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Ex-Mossad chief: Far-right ministers endangering ‘vital’ settlement blocs

Former Mossad intelligence agency chief Tamir Pardo said Saturday that the “apartheid approach” of Israel’s far-right ministers has endangered Israel’s “essential” presence in the so-called settlement blocs close to the Green Line.

Pardo made headlines around the globe earlier this week for an interview he gave to the Associated Press during which he asserted that Israel is enforcing an apartheid system in the West Bank.

The former Mossad head stood by the position during a Saturday interview on Channel 12, explaining that “the fact that there are two populations on the same territory — one [that lives] according to military law and one according to Israeli law – is apartheid by definition.”

However, Pardo also stressed that Israel’s “massive and essential” construction in the settlement blocs has been a “welcome step.”

The vast majority of Israel’s half a million settlers live in those communities closer to the Green Line, which Israel has long insisted would remain part of the Jewish state in any future peace deal. Though over the years, those blocs have expanded further east, making a contiguous state for the Palestinians more difficult to draw out. The settlement blocs have also never been formally defined by Israel, with some naming the northern West Bank city of Ariel and surrounding towns as an entire bloc, even though it is located 10 miles east of the Green Line

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Still, Pardo defended the strategy of expansion in the settlement blocs, ostensibly differentiating it from construction in remote settlements deep in the West Bank.

View of the Israeli settlement of Efrat, located south of Jerusalem. Photo taken November 24, 2009. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

He said successive governments since Israel capture the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War “managed to walk between the raindrops” with regards to policy vis a vis the Palestinians.

“Even though activities that were not completely democratic were required and carried out, Israel always had a convincing explanation,” Pardo claimed, without elaborating.

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a new government last December, tapping as central ministers a pair of far-right lawmakers whose “approach is that of apartheid,” Pardo said.

The former Mossad chief only named National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, but it was clear he was also referring to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich because Pardo also highlighted the latter’s call earlier this year to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara. Smotrich later walked back the remark and apologized.

Last month, Ben Gvir claimed that his family’s right to travel in the West Bank “is more important than the right to movement for Arabs.” He later clarified that what he meant was that Israelis’ right to life is more important than Palestinians’ freedom of movement.

Pardo lamented that “what was done after the [the most recent] elections is a disaster for the State of Israel.”

Illustrative: Palestinians holding Israeli work permits crossing from the West Bank into Israel through the Eyal checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Qalqilya. November 21, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu — who did not agree to even be photographed with Ben Gvir until the eve of the elections — put him in such a central position, he changed the strategic status of the State of Israel and he is putting it in existential danger,” Pardo said.

With his AP interview, Pardo became the latest former senior official to compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank to apartheid, a reference to the system of racial separation in South Africa that ended in 1994.

Leading rights groups in Israel and abroad and Palestinians have accused Israel and its 56-year military rule of the West Bank of morphing into an apartheid system that they say gives Palestinians second-class status and is designed to maintain Jewish hegemony from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

A handful of former Israeli leaders, diplomats and security officials have warned that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state, but Pardo’s language was even more blunt.

Pardo, who served as head of Israel’s clandestine spy agency from 2011 to 2016, wouldn’t say if he held the same beliefs while heading the Mossad. But he said that he believed among the country’s most pressing issues was the Palestinians — above Iran’s nuclear program, seen by Netanyahu as an existential threat.

In apartheid South Africa, a system based on white supremacy and racial segregation was in place from 1948 until 1994. The rights groups have based their conclusions on Israel on international conventions like the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It defines apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.”

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with then-outgoing Mossad chief Tamir Pardo during a farewell ceremony in Tel Aviv on January 5, 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Rights groups point to discriminatory policies within Israel and in annexed East Jerusalem, Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been ruled by the Hamas terror group since 2007 and its military rule in the West Bank. Israel exerts overall control of the territory, maintains a two-tier legal system, and is building and expanding settlements that most of the international community considers illegal.

Israel rejects any allegation of apartheid and says its own Arab citizens enjoy equal rights. Israel granted limited autonomy to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank, at the height of the peace process in the 1990s and withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005. It says the West Bank is disputed territory and that its fate should be determined in negotiations.

Experts predict Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel plus the areas it captured in 1967 — the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Continued occupation could force Israel into a hard choice: Formalize Jewish minority rule over disenfranchised Palestinians — or give them the right to vote and potentially end the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine.

AP contributed to this report