Yiftah Curiel: Defending Israel

Yiftah Curiel has been the spokesperson for the Israeli embassy to the UK for two years now. He describes his role as being similar to that of a defence lawyer: he must defend Israel even when it does things he does not support. However Curiel says he enjoys his job and that it’s a privilege to work in London considering the influence of the UK media. He works towards getting “points of light” from the Israel-Palestine conflict into the media: “personal stories and NGOs doing great work”. “Israel is of such interest,” says Curiel that “unexpected things end up in the media” such as “a funny clip of an ostrich running down a busy street in Tel-Aviv” which ended up on the BBC.

When asked if he believes the Israel lobby makes his job easier he says he doesn’t “believe there is an Israel lobby that is really so influential” It is widely believed that the influence of the biggest US lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is waning and no longer popular amongst American Jews. Curiel believes that the “myth” of a powerful Israel Lobby is dangerous because it connects to the myth of Jews controlling the media, which assumes some kind of Jewish agenda. In reality Jews are as diverse as any other group and they are just as capable of opposing Israeli government policy as anybody else.

He says that he has to defend his country on issues that no country should have to defend, such as ‘Should Israel be allowed to exist? Is Israel legitimate?’ He claims every country, including the UK, has done some bad things, and people can get critical, and are allowed to get critical, but should not get into the argument over a country’s legitimacy, which Israel gets all the time.

Reasonable people however do not debate Israel’s right to exist, rather Israel’s right to expand. America, like many countries, was founded in an immoral manner at the expense of the native Americans but it would be unreasonable to call into question America’s right to exist. Israel’s borders have changed constantly due to wars and settlement expansion. Curiel states that disputes over territory are “part of life in the relationships between countries,” and cites the UK’s dispute over the Falklands as an example.

Curiel does not think that organisations should recognise Palestine as our Student’s Union did last year. Curiel explains that the Israeli position is clear, that recognition should come after talks have been completed and agreed upon. “Why do we believe that? Because we think that if the Palestinians find that there are alternative ways to get recognised, alternative ways that don’t necessarily have an impact on the ground, but have a symbolic impact, then that does not encourage them to take the hard decisions that they have to take in negotiations. Now we also have to take some hard decisions in negotiations.” Israelis will consider these issues when voting in next month’s election. Curiel says “We believe that these outside recognitions are not conducive” and that both sides have to be pushed together to negotiate.

He does “think that campus involvement is great, and universities all around the world, and especially in the UK, where some of the leading universities in the world sit, should encourage dialogue about these things.” Curiel was recently in the news for criticising the academics, who protested at his Glasgow University talk. He claimed that their protest was an attack on free speech. However, it is not so clear-cut: there is no Palestinian embassy spokesperson to speak on behalf of Palestinians because there is no Palestinian state. Perhaps the protestors felt that they were addressing this imbalance; protestors must also have freedom of speech.

Curiel claims that Israel has one of the highest levels of press freedom in the world, certainly in the context of the middle east, where Israel’s “freedom of speech is unparalleled”. Curiel even believes that the Israeli press is just as robust as the UK’s. However Israel came 96th in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index behind Kosovo and Kuwait, another Middle Eastern country, whilst the UK came in 38th. Israel performed badly because of soldiers in the Israeli Defence Forces attacks on Palestinian journalists. Freedom of information is limited and security is used as an excuse.

Curiel stated that a secure Israel would strengthen democracy. He says that “no place is perfect”, but considering the stresses the country faces, he believes it is doing a decent job. Many people would think that it is not good enough to hope to wait for more security to bolster democracy. In the past the security threat has been used to ignore the demands of feminists and social justice campaigners as security issues are seen as more important than other issues.

Curiel says that the security situation Israel has faced in the past year is something that nobody from the UK has suffered since the Second World War; he describes hiding under a stairway in his house with his daughters two years ago because of Hamas rockets. Israel is “not Syria but it’s also not London”. The security situation makes Netenyahu’s call for European Jews to emigrate to Israel seem very odd; there are more terrorist attacks in Israel. Despite this Tel Aviv has many positives including great culture and nightlife.

There will always be those who do not want peace but they have to “suck it up”, according to Curiel, because the majority of Israelis do want peace and a two state solution. First and foremost, Curiel believes that the problem is with the terror groups.

Although the Israeli settlements deprive the Palestinians of a contiguous territory, which limits Palestinians freedom of movement and ability to form a state, Curiel does not think that settlements are the main obstacle to peace. 95% of settlements are within settlement blocks and those settlements will remain controlled by Israel under a two state solution. Palestinians will be given other land in exchange. Other settlement blocks will probably be dismantled.

Settlements cause a further problem in that some settlers are hostile to Palestinians, which can lead to attacks or the uprooting of thousands of olive trees which 100,000 Palestinians make a living from. Although Curiel says that there have been no new settlements for many years now the population of Israeli settlements has expanded at twice the rate of the population of Israel proper under Netanyahu. There is hope though: Curiel points out that Israel pulled out 8 or 9 000 settlers in 2005, who did not want to be pulled out, without any loss of life.

Curiel says that even the current PM Netanyahu from the right wing party the Likud acknowledges the two state solution. The parties of the right have largely adopted the positions that the left held under Rabin in the 1990s. Despite this John Kerry is said to be hoping that Netanyahu will not get in at the next election because the US do not consider him an ideal politician to work with to bring peace to the region. It is thought that he would prefer to work with, Tzipi Livni , the leader of the party Hatnuah which is running on a joint list with the Labour party and is known for her commitment to peace. Developments in the region make it difficult for Israelis to believe that peace will happen soon. When Israel withdrew and Hamas took over and started accepted money using Gaza as a base to fire rockets. Curiel says that brave people are needed on both sides as well as a geopolitical situation that is more stable.

Curiel says that the best time for peace was during the Oslo accords, but that it was also the best time for terrorism. That’s why Israel built the security wall. There was a positive outlook, Curiel says, “you’d think [the Palestinians] would have used the opportunity to show the world what they can do.” He says rebuilding Gaza because it is difficult to strengthen the moderates without aiding extremists. He quotes the assassinated Israeli PM Rabin: “we have to fight terrorism as if there’s no peace process and fight for peace like there’s no terror.”

Many would not regard the period after the Oslo Accords as positively as Curiel. The economic situation in Gaza and the West Bank did not and does not inspire much hope. In the Palestinian territories Israeli settlers use 80-95% of the water despite only making up approximately 10% of the population. In 2014 218 communities in the West Bank were without running water. Curiel talks about the Tony Blair’s work on improvement of economic life for Palestinians. Many people worry about Tony Blair having any responsibility for peace in the Middle East but he is working on getting checkpoints down and getting water to the huge new Palestinian city of Rawabi.

Curiel says there are lots of people who feel the government isn’t doing enough and criticism is legitimate. However Curiel is not a big fan of Jews for peace: “They blamed everything that happened not only on Israel but on the Jews themselves. The stuff that they said was for me outrageous: saying that ‘we Jews can only live as victims.’”

Some academics have called Israel an ethnocracy but Curiel says “the fact that we are a Jewish country does not mean we are not a democracy”. Curiel points out that Cameron has called the UK a Christian country many times recently. Curiel claims that the non-Jewish minority (20% of the population) has the highest standard of living in the Middle East.

When asked how non-Jews are supposed to feel in a Jewish state Curiel responds: “You’re meant to feel like a minority feels in the UK. Life is not perfect. There is always going to be some prejudice and racism that has to be handled and fought. But in Israel today we are probably going to have 12 Arab members of the Knesset. We have non Jews serving in the IDF.” An Arab judge also sentenced Moshe Katsav, a former Israeli president and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, to 7 years in prison for rape in 2010.

Netanyahu has been accused of stoking tensions in Nazareth where Muslims and Christians live side by side. Some groups including Christians are exempt from serving in the IDF but Netanyahu has encouraged Christians to enlist but not Muslims, which is the source of some tension. Curiel says it is important to have grey areas, which allow the needs of different groups to be catered to. He gives the example of the ultra religious who don’t want to be near secular people so they volunteer in their own community instead.

Curiel was an artillery officer in the IDF. He says he learned what it meant to be in charge of the lives of others there. It gave him a lot of confidence: he succeeded in missions because there was no option to fail. He points out however, that some people leave the army with scars; it’s not an easy experience for everyone.

It is important not to conflate the Israeli government with the Israeli people or the Jewish community. It is legitimate to criticise the actions of the Israeli government without undermining Israeli culture or the achievements of Israeli people who may or may not support the govenment. Netanyahu has recently claimed to speak for all Jews, but this is making the same mistake often made by anti-Semites.

There has been much criticism from within Israel of Israel’s handling of last years violence, which left 490 Palestinian children dead. Hamas were accused of using children as human shields but this does not negate the fact that Israel shelled a UN run school. Israel likes to boast that it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East: as such it should be held to high moral standards.