Interview. We spoke with the historian Zeev Sternhell about the new Israeli law that defines Israel as a Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, effectively stripping the occupied territories of the right to self-determination.

Zeev Sternhell: ‎Netanyahu is pushing Israel toward ‘authoritarian system’

Gideon Levy’s verdict in Haaretz newspaper a week ago was clear. The law establishing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which Prime Minister Netanyahu and the nationalist-religious majority in government strongly pushed for and which was finally approved Wednesday, “will present Zionism as it is,” wrote the Israeli columnist. He added, “it will also put an end to the farce that Israel is Jewish and democratic, a combination that has never existed and that could never exist because of the intrinsic contradiction between the two values that can only be held together by deception.”

The Palestinians of Israel, the Arab minority who make up 20 percent of the country’s population, already knew this. But now they also know that they are exposed to the concrete consequences of a fundamental law of the state, approved by the Parliament, which, without explicitly affirming it, ignores the equality of all citizens—included in the declaration of independence of Israel—because it grants a privileged status to Jewish citizens compared to Arab citizens.

The law affirms that the Biblical land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jews and that within it the State of Israel was founded, underlining that non-Jews do not have and will not have the right to claim their belonging to that same land,  the historical Palestine. One of the most important points of the new law regards the State of Israel that “sees the development of the Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to promote its consolidation.”

In this way, “it implies that the settlement of Arabs is second level,” said the communist deputy Dov Chenin. “Not even in South Africa had the apartheid regime dared to go that far.” And it is no less significant that Arabic is no longer an official language of Israel. Since Thursday it has only a “special status.”

The law was welcomed by Netanyahu because, according to him, it places Jewish values and democratic values on an equal footing without denying the rights of all citizens. The judgment of Ayman Odeh, leader of the United Arab List, is quite different. Waving a black flag during his speech in the Knesset, Odeh said that “this is an evil law and above it there is a black flag. … With this law Israel is saying that it does not want Arab people here.” For Hassan Jabareen, director of the Arab NGO Adalah, what the Knesset voted for “presents key elements of apartheid. It is immoral and against international law.”

We talked about the meaning of the law and its effects with the historian Zeev Sternhell, one of the greatest experts on fascism and the history of Zionism. His works have been translated into many languages. On Sept. 25, 2008, Sternhell was injured in a bomb attack in his home by a right-wing extremist Jew.

In the end, Netanyahu got what he had been demanding for years.

Unfortunately, yes. This law officially sanctions the difference between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Certainly, until today, in daily life the Arab citizens had never had full rights, but, as Machiavelli said, it is one thing to do something wrong and another to implement it with a law. A rule has been introduced in which the Jewish nature of Israel is superior to the democratic values of the state. Therefore, if Israel used to call itself Jewish and democratic, it is now the state of the Jewish nation. It belongs to every Jew in the world but not to its Arab citizens.

What will happen next?

We will see dangerous developments because the law can manifest itself in many ways. We must ask ourselves how it will be translated into politics. Will it open the door to a no-longer-hidden discrimination of Arabs in Israel? I fear that this will take many forms, in various aspects of the country’s life. Without forgetting that the law, by assigning the entire biblical “Eretz Israel” to the Jews, will give rise to a further and more massive campaign of Jewish colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories [taken by Israel in 1967]. Affirming that the land belongs only to the Jews and not also to the Arabs is a central aspect, and we should understand what it will mean legally, in the courts, during court cases.

In your books and articles you have repeatedly warned of the authoritarian turning point in Israel and suffered violent attacks and criticism.

There is no doubt that we are proceeding at full speed on the right and that nationalist and messianic Jews are implementing a clear agenda that is making Israel an increasingly less democratic and egalitarian country. The authoritarian system that the right has in mind brings Israel closer to Hungary and Eastern Europe and distances it from Western Europe.

Last week the controversial Hungarian premier Orban was received as a friend and close ally by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Netanyahu is already preparing for the next parliamentary elections and I fear he will win them. The welcome to Orban, his main ally in Europe, should also be read in that light, as should the law on the Jewish nation-state passed by the Knesset. We are living in difficult, dark times. After 50 years of military occupation of the territories and fierce nationalist policies, there is now official discrimination against the Arab minority in Israel and an explicit denial of any possibility of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza enjoying full self-determination. By affirming with a law that “Eretz Israel”—that is to say, the territory that goes from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River—belongs only to the Jews, Netanyahu, the Right, the religious ultra-nationalists, wanted to put an end to the idea that one day an independent Palestinian State can be born within this territory.

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