NIF CEO rebuffs Bennett’s, Likud’s withdrawal from democracy conference

"Shutting up dissent is not a way to ensure a thriving democracy," says Daniel Sokatch.

Netanyahu and Bennett (photo credit: REUTERS,MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Netanyahu and Bennett
By rescinding their invitations to a pro-democracy conference upon learning it was co-sponsored by the New Israel Fund, Likud and Bayit Yehudi leaders showed “profound disrespect for the very essence of a democratic civil society,” the NGO’s CEO said.
Deeming NIF an “anti-Zionist” group, and citing its alleged support of the Goldstone Report and “dozens of radical, leftist organizations,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and senior Likud MKs pulled out of last week’s Haaretz Tel Aviv conference.
NIF’s CEO Daniel Sokatch told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that his organization never supported the since-debunked report, defended NIF’s support of leftist humanitarian groups, and lamented the divisive and vitriolic state of Israeli politics.
“Mr. Bennett and the others were well aware of our participation when they agreed to participate, so one can question exactly the circumstances under which they made the decision to withdraw,” said Sokatch at the Jerusalem YMCA.
“It seems to me that it was more of a symbolic gesture than a sudden discovery, but my response would be [to paraphrase] President Rivlin, who said from Hebron, where he was visiting settlers in that city: ‘We can disagree, but we don’t disparage, so I’ll come here and visit with the community in Hebron and I’ll go to Haaretz and NIF, and be with them.’” “Look, that’s what mature democrats do,” Sokatch added.
Moreover, Sokatch said Bennett et al, were roundly criticized by other right-wing politicians for refusing to meet with people expressing different views.
“A lot of people who would certainly not agree with liberals in Israel... criticized them, saying ‘Look, this is about discourse and democracy, and saying I refuse to engage not only demonizes those people who have opinions that are different than yours, but it shows a profound disrespect for the very essence of a democratic civil society.”
Meanwhile, Sokatch’s NIF colleague, Naomi Paiss, expressed incredulity that Bennett rescinded his invitation, noting that he attended a similar Haaretz conference last summer that NIF also co-sponsored “with our big logo.”
“But it wasn’t a month before an election,” Sokatch noted.
Following the cancellation, the Likud issued a strongly worded statement explaining why its members would not attend the conference.
“The Likud, as a nationalist ideological party, will not cooperate with bodies that are constantly busy with blackening the face of Israel,” the statement read. “The NIF funds dozens of radical, leftist organizations, such as B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, and Machsom Watch, and it is one of the main bodies behind the Goldstone Report.”
Dismissing the allegation that NIF supported the UN’s Goldstone Report as “nonsense,” Sokatch claimed that Ben Caspit, a reporter for Ma’ariv who he said broke the story approximately five years ago, recently expressed contrition for doing so.
“Caspit said the other day that he regretted that he had ever done that,” he said. “So [NIF’s involvement] was disproved.”
In terms of the characterization that NIF “blackening the face of Israel,” Sokatch said he has come to expect such accusations from right-wing parties such as the Likud.
“An ultra-nationalist would definitely [negatively] define a human-rights organization, whose job it is not to make the government or citizens of the state they come from feel better about themselves, but rather to hold a mirror up to that country and say, ‘Is this the country you want to be?’” he asked.
Drawing parallels to the ACLU, which critics accused of damaging the US’s image after exposing Guantanamo Bay prison conditions, Sokatch said the leftist organizations that NIF supports are simply doing their jobs responsibly.
“In particular, I think it’s interesting that they singled out a group like Adalah, that serves one of the most dispossessed sectors of Israeli society – the Arab-Israeli community, although not only the Arab-Israeli community – and they do it by going to the High Court of Justice with cases,” he said.
“So, in my opinion, those people who defend human rights – who inform the Israeli citizenry about what’s being done in their name, and who say it’s up to us to make choices about what we want to do as a country – those people are not blackening the name of the country, they’re patriots.”
Sokatch added that Israeli politicians’ on the extreme right, who characterize everyone who disagrees with them about fundamental matters as “enablers of terrorism,” have poisoned political discourse in the nation.
“That seems to me to be the most craven use of these images, and very divisive,” he said. “[Right-wing] parties are characterizing other parties in the discourse now as ‘if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.”
Sokatch continued: “Shutting up dissent is not a way to ensure a thriving democracy, and for those people, NIF is a problem.”
“But for those Israelis who actually believe in an open society that reflects the founding values of the Declaration of Independence – which says this place is supposed to be a Jewish homeland and an open, free democracy for all of its citizens regardless of race, color or creed – for those people NIF is a symbol of what’s good about Israel.”
With respect to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress next month regarding the dangers of a nuclear Iran, Sokatch described the move is “self-destructive and shortsighted.”
“Regardless of how one feels about the substantive issue at hand here...
where there are lots of opinions and many people across the political spectrum are very concerned about the idea of a nuclear Iran, it seems to me that... the prime minister’s accepting that invitation is a terrible mistake for Israel, for America, for the relationship – but in particular for the relationship of the American Jewish community to Israel,” he said.
Moreover, Sokatch said Netanyahu’s decision places US Jewry in an untenable position.
“What it serves to do is put the American Jewish community in a corner,” he said. “To state whether the American Jewish community is going to be loyal to the prime minister of Israel or the president of the United States – that’s a terrible idea.”
It is also a losing proposition for Netanyahu, he cautioned, noting American Jews’ overwhelmingly liberal political leanings.
“Almost 70 percent of the American Jewish community is quite liberal,” he said. “If you ask them to choose sides... you are not going to like the choice they make if you are the prime minister.”