Israel

March of the Right

Print edition : May 24, 2019

A Likud election campaign billboard depicting U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem on February 4. Photo: Ammar Awad/REUTERS

Palestinian women wait near a section of Israel’s separation barrier at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, a 2010 photograph. Netanyahu’s victory has dimmed the hopes for a two-state solution. Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Benjamin Netanyahu’s win for a fourth consecutive term in office could accelerate the process of turning Israel into a full-fledged Jewish state in which Palestinians may have no rights at all.

The victory of the extreme right-wing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the Israeli general election held in the second week of April is bad news not only for Palestinians but for the entire region. Netanyahu has won an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in office. In all, he has held the Prime Minister’s post for a record five times and is set to emerge as the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history. Netanyahu’s election could accelerate the process of turning Israel into a full-fledged Jewish state in which its Palestinians citizens are legally deprived of their rights. More and more countries are now of the view that Israel’s policies in the West Bank bear comparison to apartheid, which was practised in South Africa.

In fact, the African National Congress-run South African government has downgraded relations with Israel because of its racist policies towards Palestinians. The South African ambassador was recalled after the Israeli army fired on peaceful protesters along the Gaza-Israel border in 2018. The South African government has indicated that it will ask the Israeli ambassador in Pretoria to leave. “When South Africa says ‘No’ to Israel, it is doing so in the name of Nelson Mandela, who supported the Palestinians in their struggle and felt a moral obligation to assist them,” the perceptive Israeli commentator Gideon Levy wrote in a recent article. “There is no doubt that Mandela too would have supported the severing of relations.”

In his column in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz written after the election results, Levy said that Israel was the last colonial regime left in the world. “The next government will be a continuation of the previous one, but stronger, more ultranationalist and racist, less legitimate and democratic,” Levy said. Gerard Araud, the outgoing French ambassador to the United States, in an interview with The Atlantic magazine, categorically stated that Israel had become an “apartheid state”.

Netanyahu had pledged to build more settlements on Palestinian land. Under his watch, Gaza will continue to remain an overcrowded open-air prison with no end in sight for the suffering of the people. According to a United Nations estimate, 183 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces last year. Many of them were children who were protesting along with their parents for an end to the occupation. The military invasions by Israel have totally devastated the infrastructure of Gaza. More than 97 per cent of Gaza’s water supply is severely polluted. It has adversely affected the health and lives of the residents of Gaza, especially children.

One of Netanyahu’s coalition partners this time was the racist “Jewish Power” party, which wants to annex all of the West Bank and encourage all non-Jewish citizens to leave the state of Israel. The ultimate goal of the right wing in Israel is to expand its borders to achieve the goal of “Eretz Israel” (Greater Israel) extending from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S.-led peace process, a perennial non-starter, has now been completely sabotaged by the Trump administration. President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are threatening to unveil the so-called “deal of the century” to end the Israel-Palestine dispute, but only Netanyahu is looking forward to it.

The victory of the corruption-tainted Netanyahu did not come as much of a surprise to the observers of the region. His campaign was similar in style to that of his friend and ideological soulmate, Narendra Modi. The majority of the populace lapped up his xenophobic and jingoist speeches on the campaign trail scapegoating his enemies and Palestinians. As the results of the last few elections have revealed, the Jewish majority has sharply veered to the right. Like Modi, Netanyahu ran on a platform extolling patriotism and vilifying the minorities. Netanyahu presented himself as the only candidate who could protect Israel from its enemies.

Saeeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that the election results showed that the Israeli voter had said “no” to peace and “yes” to occupation. Only a handful of Israeli legislators elected in the April election support the “two-state” solution. The Labour Party, which once monopolised power in Israel, has been routed in the election. It now has only six members in the Knesset. The overwhelming majority of Israel is quite happy with the creeping colonisation of the West Bank.

Disillusioned Arab citizens

Many Israeli Arab citizens refused to cast their votes, either out of disillusionment or because of implicit threats from the Israeli state. The Likud Party had sent more than a thousand of its workers armed with cameras into polling booths in areas populated by Israeli Arabs. The Arab voters were right to assume that they were under surveillance. The Arabs, who constitute around 20 per cent of Israel’s population, were alienated by the racist “nation state law”, which was passed in 2018 and officially makes Palestinians second-class citizens. The law declared Israel as “a nation state of the Jewish people”.

The nation state law, according to Prof. Oren Yiftachel of Israel’s Ben Gurion University, opened “a new stage of the Israeli settler colonial process”, which he characterised as “deepening apartheid”. Only 48 per cent of the Palestinian electorate voted this time compared with 68 per cent in the 2015 election.

On the campaign trail, the Israeli Prime Minister talked of annexing more Palestinian land. Giving him a helping hand in his re-election bid was Trump. After moving the U.S. embassy to disputed Jerusalem, Trump decreed that the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, now belonged to the Jewish state. On March 25, Trump invited Netanyahu for a photo op as he signed the proclamation recognising the Golan Heights as part of Israel. The international community continues to strongly support Syria’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and other areas conquered by the Israeli army. It was on Netanyahu’s insistence that Trump withdrew from the landmark 2015 U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. To bolster Netanyahu’s chances, Trump announced a few days before the vote that he was declaring Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a “terrorist” outfit. Netanyahu was quick to tweet that it was “a fulfilment of another request of mine” to the U.S. President. Netanyahu’s election hoardings featured him holding hands with Trump.

In the beginning of last year, the Trump administration took the decision to freeze all assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which supports millions of Palestinian refugees. In September, the U.S. ordered the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Washington. The U.S. State Department has also stopped using the word “occupied” for the territories forcibly taken over by Israel. It prefers the words “Israeli controlled”.

U.S. intervention

Previous U.S. Presidents have also intervened in Israeli elections but not so blatantly as Trump. Bill Clinton admitted that he had done so to help his friend Shimon Peres win an election. But no President has intervened so openly and crudely as Trump without expecting any concessions from the Israeli government on the Palestinian issue. On the contrary, the Trump administration seems willing to hand over the entire West Bank on a platter to the Israeli state. Washington is also trying to crack down on the worldwide Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel.

The BDS has gained a lot of traction on American university campuses and in intellectual circles. Many pension funds in the U.S. now stay away from investing in Israel. In April, the Trump administration denied Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, permission to come to the U.S. on a speaking tour. “This is an instance of Israel outsourcing its anti-BDS repressive measures to its patron, the right-wing Trump administration. McCarthyism is raising its ugly head in the United States, and loyalty to Israel is its litmus test,” Barghouti told the media after he was barred from entering the U.S. He was also scheduled to attend his daughter’s wedding there.

However, Netanyahu’s latest term in office could be even rockier than previous ones. He faces imminent indictment on bribery and other corruption charges. The charges against him were kept under wraps so as to not prejudice the outcome of the elections. Now that the results are out, the courts are no longer obliged to keep the criminal charges against Netanyahu from going public. The Prime Minister is trying to forestall jail time by getting an immunity law passed in the Knesset that would bar criminal proceedings against sitting Prime Ministers.

The main opposition coalition, the Blue and White Alliance, had no major ideological differences with the ruling party. Among the four leaders of the opposition coalition, three were former Israeli army chiefs, including Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s challenger. Gantz led the brutal Israeli army assault, “Operation Protective Edge”, on the civilian populace of Gaza in 2014, which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 500 children. While campaigning, Gantz showed videos of the carnage and boasted that he had sent the people there back to the “stone age”. He was sending the message to the Jewish electorate that he could be even tougher than Netanyahu while dealing with the Palestinians. He said that if elected he would not hesitate to launch another invasion of Gaza if the situation demanded it.

The Blue and White Alliance ran neck and neck with the Likud when the votes were counted. But the smaller religious and right-wing parties aligned with the Likud, giving Netanyahu an edge in the parliament. Among the parties in Netanyahu’s new coalition government are the ultra-orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which together have 15 seats. The Likud-led coalition controls 65 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. There is apparently no love lost between Israel’s current President, Reuven Rivlin and Netanyahu owing to previous political skirmishes, but he has no option but to invite the Likud leader to take the oath of office for the Prime Minister’s post.

For the Palestinians, it mattered little which of the two coalitions won. Both Netanyahu and Gantz were united in their determination to keep them subjugated. Many Israeli commentators are of the view that if Netanyahu carries out his election promise of annexing more Palestinian land, the two-state solution, which lies buried, can never be resurrected. And with the nation state law, Israel is on its way to formalising apartheid. Israeli democracy is now in a state of acute crisis.

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