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Israeli Election

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Israeli Election and the West Bank

It shouldn’t have been a surprise when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Saturday, three days before the Israeli election, that he is going to annex all the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. After all, every other member of his Likud Party in the Israeli parliament (28 out of 29) had already said they wanted to do that. Yet it did come as a surprise..

Netanyahu had avoided saying it previously because as head of government his statement would have made it official policy, and according to international law annexing conquered territory is illegal. (Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 war, and has occupied it ever since.) The traditional Israeli policy has been to colonise as much of the territory as it can with Jewish settlers, but to insist that it was all open to negotiation in a peace settlement.

It never meant that, of course. Around 20% of the people in the West Bank and the adjacent parts of East Jerusalem, conquered at the same time, are now Jewish settlers (600,000 colonists among 2.4 million Palestinians), but they control 42% of the land. You don’t make that kind of investment if you’re really planning to give the land back to the Palestinians in the future.

But leaving the legal status of the Jewish settlements open actually enables them to go on expanding, whereas annexing the land the settlers now hold would implicitly recognise that the rest of the land really still belongs to the Palestinians, and stop the settlers from grabbing even more of it. Moreover, leaving the question open lets Israel’s Western allies and supporters ignore its actions.

Even Western media dodge the issue, using slippery formulas like the BBC’s famous line, which appears in almost every piece it does about the occupied territories: “The [Jewish] settlements are illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.” It is the exact legal and moral equivalent of saying that “Russia’s annexation of Crimea is illegal under international law, though Russia disputes this,” but in practice it lets the Israelis off the hook.

So why did Netanyahu change the policy now? The election, obviously. In response to a (probably planted) question from the audience at Saturday’s rally, he said: “You are asking whether we are moving on to the next stage – the answer is yes, we will move to the next stage. I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”

‘And the isolated settlements’ is an interesting phrase. Ariel Sharon’s famous exhortation in 1998 – “Everybody has to move; run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them” – had concrete effects.

‘Unauthorised’ Jewish settlements – often no more than a couple of trailers, a lot of razor wire, a small arsenal of weapons and an Israeli flag – sprang up on a lot of hilltops in the West Bank. If Netanyahu includes them and the roads that connect them in his ‘annexation’, it will be a final land grab that probably brings the portion of the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty above 50%.

Netanyahu is doing this now because his re-election campaign was running into a bit of trouble. He is under indictment on corruption charges, and his Likud party, which used to be seen as hard right, has ended up looking ‘soft right’ without ever changing its policies. It’s the centre of gravity in Israeli politics that has moved, with several right-wing parties following an ever harder line than Likud.

Likud will never form a government on its own; it would be doing well to win a quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament). The country’s electoral system of proportional representation means all governments must be coalition governments, and Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners after the election are almost all further to the right than Likud.

To compete with them for votes during the election, and to draw them into a new coalition afterwards, requires Netanyahu to look ruthless and ultra-nationalist himself, and he has shown no reluctance to play that role. He also knows that his good friend Donald Trump will give him cover internationally when he annexes the West Bank.

Trump has already moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, an implicit endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Arab-majority east of the city after it was captured in the 1967 war. More recently he has formally recognised the illegal Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, a part of Syria also conquered in that war and now a territory where Israeli settlers make up half the population.

So would Trump also recognise an Israeli annexation of half the West Bank? Why not? Netanyahu might as well exploit Trump’s political strategy at home, which includes accusing the Democratic Party of being ‘anti-Semitic’, to get US approval of Israeli expansion while he is still in office. He might be gone in nineteen months.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“And the…50%”)

Israeli Election 2015

Binyamin Netanyahu, “Bibi” to both his friends and his ever-growing list of enemies, is running for a fourth term as the prime minister of Israel. He called the election, two years early, because the leaders of two of the parties in his coalition government had become too openly hostile to his policies. So he is rolling the dice again in the hope of being able to form some different coalition.

That’s what he always does. His coalitions draw mainly on the centre-right and, increasingly, the far right, partly because that is where he stands personally on “security” issues and partly because Israel opinion in general has been drifting steadily to the right. But beyond that, he has no fixed policy. His primary goal is to hold his coalitions together and stay in power.

Netanyahu is hardly unique in this. Professional politicians anywhere tend to divide into two types, the “conviction politicians” and the players, with the majority usually in the latter category. He is a tremendously good player of the game, but it has a paralysing effect on Israeli politics.

Since he cannot afford to come down in favour of either a real “two-state” solution that allows for an independent Palestine or a single Israeli-ruled state that permanently controls all or most of the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel never gets to choose between the two. Until, perhaps, now.

Netanyahu’s excuse for refusing to choose has usually been the lack of a valid Palestinian negotiating partner, and there is certainly some basis for that. Mahmoud Abbas, the “President” of the Palestinian Authority, has not faced an election, even within his own Fatah party, for ten years. Moreover, Abbas has no control over the 40 percent of the Palestinian population who live under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.

But it is more an excuse than a reason. Genuine negotiations envisaging a Israeli withdrawal from most or all of the West Bank and a real Palestinian state, even a demilitarised one, would destroy any coalition Netanyahu has ever built. Going flat-out with the extreme right-wing project for a “one-state” solution incorporating the whole West Bank but denying Palestinians the vote would do the same. Result: permanent paralysis.

Indeed, Netanyahu has even encouraged Israelis to believe that this peculiar status quo can be a lasting substitute for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a ridiculous proposition, but it clearly has appeal for Israelis who would like to believe that they can have security without the pain of territorial compromise.
Meanwhile, however, the outside world has been losing patience. Abbas has been pushing for a November, 2016 United Nations deadline to end the Israeli occupation unless two-state negotiations have succeeded by then. And last week the European Parliament voted to recognise Palestine statehood “in principle” as part of the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.

The EU resolution also said that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law – as indeed they are, but it has not been normal for Israel’s allies and supporters to say so explicitly. (The European Union has granted Israel trading privileges so extensive that it is practically a member economically.) The vote was 498 in favour and only 88 against, and there was a standing ovation in the chamber afterwards.

The rot is spreading rapidly. Four national Western European parliaments – Ireland, the United Kingdom, France and Spain – have recently endorsed resolutions in favour of Palestinian statehood, and Sweden has actually recognised Palestine as a state. Other European Union members are on the brink of doing so, and even Israel’s final line of diplomatic defence, an American veto, is no longer guaranteed.

The United States has used its veto on the UN Security Council to shield Israel from resolutions that criticise the country forty-one times in the past forty years. Indeed, it has used its veto for no other purpose since 1988. Israelis fully expect Barack Obama to use it a 42nd time to defeat Mahmoud Abbas’s appeal for a two-year deadline for an agreement on a two-state solution when it comes before the Security Council, most likely in January.

They are probably right, but Obama will be sorely tempted to let people think that he might not use the veto, and perhaps also to push the Security Council vote down towards the 17 March date of the Israeli election, in the hope of influencing Israeli voters to turn away from Netanyahu.

It’s quite common for Israeli voters to push back when they feel they are under foreign pressure to make concessions, so this could actually play out to Netanyahu’s advantage. A great deal can happen between now and 17 March, so one shouldn’t give too much weight to current polls. But at the moment, the numbers suggest that Netanyahu’s gamble on forming a new coalition may not succeed.

And that might open the way to one last attempt to make the two-state solution work.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The EU…guaranteed”)

Israeli Election

16 January 2013

Israeli Election

By Gwynne Dyer

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was once seen as a right-wing figure. Now he’s widely considered to be a moderate. But it’s not Netanyahu who has changed; Israel has. His governing coalition will certainly win the largest number of seats in the Knesset (parliament) again in the election on 22 January, but his new government will contain lots of people who make him look very moderate indeed.

Consider, for example, Moshe Feiglin, one of the ultra-right-wingers who recently displaced the remaining moderates in internal elections in Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic,” Feiglin told the New York Times recently. “You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers….The Arab destroys everything he touches.”

Last October, when Likud merged with its hard-right coalition partner, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), it was hailed as Netanyahu’s political masterstroke. Opinion polls predicted that the new alliance would win 47 seats in the new Knesset, compared to the 42 seats they won separately in the last election. But even with Likud-Beitenu’s lurch to the right, it’s still not right-wing enough for many Israeli voters.

Just in the past month, a new party that is even farther to the right, Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), has surged in the polls, and now Netanyahu’s alliance is predicted to drop to only 34 seats, while the upstart party gets 15. And what is Bayit Yehudi’s leader like?

Naftali Bennett is the 40-year-old son of American immigrants to Israel, a religiously observant man who made a small fortune in software development before going into politics. And he has no intention of wasting his time “babbling about Israel and the Palestinians.” His solution to the problem is for Israel to annex about 60 percent of the West Bank, including almost all the land occupied by Jewish settlers, and to rule the rest forever.

“There is not going to be a Palestinian state within the tiny land of Israel,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s just not going to happen. A Palestinian state would be a disaster for the next 200 years.” So in the 40 percent of the West Bank left to them, in Bennett’s version of the future, 2.5 million Palestinians would live under some kind of “autonomous” authority, permanently supervised by the Israeli intelligence services.

Most of the issues being debated in this Israeli election are domestic questions about the economy and the social welfare net, as in any other country, but there is no doubt that the rise of the right has been fuelled primarily by its hard line on security and territory. What needs to be explained is why so many more Israelis are attracted by those policies nowadays than they were twenty years ago.

The founding generation of Zionists in Israel in 1948 were mostly secular and socialist, and most of them voted for the Labour Party, which dominated Israeli politics until the 1980s. But the Israel of 1948 contained only two-thirds of a million Jews. Today’s Israel has six million Jews, and most of them are neither secular nor socialist in their outlook. Nor, in most cases, are they descended from that founding generation.

The early post-independence waves of immigrants were mostly “oriental” Jews, primarily refugees from Arab countries, who were religious and conservative in their outlook. They were numerous, and had much higher birth-rates than secular Jews. Then, from the 1980s onwards, came the Russians and other post-Soviet Jews, who had no sympathy at all for socialism. Together, they have transformed Israeli politics.

About 50 percent of Israeli Jews now identify themselves as traditional, religious or ultra-Orthodox. Only 15 percent describe themselves as secular. And both the religious and the post-Soviet Jews are mostly on the right politically – in the case of the ultra-Orthodox, 79 percent of them, compared to only 17 percent of secular Jews. The new Israel is capitalist, religious and, in many cases, ultra-nationalist.

Did the “peace process” die because Israelis were becoming more right-wing, or did the failure of the peace process push Israelis to the right? That may sound like a chicken-and-egg question, but in fact Israel was already moving right for demographic reasons at least a decade before the peace process began. By now it has traveled a long way in that direction.

Together, Netanyahu’s Likud Beitenu alliance and Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi will win around 50 seats in this election, which puts them within easy range of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Just bring in a couple of the minor parties (some of which are also quite far over on the right), and they will have a strong right-wing coalition. Netanyahu will still be prime minister, but he will have to bring Naftali Bennet and other hard-right leaders into the cabinet.

And then life in the Middle East will get even more interesting than it is already.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“There is…services”; and “Did…direction”).



After the Israeli Election

23 March 2006

After the Israeli Election

By Gwynne Dyer

“It’s a trade-off,” said Dror Etkes, director of the Israeli organisation Settlement Watch, just after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out the dramatic withdrawal from the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip last August. “The Gaza Strip for the settlement blocks; the Gaza Strip for Palestinian land; the Gaza Strip for unilaterally imposing borders. They don’t know how long they’ve got. That’s why they’re building like maniacs.”

But they are going to have lots of time: Ariel Sharon may be in a permanent coma, but his project is doing just fine. The new party he founded, Kadima, will do extraordinarily well in the Israeli elections on 28 March, probably winning almost as many seats as the two traditional major parties, Labour and Likud, combined. The only question about the new government is whether Kadima will have to include either of those major parties in the new coalition, or whether it can leave them both out in the cold.

Neither is there any doubt about what acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will do once he is prime minister in his own right, with a solid majority behind him. In far blunter terms than Sharon had used in recent years, Olmert sketched out the new government’s policy last month.

“Reality today obliges us to separate ourselves from the Palestinians and to remodel the borders of the state of Israel,” said Olmert, “and this is what I will do after the elections. This will force us to evacuate [some] territories currently held by the state of Israel [in the West Bank, but] we will hold on to the major settlement blocks. We will keep Jerusalem united. It is impossible to abandon control of the eastern borders of Israel.”

In other words, there will be no more peace negotiations: the Palestinians will just have to live within the 420 miles (680 km) of tall fences that mark out Israel’s new borders, in a pseudo-state surrounded and almost cut in half by Israeli settlements. The whole Jordan valley will stay in Israel’s hands, cutting Palestinians off from the rest of the Arab world except for one Israel-controlled border crossing into Jordan at the Allenby Bridge and one that crosses into Egypt from the Gaza Strip.

The 200,000 Arabs living in the old city of Jerusalem are already cut off from the rest of the Palestinian territories by a ring of new Jewish suburbs and a maze of gates that they cannot pass through without magnetic cards. New settlements linking the existing Jewish suburbs east of Jerusalem with the settlement block of Maale Adumim will push Israel’s frontier most of the way across the West Bank in the centre, effectively cutting off the northern West Bank from the southern part.

All the big settlement blocks in the West Bank — Ariel, Gush Etzion and Maale Admumim — will formally become part of Israel, sheltering behind the walls that divide them from the misery and desperation on the other side. Some isolated settlements will be abandoned, and the estimated 60,000 Jews who live in them will be moved to join the 185,000 people who already live in the bigger blocks. The Israeli army will police the areas that remain Palestinian, making incursions as necessary. And there you have it: the permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Israelis justify this unilateral and highly one-sided “solution” with the argument that there is nobody on the Palestinian side to negotiate with, and since the victory of the radical Hamas party in Palestinian elections two months ago that argument sounds more plausible. But we arrived at this sorry situation because Israel was unwilling to negotiate fairly with any of the previous, more reasonable incarnations of the Palestinian leadership either. The settlements always got in the way.

As former US president Jimmy Carter, who negotiated the 1978 Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week, “the pre-eminent obstacle to peace is Israel’s colonisation of Palestine. Israel’s occupation of Palestine has obstructed a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land, regardless of whether Palestinians had no formalised government, one headed by Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, or with Abbas as president and Hamas controlling the parliament and cabinet.”

For twenty years, while one peace initiative after another died due to Israeli stalling and the patience of moderate Palestinians eroded, the settlements doubled and redoubled in population, taking up more and more Palestinian land. So now, since the Palestinians are too radical to talk to any more, the settlements must become part of Israel. Most Israeli voters are willing to accept this logic at the moment, but it does not serve Israel’s long-term security.

At the moment, Israel holds all the cards in the Middle East. Its army and its economy are incomparably stronger than those of its Arab neighbours. It has hundreds of nuclear weapons, and they have none. And it has 110 percent support from the United States, the world’s only superpower. But a prudent Israeli leader would conclude that now is therefore the right time to make a permanent peace with the Arabs, including the Palestinians, because nobody can be certain that it will still hold all those cards in twenty-five or fifty years’ time.

Israel cannot have a permanent peace and the settlements too. It is making a bad trade.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“The 200,000…part”; and “As former…cabinet”)