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”)
You can see why Hamas doesn’t want a cease-fire in Gaza yet. It is continuing the fight in the hope that international outrage at the huge loss of people being killed by Israel’s massive firepower will somehow, eventually, force Israel to give it what it wants.
Hamas would be quite willing to give up firing its pathetic rockets – which have so far killed a grand total of three civilians in Israel – if Israel ends its seven-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Dream on.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s goal is harder to define. Domestic political pressure to “do something” about those pesky rockets pushed him into this war, but now he must produce some kind of success in order to justify all those deaths: around 1,150 Palestinians and more than fifty Israelis already.
But what kind of success could it be? He cannot destroy all the rockets – Hamas shows no sign of running out of them – and even if he could Hamas would just manufacture more of them later unless he physically re-occupied the whole Gaza Strip. In recent days, therefore, Netanyahu has redefined the objective as destroying all the “terror tunnels” that Hamas has dug to infiltrate its fighters into nearby areas of Israel.
This makes no sense at all. In order to protect the lives of a few hypothetical Israeli soldiers who might be killed in the future by Hamas fighters using the tunnels, over forty real Israeli soldiers have already died. Besides, Israel can’t stop Hamas from digging more tunnels after the shooting stops unless it can find a way to ban picks and shovels in the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu needs a victory of some sort before he accepts a cease-fire, but he cannot even define what it would be. So, as he said on Monday, “We should prepare ourselves for an extended campaign.” Meanwhile, the slaughter of Palestinians continues, and sympathy for Israel shrivels even in the United States.
It’s not that the Israeli army particularly wants to kill civilians (although it is sometimes very sloppy), but it does prefer to fight a stand-off war with artillery and missiles in order to spare the lives of its own soldiers. In the crowded Gaza Strip, that inevitably means killing lots of civilians.
The 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are living at the same population density as the residents of London or Tokyo: about 5,000 people per square kilometre. You cannot use high explosives in this environment without killing a great many innocent civilians, and Netanyahu knew that from the start, because this is Israel’s third war in Gaza in six years.
So the Israelis are being brutal and stupid, and the Hamas leaders are being brutal and cynical. (Hamas doesn’t really use civilians as “human shields”, as Israeli claims, but its leaders know that Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli fire provide them with a kind of political capital.) But this is not to say that the two sides are equally to blame for the killing. There is a broader context.
Before 1948, only about 60,000 people lived on the land now known as the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of those who live there now are Arab refugees, or the children, grand-children and great-grandchildren of Arab refugees, who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war. They are not there by choice.
Israel has traditionally insisted that the refugees freely chose to flee, although revisionist Israeli historians have debunked that story pretty thoroughly. But which story you believe doesn’t really matter. Fleeing your home in time of war does not deprive you of the right to go home when the fighting ends. Yet the Palestinians have not been allowed to go home, and Israel is adamant that they never will be.
The argument of 1948 still applies: for Israel to remain a state with a large Jewish majority, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants must remain outside it. So most of them are jammed into this narrow strip of territory on the Mediterranean coast – and latterly they have even grown poorer (unemployment is now 40 percent) because they now live under a permanent Israeli blockade.
Israel imposed the blockade after they voted for Hamas, a radical Islamist party that refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Israel, in the 2006 election. Yes, they are more radical than the Palestinians of the West Bank, most of whom are not refugees. But there is no going back, and even in the Gaza Strip most Palestinians know it.
The ancestral lands of the Palestinians in what is now Israel are lost as permanently as those of the American Indians. The “peace” everybody talks about is really just about giving them security of tenure and real self-government in the one-fifth of former Palestine that they still occupy. Unfortunately, that is not even visible on the horizon.
When Netanyahu is addressing American audiences, he gives lip-service to a “two-state solution” that includes an independent, demilitarised Palestinian mini-state, but everybody in Israel knows that he is really determined to avoid it. Israel is therefore effectively committed to penning in and controlling the Palestinians forever.
When their objections to this situation get too violent, they have to be disciplined. That is what is happening now. Just like 2009 and 2012.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 12 and 13. (“It’s…civilians”; and “The argument…know it”)
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said something cryptic last Friday, shortly after the Israelis began their latest round of attacks on the Gaza Strip. Condemning Hamas’s conditions for accepting a ceasefire as “exaggerated and unnecessary,” he offered his condolences “to the families of the martyrs in Gaza who are fuel to those who trade in war. I oppose these traders, on both sides.”
What could he mean by that? Surely he was not suggesting that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel and the leaders of Hamas, the Islamist organisation that has effective control of the Gaza Strip, have a common interest in perpetuating the current bloodbath for at least a little while longer.
Yes, he was suggesting exactly that, and he was quite right. This is the third “Gaza War” since late 2008 – they come around more often than World Cups in football – and each one has followed the same pattern. Some Israelis are kidnapped and/or killed, Israel makes mass arrests of Hamas cadres in the West Bank and launches air and missile strikes on the Gaza Strip, Hamas lets the missiles fly, and away we go again.
A few wrinkles are different this time. The kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli hitch-hikers in the West Bank, probably by Palestinians who had links with Hamas (although it denies responsibility), was followed by the torture and murder of a young Palestinian, probably by Israeli vigilantes.
The ceasefire signed after the last round in 2012 was already being violated by both sides for some months before the real shooting started a week ago. And, most importantly, Hamas had achieved a political reconciliation of sorts with Mahmoud Abbas’s rival organisation that rules the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority. But although every turn of the wheel is a little bit different, the pattern remains the same.
So why would Prime Minister Netanyahu be willing to launch Israel’s third war against the Gaza Strip in eight years? Because the nature of his political alliances with other parties on the Israeli right, and especially with the settler lobby, means that he could not make a peace deal that the Palestinians would accept even if he wanted to (which he probably doesn’t).
That’s why he was instrumental in sabotaging the Oslo Accords, the theoretical basis for a peaceful “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during his first term as prime minister in 1996-99. Back in power in the past five years, his primary excuse for not moving on negotiations has been that Mahmoud Abbas could not deliver peace because he controlled only the West Bank, while the intransigent Hamas ruled the Gaza Strip.
Then Abbas stitched together a compromise that brought Hamas back into a unity government three months ago, and Netanyahu claimed that he could not be expected to negotiate with a government that included the “terrorists” of Hamas. So is he now trying to destroy Hamas so that Abbas can rule unhindered over all the Palestinian territories and become a suitable partner for peace? Of course not.
Netanyahu knows, on the evidence of the previous two wars, that Hamas can be battered into temporary quiescence but not destroyed. He also probably realises that if he did manage to destroy Hamas, its place would be taken by a less corrupt and much more extreme Islamist outfit that might really hurt Israel. He is just doing this, with no expectation of victory, because Israeli public opinion demands it.
Hamas’s motive for wanting a little war are more obvious and urgent: it has lost almost all its sources of funding. Iran stopped funding its budget to the tune of $20 million per month when Hamas sided with the Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war.
Egypt stopped helping it after last year’s military coup against Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, and closed the tunnels under the border through which the Gaza Strip received most of its imported goods. Those imports were Hamas’s main source of tax revenue. Hamas is broke, and if it stays broke its control over the Strip will weaken.
Whereas a war with Israel will rally the local Palestinians to its support, and if enough of them are killed Egypt and the Gulf states may feel compelled to give Hamas financial aid. So the only real question is how many dead Palestinians will satisfy both Netanyahu’s need to look tough and Hamas’s need to rebuild popular support at home and get financial help from abroad.
On past performance, the magic number is between a hundred and a thousand dead: around 1,200 Palestinians were killed in the 2008-9 war, and 174 in 2012. After that – assuming that only a handful of Israelis have been killed, which is guaranteed by the fact that Israeli air and missiles strikes are a hundred times more efficient at killing than Hamas’s pathetic rockets – a ceasefire becomes possible.
We have already crossed the lower threshold of that range of Palestinian deaths in the current mini-war, so a ceasefire is theoretically possible now, but both sides will probably press on for at least another few days. Then the ceasefire will be agreed, and both sides will start thinking about the next round, only a few years from now. But the dead will stay dead.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“A few…same”; and “Then…not”)
5 December 2012
Dead, Dead, Dead: The Middle East “Peace Process”
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s as if the world’s leaders were earnestly warning us that global warming will cause the extinction of the dinosaurs. They’ve actually been dead for a long time already. So has the Middle East “peace process”.
As soon as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that Israel will build 3,000 homes on “East One” (E-1), the last piece of land connecting East Jerusalem with the West Bank that is not already covered with Jewish settlements, the ritual condemnations started to flow. Even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “these activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace,” and others went a lot further.
The British minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, warned that “the settlements plan…has the potential to alter the situation on the ground on a scale that threatens the viability of a two-state solution.” France called in the Israeli ambassador and told him that “settlements are illegal under international law…and constitute an obstacle to a fair peace based on a two-state solution.”
Even the Australian government summoned the Israeli ambassador and told him that Israeli plans to build on the land in question “threaten the viability of a two-state solution.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that the plan would be “an almost fatal blow” to the two-state solution, as if it were still alive. And Netanyahu, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t actually do anything, just stone-walled and smiled.
In almost all the media coverage, the Israeli announcement is explained as an angry response for the United Nations General Assembly’s vote last month to grant the Palestinian Authority permanent observer status at the UN, which is tantamount to recognising Palestine as an independent state. As if Netanyahu were an impulsive man who had just lost his temper, not a wily strategist who thinks long-term.
Building in the “E-1” area, which covers most of the space between the Jewish settlements that ring East Jerusalem and the huge Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the Palestinian West Bank, is definitely a game-changer. It effectively separates the West Bank from East Jerusalem, the city that the Palestinians see as the capital of their future state. It also almost cuts the West Bank in two. But it’s not a new idea.
The Israeli government declared its intention to build on this land fourteen years ago, when Netanyahu was prime minister for the first time. The plan was frozen in response to outraged protests from practically all of Israel’s allies, who had invested a great deal of political capital in the two-state solution. But it was never abandoned.
Successive US Presidents were assured by various Israeli governments that construction would not proceed there, but most of those governments went on preparing for the day when a pretext to break the freeze would present itself. The land is still deserted today, but there are street lights, electric cables and water mains.
Now a pretext has arisen, even if the UN General Assembly’s recognition of a Palestinian state makes little practical difference. Netanyahu has seized the opportunity, as he undoubtedly always planned to. And you can’t kill the “two-state solution.” To Netanyahu’s considerable satisfaction, it is already dead.
Creating two independent states, Israeli and Palestinian, separated by the “green line” that was Israel’s border until it conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, was the goal of the 1993 Oslo Accords. That’s what the “peace process” was all about, but it was really doomed when Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister signed the Oslo deal, was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish fanatic in 1995.
Netanyahu was elected prime minister after Rabin’s death, and spent the next three years stalling on the transfers of land and political authority to the Palestinian Authority that were required under the Oslo Accords. Meanwhile, he supported a vastly expanded programme of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, although it was obvious that this would ultimately make a Palestinian state impossible.
After a two-year interval when the Labour Party under Ehud Barak formed a government and seriously pursued a final peace settlement with the Palestinians, the Israeli right recovered power in 2001 and has relentlessly pursued project of settling Jews on Palestinian territory ever since.
The number of Jews living in the West Bank has doubled in the past twelve years, and they now account for one-fifth of the population there. Jewish settlements, roads reserved for Jewish settlers, and Israeli military bases and reservations now cover 40 percent of the West Bank’s territory. But to retain US support, Netanyahu still has to pretend that he is really interested in a two-state solution.
That’s why he had to wait for the right excuse before building on “E-1” and sealing East Jerusalem off from the West Bank. But he always intended to kill off the “peace process,” and in practice he succeeded long ago.
Why do his Western allies in the United States and elsewhere put up with this fraud? Because they cannot think of anything else to do.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 12. (“Even…smiled”; “Successive…mains”; and “After…since”)