Human rights activist trades DC for Israeli politics

Human rights activist trades DC for Israeli politics

Off to fight for a spot in the Knesset, the head of B’Tselem USA, a newcomer on the Beltway, reflects on three years on the job

'You’re not going to out pro-Israel Uri.' Zaki in his DC office. (photo credit: Ben Zehavi/Times of Israel)
'You’re not going to out pro-Israel Uri.' Zaki in his DC office. (photo credit: Ben Zehavi/Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON, DC — When Uri Zaki returns to Israel next week with hopes of turbocharging his political career, the 38-year-old head of B’Tselem USA says he will be leaving an American Jewish community that has changed since his arrival in 2009.

“I noticed a certain shift in the conversation taking place within the Jewish community from the time I landed here until now,” he says. “There is more openness and debate now about Israel and the complexities of the challenges it faces.”

As the American representative of B’Tselem, Israel’s most prominent and controversial human rights organization, Zaki’s task of influencing the Washington policy debate has been an uphill battle. Groups like AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee are well entrenched in the Beltway and have been working the halls of power for decades.

But, according to Zaki’s allies within the self-described “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” camp, he has managed to carve out an important niche for the Israeli NGO.

“Uri has raised the profile of B’Tselem not only in the Washington policy community, but within the larger American Jewish community,” says Lara Friedman, Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now.

“I’ve never met anyone with so much energy and willingness to engage with people,” she says. “He’s been on exhausting, grueling speaking tours at college campuses, synagogues and panels around the country. He thrives on interaction with people, even, and especially with, people who disagree with him.”

And boy, do people disagree with him.

‘If you spend some time reading B’Tselem reports, you quickly realize that there is simply nothing Israel can do to protect its citizens that B’Tselem does not label a war crime’

“If you spend some time reading B’Tselem reports, you quickly realize that there is simply nothing Israel can do to protect its citizens that B’Tselem does not label a war crime, a violation of international law, or a human rights abuse,” says Noah Pollack, the Executive Director of the right-leaning Emergency Committee for Israel.

“There is certainly a market for this kind of unserious work in London, Turtle Bay, Haaretz, and in Arab capitals — but not so much in Washington, where there is a strong bipartisan consensus on Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorism,” says Pollack.

Zaki, naturally, doesn’t see it that way.

He says Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is “awful for the Zionist project.” He cites the Gaza blockade as an example of an issue he raised in Washington that was a “march of folly” that ended up only damaging the Jewish State.

“In my first year here in 2010, I identified the blockade as an issue that we needed to highlight. It was destined to badly affect Israel and sure enough, it did,” he says. “What happened after the flotilla incident? Israel lifted the ridiculous parts of the blockade like the ban on coriander and other goods only after an international debacle that badly harmed its reputation and cost its relationship with Turkey.”

Yet Zaki is keen to stress that he holds no affection for the organizers of the flotilla or similar pro-Palestinian activists such as members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

‘The BDS movement’s support of boycott has elements of collective punishment to it, not unlike what Israel was trying to do in Gaza, which is illegal under international law’

“I’m Israeli. According to them, I should be boycotted — I would never work with them,” he says. “I’m skeptical of their goals. Many don’t share the goal of an end to occupation or a two-state solution. In fact, their support of boycott has elements of collective punishment to it, not unlike what Israel was trying to do in Gaza, which is illegal under international law.”

Friedman calls Zaki “a remarkable Israeli patriot who will have none of it from those whose only aim is to bash Israel using human rights as an excuse.”

“You’re not going to out pro-Israel Uri,” she says. “On the other hand, he is deeply committed to righting wrongs in Israel and is anguished that Israel has been allowed to become ill and not treated.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington wouldn’t comment about Zaki or B’Tselem USA, noting that they don’t discuss political figures or those with political ambitions. But there is a private concern that, by stepping up its North American activities, B’Tselem will speak to crowds with no context.

“In Israel, B’Tselem plays a vital and important role in a vibrant civil society that understands the context of the conflict,” says a source familiar with the Israeli government’s thinking. “But the problem outside of the country is that people will think these are the primary realities of Israel, rather than the exceptions.”

Perhaps the most well-known clash between B’Tselem and the Israeli leadership came with the release of the UN’s Goldstone Report in September 2009, which accused Israel of committing war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, a campaign aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire on Israeli civilians. The report relied heavily on B’Tselem documentation and was praised extensively by its top officials.

Uri Zaki, former B'Tselem USA head. (photo credit: Ben Zehavi/Times of Israel)
Uri Zaki, former B’Tselem USA head. (photo credit: Ben Zehavi/Times of Israel)

According to Pollack, “In making such a profound contribution to the Goldstone Report, B’Tselem was performing the task to which it has truly dedicated itself: not the defense of human rights in the West Bank and Gaza, but the delegitimization of Israel and its existence as a Jewish state.”

More recently, though, B’Tselem has been described as undergoing a “sea change” in how it monitors Israeli human rights violations. In a report on Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF’s 2012 campaign to eliminate Hamas rocket fire from Gaza again, B’Tselem acknowledged the difficulties the IDF faces in fighting an enemy that mixes in with the civilian population.

These are the issues that Zaki intends to tackle back in Israel.

“My heart and soul and mind are in Israel,” he says.

If penetrating the Washington policy community was a challenge, Zaki has an even more daunting task ahead as he enters the fray of Israeli politics. Zaki is currently tenth on the left-wing Meretz party list (Meretz has six seats in the Knesset). His background includes service as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, a law degree from Hebrew University and a long stint as an advisor to former Israeli Justice Minister and peace camp leader, Yossi Beilin, who he calls a “mentor.” In 2008, before leaving Tel Aviv for the B’Tselem job in Washington, Zaki was named among Israel’s most prominent young professionals by Forbes Israel.

On a personal note, Friedman says she will miss Zaki’s frequent Shabbat invitations. “He makes a mean Sephardic cholent,” she says. “And I’m only half-joking when I tell him that I will use my right of return to move to Israel when Zaki is on the ballot for Prime Minister.

“An Israel with Uri as prime minister is an Israel I want to live in,” she says.

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