Tzipi Hotovely might not be a great diplomat, but her blunt communication style can be a great help in clarifying matters. This was certainly the case with her interview with the Times of Israel, which was published on September 27. In it, Hotovely, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, openly declares that Israel has no intention of handing any of the West Bank over to Palestinian control.
Hotovely’s interview has gone largely unnoticed by Middle east analysts and reporters, hidden behind the United Nations General Assembly meeting, the deepening conflict in Syria and Russia’s involvement there, as well as the aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement. That lack of notice, however, belies the great significance of Hotovely’s revelations about Israel’s intentions in the West Bank.
As Israel has no actual Foreign Minister, Hotovely occupies Israel’s highest current diplomatic post. She is known as a rising star in the Likud Party, an outspoken opponent of the creation of a Palestinian state, and, as a self-described “religious right-winger,” she largely bases Israel’s claim to the West Bank on biblical texts. She is known as a straight shooter with strong views and has built a lot of her popularity on her willingness to state those views in very blunt terms.
Hotovely’s focus is on the European Union’s policy of accurately labeling products from Israeli settlements rather than labeling them as “Made in Israel.” This has actually been the EU’s policy for years, but it is only now enforcing it. Hotovely’s reaction to this, and many of the other things she says in the interview, bear close examination. In fact, they tell us a great deal about what is really going on in the West Bank and with Israeli policy.
Regarding the labeling issue Hotovely said, “Our concern is that once you put a label on Judea and Samaria (the biblical term for the West Bank), you put a label on Israel. We see it as a boycott of Israel for all intents and purposes. We view it as a slippery slope. It’s simply a sweeping disqualification of Israel.”
This really is the crux of the issue, but it is rarely so clearly stated, by any party. Of course, labeling is what exporters do. Virtually anything you buy is labeled to inform consumers and importers of the origin of the goods. No one objects to labeling Israeli products as “Made in Israel.” Therefore, Hotovely is not really talking about labeling, but about differentiating between the West Bank and Israel. That is what this debate is about.
Settlement goods can still be exported to Europe. European consumers, however, will now be able to distinguish between products made in Israel and products made in the West Bank. As no country, including the United States, recognizes any Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, this policy is fully consistent with both international and European law.
Hotovely, and many others in Israel, may consider that a form of boycott, and in a sense giving European consumers the power to distinguish between Israeli and settlement products implies that many will not wish to buy settlement products. But this also implies that they want to buy Israeli products. It is not, therefore, any path to a boycott of Israeli goods. On the contrary, labeling promotes the sale of Israeli products as long as those products are actually made in Israel. Hotovely, and other leading Israeli governmental figures, surely understand this.
No, the goal of the anti-labeling argument is to erase any distinction between Israel and the settlements. Efforts to do this have appeared in Washington earlier this year and Israel’s diplomatic efforts on labeling with the EU have the same endgame.
But wait, doesn’t Israel acknowledge the goal of a two-state solution? Hasn’t Netanyahu, however reluctantly, been forced to accept that as a goal?
While few people on either side of the political spectrum believe Netanyahu has any intention of ending the occupation of the Palestinians, we need not speculate about this point any more. Hotovely has kindly provided us with the inside information we need.
“[Handovers of] Judea and Samaria aren’t even on the list of options we’re offering the Palestinians,” she announced. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “never said that the evacuation of Judea and Samaria is an option. He says we learned the lessons of the [2005 Gaza] Disengagement and that the world needs to get used to this idea. That’s one of the messages that I place great emphasis on.”
Hotovely says that the world must simply accept that the West Bank will remain under Israeli “de facto sovereignty. It’s not a bargaining chip. It does not depend on the Palestinians’ goodwill. It’s the land of our forefathers. We don’t intend to evacuate it, certainly not for the Islamic State or al-Qaeda or other extremist organizations that would sure (sic) to gain control over the territory.”
The qualification at the end is a nod to Netanyahu’s security-based rhetoric. But clearly, whether there is a threat from a radical group or not, Israel is not going to leave the West Bank. In this statement, Hotovely is not stating her own opinion, even though these words may very well match her views. She is stating the view, if not the public position, of the Netanyahu government.
While the dubious notion that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank might lead to a takeover by ISIS might be an acceptable excuse to some, Hotovely makes it clear that such concerns are merely an afterthought. Israel will not evacuate the West Bank, she tells us, because it is the land of the forefathers of the Jewish people. She tells us it is not a negotiating point, and, most importantly, that nothing the Palestinians do, no matter how positive, will change this.
It is important to note that these words, uttered by the top official of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have provoked no response after several days. The Prime Minister has not mentioned her remarks, and neither has the leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog. Bearing in mind that Hotovely claims this is the de facto policy of the Israeli government, the silence of those two men speaks volumes.
Right now, international diplomacy is focusing on the nuclear agreement with Iran, the ongoing crisis in Syria, the battle against the Islamic State and Russia’s expanding reach. Meanwhile, Israel is not only entrenching itself on the ground in the West Bank, it is laying the foundation for permanent control of that occupied territory.
The longer these efforts are not countered, the more difficult it will be to reverse them. That is the lesson of Israel’s entire settlement project. At stake is not only the freedom and the rights of the Palestinians, but also the future of Israel. If the West Bank becomes part of Israel, then Israel must extend full rights of citizenship to all residents of the West Bank. Otherwise, there will be no denying that it is an apartheid state.
Mitchell Plitnick is Program Director at the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Previously, he was Director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (2008-2010) and Director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace (2002-2008).