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West Bank

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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)’.

Israel Election 2019 (Part Two)

Binyamin Netanyahu’s work is almost done. If he wins Tuesday’s election and forms yet another government (he is now the longest-serving Israeli prime minister), he will put a stake through the heart of the ‘two-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was born in the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Hamas should send him a gold watch for long service.

Netanyahu and Hamas have always been what our Marxist friends used to call ‘objective allies’. That is to say, they hated each other, but they shared one overriding objective: to thwart the creation of a semi-independent Palestinian state based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that had been envisaged in the Oslo deal.
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It was the Israeli left that made that deal, in the person of Yitzak Rabin, a war hero who thought he saw a chance for a permanent peace settlement. His Arab partner was Yassir Arafat, the terrorist-turned-statesman who led the secular Fatah organisation, the largest Palestinian group. Arafat too was ready for a compromise peace by 1993.

Both men, of course, faced bitter opposition at home. Arafat’s strongest critics were the Islamist fanatics of the Hamas Party. Rabin’s were the Israeli ultra-nationalist right, who included the Orthodox religious parties and most of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.

The Oslo deal started to collapse when an Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated Rabin in 1995. It was assumed at first that his foreign minister Shimon Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat, would win the ensuing election on a sympathy vote. Then Hamas staged three huge suicide bombings killing 58 Israelis in the three months before the 1996 Israeli election campaign.

Hamas’s goal was to radicalise Israelis and push them into the camp of the anti-Oslo nationalists, led by one Binyamin Netanyahu. It worked, Netanyahu formed a government – and there were no further bombings of comparable scale for five years afterwards.

Netanyahu was not in cahoots with Hamas, but as a former professional soldier he would certainly have understood their strategy. And as prime minister he did what they hoped: he successfully stalled on delivering any of the Israeli promises in the Oslo accords until he lost power in 1999.

It was ten years before Netanyahu came back into power in 2009, but the pattern was set. Only once, briefly, was there an Israeli government that tried to revive the ‘two-state’ solution, and since Netanyahu has been back it has been completely off the table.

In fact, there’s no risk any more even if he isn’t in power: the ‘two-state’ option is well and truly dead. Hamas would probably still prefer Netanyahu to any plausible alternative Israeli prime minister, but from their point of view, his work is done.

So what is this election in Israel about? Not very much, really.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its usual coalition partners, the extreme right and religious parties, won a majority in last April’s election, but he was unable to put a coalition together afterwards. One key party in his last coalition demanded that the large numbers of young Orthodox men studying for years at a time in religious seminaries must lose their automatic exemptions from military service.

Netanyahu couldn’t agree to that without losing the support of the religious parties, so he called another election instead. It may work: the last opinion poll legally permissible before the election predicted that the right-wing bloc would win a solid majority of 66 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

It is possible that Kahol Lavan, a centrist party led by former armed forces commander Benny Ganz, will win more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud Party and thereby gain the right to try to form a government. But it will probably not succeed, because the larger coalition of parties Ganz leads, the Blue and White Alliance (after the colours of the Israeli flag), will come up short: the polls say only 54 seats in the Knesset.

So Netanyahu will probably be prime minister again, even though he is facing fraud, bribery and corruption charges and may face pre-trial hearings within weeks. Netanyahu denies all charges and would not be legally required to step down unless he is convicted and all his appeals are rejected. That process could take years.

But still, how does he go on winning? He has all this legal baggage, his domestic performance is no better than fair – most Israelis feel their budgets are pretty stretched – and anyway you’d think they would be getting bored with the same old face after 13 years.

He does it, every time, by throwing a scare into them, and by simultaneously promising to expand Israel’s territory. This time, he presents himself as the only man who can keep the US on side against the allegedly mortal Iranian threat, warns that Israel’s Arab minority will ‘steal’ the election (by turning out to vote), and says he will annex the Jordan valley and the northern Dead Sea coast (one-third of the West Bank) as soon as he is elected.

He is Mr Security, ‘King Bibi’, and he knows all the tricks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“Netanyahu…deal”; and “It is…Knesset”)

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%”)

The Fifty-Year War

As Israeli columnist Gideon Levy wrote recently in the daily Haaretz: “In retrospect, it should be called the Fifty-Year War, not the Six-Day War. And judging by the political situation, its life expectancy appears endless.”

This week (5-10 June) is the 50th anniversary of the brief war in 1967 that added the Old City of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip to the Israeli state, increasing the area ruled by Israel by one-third and the population under its control by more than a third. But the problem was and remains that all that new population was Arabs. Palestinians, to be precise.

No Israeli Jew actually wanted all those extra Arabs, but it turned out that quite a few of them did want the extra land. They hadn’t thought about it much before 1967, because ever since the Independence War in 1948 Israelis had seen themselves as a small, beleaguered people at constant risk of being “driven into the sea” by the Arabs. But now they knew that they were strong enough to keep the land if they wanted to.

The Arab armies were poorly trained and badly led, and they served governments so incompetent that, despite an overall ten-to-one Arab superiority in population, Israeli troops actually outnumbered Arab soldiers on the battlefield in 1967 (and in every subsequent war). Israel emerged from the Six-Day War as the dwarf superpower of the Middle East, unbeatable by any combination of Arab states. And the Arabs knew it.

That was an intoxicating notion for Israelis, and the new territories actually added to their security by giving them some “strategic depth”. (Before they captured the West Bank, Israel was only 14 km wide at its narrowest point.) Moreover, the West Bank had been part of historic Israel 2,000 years ago, and many Israelis saw it as land sacred to the Jews.

Israel also conquered the entire Sinai peninsula, twice the size of all the other Israeli-ruled areas old and new, but the Sinai had never been part of historic Israel; it had been Egytian for five thusand years. It was also mostly empty desert, and within twelve years Israel had given it all back to Egypt in return for a peace treaty.

There were many in Israel – they were even the majority at various points between 1975 and 1995 – who wanted to make peace with the country’s other Arab neighbours by giving them back the rest of the conquered territories. But most of those lands had been part of historic Israel, and returning them to Arab control would bring back the dangerously close old borders as well.

So Jews started settling throughout the conquered lands with tacit and later open government support, to the utter dismay of the Palestinians who saw their future state disappearing before their eyes, and the Fifty-Year War began. It has mostly been a fairly low-key event, with only dozens or hundreds killed each year, but it is unrivalled in its ability to stymie all attempts at a peaceful settlement.

Only three months after the 1967 war ended Amos Oz, later to become one of Israel’s most celebrated writers, wrote: “We are condemned now to rule people who do not want to be ruled by us. I have fears about the kind of seeds we will sow in the near future in the hearts of the occupied. Even more, I have fears about the seed that will be planted in the hearts of the occupiers.”

How right he was. The newspaper he wrote that in, Davar, died long ago. The Labour Party it supported, which dominated Israeli politics for the first three decades after independence, is now a mere shadow of its former self. Instead, the political high ground is held by ultra-nationalist, hard-right parties that are in thrall to the half-million-strong Jewish “settler” population in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Most Israelis want to keep these lands, including some extremists who would kill or die to keep them (like Yigal Amir, who in 1995 murdered Yitzhak Rabin, the last Israeli prime minister to enter into serious negotiations with the Palestinians).

No Israelis want to include the Palestinians in these territories into Israel as citizens. If they ever did, half the voters in the next election would be Arabs, and Israel would no longer be a “Jewish state”. But they can’t get rid of those Palestinians either without committing a horrendous crime.

So they are stuck, and Israeli politics has been paralysed for the past twenty years. The man who has led Israel for more than half that time, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, epitomises that paralysis. He says he wants peace, and no doubt he really does – but he also wants to keep the land, or at least most of it, and his coalition government would collapse if he ever seriously considered giving it back.

The great majority of Jewish Israelis, living in “old” Israel within the pre-1967 borders, rarely focus on this question, but they would be just as divided and paralysed if they ever had to answer it. This is not the end of the Fifty-Year War. It may just be the mid-point in the Hundred-Year War.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Israel…as well”)