Category Archives: Benjamin Netanyahu

Jerusalem Cable Car Project Passes Over Objections from Many Quarters

East Jerusalem has received new impetus from the rise of the Israeli far right and Washington’s decision to move its embassy to the city. But if completed, critics say, the long-running proposal would contribute to erasing the visibility of Palestinians in the city they hope to make their capital.

Planning for the $55 million tourism project continues despite unifying archaeologists, architects, Palestinians, and a tiny community of Jews against it – in a sign of Israel’s ever-growing confidence in making unilateral moves in occupied parts of Jerusalem.

Critics say the cable car will help hide the local Palestinian population from the roughly 3 million tourists who visit Jerusalem each year, turning the city into a “Disneyland” focused on promoting Israeli interests.

“The advantage for Israel is that visitors can be prevented from having any dealings with Palestinians,” said Aviv Tartasky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem.

“The local population will be largely erased from the experience of visiting Jerusalem. Tourists will pass over Palestinian residents, via the cable car, and then pass under them via tunnels.”

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism dismissed the criticism. In a statement to The National, the ministry said the cable car project was “a significant milestone in the promotion of Jerusalem and the strengthening of its status as a world tourism capital”.

Settler-run tours

The cable car, the largest project of its type undertaken by Israel, could be completed as early as in two years, its destination the slopes in occupied East Jerusalem just below the Old City, next to Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Some 72 cabins have the capacity to ferry up to 3,000 visitors an hour above mainly Palestinian homes.

Tourists will be channelled from the cable car into a visitor centre run by Jewish settlers in the heart of the crowded Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. They will be led by settler-approved guides underground, through tunnels under Palestinian homes to the foot of the Western Wall.

Blueprints show that visitors will be able to shop in the tunnels, bypassing local Palestinian traders in the Old City market who have long depended on tourism. Israeli officials accelerated the project by bypassing routine planning procedures, even though urban planning specialists warn that it will damage the Jerusalem skyline and archaeological sites revealing the origins of modern civilisation.

Equally important, critics say, the Benjamin Netanyahu government and settler groups view the cable car as helping block any possibility of a Palestinian state emerging with East Jerusalem as its capital. They have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“It should set off alarm bells that a huge state project like this is being intertwined with a private settler organisation, physically forcing visitors to go through its visitor centre, channelling them into its attractions and activities,” Mr Tartasky said.

He said the cable car was one of the ways Israel was connecting disparate settler compounds in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of occupied Jerusalem.

“It will physically strengthen these settler areas, and mean their organisations have an even greater influence on Israeli authorities.”

Encircling Al-Aqsa

The project has been forcefully promoted by the Israeli tourism ministry, headed by Yariv Levin, an ally of Mr Netanyahu, and Jerusalem’s mayor, Moshe Lion. Tenders will be issued as soon as the National Planning Council approves the project, which is expected to be a formality.

In violation of international law, Israel has treated East Jerusalem as annexed territory since it occupied the city in 1967. More than 200,000 Jewish settlers have moved there over subsequent decades

Hanna Swaid, a Palestinian planning specialist and former member of the Israeli parliament, said the cable car was illegal because international law allows major changes in occupied territory only out of military necessity or for the benefit of the population under occupation.

“Even in its own planning justifications, the Israeli authorities are clear the cable car is designed only for the benefit of tourists, Israeli developers and the settler groups overseeing it, not the local Palestinian population. In fact, it will serve to actively harm Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Mr Swaid said.

“It will parachute tourists to Jewish sites like the Western Wall, and marginalise Muslim and Christian sites,” he added.

Palestinians are concerned that the cable car will serve to tighten Israel’s control over access to the Al Aqsa mosque compound, the highly sensitive holy site in the Old City. For decades Israeli authorities have moved to weaken the control of Islamic religious authorities, the Waqf, on Al Aqsa, contributing to repeated clashes at the site.

Jews believe the mosque is built over the ruins of a major Jewish temple. The Western Wall, which supports the mosque compound, was originally a retaining wall of the long-lost temple.

“The cable car looks suspiciously like another means for encircling Al Aqsa, for laying siege to it,” Mr Swaid said.

Tunnels under Palestinians

According to official plans, dozens of cabins will run hourly along a 1.5-kilometre route from West Jerusalem, inside Israel’s recognised borders, to the occupied Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City walls and in the shadow of Al Aqsa.

Tourists will disembark in Silwan into a large visitor centre, the Kedem compound, to be run by a settler organisation called Elad that has close ties with the Israeli government.

The Kedem centre is the latest venture in the City of David complex, an archaeological site that the settlers of Elad have been using for more than two decades as a base to seize control of the Palestinian neighbourhood.

Visitors will be taken on tours to explore Jerusalem, moving through ancient sewage tunnels that run under Palestinian homes and reach to walls of Al Aqsa.

Additional plans will eventually see the cable car alight at other sites in East Jerusalem. Among them are the Mount of Olives, which includes an ancient Jewish cemetery; the Church of Gethsemane, at the reputed site where Judas betrayed Jesus; and the Pool of Siloam, a bathing area referred to in the Old and New Testaments.

Yonatan Mizrahi, the director of Emek Shaveh, a group of Israeli archaeologists opposed to the misuse of archaeology and tourism by Israel, said: “The purpose is to offer tourists a one-dimensional narrative about Jerusalem and its history. They should see all layers of the city’s rich history. Instead they will hear only the parts that relate to Jewish history.”

Mr Mizrahi has been among those leading the criticism of the project. “No other historic city in the world has built a cable car – and for very good reason,” he said.

Jerusalem ‘not Disneyland’

In March about 30 international architects – some of whom have worked on projects in Jerusalem – wrote to Mr Netanyahu urging him not to pursue what they called short-term interests.

“The project is being promoted by powerful interest groups who put tourism and political agendas above responsibility for safeguarding Jerusalem’s cultural treasures,” the letter said.

The letter followed a statement by 70 Israeli archaeologists, architects and public figures against the cable car in November, when the project was speeded up. They said: “Jerusalem is not Disneyland, and its landscape and heritage are not for sale.”

A French firm, Safege, which worked on the initial feasibility study, pulled out in 2015, reportedly under pressure from the French government over concerns that the project violated international law.

In an apparent bid to ensure the project would go through, the previous Netanyahu government changed planning laws to remove the cable car from local and regional oversight. It also ensured the public could not submit objections.

Instead the scheme is being treated as a “national infrastructure” project, similar to a new railway line or gas pipeline. The National Planning Council offered a curtailed period for organisations to lodge reservations that ended on March 31.

Mr Swaid, who is the director of the Arab Centre for Alternative Planning, drew up a list of reservations on behalf of the Supreme Religious Council of Muslims in Israel.

Other critical comments were submitted by lawyers for the Silwan neighbourhood, the archaeologists of Emek Shaveh, the planning group Bimkom, a Palestinian merchant association in the Old City, and a tour guides group.

The Karaites, a small Jewish sect whose ancient cemetery lies in the path of the cable car, in the Biblical Hinnom Valley, said the project showed “contemptuous disregard for the dignity of the deceased and the Karaite community in general”.

Benjamin Kedar, a former chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, lodged a protest too.

Loss of all privacy

One of the Silwan homes in the path of the cable car belongs to the Karameh family. The cabins may pass only four metres above the flat roof where toddlers play and the family of 20 hang their washing. Support columns for the cable car may end up being driven into the family’s garden, one of the few green spots in Silwan.

“Nowhere in Israel do cable cars travel over houses, let alone a few metres above,” said Mr Mizrahi. “It seems clear why in this case. Because the houses belong to Palestinians.”

Samer Karameh, a 24-year-old lorry driver, said everyone in Silwan was opposed to the cable car, as it would be helping settler groups like Elad trying to take over their neighbourhood. But he was shocked to learn that it would pass so close to his house.

“We’ll lose all privacy. We won’t be able to open the windows without being seen by thousands of strangers. And it can’t be safe to have these cars travelling just over the heads of our children,” Mr Karameh said.

“We know we won’t be the beneficiaries,” he added. “The authorities won’t give us a permit to build anything here, so all the business will go to the settlers.”

• A version of this article first appeared in The National

Israel’s Common Denominator: Why Israel Will Continue to Bomb Gaza

On May 4, Israel launched a series of deadly airstrikes on the besieged Gaza Strip, prompting a response from various resistance groups. At least 25 Palestinians were killed and nearly 200 people wounded in the Israeli attacks. Four Israelis were also killed by Palestinian rockets.

The clashes were instigated by Israel, when the Israeli military killed four Palestinians in Gaza on May 3. Two were killed while protesting along the fence separating Gaza from Israel. They were participating in the Great March of Return, a protracted Palestinian non-violent protest demanding an end to the Israeli siege. The other two were killed in an Israeli airstrike that targeted a Hamas post in the central Gaza Strip.

Why did Netanyahu choose such timing to bomb Gaza? It would have made more sense to attack Gaza in the run-up to the general elections. For months prior to the April 9 elections, Netanyahu was repeatedly accused of being soft on Hamas.

Although desperate for votes, Netanyahu refrained from a major operation against Gaza, because of the inherent risk in such attacks, as seen in the botched Israeli incursion into Khan Younis on November 11. Netanyahu could have lost a highly contested election, had he failed.

Following a victory, the soon-to-be longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister has the necessary political capital to launch wars at whim.

Israeli politics featured heavily in the latest Gaza onslaught.

Netanyahu is in the final stages of forming a new coalition, yet another government of like-minded far right, religious zealots and ultra-nationalist politicians which, he admits, is not easy.

“It’s not a simple job and there are different aspects – giving out portfolios, control over the state budget and many other challenges,” Netanyahu said at a Likud party meeting on April 30.

If Netanyahu succeeds, he will form his fifth government – four of them consecutively. However, his main challenge is to reconcile among the various potential coalition partners.

Netanyahu wishes to include six parties in his new government: his own, the Likud, with 35 seats in the Israeli Knesset (parliament); religious extremist parties: Shas (8 seats), United Torah Judaism (8), Yisrael Beiteinu of ultra-nationalist, Avigdor Lieberman (5), the newly-formed Union of Right-wing Parties (5) and the centrist Kulanu with 4 seats.

“Netanyahu is keen to include all six parties in his government to provide a semblance of stability and prevent a narrow majority that will be at the mercy of a single disgruntled party threatening to quit,” reported the Israeli daily Jerusalem Post newspaper.

But how is Netanyahu to maintain peace among vastly different allies and how is that relevant to the bombing of Gaza?

Netanyahu bombed Gaza because it is the only unifying demand among all of his allies. He needed to assure them of his commitment to keep pressure on Palestinian Resistance, of maintaining the siege on Gaza and ensuring the safety of Israel’s southern towns and settlements.

Barring that, there is little that these groups have in common. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties barely agree on some fundamental issues. For example, Lieberman has been pushing for a draft law requiring ultra-Orthodox conscription in the Israeli army, vehemently rejected by Netanyahu’s religious allies.

Although the election performance of Lieberman’s party was hardly impressive, his influence goes beyond numbers. Lieberman had resigned his post as a Defense Minister last November in protest of Netanyahu’s supposed “capitulation to terror”, but he has formed a strong alliance with Israel’s southern towns bordering the besieged Gaza Strip.

For years, Lieberman has expressed solidarity with them and, in return, has manipulated this whenever he wishes to pressure or challenge the Prime Minister.

Lieberman has exploited the notion among residents and settlers in southern Israel and the Occupied West Bank that they are being treated unfairly compared to their compatriots elsewhere.

Following a truce between Israel and Gaza factions last November, for example, hundreds of settlers protested their “second class status”, demanding greater government support to protect their “security” against Gaza. Interestingly, these border towns have been at the center of a significant economic and demographic growth over the last few years, which has been stimulated by the Israeli government’s investments in the area.

Seeing themselves as the heirs to the Zionist founders of Israel, residents of these towns believe that they are the defenders of the Zionist vision.

Despite their incessant complaints, southern Israeli communities have seen constant growth in economic opportunity, thus population. This fact has placed these areas at the center of Israeli politicians’ radar, all trying to win favor with their leaders and obtain the support of their vastly expanding economic sectors.

This recent electoral strength has made the demands and expectations of Israeli southern community leaders a focal point in mainstream Israeli politics.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that one of the conditions placed by Lieberman to join Netanyahu’s coalition is the intensification of the Israeli siege on Gaza and the liquidation of the Gaza resistance.

Although Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White Party, has lost the elections, he wishes to stay relevant in mainstream politics by appeasing the Jewish settlers and residents of southern Israel. During the Israeli army’s attack on Gaza on May 4, Gantz joined the chorus calling for more Palestinian blood.

“We must strike hard, in an uncompromising manner, in any way the army will recommend, with military and intelligence considerations,” he told Israeli Channel 13. “We must restore the deterrence that has been eroded catastrophically for more than a year.”

Following the death of 4 Israelis as a result of Gaza rockets, Israeli politicians jockeyed to show support for southern residents, demanding yet more violence. The euphoria of support inspired the mayor of Sderot, Alon Davidi, to call for the invasion of Gaza.

The latest attack on Gaza was meant to serve the interests of all of Netanyahu’s possible coalition partners. Alas, although a truce has been declared, more Israeli violence should be expected once the coalition is formed because, in order for Netanyahu to keep his partners happy, he would need to persistently keep pounding Gaza.

Is Leaked Document Trump’s “Deal of the Century”?

A report published this week by the Israel Hayom newspaper apparently leaking details of Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” reads like the kind of peace plan that might be put together by an estate agent or car salesman.

But while the authenticity of the document is unproven and indeed contested, there are serious grounds for believing it paves the direction of any future declaration by the Trump administration.

Not least, it is a synthesis of most of the Israeli right’s ambitions for the creation of a Greater Israel, with a few sops to the Palestinians – most of them related to partially relieving Israel’s economic strangulation of the Palestinian economy.

This is exactly what Jared Kushner told us the “deal of the century” would look like in his preview last month.

Also significant is the outlet that published the leak: Israel Hayom. The Israeli newspaper is owned by Sheldon Adelson, a US casino billionaire who is one of the Republican party’s chief donors and was a major contributor to Trump’s presidential election campaign funds.

Adelson is also a stalwart ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His newspaper has served as little more than a mouthpiece for Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist governments over the past decade.

Netanyahu behind leak?

Adelson and Israel Hayom have ready access to key figures in both the US and Israeli administrations. And it has been widely reported that little of significance gets into print there unless it has first been approved by Netanyahu or its overseas owner.

The newspaper questioned the authenticity and credibility of the document, which has spread across social media platforms, even suggesting “it is quite possible the document is fake” and that the Israeli foriegn ministry was looking into it.

The White House had already indicated that, after long delays, it intended to finally unveil the “deal of the century” next month, after the holy Muslim month of Ramadan finishes.

An unnamed White House official told the paper the leak was “speculative” and “inaccurate” – the kind of lacklustre denial that might equally mean the report is, in fact, largely accurate.

If the document is genuine, Netanyahu looks to be the most likely culprit behind the leak. He has overseen the foreign ministry for years and Israel Hayom is widely referred to by Israelis as “Bibiton”, or Bibi’s newspaper, employing the prime minister’s nickname.

Testing the waters

The alleged document, as published in Israel Hayom, would be catastrophically bad for the Palestinians. Assuming Netanyahu approved the document’s leaking, his motives might not be too difficult to discern.

On one view, leaking it might be an effective way for Netanyahu and the Trump administration to test the waters, to fly a trial balloon to see whether they dare publish the document as it is, or need to make modifications.

But another possibility is that Netanyahu may have concluded that there could be an unwelcome price in publicly achieving most of what he is already gaining by stealth – a price he may prefer to avoid for the time being.

Is the leak designed to foment pre-emptive opposition to the plan, both from within Israel and from the Palestinians and the Arab world, in the hope of stymieing its release?

The hope may be that the leak, and the reaction it elicits, forces Trump’s Middle East team to postpone yet again the plan’s publication, or even foils its release entirely.

Nonetheless, whether or not the “deal of the century” is unveiled soon, the leaked document – if true – offers a plausible glimpse into the Trump administration’s thinking.

Given that Trump’s Middle East team appear to have begun implementing the plan over the past 18 months even without its publication – from moving the US embassy to Jerusalem to the recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights – the leak helps to shed light on how a US-Israeli “resolution” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to unfold.

Annexing the West Bank

The proposed Palestinian entity would be named “New Palestine” – apparently taking a page out of the playbook of Tony Blair, a Britain’s former prime minister who became the international community’s Middle East envoy from 2007 to 2015.

Back in the 1990s, Blair filleted his own political party, Labour, of its socialist heritage and then rebranded the resulting corporation-friendly party, a pale shadow of its former self, as “New Labour”.

The name “New Palestine” helpfully obscures the fact that this demilitarised entity would lack the features and powers normally associated with a state. According to the leak, New Palestine would exist on only a tiny fraction of historic Palestine.

All illegal settlements in the West Bank would be annexed to Israel – satisfying a pledge Netanyahu made shortly before last month’s general election. If the territory annexed includes most of Area C, the 62 per cent of the West Bank Israel was given temporary control over under the Oslo accords, and which the Israeli right urgently wants to annex, that would leave New Palestine nominally in charge of about 12 percent of historic Palestine.

Or put another way, the Trump administration appears to be ready to give its blessing to a Greater Israel comprising 88 per cent of the land stolen from Palestinians over the past seven decades.

But it is far worse than that. New Palestine would exist as a series of discrete cantons, or Bantustans, surrounded by a sea of Israeli settlements – now to be declared part of Israel. The entity would be chopped and diced in a way that is true of no other state in the world.

New Palestine would have no army, just a lightly armed police force. It would be able to act only as a series of disconnected municipalities.

In fact, it is hard to imagine how “New Palestine” would fundamentally change the current, dismal reality for Palestinians. They would be able to move between these cantons only using lengthy detours, bypass roads and tunnels. Much like now.

Glorified municipalities

The only silver lining offered in the alleged document is a proposed bribe from the US, Europe, and other developed states, though mostly financed by the oil-rich Gulf states, to salve their consciences for defrauding the Palestinians of their land and sovereignty.

These states will provide $30bn over five years to help New Palestine set up and run its glorified municipalities. If that sounds like a lot of money, remember it is $8bn less than the decade-long aid the US is currently giving Israel to buy arms and fighter jets.

What happens to New Palestine after that five-year period is unclear in the document. But given that the 12 percent of historic Palestine awarded to the Palestinians is the region’s most resource-poor territory – stripped by Israel of water sources, economic coherence, and key exploitable resources like the West Bank’s quarries – it is hard not to see the entity sinking rather swimming after the initial influx of money dries up.

Even if the international community agrees to stump up more money, New Palestine would be entirely aid dependent in perpetuity.

The US and others would be able to turn on and off the spigot based on the Palestinians’ “good behaviour” – just as occurs now. Palestinians would live permanently in fear of the repercussions for criticising their prison warders.

In keeping with his vow to make Mexico pay for the wall to be built along the southern US border, Trump apparently wants the Palestinian entity to pay Israel to provide it with military security. In other words, much of that $30bn in aid to the Palestinians would probably end up in the Israeli military’s pockets.

Interestingly, the leaked report argues that oil-producing states, not the Palestinians, would be the “main beneficiaries” of the agreement. This hints at how the Trump deal is being sold to the Gulf states: as an opportunity for them to fully embrace Israel, its technology and military prowess, so that the Middle East can follow in the footsteps of Asia’s “tiger economies”.

Ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is described as a “shared capital”, but the small print reads rather differently. Jerusalem would not be divided into a Palestinian east and an Israeli west, as most had envisaged. Instead, the city will be run by a unified Israeli-run municipality. Just as happens now.

The only meaningful concession to the Palestinians would be that Israelis would not be allowed to buy Palestinian homes, preventing – in theory, at least – a further takeover of East Jerusalem by Jewish settlers.

But given that in return Palestinians would not be allowed to buy Israeli homes, and that the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem already suffers massive housing shortages and that an Israeli municipality would have the power to decide where homes are built and for whom, it is easy to imagine that the current situation – of Israel exploiting planning controls to drive Palestinians out of Jerusalem – would simply continue.

Also, given that Palestinians in Jerusalem would be citizens of New Palestine, not Israel, those unable to find a home in Israeli-ruled Jerusalem would have no choice but to emigrate into the West Bank. That would be exactly the same form of bureaucratic ethnic cleansing that Palestinians in Jerusalem experience now.

Gaza open to Sinai

Echoing recent comments from Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, the plan’s benefits for Palestinians all relate to potential economic dividends, not political ones.

Palestinians will be allowed to labour in Israel, as was the norm before Oslo – and presumably, as before, only in the most poorly paid and precarious jobs, on building sites and agricultural land.

A land corridor, doubtlessly overseen by Israeli military contractors the Palestinians must pay for, is supposed to connect Gaza to the West Bank. Confirming earlier reports of the Trump administration’s plans, Gaza would be opened up to the world, and an industrial zone and airport created in the neighbouring territory of Sinai.

The land – its extent to be decided in negotiations – would be leased from Egypt.

Helpfully for Israel, as Middle East Eye has previously pointed out, such a move risks gradually encouraging Palestinians to view Sinai as the centre of their lives rather than Gaza – another way to slowly ethnically cleanse them.

Meanwhile, the West Bank would be connected to Jordan by two border crossings – probably via land corridors through the Jordan Valley, which itself is to be annexed to Israel. Again, with Palestinians squeezed into disconnected cantons surrounded by Israeli territory, the assumption must be that over time many would seek a new life in Jordan.

Palestinian political prisoners would be released from Israeli jails to the authority of New Palestine over three years. But the plan says nothing about a right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees – descended from those who were expelled from their homes in the 1948 and 1967 wars.

Gun to their heads

Don Corleone-style, the Trump administrations appears ready to hold a gun to the head of the Palestinian leaderships to force them to sign up to the deal.

The US, the leaked report states, would cut off all money transfers to the Palestinians if they dissent, in an attempt to batter them into submission.

The alleged plan would demand that Hamas and Islamic Jihad disarm, handing their weapons over to Egypt. Should they reject the deal, the report says the US would authorise Israel to “personally harm” the leadership – through extrajudicial assassinations that have long been a mainstay of Israeli policy towards the two groups.

Rather less credibly, the alleged document suggests that the White House is prepared to get tough with Israel too, cutting off US aid if Israel fails to abide by the terms of the agreement.

Given that Israel has regularly broken the Oslo accords – and international law – without paying any serious penalty for doing so, it is easy to imagine that in practice the US would find work-arounds to ensure Israel was not harmed for any violations of the deal.

US imprimatur

The alleged document has all the hallmarks of being the Trump plan, or at least a recent draft of it, because it sets out in black and white the reality Israel has been crafting for Palestinians over the past two decades.

It simply gives Israel’s mass theft of land and cantonisation of the Palestinians an official US imprimatur.

So, if it offers the Israeli right most of what it wants, what interest would Israel Hayom – Netanyahu’s mouthpiece – have in jeopardising its success by leaking it?

A couple of reasons suggest themselves.

Israel is already achieving all these goals – stealing land, annexing the settlements, cementing its exclusive control over Jerusalem, putting pressure on the Palestinians to move off their land and into neighbouring states – without formally declaring that this is its game plan.

It has been making great progress in all its aims without having to admit publicly that statehood for the Palestinians is an illusion. For Netanyahu, the question must be why go public with Israel’s over-arching vision when it can be achieved by stealth.

Fearful of backlash

But even worse for Israel, once the Palestinians and the watching world understand that the current, catastrophic reality for Palestinians is as good as it is going to get, there is likely to be a backlash.

The Palestinian Authority could collapse, the Palestinian populace launch a new uprising, the so-called “Arab street” may be far less accepting of the plan than their rulers or Trump might hope, and solidarity activists in the West, including the boycott movement, would get a massive shot in the arm for their cause.

Equally, it would be impossible for Israel’s apologists to continue denying that Israel is carrying out what the late Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling called “politicide” – the destruction of the Palestinians’ future, their right to self-determination and their integrity as a single people.

If this is Trump’s version of Middle East peace, he is playing a game of Russian roulette – and Netanyahu may be reluctant to let him pull the trigger.

First published in Middle East Eye

The Two Narratives of Palestine: The People Are United, the Factions Are Not

The International Conference on Palestine held in Istanbul between April 27-29 brought together many speakers and hundreds of academics, journalists, activists and students from Turkey and all over the world.

The Conference was a rare opportunity aimed at articulating a discourse of international solidarity that is both inclusive and forward thinking.

There was near consensus that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement must be supported, that Donald Trump’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ must be defeated and that normalization must be shunned.

When it came to articulating the objectives of the Palestinian struggle, however, the narrative became indecisive and unclear. Although none of the speakers made a case for a two-state solution, our call for a one democratic state from Istanbul – or any other place outside Palestine – seemed partially irrelevant. For the one state solution to become the overriding objective of the pro-Palestine movement worldwide, the call has to come from a Palestinian leadership that reflects the true aspirations of the Palestinian people.

One speaker after the other called for Palestinian unity, imploring Palestinians for guidance and for articulating a national discourse. Many in the audience concurred with that assessment as well. One audience member even blurted out the cliched question: “Where is the Palestinian Mandela?” Luckily, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, Zwelivelile “Mandla” Mandela, was himself a speaker. He answered forcefully that Mandela was only the face of the movement, which encompassed millions of ordinary men and women, whose struggles and sacrifices ultimately defeated apartheid.

Following my speech at the Conference, I met with several freed Palestinian prisoners as part of my research for my forthcoming book on the subject.

Some of the freed prisoners identified as Hamas and others as Fatah. Their narrative seemed largely free from the disgraced factional language we are bombarded with in the media, but also liberated from the dry and detached narratives of politics and academia.

“When Israel placed Gaza under siege and denied us family visitations, our Fatah brothers always came to our help,” a freed Hamas prisoner told me. “And whenever Israeli prison authorities mistreated any of our brothers from any factions, including Fatah, we all resisted together.”

A freed Fatah prisoner told me that when Hamas and Fatah fought in Gaza in the summer of 2007, the prisoners suffered most. “We suffered because we felt that the people who should be fighting for our freedom, were fighting each other. We felt betrayed by everyone.”

To effectuate disunity, Israeli authorities relocated Hamas and Fatah prisoners into separate wards and prisons. They wanted to sever any communication between the prisoners’ leadership and to block any attempts at finding common ground for national unity.

The Israeli decision was not random. A year earlier, in May 2006, the leadership of the prisoners met in a prison cell to discuss the conflict between Hamas, which had won the legislative elections in the Occupied Territories, and the PA’s main party, Fatah.

These leaders included Marwan Barghouthi of Fatah, Abdel Khaleq al-Natshe from Hamas and representatives from other major Palestinian groups. The outcome was the National Conciliation Document, arguably the most important Palestinian initiative in decades.

What became known as the Prisoner’s Document was significant because it was not some self-serving political compromise achieved in a luxurious hotel in some Arab capital, but a genuine articulation of national Palestinian priorities, presented by the most respected and honored sector in Palestinian society.

Israel immediately denounced the document.

Instead of engaging all factions in a national dialogue around the document, PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, gave rival factions an ultimatum to either accept or reject the document in full. The spirit of the unity in the prisoners’ initiative was betrayed by Abbas and the warring factions. Eventually, Fatah and Hamas fought their own tragic war in Gaza the following year.

On speaking to the prisoners after listening to the discourse of academics, politicians and activists, I was able to decipher a disconnection between the Palestinian narrative on the ground and our own perception of this narrative from outside.

The prisoners display unity in their narrative, a clear sense of purpose, and determination to carry on with their resistance. While it is true that they all identified as members in one political group or another, I am yet to interview a single prisoner who placed factional interests above national interest. This should not come as a surprise. Indeed, these men and women have been detained, tortured and have endured many years in prison for being Palestinian resisters, regardless of their ideological and factional leanings.

The myth of the disunited and dysfunctional Palestinian is very much an Israeli invention that precedes the inception of Hamas, and even Fatah. This Zionist notion, which has been embraced by the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, argues that ‘Israel has no peace partner‘. Despite the hemorrhaging concessions by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, this claim has remained a fixture in Israeli politics to this day.

Political unity aside, the Palestinian people perceive ‘unity’ in a whole different political context than that of Israel and, frankly, many of us outside Palestine.

‘Al-Wihda al-Wataniya’ or national unity is a generational quest around a set of principles, including resistance, as a strategy for the liberation of Palestine, Right of Return for refugees, and self-determination for the Palestinian people as the ultimate goals. It is around this idea of unity that the leadership of Palestinian prisoners drafted their document in 2006, in the hope of averting a factional clash and keeping the struggle centered on resistance against Israeli occupation.

The ongoing Great March of Return in Gaza is another daily example of the kind of unity the Palestinian people are striving for. Despite heavy losses, thousands of protesters insist on their unity while demanding their freedom, Right of Return and an end to the Israeli siege.

For us to claim that Palestinians are not united because Fatah and Hamas cannot find common ground is simply unjustified. National unity and political unity between factions are two different issues.

It is important that we do not make the mistake of confusing the Palestinian people with factions, national unity around resistance and rights with political arrangements between political groups.

As far as vision and strategy are concerned, perhaps it is time to read the prisoners’ National Conciliation Document’. It was written by the Nelson Mandelas of Palestine, thousands of whom remain in Israeli prisons to this day.

The Palestinian Authority is No Longer Crying Wolf Over its Imminent Collapse

We have been here many times before. However, on this occasion even the principal actors understand that the Palestinian Authority is not crying wolf as it warns of imminent collapse.

The crisis is entirely of Israel and Washington’s making. Keen to pander to hawkish public opinion in the run-up to last month’s election, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a severe blow against Mahmoud Abbas and his government-in-permanent-waiting.

He announced that Israel would withhold a portion of the taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, and which it is obligated under the Oslo accords to pass on to the PA, based in the West Bank.

The money deducted is the sum the PA transfers as stipends to the families of political prisoners and those killed and maimed by the Israeli army.

This is an incendiary issue, as Netanyahu well knows, given that Palestinians view these families as having made the ultimate sacrifice in the struggle to liberate their people from brutal Israeli occupation.

Abbas cannot be seen to back down, and so has refused to accept any of the monthly tax transfers until the full sum is reinstated, amounting to nearly two-thirds of the PA’s revenues.

Given how precarious Palestinian finances are, after decades of resource theft and restrictions on development imposed by Israel, the PA is already on the brink of bankruptcy.

The problem for Netanyahu and Washington is that the PA was established – under the 25-year-old Oslo accords – to take the pressure and costs off Israel of policing the Palestinian population under occupation.

If the PA collapses, so do the Palestinian security forces that have been keeping order in the West Bank as Israel has continued to plunder Palestinian land and resources.

Late last month the United Nations warned that the standoff had left the PA facing “unprecedented financial, security and political challenges”.

Which means that, despite his recent electoral triumph, Netanyahu is in a serious bind.

He cannot be seen by his even more right-wing coalition partners to be climbing down and restoring stipends to people Israelis view simply as “terrorists”.

Equally, he dares not risk a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank. That would be a real possibility if the Palestinian economy implodes and there are no Palestinian security forces to suppress the resulting wave of popular anger.

A preview of the difficulties in store was given at the weekend, when more than 600 rockets were fired out of Gaza, threatening the cancellation of the Eurovision song contest in Israel later this month.

By Sunday evening, four Israelis were reported dead, while 20 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli airstrikes. The Palestinian fatalities included two pregnant women and a toddler.

There is also the danger, from Israel’s point of view, that if Abbas’s PA collapses, the void in the West Bank will be filled by his Hamas rivals, who run Gaza. Israel has been delighted to keep the Palestinian territories divided under feuding Fatah and Hamas leaderships.

A way out – or a change of tack – is urgently required.

Israel has tried twice to quietly make partial tax transfers to the PA’s bank account, in the hope the money would be accepted. The PA returned it.

Then, the European Union stepped in. Ostensibly an “honest broker”, it appears to be occupying a role the Trump administration has formally abandoned. The EU proposed last week that the PA accept the transfers on a “provisional basis”, until the crisis can be resolved.

PA officials were dismissive. “Let the people take to the streets,” one said. “We have our backs to the wall.” The PA line is that in the current climate, if it backtracks, Israel will simply intensify unilateral measures harming the Palestinian cause.

So now, more in desperation than any realistic prospect of achieving peace, attention is turning to Donald Trump’s long-promised “deal of the century”.

After endless delays, the US administration now seems to be preparing for its release next month, soon after the holy month of Ramadan finishes.

The plan’s main architects, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, have issued a spate of statements hinting at the contents.

Greenblatt has sought to reassure neighbouring Egypt and Jordan that they will not shoulder the burden. He discounted rumours either that Gaza’s Palestinians would be encouraged to move to the Sinai, in a land swap that would allow Israel to annex parts of the West Bank, or that Jordan would find itself recast as an alternative Palestinian homeland.

Kushner, meanwhile, has strongly suggested that the goal of a two-state solution, implied by the Oslo process, will finally be jettisoned. “New and different ways to reach peace must be tried,” he has said.

He has also stated that the plan will stress “economic benefits” for the Palestinians and “security” for Israel.

David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel and a stalwart ally of Israel’s most extreme settlers, has recently added that Israel will maintain security control of the West Bank.

According to analysts, these statements suggest the White House is preparing the ground for an offer to the Palestinians of “limited autonomy” – an outcome Arab officials confirmed to The Washington Post.

Sensing the danger, 40 former senior European officials have signed a letter opposing any plan that creates a Palestinian “entity devoid of sovereignty, territorial contiguity and economic viability”.

“Limited autonomy” would be a reformulation of Israel’s long-running ambition to thwart permanently Palestinian hopes of statehood – a policy the late Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling once termed “politicide”.

Since the late 1970s, the Israeli right has advocated hemming Palestinians into enclaves where they are denied sovereignty.

The model of disparate cantons, effectively operating as glorified municipalities and surrounded by a sea of Israeli settlers, is little different from that of “black homelands”, or Bantustans, established in apartheid-era South Africa.

Now, it seems, the Trump administration is ready to support this racist idea as a way to promote regional peace.

The Americans hope that, with a few sweeteners, the Palestinians can be made to swallow this bitter pill. It is an idea Netanyahu has advanced for some time, with his talk of “economic peace” – or what might be better termed “economic pacification”.

But the current impasse on taxes shows that buying off the Palestinians with bribes, in return for the abandonment of core national goals, may not prove so easy.

With the PA close to collapse, it is hard to see how Trump’s deal of the century can do anything other than speed up the authority’s demise.

• A version of this article was first published in The National

France and the EU: Recognizing Yet Supporting Apartheid Reality in Palestine

A recent statement made by the outgoing French Ambassador to the US regarding the nature of Israeli apartheid accentuates a larger ailment that has afflicted the European Union foreign policy.

The EU is simply gutless when it comes to confronting Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.

Ambassador Gerard Araud was, of course, right when he told the US magazine, The Atlantic, that Israel is already an apartheid state.

Noting the “disproportion of power” between Israel and the Palestinians, Araud said, “The strongest (meaning Israel) may conclude that they have no interest to make concessions.”

And since Israel “won’t make (Palestinians) citizens of Israel  … they will have to make it official, which we know the situation, which is apartheid.” Araud added, “There will be officially an apartheid state. They are in fact already.”

The fact that Araud has only divulged such obvious truths at the end of his five-year diplomatic assignment is expressive of the nature of politics, in general, and European politics, in particular.

The unpleasant truth is that the EU has served as an American lackey in the Middle East and has consistently operated within Washington’s acceptable margins. EU diplomacy rarely ventures away from this maxim. The fact that Araud dared to speak out is the exception, not the rule.

But Araud’s revelations are unlikely to translate into anything substantive. Moreover, they will not inspire a serious rethink in the EU’s position regarding the Israeli occupation or the US’ blind support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s militant and racist policies towards the Palestinians.

Some had hoped that the advent of an erratic and abrasive president in the White House could jolt the Europeans into action. They were encouraged by the January 2017 Paris Middle East summit that took place, despite American protests.

More than 70 countries added their voices to that of their French host, declaring their opposition to the illegal Jewish settlements and calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as “the only way” to achieving peace.

The summit’s final statement urged Israel and the Palestinians to “officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution.” Then-French President, François Hollande, explained that his country’s motive was to merely ensure the ‘two-state solution’ is the frame of reference for future negotiations.

But what good did that do? Israel and the US ignored the summit as if it never took place. Tel Aviv continued to pursue its Apartheid policies, crowning these efforts with the Nation-state Law in July, which declared Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”.

Trump, too, ignored the French and the EU altogether. On December 15, 2016, he selected an ardent Israeli supporter, David Friedman, to be his Ambassador to Israel. Friedman opposes the two-state solution and still refers to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in some ancient biblical designations, Judea and Samaria.

Nor did Trump consider the French position when he moved his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last May.

How did the EU respond to the concrete, albeit illegal, American actions? With more redundant statements that merely emphasized its political position but lacked any mechanism for serious action.

Last December, eight EU ambassadors, including that of France, issued a statement at the UN that was clearly aimed at the US. “We, the European Union members of the (UN Security) Council, would like to reiterate once more and emphasize the EU’s strong continued commitment to the internationally agreed parameters for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, based on international law, relevant UN resolutions and previous agreements,” the statement read, in part.

Again, words and no action. The same pattern was repeated after Trump took it upon himself to grant the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights to Israel, defying the UN, the EU and, needless to say, the aspirations of millions of Arabs.

The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, countered with another statement, on behalf of 28 EU states that Europe “does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.”

So what? While the US defies international law with concrete steps, the EU settles for mere words, emphasizing a status quo that, even when it was embraced by Washington itself, wrought nothing but misery for Palestinians.

EU ineptness is only matched by its hypocrisy. Israel still enjoys advantageous trade privileges with Europe, and diplomatic ties between Israel and most EU member countries are at an all times high.

The only collective European initiative that seemed to matter at the time was in 2013, when the EU requested that Israeli products made in illegal Jewish settlements be labeled as such. After years of haggling, the EU admitted that monitoring Israeli trade practices as far as labeling is concerned has proven “impossible”.

The French position on trade with the illegal settlements was particularly disgraceful. While the Irish Senate had voted on December 5 to end the import of settlement-produced goods, in October 2018 the French did the exact opposite by suspending the special labeling rules.

In truth, the ineffectiveness of EU policies is nothing new, nor can it be blamed on Trump’s unilateral measures, either.  In fact, the words of French Ambassador Araud are consistent with the frustration felt by other EU diplomats throughout the years.

In February 2013, a report issued by EU diplomats described illegal Jewish settlements as “the biggest single threat to the two-state solution”, calling on Brussels to take decisive measures to stop Israel’s “deliberate and provocative” settlement enterprise.

It has been over six years since the report was issued. The EU did nothing to stop the illegal settlements, which have grown in leaps and bounds since then.

Worse, in the latest elections won by Netanyahu, he promised to annex the illegal Jewish settlements into Israel.

Considering the unconditional American support regarding Israel’s previous illegal annexations of Jerusalem and the Golan, this, too, could be a tangible reality in the near future. After all, the Jewish Nation-state law recognized Jewish settlements as “national value” and the state “will labor to encourage and promote (their) establishment and development.”

In the face of the US backing of Israel, EU foreign policy is inconsistent, weak and, ultimately, a failure. Alas, the idea which gained momentum during the early months of Trump’s presidency that the EU can develop a truly independent foreign policy position on Israel and Palestine has proven wrong.

To change all of that, EU members should heed the words of the French Ambassador, recognize the apartheid reality in Palestine and act against it as forcefully as the world acted against South African apartheid, which led to its final, irreversible collapse in 1994.

As the Israel Lobby in the US Weakens, its UK Counterpart Grows More Fearsome

For decades it was all but taboo to suggest that pro-Israel lobbies in the United States like AIPAC used their money and influence to keep lawmakers firmly in check on Israel-related issues – even if one had to be blind not to notice that that was exactly what they were up to.

When back in February Ilhan Omar pointed out the obvious – that US Representatives like her were routinely expected to submit to the lobby’s dictates on Israel, a foreign country – her colleagues clamoured to distance themselves from her, just as one might have expected were the pro-Israel lobby to wield the very power Omar claimed.

But surprisingly Omar did not – at least immediately – suffer the crushing fate of those who previously tried to raise this issue. Although she was pressured into apologising, she was not battered into complete submission for her honesty.

She received support on social media, as well as a wavering, muted defence from a Democratic grandee like Nancy Pelosi, and even a relatively sympathetic hearing from a few prominent figures in the US Jewish community.

The Benjamins do matter

Omar’s comments have confronted – and started to expose – one of the most enduring absurdities in debates about US politics. Traditionally it has been treated as anti-semitic to argue that the pro-Israel lobby actually lobbies for its chosen cause – exactly as other major lobbies do, from the financial services industries to the health and gun lobbies – and that, as with other lobbies enjoying significant financial clout, it usually gets its way.

Omar found herself in the firing line in February when she noted that what mattered in US politics was “It’s all about the Benjamins” – an apparent reference to the 1997 Puff Daddy song of the same name – later clarifying that AIPAC leverages funds over Congressional and presidential candidates.

The claim that the pro-Israel lobby isn’t really in the persuasion business can only be sustained on the preposterous basis that Israeli and US interests are so in tune that AIPAC and other organisations serve as little more than cheerleaders for the two countries’ “unbreakable bond”. Presumably on this view, the enormous sums of money raised are needed only to fund the celebrations.

‘A one-issue guy’

Making the irrefutable observation that the pro-Israel lobby does actually lobby on Israel’s behalf, and very successfully, is typically denounced as anti-semitism. Omar’s comments were perceived as anti-semitic on the grounds that she pointed to the canard that Jews wield outsized influence using money to sway policymaking.

Allegations of anti-semitism against her deepened days later when she gave a talk in Washington DC and questioned why it was that she could talk about the influence of the National Rifle Association and Big Pharma but not the pro-Israel lobby – or “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country”.

That pro-Israel lobbyists – as opposed to Jews generally – do have dual loyalty seems a peculiar thing to deny, given that the purpose of groups like AIPAC is to rally support for Israel in Congress.

Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a key backer of Republican candidates for the presidency, has never hidden his passion not only for Israel but specifically for the ultra-nationalist governments of Benjamin Netanyahu.

In fact, he is so committed to Netanyahu’s survival that he spent nearly $200 million propping up an Israeli newspaper over its first seven years – all so he could assist the prime minister of a foreign country.

Similarly, Haim Saban, one of the main donors to Democratic presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, has made no secret of his commitment to Israel. He has said: “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”

Might Saban and Adelson’s “Benjamins” have influenced the very pro-Israel – and very anti-Palestinian – positions of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates? You would have to be supremely naïve or dishonest to claim it has not.

‘No Bernie-like approach’

This point really should be beyond doubt by now. This month the New York Times published an unprecedented essay in which author Nathan Thrall quoted political insiders and lobbyists making plain that, as one would expect, the pro-Israel lobby uses its money to pressure Congressional candidates to toe the lobby’s line on Israel.

Some of the lobby’s power operates at the level of assumption about what Jewish donors expect in return for their money. According to the NYT, some three-quarters of all donations over $500,000 to the major political action committee supporting Democratic nominees for the US Senate race in 2018 were made by Jews.

Though many of those donors may not rate Israel as their main cause, a former Clinton campaign aide noted that the recipients of this largesse necessarily tailor their foreign policy positions so as not to antagonise such donors. As a result, candidates avoid even the mild criticism of Israel adopted by Bernie Sanders, the Democratic party’s challenger to Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

“There’s no major donor that I can think of who is looking for someone to take a Bernie-like approach,” said the aide. Sanders raised his campaign funds from small donations rather these major funders, leaving him freer to speak openly about Israel.

Fight for donors, not voters

Other insiders are more explicit still. Ben Rhodes, a former confidant of Barack Obama, says the lobby effectively tied Obama’s hands domestically on efforts to promote peace. “The Washington view of Israel-Palestine is still shaped by the donor class,” he told Thrall, adding: “The donor class is profoundly to the right of where the activists are, and frankly, where the majority of the Jewish community is.”

Joel Rubin, a former political director at lobby group J Street and a founding board member of the centrist Jewish Democratic Council of America, concurred: “The fight over Israel used to be about voters. It’s more about donors now.”

All of these insiders are stating that the expectations of major donors shape candidates’ US foreign policy positions in line with Israel’s interests, not necessarily US interests. It is hard not to interpret that as reformulation of “dual loyalty”.

Out of the shadows

What’s so significant about the NYT article is that it signals, as did the muted furore over Omar’s comments, that the pro-Israel lobby is weakening. No powerful lobby, including the Israel one, wants to be forced out of the shadows. It wants to remain in the darkness, where it can most comfortably exercise its influence without scrutiny or criticism.

The pro-Israel lobby’s loyalty to Israel is no longer unmentionable. But it is also not unique.

As Mondoweiss recently noted, Hannah Arendt, the Jewish scholar and fugitive from Nazi Germany, pointed to the inevitability of the “double loyalty conflict” in her 1944 essay “Zionism Reconsidered”, where she foreshadowed the rise of a pro-Israel lobby and its potential negative impacts on American Jews. It was, she wrote, “an unavoidable problem of every national movement of a people living within the boundaries of other states and unwilling to resign their civil and political rights therein.”

For that reason, the US-Cuban lobby has an obvious dual loyalty problem too. It’s just that, given the Cuban lobby’s priority is overthrowing the Cuban government – a desire shared in Washington – the issue is largely moot.

In Israel’s case, however, there is a big and growing gap between image and reality. On the one hand, Washington professes a commitment to peace-making and a promise to act as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. And on the other, the reality is it has offered full-throated support for a series of ultra-nationalist Israeli governments determined to destroy any hope of peace and swallow up the last vestiges of a potential Palestinian state.

Doing the Lord’s work

It’s important to point out, however, that advocates for Israel are not only Jews. While the pro-Israel lobby represents the views of a proportion of Jewish Americans, it is also significantly comprised of Christians, evangelicals in particular.

Millions of these Christians – including Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – can be accused of dual loyalty too. They regard Israel’s role in Biblical prophecy as far more important than the future of the US, or mankind for that matter.

For many of these evangelicals, bringing about the end of the world by ensuring Jews return to their Biblical homeland – triggering a final reckoning at the Battle of Armageddon – is the fulfillment of God’s will. And if it’s a choice between support for Washington’s largely secular elites and support for God, they know very definitely where they stand.

Again, the NYT has started to shine a light on the strange role of Israel in the US political constellation. Another recent article reminded readers that in 2015 Pompeo spoke of the end-times struggle prophesied to take place in Israel, or what is often termed by evangelicals as “The Rapture”. He said: “We will continue to fight these battles.”

During his visit last month to Israel, he announced that the Trump administration’s work was “to make sure that this democracy in the Middle East, that this Jewish state, remains. I am confident that the Lord is at work here”.

Divorced from reality

If the debate about the pro-Israel lobby in the US is for the first time making a nod to truth, the conversation about the pro-Israel lobby in the UK is becoming more and more divorced from reality.

Part of the reason is the way the Israel lobby has recently emerged in the UK – hurriedly, and in a mix of panic and damage limitation mode.

Given that for decades European countries largely followed Washington’s lead on Israel, pro-Israel lobbies outside the US were much less organised and muscular. European leaders’ unquestioning compliance was assured as long as Washington appeared to act as a disinterested broker overseeing a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result, Europe was in little need of vigorous pro-Israel lobbies.

But that illusion has now been shattered, first by the explicit Greater Israel ideology espoused by a series of Netanyahu governments, and latterly by Donald Trump’s occupancy of the White House and his vehement backing of Israeli demands, however much they violate international law.

That has left European policy towards Israel – and its enabling by default of Netanyahu and Trump’s efforts to crush Palestinian rights – dangerously exposed.

Conflating Jews and Israel

Popular backlashes have taken the form of a rapid growth in support for BDS, a grassroots, non-violent movement promoting a boycott of Israel. But more specifically in Britain’s case, it has resulted in the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn, a well-known champion of Palestinian rights and anti-racism struggles generally, to lead the opposition Labour party.

For that reason, Jewish leadership groups in the UK have had to reinvent themselves quickly, from organisations to promote the community’s interests into vehicles to defend Israel. And to do that they have had to adopt a position that was once closely identified with anti-semitism: conflating Jews with Israel.

This, we should remember, was the view taken 100 years ago by arch anti-semites in the British government. They regarded Jews as inherently “un-British”, as incapable of assimilation and therefore as naturally suspect.

Lord Balfour, before he made his abiding legacy the 1917 Declaration of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, helped pass the Aliens Act to block entry to the UK of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Balfour believed Jewish immigration had resulted in “undoubted evils”.

A lobby cobbled together

Also significantly, unlike the US, where the pro-Israel lobby has maintained fervent support for Israel as a bipartisan matter over decades, the need for an equivalent pro-Israel lobby in the UK has emerged chiefly in relation to Corbyn’s unexpected ascent to power in the Labour party.

Rather than emerging slowly and organically, as was the case in the US, the British pro-Israel has had to be cobbled together hastily. Israel’s role in directing this immature lobby has been harder to hide.

Most of the UK’s Jewish leadership organisations have been poorly equipped for the task of tackling the new sympathy for Palestinian rights unleashed in the Labour party by Corbyn’s rise. The Board of Deputies, for example, has enjoyed visible ties to the ruling Conservative party. Any criticisms they make of the Labour leader are likely to be seen as having an air of partisanship and point-scoring.

So unusually in Britain’s case, the chief pro-Israel lobby group against Corbyn has emerged from within his own party – in the form of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM).

The JLM is trumpeted in the British media both as a venerable Jewish group, more than a century old, and as one that is widely representative of Jewish opinion. Neither claim is true.

Revived to deal with Corbyn

The JLM likes to date its origins to the Poale Zion organisation, which was founded in 1903. A socialist society, Poale Zion affiliated itself not only with the British Labour party but also with a wide range of anti-Palestinian Zionist organisations such as the World Zionist Organisation and the Israeli Labour party. The latter carried out the ethnic cleansing of the vast majority of Palestinians in 1948 and the party’s leaders to this today publicly support the illegal settlement “blocs” that are displacing Palestinians and stealing their land.

But as the investigative journalist Asa Winstanley has shown, before the unexpected ascent of Corbyn to the Labour leadership in 2015, the JLM had largely fallen into dormancy.

It was briefly revived in 2004, when Israel was facing widespread criticism in Britain over its brutal efforts to crush a Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories. But the JLM only really became active again in 2015.

According to a covert recording of a private JLM event in late 2016, its then chair Jeremy Newmark said he and other activists had agreed to reform the group in September 2015 in response to “the rise of Jeremy Corbyn” and “Bernie Sanders in the States”. Corbyn has been elected Labour leader only days previously.

According to the transcript, Newmark told the other activists that it would be the “start of a struggle and a battle we will all be engaged in for months and probably years ahead of us”. He added that the JLM would be a suitable vehicle for their work because of the “rights and privileges” it enjoyed as a Labour party affiliate organisation.

Front for Israeli embassy

The motive behind the JLM’s resuscitation was also revealed by an undercover documentary made by Al-Jazeera, aired in early 2017. It showed that the JLM was acting as little more than a front for the Israeli embassy, and that the mission it set itself was to weaken Corbyn in the hope of removing him from the leadership.

Early on, the JLM and other pro-Israel lobbyists within the party realised that the most effective way to damage Corbyn, and silence solidarity with the Palestinian cause, was to weaponise the charge of anti-semitism.

Support for Palestinian rights necessarily requires severe criticism of Israel, whose popular, right wing governments have shown no interest in making concessions to the Palestinians on self-determination. In fact, while westerners have debated the need for urgent peacemaking, Israel has simply got on with grabbing vast tracts of Palestinian land as a way to destroy any hope of statehood.

But pro-Israel lobbyists in the UK have found that they can very effectively turn this issue into a zero-sum game – one that, in the context of a British public conversation oblivious to Palestinian rights, inevitably favours Israel.

Identifying with Israel

The thrust of the lobby’s argument is that almost all Jews identify with Israel, which means that attacks on Israel are also attacks on Jewish identity. That, they claim, is a modern form of anti-semitism.

This argument, if it were true, has an obvious retort: if Jews really do identify with Israel to the extent that they are prepared to ignore its systematic abuse of Palestinians, then that would make most British Jews anti-Arab racists.

Further, if Jewish identity really is deeply enmeshed in the state of Israel, that would place a moral obligation on Jews to denounce any behaviour by Israel towards Palestinians that violates human rights and international law.

And yet the very Jewish leaders claiming that Israel is at the core of their identity are also the ones who demand that Jews not be expected to take responsibility for Israel’s actions – and that to demand as much is anti-semitic.

Could there be a clearer example of having your cake and eating it?

‘Institutionally anti-semitic’

Nonetheless, the JLM has very successfully hijacked the debate within Labour of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to silence criticism. It has worked hard to impose a highly controversial new definition of anti-semitism that conflates it with criticism of Israel. Seven on the 11 examples of anti-semitism used to illustrate the new definition relate to Israel.

Arguing, for example, that Israel is a “racist endeavour”, the view of many in the growing BDS movement and among Corbyn supporters, is now being treated as evidence of anti-semitism.

For this reason, the JLM has been able to file a complaint against Labour with the Equality and Human Rights Commission arguing that the party is “institutionally anti-semitic”.

Labour is only the second political party after the neo-Nazi British National Party to have been subjected to an investigation by the equality watchdog.

Counterweight to the JLM

Despite its claims, the JLM does not represent Jewish opinion in the Labour party. The JLM says it has 2,000 members, though that figure – if accurate – includes non-Jews. Attendance at its annual general meeting this month could be measured in the dozens.

As one Jewish critic observed: “There are some 300,000 Jews in Britain. The Jewish Labour Movement claims to represent us all. So why were there fewer people at their AGM [annual general meeting] than at my Labour Party branch AGM?”

Many Jews in the Labour party have chosen not to join the JLM, preferring instead to act as a counterweight by creating a new Jewish pressure group that backs Corbyn called Jewish Voice for Labour.

Even a new JLM membership drive publicised by former Labour leader Gordon Brown reportedly brought only a small influx of new members, suggesting that support for the JLM’s anti-Corbyn, pro-Israel agenda is very limited inside Labour.

Speaking for ‘the Jews’

The re-establishment of the JLM has one very transparent aim in mind: to push out Corbyn, using any means at its disposal. At its annual general meeting, the JLM unanimously passed a motion of no confidence in Corbyn, describing him as “unfit to to be Prime Minister”. The resolution declared that “a Labour Government led by [Corbyn] would not be in the interests of British Jews”.

One Jewish commentator derisively noted the JLM’s arrogance in speaking for all British Jews at a time of Conservative government-imposed austerity:

“I would not presume to proclaim what is in the interests of ‘the Jews’, but I really cannot imagine that the person who drafted this resolution had any real experience of meeting unemployed Jews, Jewish pensioners and single mothers just scraping by, or Jews who are struggling as they use under-resourced mental health services.”

Scoring Labour candidates

In other circumstances, a group of people operating inside a major political party using underhand methods to disrupt its democratic processes would be described as entryists. Some 2,000 pro-Israel fanatics within Labour are trying to overturn the overwhelming wishes, twice expressed at the ballot box, of the Labour membership, now numbering more than 500,000.

Nonetheless, last week the JLM started to show its hand more publicly. It has been noisily threatening to disaffiliate from the Labour party. In the circumstances that would at least be an honourable – if very unlikely – thing for it to do.

Instead it announced that it would begin scoring local and national Labour politicians based on their record on anti-semitism. After the JLM’s frantic lobbying for the adoption of the new anti-semitism definition, it seems clear that such scores will relate to the vehemence of a candidate’s criticism of Israel, or possibly their ideological sympathy with Corbyn, more than overt bigotry towards Jews.

That was underscored this week when a senior Labour politician, Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, came under fire from the JLM and Board of Deputies for comments he made in 2014, during Israel’s attack on Gaza, that only recently came to light. He was recorded saying: “The enemy of the Palestinian people is not the Jewish people, the enemy of the Palestinian people are Zionists.” He had previously denied making any such comment.

Mike Katz, the JLM’s new chair, responded: “Insulting a core part of their [Jewish people’s] identity and then dissembling about it is shameful behaviour from a senior frontbencher in our party, let alone someone who aspires to administer our justice system.”

Marginal prejudice

According to the Labour party’s own figures, actual anti-Jewish prejudice – as opposed to criticism of Israel – is extremely marginal in its ranks, amounting to some 0.08 percent of members. It is presumably even less common among those selected to run as candidates in local and national elections.

The JLM has nonetheless prioritised this issue, threatening that the scores may be used to decide whether activists will campaign for a candidate. One might surmise that the scores could also serve as the basis for seeking to deselect candidates and replace them with politicians more to the JLM’s liking.

“We have got elections coming up but we are not going to put that effort in unless we know people are standing shoulder to shoulder with us,” said Katz.

Need for vigorous debate

Paradoxically, the JLM appears to be preparing to do openly what pro-Israel lobbyists in the US deny they do covertly: use their money and influence to harm candidates who are not seen as sympathetic enough to Israel.

Despite claims from both US and UK pro-Israel lobby groups that they speak for their own domestic Jewish populations, they clearly don’t. Individuals within Jewish communities are divided over whether they identify with Israel or not. And certainly, their identification with Israel should not be a reason to curtail vigorous debates about US and UK foreign policy and Israeli influence domestically.

Even if the vast majority of Jews in the US and UK do support Israel – not just in a symbolic or abstract way, but the actual far-right governments that now permanently rule Israel – that does not make them right about Israel or make it anti-semitic for others to be highly critical of Israel.

Chipping away at democracy

The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support a narrow spectrum of politicians, from the militaristic right to religious fundamentalists and fascists. They view Palestinians as less deserving, less human even, than Jews and as an obstacle to the realisation of Jewish rights in the whole of the “Land of Israel”, including the Palestinian territories. Does that make them right? Does their numerical dominance excuse their ugly bigotry towards Palestinians? Of course not.

And so it would be the same even were it true that most Jewish members of the Labour party supported a state that proudly upholds Jewish supremacism as its national ideology. Their sensitivities should count for nothing if they simply mask ugly racist attitudes towards Palestinians.

Lobbies of all kinds thrive in the dark, growing more powerful and less accountable when they are out of view and immune from scrutiny.

By refusing to talk frankly about the role of pro-Israel lobbies in the UK and the US, or by submitting to their intimidation, we simply invite Israel’s supporters and anti-Palestinian racists to flex their muscles more aggressively and chip away at the democratic fabric of our societies.

There are signs that insurgency politicians in the US are ready for the first time to shine a light into the recesses of a political system deeply corrupted by money. That will inevitably make life much harder for the pro-Israel lobby.

But paradoxically, it is happening just as the the UK’s Israel lobby is pushing in exactly the opposite direction. British politics is being plunged into a stifling, unhealthy silence on the longest example of mass human rights abuses, sanctioned by the west, in modern history.

• First published at Mondoweiss

War Versus Peace: Israel Has Decided and So Should We

So, what have we learned from the Israeli legislative elections on April 9?

A whole lot.

To start with, don’t let such references as the “tight race” between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his main rival, Benny Gantz, fool you.

Yes, Israelis are divided on some issues that are particular to their social and economic makeup. But they are also resolutely unified around the issue that should concern us most: the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people.

Indeed, ‘tight race’, or not, Israel has voted to cement Apartheid, support the ongoing annexation of the Occupied West Bank, and carry on with the Gaza siege.

In the aftermath of the elections, Netanyahu emerged even more powerful; his Likud party has won the elections with 36 seats, followed by Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) with 35 seats.

Gantz, the rising star in Israeli politics was branded throughout the campaign as a centrist politician, a designation that tossed a lifeline to the vanquished Israeli ‘left’ – of which not much is left anyway.

This branding helped sustain a short-lived illusion that there is an Israeli alternative to Netanyahu’s extremist right-wing camp.

But there was never any evidence to suggest that Gantz would have been any better as far as ending the Israeli occupation, dismantling the Apartheid regime and parting ways with the country’s predominantly racist discourse.

In fact, the opposite is true.

Gantz has repeatedly criticized Netanyahu for supposedly being too soft on Gaza, promising to rain yet more death and destruction on an a region that, according to the United Nations, will be unlivable by 2020.

A series of videos, dubbed “Only the Strong Survives”, were issued by the Gantz campaign in the run up to the elections. In the footage, Gantz was portrayed as the national savior, who had killed many Palestinians while serving as the army’s chief of staff between 2011 and 2015.

Gantz is particularly proud of being partly responsible for bombing Gaza “back to the stone age.”

It apparently mattered little to Israeli centrists and the remnants of the left that in the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, dubbed Operation “Protective Edge”, over 2,200 Palestinians were killed and over 11,000 were injured. In that most tragic war, over 500 Palestinian children were killed, and much of Gaza’s already ailing infrastructure was destroyed.

But then again, why vote for Gantz when Netanyahu and his right-wing extremist camp are getting the job done?

Sadly, Netanyahu’s future coalition is likely to be even more extreme than the previous one.

Moreover, thanks to new possible alliances, Netanyahu will most likely free himself of burdensome allies, the likes of former Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

One significant change in the likely makeup of the Israeli right is the absence of such domineering figures, who, aside from Lieberman also include former Education Minister, Naftali Bennett and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

All the grandstanding from Bennett and Shaked, who had recently established a new party called “The New Right”, didn’t even garner them enough votes to reach the threshold required to win a single seat in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. They needed 3.25 percent of the vote, but only achieved 3.22 percent. They are both out.

The defeat of the infamous duo is quite revealing: the symbols of Israel’s extreme right no longer meet the expectations of Israel’s extremist constituencies.

Now the stage is wide open for the ultra-orthodox parties, Shas, which now has eight seats, and United Torah Judaism, with seven seats to help define the new normal in Israel.

The Israeli left – if it was ever deserving of the name – received a final blow; the once prominent Labor Party, won merely six seats.

On the other hand, Arab parties that ran in the 2015 elections under the united banner of the “Joint List”, fragmented once more, to collectively achieve only 10 seats.

Their loss of three seats, compared to the previous elections, can be partly blamed on factional and personal agendas. But, that is hardly enough to explain the massive drop in Arab voter participation in the elections: 48 percent compared to 68 percent in 2015.

This record low participation can only be explained through the racist ‘Nation State Law”, which was passed by the right wing-dominated Knesset on July 19, 2018. The new Basic Law, declared Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people” everywhere, relegating the rights of the Palestinian people, their history, culture and language, while elevating everything Jewish, making self-determination in the state an exclusive right for Jews only.

This trend is likely to continue, as Israel’s political institutions no longer offer even a symbolic margin for true democracy and fair representation.

But perhaps the most important lesson that we can learn in the aftermath of these elections is that in today’s Israel, military occupation and apartheid have been internalized and normalized as uncontested realities, unworthy of national debate. This in particular should summon our immediate attention.

During election campaigns, no major party spoke about peace, let alone provided a comprehensive vision for achieving it. No leading politician called for the dismantling of the illegal Jewish settlements that have been erected on Palestinian land in violation of international law.

More importantly and tellingly, no one spoke of a two-state solution.

As far as Israelis are concerned, the two-state solution is dead. While this is also true for many Palestinians, the Israeli alternative is hardly co-existence in one democratic secular state. The Israeli alternative is Apartheid.

Netanyahu and his future government coalition of like-minded extremists are now armed with an unmistakably popular mandate to fulfill all of their electoral promises, including the annexation of the West Bank.

Moreover, with an emboldened and empowered right-wing coalition, we are also likely to witness a major escalation in violence against Gaza this coming summer.

Considering all of this, we must understand that Israel’s illegal policies in Palestine cannot and will not be challenged from within Israeli society.

Challenging and ending the Israeli occupation and dismantling Apartheid can only happen through internal Palestinian resistance and external pressure that is centered around the strategy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

It is now incumbent on the international community to break this vicious Israeli cycle and support the Palestinian people in their ongoing struggle against Israeli occupation, racism and apartheid.

Annexation may provide the Key to Unlocking Netanyahu’s Legal Troubles

After winning the Israeli election with a slim majority, in a campaign that grew more sordid and vilifying by the day, Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to begin his fifth term as Israeli prime minister.

The culmination of his dirty tricks campaign was an election-day stunt in which his Likud party broke regulations – and possibly the law – by arming 1,200 activists with hidden cameras, to film polling stations in communities belonging to Israel’s large Palestinian minority.

Netanyahu justified the move by saying it would ensure the election was “kosher”. Yet again, Israel’s prime minister made it clear that the country’s 1.7 million Palestinian citizens were unwelcome interlopers in what he regards as an exclusively Jewish political process.

The PR firm behind the stunt admitted another motive. The goal was for the cameras to be quickly discovered by police and thereby scare the one in five citizens who are Palestinian into staying home. A low turnout by Palestinian voters in Israel would ensure a stronger parliamentary majority for Netanyahu’s coalition.

In fact, slightly less than half of the minority cast a ballot, although the reason was probably as much down to their exasperation at a series of ever more right-wing Netanyahu governments as it was a fear of surveillance at polling stations.

When coalition negotiations this week are complete, Netanyahu is likely to head the most ultra-nationalist government in Israel’s history – one even more extreme than his last one.

His coalition, comprising settler factions and religious fundamentalists, will even include a party hosting political refugees from the previously outlawed Kach party – anti-Arab racists banned in the US as a terror organisation.

The official opposition will be the Blue and White party led by a group of hawkish former generals – assuming Netanyahu doesn’t try to lure former army chief of staff Benny Gantz into a national unity government of the right.

In Washington, Netanyahu can rely on the full-throated support of Donald Trump’s administration.

In other words, Netanyahu will face no serious domestic or international obstacles as he implements the agenda of the right. He will entrench control over the last fragments of what was once assumed to be an emerging Palestinian state and he will step up attacks on the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, in line with the Nation-State Basic Law he passed last summer.

The biggest trouble facing Netanyahu once he forms a new government will not be political but legal.

During the election campaign, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, announced that Netanyahu would soon be indicted on a series of corruption charges.

The delay is largely a formality, giving the prime minister a final chance to defend himself at a special hearing. In the meantime, Netanyahu hopes he can find a way to ride out the charges.

One option is simply to drag out any trial, insisting it be deferred indefinitely on the grounds that he needs to focus on pressing matters of state. At the same time, he can rile up supporters and intimidate the judiciary by claiming that the courts are trying to overturn the will of the people.

The other option is to arm-twist his coalition partners into agreeing a retroactive immunity law making it impossible for prosecutors to indict the prime minister while in office. Some of his coalition partners are already on board.

How he might achieve this feat is through an “annexation for immunity” deal. In other words, Netanyahu gives the far-right and the settlers what they want – annexation of parts or all of the West Bank – and in return, they back immunity legislation.

That was why Netanyahu made an unexpected statement in favour of annexation shortly before polling.

Asked about the pressure for annexation from his coalition partners, he told the media: “We will move to the next stage. I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”

Netanyahu has previously rejected formally annexing the West Bank, but not on moral or ideological grounds.

He demurred largely because annexation would bring him grief in western capitals and risk provoking a Palestinian civil rights struggle that might attract global sympathy. In any case, he regards such a step as unnecessary, given that Israel has already annexed the West Bank in all but name.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu would prefer to stay out of the dock. And of late, the stars have been aligning in favour of some kind of annexation.

The world is losing interest in the Palestinian cause, given that it has been presented as intractable by western leaders and there are battles closer to home for many of them.

Trump has shown he will sanction just about any Israeli violation of Palestinian rights if it panders to his Christian evangelical base. And the US president has set a useful precedent for Netanayhu in recently recognising Israel’s illegal annexation of the occupied Golan Heights. The principle of victor-takes-all has been established in Washington.

The question, therefore, is increasingly not whether, but what kind of, annexation Netanyahu plans.

It will most likely be done in stages and not referred to as annexation but rather, “extending Israeli sovereignty”. Large settlements close to Jerusalem such as Maale Adumim and the Gush Etzion bloc might be first.

But ultimately, Netanyahu’s political allies want most of Area C, the two-thirds of the West Bank designated in the Oslo accords as under temporary Israeli control.

This is the most prized territory, including water aquifers and agricultural land. And better still for the Israelis, after decades of administrative ethnic cleansing, it has few Palestinians left there.

Trump was shameless in helping Netanyahu during the election campaign and there is no reason to believe he will get tougher now. His so-called peace plan, if it is finally unveiled after the election, as promised, might make annexation of parts of the West Bank its centrepiece, dressed up as a solution to final-status issues.

Was the Golan Heights debacle a warm-up act, laying the groundwork for an even more audacious move from Trump to save Netanyahu’s skin? We may find out soon enough.

• First published in The National

Netanyahu Reigns Supreme, and all Opposition has been Crushed

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged from Tuesday’s Israeli election tied with the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz and other high-powered generals. Although each party has 35 seats in the 120-seat parliament, Netanyahu is now firmly in the driving seat.

The small far-right and religious extremist parties that are needed to make up a parliamentary majority lost no time in declaring their support for Netanyahu. That will allow him to establish his fourth consecutive government.

Netanyahu now enjoys the luxury of choosing between a narrow government of these far-right parties, and a right-wing national unity government embracing Gantz. The latter option would potentially command four-fifths of the seats in the Israeli Knesset.

Whatever his decision, Netanyahu is now set this summer to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, beating the record set by Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.

Demand for “immunity” law

The only obstacle on the horizon – a set of corruption indictments against Netanyahu, announced by the attorney-general during the campaign – is certain to be swept away once Netanyahu has been formally installed as head of the next government by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners are already insisting on the passing of special “immunity” legislation – which would make it impossible to indict a sitting prime minister – as a condition for their support.

Bezalel Smotrich, of the far-right Union of Rightwing Parties, said such a law would “build trust among coalition members that the next government can rule for a full term”.

They understand that Netanyahu, given his track record, is their best meal ticket to a long-term place in government.

And Netanyahu’s own voters have demonstrated that they care not a whit whether he is corrupt, as long as he continues to promote a Jewish supremacist agenda.

Extolling Gaza rampage

Gantz’s success in matching Netanyahu’s tally of seats is impressive, given that he presided over a brand new party whose only policy seemed to be: “It’s time to get rid of Netanyahu.”

That showed there is a significant section of Israeli society fatigued by a decade of Netanyahu rule and the political and personal corruption he embodies.

But it also emphasised the continuing veneration by Israeli Jews of the army and their desire to find exclusively military solutions to political problems – not least, how to reach an accommodation with Palestinians and their claim to statehood.

It certainly does not, as some observers have claimed, signify an appetite among Israeli Jews for left-wing politics. Gantz and his fellow generals are not doves of any kind.

After all, the Blue and White party’s main selling point was Gantz’s pulverisation of Gaza in 2014, when he was army chief of staff overseeing a military operation that killed more than 500 Palestinian children.

Collapse of opposition

Netanyahu’s victory is underscored by the two most dramatic trends of the election. Those relate to the collapse of the opposition to the right – both among the Jewish electorate, and among voters belonging to the Palestinian minority, a fifth of Israel’s population.

In many ways, the most shocking result is the diminishment of the Labor Party, which founded Israel and ruled it for decades, to just six seats. That turns it into a marginal, special-interest party.

Combined with the four seats of the dovish Meretz party, that reduces what is commonly referred to in Israel as the “centre-left” to just 10 seats. According to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, only about 12 percent of Israeli Jews are still prepared to describe themselves as left-wing.

It is hard to see Labor ever recovering. If the trend continues, Labor and Meretz may need to merge in future elections to ensure they pass the polling threshold.

The ‘leftwing threat’

The mistaken description of Labor as belonging to the left is a legacy of its early connections to European socialist parties and its development of a centrally planned economy in Israel’s first decades.

Labor’s emphasis on ethnic politics and communal segregation – the idea that Jewish and Palestinian citizens should live and learn apart – would have earned it a classification as an ultra-nationalist party anywhere but Israel.

Nonetheless, Labor has in the past signalled that it wants to separate from parts of the occupied Palestinian territories, chiefly as a way to ensure that an expanded Israel – one that includes some of the larger, illegal settlements – remains overwhelmingly Jewish. Its policies have also been constrained, relative to the right, by concerns about Israel’s image abroad.

By shifting the political centre of gravity ever further rightwards, however, Netanyahu has clearly established the idea in most Israeli voters’ minds that Labor is an extremist left-wing party that threatens to bring about the end of a Jewish state.

‘Eliminating the Israeli state’

That was highlighted in the previous election, when Netanyahu not only fearmongered among Jewish voters that Palestinian citizens were coming out to vote “in droves”, but falsely blamed the left for “bussing” them to polling stations.

This process reached new levels of absurdity – and danger – in the current election campaign.

Netanyahu repeatedly warned that Gantz’s party – dominated by generals and extolling its security record in crushing Palestinians – was part of the centre-left.

Netanyahu argued that a vote for Gantz would result in Israeli-Palestinian parties acting as kingmakers in the next government and thereby help to “eliminate” the state of Israel.

Historic low turnout

The four Palestinian parties in the election race, running this time on two slates rather than as a single Joint List, have also struggled. They looked set to scrape through with between six and 10 seats, down from 13 in the last Knesset.

That is because turnout among Israel’s Palestinian citizens hit a historic low in this election, hovering around the  50 percent mark. This was the most lacklustre campaign ever seen in Palestinian communities in Israel.

The polling figures contrast sharply with voting rates among the minority of close to 90 percent back in the 1960s, and of 75 percent just two decades ago, as well as a turnout of 85 percent in local authority elections just a few months back.

The collapse of the vote marks the minority’s near-complete disillusionment with Israeli national politics, and their conclusion that a fundamental and irreversible rift has taken place with the Jewish majority.

Hidden cameras spy on voters

That was made clear last summer, when Israel passed the nation-state law, which made explicit that Israel was a state belonging exclusively to Jews, rather than to all Israeli citizens – thereby cementing the minority’s status as unwelcome spectators in a “Jewish democracy”.

As one Palestinian analyst noted to the daily Haaretz newspaper, Israeli politics is now like a perverse football game, in which there are two Jewish teams and Palestinian citizens serve as the ball. “Everybody’s kicking us and neither team wants us,” he said.

Netanyahu underscored that point on election day itself, when he pulled another of his incitement stunts against the Palestinian minority. He sent more than 1,000 activists armed with hidden video cameras to monitor polling stations in Palestinian communities.

It was a gross violation of Israel’s election laws. But publicity over the cameras’ confiscation by police was another coup for Netanyahu’s fear-based politics. He defended the move as ensuring the election’s conduct was “kosher”, the term used to denote food that accords with strict Jewish dietary laws.

Like his earlier “droves” comment, it sent a clear message that the very presence of Palestinian voters subverts a democratic process intended for Jews only, and that the extreme right he represents is uniquely prepared to take the necessary action to defend a Jewish state.

Palestinian parties ostracised

Netanyahu, however, cannot be solely blamed for this state of affairs. Previously the Labor Party, and now Gantz’s party of generals, actively conspired in Netanyahu’s carefully crafted narrative, presenting Palestinian citizens as a fifth column.

Gantz repeatedly distanced himself from the Palestinian parties in response to Netanyahu’s incitement, vowing to sit only with “Jewish and Zionist” parties.

Effectively, with that promise, he not only shot the Palestinian minority in the head, but himself in the foot. It meant he never stood a hope of having enough seats to provide an alternative government to Netanyahu.

Now, it seems, Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens have fully absorbed the lesson: that all the Jewish parties, bar the four-seat Meretz party, have stripped them of a legitimate claim to political rights inside a Jewish state.

Haggling over annexation

There are a few other significant take-homes from the results.

Religious extremist parties are now the kingmakers on the right. Between them, they won more than a sixth of the parliament. Netanyahu will almost certainly need them in the government, and they will demand socially influential ministries, further accelerating the shift to religious fundamentalism in Israel.

In the run-up to the coalition-building negotiations, one such party representing religious settlers has already demanded that it be given the education and justice ministries.

Netanyahu is also in a weak position to resist – assuming he wished to – the demands of the far-right parties to begin the process of formally annexing significant parts of the West Bank.

Media reports are already suggesting that post-election haggling will focus on demands from these far-right parties for some form of annexation, in return for their agreeing to pass immunity legislation to shield Netanyahu from corruption indictments.

That explains his comments in the last days of the campaign, in which he promised to annex swaths of the West Bank where the settlements are located.

As Netanyahu’s hold on power became clear on Tuesday, he made a speech encapsulating his style of speaking with a forked tongue. He told the crowds: “I intend to be the prime minister of all the citizens of Israel, right and left, Jews and non-Jews.”

To outsiders, it may have sounded conciliatory. To those in Israel who know Netanyahu, it sounded more like a threat from a man who understands that there is no one in Israel – right or left, Jew or non-Jew – in a position to resist his dictates.

• First published in Middle East Eye