Former Knesset speaker talks about Israel, Netanyahu and democracy.
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Born in 1955 in Jerusalem, Avraham Burg was for years member of the Israeli Labor Party and served as speaker of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) from 1999-2003, as well as acting President, after the resignation of Ezer Weizman in 2000. Since 2004 he has turned to business, but maintains a frequent presence in the public debate, expressing “post-Zionist” positions.

You gave an interview to Haaretz a couple of weeks ago saying that you asked Israel to annul you registration as a Jew. So, my question is simple. What led you to this decision?

Knesset passed a law two years ago equivalent to the constitutional legislation that redefines Israel as a nation-state and places the Jewish collective as the hegemonic element in our country. This definition, both in terms of its content and the value system behind it, is categorically opposed to the way I perceive historical Judaism to which I belong to (historical meaning thousands of years and tens of generations as a historical, cultural structure and as a founding myth) and against the fundamental principles of the state of Israel as it was established in 1948, where on the one hand you had the Jewish state but on the other hand there was a sensitivity to the freedoms of minorities. This law deprives the minorities from many of their rights and creates conditions where the tyranny of the majority prevails at the expense of the balance between the one and the many, majority and minority.

So I appealed to the court and said “Listen, the Knesset has the right to pass any law it wants, but they cannot enforce on me this of Judaism which is not mine, it does not represent me. Therefore, I ask you do not to register me as a Jew according to the new definition of Judaism.”

Is this law –the law declaring the country ‘nation-state of the Jewish people’- and the whole policy of discrimination against Palestinians, including the expansion of settlements in the West Bank- sign that Israel is turning to a so-called illiberal democracy?

Israel has undoubtedly became in the last couple of years under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu part of the infamous of illiberal democracies including Putin, Erdogan, Orban and, of course, Netanyahu himself and Trump. There is certainly evidence that Israel remains a living political system, in electoral terms, but the principles on which the liberal rights of every human being, the protection of civil liberties, the sanctity in a sense of the judiciary and all ohters gatekeepers of our democracy have been weakened and attacked by Netanyahu, who is trying to create a situation where at the end of the day we will officially have a democracy that will vote for him, but not a liberal democracy that will protect us from him.

Let me clarify here that the law that was mentioned does not refer specifically to the settlements, but institutionalizes the hegemony and monopoly of the Jews in everything that exists between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean. Of course, it is not just about Netanyahu, but about Israel as it emerged after 1967. Israel, as I have said, is not a full democracy.We like to use labels and definitions in Israel but we can’t meet them, we like double standards. “The most moral army in the world”, “The only democracy in the Middle East”, while on the other hand what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank with the expansion of illegal settlements and the deprivation of rights by the Palestinians, which can be call it apartheid, lack of democracy or whatever anyone wish to call it, is a malignant melanoma. But I argue that, among other things, this issue that existed before Netanyahu worsened under Netanyahu’s rule.

Yes, but despite all these signs, we see Netanyahu is still dominant politically. Ηow is this explained? The fragmentation of the Left, the mistakes made by Palestinian authorities, is he a kind of gifted populist?

I am not at all impressed by the wisdom of the majority. For example, when you go back to Athens 3,000 thousand years ago and you ask yourself about Socrates and Athens, who was right and who was wrong, who was the majority and who was the minority, Socrates was alone, the rest were the majority, but Socrates was right and they are wrong.

What I mean is that for me the majority is not an argument. In our case, Netanyahu’s right-wing, conservative policy is a legitimate and valid majority, but it is stupid and wrong. And the reason people are so happy with it is because being Israeli today is fantastic, it is very convenient. The economy is good, the safety is good, even the health is good if you think we are leading the world with our vaccination plan against Covid-19. Therefore, the comfort zone of being Israeli is good and the logic is that I have no reason to change this comfort zone and overthrow the Prime Minister. “So what if he is a thief? So what if he is corrupt? So what if he is a son of a bitch? He is my son of a bitch!”

And of course the collapse of the value system of Israeli society and the political fragmentation favor him consolidating the whole narrative which includes the formal exaggeration of the external existential danger (which does not exist in the dramatic way posed by the Prime Minister even for the Iran).

I, on the other hand, belong to those who claim that wrong is wrong and somebody like him should not be permited to be prime minister. And I am of the opinion that even if the others are the majority, we will eventually win.

Over the last few weeks we have seen a real transformation of Netanyahu. Ηe has been touring Arab towns and villages declaring he is going to release a huge program to fight violence and crime in the Arab sector. trying to exploit the disappointment or even frustration of Arabs towards The parties that make up the Joint List. We talk about the same man who has done everything in his power to imprint in the public’s mind that Arab citizens of Israel must not be allowed to participate in the political game.

It will seem strange to you what I will say but Netanyahu is a man with principles. Νumber one principle, opportunism. He is the greatest opportunist. For years he spread lies and hatred for the Arab parties and promoted all kinds of discrimination against the Arabs and in a short time he presented himself as one of them. In his personal interest and to escape accusations of corruption and avoid court suddenly the Arabs suddenly become his best friends.

I would say that any Arab candidate who trusts Netanyahu’s opportunism takes a huge risk. Also what I am saying is that a man like Netanyahu, not only because he is corrupt (yes, he is corrupt), but also because of his irresponsible politics vis a vis the West Bank, vis a vis economy, vis a vis social cohesion, vis a vis even dealing with the coronavirus is so bad, that this guy should not be allowed to be a prime minister even one more day. Based on all the above, I do not think that anyone should support him, especially those who were the main victims of his incompetence, the Arab minority of Israel.

You have an election coming up in Israel. What party will you vote? Is there any party representing you positions?

I am troubled. For years, precisely because I belong to the privileged Jewish class, my position as a left-winger is that I must support the oppressed minorities, so I voted for Arab parties, specifically Hadash. What happened recently is that some of them, especially the extremely conservative and religious part, get in touch with Netanyahu, so I am not sure that if I vote for the United Arab List some of its votes will not end up supporting Netanyahu.

So I’m kind of lost, let me tell you. I tried to create in Israel a project similar to the Greek SYRIZA (and I am sorry for the bad Greek example), a confederation of small organizations with a secular, progressive, socialist character that look forward to a better balance in favor of the rights of minorities and oppressors. I have not succeeded so far, but I do not give up.

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