Orla Hubbard and Alan Conway sit down with Ben-Dror Yemini, an Israeli journalist from Tel-Aviv. He worked as an advisor to the Israeli Minister of Immigration Absorption and then became spokesman of the Ministry. Mr Yemini is the opinion page editor of Maariv, the Israeli daily newspaper, and has written at length about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As a journalist of significant experience, have you ever found there to be a massive difference in your ability to report in Israel in comparison to anywhere else in the world?
‘We do not have a problem with freedom of speech in Israel if that’s what you mean. Israel is a place where everyone can write whatever they want, and actually I’ve talked a lot about the ‘Industry of Lies’ that has accumulated in Israel about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the source of so many lies is Israel itself, unfortunately. Yes, we do have freedom of speech, and I’m very glad about it. Firstly, I’m glad to come from a democracy and secondly I have to refute the lies – even when the source is Israel itself.’
Lexicon can be a very dangerous realm when you’re discussing Israeli-Palestinian relations, especially for those not overly familiar with the situation. Do you think we can be overly focused on the words used, as opposed to people’s intent?
‘The problem is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most covered conflict in the world. And the reason is not that we are so important – the reason is democracy. Every journalist has access to wherever he wants, and journalists and cameras per capita is the highest rate in the world. So we are paying the price for being a democracy. But when you are covering only one conflict, it creates a lot of misperceptions about the conflict. For example, every month, hundreds of people are killed in Nigeria, in Mali, in Afghanistan – but nobody’s talking about it because they don’t have media. A journalist friend of mine told me “I don’t have any access to Darfur in Sudan, and anyway I don’t even want to go. Here, in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, people think I am in the middle of [a warzone], then five minutes later I am sitting in the best restaurant – just like if I’m in Paris – so I enjoy it.” So many journalists want to come to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they are pretending that they are in the middle of a battlefield, but really they enjoy life.’
You have made what many would consider contentious statements, specifically with regards the two-state solution. Why do you favour it, and why do you think people on either side aren’t open to it?
‘I think the main problem is leadership – leadership and the fact that we can end this conflict. Many people describe this conflict as the most complicated conflict. Let me tell you something: it is not the most complicated. Because people know what the solution is, and the solution is two states for two peoples. Now, there is a huge difference between two States for two peoples and two states. The Palestinian leadership accept the two-state solution, but they do not accept two states for two peoples. And it is quite clear why. Because what they mean is a Palestinian state, and one more Palestinian state to be, with the right of return. So it’s a kind of manipulation. I support two states for two peoples; unfortunately the leadership does not yet support two states for two peoples.’
If it came to a point where the leadership of both were to support the two-state solution, where do you think the border would lie? Would it be pre-1967 or would it be a more modern border?
‘I think we should follow the guidelines of the Clinton administration, but I have to say that I do not represent the Israeli government – in many aspects I am very critical of the Israeli government. But, on the other hand, I don’t like lies, and people are lying so much and are demonising Israel. There is a huge difference between criticism – which is, of course, legitimate – and demonization. And what Israel is facing is a campaign of demonization and lies. Let’s distinguish: to criticise Israel, to criticise the settlements or one policy or another policy, is legitimate; to say Israel is an apartheid state, to say Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians – this is demonization.’
How long do you think it would take to realise the two-state solution, and what would it take from both parties?
‘We need a much braver leadership on both sides. I would even say that we were quite close to peace at the end of the ’90s; unfortunately, when Clinton raised his initiative, it was rejected by the Palestinians. Clinton wrote in his book that it failed not because of the settlements, it failed because of the demand – I would call it fantasy – of the right of return. And if it’s not clear I have to say it again: right of return means the extermination of a people. They say in their own voices that when we ask for right of return we mean the destruction of Israel. I do not support any destruction – not of the Palestinians, not of Israel.’
Do you believe that there could be a parallel between the right of return for Palestinians and for people returning to Israel?
‘Yes, there is a parallel, and that parallel is self-determination. I support self-determination for the Palestinians – just as the very same way Jews that feel that their home is Israel have the right of return. Many countries have this kind of right of return to nationals, even if they left generations ago. The difference is that the Palestinians are the only one people who ask for the right of return to another state, which is quite strange. I mean, if you ask to return to your own state, yes of course, but what you ask is that we will have our own state, but that the right of return will be to another state. So you don’t mean peace. You mean one state. Two states – but the both of them for you.’
Would you think there could be any parallels to an Irish context?
‘No. There is not any parallel – not between the two conflicts, not in any aspect actually. We are not Britain, and the Palestinians are not Irish. And anyway, most people accept the two states for two peoples solutions, and it was not the case in Northern Ireland.’
Would you not agree that there could be a parallel in the solution whereby no matter what is agreed with regards borders that the people there would always be able to stay there?
‘When I say borders, it will be almost 1967 borders but with some changes. It doesn’t mean that the Palestinian state will be clean of Jews, or that the Israeli state will be clean of Arabs. Twenty per cent of the Israeli population is composed of Arabs and they hold high jobs. For example, a Supreme Court judge is an Arab, Miss Israel several years ago was an Arab, the captain of the football team of Israel is an Arab. When the ex-Israeli President was sentenced to seven years in jail, the presiding judge out of the three was an Arab. But it was not even mentioned that he is an Arab, because it’s a non-issue. I find myself in the position many times where I have to protect Israel from these kinds of lies. There are events of racism and discrimination just like in any European country. And we have to fight against it. But there is a huge difference between events of racism and discrimination, and apartheid. But what they are doing is they are taking events and propagandising them solely to demonize Israel.’
Hamas have made political gains out of conflict. Do you think the same could be said that Israeli governments have made such gains? For example, you could observe that Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar Defence happened close to election periods.
‘No, what people see is that Israel attacks Gaza – wow, poor population under siege. And Israel attacks them. That’s what people hear in every western country. But they don’t know that before the Israeli attack there were days and weeks of attacks on Israel. Hamas are saying we should kill the Christians – we should kill the communists to the last one. I will show this on a clip from the TV channel of Hamas later tonight. People think that it is a resistance kind of organisation. Not at all. It’s a chapter of Al-Qaeda, and that’s what they are – it’s the nature of Hamas. And yet you see so many youthful idiots coming from the west to sympathise with Hamas, but yet they don’t know that at the very same time in Arabic on the TV channels they are saying “let’s kill all the Christians.” And people don’t understand it. They are part of the global Jihad – that’s what they are.
Hamas kill many more Palestinians than Israelis. The Arab countries that surround Israel have killed more Palestinians than Israel during the last 60 years, but people keep saying repeatedly that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. Who is killing who in the conflict? They just have no idea, but they keep on saying it. And they brainwash people in the west. And the outcome is that in reports you see that Israel is a threat to the global peace. Israel is not a threat to the global peace. Not according to any objective parameter. The contribution of Israel to violence in the world is something like 0.0001%. Statistically, we are talking about zero. But yet ask people in the west – they will say it is something like Iran, North Korea and Israel that are the most dangerous states. They have no idea what they are talking about. And that’s why I am trying to use my very limited power to fight against this kind of demonization and lies.’
I came across a comment of yours earlier that I found interesting, and was just wondering if you’d explain it. You said ‘anti-Zionism is politically correct anti-Semitism.’
‘I will explain. It begins with demonization. You don’t even have the right to exist. That is what happened at the time of the Nazis with anti-Semitism, and now we are talking about Israel and the right of self-determination. So actually they are following the same pattern. Not everybody who says “I am against any kind of nation-state” is anti-Semite, but when people are saying it only about Israel, then yes they are. In Israel, what we want is to be a Jewish state and a democracy. It’s not simple, it’s not easy, but that’s what we are. People deny the very basic right, but only for one people on earth – from the Jewish people. They think they can say “well it’s not a people it’s a religion” – you will not tell me how to define myself. I am not religious, and yet I am a Jew.’
Image: Emmet Curtin. With thanks to the UCC Philosophical Society.