Category Archives: Benjamin Netanyahu

Desperate Netanyahu Openly Embraces Jewish Extremists

After a decade of coalition governments in Israel led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the language needed to describe them has necessarily grown more extreme.

At first, they were right-wing. Then ultra-nationalist. Recently, analysts have started to talk of Netanyahu leading a far-right coalition. Now it seems we may have to go further still.

Should he win Israel’s election in April, Netanyahu’s next government will be one that openly embraces the terrorist right.

Last week, the Central Elections Committee, a body overseeing the election process and dominated by the main political factions, gave the green light for Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) to run for the Israeli parliament.

That has shocked many observers, because the party is justifiably described as a Jewish version of the Ku Klux Klan.

But Otzma Yehudit won’t only be expecting to win seats in the Knesset. Thanks to Netanyahu, it now has a good chance of becoming a partner in the next government.

Jewish supremacists

The party, founded six years ago, is a political refuge for a group of disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. He and his followers are usually termed anti-Arab racists, but nowadays that applies to a significant swath of political opinion in Israel. They are better described as violent Jewish supremacists.

They back a Greater Israel that includes the occupied territories, all of which they want free of Palestinians. The leaders openly defend and associate with extremists within the settler movement who use terror and violence as a way to secure that very goal.

Last year, Otzma Yehudit’s leader, Michael Ben-Ari, called for violence against Israel’s 1.7-million-strong Palestinian minority, who have second-class citizenship, calling them “a fifth column” that was “waging war against us”.

He warned them: “If you speak against a Jew, you’re not going to be alive … You’re not going to be deported or have your citizenship revoked. You’re not going to be alive! You’ll be put in front of a firing squad, taken down – this is what Arabs understand.”

Ben-Ari has done so little to conceal his support for violence that the US issued a travel ban against him in 2012.

In response to the election committee’s decision, Issawi Frej, an Israeli-Palestinian member of the Knesset, said: “Now our prime minister is laying out the red carpet before the man [Ben-Ari] who said a simple phrase: ‘Kahane was right.’”

Pact with the devil

Netanyahu’s pact with Otzma Yehudit last month was designed to get him out of an electoral hole.

Unsure of how his voters will respond to the indictments he now faces for bribery and fraud, and up against a group of military generals in a popular new party, Netanyahu needs to win over as many right-wing votes as possible – wherever they come from.

Although there are technical reasons why Netanyahu needs Otzma Yehudit, he clearly believes that the political climate he has helped to foster over the past decade has made it acceptable to include these Jewish supremacists in his prospective government.

That was underscored this week when Netanyahu reiterated on social media that Israel was “not a state of all its citizens” – that it did not belong to the fifth of its citizens who are Palestinian but exclusively to the Jewish people around the world.

Netanyahu’s reliance on Otzma Yehudit follows a recent split in another extreme party in his coalition, Jewish Home, that is close to the fanatical religious wing of the settlers. Jewish Home’s political “stars”, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, both government ministers, recently left to create yet another far-right party called the New Right.

Need for extra votes

What was left of the Jewish Home party risked falling just short of the electoral threshold, which needs to be surpassed before a party wins seats in the Knesset. That would result in all its votes being lost, and thereby provide a boost to Netanyahu’s chief opponent, Blue and White, a party led by Benny Gantz and other generals.

Gantz may then be in a position to create an alternative governing coalition made up of the right and centre, and supported informally by a bloc of Israeli-Palestinian parties.

So Netanyahu threw caution to the wind and arm-twisted Jewish Home into making an electoral pact with Otzma Yehudit. Together, they hope to hoover up enough votes to gain a clutch of seats and thereby prop up another government led by Netanyahu’s Likud party.

In fact, Otzma Yehudit is the successor to Kahane’s original party, Kach, which briefly entered the Israeli parliament in the 1980s.

Then, the electoral threshold was much lower, and Kahane was able to win a single seat for himself. But his explicit anti-Arab racism and calls for violence were so discomfiting to the other parties that they shunned him in the Knesset.

Given the added exposure, however, Kahane’s popularity grew. With the prospect of Kach winning several seats in the next election, the parliament amended the election laws to prevent the party from standing. Kahane was assassinated in the US shortly afterwards, in 1990.

When one of his followers, Baruch Goldstein, shot more than 150 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994, killing 29, Kach was outlawed as a terrorist organisation.

Manipulating the legal system

But Kach never went away. It didn’t even go properly underground. It flourished in many of the settlements deep in the occupied Palestinian territories, and its former leaders became household names.

The settler youths it cultivated torched olive groves, then mosques, and more recently Palestinian families. The Israeli police and intelligence services made little effort to find the culprits.

But while its violence continued, its leaders grew more sophisticated in the ways they learned to manipulate Israel’s political and legal systems.

Ben-Ari’s deputy, Itamar Ben-Gvir, became a lawyer, finding that it was easy to exploit the reticence of the criminal justice system to prosecute Jews who harm Palestinians.

Related “charities” have promoted Kach’s brand of Jewish supremacism and terrorism, including Lehava, which uses intimidation and violence to stop Jews and Palestinians from dating or even mixing.

Threatened with a noose

Since Kach formally reinvented itself as Otzma Yehudit ahead of the 2013 election, it’s been looking for a way back into parliament. But to the evident delight of its leadership, its brand of anti-Arab racism has in the meantime become so mainstream that Netanyahu can afford to offer it a place in the bosom of the next government.

Netanyahu’s backing for these Jewish supremacists is a clear signal about where the Israeli right plans to push the country next. The evidence has been building for some time that the Netanyahu right has moved remarkably close to Kahane’s positions of three decades ago.

One of Kahane’s stated priorities then was to remove the representatives of Israel’s 1.7 million Palestinian citizens from the Israeli parliament. He regarded them as traitors, a Trojan horse for the larger Palestinian cause that could undermine Israel as a Jewish state from within.

On one occasion in 1988, Kahane publicly threatened an Israeli-Palestinian legislator with a noose.

‘Terrorists’ in the Knesset

Such views – and threats – are now entirely normalised inside Netanyahu’s government. Avigdor Lieberman, until recently Netanyahu’s defence minister and someone who himself spent his formative political years in Kach, has repeatedly sought to cast the Palestinian Knesset members as traitors deserving the death penalty.

Last year he called Ayman Odeh, the joint head of the Palestinian parties, a “terrorist”. He has condemned the legislators as “war criminals” working “to destroy us from within”. He had earlier argued that they should be “executed”.

Lieberman helped Netanyahu drive through legislation to raise the electoral threshold in 2014, in a barely concealed effort to bar Palestinian parties from gaining any seats in the parliament.

When that move backfired, after Palestinian parties combined to form the Joint List, the government responded by passing an Expulsion Law, which empowers a three-quarters majority – in effect, of Jewish legislators – to expel a representative for holding opinions they do not like.

That threat is intended to serve as a sword hanging over Palestinian lawmakers, to prevent them from speaking out on key issues, such as the structural violence of the occupation or the systemic discrimination faced by Israel’s non-Jewish population.

How Netanyahu himself views the representation of Palestinian citizens was illustrated starkly on the day of the 2015 election, when he warned that his government’s survival was “in danger”. He clarified: “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

‘Citizens, not lepers’

Under pressure from then-US President Barack Obama, he apologised for his remark, but he has already restated that sentiment in the early stages of this campaign.

Netanyahu suggested that a Gantz-led government could betray the country by relying on informal support from Palestinian legislators. The prime minister characterised this electoral alliance as “an obstructive bloc” that would be “working to eliminate the state of Israel”.

Netanyahu was thereby trying to create a false equivalence between his move to forge an alliance with the terror-supporting Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit and Gantz’s possible reliance on Israel’s main Palestinian parties.

This incitement barely attracted attention, apart from a former Israeli-Palestinian Supreme Court judge, Salim Joubran, who reminded Netanyahu: “These [Palestinian] citizens are legitimate, not invalid, contemptible, or lepers.”

Marches demanding expulsion

Efforts to cast the elected representatives of Israel’s large Palestinian minority as traitors are intended to send a message that the Palestinian public is equally disloyal.

That would have been welcomed by Kahane. Under the slogan “They Must Go”, he argued that there was no place for Palestinians either in Israel or in the occupied territories.

Shortly after he entered parliament in 1984, he staged a provocative march to Umm al-Fahm, a large Palestinian town in Israel that lies close to the West Bank, to demand that its inhabitants emigrate. Police blocked his way, and government leaders protested that his actions were “shameful” and “dangerous”.

In recent years, his disciples, led by Baruch Marzel, have held similar marches to Umm al-Fahm and other Palestinian communities in Israel. These marches, however, have been approved by the courts and are provided with a police escort.

Accusations of disloyalty

For more than a decade, Kahane’s message has been echoed from within the government. Lieberman has heavily promoted a “static transfer” programme, in which communities such as Umm al-Fahm – and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens – would find themselves cast outside Israel through the redrawing of borders. They would be stripped of their citizenship.

After Lieberman announced his plan, it was backed by the right-wing prime minister of the time, Ariel Sharon. More recently, the proposal has won support from Netanyahu.

Lieberman has also been at the forefront of a popular Israeli discourse that demands Palestinian citizens demonstrate their loyalty to a Jewish state – or more precisely, a state that abides by the far-right positions of Netanyahu’s government.

By those standards, Palestinian citizens are bound to fail and appear disloyal.

It is within that framework that the Central Elections Committee, while approving Otzma Yehudit, banned a major Palestinian party, Balad, from running in April’s election.

It did so on the grounds that Balad opposes Israel being a Jewish state and demands it become a state belonging to all its citizens, or a liberal democracy, which would give equal rights to Palestinian and Jewish citizens.

Incitement over forest fires

Constant incitement against Palestinians has come from the prime minister down.

Two years ago, for example, Netanyahu accused Palestinian citizens of being behind forest fires that raged across Israel, in what he claimed was an attempt to burn down the state. This smear dominated front pages, even though authorities never produced any evidence for it.

But it has contributed to an intensifying racism shared among much of the Israeli Jewish public, as consistently demonstrated in polls.

According to one in December, 88 percent would object to their son befriending a girl belonging to Israel’s Palestinian minority, and 90 percent would oppose their daughter being friends with an Arab boy. Nearly half do not want a Palestinian citizen as a neighbour.

Annexing the West Bank

Meanwhile, in the occupied territories, Kahane’s calls for Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank and at the hyper-sensitive holy site of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem are now a staple of the Netanyahu government’s discourse.

Ministers such as Bennett and Shaked, as well as senior members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, openly speak about seeking to annex large swaths of the West Bank.

At the same time, Al-Aqsa Mosque – which Israeli Jews call Temple Mount – has become ever-more a flashpoint, as the right focuses its attention on asserting a stronger Jewish presence there and tightening Israel’s control over the site. Tensions there have again risen in recent days.

Were he alive today, Kahane would be delighted at how much influence he has exerted over the subsequent period – not only on popular discourse in Israel, but on the strategic aims of Israeli governments.

And now, his disciples in Otzma Yehudit have a chance – care of Netanyahu – to carry on Kahane’s work from inside the next government and to accelerate the pace of change.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Chasing Mirages: What Are Palestinians Doing to Combat the “Deal of the Century”?

More US measures have been taken in recent weeks to further cement the Israeli position and isolate the Palestinian Authority (PA), before the official unveiling of President Donald Trump’s so-called ‘deal of the century’. But while attention is focused on spiteful US actions, little time has been spent discussing the PA’s own responses, options and strategies.

The last of Washington’s punitive measures came on March 3, when the US shut down its Consulate in Jerusalem, thus downgrading the status of its diplomatic mission in Palestine. The Consulate has long served as a de-facto American embassy to the Palestinians. Now, the Consulate’s staff will merge into the US embassy in Israel, which was officially moved to Jerusalem last May – in violation of international consensus regarding the status of the occupied city.

Robert Palladino, US State Department spokesperson, explained the move in a statement, saying that “this decision was driven by our global efforts to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our diplomatic engagements and operations.”

Diplomatic hogwash aside, ‘efficiency and effectiveness’ have nothing to do with the shutting of the Consulate. The decision is but a continuation of successive US measures aimed at “taking Jerusalem off the table” – as per Trump’s own words – of any future negotiations.

International law, which recognizes East Jerusalem as an occupied Palestinian city, is of no relevance to the Trump administration, which has fully shed any semblance of balance as it is now wholly embracing the Israeli position on Jerusalem.

To bring Palestinians into line, and to force their leadership to accept whatever bizarre version of ‘peace’ Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has in mind, the US has already taken several steps aimed at intimidating the PA. These steps include the cutting of $200 million in direct aid to Gaza and the West Bank, and the freezing of another $300 million dollars that were provided annually to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

That, and the shutting down of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington DC, on September 10, were all the signs needed to fully fathom the nature of the US ultimatum to the Palestinian leadership: accept our terms or face the consequences.

It is no secret that various US governments have served as the financial and even political backers of the PA in Ramallah. While the PA has not always seen eye-to-eye with US foreign policy, its survival remained, till recently, a top American priority.

The PA has helped Washington sustain its claim to being an ‘honest peace broker’, thus enjoying a position of political leadership throughout the Middle East region.

Moreover, by agreeing to take part in assisting the Israeli military in policing the Occupied Territories through joint US-funded ‘security coordination’, the PA has proved its trustworthiness to its US benefactors.

While the PA remained committed to that arrangement, Washington reneged.

According to the far-right Israeli government coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu, PA leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is simply not doing enough.

‘Doing enough’, from an Israeli political perspective, is for Palestinians to drop any claims to occupied East Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine, accept that illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank would have to remain in place regardless of the nature of the future ‘peace agreement’, and to also drop any legal or moral claims pertaining to Palestinian refugees right of return.

While the PA has demonstrated its political and moral flexibility in the past, there are certain red lines that even Abbas himself cannot cross.

It remains to be seen how the PA position will evolve in the future as far as the soon-to-be announced ‘deal of the century’ is concerned.

Yet, considering that Trump’s blind support for Israel has been made quite clear over the course of the last two years, one is bewildered by the fact that Abbas and his government have done little by way of counteracting Washington’s new aggressive strategy targeting the Palestinians.

Save for a few symbolic ‘victories’ at the United Nations and UN-related bodies, Abbas has done little by way of a concrete and unified Palestinian action.

Frankly, recognizing a Palestinian state on paper is not a strategy, per se. The push for greater recognition has been in the making since the PLO Algiers conference in 1988, when the Palestine National Council declared a Palestinian state to the jubilation of millions around the world. Many countries, especially in the global south, quickly recognized the State of Palestine.

Yet, instead of using such a symbolic declaration as a component of a larger strategy aimed at realizing this independence on the ground, the PA simply saw the act of recognizing Palestine as an end in itself. Now, there are 137 countries that recognize the State of Palestine. Sadly, however, much more Palestinian land has been stolen by Israel to expand on or build new Jewish-only colonies on the land designated to be part of that future state.

It should have been clear, by now, that placing a Palestinian flag on a table at some international conference, or even having a Palestine chair at the G77 UN coalition of developing countries, is not a substitute for a real strategy of national liberation.

The two main Palestinian factions, Abbas’ own Fatah party and Hamas, are still as diverged as ever. In fact, Abbas seems to focus more energy on weakening his political rivals in Palestine than on combating the Israeli Occupation. In recent weeks, Abbas has taken yet more punitive financial measures targeting various sectors of Gaza society. The collective punishment is even reaching families of prisoners and those killed by the Israeli army.

Without a united front, a true strategy or any form of tangible resistance, Abbas is now vulnerable to more US pressure and manipulation. Yet, instead of moving quickly to solidify the Palestinian front, and to reach out to genuine allies in the Middle East and worldwide to counter the bitter US campaign, Abbas has done little.

Instead, the Palestinian leader continues to chase political mirages, taking every opportunity to declare more symbolic victories that he needs to sustain his legitimacy among Palestinians for a while longer.

The painful truth, however, is this: it is not just US bullying that has pushed the PA into this unenviable position, but, sadly, the self-serving nature and political bankruptcy of the Palestinian leadership itself.

Once Again, the UN has failed to Name Firms that Profit from Israel’s Illegal Settlements

The United Nations postponed last week for the third time the publication of a blacklist of Israeli and international firms that profit directly from Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

The international body had come under enormous pressure to keep the database under wraps after lobbying behind the scenes from Israel, the United States and many of the 200-plus companies that were about to be named.

UN officials have suggested they may go public with the list in a few months.

But with no progress since the UN’s Human Rights Council requested the database back in early 2016, Palestinian leaders are increasingly fearful that it has been permanently shelved.

That was exactly what Israel hoped for. When efforts were first made to publish the list in 2017, Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, warned: “We will do everything we can to ensure that this list does not see the light of day.”

He added that penalising the settlements was “an expression of modern antisemitism”.

Both Israel and the US pulled out of the Human Rights Council last year, claiming that Israel was being singled out.

Israel has good reason to fear greater transparency. Bad publicity would most likely drive many of these firms, a few of them household names, out of the settlements under threat of a consumer backlash and a withdrawal of investments by religious organisations and pension funds.

The UN has reportedly already warned Coca-Cola, Teva Pharmaceuticals, the defence electronics company Elbit Systems and Africa Israel Investments of their likely inclusion. Israeli telecoms and utility companies are particularly exposed because grids serving the settlements are integrated with those in Israel.

There is an added danger that the firms might be vulnerable to prosecutions, should the International Criminal Court at The Hague eventually open an investigation into whether the settlements constitute a war crime, as the Palestinian leadership has demanded.

The exodus of these firms from the West Bank would, in turn, make it much harder for Israel to sustain its colonies on stolen Palestinian land. As a result, efforts to advance a Palestinian state would be strengthened.

Many of the settlements – contrary to widely held impressions of them – have grown into large towns. Their inhabitants expect all the comforts of modern life, from local bank branches to fast-food restaurants and high-street clothing chains.

Nowadays, a significant proportion of Israel’s 750,000 settlers barely understand that their communities violate international law.

The settlements are also gradually being integrated into the global economy, as was highlighted by a row late last year when Airbnb, an accommodation-bookings website, announced a plan to de-list properties in West Bank settlements.

The company was possibly seeking to avoid inclusion on the database, but instead it faced a severe backlash from Israel’s supporters.

This month the US state of Texas approved a ban on all contracts with Airbnb, arguing that the online company’s action was “antisemitic”.

As both sides understand, a lot hangs on the blacklist being made public.

If Israel and the US succeed, and western corporations are left free to ignore the Palestinians’ dispossession and suffering, the settlements will sink their roots even deeper into the West Bank. Israel’s occupation will become ever more irreversible, and the prospect of a Palestinian state ever more distant.

A 2013 report on the ties between big business and the settlements noted the impact on the rights of Palestinians was “pervasive and devastating”.

Sadly, the UN leadership’s cowardice on what should be a straightforward matter – the settlements violate international law, and firms should not assist in such criminal enterprises – is part of a pattern.

Repeatedly, Israel has exerted great pressure on the UN to keep its army off a “shame list” of serious violators of children’s rights. Israel even avoided a listing in 2015 following its 50-day attack on Gaza the previous year, which left more than 500 Palestinian children dead. Dozens of armies and militias are named each year.

The Hague court has also been dragging its feet for years over whether to open a proper war crimes investigation into Israel’s actions in Gaza, as well as the settlements.

The battle to hold Israel to account is likely to rage again this year, after the publication last month of a damning report by UN legal experts into the killing of Palestinian protesters at Gaza’s perimeter fence by Israeli snipers.

Conditions for Gaza’s two million Palestinians have grown dire since Israel imposed a blockade, preventing movement of goods and people, more than a decade ago.

The UN report found that nearly all of those killed by the snipers – 154 out of 183 – were unarmed. Some 35 Palestinian children were among the dead, and of the 6,000 wounded more than 900 were minors. Other casualties included journalists, medical personnel and people with disabilities.

The legal experts concluded that there was evidence of war crimes. Any identifiable commanders and snipers, it added, should face arrest if they visited UN member states.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, dismissed the report as “lies” born out of “an obsessive hatred of Israel”.

Certainly, it has caused few ripples in western capitals. Britain’s opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was a lone voice in calling for an arms embargo on Israel in response.

It is this Israeli exceptionalism that is so striking. The more violent Israel becomes towards the Palestinians and the more intransigent in rejecting peace, the less pressure is exerted upon it.

Not only does Israel continue to enjoy generous financial, military and diplomatic support from the US and Europe, both are working ever harder to silence criticisms of its actions by their own citizens.

As the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement grows larger, western capitals have casually thrown aside commitments to free speech in a bid to crush it.

France has already criminalised support for a boycott of Israel, and its president Emmanuel Macron recently proposed making it illegal to criticise Zionism, the ideology that underpins Israel’s rule over Palestinians.

More than two dozen US states have passed anti-BDS legislation, denying companies and individual contractors dealing with the government of that particular state the right to boycott Israel. In every case, Israel is the only country protected by these laws. Last month, the US Senate passed a bill that adds federal weight to this state-level campaign of intimidation.

The hypocrisy of these states – urging peace in the region while doing their best to subvert it – is clear. Now the danger is that UN leaders will join them.

• First published in The National

Why the Outrage? “Jewish Power” Party is the New Norm in Israeli Politics

Immediately after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forged an alliance with the fringe political group, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), a widespread outrage ensued.

The anger did not emanate only from the Center, Left and Arab parties, but from some in the Right as well. Even the pro-Israel lobby in the US, known for its hawkish political views, spoke out against the sinister union.

“The views of Otzma Yehudit”, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tweeted, “are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”

But what if they do? And what if “Otzma Yehudit” is but a different political articulation of mainstream Israeli views, reflecting the very “core values” that even AIPAC has been blindly defending since its inception in 1953?

Prior to the alliance between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, Rafi Peretz’s far-right Jewish Home, and Otzma Yehudit, which was struck on February 20, Israel was hardly a liberal democracy that shunned racism and embraced political pluralism. Indeed, it must be understood that the inclusion of Otzma Yehudit in Israel’s mainstream political scene is consistent with the moral corruption of Israeli politics as a whole.

To protest the alliance between Netanyahu and the fanatical leaders of Otzma Yehudit is to suggest that mainstream Israeli politicians don’t represent the very chauvinistic, racist and violent ideals that the extremist party has championed since its formation in 2012.

Otzma Yehudit was resurrected by the followers of Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who has advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and has led his followers in many violent incursions against Palestinian Arab communities, in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories.

His Kach party, banned in Israel four years after its formation in 1984, was even then not rejected for its “racist policies” as many in the media are now suggesting. The party operated outside the confines of the Israeli government agenda, thus it was forced out, but its violent ideas persisted in the Knesset until this day. If racism against Palestinians was truly a Kach-championed political anomaly, how is one to explain the racist Nation-State law, which defines Israel as a “the nation-state of the Jewish people” – elevating everything Jewish and degrading everything Palestinian?

The law is hardly different from Otzma Yehudit’s own constitution, which defines Israel as a “Jewish state in its character, its national symbols and its legal values”, also defining Hebrew as Israel’s “only official language”.

In fact, a careful reading of the party’s constitution and the text of the Nation-State law reveals astounding similarities. This suggests that since the days of Meir Kahane, it is Israeli society that has drawn closer to the views of Jewish extremists, not the other way around.

Indeed, Kahane was assassinated in 1990, but his ideas lived on, expanding along with Jewish settlements to finally capture mainstream imagination. The outrage against the Netanyahu-Otzma Yehudit alliance is likely motivated by a slight degree of fear that the ugly face of Zionism has been fully exposed to the world.

As for AIPAC, it is clear that no amount of carefully-worded diplomatic language will suffice to explain why the Israeli government is to be populated by members of a party that has been listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department since 1994.

Netanyahu is desperate, and, as history has taught us, when the Israeli Prime Minister is in a political jam, he would stoop to any level to free himself. In the last general elections in 2015, Netanyahu made a final appeal to his supporters. “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” he said, resorting to his typical style of fear-mongering. Unsurprisingly, he won.

Netanyahu is more desperate now than ever. His opponents in the Center are merging their parties in a new list, Kahol Lavan or “Blue and White”, which has the potential to unseat him on April 9.

Worse, the Israeli attorney general has resolved on February 28 to indict Netanyahu for “bribery and fraud”. A poll published the following day found that two-thirds of Israelis think that Netanyahu should resign if indicted.

Netanyahu’s own opportunistic legacy is more than enough to explain his decision to reach out to Otzma Yehudit, but what is truly mind-boggling is the outrage at a political move that seems perfectly fit for Israel’s mainstream politics.

Even if Israel’s Central Election Committee resolves to bar Otzma Yehudit from participating in the upcoming elections, little will change in terms of the values and ideals the party stands for, principles that, in one way or another, also define Jewish Home, the New Right, the Likud and others.

Otzma Yehudit’s platform calls for a war against the “enemies of Israel” that must “be total, without negotiations, without concessions and without compromises”.

But isn’t this essentially the same view of Ayelet Shaked, Minister of Justice in Netanyahu’s coalition, and now one of the leaders of the newly formed “New Right” party?

In 2014, just before Israel unleashed its most destructive war on the besieged Gaza Strip, Shaked declared the need for a total war. “Not an operation, not a slow-moving one, not low-intensity, not controlled escalation … This is a war … This is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people …”

More than 2,139 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed in the Israeli war that followed her declaration, and over 11,000 were wounded.

Why the outrage, then, when the fringe party’s mission to “restore the sovereignty and ownership over the Temple Mount” – meaning, Al-Aqsa Mosque – is consistent with the views of most Israelis, religious and secular alike? Knesset members have made that call repeatedly, often from Al-Aqsa itself, while surrounded by scores of soldiers and armed Jewish settlers.

As for the confiscation of Palestinian land and the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements, as Otzma Yehudit advocates, that, too, is a common ideal that most Israeli political groups, spanning the Right and Left, brazenly champion.

AIPAC is not only being hypocritical to suggest that Otzma Yehudit violates the “core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel”, it is being purposely deceptive as well.

In fact, Otzma Yehudit’s platform only reinforces the existing “core values” of Israel, the same values that AIPAC itself champions without the slightest regard for human rights, international law and the principles of true democratic values.

War on Al-Aqsa: What Price Netanyahu’s Victory

On February 18, members of extremist Jewish groups raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Occupied Al-Quds (Jerusalem). They clashed with Palestinian worshippers, as the settlers attempted to shut down the gate of Al-Aqsa itself.

The clashes involved the Israeli army and police as well, who opened fire and brutally assaulted Palestinians, leading to scores of injuries.

On February 19, the Israeli army carried out the unusual step of shutting down Al-Rahma Gate, which leads to a section of the Al-Aqsa compound that has, itself, been shut down by the Israeli army since 2003.

The provocative decision to seal the gate was clearly made in advance, and the lock and key have the fingerprints of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

It is quite typical for Israeli politicians to carry out confrontational measures against Palestinians shortly before general elections are due. The nature of these measures is determined by the kind of political constituency that Israeli leaders aim to appease.

However, a war on Gaza, at least for now, is too risky an option for Netanyahu as it would take place too close to the April 9 elections date. Moreover, a botched Israeli attack on the Strip on November 11 caused Netanyahu a major embarrassment, forcing him to shelve the Gaza option for now.

That said, if the Israeli Prime Minister’s political standing grows too desperate in the coming weeks, a Gaza war may, once again, be placed on the table.

Indeed, the political union between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, which was declared on February 21, has certainly upped the ante for Netanyahu who has assumed that his election victory is a foretold conclusion.

Gantz and Lapid merged their two parties into one election list called Kahol Lavan (“Blue and White”), the single most serious electoral challenge for Netanyahu in years.

For the time being, Netanyahu has decided to appeal to the most messianic religious segments of Israeli society in order to keep his challengers at bay. This should come as no surprise as the religious, ultra-national far right has been backbone of the Israeli leader’s coalitions for a decade.

In fact, weeks before the Gantz and Lapid union, Netanyahu had taken several measures to show signs of goodwill towards his religious constituency.

One such overture was made on January 28, when Netanyahu ordered the UN unarmed international observers to leave the Occupied Palestinian city of Al-Khalil, where a few hundred armed Jewish settlers have been a constant source of violence. The Jewish settlers of Qiryat Arba’a live under the protection of a massive Israeli army contingent. Both groups have worked together to terrorize the Palestinian inhabitants of the city for many years.

A joint statement issued by several humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Save the Children warned of the terrible fate awaiting the Palestinian community as a result of Netanyahu’s decision in Al-Khalil.

“Hundreds of civilians, including children, will see their safety put at risk by the withdrawal of international observers deployed in the city of Hebron,” the statement read.

True to form, attacks by Jewish settlers followed, as media and rights group reports point to a surge of violence against Palestinian civilians in the city.

By unleashing the wrath of Jewish settlers in Al-Khalil, Netanyahu wanted to communicate to his supporters that he remains committed to their settlement project, an unworthy cause that violates international law and comes at the price of protracted human suffering.

Similarly, the Israeli decision to shut down Al-Rahma Gate on February 19 was a pre-calculated move, aimed at uniting the entirety of the Israeli right, including the most extremist of all religious and settler groups behind Netanyahu’s leadership in the coming elections.

In fact, a trend began a few weeks earlier. On January 9, the Palestinian Ministry of Endowment documented a sharp increase of Israeli violations, involving the Israeli army and Jewish settlers at holy Palestinian sites throughout the month of December. According to the Organization, over 100 such violations were reported, including 30 different incursions into Al-Aqsa itself.

A raid on Al-Aqsa on January 7 involved more than the usual suspects, but was led by Israeli Agriculture Minister and a strong ally of Netanyahu, Uri Ariel.

This type of politically-motivated and highly militarized ‘visits’ to Al-Aqsa are reminiscent of the infamous ‘visit’ by late Israeli right-wing leader, Ariel Sharon in September 2000. At the time, Sharon wanted to increase his chances of becoming Israel’s next prime minister, and to ensure that his arch-rival (then, interestingly enough, the very Benjamin Netanyahu) did not win the Likud Party nomination. The gambit worked. Sharon sparked the Second Palestinian Uprising (2000-05), leading to the deaths of thousands and, of course, securing his seat at the helm of Israeli politics for years.

Netanyahu, ever studious and resourceful, has, indeed, mastered the art of political manipulation as his mentor and, once again, Al-Aqsa is the platform for this sinister Israeli politicking.

Netanyahu’s decision to strike an alliance with Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) – the rebranded party of the extremist late Meir Kahane – further demonstrates how the current surge of violence around the holy Palestinian sites is a pre-calculated political move by Netanyahu and his government.

The fact that Netanyahu would bring into his future coalition groups that are the ideological mutation of the Jewish Defense League – which is classified as ‘terrorist organization’’ by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – speaks volumes about the changing relationship between the US and Israel. Thanks to Washington’s blind support of Israel, Netanyahu feels politically triumphant and invincible, even above US’ own laws.

However, to achieve his pathetic dream of being Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, Netanyahu should be wary of the bloody consequences that his reckless action is sure to yield. Indeed, Netanyahu may be provoking the kind of violence that is much bigger than his own ability to contain.

Al-Aqsa Mosque has served not only as a religious symbol for Palestinians, but a national symbol as well, representing their coveted freedom and serving as a source of hope and unity over the course of generations.

While the blood of Palestinians is irrelevant in Netanyahu’s quest for political dominance, the international community should take immediate measures to prevent what could become an Israeli-induced bloodbath in the coming weeks.

The Denial of Taxes to the PA is an Ominous Sign of Netanyahu’s Grand Plan

Israel’s decision to withhold part of the taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and plunge it deeper into crisis starkly illustrates the hypocrisies and deceptions at the core of the two governments’ relationship.

Under the terms of what are now the quarter century-old Oslo accords, Israel is responsible for collecting about $200 million each month in taxes, which it is supposed to pass on to the PA, the Palestinian government-in-waiting in the West Bank.

The money belongs to the Palestinians but Israel has temporarily withheld it on several occasions in the past as a stick with which to beat the Palestinian leadership into line.

On this occasion, however, the stakes are far higher.

Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu belatedly implemented a law passed last summer that requires his officials to retain part of the taxes owed to the Palestinians – those that the PA transfers to political prisoners’ families as a monthly stipend.

It echoes the Taylor Force Act, a law passed by the US Congress in 2016, that denies American economic aid to the PA until it stops sending those same stipends to 35,000 families of prisoners and those killed and maimed by the Israeli army.

The PA has tried to avert that threat by channelling the payments through a separate body, the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Israel and Washington regard the prisoners simply as terrorists. But most Palestinians view them as heroes, those who have paid the highest price in the struggle for national liberation.

The Palestinian public no more believes the families should be abandoned for their sacrifices than Irish republicans turned their backs on those who fought British rule or black South Africans forsook those who battled apartheid.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called Israel’s actions “robbery” and said he would rather cut funding for health and education than for the prisoners and their families. “They are the most respected and appreciated part of the Palestinian people,” he declared.

Then he played his ace card. He said he would refuse all tax money from Israel until the full sum was reinstated.

That risks plunging the PA into financial meltdown and – most importantly for Israel – might ultimately lead to the disbanding of the Palestinian security services. Their job has long been to act as a security contractor, keeping order on Israel’s behalf in the West Bank.

The security forces hoovered up a massive 20 per cent of the PA’s $5.8 billion state budget last year.

The PA is already reeling from a series of hammer blows to the Palestinian economy. They include Donald Trump’s decision to cut all funding to UNRWA, the refugee agency for Palestinians, and to hospitals in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

In addition, Mr Abbas reportedly declined $60m in annual US aid for his security services last month for fear of exposing the PA to legal action. A new congressional measure makes aid recipients like the PA subject to American anti-terrorism laws.

But the current stand-off between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas lays bare the duplicity of the situation for all to see.

The PA leader may say the prisoners are the most cherished Palestinian constituency but he also describes his security services’ co-ordination with Israel as “sacred”.

The security services’ role is to assist the Israeli army in foiling Palestinian attacks and in arresting the very Palestinians he extols. Mr Abbas cannot realistically hold true to both positions at the same time.

Mr Netanyahu, on the other hand, has nothing to gain from harming the Palestinian security services, which the Israeli army relies on.

The decision to withhold taxes was taken chiefly to boost his popularity as rival right-wing parties compete for who appears the most hawkish before April’s general election.

Paradoxically, in withholding the PA’s tax money, Mr Netanyahu is punishing Mr Abbas, his supposed peace partner, while showing a preference for Hamas, Mr Abbas’s arch rival in Gaza.

Although Israel categorises Hamas as a terror organisation, Mr Netanyahu has been allowing extra funds into Gaza from Qatar to alleviate the enclave’s dire conditions.

Further, there is something richly ironic about Mr Netanyahu rebuking the PA for rewarding Palestinian “terrorists” in the same week he negotiated a deal to assist bringing Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power party, into the Israeli parliament.

The party is Israel’s version of the Ku Klux Klan, disciples of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, whose virulently anti-Arab Kach party was outlawed 25 years ago as a terror organisation.

So appalling is the prospect of this unholy alliance that even pro-Israel lobbies like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee felt compelled to issue statements condemning Jewish Power as “racist and reprehensible”.

Mr Netanyahu believes the extra votes Jewish Power will attract to the right in the election will ensure he has the support necessary to build a coalition that can keep him in power.

But there is another glaring flaw in Mr Netanyahu’s tax grab.

If Mr Abbas’s coffers run low, he will simply send even less money to Gaza, which is already being choked by Israel’s lengthy blockade.

That would intensify the unrest in Gaza, which could lead to rocket attacks into Israel and even larger mass protests by Palestinians at the perimeter fence encaging them.

At the same time, if things remain unresolved, an already fragile PA will move closer to collapse and Hamas might then be poised to fill the void left in the West Bank.

Loss of power for Mr Abbas, combined with loss of a security contractor for Mr Netanyahu, appear to make this confrontation mutually self-destructive – unless Mr Netanyahu and the right have another card up their sleeve.

Hani Al Masri, a Palestinian policy analyst, has wondered whether Mr Netanyahu is setting the stage for US President Donald Trump to introduce his long-awaited “peace deal” after the election.

Much of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition is keen to annex Palestinian areas outside the main West Bank cities, destroying any hope of a Palestinian state ever emerging. Mr Trump might be amenable.

In this scenario, argues Mr Al Masri, Israel would aim to “end what remains of the PA’s political role, preserving only its administrative and security role”. It would be reduced to bin collections and law enforcement.

Should the PA reject the process of being hollowed out, Israel and the US would then look for an alternative, such as rule by local warlords in each Palestinian city and expanded powers for Israeli military rulers in the West Bank.

The denial of taxes to the PA may not yet presage its demise. But it points to a future in which Palestinian self-rule is likely to become an ever-more distant prospect.

• First published at The National, Abu Dhabi

Anti-semitism is Cover for a Much Deeper Divide in Britain’s Labour Party

The announcement by seven MPs from the UK Labour Party on Monday that they were breaking away and creating a new parliamentary faction marked the biggest internal upheaval in a British political party in nearly 40 years, when the SDP split from Labour.

On Wednesday, they were joined by an eighth Labour MP, Joan Ryan, and three Conservative MPs. There are predictions more will follow.

With the UK teetering on the brink of crashing out of the European Union with no deal on Brexit, the founders of the so-called Independent Group made reference to their opposition to Brexit.

The chief concern cited for the split by the eight Labour MPs, however, was a supposed “anti-semitism crisis” in the party.

The breakaway faction seemingly agrees that anti-semitism has become so endemic in the party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader more than three years ago that they were left with no choice but to quit.

Corbyn, it should be noted, is the first leader of a major British party to explicitly prioritise the rights of Palestinians over Israel’s continuing belligerent occupation of the Palestinian territories.

‘Sickeningly racist’?

Luciana Berger, a Jewish MP who has highlighted what she sees as an anti-semitism problem under Corbyn, led the charge, stating at the Independent Group’s launch that she had reached “the sickening conclusion” that Labour was “institutionally racist”.

She and her allies claim she has been hounded out of the party by “anti-semitic bullying”. Berger has suffered online abuse and death threats from rightwing extremists and neo-Nazis.

In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, the former Labour MP said the Independent Group would provide the Jewish community with a “political home that they, like much of the rest of the country, are now looking for”.

In a plea to keep the party together, deputy leader Tom Watson issued a video in which he criticised his own party for being too slow to tackle anti-semitism. He added: “Time is short for us to confront the scale of the problem and meet the consequences, to keep others from leaving”.

Ruth Smeeth, another Jewish Labour MP who may yet join a later wave of departures, was reported to have broken down in tears at a parliamentary party meeting following the split, as she called for tougher action on anti-semitism.

Two days later, as she split from Labour, Ryan accused the party of being “infected with the scourge of anti-Jewish racism”.

Hatred claims undercut

The timing of the defections was strange, occurring shortly after the Labour leadership revealed the findings of an investigation into complaints of anti-semitism in the party. These were the very complaints that MPs such as Berger have been citing as proof of the party’s “institutional racism”.

And yet, the report decisively undercut their claims – not only of endemic anti-semitism in Labour, but of any significant problem at all.

That echoed an earlier report by the Commons home affairs committee, which found there was “no reliable, empirical evidence” that Labour had more of an anti-semitism problem than any other British political party.

Nonetheless, the facts seem to be playing little or no part in influencing the anti-semitism narrative. This latest report was thus almost entirely ignored by Corbyn’s opponents and by the mainstream media.

It is, therefore, worth briefly examining what the Labour Party’s investigation discovered.

Over the previous 10 months, 673 complaints had been filed against Labour members over alleged anti-semitic behaviour, many based on online comments. In a third of those cases, insufficient evidence had been produced.

The 453 other allegations represented 0.08 percent of the 540,000-strong Labour membership. Hardly “endemic” or “institutional”, it seems.

Intemperate language

Those figures, it should be remembered, have almost certainly been inflated by the efforts of Corbyn’s opponents to trawl through Labour members’ social media accounts in search of comments, some of them predating Corbyn’s leadership, that could be portrayed as anti-semitic.

Intemperate language flared especially in 2014 – before Corbyn became leader – when Israel launched a military operation on Gaza that killed large numbers of Palestinian civilians, including many hundreds of children

Certainly, it is unclear how many of those reportedly anti-semitic comments concern not prejudice towards Jews, but rather outspoken criticism of the state of Israel, which was redefined as anti-semitic last year by Labour, under severe pressure from MPs such as Berger and Ryan and Jewish lobby groups, such as the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement.

Seven of the 11 examples of anti-semitism associated with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition adopted by Labour concern Israel. That includes describing Israel as a “racist endeavour”, even though Israel passed a basic law last year stripping the fifth of its population who are not Jewish of any right to self-determination, formally creating two classes of citizen.

Illustrating the problem Labour has created for itself as a result, some of the most high-profile suspensions and expulsions have actually targeted Jewish members of the party who identify as anti-Zionist – that is, they consider Israel a racist state. They include Tony Greenstein, Jackie Walker, Martin Odoni, Glyn Secker and Cyril Chilson.

Another Jewish member, Moshe Machover, a professor emeritus at the University of London, had to be reinstated after a huge outcry among members at his treatment by the party.

Unthinking prejudice

Alan Maddison, who has been conducting statistical research on anti-semitism for a pro-Corbyn Jewish group, Jewish Voice for Labour, put the 0.08 percent figure into its wider social and political context this week

He quoted the findings of a large survey of anti-semitic attitudes published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in 2017. It found that 30 percent of respondents from various walks of society agreed with one or more of eight anti-semitic views, ranging from stereotypes such as “Jews think they are better than other people” to Holocaust denial.

However, lead researcher Daniel Staetsky concluded that in most cases this was evidence of unthinking prejudice rather than conscious bigotry. Four-fifths of those who exhibited a degree of anti-semitism also agreed with at least one positive statement about Jewish people.

This appears to be the main problem among the tiny number of Labour Party members identified in complaints, and is reflected in the predominance of warnings about conduct rather than expulsions and suspensions.

Far-right bigotry

Another of the institute’s findings poses a particular problem for Corbyn’s opponents, who argue that the Labour leader has imported anti-semitism into the party by attracting the “hard left”. Since he was elected, Labour membership has rocketed.

Even if it were true that Corbyn and his supporters are on the far-left – a highly questionable assumption, made superficially plausible only because Labour moved to the centre-right under Tony Blair in the late 1990s – the institute’s research pulls the rug out from under Corbyn’s critics.

It discovered that across the political spectrum, conscious hatred of Jews was very low, and that it was exhibited in equal measure from the “very left-wing” to the “fairly right-wing”. The only exception, as one might expect, was on the “very right-wing”, where virulent anti-semitism was much more prevalent.

That finding was confirmed last week by surveys that showed a significant rise in violent, anti-semitic attacks across Europe as far-right parties make inroads in many member states. A Guardian report noted that the “figures show an overwhelming majority of violence against Jews is perpetrated by far-right supporters”.

Supporters of overseas war

So what is the basis for concerns about the Labour Party being mired in supposed “institutional anti-semitism” since it moved from the centre to the left under Corbyn, when the figures and political trends demonstrate nothing of the sort?

A clue may be found in the wider political worldview of the eight MPs who have broken from Labour.

All but two are listed as supporters of the parliamentary “Labour Friends of Israel” (LFI) faction. Further, Berger is a former director of that staunchly pro-Israel lobby group, and Ryan is its current chair, a position the group says she will hold onto, despite no longer being a Labour MP.

So extreme are the LFI’s views on Israel that it sought to exonerate Israel of a massacre last year, in which its snipers shot dead many dozens of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza in a single day. Faced with a social media backlash, it quietly took down the posts.

The eight MPs’ voting records – except for Gavin Shuker, for whom the picture is mixed – show them holding consistently hawkish foreign policy positions that are deeply antithetical to Corbyn’s approach to international relations.

They either “almost always” or “generally” backed “combat operations overseas”; those who were MPs at the time supported the 2003 Iraq war; and they all opposed subsequent investigations into the Iraq war.

Committed Friends of Israel

In one sense, the breakaway group’s support for Labour Friends of Israel may not be surprising, and indicates why Corbyn is facing such widespread trouble from within his own party. Dozens of Labour MPs are members of the group, including Tom Watson and Ruth Smeeth.

Smeeth, one of those at the forefront of accusing Corbyn of fostering anti-semitism in Labour, is also a former public affairs director of BICOM, another stridently pro-Israel lobby group.

None of these MPs were concerned enough with the LFI’s continuing vocal support for Israel as it has shifted to the far-right under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have stepped down from the group.

Nor was their committed support for Labour Friends of Israel shaken by a 2017 undercover Al-Jazeera documentary investigating the Israel lobby’s tactics in the UK. It revealed that the LFI and the Jewish Labour Movement were both covertly working closely with an Israeli embassy official, Shai Masot, to damage Corbyn.

In fact, the secret filming recorded Ryan inventing a false claim of anti-semitism against a Labour party member.

She also admitted on camera that she was in almost daily contact with Masot, and was filmed speaking to Masot about £1 million he had secured on the LFI’s behalf to fly Labour MPs on junkets to Israel as part of recruiting them to the Israeli cause.

‘Wrong kind of Jews’

Anti-semitism has taken centre stage in the manoeuvring against Corbyn, despite there being no evidence of significant hatred against Jews in the party. Increasingly, it seems, tangible abuse of Jews is of little interest unless it can be related to Corbyn.

The markedly selective interest in anti-semitism in the Corbyn context among the breakaway MPs and supposed anti-semitism watchdogs has been starkly on show for some time.

Notably, none expressed concern at the media mauling of a left-wing, satirical Jewish group called Jewdas when Corbyn was widely attacked for meeting “the wrong kind of Jews”. In fact, leading Labour figures, including the Jewish Labour Movement, joined in the abuse.

And increasingly in this febrile atmosphere, there has been an ever-greater indulgence of the “right kind of anti-semitism” – when it is directed at Corbyn supporters.

A troubling illustration was provided on the TV show Good Morning Britain this week, when Tom Bower was invited on to discuss his new unauthorised biography of Corbyn, in which he accuses him of anti-semitism. The hosts looked on demurely as Bower, a Jewish journalist, defamed fellow Jewish journalist Michael Segalov as a “self-hating Jew” for defending Corbyn on the show.

Revenge of the Blairites

So what is the significance of the fact that the Labour MPs who have been most outspoken in criticising Corbyn – those who helped organise a 2016 leadership challenge against him, and those who are now rumoured to be considering joining the breakaway faction – are heavily represented on the list of MPs supporting LFI?

For them, it seems, vigorous support for Israel is not only a key foreign policy matter, but a marker of their political priorities and worldview – one that starkly clashes with the views of Corbyn and a majority of the Labour membership.

Anti-semitism has turned out to be the most useful – and damaging – weapon to wield against the Labour leader for a variety of reasons close to the hearts of the holdouts from the Blair era, who still dominate the parliamentary party and parts of the Labour bureaucracy.

Perhaps most obviously, the Blairite wing of the party is still primarily loyal to a notion that Britain should at all costs maintain its transatlantic alliance with the United States in foreign policy matters. Israel is a key issue for those on both sides of the Atlantic who see that state as a projection of Western power into the oil-rich Middle East and romanticise Israel as a guarantor of Western values in a “barbaric” region.

Corbyn’s prioritising of Palestinian rights threatens to overturn a core imperial value to which the Blairites cling.

Tarred and feathered

But it goes further. Anti-semitism has become a useful stand-in for the deep differences in a domestic political culture between the Blairites, on one hand, and Corbyn and the wider membership, on the other.

A focus on anti-semitism avoids the right-wing MPs having to admit much wider grievances with Corbyn’s Labour that would probably play far less well not only with Labour members, but with the broader British electorate.

As well as their enthusiasm for foreign wars, the Blairites support the enrichment of a narrow neo-liberal elite, are ambivalent about austerity policies, and are reticent at returning key utilities to public ownership. All of this can be neatly evaded and veiled by talking up anti-semitism.

But the utility of anti-semitism as a weapon with which to beat Corbyn and his supporters – however unfairly – runs deeper still.

The Blairites view allegations of anti-Jewish racism as a trump card. Calling someone an anti-semite rapidly closes down all debate and rational thought. It isolates, then tars and feathers its targets. No one wants to be seen to be associated with an anti-semite, let alone defend them.

Weak hand exposed

That is one reason why anti-semitism smears have been so maliciously effective against anti-Zionist Jews in the party and used with barely a murmur of protest – or in most cases, even recognition that Jews are being suspended and expelled for opposing Israel’s racist policies towards Palestinians.

This is a revival of the vile “self-hating Jew” trope that Israel and its defenders concocted decades ago to intimidate Jewish critics.

The Blairites in Labour, joined by the ruling Conservative Party, the mainstream media and pro-Israel lobby groups, have selected anti-semitism as the terrain on which to try to destroy a Corbyn-led Labour Party, because it is a battlefield in which the left stands no hope of getting a fair hearing – or any hearing at all.

But paradoxically, the Labour breakaway group may have inadvertently exposed the weakness of its hand. The eight MPs have indicated that they will not run in by-elections, and for good reason: it is highly unlikely they would stand a chance of winning in any of their current constituencies outside the Labour Party.

Their decision will also spur moves to begin deselecting those Labour MPs who are openly trying to sabotage the party – and the members’ wishes – from within.

That may finally lead to a clearing out of the parliamentary baggage left behind from the Blair era, and allow Labour to begin rebuilding itself as a party ready to deal with the political, social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

• First published in Middle East Eye

In Hebron, Israel removes the Last Restraint on its Settlers’ Reign of Terror

You might imagine that a report by a multinational observer force documenting a 20-year reign of terror by Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers against Palestinians, in a city under occupation, would provoke condemnation from European and US politicians.

But you would be wrong. The leaking in December of the report on conditions in the city of Hebron, home to 200,000 Palestinians, barely caused a ripple.

About 40,000 separate cases of abuse had been quietly recorded since 1997 by dozens of monitors from Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey. Some incidents constituted war crimes.

Exposure of the confidential report has now provided the pretext for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to expel the international observers. He shuttered their mission in Hebron this month, in apparent violation of Israel’s obligations under the 25-year-old Oslo peace accords.

Israel hopes once again to draw a veil over its violent colonisation of the heart of the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city. The process of clearing tens of thousands of inhabitants from central Hebron is already well advanced.

Any chance of rousing the international community into even minimal protest was stamped out by the US last week. It blocked a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council expressing “regret” at Israel’s decision, and on Friday added that ending the mandate of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was an “internal matter” for Israel.

The TIPH was established in 1997 after a diplomatic protocol split the city into two zones, controlled separately by Israel and a Palestinian Authority created by the Oslo accords.

The “temporary” in its name was a reference to the expected five-year duration of the Oslo process. The need for TIPH, most assumed, would vanish when Israel ended the occupation and a Palestinian state was built in its place.

While Oslo put the PA formally in charge of densely populated regions of the occupied territories, Israel was effectively given a free hand in Hebron to entrench its belligerent hold on Palestinian life.

Several hundred extremist Jewish settlers have gradually expanded their illegal enclave in the city centre, backed by more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers. Many Palestinian residents have been forced out while the rest are all but imprisoned in their homes.

TIPH faced an impossible task from the outset: to “maintain normal life” for Hebron’s Palestinians in the face of Israel’s structural violence.

Until the report was leaked, its documentation of Israel’s takeover of Hebron and the settlers’ violent attacks had remained private, shared only among the states participating in the task force.

However, the presence of observers did curb the settlers’ worst excesses, helping Palestinian children get to school unharmed and allowing their parents to venture out to work and shop. That assistance is now at an end.

Hebron has been a magnet for extremist settlers because it includes a site revered in Judaism: the reputed burial plot of Abraham, father to the three main monotheistic religions.

But to the settlers’ disgruntlement, Hebron became central to Muslim worship centuries ago, with the Ibrahimi mosque established at the site.

Israel’s policy has been gradually to prise away the Palestinians’ hold on the mosque, as well the urban space around it. Half of the building has been restricted to Jewish prayer, but in practice the entire site is under Israeli military control.

As the TIPH report notes, Palestinian Muslims must now pass through several checkpoints to reach the mosque and are subjected to invasive body searches. The muezzin’s call to prayer is regularly silenced to avoid disturbing Jews.

Faced with these pressures, according to TIPH, the number of Palestinians praying there has dropped by half over the past 15 years.

In Hebron, as at Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a Muslim holy site is treated solely as an obstacle – one that must be removed so that Israel can assert exclusive sovereignty over all of the Palestinians’ former homeland.

A forerunner of TIPH was set up in 1994, shortly after Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli army doctor, entered the Ibrahimi mosque and shot more than 150 Muslims at prayer, killing 29. Israeli soldiers aided Goldstein, inadvertently or otherwise, by barring the worshippers’ escape while they were being sprayed with bullets.

The massacre should have provided the opportunity for Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister of the time, to banish Hebron’s settlers and ensure the Oslo process remained on track. Instead he put the Palestinian population under prolonged curfew.

That curfew never really ended. It became the basis of an apartheid policy that has endlessly indulged Jewish settlers as they harass and abuse their Palestinian neighbours.

Israel’s hope is that most will get the message and leave.

With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power for a decade, more settlers are moving in, driving out Palestinians. Today Hebron’s old market, once the commercial hub of the southern West Bank, is a ghost town, and Palestinians are too terrified to enter large sections of their own city.

TIPH’s report concluded that, far from guaranteeing “normal life”, Israel had made Hebron more divided and dangerous for Palestinians than ever before.

In 2016 another army medic, Elor Azaria, used his rifle to shoot in the head a prone and badly wounded Palestinian youth. Unlike Goldstein’s massacre, the incident was caught on video.

Israelis barely cared until Azaria was arrested. Then large sections of the public, joined by politicians, rallied to his cause, hailing him a hero.

Despite doing very little publicly, TIPH’s presence in Hebron had served as some kind of restraint on the settlers and soldiers. Now the fear is that there will be more Azarias.

Palestinians rightly suspect that the expulsion of the observer force is the latest move in efforts by Israel and the US to weaken mechanisms for protecting Palestinian human rights.

Mr Netanyahu has incited against local and international human rights organisations constantly, accusing them of being foreign agents and making it ever harder for them to operate effectively.

And last year US President Donald Trump cut all aid to UNRWA, the United Nations’ refugee agency, which plays a vital role in caring for Palestinians and upholding their right to return to their former lands.

Not only are the institutions Palestinians rely on for support being dismembered but so now are the organisations that record the crimes Israel has been committing.

That, Israel hopes, will ensure that an international observer post which has long had no teeth will soon will soon lose its sight too as Israel begins a process of annexing the most prized areas of the West Bank – with Hebron top of the list.

• A version of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

As Abbas Ages, Fatah Moves to Consolidate Power

Five years after spearheading what is inaptly referred to as a ‘government of national reconciliation’, Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, has finally resigned.

“We put our government at the disposal of President Mahmoud Abbas and we welcome the recommendations of the Fatah Central Committee to form a new government,” Hamdallah tweeted, shortly after Abbas had ordered him to dismantle the government.

Since the Palestinian Authority was founded in 1994, 17 governments have been formed, and every single one of them was dominated by the Fatah party, the largest faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Fatah’s monopoly over Palestinian politics has wrought disasters. Neither did the PA deliver the coveted Palestinian state, nor did Fatah use its influence to bring Palestinian factions together. In fact, the opposite is true.

Most of these 17 governments were short-lived, except that of Hamdallah, which has governed for five years, despite the fact that it failed in its primary mission: healing the terrible rift between Fatah in the Israeli Occupied West Bank, and Hamas in Israel-besieged Gaza.

Moreover, it also fell short of bringing PLO factions closer together. Thus far, the second largest PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) refuses to participate in a future government that will also be dominated by Fatah.

Palestinian divisions have never been as pronounced as they are today. While all Palestinian factions, Hamas and Islamic Jihad included, bear part of the blame for failing to unify their ranks and form a single national strategy to combat Israeli colonialism and occupation, Abbas bears the largest share.

Even before becoming a president of the PA in January 2005, Abbas has always been a divisive political figure. When he was the PA’s Prime Minister, between March and September 2003 under the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, Abbas clashed with anyone who would challenge his often self-serving political agenda, including Arafat himself. His constant clashing with Arafat at the time made him favorite in Washington.

Abbas was elected on a weak popular mandate, as Hamas and others boycotted the presidential elections. His first, and only term in office expired in 2009. For a whole decade, neither Abbas nor any government of his have operated with the minimum requirement of democracy. Indeed, for many years the will of the Palestinian people has been hijacked by wealthy men, fighting to preserve their own interests while undeservingly claiming the role of leadership.

The 2006 Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections was a reminder to Abbas (but also to Israel and the United States) of how dangerous free elections can be. Since then, there has been much talk about the need for new elections, but no sincere efforts have been made to facilitate such a task. Logistical difficulties notwithstanding (for Palestine is, after all an occupied country), neither party wants to take the risk of letting the people have the last word.

Palestine and her people are not only trapped by Israeli walls, fences and armed soldiers, but by their inept leadership as well.

The 2007 Fatah-Hamas clashes which led to the current extreme polarization have split Palestinians politically, between the West Bank, under Abbas’ authoritative control, and Hamas, in besieged and struggling Gaza. While Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, often complains of the lack of a ‘Palestinian partner’, his government, with the aid of Washington, has done its utmost to ensure Palestinian division.

Several agreements between Fatah and Hamas have been signed, the latest, which appeared most promising, was achieved in October 2017. Palestinians were cautious, then, but also hopeful as several practical steps were taken this time to transfer legal responsibilities from Hamas to the Hamdallah government, whether in the various Gaza ministries, or at the Rafah-Egypt border.

Then, just when the wheels began turning, raising hopes among ordinary Palestinians that this time things were truly changing, Rami Hamdallah’s convoy was attacked as it crossed the main entrance to Gaza, via Israel.

Some sinister force clearly wanted Hamdallah dead, or, at least, it wanted to send a violent message providing the political fodder to those who wanted to stall the political progress between the two main Palestinian parties. Hamas quickly claimed to have apprehended the culprits, while Fatah, without much investigation, declared that Hamas was responsible for the bomb, thus stalling and, eventually, severing all reconciliation talks.

This was followed by clearly orchestrated steps to punish Gaza and push the people in the besieged and war-devastated Strip to the point of complete despair. First, Abbas refused to pay money to the Israeli company that provides some of Gaza’s electricity needs – thus leaving Gaza in the dark; then he significantly slashed salaries to Gaza workers, among other measures.

In response, tens of thousands of Gazans went to the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel protesting the Israeli siege, which, with Abbas’ latest collective punishment, has become beyond unbearable.

Indeed, Gaza’s ongoing ‘Great March of Return’, which began on March 30, 2018, was a popular response to a people fed up with war, siege, international neglect, but also horrific political tribalism. Since the march began, over 200 Palestinians have been killed and thousands maimed and wounded.

Abbas is now 83-years old with increasingly debilitating health. His supporters within Fatah want to ensure a political transition that guarantees their dominance because political monopoly offers many perks: wealth, privilege, power and prestige. For Fatah, Hamdallah and his ‘reconciliation’ government have ceased to serve any purpose. Additionally, a unity government with other Palestinian groups at this crucial, transitional period seems too risky a gamble for those who want to ensure future dominance.

The tragic truth is that all such politicking is happening within the confines of Israeli military Occupation, and that Israeli fences, walls, trenches, illegal Jewish settlements and Jewish-only bypass roads encircle all Palestinians, from Gaza to Jericho, and from Jerusalem to Rafah; that no Palestinian, Abbas included, is truly free, and that all political titles hold no weight before the power of a single Israeli sniper firing at Palestinian children at the Gaza fence.

Palestinians do need their unity and urgently so, not expressed in mere political compromises between factions, but the unity of a people facing the same brutal and oppressive enemy.

Now Chad, then Mali: Why African Countries Are Normalizing with Israel

Forget the hype. Israel’s ‘security technology’ has nothing to do with why some African countries are eager to normalize relations with Israel.

What is it that Israel is able to offer in the technology sector to Chad, Mali and others that the United States, the European Union, China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa and others cannot?

The answer is ‘nil’, and the moment we accept such a truth is the moment we start to truly understand why Chad, a Muslim-majority country, has just renewed its diplomatic ties with Israel. And, by extension, the same logic applies to Mali, another Muslim-majority country that is ready to normalize with Israel.

Chadian President, Idriss Deby, was in Israel last November, a trip that was touted as another Benjamin Netanyahu-engineered breakthrough by the Israeli government and its allied media.

In return, Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu, paid Deby a visit to N’djamena where they agreed to resume diplomatic ties. In their joint press conference, Deby spoke of ‘deals’ signed between Chad and Israel, but failed to provide more details.

Israel may try to present itself as the savior of Africa, but no matter how comparatively strong the Israeli economy is, Tel Aviv will hardly have the keys to solving the woes of Chad, Mali or any other country on the African continent.

Israeli media is actively contributing to the fanfare that has accompanied Netanyahu’s ‘scramble for Africa’, and is now turning its focus to preparations under way for another ‘historic visit”, that of Malian President, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, to Israel in the “coming weeks”.

Netanyahu is keen to schedule Maiga’s trip just before the April 9 date, when Israelis go to the polls to vote in the country’s early general elections.

Israel’s motives to normalize with Africa are inspired by the same reasoning behind Netanyahu’s international outreach to South America and other regions in the global South.

Despite the Trump-Netanyahu love affair at the moment, Israel has no faith in the future of the US in the Middle East region. The current Donald Trump administration, as the previous Barack Obama administration, has made clear and calculated moves to slowly deploy out of the region and ‘pivot’ elsewhere.

This has alerted Netanyahu to the fact that Israel would have to diversify its alliances as an American veto at the United Nations Security Council is no longer a guarantor to Israel’s regional dominance.

For years, Netanyahu has pursued an alternative course, which has become the only path for Israel to escape its international isolation. Unfortunately for Palestinians, Israel’s new strategy, of seeking separate alliances with UN General Assembly members seems to be paying dividends. Israel now hopes that other countries that have historically stood on the side of Palestinians – voting for Palestinian rights as a bloc at the UN – will follow the Chad and Mali examples.

The struggle between Israel and Arab countries in Africa, according to Dan Avni – a top Israeli Foreign Ministry official during the 1950s and ‘60s – is “a fight of life and death for us.” That statement was made during a time that the US had not fully and ardently committed to the Israeli colonial project, and Israel was in a desperate need to break away from its isolation.

Following the expansion of the Israeli colonial project in Palestine and other Arab countries after the 1967 war, the US unconditional political, economic and military support for Israel has addressed many of Israel’s perceived vulnerabilities, empowering it to become the uncontested bully of the whole region. At the time, neither Africa mattered, nor did the rest of the international community.

But now, a new Great Game is changing the rules once more. Not only is the US losing its grip in the Middle East and Africa – thanks to the rise of Russian and Chinese influences, respectively – Washington is also busy elsewhere, desperate to sustain its dwindling global hegemony for a bit longer.

Although ties between Washington and Tel Aviv are still strong, Israeli leaders are aware of a vastly changing political landscape. According to Israeli calculation, the ‘fight of life and death’ is drawing near, once again.

The answer? Enticing poor countries, in Africa and elsewhere, with political support and economic promises so that they would deny Palestinians a vote at the UN.

It is no surprise that the governments of Chad and Mali are struggling, not only economically, but also in terms of political legitimacy as well. Torn in the global struggle for dominance between the US and China, they feel pressed to make significant choices that could make the difference between their survival or demise in future upheavals.

For these countries, an alliance with Israel is a sure ticket to the Washington political club. Such membership could prove significant in terms of economic aid, political validation and, more importantly, an immunity against pesky military coups.

Considering this, those who are stuck discussing the Israeli ‘charm offensive’ in Africa based on the claim of Israel’s technological advancement and hyped water technology are missing the forest for the trees.

It is important to note that it is not the road to Tel Aviv that N’Djamena and Bamako are seeking, but rather the road to Washington itself. In Africa, as in other parts of the global South, it is often the US, not the UN that bestows and denies political legitimacy. For African leaders who enjoy no democratic credence, a handshake with Netanyahu could be equivalent to a political life insurance.

So, for now, Israel will continue to walk this fine line, usurping American resources and political support as always, while learning how to walk on its own, by developing a foreign policy that it hopes will spare it further isolation in the future.

It is yet to dawn on Israeli leaders that, perhaps, a shortcut to breaking its isolation can be achieved through respecting international law, the rights of the Palestinian people and the territorial sovereignty of its neighbors.

Diplomatic ties with Chad and Mali may garner Netanyahu a few more votes next April, but they will also contribute to the Israeli illusion that it can be an international darling and an Apartheid regime, simultaneously.