Avraham Burg. (Photo: Olivier Zimmermann / UNIGE).

“I would like to explore the possibility of introducing the federal system in Israel” Avraham Burg

In a lecture at the Global Studies Institute (GSI) you explained why the Swiss federal model inspires you. This model was mentioned during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and then forgotten. Why should it work for Israel and Palestine?

The world has a couple of bi-national states or multinational communities like Belgium and Canada. Even the United States of America is a federation of a different kind. And you have the Swiss Confederation. I am not sure that the Former Yugoslavia is the best model to implement a federation between communities who do not want to live together. I would like to explore the possibility of introducing the federal system in Israel. Not between Israel and Palestine, because I cannot be the new colonialist who imposes the model on the Palestinians. If they want to adopt a federal proposal, let it be. Let’s talk about Israel where you have at least four if not six different communities.

What is the chance of implementing a federal model between Jews and Arab Israelis?

They are living together for almost 80 years. If you listen to the speech of President Reuven Rivlin, if you go to mixed cities, universities or hospitals, people are living together. What the corona virus exposed is that the central Jerusalem is weak and the communities are strong. The ultraorthodox can do whatever they like vis-à-vis the corona, the Arabs celebrate parties and weddings during the Covid and Tel Aviv decided whatever they want to do its own way. Most of us would like to continue living together. Nobody wants to declare a war between ultraorthodox Jews and Arabs or between Arabs and liberals. We have interests, we have identities, but we are not about to fight each other, Kosovo or Bosnia-Herzegovina like. The potential of living together is there and the only question is: can we institutionalize the de facto reality of communitarian societies into a federation of all of these communities?

Is the two-states solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict definitely dead?

I am not speaking about Israel and Palestine now. I am talking within Israel which has nothing to do with a two-state solution, which died twenty years ago! It does not exist. It is nice to speak and give lectures about it, but there is no feasibility for it. If tomorrow, with a Deus ex macchina, we shall have a two-state solution, I am happy with it! But I don’t see any Israeli leader ready to remove half a million settlers from the West Bank. I don’t see Israelis removing road blocks and give the Palestinians enough land and space to create a State. For now, it is a very fragmented geographical and topographical reality. It is impossible to run a State there.

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What can be done then?

If an agreement is impossible, let’s look for something else. Many years ago, I stop counting one, two, three states. I count rights. If you ask me: tomorrow you have the option: a two-states solution that one will be a democratic Israel and a totalitarian, authoritarian, illiberal, half-democracy Palestine, or the other option is one-state solution with one regime for every individual between Jordan and the Mediterranean? I prefer one State with equality for all citizens rather than be a partner to create an illiberal democracy or an illiberal Palestine.  

Do the majority of Israelis think like you? You know that the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas will never accept not having a Palestinian State. How would you do to convince them that your approach is the correct one for everybody?

The majority of Israelis do not think the way I do. I am an avant-garde with no guards behind me yet. Most of the Israelis are right-wingers and those who are not right-wingers enjoy the comfort zone of not solving the Palestinian problem. I am not about to impose on the Palestinians anything. They have to decide what they want to do with their life. Even under the current situation they could have done better politically. They have their own reason and I respect it. This is their collective responsibility over their life. Let them do it. If they ask my advice, I would say: guys you have roads towards a better future. Whatever measure you take should be a nonviolent politics, because that is the only measure Israel does not have an answer for. The minute it goes to violence, Israel is happy: you see how malicious they are, you see we cannot trust them, let’s bomb them!

How can the Palestinians succeed with nonviolence?

When it comes to non-violent measures, civil disobedience, diplomacy, politics, Israel has no moral, political or practical answer. The second thing is to understand the nature of democracy, which is difficult for some of the Palestinians who never lived under a real democracy. Neither under Yasser Arafat, nor under Abu Mazen. The nature of democracy is that I vote for you and I give you the power to legislate over my life. If you are good, I vote again, I you are bad, I vote against you and you are not a member of Parliament anymore. The nature of the democratic agreement is: I give you power and you impact my life. For the last 55 years, Israel impact the life of every Palestinian and collectively, without letting them influence who legislates over their life. Therefore, the only thing they should say is: if you want to continue to run our life, let us vote. Nonviolent politics and arguing for the basic democratic rights will improve the situation in Palestine.

You write very interesting books, like Defeating Hitler, you have been Speaker of the Knesset, you are a respected person. With your background, you could be the leader of a group which could propose a progressive alternative to Israel. Why don’t you go back to politics?

It is a very good question but it is not a conceptual one. For more than twenty years I have been in the public service. From 1982 I started my protest movement against the war in Lebanon until 2004. In politics, you have to remove and make room for a new generation. Since I left the Knesset I am writing about developing an alternative paradigm for Israeli politics. I do not see a critical mass of either politicians or public support to this idea. Many time when you put a progressive idea on the table it takes fifteen years to the public to arrive. I am working on the modalities of a progressive camp in Israel in the next generation.

You are not any more interested of being active in politics?

I am interested in politics, but not in a personal representation. I am more interested in developing a paradigm than implementing paradigms. In the Knesset, you cannot think, you have to do. Thinking is what is missing: ideas, values, principles, direction, strategies and this is what I try to produce. 

You don’t wear a kippah anymore. Is that because you don’t want to be considered a Jew, politically speaking?

I follow the tradition of German Jews, like my late father. Whatever rituals and religious ceremonies Jews did it with the religious outfit, i.a. the kippah. And whatever they did for the secular, profane public sphere, they did it without a kippah. My father, a rabbi and a leader of the National Party, was a teacher in Israel for many years before his political career. He was teaching Talmud with the kippah and history without a kippah. In official photographs from 1949 to 1966, you see my father, who was a minister and a member of the Knesset, without a kippah because it was not a religious ceremony. I have taken issues that are separate from the previously. Once the nation law passed in the Knesset, I argued that it redefined Judaism and the nation. This new definition divorces from the tradition I grew up upon. I don’t want to belong to a fascist, neo-colonialist, conservative, racist and discriminating law which has not the concept and the value of equality. Every citizen is equal from my point of view. This law is not democratic and not Jewish.

You don’t belong anymore to the Judaism defined in this new law?

What I say is: it is ok for you to define your Judaism the way you want, but I do not belong to this collective. I removed myself, not from my history, not from my traditions and not from my civilization, I moved myself from those who abuse the concept of Judaism in such a way that for me it is everything but Jewish!

Do you think that Israel is becoming an apartheid state?

There is a problem with political analogies. Is Israel South Africa? No. Is Israel good? No. Do we have real, serious, comprehensive apartheid segregation laws in Israel? No. Do we have full equality? No. I am reluctant using terminologies which belong to one place, one era, one situation and implement it on the other one. The Israeli situation is such that the last couple of decades is longer than the term of Netanyahu (the former Israeli Prime Minister) and he was not the only one to be in this business. Israel slowly and surely deteriorates into regions which are kissing the concept of illiberal democracy, with the attack of gate keepers, the weakening of the media as a watcher, discrimination and contempt towards minorities, especially the Arab minority. I don’t like this situation and I fight against it. Am I ready to define it as apartheid? Modestly, I don’t know enough about apartheid to give this to Israel as a compliment.

In Geneva, you have met with former Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey, with professors at the Global Studies Institute. What do you expect from Switzerland looking at the situation between Israelis and Palestinians? Is there a space for any new dialogue? Is the Geneva Initiative also dead?

I did not come to Geneva for a political mission. I came here as part of my study for my new book, to see whether there is an element and issue in the Swiss federal model – a society of all its citizens and the society of all its communities – that I can learn from, adopt and implement in our problematic situation.

What is your hope with the new Israeli government?

This government is few days long. Don’t overload your expectation on its narrow or weak shoulders. The first mission of this government is to survive, to function better than the Netanyahu’s one and to heal the nation. After so many years of Netanyahu’s abuses, I don’t believe that the new government will move seriously towards any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Any positive sign from the international community?

I don’t see that the international community has a role now. America will not move seriously towards any kind of a solution in the near future and Europe has no foreign policy. And if Europe has a little foreign policy, Germany will veto anything which regards Israel.  This question is a beautiful theory but practical nonsense.

What important step should the new Israeli government undertake?

It will be enough for me if, within Israel, this new government will dedicate to heal the wounds and the scarves left behind, the very embarrassing term of Netanyahu and that we start to deal with the Palestinians with respect. That this new government gives us redistribution of integrity and dignity despite the fact that we do not have an agreement with the Palestinians. Give it couple of months to stabilize and call me again!

Luisa Ballin est une journaliste Italo-suisse qui collabore régulièrement avec le magazine Global Geneva. 

Italo-Swiss journalist Luisa Ballin is a contributing editor of Global Geneva magazine.

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