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What did we learn from Fridman’s podcast with Netanyahu, Harari and El-Kurd?

July 27, 2023 at 7:38 pm

Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohammed El-Kurd, Yuval Noah Harari [lexfridman/Twitter]

One could do a lot worse than interview Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, author Yuval Noah Harari and Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed El-Kurd, if one wanted to offer viewers a balanced view of what is often called the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The three individuals loosely represent the three main camps of the major political actors in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

As Prime Minister, Netanyahu represents the block of far-right Israeli parties whose power and influence has grown over the years; Harari loosely represents the opposition camp in Israel, though he occupies a position that is much further to the left of the political spectrum than most critics of Netanyahu and El-Kurd is a powerful voice for freedom and liberation of the Palestinian people.

I suspect that is precisely the thought Lex Fridman had in mind when he chose to interview the three individuals for his show. Fridman announced his intention to interview leading Israelis and Palestinians several months ago, leaving viewers eagerly anticipating his selection. The series was completed yesterday with the release of his final interview with El-Kurd, after kicking off the discussion two weeks ago with Netanyahu.

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The nearly eight hours of discussion did not disappoint. The shorter interview with Netanyahu was notably characterised by the familiar distortion of historical facts and misinformation, which has long been emblematic of the Zionist takeover of Palestine. The small segment of the interview with Harari that was about Israel-Palestine powerfully highlighted the narrowing of options for critics of Israeli governments. The famed Israeli author eloquently brought to light the inner conflict experienced by self-professed liberal Zionists when confronted with the stark reality of Israel’s apartheid system, a reality that inherently contradicts principles of social justice and fairness. Meanwhile, El-Kurd powerfully underscored the recurrent cycles of war, violence and terror that have been interwoven with the Zionist pursuit of establishing Jewish supremacy in historic Palestine.

Though it is fair to say that every one of Netanyahu’s claims deserves to be challenged, two are particularly jarring. For someone who professes to be a student of history, the Israeli Prime Minister is extremely cavalier with facts. He is more interested in weaponizing history in the service of Zionism than he is in the honest pursuit of the discipline to discover truth. Beneath every historical pronouncement made by Netanyahu is the grossly false claim that Palestinians are not native to their land.

In Netanyahu’s view of history, the only history that matters is the exile of Jews two thousand years ago, and their return in the twentieth century following the advent of Zionism. The intervening two millennia have no bearing in the historical drama concocted by Zionists. What matters is the return of Jews to the land, which they argue was promised to them by God. The rest of history, including the lives of millions of non-Jews, as far as they are concerned, can be relegated to a mere footnote in the historical arc of exile and return of the Jewish people.

Such a claim could not be further from the truth. Palestine has a four thousand year history that dates back to ancient times. Palestinian Jews, Christians, Muslims and various other communities are indigenous to the territory. The advent of Zionism in Europe, however, caused a violent rupture which culminated in the breakdown of centuries of co-existence.

European Zionist settlers were under no illusion about the fact that the creation of an ethnonationalist Jewish state in a territory where Jews have been a very small minority for nearly two millennia would require extreme violence, religious and cultural vandalism and the erasure of thousands of years of Palestinian history that bonded together the region’s eclectic makeup. At the turn of the 20th century, indigenous Palestinian Jews made up only five per cent of the population. The remaining 95 per cent, as has been mentioned, were Palestinian Muslims and Christians, as well as other smaller communities that were indigenous to the territory.

Netanyahu typified the Zionist inversion of history when he was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a potential two-state solution. In his comment, the Israeli Prime Minister lent support to the far-right annexationists in his coalition, saying “you can’t really divide [the land] up” due to its size.

Netanyahu’s solution is an arrangement where Palestinians have no sovereignty. “I say, Okay, call it what you will. Call it, I don’t know, limited sovereignty. Call it the autonomy plus. Call it whatever you want to call it. But that’s the reality,” Netanyahu retorted, explaining his vision for the future where only Jews have sovereignty and full autonomy. “And right now, if you ask Israelis across the political spectrum, except the very hard left, most Israelis agree with that,” he added. He further defended illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank, decrying opponents who say Israeli’s “can’t live in our ancestral homeland in these disputed areas.”

Netanyahu backs down on judicial reform as protests rage Israel - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Netanyahu backs down on judicial reform as protests rage Israel – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Harari warned of the implications of Netanyahu’s vision. Though he is a strong critic of Netanyahu, like the thousands of protestors on the streets demonstrating against the judicial overhaul, on the issue of Israel and Palestine, the internationally acclaimed philosopher represents a very marginal voice. The protestors with whom Hariri is marching in solidarity against Netanyahu are unlikely to share his view that Israel is a country of “three classes.”

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According to Hariri, Israel has moved from a two-state solution to a “three-class solution”. He argued that Israel is the only power that exists between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan. “Three types of people” live in the territory controlled by Israel. Jews are the only group that enjoy all the rights. Then there are “type A Arabs”, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have some of the rights and “type B Arabs”, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation who have no rights.

Harari’s description is familiar and is the reason why there is a wall-to-wall consensus within the international human rights community that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid. Harari, however, is reluctant to use the term. Strangely, the author warned against making historical comparison with South Africa when he was pushed by Fridman. His comments demonstrated the cognitive dissonance liberal Zionists often face when cornered to explain the reality of Israel’s apartheid practices. Equally bizarre was his explanation that, because Palestinians do not recognise Israel and do not wish to be citizens of the state of Israel, the label of apartheid cannot be applied. His argument is that black South Africans viewed their liberation through becoming equal citizens of the country and not through the destruction of South African itself. Until Palestinians make the same demand, the label of apartheid cannot be applied to Israel. Hariri did acknowledge, however, that if Palestinians were able to reformulate their liberation to one demanding equal citizenship, it would change the dynamic completely.

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That said, historical comparison with white South African bears no significance to whether a country is or is not practicing apartheid.  Apartheid, in international law, refers to a specific crime and form of institutionalised discrimination. It was officially recognised as a crime against humanity by the UN in 1973, through the adoption of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. Though there are differences between the Israeli and South African apartheid regime, there is no dispute that both are guilty of “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

Though there is much that can be said about Fridman’s third interview with El-Kurd, one point needs to be stressed. Aside from it debunking many of the false historical narratives presented in the previous two interviews, the discussion with El-Kurd offered millions of viewers a humanised perspective that is criminally lacking in the mainstream media. Western audiences are bombarded with the all too familiar Israeli talking points that dehumanise Palestinians and provide no context to the violence.  A long form, two-and-half hour interview offers viewers the chance to hear the Palestinian side, free from media bias.

What we have learnt from the three interviews is that a level playing field – where Palestinians and Jews – are treated as equal, will not only trigger a surge in solidarity with the Palestinians, it will also lead to the growing realisation that the only thing Israel has to offer millions of non-Jews living between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea is more apartheid and more violence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.