Interview with Sai Englert

By Caterina Barbi


Sai Englert is a teaching fellow in the Departments of Development and of Politics and International Studies at SOAS. His PhD research focused on neoliberalism and the defeat of the labor movement in Israel. Considering the July amendment to the Basic Law and the latest episodes of violence in Gaza and Ramallah, he was nice enough to grant his time for an interview.


What is the law about and what does it change?

One thing to start with is that it is not quite just a law, as we would normally think about it, it is inscribed now in the Basic Law, which is as close as we get to an Israeli constitution, so obviously it carries a larger wight than simply a law. What it effectively does is it that it further inscribed, in a more practical way, the Jewish nature of the Israeli state, which will have a series of practical outcomes, for example the fact that Arabic will no longer be an official language, the fact that Jewish communities will have the right to exclude whoever they please from their communities, and really a further recognition of the state as being the state of the Jewish people. This is raising broader questions and worries of what will happen to Palestinian political representatives in the Knesset for example, and their ongoing refusal to recognise the Israeli state as only the state of the Jewish people, and this of course raises some serious questions, for not, only the future of peace negotiations, the right of Palestinians to return, it of course raises questions about the 20% Palestinian citizens of the Israeli state and where does that put them, as the state does not recognize itself as the state of its citizens but that of the Jewish people.

It also raises a question about the occupied territories, as we are living in a reality in which the West Bank has been annexed in all sense and purposes, so where does the law put them? Now, I would raise a caveat to that as in many ways what the law does is officializing what existed in many ways on the ground and so I think there are two approaches to it that are problematic: one of them is to say that this is all new, the second one as solely symbolic. Although not insignificant, I don’t think it’s new, effectively there is a whole load of legal ways in which Jewish communities can already limit who moves in and out. The state has always been the state of the Jewish people. However, I think there is something significant in officializing particular practices, I think Netanyahu is preparing for the next elections, as he’s playing to his right to make sure that the settler block does not get too many of the Likud vote, he is not really worried about the left and the labor parties. I think what is interesting about it is that it is having international consequences already as we see middle or the road, even liberal Zionists, coming out and saying Israel is not an apartheid state, this is an apartheid law. And I think in many ways it is that way, Israel has always presented itself as Jewish and democratic, many people have raised question of what that means, I think Israel is moving towards solving the contradiction with getting rid of the democratic part.


Are the motives behind it purely electoral, or can they be understood in a different fashion?

I think the timing is very much about preparing for the next elections. It is about how big of a share of votes Likud get and in that sense, Netanyahu is worried about the settler right. The Labor party, along all the liberal forces, has long stopped being their main worry. The logic of the law, however, must be understood in a much more long-term set of practices fashion. Which is why I think that it is dangerous to say that it only officializes practices already in place. “Creating facts on the ground” is very much how the creation and expansion of the state can be understood, its the creation of reality that are later legalized. In an international dimension, on land, this is the logic where we were, why was it so important, during Oslo, to talk about the 1967 borders instead of the 1948, despite the fact that they looked very much like 1948? It is because it normalized and legalized the division of land at the beginning of the 67 war, which already started incorporating lands of the West Bank. Now we could say, well that was just the normalization of something that was already the case. That seems to me to be exactly the point. It is a further normalization and legalization of a particular situation.

I think one of the reasons why they think they can get away with it now is that they probably can [sic]. High levels of insecurity in the region, the West is highly concentrated on Saudi Arabia and Israel in terms of fighting the growing influence of Russia and Iran and in terms of their political allies, we have a bunch of hard right wingers in power in the Western world, which will not launch large diplomatic assault against them. It is right but I think the difference lies in the BDS movement, and what civil society’s responses around the world will be.

You talked about the officialization of practices that were already in place, does this mean that the law hold smore symbolic value than factual one?

I think it is dangerous to see it as solely symbolic, it of course holds symbolic value but I think it is not only symbolic to legalize discriminatory practices, I think it is step in a long-term process in the marginalization and expropriation of the Palestinian people. Because something is already happening, does not mean that officializing it is not significant, especially in terms of what it noralizes for the steps ahead. It is materially significant that something moves from a practice to an almost constitutional reality. This gives a clear direction of travel of where the Israeli state is going, an ethnocratic state with very strong religious influences in law-making. It is normalizing a racialized system of division, which I think is best described as apartheid, despite the fact that it is not quite the same form of apartheid as in South Africa. Democratic rights are exclusive to the Jewish population and the Palestinians are further and further pushed to the margins.

Where does it stand in the framework created by the Oslo accords?

Well, it sits in a complicated relationship in the framework built by the Oslo accords.. On the one hand, there is a particular reading of the accords, which lends itself to the normalization of that law, which is to say two states for two people. One of the readings, which is very present in Israeli politics, is the idea that the only in way which the accords are going to work is through full separation, and as such Israel is a uniquely Jewish state, and then you start moving towards population transfers, land swaps and excetera. There is a segment of the settler block, for instance Lieberman, who advocates for this. More generally, one of the logics of Oslo was the idea that the democratic rights of the Palestinian population in Israel would not be put in danger, and that’s of course this is a further sign that it is not the case. I think more seriously, we should also reflect on what we mean by Oslo and what the goal was. And given the fact that the accords never put Palestinian sovereignty seriously on the ground, in terms of security, and economic measure, to mention a few, it is perhaps interesting to analyse Oslo in a process of normalization and of legalization of a series of reality, as the occupation of Jerusalem and abandoning the right of return of the Palestinian people. It is thus interesting to see Oslo in terms of long-term cycles and in this sense, both the accords and this new law are part of a process that can be recognised as settler colonialism.

Many Arab countries have normalized their relations with Israel, and although we have seen and you have mentioned the vocality of civil society and movements such as the BDS, will this law change such relations? Will we see a more official and institutionalized response?

At the very most, we might see some “Concern”.I think we have to be honest about what is happening in the region. A few weeks ago, the Saudi crown prince claimed that Palestinians are the problem in the peace negotiations. This gives you a sense of what is happening in the region, which is not only collaboration with Israel, but the fact that regimes are increasingly confident in making these collaborations public. And this can be understood in terms of the counter revolutionary period. The popular forces that often held back regimes from officializing such relations are of course in a period of defeat: the re-establishment of military regimes, repressions, civil wars, invasions. This gives the regime a greater confidence, which also comes from Oslo and the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world. The law is not going to change that. Israel and Egypt have just signed a huge economic agreement, based on the trade of natural gas. Saudi Arabia and Israel are organizing official visits.

What all of it shows its the ability to normalize and bring to the public already standing practices, because of the situation in which we are: counter revolution, right wing governments in the West which will not sanction the law, the growing integration of Saudi, UAE, Israel block in response to growing Iranian influence and the fact that the United states have made pivots to the Pacific and are more dependent on their allies to keep the region quiet.

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