Israel's addiction to expanding its territory will not be stopped at the ballot box.
The unbeatable Israeli prime minister may have fought his last race. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish state’s longest-serving leader, is fighting for his political life after failing to generate enough votes in Israel’s second election this year.
He could still survive and avoid imminent indictment on corruption charges – or launch another war in Gaza, a conflict he reportedly nearly initiated last week but was stopped by Israel’s Attorney General – though Netanyahu isn’t the only player in this drama.
I’ve long argued that Netanyahu isn’t the sole impediment to resolving the issue that consumes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 52-year occupation of the Palestinian territories. Bibi is a symptom, not the disease.
To be sure, his 10-year rule has massively accelerated Israel’s embrace of authoritarian leaders around the world, a surging intelligence industry boosting autocrats and bringing far-right extremists into the heart of the Israeli state, some of whom openly support the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Racism against Arabs is far more common in the public square, often led by Netanyahu himself.
Netanyahu’s defeat would be a welcome challenge to Israeli plans to begin illegally annexing Palestinians lands. As a leading Israeli peace activist told me after the election about the likely defeat of Netanyahu: “The [Israeli] republic is saved”.
And yet it’s hard to find much good news in the result, especially for the millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who were denied the right to vote for Israeli leaders who rule over them.
The defeat of Netanyahu became the rallying cry for anybody who despised the direction the Jewish state had taken in the last decade. According to this argument, his defeat would restore Israel’s democratic credentials and perhaps even improve the country’s souring relationship with American Jewry (many of whom turned away from Israel because of Netanyahu’s extremism).
Unfortunately, this is an illusion that must be rejected because there are no major Israeli Jewish political players who have any interest in ending the longest occupation in modern times.
US Jews and other Jews in the Diaspora must not fall into the trap believing that the status-quo without Netanyahu is either sustainable or just.
Nonetheless, the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties, scored particularly high at this election with its mostly Palestinian voters (Arab Israeli citizens) and yet virtually all mainstream Israeli political entities have expressed refusal to work with them to form a more inclusive Israeli society.
The reality on the ground for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem has rarely been more hopeless with no positive political outcome on the horizon.
Take a divided and corrupt Palestinian leadership in Fatah and Hamas, complete Israeli control over movement, borders and airspace and Israeli army dominance of every facet of Palestinian life, and this is the daily grind for millions of Palestinians. Add to this mix the disinterest and even contempt shown to their cause by many Arab leaders.
The likely alternative to Netanyahu is former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. One of his election campaign videos explained how many “terrorists” he’d killed in the 2014 Gaza war and boasted that “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age.”
As writer Omar H Rahman correctly analysed just before the Israeli election: “The central tension in Israeli politics today is not between pro- and anti-peace forces, but between security-focused pragmatists and religious-nationalist ideologues, both of them hailing from various points on the right side of the political spectrum…If the pragmatists [Gantz and his Blue and White party] can ultimately settle the conflict by granting limited sovereignty to a truncated, territorially dismembered Palestinian state, then they will likely pursue that option.”
What will radically change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t the defeat of Netanyahu. After decades of occupation, Israeli society, from the courts to the police and army to media, are so invested in maintaining the status quo that it’s hard to see Gantz or any alternative making much change to this equation.
The Israeli media barely mentions the Palestinians unless they’re framed as a security threat. Palestinian commentators are largely absent from Israeli TV screens, radio or print.
The Trump administration is invested in entrenching the Israeli occupation of Palestine and has weaponised anti-Semitism to smear any critics of Israel and its policies. Netanyahu and his allies have enthusiastically joined in.
On the day after the Israeli election this week, I travelled around the occupied West Bank with Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of the Israeli human rights group, Breaking the Silence (former Israeli soldiers now speaking out against the occupation).
As we saw the extraordinary number of ever-expanding settlements, outposts and roads built just for settlers (with many other roads just for Palestinians that are often invisible to Israeli Jewish drivers), Shaul said that this reality was permanent for the foreseeable future.
Since there has been “complete settler capture of the judiciary” and a range of Israeli bureaucratic devices that have allowed the settler movement to create irreversible facts on the ground where Palestinians don’t have equal rights, it was clear that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz are the solutions to this seemingly intractable problem.
Any change will take a concerted campaign by occupation opponents in Israel, Palestine and the international community to pressure the Jewish state to finally ends its addiction to territorial expansion.
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