied West Bank at a time when violence and the killing of Palestinians has been surging.

To talk more about Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Israel’s new far-right government, considered the most far-right government in Israel’s history, we’re joined by two guests. In Tel Aviv, Gideon Levy is with us, an award-winning Israeli journalist and author, columnist for the newspaper Haaretz, member of its editorial board. He’s also the author of the book The Punishment of Gaza. And in Ramallah, we’re joined by Diana Buttu. She is a Palestinian lawyer and former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization, also a fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now, or DAWN. Her latest piece is an op-ed in The New York Times headlined “Israelis Have Put Benjamin Netanyahu Back in Power. Palestinians Will Surely Pay the Price.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Diana Buttu, let’s begin with you. Let’s start with this latest action, considered an incitement by so many, both Palestinians and Israelis, not to mention the rest of the Middle East. Talk about who Itamar Ben-Gvir is. I mean, he wasn’t just charged with incitement of racism against Arabs; he was convicted of it and supporting a terrorist organization.

DIANA BUTTU: Yes. Itamar Ben-Gvir is — he’s a disciple, he’s a follower, of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was a man who believed that Palestinians should be ethnically cleansed from their homeland. And Itamar Ben-Gvir has espoused the exact same views as Meir Kahane and continues to espouse these same views. He’s talked very openly about his support for Baruch Goldstein.

And his visit, his latest visit, to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is not just a visit. It’s an attempt to show that there will forever be Israeli sovereignty on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and he’s trying to incite violence. Not only is he trying to incite violence, he has long believed that the Al-Aqsa Mosque should be — should disappear, and in its place the Temple Mount be recreated. So, his policies have always been that of inciting to violence, inciting to hatred. And although he was only convicted once, he has been indicted more than 50 times.

The fact that he is allowed to be a minister in this government just shows how much it is that the international community is allowing fascism to reign, and that they’re effectively doing nothing. All that we have heard since this visit and since he’s become minister is that the world supports the status quo. But it is that status quo that has led to people like Itamar Ben-Gvir being able to become minister and their actions being normalized. I fear that what he intends to do is to create more and more and more violence as a pretext to, once and for all, as he put it, showing Palestinians who the masters of the house are. Those are his words, not mine.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Gideon Levy, could you also respond to Ben-Gvir’s appointment as national security minister and, in particular, his appointment to this post?

GIDEON LEVY: Benjamin Netanyahu had to create a government. He heads — he is leading the biggest party. And he decided this time to go with the most extreme right-wingers. The problem is not this. The question is why those right-wingers are so popular in Israel. And here we face a reality which is well known for a long time. The Israeli society is a very right-wing, nationalistic and, part of it, racist society. We have to face this. That’s the main problem, not if Ben-Gvir is minister or is not. The problem is: Who are we facing when we speak about Israel?

And in many ways, I see also a positive side to the results of the last elections. By tearing all the masks, now we see reality. Now it’s not the umbrella of the Zionist left, who speaks so nicely and does almost the same like the right-wingers. Now we face the extreme racism in its most pure expression. Those people don’t deny their racism. Those people say very clearly that Jewish supremacy means that only Jews have rights in this land. And I hope that both some parts of Israeli society and, above all, the international community will finally draw the conclusions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Gideon Levy, that’s exactly right that these far-right parties have received this kind of support, almost 11% in this election, but that’s much higher than in the past. So, could you explain why you think these far-right, hard-line, extremist parties are more popular now in Israel than they’ve been in the past?

GIDEON LEVY: It’s almost inevitable. If you continue with the occupation, supported by the Zionist left — not only supported but led by the Zionist left — and if this reality of an apartheid state continues, it calls for extremism. It calls for telling the truth. It calls for telling — for tearing the mask and saying, “We aim to be an apartheid state. The occupation is not temporary; the occupation is here to stay. And if it is here to stay, it means we are an apartheid state, and we are even not ashamed of it.” After 56 years of occupation, you can’t expect anything but this radical movement, while the Zionist left never tried to separate itself from the occupation, never tried seriously to put an end to it. So, if there is no other force in the Israeli power, let’s go for the extreme. This makes a lot of sense.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Diana, could you also talk about that, the shift in the Israeli polity further to the right, and the role, indeed, that the left has played? You wrote a recent piece headlined “Israel’s So-Called Left Has Aided the Far Right’s Rise.”

DIANA BUTTU: Yes. Gideon is exactly right. Look, there’s been a so-called left inside Israel for quite some time, but this so-called left is — I say “so-called” because that’s exactly what it is, so-called — they self-proclaim as left-wing, but this is a left wing that has never stood up against the occupation. It’s a left wing that has supported the various attacks on the Gaza Strip. It’s a left wing that has supported the siege and blockade on the Gaza Strip. It’s a left wing that has supported the enactment of racist legislation, even in the past couple of years. And so, when you’re an Israeli voter who sees that the options are between this so-called left wing, which has supported the exact same things as the right wing has, then, of course, it’s natural that they’re going to vote for this fascist right.

The big problem has been that we’ve never seen that Israelis have paid a price for their electoral choices. It’s always been that Palestinians pay the price. And with this new government, it’s going to be Palestinians once again, but even more than in the past. Unlike previous Israeli governments where there were other issues that they may have been focused on, this current government, this new government, is myopically and only focused on making life miserable for Palestinians. They don’t have any other political platform, other than to try to ethnically cleanse Palestinians. This is why we’ve seen, since the beginning of this year, that Israel has killed at least one Palestinian per day. And this is why we’re seeing the plans to completely ethnically cleanse the Palestinian town of Masafer Yatta. It’s because this government has put in its crosshairs Palestinians. And given that there’s nobody in the international community that’s stopping them, it’s going to continue full steam ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about Masafer Yatta, near Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, the southern part. Israel’s military has begun demolishing homes, water supplies, olive orchards. This week, Israeli armored vehicles accompanied demolition crews as they razed homes and farms in two villages. Last year, the Israeli High Court of Justice approving the home demolitions, which will uproot more than a thousand people, leading to the U.S. congressmember, who happens to be Palestinian American, Rashida Tlaib, tweeting, “Not even one week into 2023, new far-right apartheid government is moving to ethnically cleanse entire communities — which would displace more than 1,000 Palestinian residents, including 500 children. All with American backing, bulldozers, and bullets.”

Talk about the U.S. support at this point for Israel. You have President Biden congratulating Netanyahu on his return to power, saying he looks forward to working with an old friend for decades, adding, “the United States will continue to support the two-state solution and to oppose policies that endanger its viability or contradict our mutual interests and values.” Can you talk about what you feel — and I’d also like to get Gideon’s response to this — the U.S. should be doing now?

DIANA BUTTU: Look, the U.S. is way behind in the times. And if they still think that there’s something left of a two-state solution, then it’s only in their dreams that they’re seeing it, because we certainly don’t see it on the ground. Instead what we have seen is that Israel has been allowed to do whatever it wants when it comes to killing Palestinians, when it comes to stealing Palestinian land, when it comes to ethnic cleansing. When it comes to crossing the red lines that are enshrined in international law, Israel is allowed to get away with it — and not only get away with it, but continues to receive support and financial support from the United States, as well. This isn’t just a question of statements, but they’re also getting financial support from the United States. And as we look around the world and we ask ourselves, “We’re now in the year 2023, and they’re still talking about a two-state solution, a two-state solution that died more than two decades ago?” And yet they’ve done absolutely nothing on the ground to make sure that two-state solution comes to fruition. Instead, all that they have done is to facilitate Israel’s process of slowly ethnically cleansing Palestinians.

One of the new members of this new government is a man named Smotrich, who came out just last year, in 2021, and said that the only reason that Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, like me, are still allowed to exist is because the job wasn’t finished in 1948, thereby basically telling us that our time here is short.

What the U.S. has instead done is, instead of giving them a red light and scaling back and decolonizing and pushing for Israel to end its occupation, end its apartheid, it’s pretty much served as a mask for Israel to continue to do whatever it wants to do. And this is why we’re in this situation now. It’s we’ve seen that the world is doing nothing. We see that the Israelis, as a result, don’t have to pay a price. And so, once again, it’s going to be Palestinians that pay the price for Israel’s electoral choices.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Gideon Levy, if you can respond? Also talk about what you’re writing in Haaretz, a very well-respected Israeli newspaper, on whose board you serve, and the response of the Israeli population, for example, to these demolitions.

GIDEON LEVY: Let’s face reality. The United States is supporting the apartheid system, is very interested in continuing the occupation and has no interest in human rights of the Palestinians. There’s no other way to describe the American position throughout decades, because would it be different, would the United States seriously mean to put an end to the occupation, the occupation could have come to its end years ago, if not decades ago. So, it’s all about a hollow lip service that the United States is paying from time to time, all kind of hollow condemnations. By the end of the day, Israel, this apartheid state, is this closest ally of the United States. The money of the taxpayers of the United States go to Israel more than to any other country in the world, and this means that the United States is in favor of an apartheid state, nothing else but this.

As about your second question, the question about the Israeli reaction to what’s going on in Masafer Yatta can be asked only — and, Amy, I highly appreciate you, but can be asked only in the United States, not in Israel, because in Israel, nobody cares, and nobody heard about Masafer Yatta. Masafer Yatta is well known maybe to the readership of Haaretz, not all of it, maybe to a small devoted left camp which is still active. But most of the Israelis not only couldn’t care less, they never heard about it. And if they will hear about it, they will just yawn in your face, because, finally, they all buy the official propaganda — namely, Israel is doing it against terror, or Israel has to protect itself, and all those old slogans of lies and lies and lies.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Gideon, could you outline what you expect the policies that this new government will initiate, from substantive changes to the judiciary, as well as restrictions on civil liberties within Israel itself, and, of course, what we said in our introduction, the steps towards the annexation of the West Bank?

GIDEON LEVY: As we talk now, the Supreme Court of Israel is dealing with some of the first actions. And the Supreme Court will try to stop them, but the Supreme Court by itself will be a subject of attacks by this new government, who is going to limit the legal system very much and very quickly. It’s really admirable to see how fast they act. While the Zionist left had one-and-a-half year of being power and did nothing, they are not yet one week in power, and they are already running with their initiatives.

Now, about annexation, I can tell you — that’s my, obviously, private view — I really hope they will annexate at least part of the West Bank, if not all of the West Bank. The West Bank was annexated 55 years ago. The West Bank is practically annexated to Israel. Israelis live in the West Bank and behave in the West Bank as if it’s part of Israel, and it is part of Israel. Now, once Israel will declare it officially and legally, then it will be really a question, because then the apartheid state is declared, you understand it. If Israel annexate the West Bank without giving full civil rights and national rights to the Palestinians, which nobody in this government or in any other government means to give, once this is happening, Israel declares itself an apartheid state. And then I would like to see how Washington and the EU and some others will react to an official declaration of apartheid. Will they treat it like the first apartheid state, namely, South Africa, or will they continue to hug Israel as a darling of the West, even though it’s a declared apartheid state? So, let’s challenge the world.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Diana, could respond to the points that Gideon has made? And also, you’ve written a great deal in your recent articles both about settler violence against Palestinians and Israeli security forces’ complicity in that violence. If you could elaborate on that and respond to what Gideon said about apartheid?

DIANA BUTTU: Look, it’s already an apartheid state. And I don’t need for Israel to declare it to be an apartheid state. They already know it’s an apartheid state. My fear is always: What is it that’s going to happen to people on the ground? And whether Israel annexes or whether they don’t annex, the result for Palestinians is the same, that Israel is continuing this process of land theft, it’s kicking people off their land, it’s turning Palestinians into people who are homeless, and it’s killing them, as well. This has long been its process, long been its system.

Now, it’s not just the Israeli state that does this. It’s not just the army, but it’s also Israeli settlers. We’ve already seen that in all of these years, with all of these attacks that have been conducted by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, that rarely, if ever, is an Israeli settler ever prosecuted for their crimes, or rarely even charged for their crimes, much less see the full conviction. And this is because Israel has turned a blind eye towards violence that it perpetrates against Palestinians. But again, I don’t expect anything differently from the Israeli state, nor do I expect anything differently from Israeli settlers. That is their raison d’être. That is their reason for being.

What I would have expected is that somehow the world community would have stood up and would have done something differently and begin to hold Israel accountable for its actions. It would have held the Israeli state, its soldiers and so on. And instead, we don’t see it. For example, just this past year, a Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who was also a friend, was murdered by Israel, by Israeli forces. Her death was probably the most investigated death that I’ve ever seen in all of my years of living here in Palestine, from everything from outlets from CNN to AP to The New York Times to NGOs and so on. And yet, to this current day, we still don’t see that anybody has been held to account, even though we know that it was an Israeli soldier who shot and killed her.

And so, this is what it means to be living as a Palestinian, is that you’re always living in the space where your life mean absolutely nothing and that your life could be extinguished at any moment, whether that happens at the hands of an Israeli soldier, whether it happens at the hands of an Israeli settler, or whether your land and your homes are demolished by the Israeli government. That’s what it means to be living as a Palestinian.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to encourage people to go to our website at democracynow.org, where we interviewed Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who did a documentary for Al Jazeera called The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, and we also interviewed Shireen’s niece, Lina. Diana Buttu, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Palestinian lawyer, former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization. We’ll link to your piece in The New York Times, “Israelis Have Put Benjamin Netanyahu Back in Power. Palestinians Will Surely Pay the Price.” And Gideon Levy, Israeli journalist in Tel Aviv, columnist for the newspaper Haaretz and member of its editorial board.

Coming up, well, the House of Representatives isn’t right now, because without a House speaker, no congressmember can be sworn in. We’ll look at the far-right Republicans continuing to block Kevin McCarthy’s attempts to become speaker. And did he, in a sense, open the door by supporting the pro-insurrectionist congressmembers? Six rounds of voting against him so far, how long will the standstill last? Stay with us.

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