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Pompeo’s Mission: A Deal in Jerusalem?

Israel’s new two-headed government, with Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister, was supposed to be sworn in on Wednesday. Then suddenly the inauguration was postponed by one day to accommodate a quick visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. What brought Pompeo so far for so short a time?

It obviously wasn’t the declared agenda of coordinating American and Israeli policy on Covid-19 and Iran. Many American lives would have been spared if Trump had followed Israel’s example on the coronavirus threat (Israeli deaths per million 30, US deaths per million 252), but it’s too late for that now. And there’s nothing very urgent about Iran at the moment.

The real purpose of Pompeo’s lighting visit to Israel was to make sure that Netanyahu actually goes ahead with the annexation of part of the occupied West Bank, thus killing off the possibility of a ‘two-state solution’ that includes a Palestinian state. But surely that’s what Netanyahu wants to do anyway.

President Trump’s ‘Vision for Peace’, released in January, endorsed the unilateral imposition of Israeli sovereignty on 30 percent of the West Bank. Netanyahu has made endless promises to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, an important part of the voting support for his various coalitions, to annex their settlements to Israel. So why was Pompeo’s visit necessary?

It’s because everybody knows Netanyahu can’t be trusted – and he has reasons not to go ahead with the annexation as planned.

The bigger Arab states are all resigned to the end of Palestinian hopes for a state, but there would still be negative consequences for Israel in the region. Jordan has a long border with Israel, and popular protests against the annexation (the country’s population is over half Palestinian) might force the king to end the peace treaty with Israel in order to survive.

The Palestinian Authority, an unelected body that effectively runs the occupied West Bank (except the Jewish settlements) on behalf of Israel, would probably collapse. That would leave Israel with the difficult task of maintaining direct military rule over three million Palestinians.

Even worse, if Netanyahu actually annexed the West Bank he would lose the ability to dangle that promise endlessly before the settler voting bloc. He is quite cynical enough to be guided by this calculation, so Donald Trump cannot trust him to do the annexation – and Trump really needs him to do it before November, because of the US election.

“For Trump’s evangelical and right-wing Jewish base, Israeli annexation – and the last rites it will administer to the dying two-state solution – is wildly popular,” wrote Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, in the Israeli newspaper ‘Haaretz’. Trump will need the enthusiastic support of those voters to win in November, so he has to nail Netanyahu down now.

That is tricky, because the government that has just taken power in Jerusalem is far more complicated than the usual Israeli coalition. It is a two-headed monster in which Netanyahu’s Likud bloc and Benny Ganz’s Blue-and-White bloc (which was originally founded with the explicit goal of driving Netanyahu from office) will not share power but exercise it separately.

It says so right in Article 2 of the 14-page coalition agreement: “The government will be a two-bloc government.” Netanyahu and Ganz will each appoint half the ministers, and they will have no power to change or dismiss those appointed by the other man.

Netanyahu and Ganz will each be prime minister for eighteen months, and every government committee will be equally divided between the blocs. For the first six months, at least, both men will have a veto on any proposed legislation – with one important exception. From July 1, Netanyahu can propose a law annexing part of the West Bank without fear of a veto by Ganz.

Netanyahu fought hard for that exception, because Trump is his ally and he needs to be able to deliver for Trump on the annexation. But how much of the West Bank should Israel seize? Mike Pompeo is there to help the unwilling partners decide, and here’s what he’s probably selling.

Trump would be content to have Israel annex only a few chunks of the West Bank near the Israeli border – say Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel. Most of his evangelical supporters wouldn’t notice the difference, because they’re not good on the geography of modern Israel (although they are pretty solid on Old Testament geography).

Benny Ganz would settle for that too, because it would be less likely to trigger the collapse of the Palestinian Authority or the abrogation of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan.

And Netanyahu? He would still have the annexation of the other Jewish settlements in the West Bank to dangle before the settler voters of the next generation. Even if he’s convicted of corruption in his forthcoming trial, he’s only 70.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 11. (“It obviously…moment”; and “It says…man”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Trump-Netanyahu Peace Deal

The peculiar thing about the ‘peace deal’ between Israelis and Palestinians that was announced in Washington on Tuesday was obvious at a single glance.

There was President Donald Trump and his good buddy Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, together at the podium, and an audience of US and Israeli officials who clapped at every opportunity. They were talking about a ‘two-state solution’, and one of those states would have to be Palestinian – but there wasn’t a single Palestinian in the room.

The after-life of the ‘two-state’ principle has already been much longer than its real life. It was born in the Oslo Accords of 1993, which were based on the belief that although Israel had conquered all of historic Palestine by 1967, it could not go on ruling over millions of Arabs forever.

Peace and prosperity could only come, therefore, if the Palestinians had their own state too. So the Oslo principle was that there should be two equal and democratic states living side by side, one Israeli and one Palestinian: the ‘two-state solution’. But that solution didn’t even survive the 20th century.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the Oslo deal, was assassinated by a Jewish right-wing extremist in 1995. His successor, ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, had strangled the deal in its cradle before his first term as prime minister ended in 1999.

The Oslo Accords died because Palestinian nationalists didn’t want to accept a state that included only one-sixth of former Palestine, and Israeli nationalists didn’t see why the Palestinian Arabs should have even that much land. Indeed, since the whole area was controlled by the Israeli military, Jewish settlers were already building towns throughout the occupied zone.

Yet even two decades later almost nobody admits publicly that the two-state solution is long dead, because to say that commits you to a discussion of the remaining alternatives – and none of them are good. That’s why even this bizarre sham ‘deal’, cooked up by Trump and Netanyahu without any Palestinian participation, still talks about two states.

At every turn of the wheel, the size of the imaginary state on offer to the Palestinians dwindles. With Israel on the brink of formally annexing all the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, it’s down to about 10% of former Palestine, and it will never actually happen. Yet the fictional destination of a Palestinian state must still be maintained. Why?

When people saw the ‘concept’ of a Palestinian state unveiled by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, consisting of several dozen little enclaves linked by overpasses and tunnels, many were irresistibly reminded of the ‘Bantustans’ of South Africa.

The Bantustans were created by the apartheid regime to give the illusion of freedom and self-determination for South Africa’s oppressed black populations. They never fooled anybody, but they allowed the regime to claim that it did respect the democratic rights of black people. They just couldn’t vote in South Africa, which was a country for white people.
Kushner’s map is trying to do the same trick.

A real two-state solution is politically unsaleable in Israel, partly because of the Jewish majority’s security concerns but mainly because the Jewish settlers want too much of the territory such a Palestinian state would be built on.

But the Palestinians are not going to go away, and there are around five million of them. They have already lived under Israeli military rule for more than fifty years. Can you really defend leaving them under military occupation for another fifty?

If not, then the remaining alternatives are a two-state solution or a ‘one-state solution’ in which Israel annexes all the occupied territories. But if Israel annex them then those five million Palestinian Arabs will be able to vote in Israeli elections – and Israel ceases to be a ‘Jewish state’, although it remains a democratic one.

Or else you don’t let them vote, in which case Israel becomes an apartheid state. This is why the zombie two-state solution keeps rising from its grave. Israel doesn’t actually have to get the Palestinians to agree, but it must keep talking about some sort of Palestinian state or else resign itself to being simply an ethnic tyranny.

Is this a sustainable long-term policy? It may well be. Israel is the regional military superpower, unbeatable by any imaginable combination of Arab states, and in any case the rest of the Arab world has largely lost interest in the plight of the Palestinians.

That’s why there was no need to have any Palestinians at the great unveiling of the Trump-Netanyahu ‘peace deal’ this week. Palestinian consent is not necessary, and when they reject it they can be vilified for rejecting ‘peace’. Netanyahu understands this perfectly. Whether Trump understands it doesn’t even matter.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“When…trick”)

News That Isn’t News

As British newspaper magnate Viscount Northcliffe said: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”

Men don’t bite dogs every day, however, and the news media need ‘content’ every day just to hold the ads apart. So often they do cover ‘dog bites man’ stories, for lack of anything better.

Today’s lead ‘dog bites man’ story is the White House announcement that the United States no longer views Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank as ‘inconsistent with international law’. This will come as a vast surprise to practically nobody.

The West Bank, first seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war and occupied militarily for the past 52 years, was entirely Palestinian in population when the Israeli army arrived. There has been extensive Jewish settlement there since then, but those settlements have always been seen as illegal under international law.

This judgement has been confirmed by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, both of which relied on the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. That strictly forbids an occupying power to transfer its own people into occupied territory.

As recently as 2016 a UN Security Council resolution said that the Israeli settlements have “no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation under international law” – and the US government did not veto that resolution.

However, the US position on this has been eroding for a long time. The Carter administration in 1978 said clearly that the settlements, then just getting underway, were “inconsistent with international law,” but in 1982 the Reagan administration backed off a bit: it continued to call them ‘illegitimate’, but wouldn’t call them ‘illegal’.

Subsequent US administrations have vetoed UN Security Resolutions that condemned the settlements, while never actually claiming that they were legal. But it has been ‘game over’ since the Trump administration took office.

First he moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, confirming US acceptance of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem contrary to international law. Then he recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (another occupied territory, seized from Syria in 1967), although no other country accepts such a border change in defiance of international law.

So by the time Trump got around to declaring the Israeli settlements in the West Bank legal last weekend, it wasn’t news at all. The commentators did their best to make it newsworthy, asking if this will end the ‘peace process’ (as if it hadn’t been dead already for at least ten years). There’s nothing the Palestinians can do about it, and nobody else really cares, not even other Arab states.

That was a ‘dog bites man’ story if there ever was one – and here’s another. Prince Andrew, third son of Queen Elizabeth, has been having a public relations problem recently. He was much too close to disgraced American financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide in jail in August while facing new sex charges.

Andrew has been facing claims of sexual misbehaviour himself. An American woman, Virginia Giuffre, has been claiming she was forced to have sex with the prince three times while he was visiting various of Epstein’s properties, including at least once when she was underage.

The prince denies it, but there is a photograph that shows them together. He denies any memory of the photo (in which he had his hand around her naked waist), but he never actually says it was doctored. He doesn’t deny meeting her, either, although he says there was never any sexual contact.

It was all a bit like that in his car-crash interview last week on the BBC, in which he was going to ‘clear his name’. The best you could say about it is that he didn’t dig the hole he was already in any deeper. And yet it was headline ‘news’ not only in the UK but elsewhere. There just wasn’t much else going on over the weekend.

But here’s what could make it a real headline. There’s a specific date attached to one of the occasions when Giuffre says they had sex. The prince says that couldn’t be true, because he took his daughter out to eat at Pizza Express in Woking, in southern England, that evening. (He remembers it so well because princes of the blood like him don’t normally go to Pizza Express.)

Well, we know that royal princes have 24-hour protection when travelling, and the security detail will have records for where he was, even down to which building, at all times. So if he really wants to clear his name, all he has to do is to publish the security detail’s records for that date. That really would be a headline story – if still a pretty petty one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. “This judgement…resolution”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Fragmentation: The Tribalisation of Politics

‘Homo economicus’ is dead. Long live ‘homo tribuarius’!

That’s not really something to celebrate, but it’s certainly true that in most democratic countries economic self-interest is no longer the most important factor in voters’ choices. Tribalism of various sorts is taking its place, and that is not an improvement.

Take three quite different countries that are all stalled in the middle of political transitions that would have been done and dusted in no time twenty years ago: Spain, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Spain has just had its fourth election in four years, and the stalemate is worse than ever. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went back to the polls in the hope of increasing his
centre-left PSOE party’s seats in parliament enough to make the arithmetic work. He had no chance of winning an overall majority, of course, but maybe with a few more seats and a more willing coalition partner….

Not a chance. He went back to parliament with a few less seats, and so did his skittish intended coalition partner, Unidos Podemos. They have now swallowed their pride and agreed on a coalition, but they still need 21 seats from elsewhere for a majority, and it’s hard to see where that will come from.

This is not how things used to be. A couple of decades ago the PSOE and its centre-right rival, the People’s Party, used to sweep up 80% of the vote, leaving just scraps for the ‘minor’ parties. In last April’s election, the two historic ‘major’ parties only got 48% of the votes between them.

Or consider Israel, where two elections this year failed to any set of political parties – out of a total of nine – with enough common ground to build a coalition government that works. The two ‘major’ parties together got only 51% of the votes.

Binyamin Netayahu’s Likud party tried and failed to form a coalition government. Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party is still trying, and there is talk of a power-sharing ‘grand coalition’ between the two biggest parties, but otherwise Israel is probably heading for a third election within months.

Even if there is a deal between Likud and the Blue and White Party, the resulting government would be prone to fall apart at the first bump in the road. As that perspicacious political observer Donald Trump said on Monday, “They keep having elections and nobody gets elected.”

And then there’s the United Kingdom, stuck in the Brexit swamp for over three years and still looking for the exit. The two big traditional parties, Labour and the Conservatives, managed to win 80% of the vote in the last election, but subsequent defections from both the big parties made a decision on what kind of Brexit it should be (if any) impossible. Why is this happening?

In Britain, the Labour-Conservative disagreement used to be basically economic. Labour sought to redistribute the wealth, the Conservatives tried to defend the existing order, and most people made their choices according to their position in the economic pyramid.

That was never entirely true, of course. Some intellectuals in posh houses voted for Labour, and the Conservatives always managed to attract some working-class votes by stressing racial, sectarian and ‘values’ issues. But most people did vote for their economic interests.

Not now. The Conservatives are the pro-Brexit party, but 42% of their traditional voters supported ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. Similarly, one-third of traditional Labour voters backed ‘Leave’. Never mind the economy; the referendum was driven by English nationalism. Or tribalism, if you prefer.

You can find similarly indecisive outcomes all over the place. The two traditional ‘major’ parties in Germany got only 54% of the vote in the last election. In 2017, the Netherlands went 208 days without a government. In 2018 Sweden went four months ‘ungoverned’ before a coalition was finally formed.

You can’t blame these outcomes on ‘the internet’, although that certainly makes it easier to spread disinformation. You can’t just blame it on ‘proportional representation’ voting systems, either: the UK has a simple winner-takes-all (or ‘first-past-the-post’) system. You probably can blame it on a rising level of anger everywhere, but then you have to explain the anger.

The one common denominator that might explain it is the growing disparity of wealth – the gulf between the rich and the rest – in practically every democratic country.

Since the 1970s, income growth for households on the middle and lower rungs of the ladder has slowed sharply in almost every country, while incomes at the top have continued to grow strongly. The concentration of income at the very top is now at a level last seen 90 years ago during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – just before the Great Depression.

We could fix this by politics, if we can get past the tribalisation. Or we could ‘fix’ it by wars, the way we did last time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“Even…elected”; and “That was…interests”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.