I waited for Yiftah Curiel in the upstairs of a coffee shop. He was the spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in London, and his train was running late. Very aware that I might be out of my depth – plankton to a veritable whale – I used the delay to make some quick fact-checks and other googlings. Yiftah then arrived and, after introductions, we got stuck into the meat of the interview.
Yiftah was in Exeter to debate the boycott of Israeli goods, advocated by BDS – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I opened on this topic. Naturally, Yiftah rejects the legitimacy of the BDS campaign. He told me that his outlook was “utilitarian” in perspective. However, “is (BDS) conducive to peace or not?” He argues that BDS acts as a disincentive. “BDS goes in exactly the opposite way, it is divisive. We are boycotting, we are isolating, we don’t want to talk.” This is disastrous when one considers that “a solution will only be achieved around the negotiating table, that’s the way it went with Northern Ireland and most other conflicts of this kind.”
I wondered aloud whether he saw the movement as anti-Semitic? He preferred the word “delegitimizing”. Indeed, if the BDS leadership can be taken as an indicator of the BDS movement, then BDS does not recognise the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Such an uncompromising position hardly helps the BDS’s legal case, which otherwise could be formidable, for the law must be applied equally and by law Israel is a state. They are uncompromising extremists, and as Yiftah points out, even “Abbas rejects the boycott of Israel!” I would add that even Norman Finklestein, one of Israel’s fiercest critics, has labeled them a “dishonest cult”. And so Yiftah isn’t worried: “No doubt that BDS is not working; trade between Israel and UK had doubled” and “academic and cultural ties are flourishing”.
“BDS is not working; trade between Israel and UK had doubled”
Yiftah said that he is “not too concerned about BDS”. Here there is a contradiction, and a problem that is evident for all to see – for if it is divisive and will not bring peace, then why isn’t he worried about it? And if in its inefficiency it cannot be divisive, then why isn’t peace being achieved as we speak?
At some point in our discussion I changed the direction of our conversation. “Would you concede that Hamas is a lesser evil then ISIS?” He did not distinguish between the two, saying that they are both “radical Islamic groups and they both operate in very similar ways. For Israel, (Hamas) is a very big problem” while “ISIS is a bigger problem for Iraq and Syria”. Can peace only be achieved post-Hamas? “In the past the PLO was considered a terrorist group – Hamas could renounce violence”. The onus is on Hamas then. Current Israeli intransigence is understandable when one considers Hamas charter, but of more interest is Yiftah’s lack of distinction between ISIS and Hamas. Although they share ideological tropes, their capabilities vastly differ, and Hamas’ violence does not occur in a vacuum – there are degrees to which ideology is the driving force, and one cannot help but think that continuing oppression will only swell the hardline of Hamas. The difference is that the tragedy of their 2006 election was based on an injustice.
I attempted, twice, to draw the comparison between Israel’s occupation of parts of Palestine and that of Russia and the Crimea. Would boycott not be justified in the case of Russia? “As a diplomat” he did not want to comment on other conflicts and get drawn into a comparison with Russia. I would argue that the comparison is a valid one. Russia is illegal in occupying Ukraine, just as Israel is illegal in occupying East Jerusalem (illegal under the Goldhagen Report) and the Golan Heights (illegal under Resolution 242). Yiftah argued that BDS was wrong in that “it singles out only Israel and in that way it is delegitimising. Israel is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, and it might just be the best place to be an Arab.” Nonetheless, the very fact that Israel is a democracy doesn’t excuse Israel, if anything, it should hold Israel to a higher standard.
“Israel is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, and it might just be the best place to be an Arab”
On the subject of Zionism, Yiftah told me that: “Israelis have to give up on the idea of a greater Israel, and the Palestinians have to give up the dream that Israel will one day go away and they will control the entire territory.” He is a supporter of the two state solution. I questioned the direction and purpose of Netanyahu’s government (aware that I was technically speaking to an employee), asking how the recent ‘Shoot to Kill Policy’ could possibly be well received by the western media. It turned into a back and forth exchange. Condensing his defence then, he said: “specifically in the last two months about 70 incidents of stabbings” resulting in “20 dead, 100 injured” and, what is more, post-Paris attacks, “your leader, David Cameron has adopted the same policy. Exactly the same steps. Arrests. Night raids….” I parried this parallel by pointing out that a 13 year old school-boy had not been shot dead by Parisian police, but had recently been in Israel. Yiftah said that these are “very very unfortunate cases”, and he is right – it is a unique and tragic situation.
However, and as I persisted, in the last two months the “1000 Palestinian injuries from live and rubber bullets sometimes don’t seem to add up.” Here I think his riposte failed him: “its not just about the numbers, what is happening? A wave of terror against Israeli civilians.” Using this cliché does not address the inequalities within the balance sheet, and, reductionist though the balance sheet may be, it’s sometimes the only simple thing when it comes the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Yiftah’s side lost the debate on the boycott of Israeli goods. I think he is right about the BDS movement. If the debate was about BDS, which it should have been for any discussion of boycotting Israeli goods largely involves the BDS; then Yiftah will always have the moral highground as he represents the side willing to talk. Technically his opponents cannot have represented BDS, as in partaking in the debate they are engaged in a dialogue that the BDS would refute on principal. However, and as he told me after the interview, he was not there to win, but to present his case as a reasonable one. He is pragmatic, and seems to understand that he’s unlikely to get much sympathy from a University campus crowd. Reasoned and rational though he may be, in the debate he became very empassioned – as he told me during our interview – the “main difference between myself and my opponents is that I’m an Israeli and I’m going back to Israel”.
At one moment in the debate, historian Richard Seaford made the point that it was the continuous building of Jewish settlements that made dialogue insincere. And, although I may be reading too much into this, I thought Yiftah’s eyebrow might have twitched in recognition of a point well made. Yiftah probably cannot admit to such a thing publically of course, although I suspect he must have some grievances with the right-wing orthodox-nonsense of Netanyahu – the man called the mufti the cause of the Holocaust… that actually happened. In the interview, he said the “government is currently holding on by a thread”, and the “Israeli public is very divided”. Unfortunately, this thread may hold out for quite some time. For as long as the right wing preaches fear and the left wing preaches hope, and all the while rockets fall from the sky, Israeli’s will continue vote in and out of fear.