Opinion: Reassessing the approach to Israel

While governments speak of a two-state solution, what we have today is a ‘one-state reality,’ writes former executive director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth.

The deepening repression of the far-right Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is providing plenty of reasons for concern. The government has moved to further undermine the judiciary, threatening to leave government decisions entirely untethered from meaningful judicial oversight. It has pursued increasingly deadly raids and continues to expand illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Yet the Western response to these dramatic and dangerous developments has been to recycle long-outdated talking points. Reacting to the latest settlement announcement, the German government, joined by France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, warned in March that the move might ‘undermine efforts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution.’

The Israeli government’s conduct certainly provides grounds for condemnation. But ritualistic invocation of the ‘two-state solution’ cannot obscure the fact that for decades, the Israeli government has been expanding the settlements with the aim of making a Palestinian state impossible. It has largely succeeded. The settlements are war crimes, blatant violations of the prohibition in Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention on an occupier transferring members of its population to occupied territory.

At some point the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation, may prosecute some of the Israeli officials responsible. But the settlements are nonetheless a reality that cannot be wished away. In 2019, a former Israeli soldier from the group Breaking the Silence gave me a hilltop tour of the West Bank to better understand the layout of Israel’s settlements, outposts, bypass roads, and other obstacles to Palestinians moving freely within their territory. What is left is a Swiss cheese of Palestinian enclaves, with little hope of ever becoming a viable, contiguous state.

After more than five decades of occupation and 30 years of the ‘peace process,’ it is no longer tenable to regard the repression of Israel’s occupation as a mere temporary phenomenon to be cured by a ‘peace process’ without end. The ‘peace process’ is moribund. While governments speak of a two-state solution, what we have today is a ‘one-state reality.’ Indeed, the main people still invoking the two-state solution seem to be Western officials desperately trying to avoid coming to terms with the unceasing nature of Israeli oppression.

Admittedly, the Palestinian Authority (PA) does not yet speak of a one-state reality. Its officials cling to the illusion of a peace process as the only way to maintain their position of power. Yet the PA has in effect become an Israeli government subcontractor with the task of keeping discontent with Israel’s repressive occupation in check. The credibility of the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also limited by its failure to hold presidential or parliamentary elections since 2006. Along with the Israeli government, it fears that Hamas might win a new election, as it did last time parliamentary elections were held.

If Israel and Palestine are now bound together in a one-state reality, what is that reality? The leading Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, and more than two dozen other Israeli groups; the leading Palestinian human rights group, al-Haq, and scores of other Palestinian rights groups; as well as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, United Nations experts, among others, have all concluded that it is apartheid.

This is meant not as an historical analogy to South Africa but as a careful analysis of the facts under the legal definition of apartheid contained in the United Nations convention on the crime of apartheid and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. That definition requires an intent to maintain a system of domination by one racial group over another, coupled with systematic oppression and specified inhumane acts, carried out on a widespread or systematic basis.

While there are differences in the scope of the various analyses, all agree that Israeli authorities are committing the crime of apartheid against millions of Palestinians. That has become the mainstream view of every serious human rights organization to have examined the issue. For example, Palestinians in the West Bank including East Jerusalem live with far fewer rights and far greater restrictions than their Israeli neighbors in the settlements next door.

Supporters of the Israeli government cannot avoid acknowledging this discrimination but have tended to dismiss its importance by arguing that it is temporary—that the ‘peace process’ will resolve it. Given the endless ‘peace process,’ with no serious talks in years, that response has long ceased to be credible.

Partisans of the Israeli government also cite Palestinian violence, but the challenge of meeting that violence does not explain building settlements that carve up the West Bank—making Israelis more vulnerable, not less—stealing Palestinian water and land, or preventing Palestinians in Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank from even adding a bedroom to their home.

Apartheid is not an easy label to apply, but it is the only fair one to describe the oppressive, discriminatory regime that the Israeli government imposes—the government’s policy of privileging Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians.

I understand that these are difficult truths for the German government especially to accept. It has understandably felt a special responsibility toward the Jewish people after the Holocaust. As the Federal Foreign Office puts it, ‘Germany has a unique relationship with Israel. This stems from Germany’s responsibility for the Shoah, the systematic genocide of six million European Jews under National Socialism.’ 

Or to put it in more negative terms, Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said in March in response to mild criticism from German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, ‘The last ones who should be preaching to us are the Germans.’ 

As the Jewish son of a father who grew up in Frankfurt and fled to New York as a 12-year-old boy in July 1938, I understand in a personal way the evil that the Nazi regime imposed. German reticence to speak of human rights to Israel is understandable, but today, it is wrong.

It is a mistake to equate the current Israeli government with the Jewish people. Jews took two very different lessons from the Holocaust, only one of which is represented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his band of extremist ministers.

They believe that the Nazis persecuted the Jews because the Jews were weak. Netanyahu and his ilk have constructed a state that is strong, which is understandable, but also brutal, which is wrong. The message seems to be that if anyone messes with Israel, they will be not only stopped but also crushed. Palestinians under occupation are the main victims of that logic of repression.

The alternative perspective, which I share, is that power is never enough for protection, especially in a world where a single nuclear weapon in the hands of a hostile state could do terrible harm. Rather, we need to build a world in which norms of conduct are strong enough that governments never resort to the mass persecution, let alone mass murder, of people whom they dislike. We need a world in which global pressure against any temptation toward such persecution or slaughter is consistently and intensely applied.

That is why so many Jews have taken as their lesson from the Holocaust the importance of upholding human rights, especially for disfavored minorities. It is why a majority of American Jews disapprove of the Netanyahu government’s repressive policies.

These alternative lessons drawn from the Holocaust are not wholly contradictory. Each has an element of truth. Yes, the Israeli government needs a strong military to protect itself. But it also needs strong human rights standards. The Netanyahu government’s one-dimensional approach to Israeli security—power without regard to human rights—is undermining those standards.

The German government should reassess the lessons that it takes from its Nazi history. Feeling a debt toward the world’s Jews should not mean writing a blank check to the Israeli government as it rips up the important rights lessons that should be taken from the Holocaust.

Persecuting Palestinians not only violates basic human rights principles that the German government and its Western partners regularly invoke in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, but it also is not good for the Jews of the world, most of whom live outside of Israel and depend on those norms. And it is not good for Israel, whose security cannot be enhanced by the permanent suppression of the Palestinians with whom it shares a small slice of land.

Apartheid is not a long-term solution. Western governments should say so. The lessons of the Holocaust, far from impeding such candor, compel it.