Why Israeli NGO’s UN testimony against occupation backfired

The decision by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem to testify to the UN Security Council against the occupation has weakened its own camp and played into the hands of the Israeli right.

al-monitor The director of B'Tselem, Hagai El-Ad, addresses the UN Security Council in New York, United States, Oct. 14, 2016.  Photo by Facebook/btselem.

Topics covered

un security council, palestinian-israeli peace process, ngo, israeli politics, israeli occupation, human rights, b'tselem

Oct 18, 2016

Israeli nongovernmental organization B’Tselem has come a long way from when it was founded in 1989, around the time the first intifada erupted, as an organization devoted to defending human rights in the occupied territories. On Oct. 14, it addressed the UN Security Council in an informal meeting on "Illegal Israeli Settlements: Obstacles to Peace and the Two-State Solution."

Over the years, the organization has become a favorite punching bag for the right, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Friday, it gave the right another chance to score political points at its expense, while causing enormous damage to the Israeli center-left.

In his speech, the group’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, called on the world to take action against Israel’s occupation of the territories. El-Ad implored the world to act now — after almost half a century of occupation, saying, “Anything short of decisive international action will achieve nothing.’’ He added, “Clearly, the occupation is internationally sustainable. It is so because so far the world refuses to take effective action. … [You must] send to the world, to Israelis and to Palestinians, a clear message, backed by international action: Israel cannot have it both ways. You cannot occupy a people for 50 years and call yourself a democracy.”

One could say that nothing El-Ad said should have been considered problematic by the left and even the center-left, apart from the fact that his remarks were said “outside,” at the United Nations, which is considered hostile to Israel. After all, just a few days earlier, one branch of that same organization (UNESCO) issued a troubling statement denying that Jews had any connection to the Temple Mount.

As expected, Netanyahu responded to the event with a full-blown attack, devoting two posts to it on Facebook. In the first, he denounced the group, saying, “B’Tselem and Friends of Peace Now in the United States have now joined the chorus of slander against Israel and recycled the false claim that the occupation and the settlements are the cause of the conflict. B’Tselem’s executive director pleaded with the Security Council to take action against Israel. What these groups cannot achieve through democratic elections in Israel, they try to achieve by international coercion.”

In his second post, Netanyahu focused on more practical measures, promising to revoke the option of enlisting for national service (instead of military service) with B’Tselem. His message was clear: Traitors from the left cannot be a part of Israel’s official institutions.

Obviously, these responses by the prime minister, echoed by other leaders on the right, are as provocative and polarizing as his statement during the 2015 election that “Arabs are heading to the polls in droves.” In Netanyahu’s world, the left is collaborating with Israel’s enemies. With Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett challenging his status on the right, why not exploit the appeal to the United Nations to bolster and reclaim his standing?

At the same time, the chair of Meretz, Knesset member Zehava Gal-On, is also right. She threw her support behind El-Ad on Oct. 16, arguing that efforts to harm B’Tselem and limit the group’s activities are “damaging to Israel’s international image as a nation with pretensions of being democratic.” Gal-On added, “B’Tselem has no less of a right to appear before the United Nations than the prime minister has a right to appear before the UN and other international forums.”

The problem is that Gal-On, a former head of B’Tselem, and the group’s current leadership are misguided in their political strategy. While B’Tselem is a human rights organization, it is also part of the Israeli left, and therefore has political objectives, too. It is reasonable to assume that the group’s members would like to see Israel’s right-wing government replaced. Why, then, are they doing everything they can to strengthen the right? After all, actions like the speech before the United Nations best serve those most opposed to them.

The same thing can be said about comments by State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez, who supported El-Ad’s speech. He remarked that the United States is “grateful” to NGOs like B’Tselem and Peace Now, which are active overseas and put the issue of settlements on the international agenda.

Groups like B’Tselem play a very important role in Israeli democracy. Some of their activities are critical to ensuring that human rights are protected. Its documentation of soldier Elor Azaria’s shooting of a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron last March demonstrated how beneficial it is to have B’Tselem’s cameras record potentially criminal acts by IDF troops in the territories. Azaria is now standing trial for what he did. Thanks in part to such groups, despite whatever El-Ad said in New York, Israel is a functioning democracy.

On the other hand, El-Ad’s speech before the Security Council was a political imprudent act, ultimately harmful to the left with which he identifies. Sometimes it is best to be smart rather than right. B’Tselem is doing the exact opposite. It is serving the interests of the Israeli right while distancing the left from the Israeli center, which supports partition and sees B’Tselem as serving the interests of Israel’s enemies.

It looks like Netanyahu is right about B’Tselem giving up on operating politically inside Israel and choosing to receive support from the outside world instead. This is, of course, a fatal error by B’Tselem, since ending the occupation will be a political decision by an Israeli leader. It will not result from a call for help to the UN Security Council. For that reason, not only do B’Tselem’s actions alienate Israelis from the left, they also distance the organization from the possibility of realizing the very objectives it is struggling to achieve and for which it was founded in the first place.

Another contributing factor is that B’Tselem’s leadership tends to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in an unbalanced way. It fails to treat it as a complex issue, in which the Palestinians have hardly been acting like saints. Whether rightfully or not, a large swathe of the Israeli public believes that the other side is no partner for peace and will have a hard time identifying with such a simplistic position, especially when presented by Israelis. B’Tselem members look and sound like they have no empathy for the Israeli-Zionist position, as evidenced by El-Ad’s 2014 refusal to call Hamas a terrorist organization. With that, too, B’Tselem weakened its own side in Israel’s internal debate and made it more difficult to implement a two-state solution.

For these reasons, it is hard to blame the center-left Zionist Camp, which has remained mum on El-Ad’s speech, and the sharp criticism being leveled against him in Israel. Unlike B’Tselem’s executive director, they realize that there is a decisive political battle underway concerning the State of Israel’s future.

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