A One-State Reality? Reassessing the International Approach to Palestine & Israel

23 Jul
Kenneth Roth

We speak exclusively to the “godfather of human rights” Kenneth Roth on how the international community should be responding to the realities on the ground in Palestine and Israel today.

Kenneth Roth is an American attorney, human rights activist and writer. He was the executive director of Human Rights Watch from 1993 to 2022.

Writing for Deutsche Welle earlier this year, Roth asserts that after 56 years the pretence of Israel’s occupation being a temporary fixture can no longer be upheld, and what we actually witness today is a “one-state reality”, whereby Israel controls all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River while subjecting Palestinians to an apartheid system of domination and control.

“After more than five decades of occupation and 30 years of the ‘peace process,’ it is no longer tenable to regard the repression of Israel’s occupation as a mere temporary phenomenon to be cured by a ‘peace process’ without end. The ‘peace process’ is moribund. While governments speak of a two-state solution, what we have today is a ‘one-state reality.’ Indeed, the main people still invoking the two-state solution seem to be Western officials desperately trying to avoid coming to terms with the unceasing nature of Israeli oppression.”

Read Roth's piece.

Show transcript

Mark Seddon: Well, welcome to all of you joining us from wherever you are and from all over the world to this, our 78th edition of Palestine Deep Dive, where I'm delighted to be joined once again by Kenneth Roth.

This evening we're going to be talking essentially about the idea of a one-state solution. Ken has recently written a piece for Deutsche Welle where he referred to it as a ‘One-State reality’, and ‘Reassessing the International Approach to Palestine and to Israel.’

To all of you out there, please do get in touch, send in your questions. We want to hear from you. We want to know where you are from and what you have to say.

Now, Kenneth Roth, as you know, is an American attorney. He's a human rights activist and a writer. And for a long time, he was Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, in fact from 1993 to 2022.

Of course, some of you'll be more familiar, more recently, he was offered a fellowship, of course, at the Harvard Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. That was actually blocked at the time by the Dean of the school, Dean Elmendorf. There was certainly a belief at the time that essentially the Dean had given in to some of Harvard's donors who had been strong supporters of Israel.

On January the 19th, there was a huge reaction, as you know. Ken got a great deal of support from right across academia, but from way outside academia, from politicians, from journalists, from campaigners, from people right across the world.

The Kennedy School actually reversed its decision, and it re-offered the fellowship. The Dean said that his initial decision had been an error, and it was not intended to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country.

Kenneth has been very magnanimous, but he responded that really the Dean hadn't said anything much to identify the people who mattered to him, the people who the Dean said had helped make his decision for him and who were behind his original veto and has said all the way through the full transparency is key to ensuring that such influence is not exerted in other cases.

Anyway, that's the good news is that Kenneth is there at the Dean, but he is very busy elsewhere. He's actually joining us from Geneva today.

Welcome Ken. Just to say, my name's Mark Seddon. I've been a journalist for most of my life. I went to work for Al Jazeera in New York before joining the United Nations, where I was a speechwriter for former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. I've worked for previous a president of the General Assembly.

As I said, please send in any questions you've got. We've got Kenneth, he's very kindly said that he can be with us for a while this evening.

I just wondered if we could perhaps begin, Ken, with this very fast-moving situation in Israel today. The Netanyahu government have just succeeded, we understand, in pushing and actually having these legislative plans to reign in the judiciary passed in the Knesset.

Now that it has passed, this is a seminal moment in many ways because many observers have said this has essentially been a kind of battle for secular democracy against a more theocratic state.

I suppose the first question to you is really looking at it from a human rights point of view. What does it mean for people in Israel now in terms of their judicial rights? Are you able to tell us something about where what has actually happened? What is so important about this decision of the Knesset, and where could it lead?

Kenneth Roth: Okay. Well, first, Mark, let me say I'm very happy to be back with you again and to have this chance to chat this evening.

Let me put the judicial debate in perspective in Israel because it's important to recognise the nature of the Israeli government. It is a remarkably unchecked government in that there's no precedent here. It's a purely parliamentary system, so whoever has the majority in the Knesset can decide. There's no even Senate or sort of second legislative chamber. There's just one chamber of 120 members.

There's not even a federal system. There's a single government. It's not like you have states in different parts of Israel.

And so there's enormous power that has collected in the hands of the Prime Minister and his parliamentary majority. And the only independent check on that was the Supreme Court. Netanyahu and his extremist far-right government has gone after the Supreme Court because it sees the court as an obstacle to its fairly radical plans as far as we can see.

Initially, it was going to try to really undermine the independence of the court in fairly radical ways in terms of how judges are selected and the like, but there was so much opposition to that, that it decided to take a salami approach to the court and to slice away at different parts of its power.

And the first step that it took, the step it took today, was to attack the court's ability to rule that governmental action was unreasonable. Now, this is important because I should have said, Israel has no constitution, there's no Bill of Rights. There are legislative enactments of certain rights, certain basic law, but the court really didn't have a constitution it could look to and say, "Ah, this violates article such and such."

Its main tool was to say this government action was unreasonable. And the Knesset, Netanyahu, just took that power away.

And so, this really means that the government is quite unchecked and it could do any number of things. You talk about this being a very nationalist, religious group, that has a different conception of Israel from the more secular, more pluralistic group of people that really created the state of Israel.

There are plans for the occupied territory, which could go so far as annexation. It could go worse than that, we don't really know, but this is now an unchecked government. It does not have the most basic checks and balances that in most democracies are essential to enforcing basic rights.

Mark: I suppose Netanyahu would turn around and say, "Well, of course, ultimately the Israeli people will decide, they go to the polls," but following on from that, for those who have been so vigorously campaigning and battling against all of this, people are asking the question outside elsewhere is, why does Netanyahu want to do this?

Kenneth: First, Mark, let me just address the answer that you gave. I think you're correct. That's what Netanyahu has been saying. "We won the election; we can do what we want." But that misconceives what democracy is about.

Yes, free and fair elections are very important, but democracies are not pure majoritarianism. Democracies are majoritarianism constrained by the rule of law and basic rights, and for those, you need an independent court system. That's why Netanyahu is chipping away at that court system.

Now, why is he doing this? I think it's mainly about self-preservation, in two senses. One is, we all know he's facing corruption charges. And I think he fears that if he were to press the Attorney General to withdraw those charges, or to somehow give him impunity for what he's alleged to have done, that would be deemed unreasonable. So, he's trying to constrain that, but he also, in order to save his skin, is desperate to retain his parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu has always made a point of somewhat ruling from the center-right. Why has he joined this extreme far-right government? It's because that's the only way he could stay in power. So many people in the center wanted nothing to do with this man who was facing corruption charges.

Ans so, a lot of these extremists in his government want to get rid of the court, which they see as a constraint on their plans for the occupied territory. Again, this comes back to his self-preservation in a more political sense here. He needs to maintain that coalition in order to maintain his power, so he has a chance of fighting these corruption charges.

Mark: This is, of course, an individual who had a new pacemaker fitted yesterday. His health isn't all that good. Self-preservation, you do wonder where this really takes him! As you were saying, many of the critics have said, "Yes, he's very afraid of the corruption allegations that have been made against him. He's afraid of a free judiciary for all of those reasons." You just do wonder about how far he's prepared to take these things and beyond, and how much he's prepared to give to those he's in coalition with?

Kenneth: I think the problem is that the far right is in the driver's seat right now because if they were to pull out of the government, the government would fall and Netanyahu would be on his own to face the corruption charges.

He, is really I think, has essentially handed the keys to the government to these far-right extremists. We don't know their full plans, but it's not hard to imagine.

Mark: Kenneth, it does look as though he's been completely impervious to outside pressure if indeed that pressure has really been applied. President Biden has made it clear that he's opposed to all of these changes. Of course, Israel is a sovereign country and what-have-you. But, does the thought not cross his mind that actually, he may be beginning to risk the relationship with the country that actually sends the most money to Israel each year?

Kenneth: I think, Mark, even before we talk about the United States, we should note that there has been an extraordinary outpouring of opposition within Israel.

We saw in the heat of the summer, this long march of tens of thousands of people from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem over the course of five days. We've seen now the leading trade union business leaders threatened to shut the country down. We've seen the Israeli reservists, the elite pilots saying, "We're not going to report to duty for an extremist government like this if it pushes through the law that it just pushed through." There's extraordinary domestic opposition.

Now, in the United States, this is a complicated issue and maybe this is a larger topic we should talk about. Biden has on the one hand demonstrated his distaste for what Netanyahu is doing. He only belatedly invited him to the United States. There's a long period of time with no meeting between the US President and the Israeli Prime Minister.

Even now it's not clear that it's a White House meeting. It may just be on the sidelines of the General Assembly in September. So, it's a real downgrading, and Biden seemed to have done that mainly just to get rid of a campaign issue.

There is clearly growing opposition to Netanyahu and a greater sense of distance from Israel on the part of many American Jews. Now, this is not APAIC, which is the far-right conservative element of American Jewery, but the vast majority of American Jews are liberal Democrats. They don't like what Netanyahu stands for.

Netanyahu basically seems to have decided he doesn't care about them. His political future in the United States rests with the Christian evangelicals who have very odd reasons for supporting Israel. They see Israel's existence as a necessary prelude to the second coming of Christ. For these kinds of religious reasons, they are strong backers of Netanyahu, but of course, they vote Republican. None of this does much good for Democratic support.

On the other hand, the Democratic, or the Congress, the Democratic Senate, almost majority in the House, you don't see many Democrats standing up to Israel yet. I think they all seem to be worried about primary challenges and the like.

So, there's not much courage there even though, all the polling shows that the American public in general and American Jews are very upset with the direction of what we've seen.

To the point that two former US ambassadors to Israel just this week have said it's time to reexamine this massive military aid that the United States gives every year to Israel, $3.8 billion.

And even Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times columnist came out with a very good column saying, "Why are we doing this? Israel's a rich country. That 3.8 billion could go a long way if you gave it to poor countries, and in any event, that money is making the United States government complicit in Israeli abuses and the repression and the occupation and the apartheid. Why don't we start talking about this?"

The conversation is beginning and beginning not on the extreme left, but in very centrist places. So, we'll have to see where this goes, but I have noticed a very clear change in tone in discussions about Israel in the United States.

Mark: A new realism perhaps because as you were mentioning Netanyahu and these strange alliances that have developed in recent years, I was also thinking about Prime Minister Orbán in Hungary. Netanyahu has been quite happy to sit down and make arrangements with quite strange bedfellows.

I was just thinking beyond that, Ken, because you've talked about what has been going on in Israel, and the fact that these demonstrations have been huge and long-lasting, the fact that various parts of civil and military society, they just don't want to cooperate, but where do you think this goes now? Now this legislation has gone through, where does that leave liberal opinion in Israel, moderate opinion, if you like, secular-- Where does it go now? Do they continue to protest? Or, are we now beginning to see this tide sweeping in and people could be swept away?

Kenneth: Let me first touch on your Orbán point, which you mentioned briefly because I do think it's very odd that Netanyahu cozies up to Orbán. It shows he's willing to take his support wherever he finds it.

What makes this odd is that Orbán is blatantly anti-Semitic. But the main target of his antisemitism is George Soros. I think Peter Beinart has written about this like, "How is it that an anti-Semite like Orbán can embrace the Israeli prime minister?"

Well, it's because Orbán likes the ethnic nationalism of Netanyahu. What he doesn't like, is the liberalism of most Jews. And so, he can be against Jews as a whole because they represent the liberal cosmopolitanism, the respect for rights that he does not practice at home. But if you have a fellow nationalist, a fellow aspiring autocrat, why not embrace him, even if he is Jewish? And so, that odd combination is why Orbán embraces Netanyahu, and Netanyahu is willing to embrace an anti-Semite, just to get more political support.

Mark: And by the way, Ken, I know you're going to continue, but I think that both Orbán and Netanyahu employed the same political consultant to help them win power. And targeting George Soros was one of the key things that this political consultant advised and pushed for. It does seem quite bizarre to people looking in, that this very strange relationship has developed.

Kenneth: Anyway, Mark, coming back to your question about Israel-

Mark: Yes.

Kenneth: -obviously, we don't know. This is the key moment. It's difficult to sustain a popular movement. I think the Israelis had been remarkable by coming out in large numbers every single weekend to protest this bill while it was pending.

Will the enactment of the bill defuse it? Or will it outrage people? We don't know, but that's the big question, and I think this is the moment. We've seen these threats of a general strike, in essence, by the main trade union and the main business leaders. Will they live up to that or not? We'll know within the next day or two.

Mark: There is, of course, the argument that essentially, people in the occupied Palestinian territories have been subjected to this kind of extra-judicial regime for 50 years.

There's a question out there too, with so many people demonstrating in Israel, so many Israelis, did they understand, do they appreciate that this has been happening to Palestinians? Has that been the beginnings of coming together, if you like, a reckoning that basically equal rights apply to all and that lessons can be learned, and there could be solidarity?

Kenneth: Mark, it's obviously very difficult to sum up the views of tens of thousands of people on the street. Overall, I have been disappointed by how focused the demonstrations have been on the potential consequences of this compromising judicial independence. It really has been focused on what this would mean within Israel proper, within Green Line Israel. There has been relatively little discussion about what it would mean within the occupied territory.

I think we have to note that while the Supreme Court every once in a while has stepped in, there was one case where on grounds of unreasonableness, it ordered a colonel to be prosecuted for overseeing the beating of Palestinians. The court has stood in the way of a recognition of certain technically legal outposts.

There is a significance to the occupied territory, but we have to recognise that the court is allowed most Israeli practices to go forward.

Indeed perhaps the most controversial practice which is the settlements, the court has ducked. It has refused to address the legality of the settlements because it can't.

The settlements are so clearly illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Indeed, they represent the transfer by an occupying power of its population into occupied territory, which is a war crime under both the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The Israeli Supreme Court can't really look at this, it's spelled out in black and white, without ruling against the government on such a basic thing, so it just ducks the issue. We have to recognise there were limits to what the Supreme Court, even now is willing to do for Palestinians.

It clearly is what many Israeli see is holding the line toward this effort of the far-right government to create a far more religious and a society without respect for the rights that many ordinary Israelis have come to expect.

Mark: Ken, we have a question, and this is from Sandra Shatila says, "Doesn't the United States want to keep Israel as its watchdog to control Middle East oil and therefore will continue to support Israel no matter who is in power?"

Kenneth: I don't think this is about oil. The Israeli government doesn't do anything to help the Saudis or the Emiratis or the Qataris pump oil. They're perfectly capable of doing that on their own, so I don't think that that's what's going on.

I do think that there traditionally has been an affinity between these two democracies. There clearly was concern with having a haven for Jews after the Holocaust.

So, there were natural shared values, but these values are being called into question not only by these attacks on the court because that represents really an attack on the checks and balances that are essential to democracy, but also, and we haven't really talked about this much, but also just the violence, the repression, the apartheid, of the occupation.

Mark: You do get the impression, Ken, that there's almost an existential struggle going on clearly within a Israeli society, but also between the Israelis and Palestinians. We've all lived through situations where it's come to a head in the most appalling violence and repression, and we are seeing major upheaval through what you might call historic Palestine.

I suppose that the question is because you mentioned, and this is getting onto to the nub of what we must be talking about today, your recent article in Deutsche Welle.

Because essentially you wrote that, "While governments speak of the Two-State solution," of course, that is the language of most governments, and it's the language of the United States, that's where the United Nations is, too, you say, "What we have today is a One-State reality," and I just wondered what you meant by a one-state reality?

Kenneth: Well, I should say that yes, everybody would love to see two states. I think that remains a vision, but it increasingly is an unrealistic vision.

And I say this, the last time I was in Israel and Palestine, I took a tour with Breaking the Silence, this very good Israeli human rights group made up of former soldiers who basically were so upset by the repression they were forced to engage in that they created their own human rights group.

There are real experts on the settlements there. One of them brought me on kind of a tour of West Bank Hilltops. You could get basically a bird's-eye view of how things were being laid out. There's a very deliberate effort between the settlements, and the outposts, and the bypass roads to carve up the West Bank.

They can't get rid of all the Palestinians, but what they can do is make sure that they're completely divided, that the possibility of a contiguous state is virtually impossible, and it looks like Swiss cheese.

And so, when I say that there's a one-state reality, this is just recognition that this two-state solution has become an excuse to not address that reality.

And there are many governments that still don't want to face that reality because if it is one state, if we recognise that the occupation is 50 years old, that the so-called peace process has been going nowhere for nearing 30 years now, it's time to recognise that this ideal is just not realistic.

It was premised on, "Oh, there may be some slight territorial swaps." Israel could keep that settlement, but give Palestine that little piece of land, but it was all modest adjustments, and you would still have pretty much a contiguous West Bank, with some kind of way to connect it to Gaza, and that vision is gone. There's a very deliberate effort on the part of the Israeli government to make that impossible.

Mark: And more so now with this coalition.

Kenneth: Much worse now. In other words, they're green-lighting settlement expansion. They probably are now going to “legalize” certain of these illegal outposts, even though all the settlements are illegal and international law, but under domestic Israeli law, some are deemed legal and some of the outposts are not. That's probably going to change.

They may be moving toward annexation, which is not a physical change, it's a legal change. But it's another step in that direction of making a two-state solution impossible. This government has-- they don't even endorse the two-state solution anymore. They don't even give it lip service. I think we need to look at the one-state reality.

Now, why do governments not do that? It's easier to talk about a two-state solution because then they don't have to confront that reality. When you confront that reality, you basically, if you believe in rights, have two choices. Either you say there should be equal rights for everybody within this one-state reality, or you say this is apartheid. There's just no two ways about it.

And obviously recognising the apartheid, because that's what it is, brings consequences because nobody wants to support apartheid. And so, to avoid having to face that reality, they pretend that the two-state solution is real.

This has become one big dodge and I think it's important for us to say, "Enough already. Let's look at the reality."

Mark: What you're saying, it's fascinating, Kenneth because essentially it's the language to describe that reality on the ground, apartheid, if you like, or as Peter Beinart has said, that “slow ethnic cleansing”. “Annexation” and “open-air prison”, that's what UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese told us that the other evening, and of course, was essentially formed the major part of her recent report.

Actually, when it comes to another question, when it comes to recognition, because of course what we see is that Palestine, for instance, has been recognised by a number of member states along with recognition of Israel, but if it is a one-state reality, then perhaps the argument could be no recognition of any state until there are equal rights. Could that be a move forward?

Kenneth: Mark, let me just address your question in a few parts because first, you mentioned these different terms, and each I think is applied to something slightly different.

In other words, when Peter Beinart talks about the “slow-motion ethnic cleansing”, he's referring to area C of the West Bank. This is the area-- 60% of the West Bank, which is still Israeli-controlled.

It's where all the settlements are, and there's a very deliberate desire to make life there impossible for Palestinians. They can't even add a bedroom on their house. They can't do anything. The idea is just to gradually get rid of them so that this territory can be completely Israeli, and that's likely the area that would be annexed, so they can get land without people.

Now, the “open-air prison”, I tend to use that terminology for Gaza. I think it's more appropriate for Gaza. I'm not sure it quite applies to the West Bank because people can actually leave via Jordan. It's a little bit different whereas in Gaza, most people can't leave at all. I think that that's the best use of the term.

And “annexation”, as we mentioned, it's a legal term. It doesn't change the physical reality, but it's an effort to make it more unchangeable.

So, these are all, I think, different ways of accurately describing what's going on. For me, “apartheid” is what characterizes the overall regime that is now being applied to the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territory.

Now, in terms of, what is the state of Palestine? What is the Palestinian Authority? Now, clearly, the Palestinian Authority has no more legitimacy. It hasn't held an election in, what, a decade? There's this agreement by both Abbas and frankly, the Israeli government, that they don't want an election because they're afraid that Hamas would win.

So, there's very little legitimacy there. It has become a route to disperse funds. It has many members and employees and so it's a source of income. It also plays a security role for the Israeli government. It is basically a subcontractor for the Israeli government. It doesn't have a lot of power, but it's supposed to keep the lid on and help control descent against Israel, but also against itself. So, this is not an admirable entity.

Now, the most important thing in my view these days that the State of Palestine has done is to join the International Criminal Court and give it jurisdiction over crimes in Palestine. And so, I think that's important. Now, as I mentioned, the settlements are just clear-cut war crimes. These are not hard crimes to prosecute, and I wish Karim Khan, the ICC prosecutor, would move it already. He's had this investigation open.

Now, I think we all remember that his predecessor, Fatou Bensouda when she opened the investigation in Palestine, as well as an investigation in Afghanistan that theoretically could have implicated US torturers in Afghanistan, the Trump administration went apoplectic and actually imposed sanctions on Bensouda and her deputy. An outrageous interference with the independence of the prosecutor's office.

So, those sanctions have been lifted when Biden came into office, but Karim Khan, he's kind of dealt with Afghanistan by saying, "We're going to look forward, not back, so we're not going to deal with the US torture." As far as I can tell, he's slow-walking the Palestine investigation. This should not be hard.

On the one hand, he should be looking at Hamas or Islamic Jihad, indiscriminate rocket attacks, these are also simple to prosecute and he should be looking at the settlements, which there's no defense. And it goes right to the top. One prime minister after the other has authorized these.

So, what's holding him up? I fear that it's politics. This is a guy who knows his way around the courtroom. He's a sophisticated prosecutor. He knows how to make a case. He's moved expeditiously in Ukraine. When I spoke to him last, he had 43 investigators on the ground in Ukraine. He's already indicted Putin, he knows how to move. Nothing is happening on the Palestine investigation.

Mark: Yes. Yes. We've touched on this in previous shows, Kenneth. It does actually partly explain why many countries in the Global South are a little bit cynical because they see that the ICC can move very, very quickly with Ukraine, but then when it comes to Israel and Palestine, not very much is happening at all.

We've got a question here. This is from Deborah in Belfast. Deborah asked, "Since the Human Rights Watch released its brilliant report not long ago, exposing Israeli apartheid, is Ken disappointed as to how few Western politicians have picked up on this? British politicians in particular have been told to apologize for using the word apartheid in Parliament. What can we do to advance this important legal framing?"

Kenneth: Well, I have to say first, overall I was pleased by the response to the Human Rights Watch apartheid report in that it was received respectfully and positively by media around the world and by large segments of the public.

Even the Israeli government, which of course hated the report, they didn't know what to do with it. It was this incredibly detailed report, they couldn't find anything wrong with it. So, they resorted to the usual name calling, "You're biased, you're anti-Semitic," whatever. They had nothing to say.

So, in that sense, I feel that it was an important report, and it wasn't just Human Rights Watch, Bt’selem played a very important role. Other Palestinian and Israeli groups have found apartheid, Amnesty found apartheid. Frankly, every serious human rights group that has looked at the issue has found it is apartheid. It's just so obviously apartheid, it's hard to even imagine any other characterization.

So, increasingly, people who look at the situation objectively share that view. Now, obviously, governments are going to be reluctant because if it is apartheid, they have to change their policy. You can't be supporting a state that is committing the crime against humanity of apartheid. That has consequences. And so, instead, they enter denial. They say, "Oh, we believe in the two-state solution. That's what we're looking for right now."

Whenever you hear two-state solution, first thing you should ask is, "What are you trying to avoid here? By supporting this thing that's an impossibility that doesn't exist anymore. What's your avoidance strategy here? Come up with something better than that!”

So, I think that, yes, of course, governments are the last to adopt this, although there are some governments that are pushing it. I should note that after that report, even the UN Human Rights Council created a Commission of Inquiry, to look into apartheid and similar crimes.

So, there has been significant pickup, but, of course, the big Western backers of Israel are going to be the last to change the terminology. But I think it's just a matter of time and what Netanyahu did today around the judiciary just undermines his credibility further. And at some point, people going to say, "Why are we putting our head in the sand for this guy? Let's just open our eyes and recognise what's really happening.”

Mark: Yes. And earlier we did talk about the Palestinian Authority, the fact that there haven't been any elections, the fact that in many ways it acts as a kind of policeman in the Occupied Territories. And you kind of wonder about the sort of effectiveness of that Palestinian Authority in mobilizing support.

But, there was that quite interesting development just recently where President Abbas went to Beijing and met President Xi. And you certainly get the impression from talking to some Palestinians, essentially for all the reasons that you've been talking about with Western countries and the double standards between Ukraine and Israel, the fact that the aid still keeps on coming despite the composition of this particular cabinet and what Netanyahu is doing, do you think that there's any possibility that change might be helped or pushed along by other powers such as China or could the BRICS be playing a more prominent role?

Do you think we're stuck in this aspect of the idea that the United States is essentially going to be responsible for any shuttle diplomacy that goes on and just continue on ad infinitum with the status quo? Do you think there could be something coming from China or something coming from somewhere else to force the situation?

Kenneth: Not China, but elsewhere, yes. In other words, we have to recognise, Abbas went to China and said not a word critical of what's going on in Xinjiang. There are a million fellow Muslims who are being detained to force them to abandon Islam as well as their language and their culture and Abbas says not a word. No criticism.

And China committing its own crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, it is not going to defend human rights anyplace else at this stage. Its top priority is just undermining the UN human rights system, so it won't boomerang and end up criticizing China.

So, no I do not look to China as a savior here or to Pakistan which is beholden to China, or to Saudi Arabia, which is utterly opposed to any human rights enforcement.

But I do think countries like South Africa. There are governments I think in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia with respectable human rights records. You know, problems but nonetheless, a willingness to uphold human rights. And we've seen these kinds of broad coalitions coming together and circumventing the United States in various circumstances.

The treaty to ban landmines was secured by a coalition like that against the will of the United States. Same with the treaty banning cluster munitions, same with the creation of the International Criminal Court. So, it is possible to have a significant gathering of small and medium-sized governments that are not the superpowers, but nonetheless, have significant moral force.

I would look in particular to South Africa which has been toying with playing this role. It has, obviously, enormous credibility in opposing apartheid given its own history with the crime. And it could take the lead in building a global coalition to fight apartheid in Palestine. But so far it hasn't been as out there as we'd like it to be.

Mark: Interesting, interesting. And do you think also, Ken-- because you've talked about the 3.8 billion from the United States that goes to the, essentially, the Israeli military each year, I suppose also, there must be a debate too about how much the US aid goes to the military all around the world. Whilst I imagine there's quite a lot of support in the United States for Ukraine, I wondered with the American electorate, is there more of a questioning of these open-ended relationships whereby checks are signed off every year for really quite substantial sums and there's no real accountability? When this money's handed over, the United States is ignored.

Kenneth: The 3.8 billion to the Israeli military, there is one condition attached, which is they buy American arms. So, one way to look at this is, it's a huge subsidy for the US arms industry.

But Mark, it still makes your same point, why is the US government spending this massive amount of money to help this wealthy country, which really isn't threatened at this stage by its neighbors, and is completely undermining what was supposed to be shared democratic values?

So, I think you are going to get that question more and more. There are many better uses of that money. Even if it stays in the realm of foreign aid, think about the poor countries that are facing health crises or food crises, what they could do with $3.8 billion every year. So, I think there is going to be some rethinking of this.

Mark: Sarah in London asks, "Hi, Ken. Could you please comment on the increasing repression against Palestinian civil society inside Palestine and abroad, specifically the Israeli government designating six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organizations, while also, and separately, in the United Kingdom, the government is trying to outlaw the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement? What does this say about efforts to hold states that violate international law and abuse human rights like Israel accountable if governments refuse to do so?"

Kenneth: Well, there are two parts to that question. First, the question is absolutely right. The Israeli government, I guess about two years ago now, tried to shut down six key Palestinian civil society organizations, including Al-Haq, the leading widely respected human rights group, claiming these were “terrorist supporters”, which is ridiculous. And so, this was an effort to silence the messenger. "Too much talk about Israel's apartheid, let's shut up the groups, let's try to shut them down."

It was the same actions that led to Israel's expulsion of Human Rights Watch's Israel-Palestine researcher Omar Shakir. So, people see through this "silence the messenger" approach, but that's what's going on.

Now, in terms of the British effort, yes, I think there's an effort to go after the Boycott, Sanction, Divestment Movement. As I understand the bill, it’s written quite broadly. In other words, it prevents public institutions from using the politics of a government in their purchasing or their investment decisions.

And so this goes actually well beyond Israel-Palestine. Basically, if you imagine you're a university and you have a sports team and you want to make sure that the cotton in their shirts doesn't come from Xinjiang and the forced labor in Xinjiang, this bill would prevent you from doing that. Or if you want to make sure that you are not investing in the arms that the Saudis are using to bomb Yemeni civilians, the bill wouldn't let you do that.

Of course, the real point of all this is, if you want to make sure that you're not purchasing goods that are made in Israel's war crime settlements because you don't want to be complicit in those war crimes, you can't do that.

So, this is not only an attack on what should be free speech and the ability to make these basic sorts of decisions by public institutions, but it's really forcing them to become complicit in human rights violations all in the name of protecting Israel.

Mark: Yes. I think even some government ministers in this country believe that this is a rather hastily put-together piece of legislation. And I think there's a great deal of hope that it's going to be challenged quite extensively when it goes to the second chamber of the House of Lords. And there are a whole raft of legal challenges expected too. So, I'm not sure that it's a done deal and certainly a lot of people, a lot of organizations are hoping that it isn't.

Look, we have another question here. This is from Debbie in Manchester, and she said, "Last week it was reported widely that Palestinian first aiders in the West Bank are now having to wear bulletproof vests and helmets when on the job. Where is the justice in all of this, and what a state of affairs that essentially first aiders, first responders have to wear bulletproof jackets?" What was your reaction to that, Kenneth?

Kenneth: Well, obviously one, there's no justice! But two, it is a war crime to target medical workers. The Geneva Conventions say that medical workers are protected. So, even if they're going in to try to provide first aid to somebody who is a fighter on the other side, they still are protected. You can't impede their arrival. You can't try to deny people humanitarian or medical care. You certainly can't fire at the doctors or the medics or the nurses or the ambulance drivers.

The fact that these people feel the need to wear bulletproof vests speaks to their experience with repeated attacks and repeated deliberate delays. These are all, again, basic war crimes under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Mark: Well, look, Ken, we are reaching the end of the show. I'd just like to thank everybody who sent in questions and everybody who's been in touch. We'll take a last question. This is from Adam Bloomberg. Adam says, "I'm grateful for your work and for standing your ground, Kenneth, against the Israel lobby. Do you think there will be a judicial reckoning as there was with Darfur at the ICC?"

Kenneth: I think there will be only because I think Karim Khan, much as he wants to avoid this, recognises that his credibility is at stake.

What he's doing in Ukraine is very important, but he did just, in recent weeks saying he's going to reopen his investigation in Sudan because of the new atrocities taking place in Darfur, very important. So, he knows how to act expeditiously when something he sees as is both urgent and where the bulk of the world is behind him.

Does he have the backbone to take something on when certain major Western powers will be unhappy? Unclear, but I hope so.

It's still early in his tenure. I think we have to give him a chance, but as I said, I don't think this is a super complicated investigation. It's something he should be able to do. He can't claim a lack of resources. He's got 46 investigators from Ukraine. He's got to have one or two for Israel-Palestine.

He should be able to move this forward. I think if he doesn't, after a certain period of time, his credibility is very much going to be endangered.

Mark: And finally, Ken, we've got the UN General Assembly in mid-September. Obviously, it's an annual event. It does bring leaders from all over the world together, and it allows for a great deal of grandstanding, but it also does allow for political leaders to meet behind the scenes and to exert pressure and much else besides.

Do you think this greater degree of fluidity that we've seen, in turmoil more practically in Israel and the more extensive use of violence right across the occupied Palestinian territories, do you think that this General Assembly will bring things to head to a bit, that there will be much more international condemnation of what Israel is doing, and what the Israeli government is doing to its own citizens?

Kenneth: I think it's a real opportunity. Obviously, the UN Human Rights Council has now acted quite powerfully by setting up a couple of years ago this Commission of Inquiry. The General Assembly? I don't look at this point for a General Assembly resolution, that's not really what happens in the opening week. But it is an opportunity for leaders, all of whom give speeches, to include Israel's apartheid in those speeches.

And that could help give impetus to the broad coalition of smaller and medium-sized governments that I think could move things forward.

I wouldn't spend a lot of time waiting for Joe Biden as an election approaches to take the lead on this. I think this is going to have to be a situation where other governments that are more willing to be guided by human rights take the lead, and ultimately the United States will be forced to follow.

Mark: All right. Well, look, thank you very, very much indeed, Kenneth. It's been fantastic having you on the show tonight. I think we certainly have had an extremely Deep Dive on the situation, and we're very, very grateful for your time, for your wisdom, and for your expertise. We're just also so delighted that the right thing happened at Harvard, and we'd love to have you back on the show again. Thank you so much.

Kenneth: Thank you.

Mark: Thank you. Thank you to all of you that have joined us from all over the world. Until next time, we shall see you again. Take care. Bye-bye.

Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth is an American attorney, human rights activist, and writer. He was the executive director of Human Rights Watch from 1993 to 2022.