Yisrael Beiteinu: Interview with Danny Hershtal


My final meeting on Sunday was with Danny Hershtal, an active member of the political leadership of Yisrael Beiteinu and twentieth on the party’s electoral list. Yisrael Beiteinu is a nationalist party headed by now Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Currently holding 15 seats, they are an integral part of Benyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government and the third largest political party in Knesset after Kadima and Likud. In the 2006 elections, the party’s seat share grew from 3 to 11 but with little growth in membership. In 2009, it grew from 11 to 15 seats while its membership soared. Now that it is no longer a “small” party, it is undergoing a significant internal reorganization and institutionalization aimed at securing its political future.

Its 2009 electoral slogan, “No loyalty, no citizenship,” highlights the most controversial part of the party’s platform, that citizenship in Israel should be conditioned on demonstration of loyalty to the state. Clearly aimed at Israel’s Arab minority, foreign opponents in particular have accused the party and its leadership of racism, ultranationalism, and even fascism. Such claims are tempered by the party’s expressed interest in swapping territories inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders with large Arab populations for those with large Jewish ones inside the West Bank in any peace deal with the PA and its focus on socio-economic opportunities and integration for new immigrants.

We began our conversation by exploring the Lieberman Plan, Yisrael Beiteinu’s proposed framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plan is based on a long term vision of conflict resolution which starts from the belief that land-for-peace is a failed formula as previously attempted. Party leader Avigdor Lieberman suggests that while land is difficult to transfer back and forth, “transferring” peace back and forth is quite easy; the supposition being that without credible partners Israel may sacrifice land for a peace which the Palestinians have no intention of honoring. The plan also stems from the belief that capitulation to the demands of the Palestinian nationalist movement and global opinion in some sense is not in Israel’s long term interest.

As such, the plan suggests that Israel should first trade peace for peace, and only afterward discuss division of territory. It also makes clear that if the Israeli and Palestinian populations cannot live peacefully with one another, a division of the two peoples into two separate states is necessary. If Palestinian Arabs wish to remain citizens of a Jewish state, they must accept that they will be under a nominal Jewish sovereignty. Following the reasoning of Menachem Begin, the plan asserts that loyal Arab citizens will have every right in the country but no right to the country.

Those Palestinians who wish to be under Palestinian authority, therefore, should live in a Palestinian state. A key element of this plan, then, is that majority Arab areas in Israel, as in the little Arab Triangle and Wadi ‘Ara region, should be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty in any peace agreement while major settlement blocs should remain a part of Israel. This plan differs from other territorial transfer approaches in that it focuses on transferring populated to a Palestinian state to compensate for settlement blocs rather than “empty” agricultural lands favored by the Geneva Initiative or Olmert Proposal. The idea has proved incredibly contentious, opposed by some 83% of Palestinians living in Um Al-Fahm, the largest Arab village in the area, 54% of whom cited Israeli democracy and standard of living as their reason for wishing to remain a part of Israel.

This apparent disconnect between Palestinian national aspirations and continued preference for Israeli citizenship points to a fundamental ambiguity which Hershtal believes presents a serious problem for conflict resolution. If it is unclear what the Palestinians truly want, it is difficult to engage in meaningful negotiations. Primarily he believes there is a confusion around notions of sovereignty, self-determination, and property rights. Yisrael Beiteinu points out that there never has been a country of Palestine, which is not to say that there never should be one. Rather, clarity is needed as to whether Arabs are primarily interested in political self-determination, correlated with a demand for an independent state, or property rights and civil rights where Israel would retain ultimate sovereignty. Again, if Arabs wish to pursue such rights within the framework of the existing Israeli state, then he believes they must accept the fundamental Jewish character of the state.

This position on loyalty versus pursuit of self-determination filters through the whole of Yisrael Beiteinu’s platform regarding territorial compromise. Regarding the Gaza disengagement, Yisrael Beiteinu was a strong opponent, putting forth the position that it constituted an unjust uprooting of people’s lives with negligible or even negative diplomatic and security returns. The IDF’s relinquishment of the Philadelphi Corridor which separated Gaza from Egypt, by this logic, directly resulted in the bombardment of 1000s of Qassams prior to Operation Cast Lead in late 2008.

Yet even with the Hamas take-over of the territory, Israel’s blockade, and a clear state of war between the two parties, Israel has continued to supply the strip with gas, electricity, and humanitarian supplies. While Yisrael Beiteinu was opposed to the disengagement, it now maintains the position that if Israel is disassociating itself from the territory, it should do so entirely. From a diplomatic perspective, Israel is still held internationally accountable for everything that happens there. From claims of a humanitarian catastrophe caused by the blockade to Israel’s handling of the Mavi Mamarra incident, even the negligible control which it maintains over the territory’s borders continue to get the state into trouble. Rather, the party believes that Israel should cut off all aid from its borders, diverting this responsibility to Egypt while maintaining a vigorous arms inspections regime of Gaza bound vessels.

What would this mean for the political status of Gaza? If Palestinians were to come to a resolution that they wanted true self-determination, Hershtal says he could see this happening in Gaza. As before, any relationship between Israel and the Gaza regime should be based first and foremost on peace for peace; compromises on land can only come afterward. For Yisrael Beiteinu, it is of no concern to them what regime takes power there, be it Islamic or secular; as Israel has “essentially already given up the land here.” The only focus for Israel with regard to Gaza should be defending its own citizens and fighting any government that seeks to harm its citizens. If a Palestinian state in Gaza would leave Israel in peace, Yisrael Beiteinu would be more than willing to reciprocate.

Regarding the West Bank, Hershtal asserts that Yehuda and Shomron are the heartland of Jewish civilization throughout the ages and are an intrinsic part of Eretz Yisrael. The Green Line, the party maintains, is an entirely arbitrary one based on the 1949 ceasefire and should not be used as a basis for territorial division. That there are Arabs living on the Israeli side is simply coincidental to the geographic outcome of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Moreover, there is no reason why those Jewish areas which were wiped out across the Green Line or those that have been settled since should not be part of Israel.

Yisrael Beiteinu sees the whole area as a historical entitlement of the Jewish people, not only based in ancient history but also in those agreements and decisions made during the British Mandate period, particularly the Balfour Declaration, the Treaty of San Remo, and others which stated a commitment to the area being the past and future homeland of the Jewish people. They are prepared to allow Palestinian “autonomy” in these areas, but until there is peace, they believe Israel should continue to build settlements there. Noting that terrorist attacks, pogroms against the land’s Jewish population, and threats by surrounding governments certainly existed before 1967, Hershtal argues that the contention that settlements are the basis of the continued conflict suffer from a very narrow perspective indeed.

I then asked that my host clarify the notion of Palestinian autonomy; did he mean an independent state, an autonomous federal unit, or an “economic peace” that seemed to be the basis of Netanyahu’s platform prior to the 2009 elections. He responded that he believes Palestinians should be able to manage their own affairs and even be able to call what they control a state if they so choose. Here he pointed out that the West Bank economy is flourishing and growing steady suggesting that Palestinians are relatively happy with the status quo. That the PA must today be dragged to the negotiation table with Israel is, he believes, indicative of this perspective.

That said, he believes that Palestinian self-determination can certainly include their own national institutions, holidays, educational curriculum, and even an independent foreign policy. Even today, he asserts, the Palestinians enjoy an independent foreign policy in that for every proposal they put forward in the United Nations, they have an automatic 22 votes behind them, while Israel has trouble garnering even 2.

Where such self-determination is problematic is if a Palestinian state/entity/autonomous body were to continue to call for Israel’s destruction. While Yisrael Beiteinu maintains an “idealist” position that Arab residents of the land might someday pledge loyalty to the state, their realist position is that in some way the land will be divided. As such, Israel must continue to press Palestinians to accept Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Without such a recognition, long-term peace between the two peoples is impossible.

Turning to Jerusalem, Hershtal cannot countenance the idea that a city which was “associated almost entirely with Jews for 3000 years and with Jordan for 19 years” can be divided. Even under Muslim rule, Jerusalem never enjoyed much political or religious prominence. Today, as a united city, it is also increasingly desegregated with more Jews moving east and more Arabs both moving west and taking advantage of economic and commercial opportunities there.

Moreover, he argued that an increasing number of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents are seeking Israeli citizenship over their Permanent Residency status and have expressed a preference for continued Israeli sovereignty to Palestinian administration. Such trends may be based on the social welfare provided by the Israeli state or the state’s tolerance for “minorities” like homosexuals. One might also credit these moves to Arabs fearing a loss of residency status and property rights. Either way, Hershtal argues that if these Palestinians are willing to participate as citizens in a Jewish state, they should be welcomed.

Regarding the future status of Jerusalem’s municipal borders, my host insisted that even the peripheral Arab neighborhoods are important for the contiguity and security of the city. Neve Ya’aqov, seen by many as an isolated Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem’s north, was settled by Jews prior to 1948 and there is no reason to think that it is not a legitimately Jewish area. This argument is even more forceful when applied to the holy basin, those areas surrounding and including the Old City.

Regarding Muslim claims to the Temple Mount, Hershtal does not see any reason why the mosques there cannot continue to be under Muslim jurisdiction, just as sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are under Christian jurisdiction. However, he believes this site should not be controlled by a Waqf which now effectively exercises sovereignty over the Mount to the exclusion of its use and administration by other religions and state bodies. There is no reason, he asserted, that the Waqf should be able to abrogate the right of archaeologists to explore the deep history which lies beneath the Mount nor the right of Jews to pray atop it outside of the mosques.

In terms of the much debated demographic argument, my host does not believes it holds much water. Drawing on research by Yoram Ettinger and others, he asserts that Palestinian demographic growth trends are vastly overstated while Jewish ones are consistently underplayed. But more important than this position is the simple question of whether or not Israelis and Arabs are prepared to live together. For those Palestinians who live inside of Israel, they must accept the idea of a Jewish state. It is there inability to accept Israel’s position, he believes, which makes Israelis fearful and resistant to their integration.

Returning to Yisrael Beiteinu’s position on “populated-area exchange,” Hershtal again asserted that if the idea of a Palestinian state is to be a place of self-determination for Palestinians, it only makes sense that majority Palestinian areas in Israel be included. If this is the case, however, I asked what the party’s position is on Hebron. As the second largest city in the West Bank, with an enormous Arab population relative to its Jewish one, should this be an integral part of a Palestinian state?

To this, he asserted that the city has had a Jewish community for ages and there is no reason why those areas of the city should not continue to be under Israel control. This is also no reason why Israel could not allow Palestinian auspices in those areas of Hebron and even Jerusalem with Arab majorities. This will require creative map drawing, with corridors which link Hebron to nearby Gush Etzion just as it has been proposed that a corridor link Gaza to a Palestinian controlled West Bank. Similarly, the city of Ariel, often described as an isolated finger into the West Bank, could not also be connected to Israel by means of a corridor.

In addition to the party’s interest in preserving Jewish population centers, there is a strong commitment to Israeli control of critical heritage sites. Where there is significant Jewish history, there is no reason why places like Ma’arat haMachpelah should be closed to Jews or there should not be a Jewish community there. While Yisrael Beiteinu is not a religious party, Hershtal asserts that everyone in the party maintains a deep commitment to Israeli control of Jewish holy places from Har HaBayit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

With an expressed interest in preserving Israeli control of these places and constructions of secure corridors, what is Yisrael Beiteinu’s position on Arab demands for a contiguous Palestinian state? He replied that between the West Bank and Gaza, there is no contiguity anyhow. While Israel can build bridges and tunnels to connect these territories, it has to draw red lines somewhere. Israel, he insisted, must “start from the point of view that this is our land and if we let you (the Palestinians) have control over our land, you must recognize that it is our land.”

If Israel is required to dismantle settlements in the West Bank, this puts the legitimacy of not just other settlements into question, but also of Israeli control of Tel Aviv, Yaffo, and Ramla. Only through Israel expanding beyond the boundaries of post-1949, did the world accept the legitimacy of Tel Aviv. While this does not mean that Israel should conquer Amman to make its claims to Beit El clear, but that the Palestinians must recognize that their control over land cannot be realized at the expense of Israeli “national and security rights” in doing so.

From this point of view, why should Israel concede anything at all to the Palestinians? Here, Yisrael Beiteinu asserts much is about rolling back expectations. Israel needs to show the world that by adhering to certain red lines, that the Palestinians are more interested in Israel’s destruction than their own self-determination. Capitulation to demands without a true Arab interest in peace merely encourages further demands.

Yisrael Beiteinu believes that by proposing a series of “reasonable proposals” which the Arab world continues to reject, that it can demonstrate that the original Arab rejection of UNSC Resolution 242 still lies at the heart of the Palestinian and Arab agenda vis-a-vis Israel. Proposing seemingly radical approaches which question the legitimacy of the pre-1967 borders as a basis for peacemaking and instead advance national self-determination for two peoples in the places in which they actually live may lower Israel’s international diplomatic esteem in the short run. However, the party believes that by demonstrating that Israel is unwilling to sacrifice its own interests and that the Palestinians are unwilling to accept creative alternatives, the world will begin to appreciate Israel’s point of view.

And what of the charge that Yisrael Beiteinu is in fact a fascist party? Hershtal asserts that this is statement which is high on rhetoric but short on proof. While many point to the party’s position that citizens should be obligated to pledge allegiance to the state is evidence of their fascism, to a certain extent “the Left sees all nationalism as fascism.” Israel, he argued, does not demand any more of its citizens that Switzerland, Finland, or Russia, all of which have compulsory conscription. Moreover, Yisrael Beiteinu’s proposals only call for the abrogation of citizenship rights from those who want it. If Arabs wish to live under Arab sovereignty, should they not live under a Palestinian state rather than a Jewish one?

Israel’s problem, he believes, is that unlike most other states, the lines which now de facto define its borders are not final nor universally accepted. In such a space, confusion between disputes of property ownership versus national sovereignty are frequent. While he today could purchase land in the UK, he would still be living “in an Anglican country.” Yet here “it is still the Wild West,” where people believe wherever they stake a property claim, they can also assert national sovereignty. As such, what other places in the world would be taken as simple property disputes as is the case in many contested neighborhoods in Jerusalem, take on the characteristics of international territorial conflicts. This, he believes, is the very reason why Israel must assert itself. If Israel does not defend its status as a Jewish state and its legitimate rights to the land, who will?

2 Responses to Yisrael Beiteinu: Interview with Danny Hershtal

  1. […] tiny corridors connecting them to the rest of the state. Here I am reminded of my interview with Danny Hershtal from Yisrael Beiteinu. Although from the opposite end of the political spectrum, his party too is an advocate of […]

  2. […] I am now turning my focus back to the politicians. After early successes in contacting Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, and Meretz, I am now trying to secure interviews with representatives of the […]

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