Israel’s new government does not support a two-state solution. But don’t take it from us. Listen to the words of the leading figures in Israel’s government. Read more at the FMEP blog.
After Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising victory in Israel’s national elections in March, he took until the last possible minute to complete the process of forming the government for his fourth term as Israel’s prime minister. For all the time he invested, despite making it just under the wire, Netanyahu ended up with a fragile, ultra-right-wing coalition and more work ahead of him to bring in at least one more party.
The government Netanyahu presented to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was a bare majority of 61 seats out of the 120-seat Knesset. There are no fig leafs in this coalition, no Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak for Netanyahu to send to talk fruitlessly with the Palestinians. One might think this would make the coalition more stable, since it consists entirely of the right wing. In this, one would be wrong.
Netanyahu is, in fact, desperate to add another party to the coalition because there is so much tension in the current majority, most visibly between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi. Likud leaders, including Netanyahu, feel that Bennett essentially held the coalition hostage to his demands. They are quite right about that, but the gambit paid off handsomely for Bennett.
HaBayit HaYehudi holds a mere eight seats in the Knesset. Yet Bennett and his party will get four ministries, the deputy defense minister post, as well as the chairs of two key Knesset committees dealing with Israel’s legal system. That is what you get when you play hardball with Netanyahu, a man who likes to talk tough but who is a political creature first and foremost and quickly backs off from a high-stakes fight he is not sure he can win.
As things stand, this coalition might not last the year. That is why, after Avigdor Lieberman quit his post as foreign minister and took his greatly diminished party into the opposition, Netanyahu left the post open by keeping that portfolio for himself. In reality, Netanyahu has been the foreign minister all along, so it is not an added burden for him.
Leaving the position open gives him a tempting carrot with which to try to lure Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog into a unity government (see my piece here for why that would be a terrible idea for all concerned) or to tempt Lieberman back in. Without one of those parties, the government is too fragile to last very long. Even if Lieberman does rejoin, the mere six seats he would bring offer only token stability. Herzog is the man Netanyahu needs.
On the day that Netanyahu was supposed to present his government, he was still eight seats short of a majority. Luckily for Bennett, that was the exact number of seats he controlled and he let Netanyahu know just how lucky he was.
Bennett played a game of chicken with Netanyahu, pushing for more and more power within the government and knowing that Bibi was going to have a hard time saying no to anything. Bennett won, and the spoils were vast. The far-right HaBayit HaYehudi party now controls the ministries of education, agriculture, justice, and diaspora affairs. The position of deputy defense minister will also be theirs.
It is even worse than it sounds. With the ministry of agriculture comes control over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which funds the expansion of settlements. Uri Ariel, perhaps the most extreme pro-settler member of the Knesset, will have that portfolio.
It gets worse yet. Bennett gave the justice ministry to Ayelet Shaked. Shaked is a notorious racist who once proudly posted an article by a speechwriter named Uri Elitzur that named the entire Palestinian nation as enemies. Elitzur further agued that Palestinian mothers “must go” if their sons commit acts of violence because they raised a “snake” and would raise more “snakes.” In the context of calling every single Palestinian “the enemy,” this is clearly hate speech. Shaked tried to deny the contents of the post, saying it was mistranslated. Hebrew readers can judge for themselves here, where the post is archived. Although it is not quite a call for genocide, as some have suggested, it is clearly incitement and hate speech. This is the new minister of justice in Israel.
Lest there be any doubt about how much Shaked agrees with Elitzur, she said the following just before the full-scale war on Gaza last summer: “This is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. The reality is that this is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started it.”
Shaked is certain to work hard to undermine Israel’s fragile legal system. She will also be heading the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation and the Judicial Appointments Committee, giving her even more leverage to eliminate a legal system that she sees as a bastion of the left. Moreover, she is very likely to be minister of justice when the next attorney general is appointed.
Uri Ariel can be equally certain to press hard for as much settlement expansion—all over the West Bank and, especially, in East Jerusalem—as the available shekels and the defense minister, who will still be Moshe Ya’alon, will allow. I would rather not even think about what Bennett, the new minister of education, is going to do to the minds of Israeli students. Academia is also thought of as a bastion of the left in Israel, and the climate for free thought in Israeli institutions is certainly threatened now.
A Question of Longevity
The real question about all of this is how long it will last. An ultra-right government like this one is not going to get along well with the Obama administration or most of Europe, although the Republican-led Congress is likely to fall in love with it. Some may hope that this will be a case of things getting so bad that political pressure for improvement must come. Sadly, such is not the history of Israel or of this conflict.
Netanyahu will be spending the next few months trying to woo Isaac Herzog into the government, and this is what the whole game comes down to. If Herzog joins and creates a national unity government of 85 seats, this government will survive. The Labor Party, which makes up most of the Zionist Union, is unlikely to provide much of a counter to the right-wing majority. Much more likely is that, as has happened in the past, many of Labor’s Knesset members and other leaders will bolt the party rather than serve as a fig leaf for such a far-right government.
If Herzog does not join the government, this fourth Netanyahu government will not outlast Barack Obama’s presidency, and might not even come close. The right wing does not play well together, and it will take nothing more than a few well-timed votes of no-confidence to take down this government even if none of the parties bolts. Even that scenario, however, offers little hope. The last elections were hailed as a comeback for Labor, but the center and left still cannot form a coalition without the Joint List (a coalition of mostly Arab parties), and that remains anathema in Israeli politics. In fact, little changed in the left-right balance in the last elections, and that is showing no signs of turning around.
It has never been clearer that positive change in Israel is going to require some sort of meaningful action by the United States and/or Europe. If that does not come, and it does not seem to be on the horizon, disaster looms.
The saga of the three kidnapped Israeli youths in the West Bank took a tragic, if expected, turn today, when their bodies were discovered near Hebron. None but the most starry-eyed optimist thought the young men would be found alive after all this time. But the story is far from over.
Even before the announcement was made that the bodies were found, clashes were reported between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the town of Halhul, where the grisly discovery was made. A massive Israel Defense Forces (IDF) presence was reported, roads were closed and the area was generally closed down. The Israeli security cabinet is meeting at this writing to decide on further measures.
The only thing that seems certain right now about the Israeli response is that it will be unjust and have nothing to do with addressing the terrible crime that has just been confirmed. For the moment, at least, it appears that the perpetrators, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha, are beyond the reach of Israel. Since Israel cannot punish those who so profoundly deserve punishment, they will punish those that they can. This, sadly, is the calculus of occupation. There is already violence reported by residents of Hebron. Some might see justice in that, but ask yourself how you would feel if your son, brother or father – or just a neighbor— was a murderer and you were the one who had to pay for their crime.
There is still no evidence that the two killers, who were apparently members of Hamas, did not act alone. Nonetheless, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that he will hold Hamas responsible and has repeatedly called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to sever the unity government that he only recently forged with Hamas. Now, Netanyahu has declared, in a meeting of Israel’s security cabinet that “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay.”
What might that mean? Well, earlier, some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party described the response they wanted to see.
Danny Danon, the Deputy Defense Minister said “This tragic ending must also be the ending of Hamas! The nation is strong and ready to absorb [attacks] for the sake of a mortal blow against Hamas. … [W]e have to destroy the homes of Hamas activists, wipe out their arsenals everywhere, and stop the flow of money that directly or indirectly keeps terror alive… make the entire Palestinian leadership pay a heavy price.”
For Danon, it is not even enough that Hamas pay for this, but the Palestinian Authority as well. Yet there remains no evidence Hamas, as an organization had anything to do with this. The Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence service, issued a very telling statement about the murders: “Following intensive operational intelligence work by the Shin Bet, less than 24 hours after the kidnapping it became evident that two Hamas activists, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha, are those behind the kidnapping of the three teens.” No mention made of Hamas’ involvement; merely that the two men were members. If Bibi really has anything connecting Hamas to this crime, he’s keeping it inexplicably secret.
No matter to the outspoken Tzipi Hotovely of Likud, who said, “The despicable kidnapping and murder of the students cannot go by in silence, and those responsible in Gaza must pay the price. The government of Israel must declare a war to the death on Hamas, which is responsible for the murders, and return to the policy of [targeted] assassination.” Like Danon, Hotovely expresses no concern about the Israeli lives this will put at risk, much less those of innocent Palestinians. Nor do they care about the consequences of such actions.
One might think that these Likud members might have some interest in actually tracking down the murderers. But no, they’d prefer to cynically use this despicable crime to further a political agenda of the worst kind—one that legitimizes intense violence that will mean a far greater loss of innocent life. In this, they are joined by their fellow travelers of the American right wing. The extreme pro-occupation forces took to Twitter even before Netanyahu made his announcement to politicize and distort these events.
Whatever the two killers were thinking, their monstrous crime will yield no positive results for anyone. The PA is crippled, quite likely permanently, by its response to the initial kidnapping. Hamas has been devastated in the West Bank by the Israeli response, leaving it unable to take advantage of any political opening that might be created. The people of the West Bank will see a major crackdown, and Israel will surely follow the call of Housing Minister Uri Ariel for more settlements to be built in response. Gaza will be hit by more missiles. The only victors might be the most radical elements in the Occupied Territories, the ones Hamas has been in conflict with in Gaza and who have generally laid very low in the West Bank.
There seems to be little interest in capturing the perpetrators of the crime, and a great eagerness to make Hamas in particular and the Palestinians in general suffer for this outrage. And I’m sure that is just what will happen. The question will then become how Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even the PA will respond.
Will they attempt to hit Israel back with more attacks on civilians? If they do, we may well have witnessed the beginning of a third intifada. Will they make a mere show of firing a few rockets that land harmlessly as most do? If they do that, there may be a backlash of rage that strengthen the more radical groups in the Territories. There are ISIS- and al-Qaeda-like groups there, which have seen little support among the Palestinian people, but this could change if the existing groups are seen as doing nothing in the face of Israeli aggression.
Whatever the outcome, the episode demonstrates yet again the futility of acts of violence. No one will gain from any of this, even if they think they will. And lost in it all, the murder of three young men, a heinous crime which everyone condemns, while everyone who gets hurt on both sides will have had nothing to do with it.
My report for Inter Press on restarting peace talks while Israel says “Build, baby, build.”
The annual Jewish day of lamentation, Tisha B’Av is upon us again. What does that mean for present-day Israeli reality? I explore in Souciant today.