Critique of the Amnesty Report on Israeli Apartheid

Defining Israel as an apartheid state has become trendy. In early 2021 B’Tselem used this term, moving the terrifying word from living room conversations to the world at large. And if B’Tselem says this—an Israeli organization, after all! —what will international human rights organizations say? In April 2021, Human Rights Watch published a report calling Israel an apartheid state. Amnesty International could not lag far behind.

True, it is impossible to disprove the reality reflected in Amnesty’s document. The Israeli legal system, from the Law of Return to the Nation-State Law, discriminates between Jewish and Arab citizens. And let’s not forget the occupied territories, where military law is the rule, although there is also a separation within it: Israeli law for settlers and military law for Palestinians. All of these create a distorted legal system that undermines Israel’s claim to be a democracy.

Unclear, however, is what these human rights organizations are trying to achieve: to dismantle Israel? End the occupation? Establish one state? Two states? Return Palestinian refugees to their homes and roll back the wheel of history? When Amnesty describes the political reality between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as apartheid, the clear intention is to bring about Israel’s end as a Jewish nation-state.

There is also the question of timing. After all, the reality described in the report has existed since the State of Israel was founded 74 years ago, while in the territories beyond the Green Line, Israel has been conducting an occupation regime for 53 years. The answer to the question is political: as long as the occupation was presented as temporary and the two-state solution was ostensibly on the agenda, it was problematic to call Israel an apartheid state. But in the reality of 2022, when there exists no possibility of a political settlement to guarantee Palestinian rights, the question remains, “What then?” Moreover, after the Likud’s fall from power, a government was formed that includes a broad political spectrum, including the Settler-Right, the Center, the Zionist left, and the Islamic movement. To form this government, it was decided to avoid any “ideological” issues. That is to say, the political issue is not on the agenda; there is no one to talk to on the Palestinian side, nor anything to talk about. Let’s say openly that Israel’s current political system, in which the Right has a solid majority, opposes an independent Palestinian state. The Labor Party and Meretz, which ostensibly do not exclude the principle of peace negotiations, have essentially given them up.

In effect, Israel does indeed stretch from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, creating the reality documented in the Amnesty report. It does maintain a de facto apartheid regime, preferring to bury its head in the sand and affix the title “anti-Semitic” to anyone who holds up the mirror to what it has become.

Israel’s sins are visible to all, so in this respect, the Amnesty report does not say much that is new. As an organization with prestige and experience, however, we expected it to produce an objective report that would present the facts and their background in a way that would help people on the ground, here and throughout the world, to reach a balanced understanding and thereby lay the foundation for a progressive alternative to the existing regime. Instead, we received a biased report, which only partially describes the political background that led to apartheid. It states that since its founding in 1948, “Israel has pursued an explicit policy of establishing and maintaining a Jewish demographic hegemony.” Israel, whether we like it or not, was not just foisted on the world. It received international recognition from the UN, including the United States and the USSR, against the backdrop of the Holocaust. UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947 recognized the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, such that the definition of the state as Jewish received an international stamp of approval that exists to this day. Not only that, but recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish nation was recognized by all political parties in Israel, including the Communist Party with its Jewish and Arab members, who actively took part in the 1948 war.

Amnesty’s report is also guilty of distorting contemporary political reality. Although Israel is primarily responsible for apartheid, it is not the sole player in the arena. The existing system has a partner without which this reality could not exist. This partner is the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is the representative body of the Palestinian people.

Amnesty’s report also mentions the Oslo Accords, which it describes as arrangements that “divided the West Bank into three different administrative areas, with varying levels of Palestinian and Israeli military and civil jurisdiction, fragmenting and segregating Palestinians even further to Israel’s benefit.”  The problem is that the PA, which represents all Palestinian parties and factions including Hamas, was established under the auspices of the Oslo Accords. It continues to be committed to them, including close cooperation with Israel, on which its existence depends. The PA maintains security coordination with Israel, defined by none other than the head of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, as “sacred.” The Israeli governments, headed by Binyamin Netanyahu and even more so now by Naftali Bennett, as well as the international community, do all they can to sustain the PA, precisely because it serves as subcontractor of the occupation.

In addition, the Amnesty report completely ignores the fact that alongside the apartheid regime, a corrupt Palestinian entity has been created that systematically violates the human and civil rights of its residents. The Palestinian citizen suffers not only from injustices of the occupation, but equally from the PA, which denies basic rights with the support of Israel and the international community.

This is the picture. The apartheid regime exists on the basis of an agreement between the PLO and Israel. The PA has received the status of a state at the UN. Its head is called the “president” of a state that does not exist. Had such a state indeed existed, apartheid would have been abolished. In other words, apartheid takes place with the consent of the PA and the authority conferred on Israel by the international community.

The best salespersons of apartheid, Rabin, Peres and Arafat, received the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Oslo Accords. Now add to this a new tier, the Abraham Accords, which many in the Arab, Western, and Israeli leftist worlds support.

As long as the elected representative of the Palestinian people maintains peaceful relations with Israel, and accepts the arrangements made in the Oslo Accords, there is no chance that Amnesty’s call for a boycott of Israel will be accepted by the international community. The Amnesty report describes an imaginary reality according to which the Palestinians “have been advocating for an understanding of Israel’s rule as apartheid for over two decades…and have been at the forefront of advocacy in that regard at the UN.” But in practice the situation is completely different. It is impossible to demand “an understanding of Israel’s rule as apartheid” and at the same time maintain security and economic ties with it. The PA suffers from such schizophrenia and tries to convince the world that it is possible, but it is not at all clear why an important human rights organization like Amnesty should give backing and legitimacy to this lie.

The greatest weakness of the Amnesty report, and of all those organizations shouting “Apartheid! Apartheid!” lies in the fact that there exists no Palestinian leadership and movement today that presents an alternative to the PA and Hamas. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian ‘Nelson Mandela,’ signed the Oslo Accords, and since then the two organizations that control the arena, Fatah and Hamas, have been at war with each other. They divide the Palestinians politically and geographically. The so-called liberal opposition is weak and cowardly, and—most importantly—the Palestinians shouting “Apartheid!” have not established a significant political force, nor have they created a coherent political platform as an alternative to the Oslo Accords and the illusion of two states.

An alternative leadership, if and when it arises, will have to know how to rise above the walls of narrow nationalism, appeal to the whole of Israeli society, and dare to offer one democratic state from the sea to the river with equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of nationality, religion or race. There is currently no significant Palestinian entity that will lead in such a direction. In its absence, Labor and Meretz members can join the Bennett government on the pretext that the political issue is not on the agenda, using the worn-out “two-states” card as a cover for their shame. True, apartheid has become a reality. Yet Amnesty’s demand that the international community recognize this and isolate Israel will not bear fruit until the Palestinians themselves rise up and remove the PA, which has acceded to the tragic folly for almost 30 years.

About Yacov Ben Efrat