Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy: ‘Israel has closed the curtains’

Top-ranking columnist Gideon Levy has been working for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz since 1982. In his weekly column, which often focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he is a fierce critic of the right-wing establishment.

  • Alex Levac Gideon Levy Alex Levac

The day Gideon Levy does not find his paper Haaretz in the mail, is the day he kills himself. It is an overstatement that suggests that a possible bankruptcy of the paper would be a very heavy blow to him. Top-ranking columnist Levy is speaking as a reader when he says that he does not want to loose his daily portion independent journalism with a leftist twist. He is not as worried about his livelihood; there is only a slim chance he will not be able to take his critical pen to one of the other Israeli print media. Levy, born in Tel Aviv in 1953, will never get away from his country, nor does he want to, but he is also one of Israel’s strongest critics. It does not make him popular with the current Israeli government and a large part of the public opinion.

Since the 1993 Oslo I Accord, Israël continues to drastically redraw the map of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Is the two-state solution still possible from a practical standpoint?

Gideon Levy: Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, the two-state solution still held promise. Perhaps it would still be possible today, if a new, strong and courageous Israeli leadership would be prepared to evacuate half a million settlers, or if there would be irrefutable international pressure on Israel. However, I see neither of those and I’m very pessimistic. The US follows Israel and Europe follows the US. The Palestinians have their backs against the wall. Their options are terror or international diplomacy. They turned to the latter by asking for UN recognition. But Israel, which spoke of a unilateral move, immediately blew the whistle on them. Israel, a champion of unilateral actions itself.

The current government certainly does not seem to be in favour of a two-state solution. Do you know what it is Benjamin Netanyahu really wants?

Gideon Levy: I’m not really sure whether Netanyahu himself knows what he wants. He does not believe in peace with the Palestinians or in the two-state solution. He is stalling for time and putting up as many obstacles as he can to make a peaceful solution impossible and to make the occupation irreversible. I also doubt whether Netanyahu has a realistic strategy for the future. He ignores the fact that within ten, twenty years the demographic relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians will be very different. Both Palestinian and Israeli official studies suggest that both peoples between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are now almost equal in size. Does Netanyahu realise what that means? Does he understand the impact of the twenty-first century, in which the world – and not only the Western world – will no longer tolerate a situation where one people has all rights and another has none?

Just like four years ago there is talk of excluding Palestinian Israeli candidates from the Israeli elections on 22 January. Haneen Zoabi, for instance, because of her participation in the 2010 Gaza-flotilla. Can we still consider such elections democratic?

Gideon Levy: Look, a nation that is occupying another can never be democratic anyway. And neither can a nation that does not recognize similar rights for all citizens. Every four years the Israeli right wing tries to keep Palestinian parties from the elections. Sadly, the number of voices that wants to follow that line keeps growing in Israel. For now, these tactics are not working and there is legal certainty, but if Israel continues along this line, the day will come when Palestinians are excluded from the right to vote and the right to run for office.

Following the previous elections you were also very pessimistic about the leftist camp in Israel. What is the problem?

Gideon Levy: The left has never recovered after Ehud Barak, having returned from Camp David, managed to convince the Israelis that there was supposedly no Palestinian peace partner. Suicide attacks during the Second Intifada killed off every ounce of the remaining leftist establishment. The new left that has replaced the obsolete Zionist left, is very marginal and has no influence. We have to acknowledge that the Israeli society is shifting ever more to the right. Even the president of the socialist-democratic Labour party, Shelly Yacimovitch, keeps repeating that her party is not a leftist, but a centralist party. It shows how poisoned the connotation of the “left” has become in Israel.

At the Palestinian side there is not much reason for cheers either. Hamas and Fatah keep delaying their talks about reconciliation and a united government.

Gideon Levy: This is a big mistake by both parties. The chasm only seems to grow, especially since Hamas, which emerged stronger from the Gaza war in November 2012, is gaining terrain on the West Bank. If we believe the polls, Hamas would take the West Bank if there were elections today. That is grist to Netanyahu’s mill, as it proves his claim that the Palestinians are radical and cannot be a partner for peace. What he doesn’t say is that he is staging that radicalisation himself by consolidating, rather than reducing the occupation.

Can Hamas be a peace partner?

Gideon Levy: Twenty years ago we were told that Fatah was a terrorist organisation and that Yasser Arafat could never be a partner. Maintaining contact with PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation, td) was forbidden. And now we look back at Arafat’s time with nostalgia.I’m not defending Hamas, I am not a fan of religious fundamentalist organisations, but Israel could have challenged Hamas by inviting them to the negotiating table and trying to move them to compromise.

Since the Arab Spring the Middle East is being transformed. Does Israel take that into account?

Gideon Levy: Israel, which has been claiming the exclusive right to democracy in the region, first saw the wave of democratisation as a threat, just like everything else is considered a danger here. There was no other reaction possible. Which is difficult to understand, if you know that this could have been a new opening. On the other hand, as long as Israel continues to terrorize the Palestinians, the Arab public opinion, which witnesses this attitude daily on TV, will refuse to accept Israel. The last few years, the Israeli public opinion has been preoccupied with the prices of cheese, cheap tickets to Europe and their wages. Israel has closed the curtains and hid behind it, and we refuse to glance at the outside world.

‘I seriously wonder whether Israel is still capable of acting rationally and strategically.’
Behind those curtains is Iran. How big is the fear for an Iranian-Israeli conflict?

Gideon Levy: Because of electoral strategy the issue has been off the table, but before the elections Netanyahu spoke about Iran three times a day. For months the Israeli public opinion was spoon-fed just how real the Iranian threat is. The Israelis are frightened. Besides, I don’t want to underestimate Iran’s hostility either. However, an Israeli attack on Iran could have a much bigger impact on safety and backfire on us. Israel isn’t nearly strong enough to defend itself against hundreds of rockets landing on its territory, not as far as society is concerned, nor when it comes to the economy. There is no serious debate on this.

Does Ehud Barak’s departure have a possible dissuasive effect on the Iran scenario, as he was the one who strongly defended an attack on Iran?

Gideon Levy: First of all, we do not know whether Barak has really left. It could be that Netanyahu calls back Barak after the elections to become Secretary of Defence. If not, Netanyahu, who is really obsessed with Iran, will look for another Barak, someone else to team up with.

In July 2012 some Israeli officers warned for a next Lebanese war. Was that just doom and gloom, or a real threat?

Gideon Levy: Those were mostly reactions of panic because the Syrian conflict threatened to jump over into Lebanon. Still, there is no doubt that one day there will be another conflict. Hezbollah’s popularity and support keeps on growing in Lebanon and Hezbollah keeps arming itself. At this moment, neither party is interested in going to war. But it’s a matter of time. The future is unpredictable and depends on what happens in the region, in Syria and Iran.

How dangerous is the situation in Syria, where external forces have joined several militias in the fight? They are not what you would call groups with a pro-Israeli agenda…

Gideon Levy: Israel cannot control that. On the other hand, I’d say that Israel is the last thing on the militias’ mind. You can’t do anything but speculate on what is going to happen once the conflict is over. No one knows the outcome.

Does Israel have any friends left in the region?

Gideon Levy: Israel tries to keep its relations with Egypt as open as possible. Considering the joint border between the Egyptian Sinai and Gaza, Tel Aviv is not in a position to say no to Cairo, which has a less obedient partner in Muslim Brother Morsi than in his predecessor Mubarak. But Israel has never been as isolated as today. At the time of the Oslo I Accord (1993) we had good relations in the Gulf, certainly with states like Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates… The relations with Saudi Arabia have always been more difficult after the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But when Saudi Arabia launched the Arab Peace Initiative over ten years ago in 2002 – a real alternative – this was completely ignored by Israel. Turkey used to be our most important partner in the region, but we blew up that relationship as well. I seriously wonder whether Israel is still capable of acting rationally and strategically. If you are serious about your country’s security, you can’t afford to loose important partnerships in the region.

Are there many Israeli citizens who are fed up with the security threat and leave the country?

Gideon Levy: In December Haaretz published a poll that revealed that about forty percent of Israelis wants to leave the country. There is also a growing number of Israelis with European roots who apply for a second passport. That’s telling; it means that people can’t see a future here. But apparently there is a difference between thinking and doing. There does not appear to be more emigration from Israel now than in the past. First of all, not everyone can afford to emigrate, but it also has to do with feeling grounded somewhere. You know you’re sitting on a volcano that can erupt in the near future, but still you stay because this is your place. And that place isn’t all that bad. Economically we have been doing reasonably well, the climate is very pleasant and there’s a lot happening socially and culturally. In fact, that’s part of the problem: why would the Israelis want change?

Have you yourself ever wanted to emigrate?

Gideon Levy: As far as I’m concerned, I’ll never leave Israel. This is my home. After all those years you get used to the climate of stress, which isn’t really a constant factor in our life either. The periods of fear alternate with periods during which you can relax more. And you cannot forget that however unjust it acts towards others, Israel gives full civil rights to its Jewish citizens. As a critical journalist I enjoy full freedom here without any pressure from the government or security forces. It’s not always pleasant in the streets – and certainly not in my mailbox – but you can live with that. Israel is not Russia. My voice is heard. I appear on TV quite regularly and I write in what is perhaps the most important Israeli newspaper.

How is Haaretz doing?

Gideon Levy: In one word: bad. Our reach, in a very small market anyway, has shrunk enormously the last few years and the future is very uncertain. Just like all print media worldwide, we suffer from having to compete with the digital media and we are losing readers and advertisers. So far, almost one hundred journalists have been laid off. Hopefully that will be enough, but since Haaretz is privately owned, we have no complete idea of the books. Believe me, I thank God every day I find the paper in my mailbox and I’m glad every time I receive my wages. But I would especially feel grieved as a reader.

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