All posts by Jonathan Cook

US Democrats cultivated the Barbarism of Isis

There is something profoundly deceitful in the Democratic Party and corporate media’s framing of Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria.

One does not need to like Trump or ignore the dangers posed to the Kurds, at least in the short term, by the sudden departure of US forces from northern Syria to understand that the coverage is being crafted in such a way as to entirely overlook the bigger picture.

The problem is neatly illustrated in this line from a report by the Guardian newspaper of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s meeting this week with Trump, who is described as having had a “meltdown”. Explaining why she and other senior Democrats stormed out, the paper writes that “it became clear the president had no plan to deal with a potential revival of Isis in the Middle East”.

Hang on a minute! Let’s pull back a little, and not pretend – as the media and Democratic party leadership wish us to do – that the last 20 years did not actually happen. Many of us lived through those events. Our memories are not so short.

Islamic State, or Isis, didn’t emerge out of nowhere. It was entirely a creation of two decades of US interference in the Middle East. And I’m not even referring to the mountains of evidence that US officials backed their Saudi allies in directly funding and arming Isis – just as their predecessors in Washington, in their enthusiasm to oust the Soviets from the region, assisted the jihadists who went on to become al-Qaeda.

No, I’m talking about the fact that in destroying three key Arab states – Iraq, Libya and Syria – that refused to submit to the joint regional hegemony of Saudi Arabia and Israel, Washington’s local client states, the US created a giant void of governance at the heart of the Middle East. They knew that that void would be filled soon enough by religious extremists like Islamic State – and they didn’t care.

Overthrow, not regime change

You don’t have to be a Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi or Bashar Assad apologist to accept this point. You don’t even have to be concerned that these so-called “humanitarian” wars violated each state’s integrity and sovereignty, and are therefore defined in international law as “the supreme war crime”.

The bigger picture – the one no one appears to want us thinking about – is that the US intentionally sought to destroy these states with no obvious plan for the day after. As I explained in my book Israel and the Clash of Civilisations, these haven’t so much been regime-change wars as nation-state dismantling operations – what I have termed overthrow wars.

The logic was a horrifying hybrid of two schools of thought that meshed neatly in the psychopathic foreign policy goals embodied in the ideology of neoconservatism – the so-called “Washington consensus” since 9/11.

The first was Israel’s long-standing approach to the Palestinians. By constantly devastating any emerging Palestinian institution or social structures, Israel produced a divide-and-rule model on steriods, creating a leaderless, ravaged, enfeebled society that sucked out all the local population’s energy. That strategy proved very appealing to the neoconservatives, who saw it as one they could export to non-compliant states in the region.

The second was the Chicago school’s Shock Doctrine, as explained in Naomi Klein’s book of that name. The chaotic campaign of destruction, the psychological trauma and the sense of dislocation created by these overthrow wars were supposed to engender a far more malleable population that would be ripe for a US-controlled “colour revolution”.

The recalcitrant states would be made an example of, broken apart, asset-stripped of their resources and eventually remade as new dependent markets for US goods. That was what George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Halliburton really meant when they talked about building a New Middle East and exporting democracy.

Even judged by the vile aims of its proponents, the Shock Doctrine has been a half-century story of dismal economic failure everywhere it has been attempted – from Pinochet’s Chile to Yeltsin’s Russia. But let us not credit the architects of this policy with any kind of acumen for learning from past errors. As Bush’s senior adviser Karl Rove explained to a journalist whom he rebuked for being part of the “reality-based community”: “We’re an empire now and, when we act, we create our own reality.”

The birth of Islamic State

The barely veiled aim of the attacks on Iraq, Libya and Syria was to destroy the institutions and structures that held these societies together, however imperfectly. Though no one likes to mention it nowadays, these states – deeply authoritarian though they were – were also secular, and had well-developed welfare states that ensured high rates of literacy and some of the region’s finest public health services.

One can argue about the initial causes of the uprising against Assad that erupted in Syria in 2011. Did it start as a popular struggle for liberation from the Assad government’s authoritarianism? Or was it a sectarian insurgency by those who wished to replace Shia minority rule with Sunni majority rule? Or was it driven by something else: as a largely economic protest by an under-class suffering from food shortages as climate change led to repeated crop failures? Or are all these factors relevant to some degree?

Given how closed a society Syria was and is, and how difficult it therefore is to weigh the evidence in ways that are likely to prove convincing to those not already persuaded, let us set that issue aside. Anyway, it is irrelevant to the bigger picture I want to address.

The indisputable fact is that Washington and its Gulf allies wished to exploit this initial unrest as an opportunity to create a void in Syria – just as they had earlier done in Iraq, where there were no uprisings, nor even the WMDs the US promised would be found and that served as the pretext for Bush’s campaign of Shock and Awe.

The limited uprisings in Syria quickly turned into a much larger and far more vicious war because the Gulf states, with US backing, flooded the country with proxy fighters and arms in an effort to overthrow Assad and thereby weaken Iranian and Shia influence in the region. The events in Syria and earlier in Iraq gradually transformed the Sunni religious extremists of al-Qaeda into the even more barbaric, more nihilistic extremists of Islamic State.

A dark US vanity project

As Rove and Cheney played around with reality, nature got on with honouring the maxim that it always abhors a vacuum. Islamic State filled the vacuum Washington’s policy had engineered.

The clue, after all, was in the name. With the US and Gulf states using oil money to wage a proxy war against Assad, Isis saw its chance to establish a state inspired by a variety of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist dogma. Isis needed territory for their planned state, and the Saudis and US obliged by destroying Syria.

This barbarian army, one that murdered other religious groups as infidels and killed fellow Sunnis who refused to bow before their absolute rule, became the west’s chief allies in Syria. Directly and covertly, we gave them money and weapons to begin building their state on parts of Syria.

Again, let us ignore the fact that the US, in helping to destroy a sovereign nation, committed the supreme war crime, one that in a rightly ordered world would ensure every senior Washington official faces their own Nuremberg Trial. Let us ignore too for the moment that the US, consciously through its actions, brought to life a monster that sowed death and destruction everywhere it went.

The fact is that at the moment Assad called in Russia to help him survive, the battle the US and the Gulf states were waging through Islamic State and other proxies was lost. It was only a matter of time before Assad would reassert his rule.

From that point onwards, every single person who was killed and every single Syrian made homeless – and there were hundreds of thousands of them – suffered their terrible fate for no possible gain in US policy goals. A vastly destructive overthrow war became instead something darker still: a neoconservative vanity project that ravaged countless Syrian lives.

A giant red herring

Trump is now ending part of that policy. He may be doing so for the wrong reasons. But very belatedly – and possibly only temporarily – he is closing a small chapter in a horrifying story of western-sponsored barbarism in the Middle East, one intimately tied to Islamic State.

What of the supposed concerns of Pelosi and the Democratic Party under whose watch the barbarism in Syria took place? They should have no credibility on the matter to begin with.

But their claims that Trump has “no plan to deal with a potential revival of Isis in the Middle East” is a giant red herring they are viciously slapping us in the face with in the hope the spray of seawater blinds us.

First, Washington sowed the seeds of Islamic State by engineering a vacuum in Syria that Isis – or something very like it – was inevitably going to fill. Then, it allowed those seeds to flourish by assisting its Gulf allies in showering fighters in Syria with money and arms that came with only one string attached – a commitment to Sunni jihadist ideology inspired by Saudi Wahhabism.

Isis was made in Washington as much as it was in Riyadh. For that reason, the only certain strategy for preventing the revival of Islamic State is preventing the US and the Gulf states from interfering in Syria again.

With the Syrian army in charge of Syrian territory, there will be no vacuum for Isis to fill. Its state-building rationale is now unrealisable, at least in Syria. It will continue to wither, as it would have done years before if the US and its Gulf allies had not fuelled it in a proxy war they knew could not be won.

Doomed Great Game

The same lesson can be drawn by looking at the experience of the Syrian Kurds. The Rojava fiefdom they managed to carve out in northern Syria during the war survived till now only because of continuing US military support. With the US departure, and the Kurds too weak to maintain their improvised statelet, a vacuum was again created that this time risks sucking in the Turkish army, which fears a base for Kurdish nationalism on its doorstep.

The Syrian Kurds’ predicament is simple: face a takeover by Turkey or seek Assad’s protection to foil Turkish ambition. The best hope for the Kurds looks to be the Syrian army’s return, filling the vacuum and regaining a chance of long-term stability.

That could have been the case for all of Syria many tens of thousands of deaths ago. Whatever the corporate media suggest, those deaths were lost not in a failed heroic battle for freedom, which, even if it was an early aspiration for some fighters, quickly became a goal that was impossible for them to realise. No, those deaths were entirely pointless. They were sacrificed by a western military-industrial complex in a US-Saudi Great Game that dragged on for many years after everyone knew it was doomed.

Nancy Pelosi’s purported worries about Isis reviving because of Trump’s Syria withdrawal are simply crocodile fears. If she is really so worried about Islamic State, then why did she and other senior Democrats stand silently by as the US under Barack Obama spent years spawning, cultivating and financing Isis to destroy Syria, a state that was best placed to serve as a bulwark against the head-chopping extremists?

Pelosi and the Democratic leadership’s bad faith – and that of the corporate media – are revealed in their ongoing efforts to silence and smear Tulsi Gabbard, the party’s only candidate for the presidential nomination who has pointed out the harsh political realities in Syria, and tried to expose their years of lies.

Pelosi and most of the Democratic leadership don’t care about Syria, or its population’s welfare. They don’t care about Assad, or Isis. They care only about the maintenance and expansion of American power – and the personal wealth and influence it continues to bestow on them.

Bedouin Mass Eviction is Part of Israel’s Efforts to Drive Palestinians off their Historic Lands


The decades-long struggle by tens of thousands of Israelis against being uprooted from their homes – some for the second or third time – should be proof enough that Israel is not the western-style liberal democracy it claims to be.

Last week 36,000 Bedouin – all of them Israeli citizens – discovered that their state is about to make them refugees in their own country, driving them into holding camps. These Israelis, it seems, are the wrong kind.

Their treatment has painful echoes of the past. In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled by the Israeli army outside the borders of the newly declared Jewish state established on their homeland – what the Palestinians call their Nakba, or catastrophe.

Israel is regularly criticised for its belligerent occupation, its relentless expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land and its repeated and savage military attacks, especially on Gaza.

On rare occasions, analysts also notice Israel’s systematic discrimination against the 1.8 million Palestinians whose ancestors survived the Nakba and live inside Israel, ostensibly as citizens.

But each of these abuses is dealt with in isolation, as though unrelated, rather than as different facets of an overarching project. A pattern is discernible, one driven by an ideology that dehumanises Palestinians everywhere Israel encounters them.

That ideology has a name. Zionism provides the thread that connects the past – the Nakba – with Israel’s current ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the destruction of Gaza, and the state’s concerted efforts to drive Palestinian citizens of Israel out of what is left of their historic lands and into ghettos.

The logic of Zionism, even if its more naive supporters fail to grasp it, is to replace Palestinians with Jews – what Israel officially terms Judaisation.

The Palestinians’ suffering is not some unfortunate side effect of conflict. It is the very aim of Zionism: to incentivise Palestinians still in place to leave “voluntarily”, to escape further suffocation and misery.

The starkest example of this people replacement strategy is Israel’s long-standing treatment of 250,000 Bedouin who formally have citizenship.

The Bedouin are the poorest group in Israel, living in isolated communities mainly in the vast, semi-arid area of the Negev, the country’s south. Largely out of view, Israel has had a relatively free hand in its efforts to “replace” them.

That was why, for a decade after it had supposedly finished its 1948 ethnic cleansing operations and won recognition in western capitals, Israel continued secretly expelling thousands of Bedouin outside its borders, despite their claim on citizenship.

Meanwhile, other Bedouin in Israel were forced off their ancestral lands to be driven either into confined holding areas or state-planned townships that became the most deprived communities in Israel.

It is hard to cast the Bedouin, simple farmers and pastoralists, as a security threat, as was done with the Palestinians under occupation.

But Israel has a much broader definition of security than simple physical safety. Its security is premised on the maintenance of an absolute demographic dominance by Jews.

The Bedouin may be peaceable but their numbers pose a major demographic threat and their pastoral way of life obstructs the fate intended for them – penning them up tightly inside ghettos.

Most of the Bedouin have title deeds to their lands that long predate Israel’s creation. But Israel has refused to honour these claims and many tens of thousands have been criminalised by the state, their villages denied legal recognition.

For decades they have been forced to live in tin shacks or tents because the authorities refuse to approve proper homes and they are denied public services like schools, water and electricity.

The Bedouin have one option if they wish to live within the law: they must abandon their ancestral lands and their way of life to relocate to one of the poor townships.

Many of the Bedouin have resisted, clinging on to their historic lands despite the dire conditions imposed on them.

One such unrecognised village, Al Araqib, has been used to set an example. Israeli forces have demolished the makeshift homes there more than 160 times in less than a decade. In August, an Israeli court approved the state billing six of the villagers $370,000 (Dh1.6 million) for the repeated evictions.

Al Araqib’s 70-year-old leader, Sheikh Sayah Abu Madhim, recently spent months in jail after his conviction for trespassing, even though his tent is a stone’s throw from the cemetery where his ancestors are buried.

Now the Israel authorities are losing patience with the Bedouin.

Last January, plans were unveiled for the urgent and forcible eviction of nearly 40,000 Bedouin from their homes in unrecognised villages under the guise of “economic development” projects. It will be the largest expulsion in decades.

“Development”, like “security”, has a different connotation in Israel. It really means Jewish development, or Judaisation – not development for Palestinians.

The projects include a new highway, a high-voltage power line, a weapons testing facility, a military live-fire zone and a phosphate mine.

It was revealed last week that the families would be forced into displacement centres in the townships, living in temporary accommodation for years as their ultimate fate is decided. Already these sites are being compared to the refugee camps established for Palestinians in the wake of the Nakba.

The barely concealed aim is to impose on the Bedouin such awful conditions that they will eventually agree to be confined for good in the townships on Israel’s terms.

Six leading United Nations human rights experts sent a letter to Israel in the summer protesting the grave violations of the Bedouin families’ rights in international law and arguing that alternative approaches were possible.

Adalah, a legal group for Palestinians in Israel, notes that Israel has been forcibly evicting the Bedouin over seven decades, treating them not as human beings but as pawns in its never-ending battle to replace them with Jewish settlers.

The Bedouin’s living space has endlessly shrunk and their way of life has been crushed.

This contrasts starkly with the rapid expansion of Jewish towns and single-family farming ranches on the land from which the Bedouin are being evicted.

It is hard not to conclude that what is taking place is an administrative version of the ethnic cleansing Israeli officials conduct more flagrantly in the occupied territories on so-called security grounds.

These interminable expulsions look less like a necessary, considered policy and more like an ugly, ideological nervous tic.

• First published in The National

Israeli police “turning a blind eye to killing spree”

Palestinian citizens of Israel escalated their protests against the police and government on Thursday by bringing sections of the country’s busiest highway to a crawl as they drove in a slow convoy towards Jerusalem for a major demonstration.

It was the latest in a series of high-stakes confrontations by Israel’s large Palestinian minority with the authorities to express their anger at police inaction over a tide of violence that has swept their communities. More than 70 lives have been claimed so far this year.

Over the weekend, Palestinians in Israel took over numerous road junctions to block traffic, causing long tailbacks, as they sought to bring their campaign to the attention of a seemingly indifferent Israeli Jewish public.

Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens – descended from those who avoided expulsion during Israel’s creation in 1948 – comprise a fifth of the country’s population. However, this year, they account for as much as 80 percent of the country’s murders – up from 5 percent 20 years ago.

According to figures from the Aman Centre, which campaigns against violence in Palestinian society in Israel, September was the deadliest month ever: 13 Palestinian citizens were killed in criminal activity.

An investigation by the Haaretz newspaper this week found that the police had solved less than a third of murders in Palestinian communities in Israel this year – half its clear-up rate in Jewish communities.

Towns turn lawless

Palestinian citizens of Israel also held a one-day general strike last week, shutting down schools, local authority offices and shops, to protest the police’s long-running failure to crack down on well-known crime families, collect their arsenal of weapons, and properly investigate the killing spree.

Leaders of the Palestinian minority say their towns and villages have been largely abandoned by the police, creating a vacuum filled by criminals. Many of the killings are the result of vendettas, criminal gangs’ turf wars and domestic violence. In several incidents bystanders have been shot too, including children. Tens of thousands attended the largest protest in Majd al-Krum, a Palestinian town in the central Galilee, where three men died in a shoot-out last week.

But there are also widespread suspicions that the police are actively complicit in the bloodshed. Historically, the police have recruited Palestinian crime families as informers, as a way to gather inside information on the minority.

The impression, say community leaders, is that the police are more interested in maintaining relations with these criminals than tackling the crime wave.

Ties to criminals

The Higher Follow-Up Committee, effectively the collective political leadership of the Palestinian minority, issued a statement over the weekend noting “a conspiracy between the police and the criminal organisations. The authorities know very well where the weapons are coming from into the Arab towns”.

Police estimates suggest that there may be as many as half a million weapons in Palestinian communities in Israel. Most are believed to have originated from Israeli army bases.

Ahmed Tibi, a senior Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, observed: “It is delusional to think that police intelligence is unaware of who is bringing them in and where from. If it were weapons smuggled in to be used by terrorists, the weapons would’ve been confiscated, and the responsible individuals put in jail at a moment’s notice.”

The committee’s statement complained that Israeli officials were exploiting the tide of violence as a way to “attack the social fabric of the Arab public”.

Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of the Israeli parliament for the Joint List faction, which comprises four Palestinian parties, said police had the tools to prevent the violence but lacked the will.

“People are wondering, how is it possible the police suddenly become incompetent only when the problem is curbing crime in Arab communities?” she told Middle East Eye.

Like many, Touma-Suleiman suspects foul play. She believes Israeli officials hope to replace the existing Palestinian national leadership in Israel with compromised local leaders tied to the criminal underworld.

“There is a rotten circle of interests between the police, the politicians and the criminal class to maintain a situation where Palestinian communities are left weak, divided and fearful,” she said.

‘Very violent society’

The police, on the other hand, argue that their efforts have been stymied by a lack of cooperation. Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, told MEE the crime wave was largely the result of a “failure by the Arab leadership to help the police”.

The Palestinian minority’s leaders, however, complain that they have found few allies in a years-long campaign to end the bloodshed.

That was highlighted this week by comments from the public security minister, Gilad Erdan, an ultra-nationalist ally of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He attributed the wave of killings to a violent “Arab culture”.

He told Jerusalem Radio on Monday: “It’s a very, very – and another thousand times – very violent society. … A lot of disputes that end here [among Israeli Jews] with a lawsuit, there they pull out a knife and gun.”

Accusing the government of “blaming the victim”, Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, observed that crime figures gave the lie to Erdan’s claim.

In an article for Haaretz this week, he pointed out that, despite the large number of weapons in the occupied territories, the rate of murders among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was little different from that in Israeli Jewish society.

Some 20 years ago, he added, the number of murders among Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel was identical. But in recent years, the rate had rocketed in Israel’s Palestinian communities, to six times that of Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank.

Perfect storm

Thabet Abu Ras, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which promotes coexistence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens, told MEE that Israel’s Palestinian communities had been hit by a perfect storm of problems created by officials.

A lack of public institutions, from police stations to governmental offices, meant they were effectively cut off from the rest of Israeli society. Poverty and neglect had created conditions ripe for exploitation by criminals, he said.

The state’s confiscation of land from Palestinian communities and a policy of denying them new building permits had created serious overcrowding and housing shortages that readily triggered disputes between families that turned violent.

The absence of banking services in many Palestinian towns, and the difficulties Palestinian citizens faced gaining loans and mortgages, had strengthened the role of criminal groups. They lent money at extortionate rates that borrowers could often not afford to repay.

Weak local institutions in Palestinian communities and the state’s cultivation of extended families as an alternative leadership had paved the way for criminal groups to intimidate local officials to gain control over communal resources.

And a major police crackdown in Jewish communities like Nahariya and Netanyahu in recent years had forced Jewish crime gangs to make alliances with organised criminal groups in Palestinian communities in Israel to continue their activities.

“Crime is the one place in Israel where there is some kind of meaningful integration between Jews and Arabs,” he said.

Brutal policing

In his Haaretz article, Odeh blamed “government racism” that “sees us as enemies instead of citizens”. He called on ordinary Israeli Jews “who believe in democracy to join us in a battle for a society without guns. Eliminating violence is in the civic interest of us all”.

The move to the streets is seen as a way to bypass the seeming indifference of Israeli officials by appealing directly to ordinary Israeli Jews.

The national police command is almost exclusively Jewish, and was led until recently by a former secret police officer, Roni Alsheikh, known for being an avid supporter of the illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

Few police stations are operational in Palestinian communities in Israel, and the force is widely distrusted. Police officers typically enter the country’s Palestinian towns and villages in military-style operations to enforce house demolitions or to forcibly quell demonstrations.

Trust has been further eroded by the fact that the paramilitary Border Police, a major component of Israel’s security services, operate in Palestinian communities both inside Israel and in the occupied West Bank, using similar methods of violent repression.

Dozens of Palestinian citizens have died at the hands of the police over the past two decades, often in unexplained circumstances. Such deaths are rarely investigated.

And a judicial-led commission of inquiry nearly two decades ago concluded that there was a culture in the police of treating Palestinian citizens as “an enemy”. Little seems to have changed since.

Government incitement

There are similar problems at the political level. Palestinian parties have always been excluded from governmental roles, and the Palestinian minority’s legislators have no influence in the parliament.

Both Erdan and Netanyahu regularly incite against the Palestinian minority. During last month’s election campaign, Netanyahu sought to mobilise Jewish voters by warning: “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.”

Erdan was also recently exposed as having actively help cover up evidence that police unlawfully shot a Palestinian citizen dead during house demolitions in the Negev village of Umm al-Hiran in 2017. In the same incident, Odeh of the Joint List is believed to have been shot with a sponge-tipped bullet by police.

This hostility has forced the community’s leadership to take drastic action to make their concerns visible to the wider Israeli public.

In addition to the go-slow on Road 6 highway this week, there are plans for large protests outside the regional police headquarters in Nazareth later this month and for a protest tent next to government offices in Jerusalem.

The blocking of roads is a form of direct action familiar in Israel – but mainly from the Jewish public. Settlers have repeatedly obstructed roads, as well as throwing stones at the security services, as part of their demonstrations.

But whereas Jewish protests, however violent they become, are usually handled delicately by Israeli security forces, Palestinian citizens are used to very different responses to their own demonstrations, especially when they take place in areas visible to the Jewish public.

Live ammunition

Palestinian demonstrators in Israel have often found themselves beaten, doused in tear gas and arrested.

Last year a leading Palestinian community activist, Jafar Farah, was arrested along with 20 others during a peaceful protest in the city of Haifa against the army’s lethal shooting of demonstrators in Gaza. While in custody, a police officer broke his leg and is reported to have assaulted several other demonstrators.

But etched even more deeply into the Palestinian minority’s collective memory are the so-called October 2000 events, when Palestinian citizens demonstrated on main roads in solidarity with Palestinians being killed by the Israeli army in large numbers at the start of the second intifada.

In a matter of days, the police had killed 13 Palestinian citizens and wounded many hundreds more using live ammunition and rubber-coated steel bullets. Investigations were cursory and not one policeman was charged over those deaths.

Demand for equal treatment

This time Palestinian leaders in Israel trust the police will have to tread more carefully.

At a protest outside Nazareth last Friday, hundreds of protesters blocked a road junction leading to the neighbouring Jewish city of Nof Hagalil. Furious motorists, caught in lengthy tailbacks, honked their horns in frustration.

A single policeman watched from inside an unmarked car at the side of the intersection. When spotted, he emerged to warn the demonstrators that they would be allowed an hour to cause disruption before his colleagues would arrive to make arrests.

Unusually, given the large number of such protests last weekend, not a single arrest or injury was reported.

The police caution is a reflection of their difficulties. The demonstrations are not overtly “political” – or not in the ordinary sense understood by the Jewish public – because they do not relate to issues in the occupied territories.

The chief demand is for a right to personal security – and the police themselves are the focus of the protests.

For years, Palestinian leaders in Israel have been calling for a new approach by the authorities to help end the violence, including enforcement campaigns, the collection of guns, and education programmes to change attitudes to crime.

“Our demands fell on deaf ears,” Odeh, head of the Joint List, wrote in his Haaretz article. He and other community leaders hope to prick the consciences of liberal Israeli Jews.

The question is whether the protests, which have been causing major disruption, rebound on the government for appearing intransigent or the Palestinian minority for inconveniencing the Jewish public.

More police stations

There are initial signs that the police and government are starting to feel the heat.

Erdan called for a meeting with the minority’s leaders this week to try to ease tensions. Netanyahu also pledged to allocate extra resources, including manpower, to tackle the crime wave.

But there are complex obstacles for both sides to resolve the stand-off.

Some of the placards at the Nazareth protest called not for more engagement by the police but less. There are genuine fears that Netanyahu’s idea of “greater enforcement” will simply mean more heavy-handed and provocative police invasions of Palestinian communities in Israel to create an impression that something is being done.

Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, said seven new police stations had been opened in Palestinian communities in the past few years and that there were plans for another eight to open in the next year.

‘Destroyed from within’

But one of the protest organisers in Nazareth, where there are already two big police stations, said the problem was not just a lack of policing, it also involved the wrong kind of policing.

Kamar Khutaba, a 27-year-old sports teacher, told MEE: “Palestinian blood doesn’t matter to the police. They know how to tackle crime in our communities but they choose not to.

“We are telling the police either do your job properly or get out. Our society is being destroyed from within and the police are allowing it to happen.”

In Jisr al-Zarqa, a poor Palestinian village on Israel’s Mediterranean coast where gun crime is now rampant, the local council leader told Haaretz last month that he had been wrong to support the opening of a police station in his community.

“We made absolutely no progress,” Amash Morad Fathi said, stating that gun crime and the drugs trade were worse than ever. “The police have no leads,” he added, noting that the police had not located a single gun.

He regretted ignoring warnings from fellow council members that the police would use their presence as a pretext to “suffocate” the village by setting up roadblocks and issuing traffic fines.

Abu Ras observed that the police station was only operational during daylight hours. “That’s useless when 90 percent of the crime takes place at night,” he said.

‘Fight against terror’

What is urgently needed, Palestinian leaders in Israel agree, is a dramatic change in police culture.

In his response to the protests, Erdan equated the fight against criminal violence in Israel’s Palestinian communities to the “fight against terrorism”. A Haaretz editorial warned that it was a sign that Erdan and the government continue to view Palestinian citizens as “an internal enemy”.

Even if Palestinian leaders in Israel cannot influence regional issues, such as the peace process, they want to advance the basic civic rights of their community. The question is whether it can be done inside a self-declared Jewish state.

Odeh broke with a long-standing political tradition of the Palestinian community in Israel when he chose sides last month in the ongoing coalition negotiations over forming a Zionist government. He recommended Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff and head of the Blue and White party, over Netanyahu for prime minister.

Gantz has indicated he may be prepared to make concessions on civic, if not the national, rights of Palestinians in Israel. Nonetheless, improving policing in Israel’s Palestinian communities may prove a tall order.

Abu Ras and others note that the police still see their role chiefly in ethnic terms – as protecting the Jewish public from a supposed Palestinian menace, both in Israel and in the occupied territories.

“The difficulty is that policing towards the Arab community in Israel is not seen primarily in civic terms, as preventing crime, but in security terms, as dealing with a national threat,” he said.

“That whole approach has to change, otherwise the criminal gangs in Arab communities will continue to grow stronger.”

• First published in Middle East Eye

Why Israel is Struggling to Find a Way Out of its Political Deadlock

It would be a grave mistake to assume that the continuing political deadlock in Israel – with neither incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his main rival Benny Gantz seemingly able to cobble together a coalition government – is evidence of a deep ideological divide.

In political terms, there is nothing divided about Israel. In this month’s general election, 90 per cent of Israeli Jews voted for parties that identify as being either on the militaristic, anti-Arab right or on the religious, anti-Arab far-right.

The two parties claiming to represent the centre-left – the rebranded versions of Labour and Meretz – won only 11 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Stranger still, the three parties that say they want to form a “broad unity government” won about 60 per cent of the vote.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud, Mr Gantz’s Blue and White party led by former generals, and ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu secured between them 73 seats – well over the 61 seats needed for a majority.

All three support the entrenchment of the occupation and annexation of parts of the West Bank; all three think the settlements are justified and necessary; and all demand that the siege of Gaza continue, view the Palestinian leadership as untrustworthy and want neighbouring Arab states cowering in fear.

Moshe Yaalon, Mr Gantz’s fellow general in the Blue and White party, was formerly a pivotal figure in Likud alongside Mr Netanyahu. And Mr Lieberman, before he created his own party, was the director of Mr Netanyahu’s office. These are not political enemies; they are ideological bedfellows.

There is one significant but hardly insumountable difference. Mr Gantz thinks it is important to maintain bipartisan US support for Israel’s belligerent occupation while Mr Netanyahu has preferred to throw Israel’s hand in with Donald Trump and the Christian religious right.

Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, has pressed the three parties to work together. He has suggested that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz rotate the role of prime minister between them, a mechanism used in Israel’s past.

But after Mr Gantz refused last week, the president assigned Mr Netanyahu the task of trying to form a government, although most observers think the effort will prove futile. After indecisive elections in April and September, Israel therefore looks to be heading for a third round of elections.

But if the deadlock is not ideological, then what is causing it?

In truth, the paralysis has been caused by two fears – one in Likud, the other in Blue and White.

Mr Gantz is happy to sit in a unity government with the Likud party. His objection is to allying with Mr Netanyahu, who is days away from hearings with the attorney general on multiple counts of fraud and breach of trust. Mr Netanyahu wants to be in power to force through a law guaranteeing himself immunity from prosecution.

Blue and White was created to oust Mr Netayahu on the basis that he is corrupt and actively destroying what is left of Israel’s democratic institutions, including by trying to vilify state prosecutors investigating him.

For Blue and White to now prop Mr Netanyahu up in a unity government would be a betrayal of its voters.

The solution for Likud, then, should be obvious: remove Mr Netanyahu and share power with Blue and White.

But the problem is that Likud’s members are in absolute thrall to their leader. The thought of losing him terrifies them. Likud now looks more like a one-man cult than a political party.

Mr Gantz, meanwhile, is gripped by fear of a different kind.

Without Likud, the only solution for Mr Gantz is to turn elsewhere for support. But that would make him reliant on the 13 seats of the Joint List, a coalition of parties representing Israel’s large minority of Palestinian citizens.

And there’s the rub. Blue and White is a deeply Arab-phobic party, just like Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. Its only civilian leader, Yair Lapid, notoriously refused to work with Palestinian parties after the 2013 election – before Mr Netanyahu had made racist incitement his campaign trademark.

Mr Lapid said: “I’ll never sit with the Zoabis” – a reference to the most prominent of the Palestinian legislators at the time, Haneen Zoabi.

Similarly, Mr Gantz has repeatedly stressed his opposition to sitting with the Joint List.

Nonetheless, the Joint List’s leader Ayman Odeh made an unprecedented gesture last week, throwing the weight of most of his faction behind Mr Gantz.

That was no easy concession, given Mr Gantz’s positions and his role as army chief in 2014 overseeing the destruction of Gaza. The move angered many Palestinians in the occupied territories.

But Mr Odeh saw the Palestinian minority’s turn-out in September leap by 10 percentage points compared to April’s election, so desperate were his voters to see the back of Mr Netanyahu.

Surveys also indicate a growing frustration among Palestinian citizens at their lack of political influence. Although peace talks are off Israel’s agenda, some in the minority hope it might be possible to win a little relief for their communities after decades of harsh, institutional discrimination.

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Mr Odeh justified his support for Mr Gantz. It was intended to send “a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens”.

Mr Gantz seems unimpressed. According to an investigation by the Israeli media, Mr Netahyahu only got first crack at forming a government because Mr Gantz blanched at the prospect.

He was worried Mr Netanyahu would again smear him – and damage him in the eyes of voters – if he was seen to be negotiating with the Joint List.

Mr Netanyahu has already painted the alternatives in stark terms: either a unity government with him at its heart, or a Blue and White government backed by those who “praise terrorists”.

The Likud leader might yet pull a rabbit out of his battered hat. Mr Gantz or Mr Lieberman could cave, faced with taunts that otherwise “the Arabs” will get a foot in the door. Or Mr Netanyahu could trigger a national emergency, even a war, to bully his rivals into backing him.

But should it come to a third election, Mr Netanyahu will have a pressing reason to ensure he succeeds this time. And that will doubtless require stepping up incitement another dangerous gear against the Palestinian minority.

The reality is that there is strong unity in Israel – over shared, deeply ugly attitudes towards Palestinians, whether citizens or those under occupation. Paradoxically, the only obstacle to realising that unity is Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to cling to power.

• First published by The National

Film Charts Failed Experiment Inviting Palestinian Teens to Become Kibbutzniks

A new documentary brings to light an episode almost completely erased from Israel’s official history – and one that reveals how Israel’s apartheid character was established from its birth.

The The Voice of Ahmad by directors Avshalom Katz, David Ofek, Ayelet Bechar, Shadi Habib Allah, Naom Kaplan, Mamdooh Afdile, and Iddo Soskolne is being screened in Israel this month. It centers on the extraordinary early life of Ahmad Masrawa back in the 1950s, as the recently established Jewish state was finding its feet.

Masrawa was one of many hundreds of Palestinian teenagers in Israel who were adopted by a kibbutz, agricultural communes that were at the core of the Zionist movement’s efforts to Judaize lands just stolen from the Palestinian people – both from refugees forced out of Israel and from the small number of Palestinians, like Masrawa, who managed to remain inside the new state.

Today, hundreds of these kibbutzim exist, all of them exclusively Jewish and controlling the vast bulk of Israeli territory. Israel’s Palestinian citizens are effectively banned from living in them.

But, as this new film shows, there was a brief moment when a handful of progressive Israeli Jews imagined a different future in which Jewish and Arab kibbutzniks could live together. That experiment ended in complete failure.

A stab in the back

Masrawa is part of the largely-overlooked Palestinian minority in Israel – today a fifth of the country’s population. He was among a rump population of Palestinians who avoided the mass expulsions of the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe, that created Israel on the ruins of the Palestinian homeland.

A few years later, under international pressure, Israel belatedly gave this minority a very second-class citizenship.

The fact that Palestinian citizens, now numbering 1.8 million, have the vote is often cited as proof that Israel is a normal western-style democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this documentary underscores.

Ahmad’s strange teenage years have been unearthed now because he starred in a short documentary in the mid-1960s, called “I Am Ahmad,” that was initially censored and, when it was finally screened, caused uproar. Ram Loevy, its director, says in the new film that his documentary was viewed by most Israeli Jews at the time as “a stab in the back.”

Slum neighborhoods

It was the first time an Israeli film had ever allowed an “Israeli Arab” – a Palestinian citizen of Israel – to be the protagonist.

“I Am Ahmad” follows Masrawa as a near-two-decade military government imposed on Israel’s Palestinian minority is being lifted just before the outbreak of the Six-Day war. He is filmed leaving his poor village of Arara in northern Israel to travel to the rapidly expanding Jewish coastal city of Tel Aviv to find work.

Masrawa narrates the film, providing personal reflections in Hebrew on what it is like to live effectively as a foreign worker in your own country.

Like many thousands of other Palestinians in Israel, he was forced by day to work as a casual laborer on construction sites, disappearing at night to dwell in slum neighborhoods of tin shacks set up by Palestinian citizen workers on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

High death toll

The Voice of Ahmad is compilation film, comprising six short documentaries inspired by or expanding on I Am Ahmad, a restored version of which opens the new movie.

Sky of Concrete sees an elderly Masrawa spend the day with a group of today’s casual laborers from his village on a building site. Little has changed half a century later, as Masrawa discovers, including the same tragically high death toll in an industry that barely seems to value the lives of its non-Jewish workers.

But the most fascinating segment of the Voice of Ahmad is the backstory of why Masrawa ended up in the 1960s building new homes for Jewish immigrants arriving to entrench the dispossession of Palestinians like himself. That context is not provided by I Am Ahmad.

It would have to wait another half-century for that story to be revealed in “I Used To Be Zvi,” a kind of belated prequel to “I Am Ahmad.” Its co-director, Ayelet Bechar, recently expanded on her research for the film in an article for the liberal Haaretz newspaper.

Judaizing Palestinian land

“I Used To Be Zvi” concerns the 18-year period between 1949 and 1967 before Israel seized control of the occupied territories, a time when Palestinians in Israel lived under harsh military rule despite their citizenship. They were locked up inside their few surviving communities while their new rulers confiscated almost all their farmland to settle Jewish immigrants in their place.

While this land larceny was taking place, however, two prominent Jewish socialists began a limited experiment in mixed living that appeared – at least, superficially – to challenge Zionism’s core principle.

The lands seized from Israel’s Palestinian minority were transferred to hundreds of kibbutz, socialist-style agricultural communes set up for Jews as part of Israel’s official Judaization policy.

Many decades on, these communities control almost all of Israel’s land, which they hold as nationalized territory on behalf of all Jews around the world, not Israel’s citizens.

Although the kibbutz has been widely extolled in the west as a model of egalitarian, cooperative living – and in Israel’s first decades attracted starry-eyed European and American volunteers – all of these communities use vetting committees to ensure no Palestinian citizens gain admission.

Mixing with girls

In Israel’s early years, however, a few Jewish socialists argued that the kibbutz movement should live up to its supposed ideals of “Zionism, socialism and the brotherhood of nations.” They established a Pioneer Arab Youth organization, recruiting Palestinian teenagers in Israel like Masrawa to live on a kibbutz.

The obstacles were many. Each had to harbor its Palestinian youngsters as fugitives from the authorities. The military government required them to live in their own, segregated and imprisoned communities.

And despite professed lofty ideals, most Jews in the kibbutz movement regarded their Palestinian neighbors not as potential brothers but as a threat to Israel’s ethnic state-building project.

These young Palestinian recruits, meanwhile, were not there out of a love of Zionism. They wished to break free of the stifling economic and social restrictions imposed by the military government. A few admit they were enticed too by the chance to mix with kibbutz girls.

Kibbutz ambassadors

Masrawa arrived at his kibbutz, aged 14, under a new Hebrew identity he had been assigned: “Zvi”. But differences of treatment were apparent from the outset.

Palestinian members were required to wear a different uniform and allocated menial tasks. Even Pioneer Youth’s motto prioritized subservience, amending the kibbutz slogan “strong and brave” to “strong and loyal.”

And while the kibbutzim were grudgingly allowing handfuls of Palestinian teens into their midst, they also colluded with the military government to steal the remaining farmlands of the villages from which their Palestinian wards hailed.

There was a subtext of political missionary work too. Avraham Ben Tzur, a Pioneer Youth founder, observed that the aim was to turn impressionable Palestinian youth into ambassadors for the kibbutzim, presumably in the hope that when they returned to their villages they would try to justify to their extended families the theft of the villages’ lands by the kibbutzim.

The project quickly started unraveling when it became clear that Pioneer Youth’s organizers had no vision beyond a parochial, Jewish one.

Feelings bottled up

A heartbreaking, reconstructed scene in “I Used To Be Zvi” shows young Masrawa, filled with the kibbutz ideals of shared, egalitarian living, heading to the offices of the Israel Lands Authority to inquire about setting up the first Arab kibbutz next to his village of Arara, south of Nazareth.

The senior official burdens him with a long list of conditions he must meet before he can be given approval. When Masrawa fulfills his side of the bargain, he is given yet more demands, and more, until finally the exasperated official explains the facts of life to Masrawa.

He tells him the government will never allow an Arab kibbutz. Not only that, he adds: “On the expropriated land of your village we will establish three Jewish communities, which will take up arms when needed.”

The clear implication is that these Jewish communities will, if needs be, use their weapons against Masrawa and his fellow villagers to enforce the theft of Arara’s lands.

Indeed, no Palestinian kibbutz, or even a genuinely mixed one, was ever permitted.

Walid Sadik, who later served as a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, observed that he and the other Palestinian kibbutzniks had “kept our mouths shut and our feelings bottled up.”

Intermarriage rejected

But it was the experience of another Palestinian, Rashid Masarawa, that sounded the death knell of Pioneer Youth.

In the mid-1960s he fell in love with and married a Jewish woman, Tzvia Ben Matityahu, on Kibbutz Hashlosha. Given Israel’s restrictions on mixed marriages, which continue to this day, the couple had to travel abroad to wed.

On their return, they were exiled from Hashlosha, and sought refuge among friends at another kibbutz, Gan Shmuel.

Their application to live there was rejected too, however. The vast majority of members objected because the Masarawa family originated from Sarkas, a village destroyed by Israel in 1948 to prevent its refugees from ever returning. Gan Shmuel had been built on Sarkas’s stolen lands to appropriate them.

Masarawa tearfully noted: “If I was accepted as a member, it would mean that I was being returned to my village.” In the Zionist worldview, the danger was that the kibbutz members were being asked to concede something that might set a precedent for a right of return.

‘Sand thrown in our eyes’

The Zionism of these Jewish socialists decisively trumped any semblance of shared humanity or compassion. The Pioneer Youth dissolved soon afterward as young Palestinians in Israel shifted allegiance towards the new Arab nationalism of Nasserist Egypt.

Ben Tzur, founder of Pioneer Youth, recorded his shock to Bechar that, after Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967, his Palestinian recruits voted down a plan much favored by kibbutz members to create an alternative state for Palestinians outside their homeland, in Jordan.

Masrawa observed: “Looking back now, I say they threw sand in our eyes. They made a mockery of the [kibbutz] ideal.”

No hope of brotherhood

The military government may be a distant memory now but its legacy persists.

Israel’s Jewish character still precludes equality for Palestinians, even those with citizenship. Assumptions among Israeli Jews of disloyalty from Palestinians are still commonplace. Palestinian land is still being Judaized, though now that Palestinian citizens have lost all but a tiny fraction of their lands, that process is chiefly taking place in the occupied territories. Rigid ethnic segregation ensures mixed marriages are still rare and deplored.

Palestinian voting is still no more than window-dressing, and now increasingly characterized by Israeli politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu as fraud. He declared only this month that Palestinian citizens had tried to “steal the election” by exercising their democratic right.

And brotherhood, of course, is today not even an aspiration.

Ugly ethnic supremacism

The “Voice of Ahmad” ends with a short film, The Helsinki Accord, by two Israeli citizens – one Jewish, the other Palestinian – who have sought a self-imposed exile in Finland. There they live as neighbors, share a passion for sweating it out together in a sauna, and jest about Israel’s destruction by a nuclear bomb.

The Jewish friend, Iddo Soskolne, whose family originates from Poland, says Finns have nicknamed him “felafel” for being from the Middle East.

Finally, the pair concede, they have found equality in their status as a minority, as outsiders, in Finland. They have found a true brotherhood that would be impossible in Israel.

It was, after all, the good guys – the socialists – who established Israel’s version of apartheid alongside and enforced by the “egalitarian” kibbutz. These racist political structures were created by an Israeli Labour party whose political demise is now – after a decade of rule by the ultra-nationalist right – much lamented abroad.

But the reality is that the Zionism of Israel’s founders was as ugly a project of ethnic supremacy as the Zionism of today’s nationalist right led by Netanyahu. Ahmad Masrawa’s story is a helpful reminder of that truth.

• First published in Mondoweiss

Netanyahu, the Joint List and a History of demonising Palestinian Voters

Israel’s re-run election last week revealed the bitter struggles within the Israeli right for dominance, between a coalition of religious and settler parties led by Benjamin Netanyahu and their opponents in the secular Blue and White party of army generals.

The two sides pegged almost level, suggesting that Israel could face yet more deadlock after an earlier election in April failed to produce a clear winner. There is already talk of an unprecedented third election in the offing.

But the more Israeli Jewish society reaches stalemate, the more the country’s marginalised community of Palestinian citizens – a fifth of Israel’s population – finds itself dragged on to the political battlefield. Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens have now been thrust into the heart of a national conversation among Israeli Jews about a supposed threat the minority poses to the country’s political life.

Endorsing Gantz

That was all the more so after a weekend in which 10 of the Joint List party’s 13 legislators, representing most of the Palestinian minority, decided to prefer one side in what Israeli Jews regard as their own tribal divide.

They backed Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for first shot at trying to form a coalition government as prime minister. The List’s leader, Ayman Odeh, explained that they had taken the decision “to put an end to the Netanyahu era”.

It was no easy matter, however, given that Gantz headed the military when it wrecked Gaza in 2014, sending it, in his words, “back to the Stone Age”.

Netanyahu immediately leapt at the chance to characterise Gantz, his main opponent, as getting into bed with “those who reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and praise terrorists”. He demanded that Gantz join him in a broad unity government of Jewish parties.

Gantz himself was reported to have responded to the Joint List’s endorsement coolly.

Political ‘traitors’

The reaction to the Joint List’s decision was not surprising. For years, Jewish legislators, especially on the right, have questioned the legitimacy of Palestinian parties exercising any influence on Israeli politics. Palestinian representatives in the Israeli Knesset have regularly been labelled “traitors” over their criticism of government policy.

But the incitement has been dangerously expanded over the past four years, reaching new peaks in this month’s election campaign. Now the debate is not just about the role of the Palestinian parties but also whether it is legitimate for the Palestinian public in Israel to participate in the democratic process.

This has always been the subtext of Jewish politicians’ discourse that Palestinian parties have no role to play in shaping the country’s politics. After all, it is Palestinian voters who send the Palestinian parties to the parliament.

But Israeli leaders have recently started to make that point explicit during election campaigns – and no one more so than Netanyahu.

‘Stealing the election’

The degree to which this notion is gradually being cemented in the Jewish public’s consciousness was underscored in this month’s campaign. Netanyahu repeatedly asserted that Palestinian voters in Israel were trying, in his words, to “steal the election”.

Netanyahu first inserted this idea into the 2015 campaign, when he warned Jewish voters on polling day that the “Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves”.

In April’s election he extended the theme, implying that voting by Palestinian citizens constituted a kind of fraud that required monitoring. He violated election laws by sending Likud activists into more than 1,000 polling stations in Palestinian communities armed with body cameras.

Goaded by Netanyahu about colluding with the Palestinian parties, Gantz responded in typical fashion: he rejected any possibility of such cooperation. That has been the standard approach of Israel’s main Jewish parties for decades.

In his silence, too, Gantz offered implicit consent to Netanyahu’s demonising not just of the Palestinian parties but of the Palestinian electorate. He failed to challenge Netanyahu’s insinuation that Palestinian voters were “stealing” the election simply by voting.

Arabs and annihilation

Netanyahu went further still in this most recent election. Desperate to win a far-right majority so he could pass a law conferring on himself immunity from an impending corruption indictment, the prime minister turned the threat posed by Palestinians voters to his own political fortunes into a general, existential threat facing all Israeli Jews.

His Facebook page sent out an automated message to followers claiming that “the Arabs” – including Palestinian citizens – “want to annihilate us all – women, children and men”. That went further even than the incitement of his former defence minister and notorious Arab hater, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Days before Netanyahu’s “droves” comment at the 2015 election, Lieberman called for the beheading of Palestinian citizens – but only those who showed disloyalty to the state.

Lieberman is expected to be the kingmaker in the current post-election negotiations.

Judicial sanction

In a sign of how normalised Netanyahu’s incitement against Palestinian citizens is becoming, it was effectively given sanction during the campaign by one of the most senior judges in the land.

Hanan Melcer, a justice in the supreme court, is the current chair of the Central Elections Committee, which polices the way Israeli elections are conducted.

In the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu’s Likud party appealed to Melcer to stop the activities of a small charity, Zazim, comprising mostly left-wing Israeli Jews concerned about the state of Israel’s threadbare democracy.

It is often overlooked that, when Netanyahu warned in 2015 that the “Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves”, he was actually blaming Israeli Jewish “leftists”. He accused them of “bussing Arabs” to polling stations.

His “electoral fraud” narrative in this latest election was intended to entwine these two themes. He wished to suggest that his political opponents, so-called “leftists”, were colluding with Israel’s enemies – the Arabs who wish to “annihilate us all”.

Disenfranchised Bedouin

The only practical example Netanyahu could offer of such “leftists” were those in Zazim.

The charity’s volunteers have in the past tried to help several thousand Bedouin citizens living in remote areas of Israel’s south, in the Negev, to reach their assigned polling station.

Many tens of thousands of Bedouin – among the poorest population in Israel – were effectively disenfranchised by the Israeli authorities decades ago. Their ancestral communities were criminalised in a continuing attempt to seize their lands.

Bedouin inside these “unrecognised” villages are not allowed to build homes – they have to live in tents or tin shacks – and are denied basic services like water and electricity. Although they are citizens, they are not allowed polling stations in their communities either.

To vote, therefore, they must travel long distances to recognised villages. Many thousands without transport have no hope of being able to cast a ballot.

No bussing of voters

Zazim, therefore, raises money to hire buses on election day to ferry these Bedouin citizens to far-off polling stations so they can exercise their democratic right.

Perversely, Melcer agreed with Netanyahu and Likud that Zazim’s efforts to help the Bedouin to vote was not protecting a basic democratic right – as Israel’s attorney general had earlier contended – but partisan “political activity”.

Melcer insisted that, if Zazim wanted to help the Bedouin vote, it had first to register as a political organisation, jeopardising its other social justice activities and burdening it with tight restrictions on fundraising. In the end, Zazim abandoned its transport programme for the Bedouin, and Netanyahu’s “Arab electoral fraud” narrative received a major shot in the arm.

Palestine gerrymandered

As Melcer’s ruling illustrates, Netanyahu’s claims of election fraud have not emerged in a vacuum. They are the latest and most cynical steps in long-running efforts by Jewish officials of all political stripes to neutralise the political influence of Palestinian citizens.

That began with the mass expulsions by the Israeli army of Palestinians in 1948 to create a Jewish state on the ruins of their homeland. The small Palestinian population that survived the ethnic cleansing operations – termed the Nakba, or Catastrophe – were the ancestors of today’s Palestinian minority.

The Nabka was primarily an exercise in the re-engineering of the region’s political and social landscape – an act of gerrymandering on a vast scale.

Palestinians were expelled outside the new borders and then Jews encouraged to immigrate as a replacement population. Overnight the Palestinians were transformed from the overwhelming majority into a small minority.

That was why Israel could allow its unwelcome new Palestinian citizens to participate in elections, even as they were subjected to draconian military rule in Israel’s first two decades.

In practice, their vote counted for nothing, paving the way for Israel to steal their lands and impose systematic discrimination in almost every sphere of life. To this day, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian citizens live in separate, ghettoised communities and are taught in a segregated education system.

Voting as window-dressing

In fact, in Israel’s first three decades the vote for Palestinian citizens was entirely hollow. It meant casting a ballot for special “Arab lists” of legislators offered up by the main Jewish Zionist parties.

Israel gradually liberalised that policy, but 15 years ago Asad Ghanem, a leading Palestinian scholar in Israel, described to me his community’s participation in elections for the parliament as little more than “symbolic” and “window-dressing”.

That was certainly how Israel’s Jewish politicians saw it. They were relatively happy for the Palestinian minority to vote, if only because the parties they elected had no role to play inside a parliament dominated by Jewish parties.

Rabin’s Oslo ‘betrayal’

But once Israel entered the Oslo process in the early 1990s, the role of Palestinian parties started to change.

At the time, Yitzhak Rabin became the first Israeli leader to engage diplomatically with the Palestinian leadership in exile. It was widely assumed that those talks would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

There appeared to be little enthusiasm for this process among a majority of Israeli Jews. Rabin, under pressure from the United States and Europe to pursue the Oslo track, was forced to rely on Palestinian parties to prop up his minority government from the outside so it could pass the necessary Oslo legislation.

The right expressed outrage both at the idea of ceding Israel’s supposedly divinely promised lands to the Palestinians and at relying on “Arabs” – Israel’s Palestinian minority – to pass such legislation. This betrayal, as it was perceived by the right, including by Netanyahu, led ultimately to Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

Decline in turnout

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, many Israeli Jews were concerned about Palestinian parties “meddling” in an Oslo process they believed should be decided by Jews alone.

Ironically, concerns about the influence of Palestinian citizens have only deepened over the past decade – at a time when no one in Israel is considering a peace process or talks with the Palestinian leadership in the occupied territories.

And in another paradox, such fears among the Jewish populace have intensified at a time when the turnout among Palestinian voters in Israel fell to the lowest levels ever. In April, less than half the community cast a ballot, compared to more than two-thirds of Israeli Jews.

The rapid decline in voting among Palestinian citizens chiefly reflected the sense that there was no longer an Israeli left to ally with. Moreover, a series of moves from Netanyahu’s government sought to alienate Palestinian voters.

Legislators face expulsion

The first move was the Threshold Law of 2014, which raised the electoral threshold to a point at which none of the four Palestinian parties could pass it. In a classic example of unintended consequences, however, the four combined into a Joint List, becoming the third largest party in the parliament after the 2015 election.

In response, the parliament passed the Expulsion Law of 2016, which empowered a three-quarters (Jewish) majority to expel any legislator whose politics offended them – effectively a sword hanging over every Palestinian member of the parliament.

But even these initiatives have proved insufficient. For Netanyahu and the far-right, the need to neutralise the Palestinian parties – and the voters who elect them – has become ever more pressing.

A decade of rule by Netanyahu and the religious right has provoked a backlash from the secular Israeli Jewish public. They are mostly right-wing and anti-Palestinian, but nonetheless they are tired of Netanyahu’s croneyism and his reliance on extremist religious and settler parties.

They are nostalgic for the days when Israel abused Palestinians quietly and stole their land less ostentatiously.

Paralysed Jewish politics

Representing a minority of the Jewish public, the secular parties cannot win power alone. In April all they managed – and may do so again – is to combine their votes with the Palestinian public’s to block Netanyahu and the religious right from forming a government.

That is why Israel is currently deadlocked. The only apparent way out is a so-called unity government between the secular generals of Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud. But the generals may insist on the price being Netanyahu’s ousting.

So while Palestinian voters can still not influence Israeli politics directly or in their own interests – let alone push it in the direction of peace – they can play a role in entrenching the divisions within Israel’s tribal politics. They can contribute to its paralysis.

And this is why Netanyahu and the far right need to diagnose the Palestinian minority’s right to vote in elections as a threat to the health of the Israeli Jewish body politic – one that needs to be removed before “the Arabs annihilate us all”.

Danger on the horizon

There is a further “danger” facing Israel’s Jewish majority in this period of political deadlock, as the Joint List’s decision to endorse Gantz this week highlights.

After many years of declining turnout among a Palestinian electorate disillusioned by Israeli national politics, there was a sharp reversal last week. In what largely amounted to a backlash to Netanyahu’s growing incitement, some 60 percent of Palestinian voters cast a ballot.

The more Netanyahu and the far right show they fear the Palestinian vote, the more Palestinian citizens may sense their vote has some value after all, if only in curbing the worst excesses of Jewish ultra-nationalism. Polls show that Palestinian citizens want their legislators to have more influence in the political system, and are even interested in them working with Zionist parties.

Shivers down the spine

Odeh, head of the Joint List, has taken note. Rather than opting out of internal Israeli politics as his predecessors have done, he has indicated a readiness to change approach by recommending Gantz.

But further, if there is a unity government between Blue and White and Likud, as many Israeli Jewish politicians favour, the Joint List would gain a different sort of power by becoming the largest opposition party by default.

Odeh has said he would willingly become the official leader of the opposition, the first Palestinian citizen to hold the position. That would entitle him to security briefings by the prime minister and the army command, give him access to visiting heads of state, and a parliamentary platform to speak immediately after the prime minister.

The very idea sends a shiver down the spine of many Israeli Jews.

There have already been discussions about how to ensure such an eventuality does not take place. As commentator Gideon Levy observed facetiously last week: “If Odeh cannot head the opposition, then wouldn’t it be better to bar Arabs from serving in the Knesset altogether? If they will always be suspected of treason, then they don’t belong in the legislature.”
Israel’s Palestinian citizens are once again being discussed as a threat to their country’s democracy

More demonisation?

It looks as if Odeh and the Joint List could inadvertently gain crucial political influence whatever the outcome of coalition negotiations. Either the Joint List helps Gantz oust Netanyahu and the settlers, or it becomes the opposition to a unity government of the broad Jewish right.

Either of these developments risks inflaming Israeli Jewish sentiment against the Palestinian minority. The active involvement of Palestinian citizens in shaping Israeli democracy threatens to expose the contradictions at the very heart of a “Jewish and democratic” state.

Netanyahu has introduced new levels of incitement against the Palestinian minority in Israel. But paradoxically it may be his departure from Israeli politics that heralds a period of even greater demonisation of the country’s Palestinian citizens.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Israelis Have Made their Verdict Clear: Benjamin Netanyahu’s Time is Up

For most Israelis, the general election on Tuesday was about one thing and one thing only. Not the economy, nor the occupation, nor even corruption scandals. It was about Benjamin Netanyahu. Should he head yet another far-right government, or should his 10-year divisive rule come to an end?

Barring a last-minute upset as the final ballot papers are counted, Israelis have made their verdict clear: Netanyahu’s time is up.

In April’s inconclusive election, which led to this re-run, Netanyahu’s Likud party tied with its main opponent in the Blue and White party, led by retired general Benny Gantz. This time Gantz appears to have nudged ahead, with 32 seats to Netanyahu’s 31 in the 120-member parliament. Both parties fared worse than they did in April, when they each secured 35 seats.

But much more significantly, Netanyahu appears to have fallen short of the 61-seat majority he needs to form yet another far-right government comprising settler and religious parties.

His failure is all the more glaring, given that he conducted by far the ugliest – and most reckless – campaign in Israeli history. That was because the stakes were sky-high.

Only a government of the far-right – one entirely beholden to Netanyahu – could be relied on to pass legislation guaranteeing him immunity from a legal process due to begin next month. Without it, he is likely to be indicted on multiple charges of fraud and breach of trust.

So desperate was Netanyahu to avoid that fate, according to reports published in the Israeli media on election day, that he was only a hair’s breadth away from launching a war on Gaza last week as a way to postpone the election.

Israel’s chief law officer, attorney general Avichai Mendelblit, stepped in to halt the attack when he discovered the security cabinet had approved it only after Netanyahu concealed the army command’s major reservations.

Netanyahu also tried to bribe right-wing voters by promising last week that he would annex much of the West Bank immediately after the election – a stunt that blatantly violated campaigning laws, according to Mendelblit.

Facebook was forced to shut down Netanyahu’s page on two occasions for hate speech – in one case after it sent out a message that “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men”. That sentiment appeared to include the 20 per cent of the Israeli population who are Palestinian citizens.

Netanyahu incited against the country’s Palestinian minority in other ways, not least by constantly suggesting that their votes constituted fraud and that they were trying to “steal the election”.

He even tried to force through a law allowing his Likud party activists to film in Arab polling stations – as they covertly did in April’s election – in an unconcealed attempt at voter intimidation.

The move appeared to have backfired, with Palestinian citizens turning out in larger numbers than they did in April.

US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, intervened on Netanyahu’s behalf by announcing the possibility of a defence pact requiring the US to come to Israel’s aid in the event of a regional confrontation.

None of it helped.

Netanayhu’s only hope of political survival – and possible avoidance of jail time – depends on his working the political magic he is famed for.

That may prove a tall order. To pass the 61-seat threshold, he must persuade Avigdor Lieberman and his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party to support him.

Netanyahu and Lieberman, who is a settler, are normally ideological allies. But these are not normal times. Netanyahu had to restage the election this week after Lieberman, sensing the prime minister’s weakness, refused in April to sit alongside religious parties in a Netanyahu-led government.

Netanyahu might try to lure the fickle Lieberman back with an irresistible offer, such as the two of them rotating the prime ministership.

But Lieberman risks huge public opprobrium if, after putting the country through a deeply unpopular re-run election, he now does what he refused on principle to do five months ago.

Lieberman has nearly doubled his party’s seats to nine, by insisting that he is the champion of the secular Israeli public.

Most importantly for Lieberman, he finds himself once again in the role of kingmaker. It is almost certain he will shape the character of the next government. And whoever he anoints as prime minister will be indebted to him.

The deadlock that blocked the formation of a government in April still stands. Israel faces the likelihood of weeks of frantic horse-trading and even the possibility of a third election.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of Palestinians – whether those under occupation or those living in Israel as third-class citizens – the next Israeli government is going to be a hardline right one.

On paper, Gantz is best placed to form a government of what is preposterously labelled the “centre-left”. But given that its backbone will comprise Blue and White, led by a bevy of hawkish generals, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, it would, in practice, be nearly as right wing as Netanyahu’s.

Gantz even accused Netanyahu of stealing his idea in announcing last week that he would annex large parts of the West Bank.

The difficulty is that such a coalition would depend on the support of the 13 Joint List legislators representing Israel’s large Palestinian minority. That is something Lieberman has rejected out of hand, calling the idea “absurd” early on Wednesday as results were filtering in. Gantz appears only a little more accommodating.

The solution could be a national unity government comprising much of the right: Gantz’s Blue and White teamed up with Likud and Lieberman. Both Gantz and Lieberman indicated that was their preferred choice on Wednesday.

The question then would be whether Netanyahu can worm his way into such a government, or whether Gantz demands his ousting as a price for Likud’s inclusion.

Netanyahu’s hand in such circumstances would not be strong, especially if he is immersed in a protracted legal battle on corruption charges. There are already rumblings of an uprising in Likud to depose him.

One interesting outcome of a unity government is that it could provoke a constitutional crisis by making the Joint List, the third-largest party, the official opposition. That is the same Joint List described by Netanyahu as a “dangerous anti-Zionist” party.

Ayman Odeh would become the first leader of the Palestinian minority to attend regular briefings by the prime minister and security chiefs.

Netanyahu will continue as caretaker prime minister for several more weeks – until a new government is formed. If he stays true to form, there is plenty of mischief he can instigate in the meantime.

• First published in The National

Brexit reveals Corbyn to be the True Moderate

If there is an upside to Brexit, it is this: it has made it increasingly hard to present Jeremy Corbyn, contrary to everything the corporate media has been telling us for the past four years, as anything but a political moderate. In truth, he is one of the few moderates left in British – or maybe that should be English – politics right now. The fact that still isn’t obvious to many in Britain is a sign of their – not his – extremism.

Brexit has brought into sharp focus, at least for those prepared to look, the fanatacism that dominates almost the entire British political class. Their zealotry has been increasingly on show since the UK staged a referendum in 2016 on leaving Europe that was won by the pro-Brexit camp with a wafer-thin majority.

The subsequent feud has usually been portrayed this way: The UK has split into two camps, polarising popular opinion between those who feel Britain’s place is in Europe (Remainers) and those who prefer that Britain makes its own way in the world (Brexiters). But it has actually divided the British political class into three camps, with the largest two at the political extremes.

On the one side – variously represented by the new prime minister Boris Johnson and many in his Conservative party, as well as Nigel Farage and his supporters – are those who want Britain to break from Europe and rush into the embrace of the United States, stripping away the last constraints on free-market, ecocidal capitalism. They aren’t just Brexiters, they are no-deal Brexiters, who want to turn their back on Europe entirely.

The other side – variously supported by many Labour MPs, including the party’s deputy leader Tom Watson, and the Liberal Democrats – are those who wish to stay in the secure embrace of a European bureacracy that is nearly as committed to suicidal capitalism as the US but, given the social democratic traditions of some of its member states, has mitigated the worst excesses of free-market fundamentalism. These UK politicians aren’t just Remainers, they are Remainists, who not only refuse to contemplate any weakening of the bonds between the UK and Europe but actually want those bonds to tighten.

Suspending parliament

And as the divide has deepened, it has become clear that neither side is prepared to pay more than lip service to democracy.

On the Brexit side, Johnson has suspended parliament, an institution representing the people, that is supposed to be sovereign. Like his predecessor, Theresa May, he has repeatedly found there is no legislative majority for a hard or no-deal Brexit. He has faced an unprecedented and humiliating series of defeats in parliament in the few days he has been prime minister. So now he has swept parliament out of the way in a bid to run down the clock on a no-deal Brexit without legislative interference.

Watson and the Remainists have been trying a counter-move, arguing that the referendum is no longer valid. They believe that new voters, youngsters more likely to support Remain, have come of age in the three years since 2016, and that more information about the true costs of Brexit have lately swung support to their side. They want to ignore the original referendum result and run the ballot again in the hope that this time the tide will turn in their favour.

The reality is that, if Johnson drives through a no-deal Brexit by ignoring parliament, or if Watson gets to quash the first referendum result to engineer a second, it is likely to trigger civil war in the UK.

The first option will drive Scotland out of the union, could very well reignite the sectarian “Troubles” of Northern Ireland, and will have English urban elites in open revolt. The second option will ensure that large sections of the English public who voted for Brexit because they feel marginalised and ignored are up in arms too. Their trust in politics and politicians will sink even further, and there is the danger that they will turn in droves to a crowd-pleasing autocrat like Johnson, Farage or worse.

Zealotry vs compromise

In these circumstances, anyone responsible would be looking to find common ground, to understand that political compromise is absolutely necessary to stop Britain breaking apart. And that is exactly what Corbyn and the largely ignored and maligned third camp have been trying to do.

They want to honour the spirit of the vote by leaving the EU but hope to do so in a way that doesn’t cut the UK adrift from Europe, doesn’t prevent the continuation of relatively free trade and movement, and doesn’t leave the UK exposed and vulnerable to serfdom under a new US master.

For many months Corbyn has been calling for a general election as a way for the majority of the public, having chosen in the referendum what they want to do, to now decide who they want to negotiate how Britain departs from Europe. But even that realistic compromise has not satisfied the fanatics within his own party.

Because the zealots of the right and the immoderate centre dominate the political and media landscape, this approach has barely registered in public debates. Corbyn’s efforts have been misrepresented as evidence of muddled thinking, ambivalence, or his covert opposition to Europe. It is none of those things.

Caught in the spider’s web

The common argument that Corbyn is a Brexit wolf in sheep’s clothing draws on the fact that, like many democratic socialists, such as the late Tony Benn, Corbyn has never been enamoured of the unelected European technocratic class that is misleadingly termed simply “Europe” or the “European Union”.

Rightly, socialists understood long ago that the more Britain was locked into Europe’s embrace, the more it would become caught like a fly in the spider’s web. At some level, most people have started to recognise this, if only because finding a way to leave Europe, even for Brexiters, has proved so inordinately difficult.

Just like banks were too big to fail in 2008 so they had to be bailed out with our public money to save them from their private malfeasance, the publics of Europe have incrementally had their sovereignty transferred to an unelected and centralised bureacracy all in the name of pursuing freedom – of movement and trade, chiefly for global corporations.

We haven’t noticed, it is true, because for decades our own domestic politics has come in one flavour only – support for our little corner of the global neoliberal empire. Till recently the consensus of Britain’s ruling elite, whether of the right or of New Labour centrists, was that being a player in Europe was the best way to protect their – though not necessarily our – interests on that global battlefield. Now, as the neoliberal empire enters a period of terminal decline, this same elite are bitterly divided over whether the US or Europe is the best guarantor of their wealth and influence continuing a little longer.

Iron fist in velvet glove

But Britain and the world’s problems – whether in the shape of impending economic meltdown or environmental collapse – cannot be solved from within the neoliberal paradigm, as becomes clearer by the day. New political structures are desperately needed: at the local level to foster new, more decentralised economic models, free of corporate influence, resource-stripping and unnecessary consumption; and at the global level to ensure that such models reverse rather than perpetuate the ecocidal policies that have dominated under neoliberal capitalism.

To start on that path will require the democratisation of Britain. The fear of Benn and others was that even if a truly socialist government was elected, its ability to make real, profound changes to the political and economic order – by bringing much of the economy back into public or cooperative ownership, for example – would be made impossible within the larger framework of European corporate managerialism.

We have been given glimpses of the iron fist Europe’s technocrats wield beneath the velvet glove in the treatment of Greece over its financial troubles and the Catalan independence movement in Spain.

The attitude of Corbyn and other democratic socialists to Brexit, however, has been wildly misrepresented by the other two camps of zealots.

In Benn’s time, it was still possible to imagine a world in which neoliberalism might be prevented from gaining a tyrannical grip on our political imaginations and on national economies. But things have changed since then. Now the issue is not whether Britain can stop being locked into a European neoliberal order. It is that the UK, like everyone else, is already in the stranglehold of a global neoliberal order.

Not just that, but Britain has willingly submitted to that order. As the zealotry of most of the political class demonstrates, few can imagine or want a life outside the neoliberal cage. The debate is about which corner of that suicidal, ecocidal global order we prefer to be located in. The Brexit row is chiefly about which slavemaster, America or Europe, will be kinder to us.

Inside the leviathan’s dark belly

In this context, there is no real escape. The best that can be done, as the moderates in both the Brexit and Remain camps realise, is loosen our chains enough so that we have room once again to contemplate new political possibilities. We can then breathe deeply, clear our heads and start to imagine how Britain and the the world might operate differently, how we might free ourselves of the tyranny of the corporations and heal our planet of the deep scars we have inflicted on it.

These are big matters that cannot be solved either by binding ourselves more tightly to European technocrats or by cutting loose from Europe only to chain ourselves to the US. The Brexit feud is an endless theatrical distraction from the real questions we need to face. That is one reason why it drags on, one reason why our political class revel in it, John Bercow-style.

Strangely, it is the Remainists of the immoderate centre – typified by commentary in corporate “liberal” media like the Guardian – who so often claim to lament the fact that the left has failed to offer a vision, a political future, that might serve as an alternative to neoliberalism. But how can such a vision emerge from deep inside the leviathan’s dark belly?

Hiding in ideological life-rafts

It goes without saying that the Atlantacists cheerleading Brexit are up to no good when they speak of “taking back control” and “reclaiming our sovereignty”. They demand those powers only so they can immediately surrender them to a US master.

But the much-maligned left wing, soft Brexit – a version that wishes to distance Britain from Europe without pretending that the UK can stand alone on the global neoliberal battlefield – also has use for such language.

This version of taking back control isn’t about spitting in the face of Europe, blocking the entry of immigrants, or reinventing the imagined halycon days of empire. It is about recognising that we, like the rest of humankind, are responsible for the crimes we have been, and still are, committing against the planet, against other species, against fellow human beings.

Chaining ourselves to an unelected, distant European technocratic class that simply follows orders – implementing the requirements of an economic system that must end in the destruction of the planet – is cowardice. We can more easily shelter from that truth when we cede our political and economic powers to those compelled to carry out the (il)logic of neoliberalism.

Standing a little outside Europe is probably the best we can hope to manage in current circumstances. But it might give us the political space – and, more importantly, burden us with the political responsibility – to imagine the deep changes that are urgently needed.

Change has to happen if we as a species are to survive, and it has to happen soon and it has to happen somewhere. We cannot force others to change, but we can recognise our own need to change and offer a vision of change for others to follow. That can begin only when we stop shielding ourselves from the consequences of our decisions, stop hiding in someone else’s ideological life-raft in the forlorn hope that it will weather the coming, real-world storms.

It is time to stop acting like zealots for neoliberalism, squabbling over which brand of turbo-charged capitalism we prefer, and face up to our collective responsibility to change our and our children’s future.

With Strikes Against Iran, Netanyahu Risks Jeopardising his Closest Alliance

Every Israeli prime minister – not least Benjamin Netanyahu – understands that a military entanglement with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s armed Shia movement on Israel’s northern border, is a dangerous wager, especially during an election campaign.

It was Shimon Peres who lost to Mr Netanyahu in 1996, weeks after the former prime minister had incensed Israel’s Palestinian minority – a fifth of the population – by savagely attacking Lebanon in a futile bid to improve his military, and electoral, standing.

Lebanon proved a quagmire for Ehud Olmert too, after he launched a war in 2006 that demonstrated how exposed Israel’s northern communities were to Hezbollah’s rockets. The fallout helped pave Mr Netanyahu’s path to victory and his second term as prime minister three years later.

Mr Netanyahu has faced off with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for the full 13 years he has been in power. But unlike his political rivals, he has preferred to play a cautious hand with his Lebanese opponent.

Which makes a recent spate of drone attacks by Israel across the region, including in Lebanon, all the more surprising, even in the context of a highly contested election due to take place next Tuesday. During the campaign, Mr Netanyahu has been buffeted by yet more corruption allegations.

According to the Israeli media, two drones dispatched over Beirut late last month were intended to destroy Iranian-supplied equipment that would allow Hezbollah to manufacture precision-guided missiles.

It was the first such Israeli attack on Lebanese soil since a ceasefire ended the 2006 war. Hezbollah and Israel have preferred to flex their muscles in neighbouring Syria, weakened after more than eight years of war.

The attack outraged Lebanon’s leaders, with Mr Nasrallah warning that Hezbollah would shoot down any Israeli drones encroaching on Lebanese airspace. He also vowed revenge, which finally came a week ago when Hezbollah fired at an Israeli military vehicle carrying five soldiers close to the border. Israel said there were no casualties.

That was followed by Hezbollah shooting down an Israeli drone in southern Lebanon early on Monday. The Israeli army confirmed it had been on a “routine mission” when it fell in Lebanese territory.

In retaliation for last week’s attack, Israel shelled Hezbollah positions, a clash Israeli media described as being a “hair’s breadth” from escalating into all-out war.

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah appear to want such an outcome. Both understand the likely heavy toll in casualties and the damaging political consequences.

Nonetheless, Mr Netanyahu appears to be stoking a fire he might ultimately struggle to control – and not just in Lebanon. Around the time of the Beirut attack, Israeli drones were also in action in Iraq and Syria.

First, Israel hit a building near Damascus, killing two Hezbollah operatives. According to Israel, they were working with Iranian forces to prepare a drone attack on the Golan Heights, Syrian territory annexed by Israel in violation of international law.

Then a day later, more Israeli drones – apparently launched from Azerbaijan – targeted depots housing Iranian weapons close to the Iraqi-Syrian border.

There have been reports of half a dozen such attacks since mid-July. They are the first known Israeli strikes on Iraq’s territory in four decades.

The running thread in these various incidents – apart from Israel’s violation of each country’s sovereignty – is Iran.

Until recently, Israel had launched regular forays deep into Syrian airspace to target what it said was the transport through Syria of long-range precision missiles supplied by Iran to Hezbollah, its Shia ally in Lebanon.

Hezbollah and Iran view this growing stockpile of precision weapons – capable of hitting key military installations in Israel – as a vital restraint on Israel’s freedom to attack its neighbours.

Over the past year, Israel’s ability to hit missile convoys as they pass through Syria has narrowed as Bashar Al-Assad has regained control of Syrian territory and installed more sophisticated, Russian-made air defences.

Now Israel appears to be targeting the two ends of the supply chain, from deliveries dispatched in Iraq to their receipt in Lebanon. In the words of Mr Netanyahu, Iran “is not immune anywhere”.

The US has not taken kindly to Israel’s actions in Iraq, fearing that a local backlash could endanger the 5,000 troops it has stationed there and push Iraq further into Iran’s arms. In response, the Pentagon issued a statement condemning “actions by external actors inciting violence in Iraq”.

So what is Mr Netanyahu up to? Why risk provoking a dangerous clash with Hezbollah and alienating his strongest asset, a supportive US administration headed by Donald Trump, at this critical moment in the election campaign?

The answer could be that he feels he has little choice.

The same weekend that Israel launched its wave of attacks across the region, French President Emmanuel Macron engineered an unexpected visit by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to the G7 summit in Biarritz.

It was part of efforts by Mr Macron, and Europe more generally, to encourage Mr Trump to repair relations with Tehran after the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement last year and reimposed sanctions. Mr Netanyahu has taken partial credit for the administration’s tough stance.

Now he has been jolted by Mr Trump’s apparent willingness to reconsider, possibly to protect shipping lanes and oil supplies in the Gulf from Iranian disruption, just as the US president seeks re-election.

Any U-turn would conflict sharply with Mr Netanyahu’s agenda. Domestically he has long presented Iran as the ultimate bogeyman, hell-bent on gaining a nuclear bomb to destroy Israel. His strongman image has been built on his supposed triumph both in reining in Tehran and recruiting the Trump administration to his cause.

If Mr Trump indicates a readiness for rapprochement with Iran before polling day, Mr Netanyahu’s narrative is sunk – and the corruption allegations he faces are likely to take a stronger hold on the public imagination.

That was why, as he headed to London last Thursday, Mr Netanyahu issued a barely veiled rebuke to Mr Trump: “This is not the time to talk to Iran.”

It might also be why a report in the New York Times last week suggested that Israel is contemplating a risky, go-it-alone strike on Iran, something Mr Netanyahu has reportedly been mulling for several years.

Certainly, he has every interest in using attacks like the recent ones to provoke a reaction from Iran in the hope of pre-empting any US overture.

It is a high-stakes gamble and one that risks setting off a conflagration should Mr Netanyahu overplay his hand. These are desperate times for Israel’s longest-serving but increasingly embattled prime minister.

• First published in The National

How Israel’s Religious Right is Now in the Driving Seat

The real fight in Israel’s re-run election next month is not between the right wing and a so-called “centre-left” but between two rival camps within the nationalist right, according to analysts.

The outcome may prove a moment of truth for the shrinking secular right as it comes up once again against an ever-more powerful camp that fuses religion with ultra-nationalism.

Will the secular right emerge with enough political weight to act as a power-broker in the post-election negotiations, or can the religious right form a government without any support from the secular parties? That is what the election will determine.

An earlier election in April, which failed to produce a decisive result between these two camps, nonetheless confirmed the right’s absolute dominance. The Zionist centre-left parties, including the founding Labor party, were routed, securing between them just 10 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Netanyahu, the interim prime minister, was forced to stage new elections, on 17 September, after April’s ballot left him unable to rope together secular and religious parties on the right.

To secure a majority in parliament, he needed to include the five seats of the anti-religious Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman eventually pulled out of coalition talks, saying he was not prepared to sit in a government with two parties effectively run by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. This time, he has indicated he won’t sit with any of the religious parties.

Vehicle for protest

Much of the rest of the secular right has deserted Netanyahu’s Likud party. At the last election, they mostly found a political home in the new Blue and White party, led by a former military chief of staff, Benny Gantz.

Polls suggest Lieberman may also attract a larger share of these voters after his recent stand-off with Netanyahu. He has demanded an exclusively secular right-wing government, comprising Likud, Blue and White, and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Blue and White has presented itself chiefly as a vehicle for protest against Netanyahu. They oppose a decade of governments in which he has allowed the religious right to play an increasingly assertive role, and the ever-deepening corruption scandals he has been embroiled in. Netanyahu is expected to be charged with fraud and breach of trust in the immediate wake of next month’s election.

Blue and White has been misleadingly labelled as centrist by some observers. But it tied with Netanyahu’s Likud, at 35 seats each, in April by appealing to a largely secular strain of right-wing nationalism that three decades ago was the domain of the Likud party.

Now Netanyahu and the religious right hope to work in tandem to secure between them a narrow majority of seats to form a government without relying on the secular right-wing parties of either Lieberman or Gantz.

A more polarised Israel

Yossi Gurvitz, an Israeli journalist and researcher on religious extremism, said the rise of the religious right was an indication of wider shifts in Israeli society.

“Israel is getting more religious, and its religious parties are getting more extreme, while much of what’s left of Israeli society is becoming more militantly secular in response,” he told Middle East Eye. “Israel is polarising, and each side is increasingly intolerant of the other.”

The secular camp, however, has been playing a less significant role with each passing government.

Menachem Klein, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, said he doubted whether it was still possible for a secular government to be established without including some of the religious parties.

“It would be a nightmare,” he told MEE. “Any move, whether allowing transport on Shabbat, dismantling settlements or talking to the Palestinian leadership would face an enormous social backlash if it was made without the sanction of the religious factions.”

‘Chosen people’

A poll of Israeli Jews last year by the liberal Haaretz newspaper highlighted Israeli society’s growing religiosity, which closely aligns with the rise of ultra-nationalism.

Some 54 percent of the Jewish public expressed a belief in God, with that figure rising to 78 percent among those describing themselves as on the right.

An overwhelming majority of right-wing Israelis – 79 percent – view Jews as the chosen people, and a similar number, 74 percent, believe Israel exists by divine promise.

Younger voters are markedly more religious than their grandparents – 64 percent compared to 22 percent. Exactly half of young Israelis reject the scientific theory of evolution, and 58 percent believe in life after death. Haaretz noted a clear correlation between Israeli youth’s growing religiosity and their embrace of right-wing views.

“If you think Israel is religious, conservative and hawkish enough as it is, wait for the fundamentalist theocracy that’s lurking around the corner,” the paper’s analyst Chemi Shalev concluded.

Rallying the right

How Israel’s coming election plays out will depend on how successful Netanyahu is in rallying religious voters to the polling booth, either for Likud or for a handful of more overtly religious parties.

The religious right itself is characterised by three main blocs. All believe that the occupied territories belong exclusively to the Jewish people, and are united in their unabashed support for the settlements and the entrenchment of the occupation.

Political differences relate chiefly to matters of how quickly and brazenly the occupied territories should be annexed and how the Palestinian population there should be dealt with.

More significant than ideological differences, however, are the varied religious constituencies that each bloc represents.

Netanyahu’s Likud party is the largest, and draws primarily on the support of religious traditionalists – Israeli Jews who are generally observant and socially conservative.

Likud, Gurvitz noted, has moved more firmly into the religious camp since 2005 when its then-leader, Ariel Sharon, pulled the last remaining settlers out of Gaza. A backlash from the settlers effectively forced Sharon and his supporters out of Likud to create a short-lived secular faction called Kadima.

“What was left behind in Likud was the hard right,” he said. “The party has been moving ever further to the right under Netanyahu.”

Since then, the settlers and their allies have come to dominate Likud’s internal committees, meaning none of its parliamentary candidates wish to risk alienating them, according to Gurvitz.

Politics of the rabbis

The second bloc comprises two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which look to their respective chief rabbis for political direction. Between them they won 16 seats in April.

The main difference between the two relates to ethnicity. United Torah Judaism represents the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, whose recent ancestry is traced to Europe. Shas, meanwhile, represents the Mizrahim, Jews whose families hailed mostly from the Arab world.

Shas, observed Gurvitz, has blended its rigid belief in divine law with nationalism more easily than UTJ because of its long-held anti-Arab positions. A section of its followers serve in the army. Some also work, unlike most Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox men, who devote themselves to studying the Torah.

The UTJ, by contrast, has adapted more slowly. Historically, it was anti-Zionist, rejecting the secular institutions of an Israeli state – including the army and the courts – until the Messiah arrived to build God’s kingdom.

But over the past two decades, its leaders too have gradually, though more reluctantly, moved into the nationalist fold.

That change, according to Gurvitz, has happened because, given the ultra-Orthodox public’s high birth rates, many have been forced to seek cheap housing solutions in the settlements.

“As they move into the settlements, their politics shift further rightwards,” said Gurvitz. “Nowadays they give their leaders hell if they don’t stick fast to ultra-nationalistic positions, or if they try to cut deals with parties outside the right.”

Gurvitz added: “This means the ultra-Orthodox parties are today effectively in the bag for Netanyahu.”

Orders from God

The third bloc comprises various small far-right parties representing what are known in Israel as the national-religious camp – those who subscribe to the ideology of the settler community.

Gurvitz estimates the camp numbers close to one million – or about one in seven of Israel’s Jewish population. About half live in the settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The majority are religious, but not all of them.

The camp has proved fractious, but its three main parties established an electoral coalition last week called United Right, which polls currently suggest may win up to 14 seats.

The oldest of the parties is Jewish Home, whose new leader is Rafael Peretz, a former chief rabbi of the Israeli army and currently serving as Netanyahu’s interim education minister.

Peretz has caused controversy recently by referring to a trend of American Jews marrying non-Jews as a “second Holocaust” and by speaking out in favour of gay conversion therapy, claiming to have performed it himself successfully in the past.

The second party, Tkuma, is led by Bezalel Smotrich, currently the transport minister. After being appointed, he declared that he took his orders from God, not Netanyahu.

Smotrich has in the past called for a shoot-to-kill policy against Palestinian children who throw stones, and demanded segregated maternity wards to prevent Israeli and Palestinian citizens mixing. He has also described himself as a “proud homophobe”.

Both Peretz and Smotrich were due to deliver speeches this week at a ceremony honouring Yitzchak Ginsburgh. The controversial rabbi has praised the King’s Torah, a notorious handbook that sanctions the murder of Palestinian children, and has previously lauded Baruch Goldstein, who massacred dozens of Palestinians in a Hebron mosque in 1994.

Gaza’s ‘little snakes’

The third party in the coalition, New Right, which broke from Jewish Home late last year, narrowly failed to pass the electoral threshold in April, costing Netanyahu his victory.

Now led by Ayelet Shaked, a secular politician, New Right downplays the role of Jewish religious law. It has tried to appeal to secular, nationalistic Jews by adopting a more tolerant stance on identity issues, such as gay rights and feminism.

Shaked, who previously served as justice minister, has been outspoken in rejecting liberal democratic values, however, calling them “utopian”. She has said: “Zionism should not – and will not – bow before a system of individual rights interpreted universally.”

During Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, she also declared that “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy”, and appeared to approve of the slaughter of Gaza’s civilians, calling for Palestinian mothers to be killed to stop them giving birth to “little snakes”.

Three smaller national-religious parties are outside the United Right coalition and, barring last-minute changes, are not expected to make it into the parliament.

Noam is a backlash party from within the national-religious camp to the social liberalism of Shaked’s New Right, demanding a “normative” Jewish family life.

Jewish Power comprises the unrepentant remnants of the virulently anti-Arab Kach party, led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, that was outlawed in Israel in the 1990s.

And the libertarian-nationalist Zehut party, led by Moshe Feiglin, an exile from Likud, demands full annexation of the West Bank.

State agencies infiltrated

Gurvitz observed that the three main national-religious factions all place a strong emphasis on military service, and have focused on getting settlers into senior roles inside the army.

Rather than rejecting the state’s secular institutions, as the ultra-Orthodox tend to do, the settler parties have been working hard to infiltrate and gradually take them over, with some success in the case of the police, the courts, the education system and even the ruling Likud party.

They view themselves as in a culture war, trying to infuse Israel with a stronger Jewish identity.

The three parties have minor differences over their approaches to annexation of the West Bank, likely the biggest issue facing the next parliament.

Shaked’s New Right and Peretz’s Jewish Home demand formal annexation of most of the West Bank, denying Palestinians there equal rights and imposing apartheid-style rule over them.

Since Donald Trump became US President, Likud has moved closer to openly adopting this as its policy.

Smotrich, meanwhile, would prefer to annex the entire West Bank and has been more explicit in suggesting it would be necessary to ethnic cleanse Palestinians as part of that annexation process.

Courts intimidated

Paradoxically, two of the three religious-dominated blocs are led by secular politicians: Likud by Netanyahu, and the coalition of settler parties by Shaked.

Shaked’s leadership role is the more surprising given that national-religious rabbis have pushed to remove women from public life.

However, Shaked has won support from influential figures such as Avichai Rontski, a former army chief rabbi. He has approved partnerships with nationalist secular politicians, calling them “religious in the broad sense of the word”.

Analysts noted that Shaked has won a dominant role in the political leadership of the national-religious public, over the rabbis’ objections, for two reasons.

First, she proved to be a very effective justice minister for the settlers in Netanyahu’s last government. She intimidated the courts and promoted a large number of conservative religious judges, including to the supreme court.

Equally importantly, noted Gurvitz, she changed the justice ministry’s position on settlement “outposts”, built in violation of a settlement freeze agreed by Israel in the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s.

Traditionally, justice ministry officials accepted – at least in public – that these 100 or so outposts were illegal and that they should be dismantled when the army or the government viewed the time as right.

But officials under Shaked changed tack, arguing to the courts that the outposts were in essence legal, but had been created with administrative irregularities that needed correcting. The Regularisation Law formalised this approach, clearing the way to future annexation of much of the West Bank.

Nationalism as ‘a bridge’

Second, Klein pointed out, Shaked was seen as a bridge between the religious and secular nationalist right that could maximise its electoral vote.

The complexity on the right, he said, was caused by the fact that “Jewish” identity had both religious and ethnic components.

“For some people their Jewish nationalism is based on theology and religious observance. For others, like Shaked and Netanyahu, their nationalism derives from an idea of Jewish peoplehood, without a religious element. You can find both types supporting Likud and the national-religious bloc.

“The ‘peoplehood nationalists’ are not interested in universal values. They think the Jewish people are special, and that they have extra rights as Jews. Any religious sentiments they harbour are subservient to this idea of peoplehood,” he said.

Polls have shown Shaked to be remarkably popular among religious nationalists, coming out way ahead of her rivals.

For all three parties to pass the electoral threshold and avoid wasting votes, Klein observed, they needed to unite.

In fact, to maximise votes for the religious right and avoid needing Lieberman’s seats, Netanyahu pushed hard to get the openly anti-Arab party Jewish Power into the United Right coalition – without success.

Klein noted that Netanyahu preferred working with the religious over the secular right. In the run-up to the election, all the religious parties have been keen to pledge allegiance to a Netanyahu government.

“They are very easy partners for Netanyahu,” he said. “Give them a few ministries and some budgets for their community and they will get behind whatever he wants to do.”

‘Difficult dance’ for votes

Shaked and Netanyahu are politically similar. Shaked worked as Netanyahu’s bureau chief back in 2006, and a short time later brought in Naftali Bennett, her current partner in New Right. Both left four years later after a personal falling out with Netanyahu.

The Israeli media widely reported Shaked’s efforts to return to Likud before the September election. Netanyahu rebuffed her. That may be in part because he fears she could be a major challenger for his Likud crown were she to gain a foothold.

Gurvitz observed that Netanyahu was involved in a “difficult dance” with the settler parties for votes.

“He needs their votes to ensure he can form a government, but he doesn’t want them so strong that they can dictate terms to him,” he said.

Gurvitz believed that, with the United Right now certain to pass the threshold, Netanyahu would seek to steal votes from them in the final stages of the election, as he has done before.

The fact that Likud and the United Right compete for largely the same pool of voters had fuelled even more extremist positions on the right, he added.

“The national-religious parties need to offer more extreme policies to distinguish themselves from Likud, otherwise they will lose votes to Netanyahu,” he said.

“But that then encourages Netanyahu to take more extreme positions to ensure he doesn’t look less nationalist than his rivals. It ends up creating a spiral of extremism.”

• First published in Middle East Eye