'We Said That Ruling Over Another People Will Come at a Price. But There's No Price'

Zehava Galon tells Haaretz how ‘the world went along with the occupation,’ while Israeli leftists weren’t willing to pay a personal cost

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Former Meretz leader Zehava Galon, June 24, 2020.
Zehava Galon. 'We’re in a situation where maybe our methods of struggle have to change.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Zehava Galon doesn’t want anyone to think she’s a loser. In fact, she’s pretty good at making sure this won’t happen. She has energy, joie de vivre and skills that even her rivals admire, but also an infectious ability to enjoy things like Pilates or a manicure.

Galon, now a Haaretz columnist, is the latest interviewee for a series of talks with leaders on the left from various fields. They all try to answer the question: “Did the left lose the battle against the occupation, and if so, why?”

>> Read more: 'The Palestinians Got Screwed. They Are Now a Non-issue Around the World'

>> Read more: This Noted Arab-Israeli Lawmaker Blames the 'So-called Left' for the Occupation

The choice to talk to Galon is obvious: In politics, Galon is the living person most identified with the fight against the occupation, even though she left the stage two and a half years ago to save herself from a humiliating defeat in a Meretz primary. She served in the Knesset for 16 years, six of them as the party chairwoman.

Since then, she has reinvented herself as a Twitter star who shows no mercy to right-wingers. She’s now promoting a report by a new left-wing group that she founded, Zulat for Equality and Human Rights. The report’s name – “Whitewashing Apartheid: How Netanyahu Manipulated Language to Hide the Consequences of Unilateral Annexation” – is succinct enough.

But despite their disagreements, the prime minister – like all his fellow Knesset members – has great respect for Galon. When she was a legislator, he made sure to occasionally invite her to briefings.

Zehava Galon, second from left, on a Peace Now march in 2009.Credit: David Bachar

The paucity of titles on her résumé, especially in an era when no-names are appointed to the cabinet, points to the thanklessness of the political fight against the occupation.

“I was never a cabinet minister, I never chaired a [permanent] committee,” says Galon, who is 64. “I was the chairwoman of the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee on the Trafficking of Women. Once, a senior male MK said to me: ‘You were Zehava Galon. You were the left.’

Still, she struggles to answer the question of whether or how the battle to end the occupation was lost. “I can’t relate to using concepts like ‘we lost’ because that takes away all my ability to continue to fight,” she says.

“We’re in a situation where maybe our methods of struggle have to change, and it’s possible the train has left the station regarding the two-state solution. It’s certainly irrelevant at the moment. In a different political constellation, one where Donald Trump isn’t reelected and Joe Biden is elected president, then maybe.”

Fake dialogue

Galon has been working to end the occupation since 1984. She was a founder of rights group B’Tselem, and she got into politics after becoming a legislative aide to David “Dedi” Zucker, a leader of the Ratz party, which in 1992 merged with Mapam and Shinui to form Meretz. When asked if she can recall any significant crossroads or critical errors in the battle against the occupation, she immediately mentions the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.

Zehava Galon. 'Is the Nakba something that we have to recognize while understanding the pain of Israel’s Arab citizens? The answer is yes'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“It was a turning point. The left made a few mistakes then. One was political – that the Labor Party didn’t call an election immediately after the murder,” she says.

“What did happen is that fake dialogue circles began – there was this feeling of ‘let’s all be together.’ The left, the Labor Party especially, wanted so badly to join the consensus that it kept losing more and more traction. When the right was in power, it created facts on the ground, and the right became strong.”

You all spoke, and you yourself still speak, about principles like equality, morality and justice. Why didn’t Israelis believe you all?

“A few things happened along the way. First, there was an intifada and terror. I think the Palestinians erred when they did this, and at some stage or another with Abu Mazen, they realized this too,” Galon said, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There’s something else I want to say: Look at all the people sitting in this café. You think that they saw a Palestinian recently? That they care about the Palestinians? Their lives are good, setting aside for now the coronavirus situation. They don’t feel the occupation.”

Galon unpacks the chronicle that in hindsight led to the way things are now, in her opinion. “One of our big mistakes was that we explained to the public all the time that if we didn’t go for the two-state solution and end the occupation, the world would treat us like lepers and impose sanctions on us. And the world didn’t do that,” she says.

“We explained all the time that if there won't be a diplomatic agreement and we continue to rule over another people, it will come at a price, and there was no price. The world went along with it. When was apartheid – and I’m not likening what South Africa had to Israel, it’s not one-to-one – repealed in South Africa? When people realized that it came at a price. There’s no price here. People live well here.”

When you talk about South Africa and the disappointment or the expectations of the international community, you’re basically admitting that you gave up in a sense regarding Israeli society.

Zehava Galon pointing to the E-1 area east of Jerusalem in 2012.Credit: Anat Carmel

“I don’t agree. I don’t think there was a giving up on Israeli society. Enough with that paranoia about talking abroad. The Yesha Council of settlements also travels abroad, and at our expense, and they talk about why it’s necessary to oppose the policy of the Israeli government, and when Hagai El-Ad goes to speak at the United Nations, they kill him,” she says, referring to the B’Tselem chief.

On the extreme left they criticize you even more than on the right. They say, wait a second, if you’re in favor of imposing Jewish supremacy in the territories that Israel conquered in 1948, why not in those that were conquered in ‘67? I think there’s an observation here that the Zionist left is walking around with weights on its legs.

“First of all, that’s true regarding what is called the Zionist left.”

Do you define yourself as Zionist?

Meretz's Zehava Galon, Nitzan Horowitz and Ilan Gilon in 2012.Credit: Michal Fattal

“I define myself as Israeli or as a member of an Israeli political party that has Jewish members, some of whom are Zionist and some of whom are not. Meretz’s position has always been in favor of a state of the Jewish nation and of all its citizens. The fact that I’m asked to define myself as Zionist is part of the narrative of loyalty tests that the right has managed to instill. I’m not willing to submit to those definitions.”

For you as well, “all its citizens” comes after the Jewish state, and Meretz has representatives in institutions such as the Jewish National Fund, whose purpose is to retain Jewish land ownership.

“True. True. Do I think that the State of Israel must be only a state of all its citizens? The answer is no. My parents came here, they were Zionists by definition, and they thought that the Jews deserved a national home. Was that done while causing harm to the people who lived here? The answer is yes. Is the Nakba something that we have to recognize while understanding the pain of Israel’s Arab citizens? The answer is yes.

“And because of that, to my mind, the solution that we gave, the state of the Jewish people and all its citizens, takes into account the fact that there are Arab citizens here who were hurt, and there are Jews here. It’s not that I’m erasing what was here in 1948, but if we want to free ourselves of this and want to do justice, there’s one aspect of recognition and another aspect that’s political-diplomatic. Anyone proposing a political move on the basis of 1948 is living in an illusion.”

To lie under the bulldozer

It might not be puzzling considering that she has left the stage, but for a long time now Galon has been arguing that the political arena is no longer effective in the struggle against the occupation. Galon also doesn’t hesitate to claim that Meretz and the Labor Party have completed their roles. As she sees it, “Our camp has to change its behavior patterns, otherwise it doesn’t stand a chance.”

“We’re playing within the rules of the game. That is, the right submits bills and we react, and so on. As someone who was in the Knesset for 16 years, I know that salvation won’t come from the political system. I think the great power will be in civil society. I call the model that I offer a model of disruption, a model of resistance.”

Then-Meretz chief Zehava Galon voting in a general election, March 17, 2015. Credit: Nir Keidar

When asked how that’s expressed, she refers to a village in the West Bank where the eviction of the Bedouin residents was postponed: “For example, if they clear out Khan al-Ahmar, we should lie under the bulldozers.”

Dedi Zucker says he thinks you all lost the fight over the occupation in the ‘70s in the battle over the settlements in Sebastia, “when we decided to leave peacefully and go home to sleep” instead of lying down on the ground and refusing to leave.

“I think he’s right. I helped establish a group called The 21st Year, to mark the 21st anniversary of the occupation, and I initiated a demonstration against the razing of homes in Qalqilyah. We were arrested and sat in jail for five days. Our group fell apart after that because no one was willing to pay the price any longer. The settlers were willing to pay a personal price and we weren’t.

“It could be that the settlers, who always had the support of the government, knew that it was all with a wink and that if they established unlawful settlement outposts they wouldn’t go to prison. But in one way or another, we waged a ‘deluxe’ struggle. People didn’t feel that they were fighting, they felt that they were putting their souls into it, but in some way it was a deluxe struggle.”

How was that luxury expressed?

“That people didn’t lie under the bulldozers, for example.”

Maybe the lives of the people who opposed the occupation were and still are pretty good, and for that reason they’re in no hurry to shove themselves under the bulldozers?

“Yes, the answer is yes. Overall its’s a decent, tidy, bourgeois class, with principles and a worldview. Excellent people who don’t want to rule over another nation and don’t want the occupation, but after so many years of fighting they say, ‘All right, I can’t make a difference.’ That leads them, for example, to the one-state solution, to a kind of delusion, or they say ‘All right, maybe there will be two states sometime, let’s let it go.’”

Do you have any insights on the path taken by the party you once headed?

Zehava Galon in her office in Jerusalem, 2002.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

“I think that a large part of our constituency found it hard to focus on the fight against the occupation. It’s easier to talk about democratic socialism and social struggles. We in Meretz tried to sell the thesis that everything is interconnected, that if you fight the occupation, you’re fighting for social justice and for the separation of religion and state, that it’s all part of the same struggle. We failed to convince [our constituency].”

There’s a sense that, in contrast to the unification on the right, the left doesn’t stop “shooting inside the armored personnel carrier,” as the Israeli saying goes.

“I don’t agree with you. I think that only leftists have this criticism of the left. I think there are other variables here that have to be included. The right controls the government. Control is power; when you control the government you’re willing to let things slide, because the government’s power is strong.

“I do agree that leftists have an annoying tendency to criticize the leftists; this is seen mainly around election time. The right would never do that to itself. It’s not enough that the right-wingers go after the leftists, so the leftists go after the leftists.”

Either way, Galon these days mainly goes after right-wingers on Twitter. She says she isn’t bothered by being attacked by the right. “It rolls off my back,” she says. “I bash into them at 180 kilometers an hour [112 mph]. I see fewer and fewer people on the left being confrontational. My milieu is very, very bummed out by the treachery of that quartet that joined up with Bibi.”

Also in the position papers you sent me ahead of this interview, you called the decision by Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, and Labor's Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli to join the government “treason.”

“Absolutely. I don’t have another definition for it.”

Ever since Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, treason has been a very harsh word.

The former head of the Meretz party, Zehava Galon, in Tel Aviv in 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

“I think the move that Amir Peretz [and others] made was a move of treason. Maybe treachery is a better word. Treachery against their promise to their voters. They killed the center-left voter, they killed all possible hope. They caused two [kinds of] damage – first, in joining up with the government and killing the constituency to which they made a promise, and second, they gave Bibi the legitimacy to go for annexation; that is, apartheid.”

Galon, like many in the camp, has been talking about a new project, whose core would be a party of Arab-Jewish partnership. At some point after her political departure, there were rumors that she planned to set something up with Ahmad Tibi, a high-profile Arab Israeli legislator.

A number of people who had left Meretz and Labor and were trying to put something similar together approached her. Galon, however, stresses that she has no intention of returning to elected office.

“I don’t think Ayman Odeh will leave the Joint List,” she says, referring to the leader of that alliance of Arab parties. “He made a very dramatic move when he reunited the Joint List. He’s their leader; I think it gives him a lot of power.”

So if Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi aren’t partners for this kind of arrangement, who might be?

“There are many civil-society elements that you don’t know about at the moment. I think that a joint Jewish-Arab party should arise between Kahol Lavan and the Joint List .... This would also affect our arrangement vis-a-vis the Palestinians and on the entire battle to end the occupation.”

How do you think the annexation saga will end?

“I think Bibi can’t afford not to declare something after building up so much anticipation in his camp. As long as Trump is in the White House, [Benjamin Netanyahu] can announce something. If Trump is reelected, I have no doubt that he’ll go for a Big Pines move,” she says, referring to the original plan for a large-scale invasion of Lebanon, first submitted to the cabinet in December 1981. “There’s also a possibility that Netanyahu will call an election before Trump loses, depending on the damages from the coronavirus.”

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