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The Knesset Elections: Against All Odds?
Is he the new king of Israel? Is he perchance a political prestidigitator?

15 April   |   2019   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

These were just some of the chants from PM Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s supporters as he relished his electoral victory. After all, had he not managed to win the latest Knesset (parliamentary) elections in Israel despite all the odds stacked against him? Mind you, it was not an outright victory, as you and I would probably define it, since his Likud party won a mere 36 seats but in so doing he managed nonetheless to outrun the main Blue and White (in Hebrew, Kahol Lavan) coalition by one seat in the 120-seat parliament.

However, the result was also a symbolic victory over a serious challenger party that tried to define itself as being more centrist and that had three retired generals (Benny Gantz, Bogie Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi) as its key founders. But far more importantly, he won because if one tots up the numbers, Netanyahu could garner a ten-seat lead over his adversaries in the next parliament in view of the preponderance of right-wing and extreme right-wing parties over the five leftist or Arab ones in the new parliament.

It is quite true that his coalition partners will exact a heavy price from Netanyahu in return for their support of his premiership, but they will nonetheless still join his government in the end. And Netanyahu will have secured his fifth mandate and will be on course to become the longest serving prime minister of Israel by outlasting David Ben-Gurion who served as prime minister for the periods 1948-1953 and later 1955-1963.

It is in fact quite remarkable that a man who faces a pending criminal indictment on bribery and fraud charges by the Attorney-General (likely to come down later this year) can still be the victor. But whilst Netanyahu got his wish to be the star of Israeli politics, he will also concede to the demands of his ultranationalist partners not only because of any shared ideological affinities but far more critically because he needs their support to firewall himself against the legal charges that might otherwise take him to Maasiyahu Prison in Ramla like former prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2016.

Netanyahu also had powerful friends and allies backing him, chief among them US President Trump, Russian President Putin and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. In the lead-up to the elections, Trump offered Netanyahu Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (in clear contravention of International law), Putin helped repatriate the remains of an Israeli soldier who had been missing since the war of Lebanon in 1982, and Bolsonaro visited Israel and gushed at the airport in Hebrew “Ani ohev et Yisrael” or (translated) I love Israel. Moreover, Netanyahu made sure to burnish his right-wing credentials further by ‘promising’ that he would not dismantle any settlement - big or small - built illegally on Palestinian lands. Rather, he promised almost as a casual aside that he would annex the West Bank - although the geographical space for such an annexation remains unclear.

So a lot of jingoistic fireworks, an array of populist promises, and a result that tows Israeli politics further to the right. In fact, Netanyahu could easily join the ranks of the Orbans, Salvinis and Morawieckis in his drive for fake news were it not for one pesky but hugely irritating problem for him: there are almost 3 million Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, Netanyahu is keen to spread his wings, schmooze with the US President and AIPAC, gather many frequent miles by vising the Russian president or embrace, whether overtly or covertly as many Arab rulers (leaders is a bit of an exaggeration for some of them) and prove that Israel is an enduring and kingly miracle - just like him. Were it not again for those stubborn and persistent Palestinians who refuse to lie down, surrender their rights, and accept that he tramples on them.

In fact, it troubles me that the Palestinian issue has been relegated in the overall political focus of many countries. The USA, for all intents and purposes and at all levels, is no longer an honest broker but an ally of Israel. So much so that the new envoy to combat anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, has even stated that boycotting goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank is anti-Semitic even though the settlements themselves are illegal under International law.

The EU on the other hand is so busy with its internal European ructions that it hardly has the space for any concrete initiatives over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Besides, it has often seen its role as a banker than a political bellwether. And a number of Arab countries, whether in the MENA or Gulf regions, have distanced themselves from the Palestinians’ political aspirations because they are fixated on Iran. The enemy of my enemy being my friend is a proverb originally from the Arthashastra that some Arab countries apply to Israel when it comes to the perceived Iranian threat.

And of course there are the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. Israelis have become far too inured to the pain of occupation that they no longer worry too much about it. Their wall and the self-righteous proclamations of some of their politicians, when coupled with Palestinian dissensions, seem to endow Israelis with a false sense of security. But what goes round comes round and those millions of Palestinians are not going anywhere - no matter how many of them emigrate or however many Jerusalemite (blue) Identity cards are confiscated on spurious grounds and however many houses are demolished too. The olive trees that some settlers uproot from Palestinian lands are the very same trees that keep Palestinians attached to their national dreams for self-determination.

But Palestinians are suffering the consequences of an insidious occupation, coupled with global apathy and internecine power plays. So in the next few weeks or months, once the coalition-building barter is over and Netanyahu has secured his tenure, Jared Kushner, aided and abetted by his two lawyers Jason D Greenblatt and David M Friedman, will unfurl the US ‘deal of the century’ and hail it as the ultimate deal.

And this document fills me with a sense of dread.

Although a closely-guarded secret, this purportedly 60-page document will not - cannot - meet Palestinian hopes no matter how glibly it is marketed by its geneticists. Admittedly, I have not perused the document myself, but I would nonetheless posit that it will not refer to East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestine or to the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Rather, it might (and I use the conditional clause on purpose) entail the annexation of Area C of the West Bank (around 60% of the arable lands) and the substitution of the land-for-peace strategy that has been the cornerstone for peace since 1967 with one that prioritises economic incentives. The thinking would presume that throwing money at a problem - in this case the Gaza Strip that is home to well over a million Palestinians - will make Gaza residents more emollient to the idea mooted for it to become the new showcase for “Palestine”. And the West Bank would revert to its Judaea and Samaria status whilst housing separate and desperate pockets if Palestinians.

An exaggerated scenario? Perhaps! But everything I have read or discussed fails to inspire me with confidence that the so-called deal could be an even-handed breakthrough. Rather, I smell the coffee and it is rancid. Israel might well be asked to make some compromises although the likes of National Union leader Bezalel Smotrich have already stated that they will bring down Netanyahu’s government rather than accept any peace plan that establishes a ‘terrorist state’ next to Israel. However, any Israeli compromises would pale into insignificance when compared with what Palestinians might be expected to forfeit in terms of their core and sovereign demands. And forfeit they cannot because Jerusalem is also ingrained in the psyche of ordinary Palestinian Muslims and Christians. The poem “In Jerusalem” by the late Mahmoud Darwish echoes the resilient attachment of Palestinians - “forgetting to die” he writes - to their lands.

So where to now? Unless Arab countries and their representative organisations wake up from their self-induced slumber and rework their priorities, and unless Europe acts more robustly to salvage Palestinian hopes for freedom, we are inevitably heading for more tensions - and eventually for an eruption that would not be pretty. The feeling of invincibility that Israel feels today could become brittle or illusory, and the sheer impunity of its actions invites consequences no matter the brashness of the moment. Does the Book of Samuel not hold some clues?

Is Netanyahu the political genius that will lead Israel to its abyss - as an Haaretz Weekly podcast (Episode 22) mooted recently? As the world watches Beit Aghion in the Rehavia neighbourhood of Jerusalem and contemplates the Prime Minister’s political sleights-of-hand both as king and magician, Palestinians and their friends will instead see in him a chancer who is trashing their legitimate hopes for dignity in their own homes and for sovereignty on their own lands.

But why should Israel care, you might well ask me? Well, it should care because the stark alternatives are either the inevitable emergence of a binational state with equal rights under the law for Israelis and Palestinians which is anathema to Netanyahu and his political acolytes. Or it would lead to a relentless colonisation of Palestinians that, no matter how repressive and relentless, will eventually find its South Africa moment.

Irrespective of Israeli intransigence, or of Arab and international inaction, I would lay odds that the pendulum will swing again. And I will conclude with a thought by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa who said on the Today programme at NBC TV on 9 January 1985, “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.” Prophetic?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2019   |   15 April


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