"Anything is better than Netanyahu"

Nimrod Flaschenberg during an "Israelis for Peace" protest in front of the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin
"It's simple. We expect Germany to oppose the Israeli government's stance. Germany is committed to human rights, international law and the two-state solution. So Germany has to act in accordance with that position, rather than giving full support to Israel," says Nimrod Flaschenberg (image: Mohammed Magdy/Qantara.de)

For seven weeks now, left-wing activist Nimrod Flaschenberg and other like-minded Israelis have been demonstrating outside Germany's foreign ministry

Interview by Mohammed Magdy

Nimrod Flaschenberg campaigns for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, an Israeli Jewish-Arab party. He spent three years advising Israeli Knesset Member Aida Tuma Suleiman. Now studying history in Berlin, Flaschenberg is a founding member of "Israelis for Peace". In interview with Qantara.de, he talks about the group’s agenda, the ongoing war in Gaza, their demands of the German government and what awaits Israel’s left once the current conflict is over.

Let's start with your recent visit to Tel Aviv. How was the atmosphere there after 4 months of war in Gaza?

Nimrod Flaschenberg: It's odd, but things are back to normal, even though there's a war going on. There's much less fear than was apparent during the first month or two. Everyone was in a state of shock: all you heard was sabre-rattling.

I am not convinced the majority of Israelis support the current slaughter, but the right wing has taken over. The rhetoric of supporting the army and supporting the war has become linked to unrestrained attacks and power in Gaza. Many people have basically adopted the position of supporting whatever the Israeli Defence Forces do and turning a blind eye to what's happening in Gaza. The Israeli press – with the exception of small outlets like Haaretz and Local Call – doesn't show the suffering of Gazans.

Still, that does seem to be changing now. There's a growing anti-war movement, though it's still small and marginal. More people are realizing, however, that there is no military solution, which is what we have always said. People in Israel, especially the liberals, are beginning to understand.

A space for Israelis against the Gaza war

Where does the "Israelis for Peace” movement come from?

Flaschenberg: When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Berlin last year, amid the protests against his judicial reforms, I and some other Israeli left-wing activists decided we needed an initiative to represent left-wing progressive Israeli voices in the German capital. Berlin boasts arguably the largest group of left-wing Israelis and also the largest Palestinian community in Europe. The idea was already under discussion before 7 October. Then the war started and we were all in shock. Still, it seemed to us a crucial juncture. It just took a few weeks to get the ball rolling.

We began demonstrating in front of the German Foreign Office, asking the German government to change its policy towards Israel. We also realised that many Israelis were unwilling to join the pro-Palestinian demonstrations because they were distraught following 7 October. Our aim was to open up the space for those Israelis against the war.

"Israelis for Peace" have now been protesting in front of Germany’s foreign ministry against Israel’s war in Gaza for seven weeks. What are your demands? 

Flaschenberg: Broadly speaking, we are calling for three things: an immediate ceasefire, the release of hostages and a diplomatic solution to the war in Gaza and the Palestinian issue

What we are asking of Germany is very simple. We don't expect Germany to be like Ireland, which is very supportive of Palestine. We expect Germany to oppose the Israeli government's stance. Germany is committed to human rights, international law and the two-state solution. That's their position. All we're saying is that Germany has to act in accordance with that position, rather than giving full support to Israel. The German foreign minister recently came out in support of a ceasefire, but she meant a temporary ceasefire. That's not what we're after.

Israelis for Peace protest in front of the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin
Germany needs to put pressure on Israel: "If Berlin were to change its tune, even just a little bit, to suggest, say, that it is not going to sell weapons as long as this operation is going on, that could be a significant incentive for Israel to stop," says Flaschenberg (image: Mohammed Magdy/Qantara.de)

What are your expectations of Germany in this ongoing conflict? 

Flaschenberg: To put pressure on Israel. Germany is supporting and arming Israel, and also providing diplomatic cover. I think that if Berlin were to change its tune, even just a little bit, to suggest, say, that it is not going to sell weapons as long as this operation is going on, that could be a significant incentive for Israel to stop. Of course, Germany is not the U.S. or Britain, but Germany is one of Israel's most important allies, perhaps more so than Britain, depending on what you're referring to.

Just as the international community gave Israel cover in the first few weeks when all the world leaders came to Jerusalem and stood behind Benjamin Netanyahu, they can do the same to stop the war. Not just because it's hurting the Palestinians, but because it is destroying Israeli society and threatening the future security of Israelis.

German support for Israeli crimes

How have German officials responded to your demands? Have you discussed them with German politicians?

Flaschenberg: Not yet. First we wanted to go public to get people's support. We have already staged a major event for Israelis. It was held in Hebrew at the beginning of February. Almost a hundred people attended and we were able to recruit a considerable number. Our idea is to establish ourselves as a significant group and then talk to officials and politicians.

Many Germans have joined our demos as well because they feel discomfited by the pro-Palestinian protests. Germans with liberal and leftist convictions recognise that their state is supporting the crimes Israel is committing. They obviously feel we provide a credible means of expressing their discontent.

How did the right wing come to dominate the political scene in Israel over the last two decades?

Flaschenberg: Israel has been going through a process of right-wing radicalisation for many years, since the nineties, more or less, or at least since 2009, when Netanyahu returned to power. The settlers have increased their political influence, and through the alliance between the Likud party and the ultra-orthodox faction, they have created a new majority that is fundamentalist and religious.

At the same time, the religious right has acquired an increasing number of positions in the Israeli media and the administrative state. They see the Palestinians as their biggest enemy, so they have created and fed this reality of division between the West Bank and Gaza. It serves their purpose that there is no unified Palestinian leadership and no chance of constructive negotiations.

The last 20 years have shown this to be true: we don't negotiate in any significant way. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership has also made many mistakes.

Ever since this latest extreme right-wing government came to power, however, the Israeli public has not bought into their narrative. As soon as they came to power, they started pushing for controversial judicial reform and the majority of Israelis understood that they didn't want such an extreme leadership. That's why the government's ratings have plummeted since the election.

Zionism failed to protect the Jewish people

What does this mean for the future of peace in the Middle East?

Flaschenberg: What the right succeeded in doing was to make the Palestinian issue a non-issue. However, bearing in mind what has taken place since 7 October, there is now a chance for change. I feel that Israelis have realised that you can't ignore the Palestinian issue and that at some point we will have to change our attitude and start moving towards a diplomatic solution. 

At the same time, the right-wing Israeli ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, claim that the idea of a soft approach to the Palestinians has collapsed. This was proven on 7 October and now we have to be much more aggressive, much more violent, much more assertive in our war and in our military efforts. We can see this now winning in action and in practice in what we're seeing in Gaza. That said, I am not convinced that the desire for a change in attitude has faded away completely.

Leading Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann said in an interview with Haaretz that the Hamas pogrom was proof that Zionism had failed to protect the Jewish people. Do you agree with this?

Flaschenberg: When rumours began flying about anti-Semitism and German family members called my wife and I asking whether we were safe, and were we being threatened, I was very clear. I said, "Why the hell are you calling me? Hundreds of Israelis had just been killed in their homes and you're calling me to see if I'm safe?” 

There's no safe place for Israelis and Jews right now in Israel. So in that sense, it is true that Zionism has failed to protect Israelis and Jews. Focusing on the problems of Zionism as a concept distracts, however, from the relevant political issues of today. It is also important to talk about the Nakba – which Israelis need to acknowledge – but it is no substitute for talking about present and future solutions. Sometimes the conversation about Zionism goes in a direction that actually benefits the Israeli right. Talk instead about the settlements and the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, and now in Gaza, and their plans to resettle Gaza – that will create more problems for them.

We believe that cooperation between Palestinians and Jews is the only way forward in the region. Some links remain between the Israeli and Palestinian left, yet they have naturally suffered owing to the war. And of course, there are many NGOs and groups where both Palestinians and Israelis work alongside each other.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told MSNBC last week that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "is not a trustworthy leader and should go", while many Western leaders say Netanyahu is an obstacle to Middle East peace. What do you say?

Flaschenberg: The only way for Netanyahu and the right wing to stay in power right now is by prolonging the war. Once the war is over, they will be out. I completely agree that for any positive progress to happen, the government has to change and the Israeli extreme right wing be removed from power.

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

I would also add that in many ways I don't think peace with Hamas is possible. There are differences of opinion in our group, but that is my view. Hamas and the Likud party were both against the Oslo process and both built their political agenda around rejecting Oslo. I'm not saying we should return to Oslo, but we have to oust the right wing on both sides and Hamas is on the Palestinian right wing, so there can be no peace with either of them. With other representatives, of course, the story could be quite different.

Who will be the next prime minister of Israel?

Flaschenberg: In my opinion, Benny Gantz, the Israeli minister, is the most obvious candidate, as his party took 38 seats in the elections. If something radical happens, somebody like Gadi Eisenkot, the number two minister in the Israeli war cabinet, or Yair Lapid could end up leading the next government.

They have terrible policies, especially Gantz who is for the war, but at least their political headline is not preventing a Palestinian state. They are playing politics. I don't think they want an independent Palestinian state in the next five years, but if they are in power, at least it's game on.

The Americans, the Egyptians, the Saudis – they all have a chance to orchestrate something. The PA will also be revitalised, because it will have a partner on the other side to negotiate with. I'm not that hopeful about them, but obviously anything is better than Netanyahu.

Interview conducted by Mohammed Magdy

© Qantara.de 2024