The memo telling Israel’s diplomats and their allies to “accentuate the positive” has been mislaid in Brussels, judging by an event held earlier this month. During the event, a few members of the European Parliament (MEPs) teamed up with some of Israel’s most reactionary politicians.
David Rotem, a representative of the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, was guest of “honor” at a conference in the Parliament’s headquarters. He was a curious choice for a discussion about those controversial EU guidelines on ending aid to firms and institutions active in the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank in defiance of international law.
Far from being a slick spin-doctor, Rotem is overtly racist in his pronouncements. While two MEPs have landed themselves in hot water this year for applying the term “bongo bongo” to Africans, Rotem is able to make vile statements about Palestinians without fear of censure.
“Every Jewish community needs at least one Arab,” he has said. “Otherwise, who will repair my fridge when it breaks down on the Sabbath?”
Making apartheid more extreme
Perhaps the only commendable thing about Rotem is that he is more honest than many of his peers about the fact that Israel practices a form of apartheid. “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, not a state of all its citizens,” he has said.
Since joining Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 2007, Rotem has sponsored a number of bills designed to make Israeli apartheid more extreme. Among them were a bill requiring that citizens of Israel take an oath of allegiance to a “Jewish and democratic state.”
He has also tried to exclude parties comprised of Palestinians living in present-day Israel from the Knesset and to ban public funding of organizations deemed not to respect Israeli “values” (the latter move was originally known as the “Nakba law” as it targeted those who regarded the involuntary displacement of 750,000 Palestinians during Israel’s founding as a catastrophe).
Rotem has been a staunch defender, too, of Israeli government efforts to uproot Palestinian Bedouins from their villages in the Negev (Naqab). And he has argued that communities in the Galilee and the Negev should be allowed to bar residents on grounds of race and religion.
It’s important to note that Rotem is not a marginal figure in Israeli politics. On the contrary, he chairs the Knesset’s committee on constitution, law and justice. He has used that position to hurl insults at political opponents. Two years ago, he told a member of that committee: “Get out of here, you are not even an animal.”
Himself living in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, Rotem has put forward a bill to copper-fasten the state’s “obligation” to invest in expanding settlements.
He was not the only settler invited to the European Parliament this month. Gershon Mesika, head of the Shomron Regional Council for Israeli settlers in the West Bank, also addressed its conference.
While all Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, Mesika has also registered his contempt for Israeli government decisions limiting the settlements’ growth. In 2009, he ripped up papers from Ehud Barak, then Israel’s defense minister, ordering a freeze on construction in some settlements.
Sign of desperation?
The European Friends of Israel (EFI), a cross-party alliance of MEPs, was involved in the recent conference. Its embrace of hardcore racists like Rotem jars with the cuddlier image that it has been trying to project of Israel so far this year.
The EFI kicked off 2013 by celebrating Israel as a caring and open-minded place, with events dedicated to Israel’s humanitarian aid program and the protests against Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic policies.
Is rolling out a red carpet to Rotem a sign of desperation? I’m not sure if it is. The EU’s new guidelines aren’t simply opposed by Israeli settlers.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is also demanding that the guidelines be withdrawn. You don’t need to have a doctorate in international relations to know that the EU is often servile towards America.
Kerry, of course, is more guarded and diplomatic in his choice of words than Rotem. But they are both striving to bolster a system that privileges one group of people and dehumanizes another.