The recent police recommendation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted for various acts of corruption may well have started the countdown to the long-awaited departure of the man who has spent more time in the prime minister’s office than anyone in Israeli history save David Ben-Gurion. Even jaded observers, like myself, who will not count the slippery and resourceful Netanyahu out until he is out of office must admit that this time it will be difficult for him to survive, as he has vowed, until the end of his current term, which expires in November 2019.
On January 19, at the annual Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference, the leader of Israel’s opposition and head of the Zionist Union party, Isaac Herzog, unveiled an alternative approach to the issue of Israel’s nearly 49-year old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It has some points that clearly distinguish his policy from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s. But it is short on detail, and includes some ideas that could make the situation even worse.
Upon examination, Herzog’s plan seems likely to garner support among the centrist, center-left and even parts of the center-right Israeli voter base. Given recent polls which show the Yesh Atid party garnering as many seats as Herzog’s Zionist Union and reflect more public confidence in Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid, as a potential Prime Minister than Herzog, this plan must be read, at least in part, as an attempt to bolster Herzog’s position as opposition leader. Read more at FMEP’s blog, Facts On the Ground.
The media in Israel is abuzz with the news that Tzipi Livni will bring her Ha’Tnuah party into a joint ticket with the much larger Labor party. Now there is a tandem that can outpoll Likud, they are saying. The Israeli center just might be able to assert itself in this election.
Permit me to throw some cold water on this excitement. Livni, who has been the lone voice in the current government who has actively supported talks with the Palestinians, is doing this because if she doesn’t, there is a very strong possibility that her party will not get enough votes to remain in the Knesset. Labor leader Isaac Herzog, who has very little international experience, ran for the party leadership based on his commitment to resolving the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians. As the prospective Number Two, Livni gives Herzog some credibility in this regard.
But not only is there a long way to go before the March 17 election; there is also no guarantee that the party that wins the most seats will lead the next Israeli government. Of all people, Livni knows this only too well. In the 2009 election, she led the Kadima party which won the most seats in the Knesset. Then-President Shimon Peres tasked her with forming a governing coalition, but she couldn’t get enough parties to agree to join her to accumulate the requisite 61 seats. So Peres turned to Netanyahu who has occupied the Prime Minister’s office ever since.
Something very similar could happen in 2015. Although the current Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, is not at all fond of Netanyahu, he is also from the Likud party and, while his domestic policies are relatively liberal, he is no friend of the two-state solution. He might not necessarily want to give Netanyahu the first crack at forming a government, but, if he believes Bibi has the better chance of forming a governing coalition, he will bow to precedent.
And Rivlin may well be forced to that conclusion, whether he likes it or not. Even if Labor wins a seat or two more than Likud, it would likely win no more than 24 seats. Assuming Herzog and Livni could convince all of their potential allies to join a coalition (that would mean Yesh Atid, the new Kulanu party, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Meretz), they would get 40 more seats at most, but that, frankly, is a pretty optimistic projection. They very likely would need at least one other party to join them, but there is only one other realistic possibility: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman would surely demand a plum cabinet position (probably Defense), and he would be in a position to bring down the government any time he strongly disapproved of its policies.
Such a government would be exceedingly difficult to cobble together in any case. Lieberman’s party has always been sharply critical of the religious parties who would necessarily have to make up part of the Herzog-Livni coalition. The orthodox parties are themselves unpredictable and share mutual hostility not only with Yisrael Beiteinu but also with other secular parties like Yesh Atid. Meretz, the only left-wing Zionist party remaining these days, would also take some convincing, given the rightward tilt of the remaining members of the coalition.
Despite Livni and Herzog’s own positions, the government outlined above would also be somewhat less than passionate about a two-state solution. Kulanu, led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, is open to some evacuation of land but is unlikely to support a resolution based on the 1967 borders; Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas both theoretically support some kind of two-state solution but both also have a generally hawkish outlook. Together, they constitute nearly half the purported government. Less than a mandate for peace, especially considering that Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi in opposition would fiercely oppose any concessions — perhaps even discussions — with a Palestinian leadership they have repeatedly labelled “terrorist.”
So, an extremely unstable coalition government whose interest in reviving a peace process, let alone striking a deal, would be lukewarm at most is the best-case scenario, even with the news that Labor-plus-Livni might win a plurality in the Knesset.
That analysis presumes that the current polls reflect what will happen in March. Of course, they don’t. The campaign hasn’t even begun yet, and a Herzog-Livni ticket isn’t the most marketable for Israeli television. Israeli supporters of a two-state solution cling to Livni as a last, albeit highly flawed hope. They understand that, as a former prominent Likud member and from a family that was part of the aristocracy of Likud and its predecessors, she is not a peacemaker at heart. Herzog might be one but he is bland and thoroughly Ashkenazi (the most influential and wealthy of the Jewish ethnicities in Israel but no longer the majority). That image will work against him in the popular vote.
Israeli political campaigns are often a contest between preachers of hope and preachers of fear. In unsettled times like these, when Israelis are concerned about a growing number of unpredictable, even random, Palestinian attacks, as well as their growing sense of isolation from Europe, fear tends to do well. Historically, fear has served the Likud and other right-wing parties, especially HaBayit Hayehudi, very well.
There is a chance, albeit a very small one, that the preachers of hope can win. They’re not preaching a very high hope, merely one that is more hopeful than the demagoguery of Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett. And they have found an unexpected ally in Moshe Kahlon.
Kahlon, head of the new Kulanu (“All of Us”) party, appears to be drawing votes away from Likud, as well as from Yesh Atid. Like Livni, he is another of the former Likud pragmatists who do not identify with the extreme nationalist camp in Likud that has come to dominate that party after living for years on its far-right fringes.
It was Ariel Sharon who provoked the Likud split in order to thwart the party’s opposition to his plan to remove settlements from Gaza and a few from the West Bank as part of a larger strategic plan to pre-empt growing international pressure for a comprehensive solution. Others, like Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, went with him. Now Kahlon is following a similar path. While he says he could support some sort of land-for-peace arrangement, Kahlon, who is more focused on economic issues in any event, has never endorsed a two-state solution. Indeed, in the past he has rejected it as impractical.
The fact that Kahlon is now deemed a suitable partner for the dreamed-of Herzog-Livni government tells you a good deal of what you need to know about how such a government might behave. Nonetheless, Kulanu will appeal strongly to the Likud old guard. For those who supported former Likud ministers like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor — indeed, those who saw Benny’s father Menachem as the exemplar of Likud leadership and reject the fanatic ideologues who dominate the party today — Kahlon offers an alternative, as well as to other centrist voters who are disappointed in parties like Yesh Atid and Kadima before it.
With Kulanu taking some votes from Likud’s centrist flank and HaBayit HaYehudi continuing to gain right-wing votes at Likud’s expense, it is unsurprising that polls give Labor-with-Livni a chance to win the most seats. But does this mean Israel’s steady rightward drift has stopped?
Not necessarily. The overall view that the conflict with the Palestinians is unresolvable remains strong. At the same time, the growing split among Israeli Jews in reaction to the rise in ethnic and religious violence since last spring may prove an important factor in the election. While more Israeli Jews appear to embrace anti-Arab racism of the kind that benefits the far right represented by Bennett, more and more Jews are expressing alarm over that trend, although they, too, are loath to really examine the roots of that tension: the institutional racism and marginalization of Arabs in Israeli society.
Still, a considerable portion of Israeli society, including some religious and conservative sectors, want to see a reduction in tensions between Jews and Arabs. They are also concerned about the relationships between Israel and the U.S. and between Israel and Europe. While Bennett and his ilk think Israel should act even more defiantly toward the rest of the world, these actors are genuinely worried about the consequences of such an attitude. Many are also concerned about the country’s growing economic stratification.
Those forces of relative reason are confronting a growing wave of nationalist extremism in Israel. As a result, the most hopeful result of the election, at least at this point, is the creation of a center-right government. Of course, if the Herzog-Livni ticket would be willing to bring the non-Zionist, communist party, Hadash, and the Arab Ra’am Ta’al party into the government, along with Meretz, that would indeed change the political trajectory. But that is even less likely than a sudden and egalitarian Israeli decision to actually end the occupation. So, outside observers must for now cling to faint hope that things will go from incredibly bad to slightly less incredibly bad. Such is the state of Israeli politics.
Once again, in his speech Wednesday at the United Nations, President Obama revealed the reduced importance of the Israeli-Palestinian
Obama speaking at last year’s UNGA
conflict on his agenda. He also revealed just how out of touch his entire country is with respect to reality.
The Israel-Palestine conflict was the last specific global issue mentioned by Obama in his address to the UN General Assembly, and his wording was straight out of the playbook. It was also only mentioned briefly and without any hint that the United States would be taking any action at all on the issue.
Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace. But let’s be clear: the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable. We cannot afford to turn away from this effort—not when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis, or the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza. So long as I am President, we will stand up for the principle that Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the world will be more just with two states living side by side, in peace and security.
Could this have been any emptier? Just last month, Israel and Hamas were engaged in the biggest uptick in violence since the Second Intifada was in full swing.
The message from Obama comes through, though: We’re no longer interested in forcing the parties to the table. The subtext behind that is a US surrender to the stubbornness of the far-right wing government running Israel these days. The US will stop pressuring Israel for talks, and indeed, it already has. The question this raises, of course, is how the Obama administration will respond when and if the Palestinian Authority makes good on its repeated threats to bring this issue to the UN and the International Criminal Court.
In such a case, Obama will undoubtedly condemn the Palestinians’ “unilateral action”—de facto US policy dictates that when the Palestinians take action, it is to be condemned, but when Israel does the same thing, it is, at worst, “unhelpful.” Yet the real question for the Palestinians is whether the United States will have any other response outside of some pro forma public statement. Obama’s hands-off approach seems to imply that it will not, though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be unwise to count on that.
But there’s another piece of this statement worth examining. Obama said, as he has many times, that the situation is unsustainable. He also notes that one myth that has long been held by many has been exposed as false by recent events: the notion that Palestine is the key source of instability in the region.
Obama is correct about the exposed old myth, but he merely spouts another in its place. Of course the occupation will not remain the same as it is today. It has changed some of its characteristics, almost always to the detriment of the Palestinians, many times since 1967. But the essence of the matter, the relationship between an occupying power and an occupied people locked in a conflict over land, rights, narratives, nationalism and competing claims of justice, has endured quite well over those years.
The Israeli right-wing was long aware, and often stated, that their subjugation of the Palestinians was not the main cause of instability in the region. Of course, there was a time when there was a much stronger argument for that myth. When the many Arab regimes, throughout most of the 20th century, were comfortably entrenched in power, things were pretty stable, as they often are under dictatorships that maintain their control. Under those circumstances, the cry of “Free Palestine” was heard much more loudly, as it was the only one the dictators would permit. Due to many factors (especially the US invasion of Iraq), that stability was shattered and, as one would expect, much of the Arab world, while not forgetting the Palestinians, demonstrated a focus on the miserable conditions they themselves were living in, and conflicts within their own countries. Thus, the myth was exposed.
But we don’t need a shakeup like the Arab Awakening to see that the claim that the occupation is “unsustainable” is a myth. We really need only see that it has endured for more than 47 years, and when circumstances did threaten the status quo, Israel adapted its occupation to meet those circumstances. The most obvious example of that is the massive tightening of the occupation and even more massive expansion of settlements that constituted Israel’s response to the Oslo Accords.
It’s a truism that any oppressive regime eventually meets its demise. That is clearly not what Obama means when he calls the occupation “unsustainable.” Rather, he means what so many others mean: Israel cannot continue to hold millions of Palestinians without rights. But, like so many other myths around Israel-Palestine, this one doesn’t bear scrutiny. Israel has done this for 47 years, and can do it for the foreseeable future. The demise of the occupation regime will come, as the demise of all regimes eventually come. But there is nothing particularly unsustainable about this one.
The Israeli right has become the Israeli mainstream, and they are busily coming up with ideas for how to sustain this occupation or, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman likes to put it, “manage” the conflict. They recognize that the fear, ingrained in the thinking of many of the early Zionist philosophers of a Jewish Israel ruling over a majority of disenfranchised Muslim and Christian Arabs is unfounded. It turns out that contrary to the expectations of the early Zionist thinkers, Israelis can live with denying rights to Arabs, and the world is prepared to tolerate it, despite the clucking of tongues it evokes.
This issue can be traced back all the way to Theodor Herzl, and it was actively dealt with by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and, most notably, by the person in charge of land acquisition for the Jewish National Fund both before and after the State of Israel was established, Yoseph Weitz. In modern times, this notion has been expressed as a “demographic time bomb,” most notably by Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
But there’s no reason to believe this is really a problem. After all, according to the February 2014 report of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are about 6,119,000 Jews in Israel and the West Bank. Between the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, there are some 5,894,631 Palestinians, according to the CIA World Factbook. Given the different population growth rates, Palestinians will be a majority very soon, but the day that happens, what is going to change? On the ground, in day to day life, what will be different than the day before?
The answer, of course, is that nothing will change and the Israeli right-wing understands this. The United States, on the other hand, apparently does not. More to the point, the many activists who believe that Jews going from 51% of the population to 49% of it will suddenly mean that Israel is an apartheid state, as both Olmert and another former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak warned, also do not understand that when that line is crossed, nothing will change. Nothing will change when that so-called demographic time bomb goes off.
So, while right-wing leaders like Naftali Bennett consider ways to continue to “manage” the Palestinians indefinitely, Obama and a great many others, in the United States, Israel, Europe and even some among the Palestinians, continue to engage in myth-making and wishful thinking.
If this conflict is ever to be resolved, the only path to it entails full acknowledgment of the realities, on the ground, in the international diplomatic sphere and in politics. Anyone who truly believes that the demographic counter clicking down to under 50% Jewish will somehow shock the Israeli people and their government into recognizing the injustice of the occupation is engaging in fantasy. Such demographic changes are gradual, and this cushions the change so it is not a shock. In 1960, Whites, who were always an overwhelming minority, made up less than 20% of the population of South Africa, and Jews are unlikely to ever be anywhere near that small a minority in Israel-Palestine.
This is only one of many myths that need to be abandoned for any kind of resolution to be possible. It’s no less important to dispel these fanciful notions than it is to counter the stereotypes of Palestinians that are so widely held in the United States, Israel and elsewhere (like “they just want to kill the Jews” for instance). One way we will know people are serious about taking on this vexing conflict is when we see them abandon false notions and recognize that Israel-Palestine can contribute to a better world simply by ending the injustice and violence. When that’s the motivation, and it is applied to both sides, we’ll be getting somewhere.
While Secretary of State John Kerry was in Israel declaring his aim to “exhaust all the possibilities of peace” to try to stop wasting the Obama Administration’s time and energy on the futile effort to find a resolution to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, Congress was illustrating once again why the United States cannot play a constructive role in this conflict.
Congressional activity this month has been largely focused on Iran and, to a lesser degree, Syria. But a few events demonstrated that, despite President Barack Obama’s lofty goals and rhetoric about peace, Congress has continued its long-term, bi-partisan shift to the right on this issue. Interestingly, one of the most illustrative examples was actually a bill in support of peace and a two-state solution to the conflict.
That bill, H.Res.238, titled “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding United States efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace,” was brought by California Democrat Barbara Lee, one of the most ardent pro-peace voices in Congress. The bill is mostly unremarkable; it does nothing more than re-state what is, ostensibly, long-standing US policy. Yet, if anyone was paying any attention to the bill, they would notice that one of the provisions “calls on the Israeli Government to cease support for and to prevent further settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories.”
This is, of course, official US policy, but in practice, it is opposed by most of Congress and the Israel Lobby. Obama found out how difficult it can be to pursue US interests and enforce official US policy early in his first term when he attempted to get Israel to comply with this very idea.
The bulk of Lee’s bill, both in the preamble and the eleven “resolved” clauses, is an unequivocal praise of US peace efforts, from Ronald Reagan through Obama, and an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. Yet the bill has only four co-sponsors and was immediately referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where it will quite certainly die. It is telling that on the same day Lee introduced this bill, she put out two press releases, neither of which mentions H.Res.238.
While Lee has to find a way to bulk up her pro-peace credentials quietly, so she won’t incur the wrath of AIPAC (which, despite Lee representing the very liberal areas of Berkeley and Oakland, California, is very strong in her district), those who oppose any sort of resolution of this conflict operate openly and proudly. The so-called “Israel Allies Foundation,” an ultra-right wing group which opposes any sharing of Jerusalem, will celebrate the anniversary of the Israeli occupation with an event in the Rayburn House office building of the House of Representatives. According to their announcement, the event will include speeches from Congress members while “Jewish and Christian leaders” gather with their assembled flock to pray.
As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now explains, “IAF was ‘pioneered’ by far right-wing Israeli former MK Benny Elon, a longtime opponent of the two-state solution, a strong supporter of the settlement movement, a devotee of the “Jordan is Palestine” approach, and an advocate of “transfer” of Palestinians. Elon has authored his own “peace plan” whose first point is: “Government Decision: Declaring the Palestinian Autorithy [sic] an enemy.” He and his views have long received a warm welcome from some on Capitol Hill, including as recently as February of this year.”
It is telling that, as Kerry was preparing for his latest excursion to Israel, Congress was very quiet about Israel-Palestine peace. Aside from Lee’s meaningless bill, there was hardly a peep on Capitol Hill about Kerry’s trip. Meanwhile, the Israeli cabinet was debating whether or not the two-state solution is even Israel’s position in the first place.
The situation has grown so dire that J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby”, issued an alert to its members asking them to demand that Israel “affirm the Israeli government’s commitment to two states for two peoples.” According to their alert, “For there to be any hope of progress, the Israeli government must state unequivocally that support for a two-state solution is a core principle of its foreign policy – as it has been under every Prime Minister since Yitzhak Rabin.”
This is, however, a patent falsehood. Rabin’s position was never a two-state solution. He initiated the Oslo process, but the endgame was, quite intentionally, never defined before his death. Nor did his successor, Shimon Peres, ever affirm support for a two-state solution while in office. The next Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ran for office on an explicitly anti-Oslo platform, and his party, the Likud Coalition, to this day expresses absolute opposition to a Palestinian state as part of its platform. Ehud Barak proposed a two-state solution of sorts, though its terms were clearly never going to be acceptable to the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon removed Israel’s settlements from Gaza, and his closest advisor, Dov Weisglass, said that the purpose of that withdrawal was to freeze the peace process, a statement Sharon never repudiated. And, while Ehud Olmert seemed to support a two-state solution, when the Palestinians offered almost total capitulation on issues of territory, Jerusalem and refugees, his government still rejected it.
J Street is understandably grasping at straws. Without the Oslo framework of a two-state solution, it has no reason to exist, and is very likely to wither and die. It is therefore desperate to maintain the illusion that the peace process as it has existed for the past twenty years is still alive, even though it is clear to any rational observer that it’s not.
Kerry’s current blitz, whether intentional or not, is going to be the final nail in the coffin. As the entire question of Palestine slips behind an Iranian and Syrian curtain for the summer, it will take a dramatic action to bring attention back to it. But that action will not come from John Kerry or Barack Obama. It might come from an Israeli government that could feel emboldened by the lack of attention on the Palestinian Territories to take the sort of actions that Naftali Bennett, who has called for annexation by Israel of 60% of the West Bank, would recommend. It could come from the Palestinians, if they finally choose to face reality and acknowledge that the United States is incapable, due to its “unshakeable bond” with Israel and the enormous influence of the Israel Lobby, of ever pressuring Israel into even the minimal concessions needed to start talks again, let alone bring them to a conclusion.
Or it could happen because this situation, in all its hopelessness and cynicism, finally erupts into sustained violence again. But whatever the outcome turns out to be, we can be sure that in the near term, the issue will move to the back burner. In the long-term, whenever it emerges, the playing field will no longer reflect acceptance of the Oslo process and its endless negotiations to nowhere.