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How Netanyahu Has Made "Apartheid" Label Acceptable Inside Israel

Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo joins a handful of former military and political leaders who have decided to break the taboo on using this infamous word, as a result of the political radicalization of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Photo of clashes near the Israel-Palestine border wall on Sept. 1

Palestinian protesters gather near the border wall during clashes with Israeli troops on the eastern border of the Gaza Strip on Sept. 1

Pierre Haski


It wasn’t long ago that anyone who used the word “apartheid” to describe the situation in the Palestinian territories risked being accused of antisemitism. This week, the former chief of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, used it — joining a short list of state officials who have taken the leap to make the public accusation.

The taboo has gradually eroded in Israel as a result of the excesses of the extreme right, a key part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's current parliamentary coalition. This is a reflection of the intense political battle unfolding in a polarized Israel. Previously, the situation in the Palestinian territories had been largely absent from the debate. This is no longer the case.

Tamir Pardo, who headed Mossad from 2011 to 2016, described the treatment of Palestinians as comparable to apartheid, the system of institutionalized racism that ruled in South Africa until 1994. “A territory in which two people are governed by two separate judicial systems — that is a state of apartheid,” he said.

Final straw

The final straw was undoubtedly a shocking scene that played out on Israeli television. The country’s Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, an extreme-right leader who lives in the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron in the Palestinian Territories, told an Arab-Israeli journalist: “I’m sorry, Mohammed — my right, and the rights of my wife and children, to travel in Judea and Samaria [the biblical name for the West Bank] is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs.”

If we needed a definition for “apartheid,” the minister found it.

Israel is taking the same path as South Africa did 75 years ago.

Benjamin Pogrund, an Israeli who grew up in South African and fought against apartheid in his youth, has written about how his opinion has changed. In 2014, he wrote a book in which he argued the situation couldn’t be described as “apartheid” — but today, he argues that, in the Palestinian Territories, Israel is taking the same path as South Africa did 75 years ago.

Photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on March 3, 2023

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Yin Bogu/Xinhua/ZUMA

Radical agenda

The consequences of this turning point could be significant. International sanctions were used to fight South African apartheid; today, supporters of sanctions against Israel are in the minority, but they could use the fact that the word “apartheid” is now being used within Israel to make themselves heard.

It’s been a very long time since someone of his stature was so direct.

Above all, the breaking of this taboo returns the Palestinian issue to the debate. For a long time, Israeli society has closed its eyes to what is happening in the Palestinian territories – but with the government’s radical agenda, this is no longer possible.

Moreover, another statement by the former Mossad chief caused surprise: his assessment that the Palestinian issue is more urgent for Israel than a nuclear threat from Iran. It’s been a very long time since someone of his stature was so direct – a sign of the extreme rupture set off in just a few months by Netanyahu and the allies he chose for his government.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Israel Blinked: How The Ceasefire-For-Hostages Deal Upends The Gaza War Logic

The Israeli government has agreed to a deal negotiated via Qatar, for a four-day truce and an exchange of 50 hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners. What happens next? That's the big question.

Photo of a man holding his smartphone to light up posters of Israeli hostages, in Jerusalem

Posters of Israeli hostages, in Jerusalem

Pierre Haski


PARIS — It's the first piece of good news in 46 days of war. In the early hours of Wednesday, Israel agreed to a deal that included a four-day ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas — 30 children and 20 women — in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, again women and children. The real question is what happens next.

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But first, this agreement, negotiated through the intermediary of Qatar, whose role is essential in this phase, must be implemented right away. This is a complex negotiation, because unlike the previous hostage-for-prisoner exchanges, it is taking place in the midst of a major war.

On the Palestinian side, although Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is present in Doha, he does not make the decision alone — he must have the agreement of the leaders of the military wing, who are hiding somewhere in Gaza. It takes 24 hours to send a message back and forth. As you can imagine, it's not as simple as a phone call.

And on the Israeli side, a consensus had to be built around the agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right allies were opposed to the deal — in line with their eradication logic — even at the cost of Israeli lives. But the opposition of these discredited parties was ignored, and that will leave its mark.

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