Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, places a premium on speaking at university campuses. The context? Israel’s uphill struggle to assuage a growing sense of frustration and anger at a Benjamin Netanyahu-led government seen as a serial violator of international law and human rights.
In October, Regev addressed Cambridge University students at its famous Debating Union. The event was recently uploaded onto YouTube, and of particular interest is the Q&A (beginning 27 minutes in). The questions are predominantly critical, or sceptical, and Regev has to shoot from the hip.
So here are three claims that the Israeli ambassador made in response to students’ questions – and an analysis of their accuracy.
1. “Israeli democracy is very, very strong” and “on a positive trajectory”.
In the first question to be taken from the audience (46 minutes in), a student put it to Regev that there is a lot of evidence to suggest Israel is “undemocratic”.
Regev was defiant, telling the Union that “Israeli democracy is very, very strong.” He went on: “If you look at a timeline, Israeli democracy is stronger today than it was 10 years ago, and it’s stronger still than 20 years ago.” After citing the judiciary, media and NGO community, Regev reiterated: “I, as an Israeli, am confident that our democracy is strong, and is actually on a positive trajectory.”
Even putting aside the long-standing “institutional and societal discrimination” (the words of the US State Department) experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel, Regev’s claim that things have been getting better over recent years is laughable. But don’t take my word for it; let’s see what the NGOs – whose work Regev is apparently so proud of – say about the subject.
Take the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), for example, who has warned of “intensifying infringements on democratic freedoms in Israel” over “the past few years”. This has included “harsh and unprecedented statements against human rights organisations, political groups, and minorities” by “senior officials”, who “have made various attempts to curtail their operations.”
In ACRI’s view, 2016 was a year when Israel “moved backwards” with respect to human rights. Similarly, Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, noted last December that “the civil society space available for human rights defenders to work is further shrinking”, adding: “we expect to have to redouble our efforts to defend basic human rights.”
International human rights groups echo such observations. Last year, Amnesty International said an “escalation of acts of intimidation by the [Israeli] government” has contributed to creating “an increasingly dangerous environment” for human rights defenders. The group also noted “recent legislative initiatives…apparently aimed at constricting freedom of expression.”
The regional director of Human Rights Watch, having been refused a working visa earlier this year by the Israeli authorities, described the decision as “part of larger pattern of shrinking the space for critical voices within Israel”, adding: “it signals a significant deterioration in basic democratic values.”
2. Under Netanyahu, settlement construction has gone down.
The second question from the audience (50’11) zoomed in specifically on the issue of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).
“You kept on saying that the Israeli government is committed to peace,” the student said, “but Netanyahu’s relentless settlement expansion entirely contradicts this. So surely you can understand that settlements are only hindering the peace process?”
Under pressure, Regev looked to an unlikely source for assistance: Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Last year,” he told the students, “some of their smart people crunched all the numbers, and looked at the growth of settlement under Netanyahu and compared to previous [Prime Ministers].” According to Regev, it was discovered that “under Bibi, settlement construction has gone down.”
The ambassador was almost certainly referring to an article published by Haaretz in October 2015, which examined Netanyahu’s boast the previous day that the West Bank settler population had grown by 120,000 since he took office in 2009. According to Haaretz staffer Chaim Levinson, the population increase was due to “natural growth”, not construction.
Two weeks later, however, a follow-up article appeared in Haaretz, asking whether settlement growth really had slowed under Netanyahu.
The authors first noted that “the statistic on new housing starts ignores East Jerusalem, an area in which for the past six years settlement construction has been at its highest annual level since 2000.” Much of that construction, they wrote, “alters potential future borders, in significant ways.”
In addition, they pointed out, the figures are skewed by Netanyahu’s 2009-2012 term, when there was a 10-month “moratorium” on settlement approvals in the context of US-led peace talks. By contrast, “during Netanyahu’s 2013-2015 term, new construction starts in West Bank settlements have spiked, reaching a higher level than under any government since 2000.”
Regev’s misrepresentation of the facts is even more shameless, since when he appeared at the Union he would have known that official Israeli data showed a 16.7 per cent increase in the number of housing starts in West Bank settlements during the first half of 2016 – a number (1,195) that surpassed the annual totals in 2010 and 2011.
By the end of 2016, construction on new Israeli settlement homes in the occupied West Bank had risen by 40 per cent compared to the previous year, “the second highest number of construction starts in the past 15 years”. 2016’s figures brought the total number of settlement units started under Netanyahu since 2009, excluding East Jerusalem, to 14,017 units.
3. Netanyahu never rejected the goal of establishing a Palestinian state.
When a member of the audience asked (1’05’40) Regev to condemn Netanyahu’s pre-election vow in March 2015 that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch, the ambassador seemed to be in an awkward spot. So how did he respond?
“The Prime Minister was doing an interview, and he was being asked about the peace process and all the problems,” Regev began, “and he was asked does he think there’ll be a Palestinian state during the next four years, during his next term of office, and he said ‘No, I don’t think so’. And he was describing a descriptive situation, he wasn’t saying what his goal is.”
So, let’s see how Regev’s account compares to the actual interview. Here’s the relevant section from the original article, as published by NRG – and thanks to Ofer Neiman for the translation.
NRG: Some people are hesitating between Jewish Home and Likud. You said the Bar Ilan speech is irrelevant. According to you, and as Bennett says, a Palestinian state will not be established?
Netanyahu: I think whoever is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate land, will cede offensive terrain to extreme Islam against the State of Israel. This is the true reality which has been formed here in recent years. Whoever is ignoring that is burying their head in the sand. The left is doing so, burying its head in the sand time after time. We are realistic and we understand. The test is who will form the next government. I do not fold under pressure. After all, they would not focus this huge effort against me if they thought I am not the braking force. They understand that. We have stood up to enormous pressures, and we will keep working.
NRG: If you are the Prime Minister, a Palestinian state will not be established?
The idea that these were simply “descriptive” comments, as Regev put it, rather than a declaration of intent, is laughable. Even more so when you recall that, just 24 hours before the NRG interview was published, Netanyahu had openly vowed: “We won’t divide Jerusalem, we won’t make concessions, we won’t withdraw from land.”
In October 2014, for example, Netanyahu told CNN: “I think we have to adjust our conceptions of sovereignty.” Earlier this year, Netanyahu acknowledged that what he is “willing to give to the Palestinians is not exactly a state with full authority, but rather a state-minus, which is why the Palestinians don’t agree [to it].”
But it’s not just the prime minister. In October 2015, Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared: “We are against a Palestinian state. There is not and never will be a Palestinian state.” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett is also a long-standing, opponent of Palestinian statehood.
Indeed, as of June 2016, only one out of 20 Israeli ministers were on record as backing the two-state solution (before you even get into how they define such a formulation).
In one 24-hour period last month, Israeli ministers variously described Palestinian statehood as a “hallucination” and “no solution for peace.” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan affirmed: “I think all the members of the cabinet oppose a Palestinian state, and the prime minister first among them.”
Just this week, Israel’s deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely told an audience in Washington DC: “We need to go to a million settlers in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]…We need to think of new ways of thinking that will include Judea and Samaria under Israeli sovereignty forever.”
At the same meeting, Israeli minister Tzachi Hanegbi declared that the West Bank was given to Israel “not by Google and Wikipedia, but by the Bible.”