The recent hubbub over the word “occupation” reminds me of a conversation I had last year with Akiva Tor, the Israeli Consul General to the Pacific Northwest. But before I can introduce that conversation, I have to go back another year.
On April 14, 2010, Tor addressed the UC Berkeley Student Senate as it considered upholding a bill to divest from two US companies that were profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Tor’s remarks were recorded and posted online:
The video shows Tor reading from prepared notes and stating the following at 40 seconds in:
We seek to end the occupation. That is our position as a government. This is the position of my government—a center-right government, coming after a center-left government—that a Palestinian state must come into being. I don’t think that this is something that you have understood from any previous speaker. We want to end the occupation. This is the position of the government of Israel.
That was weird. A prominent Israeli representative, stating emphatically, in his official capacity, that there was an occupation.
On June 17, 2010, I conducted a phone interview with Gideon Lustig, the Israeli deputy consul general serving under Tor, for a community radio station in Olympia, Washington. I asked Lustig about his boss’s remarks:
ME: Now, Gideon Lustig, you are the Israeli Deputy Consul General. But the Consul General is Akiva Tor, and recently, Akiva Tor gave a speech in which he twice referred to the Israeli, quote-unquote, “occupation” of Palestine. This is what he said. He said, “We seek to end the occupation. That is our position as a government.” And then a few seconds later, he said, “We want to end the occupation. This is the position of the government of Israel.” Now previously, the official Israeli stance has been that there is no occupation. So does this represent a change in stance? Does Israel now acknowledge that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are currently under an illegal military occupation?
LUSTIG: I suggest you ask the Consul General this question.
ME: Oh, okay. So he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the government of Israel when he said that “the position of the government of Israel” was “to end the occupation”?
LUSTIG: Again, I suggest you ask the Consul General.
Interesting. The Consul General had stated what he claimed was “the position of the government of Israel,” yet his own deputy could not explain what he meant by that.
Nine months later, I had the opportunity to pose the question to Akiva Tor himself. On March 10, 2011, Tor held a semi-public meeting with some Israel supporters at a restaurant in Olympia, Washington. Some of us local activists had suspected that Tor, who is based in San Francisco, was visiting Olympia to quash local BDS efforts, though we did not know that earlier in the day, he had met with StandWithUs and the future plaintiffs and attorney in the anti-BDS lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op. We confronted Tor at the restaurant, and I have already transcribed part of the discussion where Tor falsely denied that his visit to Olympia was related to quashing BDS.
Below is a transcription of another portion of our conversation, in which I asked Tor to explain his remarks about the Israeli occupation:
ME: Do you acknowledge that there’s an occupation, and that Israel is occupying Palestinian land currently? Because I didn’t hear any mention of that.
TOR: Well, the question of whether we’re the occupiers in the West Bank or not is a legal question.
ME: And what is Israel’s official legal stance?
TOR: Israel’s official legal stance is that we are not occupiers.
ME: That’s really interesting because last year you mentioned the occupation when you were speaking against divestment at UC Berkeley. I think you might recall that, because people brought it up…
TOR [speaking over me]: I—I—I—
ME: …and I even have the exact quote right here. You said that Israel’s…
TOR [speaking over me]: Well, w—
ME: …it says right here…
TOR [speaking over me]: So, so, so—
ME: …you said, “We seek to end the occupation…
TOR [speaking over me]: So, so—
ME: …that is our position as a government.”…
TOR [speaking over me]: So, so—
ME: …So you were speaking on behalf of the Israeli government that there is an occupation.
AKIVA TOR FAN #1: Could you please let him respond?
ME: Well, I was about to ask the question. So has Israel changed its position on the occupation?
TOR: First of all, I heard the question. I understand the question. I know the question because you already asked my deputy on the radio. Look—
ME: And he told me to ask you. He wouldn’t answer. He told me to ask you.
TOR: But now, if you give me the opportunity to [inaudible]. There is occupation, which is a description of a physical situation: Am I occupying a room? Are we occupying the West Bank in the sense that we are present there? And there’s occupation as a legal definition: Are we the occupying power? And are we physically present in the West Bank? In that sense, yes. We are occupying the West Bank in the sense that we are physically present. Are we legal occupiers? Are we occupiers for all aspects of international law? Here, we do not agree to this definition. But let me say what we do agree. We agree that we have never annexed the West Bank. The West Bank is not Israeli territory.
ME: What about East Jerusalem?
TOR: We have annexed East Jerusalem. We have not annexed the West Bank. In the West Bank, there are areas which are under Palestinian Authority security and civil administration. There are areas which are under Palestinian civil administration but Israeli security responsibility. And there are areas which are under Israeli military administration. Now, we have not annexed it. We have not stated as a state that this is our land. Our position—
ME: What do you mean, then, when you say “occupation”—
TOR: One second, one second, one second. Our position is: we are there. We are trying to get to a situation where there will be a Palestinian state alongside us. Will it be, as Prime Minister Olmert suggested, a situation where we return 92 or 93 percent of the West Bank? Or will it be a lesser amount, as Prime Minister Netanyahu believes? I don’t know. That will be an issue of negotiation. But we are trying to get to a situation where we are not running the lives of the Palestinians, and we are not a military presence in the West Bank.
ME: So when you as—
TOR: One, one, one second—that’s exactly what I meant.
ME: You still haven’t answered the question. So when you were saying, “We seek to end the occupation,” you meant that figuratively?
TOR: No, I meant factually. I meant that we seek to reach a situation where there will be a Palestinian state alongside us.
ME: But what did that mean: “We seek to end the OCCUPATION”?
TOR: Exactly what I said. Instead of us being there, there will be a Palestinian state there. That’s exactly what I meant.
ME: So I’m still unclear—
TOR: One second, one second. The borders between us will be negotiated between us. And we want there to be an international border between us. What I meant to say—and what I did say—is that our goal is that Palestine will be alongside Israel and that we will not be occupiers of Palestinians in the physical sense, without prejudging a legal question.
ME: So you’re saying that there is an occupation. You’re saying Israel’s official stance is that there is an occupation.
TOR: I didn’t say that.
AKIVA TOR FAN #2: Physical occupation—
TOR: I didn’t say—I think I answered the question. I think I did answer the question.
ME: It still seems unclear to me because you didn’t say physical occupation, and you know that it’s a very big word in this conflict…
TOR [speaking over me]: So I think that—
ME: …and a lot of times when people talk about occupation, they’re talking about legal occupation.
TOR [speaking over me]: So I think—
ME: You’re familiar enough with the issue…
TOR: [speaking over me]: So I think that you are registering…
ME: …so the question is…
TOR: [speaking over me]: …a complaint about my way of expressing myself.
ME:…that you lied when you were addressing…
TOR [speaking over me]: One second, one second—
TOR [speaking over me]: I did not lie—
ME:…when you were, like, arguing against divestment. You were saying that Israel was seeking to end the occupation. Now you’re saying, “Not REAL occupation.”
TOR: One second, one second. I think that I—
AKIVA TOR FAN #2: This is a conversation—
TOR: I think that I answered the question. To my mind, I answered it adequately.
ME: Which means that there’s multiple meanings of “occupation” that Israel uses when it refers to…
TOR: Do you mind if we go on?
ME: …Palestinian territories.
AKIVA TOR FAN #1: I’d like to hear some other questions.
TOR: I think that I answered the question.
Some relevant points:
1. Tor had deliberately used the word occupation before the Berkeley student senate because he felt that by using the word, and by claiming that Israel was supposedly working to “end the occupation,” he could appeal to the liberal sensitivities of Berkeley students and portray Israel as a state already working toward a resolution.
2. Yet Tor had used the term occupation in a context so foreign that even his deputy didn’t know what was meant by it.
3. The issue was significant enough that Tor recognized my question to Gideon Lustig from nine months prior, from a tiny portion of an hour-long interview.
4. In our conversation, Tor began by stating that the concept of occupation was “a legal question,” thus acknowledging the conventional use of the term as applied to the Palestine–Israel issue. It was only after I referenced his UC Berkeley statement that he changed the definition to refer to an unconventional meaning.
5. Tor slipped when he spoke of “a situation where we return 92 or 93 percent of the West Bank.” By speaking of “returning” a portion of the West Bank to the Palestinians, he acknowledged that Palestinians have a prior claim to the land, and that the land was taken away from them, while the official Israeli position is that the West Bank never belonged to the Palestinians.
To be fair to Tor, it’s not easy keeping the story straight when the government you represent has formulated convoluted rationales to get away with anything it does. At the same time, it’s not necessary to keep the story straight, as such rationales only serve as pro forma in dealing with the international community, while logical gaps do not deter Israel’s devoted supporters, who will accept Israel’s story regardless.