Israel must give Palestinians their own state, says chief of NGO funding body

Talia Sasson is not afraid to challenge the Israeli government even as it moves against NGOs like hers, she tells Ben Lynfield in Jerusalem

Dovish Israeli civil society organisations are under an unprecedently determined attack from the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But now the president of an organisation that provides them with vital funding is mounting a spirited defence of the groups she regards as guardians of democracy.

“Today the NGOs are the real opposition in Israel, and the fighting opposition to defend democracy and human rights. That’s why the government is legislating against them,” Talia Sasson, president of the New Israel Fund (NIF), said.

Ms Sasson, who worked for 25 years as a senior attorney in the Israeli justice ministry, is best known in Israel for her highly critical 2005 report on illegal settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank, which she was commissioned to write by then prime minister Ariel Sharon. She is one of the country’s foremost opponents of all West Bank settlements.

The fund that she leads collects much of its money in the US but also has offices in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, and the groups it backs amount to a list of the Netanyahu government’s least favourite progressive organisations.

They include B’tselem, the most important Israeli group monitoring human rights abuses in the West Bank; the ex-soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence, which gathers testimonies highlighting the moral price of the occupation; the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the flagship organisation for civil liberties; and Adalah, which defends the rights of the Arab minority within Israel itself.

“We lobby strongly against anti-democratic legislation and are very active. We are not appreciated by the right and are very much attacked and criticised,” Ms Sasson told The Independent as she prepared to travel to London to address a conference on Israeli security. “Organisations we support show the government what harm its policies are causing.”

The Knesset last month backed a bill that will adversely impact on groups that receive funding from the NIF. The law will requires NGOs that receive most of their funds from foreign governments to declare the fact prominently in all correspondence and advertising. The move, seen as a bid to discredit such groups as foreign agents, in practice only effects left-wing NGOs.

“Inside Israeli society this is branding a part of the organisations as if they are anti-Israeli, that they are not patriots of the state of Israel,” Ms Sasson said. “The opposite is correct. Because they support Israel and want to correct things, they are so important.”

Ms Sasson’s grandparents helped found Kiryat Anavim, a kibbutz near Jerusalem, where she was born in 1951. She was brought up with an ethos of serving the state, she says. 

“I served the state all my life and in my work today I am serving the state, to protect democracy and the character of the state as it was founded. Israel, according to the principles it was founded on, is the homeland for the Jewish people with all citizens deserving equality in a democratic state. Read the Declaration of Independence, that’s what’s written there.”

Ms Sasson is among a small minority that doggedly advocates negotiations with the Palestinians in pursuit of a two-state compromise peace agreement – even as the current wave of violence drives most Israeli attitudes and discourse further to the right.

“To maintain democracy you need peace,” she said. “If you want to defend your democracy you have to give the right to a state for the Palestinians. This is an Israeli interest.”

She argues the government is willing to sacrifice Israeli democracy in order to maintain and expand the settlements in the West Bank. “This is what they really want, it’s the goal,” she said. “The continuation of the conflict with the Palestinians serves that goal.” So, she believes, does maintaining such a climate of fear that people think it impossible to change the situation.

Ms Sasson frames Israel’s choices in terms of  values. “It can’t be a democracy when there is no border between Israel and the West Bank,” she said, “when 400,000 settlers live among 2.6 million Palestinians, when people live according to two different system of law, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians. Those people have no control over their lives – yet this is what democracy is all about, that people decide what will happen to them. They can’t decide about anything.”

Ms Sasson is undaunted by swimming against the tide. “I have no choice,” she said. “This is my place, where I was born and will be buried. I won’t give up on changing it. If I don’t try, I definitely can’t change it. And if I don’t try I’ll betray my family who are buried  here, unless they gave their lives for nothing.”

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