‘We do not fire on civilians and we don’t kill journalists purposely, but it happened. It was a big tragedy and we apologize’: Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs

Nachman Shai, Israel's minister of diaspora affairs, in Ottawa on May 24, 2022, for a conference on Canadian-Israeli affairs. (Ellin Bessner photo)

Dr. Nachman Shai is Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs. He recently spent 10 days travelling to Canada, the United States, and Mexico to meet with Jewish federation leaders and government officials.

While in Ottawa for a conference on Canadian-Israeli affairs, Shai gave an exclusive interview to The CJN Daily host Ellin Bessner.

They discussed the possibility of new elections for the Bennett government, Israeli government policies and responses to the recent wave of terror attacks that began before Passover, and the worldwide outrage over the killing of Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh during an Israeli army raid on Jenin.

When is the next election and what do you know about the government trying to try to ride this out and how long can it hold?

I hope there’ll be no new elections soon. We don’t need them. There’s no reason whatsoever. It’s much better for Israel that we succeeded to form a coalition like that and that we will continue. It’s a real government of change. Eight parties altogether, an impossible coalition, that functions well. The country is in action. The country continues to perform or return to performance, something that hasn’t been done for two years. We were stuck in four election campaigns which produced nothing, none of them, and I don’t see any chance for a change. And the outcome of the elections will probably be very similar to the present political map.

I endorse wholeheartedly Israeli democracy, and Israel was able to maintain a democracy under siege for scores of years, which is a miracle because in many countries when the democracy gets into emergency, they eliminate some of the democratic institutions or some of the democratic values or they call for emergency and then human rights are being hurt, and we know how it works in all parts of the world.

We, the country that has been involved in wars and emergencies and terror attacks since 1948, since its very establishment, up until now have been also an active and acting democracy.

For many people, especially in the Diaspora who are progressive Jews, Israel being a democracy is not enough anymore. They have trouble supporting Israel fully, because of the “occupation” of the West Bank territories and treatment of the Palestinians. What is your message on this issue when you come to Canada?

I represent a party [Labour] and I believe I represent a significant portion of the Israeli people that would like to see two nation-states for two people, a Palestinian state side-by-side peacefully with Israel. I see no other solution for all the good reasons in the world, including demography, but not only demography.

I care mostly for ourselves, for the morale of the Jewish people or the Israeli people. The continuation of the present situation impacts the life of generations, and has been impacting the lives of generations of young Israelis. This is the major reason why Israel is now shifting to the right, because Israelis got used to a situation where we are running the lives of another people. We do it humanitarianly, we do it carefully, but still, we are the governing power. There’s no doubt about it. And we would like to end the present situation and to replace it with a political, diplomatic agreement between us and the Palestinians.

 On the other side [Ed: right-wing parties], I would say they prefer annexation of territories. And by being active members of the coalition, at least we are able to block annexation that will end up with one nation, one state for two people. That’s the end of the Zionist dream. It’s a big problem.

What is your message to Canadian Jewish communities regarding the issue of settlements?

We will not let the government establish any new settlements because we believe that the best is at least to freeze the present situation. It’s a democratically elected Knesset and government, and this is the outcome of the election. The parties siding with two nation-states for two people have no majority in the Knesset. Had we had a majority in the Knesset, I would say let’s go forward. There’s still some consideration about who is going to be the partner [in negotiations with the Palestinians] because they have an issue with the Palestinian Authority.

It’s quite complex, but I would like to make sure that we will stop holding the territories as we do now, and find another political arrangement, something that will take at least most of the Palestinians out of our government. Again, all under security consideration. That should be clear. Always security will dictate the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a matter of security and we are not going to make any concessions on security.

Just bear in mind that the last few weeks were terrible. There was a series of terror attacks on Israel during a very sensitive period of Ramadan. There were 20 Israelis killed during this period and we managed not to escalate the situation into a full war, but still we lost a number of Israelis. We launched quite a number of raids into the West Bank, especially to the Jenin refugee camp. We arrested hundreds of people.

I visited all the families, the bereaved families, and I was talking to them. And you can mention that the reception was not too nice, but I don’t blame them. But at the end of the day, they represent the general public of Israel and the general public of Israel at this stage is not running into any agreement, any concession with the Palestinians. Nothing.

The government is much more, I would say, moderate than most of the people at this stage. The people would like to see revenge, they would like to see the Palestinians dead: I mean, those who are involved in terror.

We acted very reasonably and responsibly, but we have to also read the public mind. I don’t want the public to take the law into their hands. There were cases in the past when Israelis took their own initiatives and ended up with terrible cases of murder.

How are you coming to North America trying to mitigate the PR problem in response to the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera on May 11, 2022?

 I said, from moment one, that we should take the initiative, should hold immediately an internal investigation, invite the Americans to be partners in the investigation, put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to provide us with the bullet, which is a crucial evidence for what happened there.

 I can tell you honestly and openly, we don’t kill civilians purposely. Sometimes they are being killed during our operations. Most of the Palestinians that were killed in the last few weeks since this terror wave started are active members of terror organizations. We can provide you with evidence, with pictures, with videos, with social media posts, all carried by them. I know it and I can attest to it.

We do not fire on civilians and we don’t kill journalists purposely, but it happened. It was a big tragedy and we apologize.

But an investigation, even by the IDF, in my view, will prove the outcome, but we need the bullet. Only with the bullet can we find out which gun was used to fire the bullet. We can check all the guns that were in the vicinity, but only by our soldiers, not by the Palestinians. But at least we can exclude the situation and the conclusion that we have to be blamed for that or responsible for that. They don’t give us the bullet. Why? So give the bullet to the Americans, not to us.

By the way, if we unfortunately are responsible for this, we will apologize, we’ll explain the situation, but we defend ourselves. This is the right to self-defence.

When you were appointed to this portfolio on June 12, 2021 you promised to make room in Israel for all forms of religious observance, whether it’s Reform, Conservative, Orthodox.  You said “All Jews are welcome.” Yet the 2016 agreement to expand the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel for more forms of worship, has stalled. What is the Bennett government doing to help promote other forms of Judaism besides Orthodox in Israel?

I’m not in charge of the Kotel, unfortunately, because I would have done it [Ed: gone ahead with our promise].We signed an agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States to help fund certain projects for teenagers in high schools in the United States. It’s called RootOne and they’ll stay in the country for a few weeks. It’s not Birthright, it’s a Birthright for younger people.

We established a new branch in our office for Renewal Judaism. It’s for the new forms of Judaism, for the Reform and Conservative movements. It’s just offering state funds to run different operations in Israel. Now, for the first time, we are leading many projects for the Reform and Conservative movements in the country. We are now working with the Jewish Agency together to transfer millions of shekels to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel for their own operations within Israel. It’s never been done before, but it’s on its way. It’s not a dream any longer. It takes time. Bureaucracy, governmental bureaucracy is true, all over.

The agreement to open the Western Wall area for religious pluralism got a setback when the World Zionist Organization sent buses of thousands of haredi girls to the Kotel on May 2 to protest against the Women of the Wall egalitarian Torah prayer service. 

I was not there and of course I was not involved. The leadership of the Conservative movements and actually the Jewish Federation system in Canada convened and they had a long conversation with the president of the World Zionist Organization and the WZO put up the statement apologizing and so on. It was a disaster. I don’t know why it was done.

I support the women of the Kotel, but I haven’t gone there because I’m afraid that it would just flare up the situation. There’ll be more clashes between them and other women. But they know very well, they came to my office, and we talked about it many times, that they have a full right to pray, to daven in this part.

It is a flash point for many people who are Canadian Diaspora Jews. Why can the Bennett coalition not bring the Robinson’s Arch issue to a vote?

Bennett promised he would, even to me personally. I said, you have started the job, finish the job. Bennett, of course, has his own political considerations. We don’t want to burn the bridges between us and the ultra-Orthodox, although they were in the [Benjamin Netanyahu] government when the decision was originally made in 2016. They were in the government and initially they endorsed it and then after a few months, they changed their mind. And since then it’s very hard to convince them.

Honestly, I’m upset about it. I was very much hoping to see that resolved during my term. I don’t see it happening now, between us. Most of the Israelis, even those who support the Kotel and the other pluralistic pavilion there, will say that if the cost is the existence of, or the survival of this government, they will give up. Those who are centre left, that part of the Israeli people will prioritise things differently. If we lose the government for that, that will not justify it. If you find a reason to dissolve the coalition, hopefully not, but there should be a real strong reason. Not that one.

Are you learning about Canadian hockey on your trip?

I know [Wayne Gretzky’s] retired, but I still remember watching him play. I don’t have any understanding of ice hockey Except that they hit each other and they beat each other all the time. It’s a very violent game.