Hours after announcing the launch of separate buses for Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank, Israel's government was forced to back down Wednesday in response to a wave of domestic outrage that included comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, whose department created the plan, said he was still determined to enact it after making revisions.
Announced shortly before European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini was set to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the region, the plan would have in effect barred Palestinians from using Israeli public transportation between the West Bank and Israel. Instead, they would have to use specially designated buses on which they would not mix with Jewish settlers.
The plan would have allowed Palestinians who have permits to enter Israel to board the designated buses only after registering at automated stations at any of four crossings between the West Bank and Israel. They would have had to return through the same crossing, even if it was far from their residence.
Defense authorities cited several reasons for the new policy, particularly the need to tighten security monitoring of Palestinians entering Israel and reduce the risk of illegal entry. In addition to security concern, authorities conceded that they were responding to complaints from Jewish settlers about riding on buses with Palestinians.
Motti Yogev, a right-wing lawmaker who heads a parliament subcommittee on security-related settler affairs, told Israel Radio that Jewish women and girls were uncomfortable about being with Palestinian men and often avoided the buses altogether. In addition, he said, buses were often filled with Palestinian workers heading back to the West Bank after work in Israel, leaving no room for settlers.
“There’s absolutely no apartheid here,” the lawmaker, said, adding added that the move answered the needs of both sides: Palestinians for transportation to work, and settlers for security and safety. Yogev called critics hypocrites.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said the move was evidence of the “inherent racism” of the Israeli government and urged the international community to take immediate action to salvage the peace process.
Settlers welcomed the plan but fierce condemnation poured in from across Israel’s political spectrum, ultimately leading to the government's reversal.
“Segregating Palestinians and Jews on public transportation is a gratuitous humiliation and a stain on Israel and its citizens,” opposition leader Isaac Herzog said in a Facebook post. He said the move was “oil to the fire of Israel-hatred” around the world.
He called it a "miserable decision” that had nothing to do with security, and criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allowing it to come to fruition.
Lawmaker Nachman Shai said the plan was a bad idea with even worse timing, given Mogherini's visit.
“Israel will now be perceived around the world as an apartheid state, and rightfully so,” he said. Another prominent member of the parliament, Yair Lapid, called it "the wrong decision, conducted in the wrong way."
President Reuven Rivlin, who has been a consistent voice for upholding Palestinian rights in Israel, called the idea "unthinkable."
Israel, he said, must confront terrorism firmly “whilst defending our democratic values as a country and people.”
As rebukes swirled and headlines damning “segregation” and “apartheid” multiplied, Yaalon and Netanyahu decided to suspend the program, which had been described as a pilot. According to Israeli news media, Netanyahu was not aware that the program was being launched this week.
A similar attempt at separate buses two years ago was also short-lived and discontinued after provoking similar ire.
Presumably keen to avoid an unnecessary collision with Mogherini, who was already critical of Israeli policies in the West Bank, the government reversal came across as a scramble, but lawmaker Yair Lapid said the damage was done.
Mogherini is the first top international diplomat to meet with Netanyahu since the prime minister's formation of his new government. Before the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated what he called Israel’s commitment to peace that would end the conflict with the Palestinians and keep Israel from becoming a binational state.
“I support the vision of two states for two peoples,” he said, emphasizing that a future Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized and recognize Israel as the Jewish state. In his re-election campaign, Netanyahu had said he didn't support a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.
Earlier Wednesday, Mogherini met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. She was scheduled to have additional meetings Thursday.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.