Israeli Pro-Democracy Activists Ignore Palestinian Struggle for Basic Human Rights

Interview with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, conducted by Scott Harris

After 29 weeks of massive protests across Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right, ultrareligious coalition government defied opponents and passed a law limiting the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court, the first step in a larger judicial overhaul plan that opponents say will undermine Israeli democracy and the rule of law. The mostly secular and liberal opponents of the law — that includes business owners, military reservists and veterans — vow to continue to fight to protect Israel’s democracy.

But Israeli activists opposed to the extremist coalition’s agenda to weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to act as a check on government power, have largely ignored the struggle of the Palestinian people for basic human rights and self-determination.  In recent months, violence between Palestinians, the Israeli military and radical settler groups has been on the rise, as the government expands illegal settlements. At the same time, Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem face an increase in home demolitions and forced evictions, leading some observers to fear that Netanyahu’s government could soon annex the West Bank.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, who talks about the massive protests in Israel, and the disconnect between these opposition activists and the oppression of the Palestinian people.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s been an extraordinary thing to see this level of mobilization of Israelis fighting for how they define their democracy. And it is a real fight. It’s, you know, the rights of LGBTQ people, the rights of non-Orthodox Jews, the rights of secular Jews, the protection of the environment. A whole host of things are at stake here. There’s no question about that.

And we’re seeing that in the numbers of people. I mean, there have been hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets. Apparently, it was some tens of thousands, 30,000 or 40,000 people who marched over the weekend from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is a very long march. It would mean going 25 or so miles every day for three days, something like that, over not small hills.

So this was a you know, it’s a very big mobilization. It’s like half the country that is engaged in this fight. And for many people, they see it as an existential threat to their vision of what Israel was and is supposed to be.

The problem is this level of protest is very limited to that part of the repression that will come from the change in the role of the Supreme Court, the lack of independence of the judicial system, the threat to Israel’s internal Jewish democratic systems.

All of that is very real. And the reason that there are so many hundreds of thousands of people in the street, the reason that you have 300,000 instead of 300 is because they have refused very consciously. This is not an accident. There was a very clear decision made at the beginning of these protests seven, eight months ago that there would be no mention of the occupation, no mention of Israeli apartheid, no mention of international law violations, that this would be focused solely on that part of the Israeli democratic threat, which applies and would impact Israeli Jews.

So that’s where this huge contradiction in the extraordinary level of mobilization that we’re seeing in the streets that’s become an international phenomenon and the ability of these hundreds of thousands of Israelis to absolutely ignore, keep their mouth shut, refused to acknowledge what this shift of the lack of any kind of accountability could mean in terms of making the already horrific situation facing Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian citizens of Israel, the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish, who will be impacted far more brutally than the Jewish Israelis who are in the streets.

And their ability to put that aside really speaks to the success of the Israeli culture of apartheid, culture of occupation, culture of colonialism that has affected the entire Jewish population essentially, so that the number of incredibly brave and creative and smart Jewish opponents of Israeli settlements, of occupation, of apartheid — incredible people, but could sit in my living room, unfortunately, that there are just so few of them.

This is what we’re looking at. And it’s an extraordinary and very sad reality, given what this level of mobilization could mean if it took into account the real threats, the real indications of the nonexistence of a democratic reality in Israel.

SCOTT HARRIS: In your recent article, as we’ve been discussing, the views of many Americans toward the Israel-Palestine conflict are changing with a realization that Palestinian human rights needs to be a key part of U.S. foreign policy. There was a recent development in an article by Nicholas Kristof. He talked about two former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, Dan Kutcher and Martin Indyk, and they talked about how they feel it’s time now for the U.S. to reconsider this unconditional billions of dollars of aid that go to Israel every year. How significant is this, Phyllis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: This is huge. This is one great example. It’s one. I mean, it’s you know, all of these examples, the 500 former Biden staffers, the 25 senators, the 12 House members. Each of them is important in their own right. Together, they show this massive shift that’s underway. The fact is, in my view, there’s going to have to be a shift in U.S. policy.

And that’s why the movement for Palestinian rights here in the United States is so important, because it’s U.S. policy that is making it possible for the Israeli government to continue its denial of Palestinian rights, to continue its oppression of Palestinians, to continue maintaining the dual legal systems in direct violation of international law, without any accountability. As long as that goes forward, it doesn’t matter how many presidents come out and say we are very concerned about the apparent diminishing of of Israeli democracy.

It doesn’t matter what they say, as long as they continue to send the money to protect Israel at the United Nations, to make sure that Israeli officials are never held accountable at the International Court of Justice, to make sure that most countries are too intimidated of possible U.S. retaliation to do anything in the United Nations General Assembly. As long as those things continue.

And it doesn’t matter very much what the U.S. says, it can be a little embarrassing. Maybe it loses Netanyahu or somebody else, a little bit of his support at home. But it’s not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is what the U.S. does.

Her recent Nation magazine article is “On Israel and Palestine, US Electeds Are Out of Touch With Their Own Voters!”

For more information, visit Institute for Policy Studies’ website at

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Phyllis Bennis (29:12) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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