Guess Who's in Charge of Whitewashing Israeli Settlements

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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A boy riding a donkey herds goats and sheep near the Jewish settlement of Kedar in the West Bank, June 30, 2020.
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

In a side room on a high floor in a building in the heart of the military base in Tel Aviv’s Kirya, sits an officer who handles some of the bureaucratic details of the race to legalize unauthorized settlement outposts before the March 23 election this year. It’s not the grandiose plan to authorize 46 settlements, as the Young Settlements campaign was hoping to do, but there is still a plan to sanction five to 10, at the very least, in which it might be possible to built. Ovnat, Tel Zion and Avigayil have been mentioned as potential candidates.

How fitting that this project has been entrusted to Michael Biton of Kahol Lavan – a minister in the Defense Ministry – a party that has championed making the unkosher kosher from within. From joining a government led by a criminal defendant, through the outpost approval project that will likely be its swan song, the party that wants to persuade us that its very presence in the government has stopped everything bad, doesn’t seem to think that anything is bad.

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Enough has been written on the lack of ideology in Kahol Lavan, but many of its cabinet members have established this with their actions. For example, there’s an issue that hasn’t generated too many headlines: the antics of the superfluous Strategic Affairs Ministry. The previous minister, Gilad Erdan, turned it into the task force for fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), secretly funding settler and right-wing organizations and playing the world’s policeman with anyone who dared to criticize Israeli policy in the territories.

So what did Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen do upon taking on this embarrassing portfolio? She hired former Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Ronen Manelis as director-general so that he could whitewash the problem for her. Manelis hastened to remove from the funding list those organizations that were “problematic” from the ministry’s PR perspective, like the Samaria Regional Council, and replaced them with “positive” projects like funding companies that operate in the territories to encourage them to issue social impact reports on their activities.

In other words: Are you part of the occupation? Come tell the world how much you care about the environment, for example. Because in the eyes of the people of Kahol Lavan, the problem is not the actual immoral reality, which must be battled and changed based on a clear and solid worldview; the problem is only the image, which can be engineered and beautified in the spirit of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and the era of public diplomacy. It will fight criticism of Israel, but not the subject of the criticism. Nothing that a thousand other agencies in this country aren’t doing.

When Asaf Zamir resigned as tourism minister after getting fed up with the whitewashing project, Farkash-Hacohen moved to that ministry and the problematic portfolio landed in Biton’s lap. To Manelis’ credit, he submitted a report to the new minister explaining that it would be best to merge the unnecessary portfolio with another agency. There aren’t too many directors general who would honestly recommend to downgrade their ministry. Biton hurried to announce that he would consider it, but the proposal went no farther. The situation of the outgoing government in any case doesn’t allow for agreements of this kind, so we can assume that this courageous report will end with no more than a recommendation to the cabinet that will be buried by the next government.

Just before they disappear, to become a historical footnote, the explainers of Kahol Lavan are working overtime to try to convince us that liberal voters will “miss us yet,” because they were the only ones who prevented a great harm to Israeli democracy. They don’t see that in fact they repeatedly sugarcoated that harm. Self-deception, as Hannah Arendt once wrote about the Pentagon Papers – “The deceivers started with self-deception” – is a fundamental prerequisite for being able to deceive the rest of us.

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