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A Palestinian’s first-class seat next to Naftali Bennett

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

Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett leads a party faction meeting at the Knesset, December 12, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett leads a party faction meeting at the Knesset, December 12, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.”

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett at a Knesset plenum session to vote on the formalization law, Jerusalem, February 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett at a Knesset plenum session to vote on the formalization law, Jerusalem, February 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

U.S. president Donald Trump with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a welcoming ceremony in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017. (Flash90)

U.S. president Donald Trump with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a welcoming ceremony in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017. (Flash90)

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.

U.S. president Donald Trump delivers his final speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem before his departure from Israel, May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

U.S. president Donald Trump delivers his final speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem before his departure from Israel, May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

(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.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Paul Seligman

      For those who haven’t read it – “All the Light we Cannot See” is a crackingly good read, and very thought provoking.

      Reply to Comment
    2. BOAZ

      Here is who was Willem Sassen :

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Sassen

      It is utterly pathetic that the writings of someone posting under such a pseudo can remain on this site and even make sense to some of its readers.

      Radical Israeli & Jewish left , ask yourself honestly the question of whom you are going to bed with.

      These remarks were written from someone opposing the occupation.

      Reply to Comment
      • spritzer

        BOAZ,

        I bet 100$ this “Willem Sassen” is a Jew mascarading as an antisemite. Not the first time this happen.

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Why do you assume it is a Jew? You don’t think there are real antisemites out there. I suggest you look at the comments on YOUTUBE about almost any subject involving Jews or Israel and you will see hundreds if not thousands of antisemitic comments. You think Jews are writing all of them “in order to make ‘progressives’ look bad?

          Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          And I will bet $1000 this ‘Willem Sassen’ character is the same right wing Jew that was previously exposed here masquerading, under the notorious names of “Victor Arajs” and “Pál’ Prónay,” as a supposed “leftist” anti-Semite. Look up those names and you will see what I am talking about. Same M.O. It became clear that we had on our hands a supposed “Latvian and Palestinian patriot” with an odd obsession with “Judith Butler’s Queer Studies and the armies of the international left.” The same obsession an openly rightist crank calling himself ‘Baruch Gottesman” had at the time, as I remember. Lisa Goldman took a stand at the time with this appalling character and threw him out.

          The responses of Boaz and Ike52 are precisely what the odious ‘Sassen’ has been pfishing for. ‘Sassen’ here is trivial, I do not want to pay him the attention he craves, but what does it say about the right that it stoops to these base attempts to smear the left? MK Oren Hazan did it against Breaking the Silence and thinks it is a big joke. So did Ad Kan. What does it say about the underlying weakness and lack of integrity of the right that it feels the need to do this? What does it say about the right’s mindset? It’s whole approach to the occupation?

          And by the way, this troll ‘Sassen’, after I called him out on another thread, upped the ante by posting an old confused, fin-de-siècle ant-Semitic tract by the half-brilliant, half-deranged suicide, Otto Weininger. At that point, all one can do is ignore him. But consider that this tract is no different in spirit and essential content from the Yesha Council-backed Herr Sturmer video, plausibly called one of the most anti-Semitic videos ever made.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Jane Jackman

      In reply to Pendekar Silat, yes I wondered that too (tongue in cheek) but had he actually delivered such a message we almost certainly wouldn’t have heard about his dilemma at all. Under the circumstances, self-silencing was the wisest course.

      Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      This piece is out and out slander. It is a lie to claim that Bennett is some sort of Fascist and it is a cheap shot, blow the dignity that this blog tries to portray, to show a picture of Bennett as if he is making a Fascist salute. After all, it is HAMAS and other Arab terrorist groups that OFFICIALLY make the Fascist salute. But we don’t see those pictures here.

      It is true that Bennett opposes a Palestinian state, side-by-side with Israel. That is true of a lot of Israelis and Palestinians for that matter (e.g. Islamists, HAMAS, much of FATAH, etc). He also supports Jewish settlement in area C, but there is nothing new there since Jews have lived in these areas for millenia. But to claim he is some sort of super-racist is a lie. So he supports the “Jewish state bill”? The Palestinians have exactly the same sort of things in their constitution, stating that a Palestinian state is an Arab state and making Islam the state religion, both of which lead to open discrimination against non-Arabs and non-Muslims. The writer should first clean up his own house if he doesn’t like laws of this type (I don’t think he really opposes Arabs having these kinds of law, which is out and out hypocrisy).
      Bennett as Economics and Education minister has openly called for and worked to integrate Israel Arabs fully into the Israeli economy and make new opportunities for Israel Arabs. And while he opposes a Palestinian state, he has presented a comprehensive program for increasing Arab political power in the Palestinian Authority and creating a road system that would eliminate the need for Palestinians to encounter Israeli checkpoints.

      As so many pieces here at 972 illustrate, those who are expressing their viewpoints seem to be working overtime to PREVENT any sort of compromise peace with Israel. This writer is a good example.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        ​The way Bennett teaches about the left recalls the thinking of European fascism. About which, let’s not forget, an Israeli army general recently warned. Bennett recently told the Foreign Ministry there was something wrong with “their DNA.”

        Ze’ev Sternhell, expert on European fascism:

        Interviewer: Is there anyone in Israeli politics who scares you?
        Sternhell: “The group led by [Naftali] Bennett and [Uri] Ariel scares me – I think they are extremely dangerous. I think that [Avigdor] Lieberman is a little less dangerous, because he lacks religious fervor. But they and the right-wing branch of Likud are truly dangerous people, because they really don’t understand what democracy is, what human rights are, and they truly and deeply hate the Arabs in a way that doesn’t allow for coexistence here. You ask whether there are similarities between Marine Le Pen in France and Bennett – of course there are. In some ways she is a dangerous left-winger compared to him. If Netanyahu really wants to enter the history books, he needs to dismantle the partnership with the right, split Likud and establish a centrist government with the support of the left, and not be ashamed to rely on the Arabs’ votes.”
        http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.610368?v=7B60DE6547A1792616257F8808841B08

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Ike52, you said to me somewhere that you didn’t get my focus on Feiglin these days (you called it an obsession). You said that you didn’t see what the fuss was about as Feiglin was no longer in the Knesset. But many another Feiglinist is in the Knesset. Poster boy for them is Bezalel Smotrich. I think Naftali Bennett is essentially a smoother version of his fellow Habayit Hayehudi member Smotrich and someone more savvy politically, more deceptive and more patient than Smotrich, more willing to play the long game.

        The Israeli Lawmaker Heralding Genocide Against Palestinians
        Deputy Speaker Bezalel Smotrich’s admiration for the biblical genocidaire Joshua bin Nun leads him to adopt values that resemble those of the German SS
        http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.791115
        “Tomer Persico quoted remarks that MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) made recently at a conference of religious Zionists, where he presented his plan to offer the Palestinians three options: leave the territories, continue to live there with second-class status, or continue resisting, in which case “the Israel Defense Forces will know what to do.” These are chilling words that are liable to lead Israel into committing the horrific crime of genocide.
        It’s hard to believe that an elected representative of a party in the governing coalition could raise the option of genocide if the Palestinians don’t accept the terms he’s willing to offer them: either emigration, or life under an apartheid regime based on principles of Jewish law, which would be even worse than the one that existed in South Africa. Smotrich, a deputy speaker of the Knesset, is the most senior government figure to date to say unabashedly that the option of genocide is on the table if the Palestinians don’t agree to our terms – and it’s clear they won’t agree…..”

        One of the things that recalled Feiglin to me and opened my eyes was not just the crass Lewis from Afula but someone less blunt, more indirect and euphemistic but heading towards the same goal, I realized, while hiding it under the cover of pedantic history and civics lessons and approving references to the fate of French Huguenots, and shoutouts to Marine Le Pen and Vlad Putin. One day he let it drop that all he in his innocence wanted to do was protect the Palestinians from genocide or mass transfer. It was a veiled threat.
        I have come to realize that many of the right wing commenters in these pages, no matter how they dress it up, can be best understood as being driven by the same “popular Jewish democracy” ideology of Moshe Feiglin and driving towards the same inevitable goal. Whether they understand it or not. Truly understanding this ideology and its place in Israel in 2017 is illuminating. It is decisive.

        Reply to Comment