A free airline upgrade leaves a Palestinian sitting next to one of the Israeli government’s most right-wing nationalists — who went on to make some revealing comments about Trump, the peace process and his colleagues in the Knesset.
By Jamil Dakwar
Earlier this month, I was flying home to New York from Atlanta, Georgia after attending a four-day global human rights conference presided over by former President Jimmy Carter. To my pleasant surprise, I was offered a last-minute free upgrade to business class. But my excitement over what was sure to be a luxurious two-hour nap was short-lived.
When I got to my seat, I found a familiar face in the seat next to mine. I, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, had been “upgraded” to sit beside a fanatic who once bragged about how many Arabs he killed as part of his military service.
While boarding the plane, I had been asked to wait patiently as a large group first made its way into the boarding area. It wasn’t difficult to recognize Naftali Bennett, who was dressed casually in a black polo shirt and jeans. He was swiftly escorted by American and Israeli secret services onto the plane. I assumed that Bennett’s security detail — or even the airline itself — would clear the business class of all passengers to make room for the education minister and his guards. Certainly, I thought, Arabs, Muslims, or anyone mistaken for either, would be the first to go.
I couldn’t help but recall images of that same airline brutalizing a passenger who refused to give up his seat just a few weeks earlier. But, business class ticket in hand, I proceeded to board the plane, looking for seat 2A. Imagine my surprise to discover, in seat 2B, one of the most right-wing nationalists in Israel’s government. If only he recognized the irony of having to stand up to make way for an outspoken Palestinian human rights activist.
At a loss, I texted my wife to ask what I should do. She recommended that I politely ask to change my seat, and warned me: “Whatever you do be careful!” But I had no intention of giving up my business class seat just to make a proponent of segregation feel more comfortable. I emailed my good friend Hagai El-Ad, the director of B’Tselem, who I had just spent the weekend with at the Carter Center. “I’m sitting next to Bennett,” I wrote him. “Do you want me to pass along a message?” His response: “Tell him he is a disgrace to Jewish history.”
I considered placing a phone call in Arabic to see his reaction, or turning to him and asking, in Hebrew, “What are the chances that you would sit next to a Palestinian on a flight overseas!” But why engage in small-talk with someone who denies my humanity and openly wishes for Arab Palestinians to disappear from the face of the land he claims belongs exclusively to him and the Jewish people? I couldn’t bear the thought that he might use our brief encounter as a PR opportunity, perhaps for a selfie of himself chatting with an “Arab-Israeli” lawyer.
Things got even more interesting when, before takeoff, Bennett got on his phone, via a hands-free headset. In listening to him loudly and freely chat away, I deduced that he must have been speaking with a reporter. I don’t know if the discussion was off-the-record, but fortunately, I am not bound by the same ethical restrictions as the journalist on the other side of the line.
First, Bennett mentioned the Israel-Turkey deal, which attracted headlines after Erdogan’s most recent remarks on Israel. Bennett reiterated his opposition to the deal, but emphasized that he had to respect and accept the deal as part of the Netanyahu government.
He then moved on to the Trump administration’s efforts to reach the “ultimate peace deal.” Bennett provided his opinion and analysis on what he called “the three axes” controlling the narrative that Israel, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu, are peace “refuseniks.” The first axis, Bennett told whomever was on the other line, was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whom Bennett credited with successfully convincing prominent Arab countries to pressure Trump into making Netanyahu and Israel accept the Arab peace initiative.
The second axis, he said, was the increasingly close relationship between Trump’s advisor on Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt, and centrist Zionist Union party leader, Tzipi Livni. Bennett appeared to be nervous Livni would have a moderating effect on Trump’s advisor and seemed concerned that Greenblatt had even invited Livni to Shabbat dinner.
The third component of the three-part axis pressuring Netanyahu is, apparently, World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, who met with Bennett at the Jerusalem Post conference in New York and reportedly advised Abbas ahead of his meeting with Trump. Bennett said that Lauder seems eager to win the Noble Peace Prize for his efforts.
Bennett also discussed the discriminatory nation-state bill, which had just passed first reading in the Knesset. The law would declare Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, further perpetuating the second-class citizenship of the Palestinians who comprise one-fifth of Israel’s population. Among other things, it would strip Arabic of its official status and further expand institutionalized discrimination, including racist land and housing policies. Bennett seemed certain centrist MK Yair Lapid would support the law, assuring the reporter Lapid can be counted on to veer right when it comes to “hating Arabs.”
The call lasted about 20 minutes and continued even when the flight attendant asked passengers to turn off their cellphones.
Just a few weeks after our encounter, Bennett would hail Trump’s keynote speech at the Israel Museum as “nearly unprecedented” for not mentioning a Palestinian state or criticizing Israeli policies. This followed weeks of consternation by Bennett and other right-wing factions, who previously celebrated Trump’s victory with obnoxious declarations that “the era of the Palestinian state is over,” due to the fact that he seemed to be cozying up to Abbas.
(Let’s not kid ourselves about what this all means: Trump’s demagogic flip-flopping is all part of the illusion of reviving a failed “peace process,” which has utterly ignored basic ingredients for a just and lasting peace. For as many decades as American presidents have tried to broker peace deals between the Israelis and Palestinians, and for far longer than Donald Trump has been brokering any business “deals,” there have been no serious discussions of ending the 50-year-old military occupation and colonial settler project, including in East Jerusalem, nor of resolving the Palestinian refugee problem, nor of combating institutional discrimination emanating from the domination of one group over the other.
For far too long, Palestinian rights have been sacrificed in the name of maintaining Jewish supremacy in access to Israeli political power, land, natural resources, and economic prosperity. As long as Palestinians are denied justice and equality, and until their basic human rights are part of the equation, there will be little chance of reaching any “ultimate deal.” The best that Trump and Netanyahu can hope for is a short-term security and business deal to preserve the status quo, including the role of the Palestinian Authority as security sub-contractor.)
I remain shocked that Bennett was so careless, speaking as though he was in his own office or living room. What would his reaction have been if he knew that his fellow passenger, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, understood his entire conversation, sat next to him while he napped, and noted his reading material? (In case you’re curious, it was The Economist and the bestselling “All The Lights We Cannot See.”)
In the end, I said and did nothing out of fear. I imagined him or his security detail accusing me of insulting or assaulting him. I’m even afraid that writing about this experience will make my entry and departure from Ben Gurion Airport even more stressful and humiliating than it has been since I left the country to live and work in New York.
I’ll probably never get seated next to a national politician again (if I ever even get another free upgrade), but at least I can rest assured that that the one time I did, I caught a glimpse into the inner workings of one of Israel’s most powerful people — and the mentality of the indomitable far-right.
(Editor’s note: Bennett’s concerns about Trump’s Mideast policy have been widely featured in the Israeli press in recent weeks. It appears that the conversation referenced here may have made it into this story, which does not specifically name Bennett as its source.)
Jamil Dakwar is a human rights lawyer and adjunct lecturer at John Jay College, New York. This piece is submitted in his personal capacity and not as an ACLU staff member.