An Interview with Yishai Fleisher
By David Kattenburg
This time next week, Donald Trump will be President of the United States. Among the most tantalizing prospects for the new epoch: the radical transformation of US policy on Israel and Palestine.
After eight years of supposedly bad blood between Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Trump White House will make America’s passionate attachment for the Jewish State great again.
Truth be told, no US President has offered Israel more lavish economic, diplomatic and military support, or shielded it more steadfastly from the rigors of international law, than Barack Obama.
Whatever may be construed from the Obama administration’s abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 last Christmas eve — looking away, arms folded, as 14 other nations declared Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories a “flagrant violation” of international law and “without validity” — the fact remains that Obama helped bankroll one of the largest spurts of settlement construction since the land-thieving enterprise began, fifty years ago (most recently, granting Israel US $38 billion in military aid over the coming decade), and has shielded Israel from a litany of war crimes charges, including those alleged to have been committed during the vicious bombing of Gaza in 2008-09 (“Cast Lead”), 2012 (“Pillar of Defense”) and 2014 (“Protective Edge”).
Over 2000 Gazans were killed in Operation Protective Edge, of whom 1500 were civilians, and some 550 children. The Obama administration blocked attempts at censuring Israel at the time, arguing that it had “the right to defend itself.”
Like Bill Clinton and the Bushes before him, Obama embraced the Oslo-based “Peace Process” — a high-minded but chimerical scheme aimed at creating a sovereign Palestinian state side by side with Israel — all the while enabling and defending Israel as it made Palestinian statehood impossible. No matter what Israel did or did not do to move the “two-state solution” forward, the Obama administration never ceased to declare its “deep friendship and kinship” with “this magnificent country,” vowing that the “special relationship” was “ironclad;” that no light would ever shine between Washington and its beloved ally.
For Obama and his predecessors, the true aim of the “peace process” has always been clear: to enforce American hegemony in the Middle East; to help Israel manage its “conflict” with the Palestinians on Israel’s terms, minimizing international involvement and keeping the rule of law beyond the bounds of discussion; to please Israel’s lobbyists in the US, in exchange for cash and votes.
Needless to say, the “Peace Process” has generated more than a steady living for scads of lawyers, academics and senior diplomats. Wads of cash have been expended flying “Israel’s lawyers” back and forth between Washington, Europe and the Middle East, in search of that most elusive creature: a “Two-State Solution.”
Through it all, Israel has played the game with masterful finesse: on the one hand, pretending to abide by the 1993-95 Oslo Accords in good faith; participating in round after round of “peace talks;” at the same time, rendering Oslo’s target unattainable by transplanting hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis into the sixty percent of the occupied territories assigned to it under Oslo (Area C). All Israeli leaders have pitched in, declaring their support for the two-state solution while settlement expansion continued, on land earmarked for the future, elusive Palestinian state. They’ve done so openly and honestly, rewarded, in turn, by unflinching US assistance.
None have been cannier than Benjamin Netanyahu: issuing passionate calls for direct negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians; praising the notion of “two states for two people.” Then, in games of one-upmanship with more radical members of his government — many of them settlers — vowing to do precisely the opposite.
Have Bush father and son, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, their Secretaries of State and peace negotiators all been in willful denial, or just plain dumb?
No matter. With Donald Trump in charge, the charade will soon be over. Trump has vowed to place his imprimatur on Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem by moving America’s embassy to the Holy City. “Things will be different after January 20th,” Trump tweeted, in response to UNSC Resolution 2334. Settlement benefactors David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer, and Jason Greenblatt, a real estate lawyer, have been tapped to serve as Ambassador to Israel and Middle East envoy, respectively. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, is a staunch Zionist and settlement supporter.
Sensing the sea change, Netanyahu and the most radical members of his government are now preparing to put the two state delusion out of its misery once and for all. Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett says he’ll introduce legislation to annex Ma’ale Adumim, among the largest of Israel’s illegal settlements, east of Jerusalem (effectively dividing any future Palestinian state in two), and to extend full Israeli civil law throughout Area C.
De facto annexation is already a reality. The estimated 650,000 Jewish settlers living in Area C and occupied East Jerusalem vote in Israeli elections, pay Israeli taxes, and travel freely between their settlements and Israel “proper.” Those who run afoul of the law are not subject to the military laws of Israel’s belligerent occupation, like their Palestinian neighbors, but to Israeli civil law, administered by Israel’s civil administration in the occupied territories. Protections under international conventions to which Israel is party, such as the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are extended to settlers (though again, not to the millions of Palestinians living in their midst; in this context, Israel chooses not to claim sovereignty).
With Donald Trump in the White House, two-faced arguments that Israel should be divided up between Jews and Palestinians, fair and square (some fraction of 22% going to the Palestinians) will likely be tossed into history’s waste bin.
Bring it on, says Yishai Fleisher, one of the most passionate advocates for Jewish supremacy in the Land of Israel. Fleisher is an Israeli broadcaster and public speaker, and the international spokesman for the most pugnacious of Jewish settlement communities — Hebron.
I met up with Fleisher back in the spring of 2016 in Gush Etzion, Israel’s largest settlement bloc, just south of Jerusalem. As with any form of travel in occupied Palestine, getting to Gush Etzion was a complicated, but enlightening trip.
My journey began at a taxi stand on bustling Hebron Road, on the seam between the Palestinian towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jala. An English-speaking gentleman arranged for a service taxi to take me there. In true Palestinian fashion, he confirmed my fare and ensured that I understood the hazardous nature of the trip. A Palestinian taxi can’t simply drop someone off at Gush Etzion junction, he explained. It’s strictly prohibited. Doing so anyway would be exceedingly dangerous — a perfect recipe for getting shot, no questions asked. This taxi would drop me off a kilometer short of the junction.
I climbed into my seat, in the company of a dozen fashionably dressed Palestinian men and women. The driver asked me to put on my seat belt, lest he be fined by Israeli police. Down Highway 60 we raced. A kilometer short of Gush Etzion junction, the driver pulled over to the side of the road and let me out. I waved goodbye to my taxi mates and set off towards Israel’s largest settlement bloc — soon to be annexed — cars and trucks racing past me.
Around a bend in the road, Gush Etzion junction finally came into view — a highway interchange surrounded by wire fencing, checkpoints and a security tower, shopping centre to the right.
Almost immediately, I spied a pair of soldiers — who’d obviously spied me — crossing the road and walking deliberately toward me, automatic weapons in hand. Very slowly, I reached into my shoulder bag and pulled out my Canadian passport. Twenty or thirty paces between us, I held up the passport and shouted out, “Canada!”
The smaller of the two soldiers approached, shadowed by a big black guy with automatic weapon pointed slightly to the side. “Canada!” I repeated loudly, me and the little guy now standing face to face.
I had arrived in a Palestinian service taxi, I explained, as he scrutinized my passport. The other one stood at a distance, frowning, big gun at the ready.
But all was well. I explained my mission: to meet up with a local gentleman at a cafe called the “English Cake.” The soldier agreed to take me there.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked me (a question one gets asked again and again in the Jewish State.) Yes, I replied.
“Staying with the Arabs?” he asked.
“Yes. It’s cheaper,” I replied, following my routine in such circumstances. “Just fifty dollars for a room.” The young soldier, pint-sized, auburn-haired and blued-eyed, seemed impressed. He was from Ohio, he told me; in Israel for a couple of years. He had yet to do aliyah, but was already in the army.
“Let me ask you,” he said, as we trudged up to the Gush Etzion shopping centre, the other soldier following a few steps away, still scowling, finger near the trigger of his gun.
“Are you on the left or the right?”
I told the young Ohioan that I was just a journalist; a tourist. So, kind of in the middle. After a few moments of easy chat, I confessed that I was sort of a person of the left. This went down okay.
“Have you ever done something you felt was really important?” the young man asked, staring down as we walked. Sure, I replied.
“Coming to Israel was really important for me,” the young man confided. We arrived at a bus shelter across from Gush Etzion shopping center, past gun-toting settlers and soldiers. He pointed me in the direction of the English Cake. We exchanged goodbyes, and parted company.
With time to kill before my rendezvous with Yishai, I rambled inside a big supermarket. Many shoppers had automatic weapons over their shoulders, or hand guns on their hips. Aside from this, they seemed like my kind of people: white, middle class, with spouses and kids and cars. Jewish. Half of them from places like Toronto, New York, Chicago or Paris. It felt weird.
I waited for a while at a table outside the English Cake, beside a group of soldiers drinking coffee and laughing, automatic weapons propped up beside their chairs. Yishai finally arrived, and we walked up a set of stairs to a quieter mezzanine area. I seem to recall seeing a pistol on his hip. Our conversation began well. Before too long, my line of questioning provoked displeasure, but Yishai was a gracious host and interviewee. Listen to our conversation here:
A rundown of Yishai’s key points:
He doesn’t like the term “West Bank.” West of what? These lands have belonged to Jews for 3800 years.
There is no “occupation.” Reference to the term “apartheid” almost drives our conversation off the rails.
In towns like Hebron and elsewhere throughout the occupied territories, it’s Palestinians who threaten and assault Jews, not the other way around.
Yishai use the term “jihadist” repeatedly. People who brandish knives and drive cars into crowds of soldiers and civilians are “jihadists.”
The Palestinian Authority, in Yishai’s view, is a “sovereign” entity. I pursue him on this. Are you kidding? The PA is wholly subsidiary to Israel’s occupation! Israeli troops and police enter Area A — ostensibly under full Palestinian security control — any time they wish. But Yishai is obdurate. The PA is essentially in complete control of Palestinian affairs. It’s not his fault Palestinian leaders are corrupt terrorists.
As for Gaza, Yishai believes it’s a Palestinian “state” — a “self-contained country of some kind.” (I did not challenge Yishai on this. Didn’t have the time or patience).
“Living in the Middle East is a little bit like first night in prison,” says Yishai. Israel has to be tough.
“As a Jew — a post-holocaust, empowered Israeli Jew — I know that even if you or your own listeners don’t acquiesce, I will take matters into my own hands, to protect our people. And without feeling a great need to get acquiescence for the justice of our cause. And so we will be the first people to extend our hand in peace, and we will be the first people to fight ruthlessly to survive here, with or without international understanding or justification.”
Angered by my assertion that Israel commits bad deeds, Fleisher gets irate: “Let’s cut it out,” he says. What is the obsession with Israel? Creating Israel as some kind of evil country. It’s a “blood libel!”
The Oslo Accords were “a brainwashing enterprise that has sadly captured the minds of young people with a kind of supremacist empowerment; the kind of Islam that you might encounter in an American prison; really an empowerment Islam.”
The Two-State Solution is “a resounding failure — over and over and over again.”
“The truth is that we want to annex Judea and Samaria. We are going to annex Judea and Samaria. And we have to figure out what to do with the Arab minority living in those regions, and have to secure a decent life for them. For those who want a decent life with us. That’s the truth. Two-State is a lie.”
How about peace? What’s Yishai’s vision? Peace is a secondary outgrowth of “safety, security and deterrence,” he says. “Eliminate the jihadist outlook.”
All images by David Kattenburg.