How Israel's left is missing the point

A discriminatory law which bans Palestinians from joining spouses within Israel was extended without

While Israeli PM Netanyahu's coalition seems steady, recent events like the response to the new anti-boycott law, the march for Palestinian independence, and the housing protests have some claiming a resurgent "peace camp". Yet the rhetoric by Israel's "left" has merely highlighted how much remains to be done to realise equality and basic Palestinian rights.

When the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law earlier this month, there was a huge outcry. Long-time activist Uri Avnery declared that the anti-boycott law "crosses the boundary between a democratic and a non- democratic society". The New York Times published an editorial saying that the legislation "seriously tarnished" Israel's "reputation as a vibrant democracy".

Days later, Israel's cabinet voted to extend another piece of legislation. The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law bans Palestinians from the Occupied Territories from living with their spouses in Israel (for West Bank residents it depends on the individual's age). First passed as a "temporary" measure in 2003, it has been periodically renewed ever since. In 2006, the ('liberal') Israeli Supreme Court ruled against a legal challenge to the law.

As B'Tselem puts it, "the statute severely impairs the family life of tens of thousands of persons". To put it simply, this law prevents Palestinian families living together. That's why the EU Ambassador to Israel has previously slammed the legislation as "establishing a discriminatory regime to the detriment of Palestinians in the highly sensitive area of family rights".

Officially, the Israeli government justifies the law on the grounds of security, pointing to terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinians who had entered Israel through family unification. But as a rationale for such a general prohibition this is inadequate: Israel's security services, after all, are able to approve entry for thousands of Palestinian workers.

In reality, says B'Tselem, the security argument is "baseless" and intended to "cover-up the real reason" for the law: trying to stop "the further increase of the Arab population in Israel in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state". In the words of then-minister without portfolio Gideon Ezra: "the state of Israel is not prepared to accept a creeping right of return; no one wants our state to cease to be a Jewish state". In 2005, the then-PM Ariel Sharon admitted: "There is no need to hide behind security arguments. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state".

Where is the outrage over a law that was greeted by the right-wing news site Israel National News with the headline: "Cabinet Extends Measure Preventing 'Invasion by Marriage'"? Why, for Avnery and others, is the anti-boycott law -- and not the legally-sanctioned separation of Palestinian spouses -- the final straw? The key difference seems to be that the former will affect Jewish Israelis.

The ban on family unification is just one example, of course -- Israel's "vibrant democracy'"has long meant something rather different for Palestinians. But its renewal at the same time as the anti-boycott law dominated the headlines highlights the problematic politics of a mainstream Israeli left that seems more invigorated by a perceived urgency to "save Zionism" (i.e. through two-state ethnic separation) than by a fight against colonial occupation.

Ben White is a freelance journalist specialising in Israel/Palestine.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.