Category Archives: Benny Gantz

The ‘Desaparecidos’ of Palestine: Gantz Escalates Israel’s War on the Dead 

On September 2, the Israeli government approved a proposal that allows the military to indefinitely withhold the bodies of Palestinians who have been killed by the Israeli army. The proposal was made by the country’s Defense Minister, Benny Gantz.

Gantz is the main political rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also serves the role of the ‘alternate Prime Minister.’ If Netanyahu does not renege on the coalition government agreement he signed with Gantz’s Blue and White Party last April, Gantz will take the helm of Israel’s leadership, starting November 2021.

Since his official induction to the tumultuous world of Israeli politics, Gantz, supposedly a ‘centrist’, has adopted hawkish stances against Palestinians, especially those in Gaza. This way, he hopes to widen his appeal to Israeli voters, the majority of whom have migrated en-masse to the Right.

But Gantz’s latest ‘achievement’, that of denying dead Palestinians a proper burial, is not entirely a novel idea. In fact, in Israel, bargaining with corpses has been the modus operandi for decades.

According to the Defense Minister’s logic, the withholding of bodies will serve as a ‘deterrent against terror attacks.’ However, judging by the fact that the practice has been in use for many years, there is no proof that Palestinians were ever discouraged from resisting Israel’s military occupation due to such strategies.

The new policy, according to Israeli officials, is different from the previous practices. While in the past, Israel has only kept the bodies of alleged ‘Palestinian attackers’ who belonged to ‘terror groups’, the latest decision by the Israeli government would extend the rule to apply to all Palestinians, even those who have no political affiliations.

Aside from Gantz’s attempt at shoring up his hawkish credentials, the military man-turned politician wants to improve his chances in the on and off, indirect negotiations between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza. Israel believes that there are four soldiers who are currently being held in Gaza, including the bodies of two soldiers who were killed during the devastating Israeli war on the besieged Strip in July 2014. Hamas has maintained that two of the four soldiers – Hadar Goldin and Shaul Aaron – are, in fact, still alive and in custody.

For years, low-level talks between Hamas and Israel have aimed at securing a deal that would see an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange for the detained Israelis. By withholding yet more Palestinian bodies, Tel Aviv hopes to strengthen its position in future talks.

The reality, however, is quite different. The Israeli army has not been returning the bodies of Palestinians who are accused of attacking Israeli soldiers for months, which includes all Palestinians, regardless of their purported political affiliations.

Undoubtedly, withholding corpses as a political strategy is illegal under international law. Article 130 of the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly states that persons who are killed during armed conflicts should be “honorably buried … according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged.”

The Israeli Supreme Court, however, which quite often rules contrary to international law, resolved on September 9, 2019 – exactly one year before the Israeli cabinet’s decision – that the army has the right to continue with the practice of withholding the bodies of dead Palestinians.

While Israel is not the first country to use the dead as a bargaining chip, the practice in Israel has lasted as long as the conflict itself, and has been utilized in myriad ways with the intention of humiliating, collectively punishing and bargaining with Palestinians.

During Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ (1976-1983), tens of thousands of Argentinians ‘disappeared’. Students, intellectuals, trade unionists and thousands of other dissidents were killed by the country’s regime in an unprecedented genocide. The bodies of most of these victims were never recovered. However, the practice largely ceased following the collapse of the military junta in 1983.

Similar ordeals have been inflicted by other countries in many parts of the world. In Israel however, the practice is not linked to a specific military regime or a particular leader. The ‘desaparecidos’ of Palestine span several generations.

To this day, Israel maintains what is known as the ‘cemeteries of numbers’. Salwa Hammad, a coordinator for the Palestinian National Campaign to Retrieve Martyrs, estimates that there are six such cemeteries in Israel, although Israeli authorities refuse to divulge more details regarding the nature of these cemeteries, or exactly how many Palestinian bodies are buried there.

The Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center estimates that 255 Palestinian bodies are buried in these cemeteries, 52 of them being ‘detained’ there by Israeli authorities since 2016.

In the ‘cemeteries of numbers’, Palestinians are known, not by name, but by a number, one that only Israel can cross-reference to the actual individual who is buried there. In 2011, the body of Hafez Abu Zant was released after being held in one of these cemeteries for 35 years, Bernama news agency reported.

According to Hammad, “If the remains are in a ‘cemetery of numbers’, we get it back in a black bag – some bones, some soil and maybe their clothes.”

Following the Israeli cabinet’s approval of his proposal, Gantz bragged about his ability to apply “an extensive policy of deterrence since entering office”. The truth is that Gantz is merely posturing and taking credit for a protracted Israeli policy that has been applied by all previous governments, regardless of their political orientations.

If Gantz is truly convinced that holding dead Palestinian bodies — while maintaining the Israeli military occupation — will bring about whatever skewed definition of peace and security he has in mind, he is sadly mistaken.

Such policies have proven a complete failure. While Palestinian families are absolutely devastated by this hideous practice, the detention of corpses has never quelled a rebellion, neither in Argentina nor in Palestine. 

The post The ‘Desaparecidos’ of Palestine: Gantz Escalates Israel’s War on the Dead  first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Netanyahu vs Gantz: Gaza Escalation as Reflection of Israel’s Political Rivalry

Only recently, the Palestinian group, Hamas, and Israel seemed close to reaching a prisoner exchange agreement, where Hamas would release several Israeli soldiers held in Gaza while Israel would set free an unspecified number of Palestinian detainees held in Israeli prisons.

Instead of the much-anticipated announcement of some kind of a deal, on August 10, Israeli bombs began falling on the besieged Strip and incendiary balloons, originating in Gaza, made their way to the Israeli side of the fence.

So, what happened?

The answer lies largely – though not entirely – in Israel, specifically in the political conflict between Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing political camp, on the one hand, and their government’s coalition partners, led by Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, on the other.

The discord between Netanyahu and Gantz is concentrated on a fierce budget conflict currently underway in the Knesset, which has little to do with government spending or fiscal responsibilities.

Gantz, who is supposed to serve his term as Prime Minister, starting November 2021, believes that Netanyahu plans on passing a one-year budget to disrupt the coalition agreement and to call for new elections before the leadership swap takes place. Therefore, Gantz insists on extending the budget coverage to two years, to avoid any possible betrayal by Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Netanyahu’s plot, which was revealed by the daily newspaper Haaretz on July 29, is not entirely motivated by the Israeli leader’s love for power, but by his mistrust of Gantz’s own motives. If Gantz becomes the country’s Prime Minister, he is likely to appoint new judges who are sympathetic towards his Blue and White and, thus, eager to indict Netanyahu in his ongoing corruption trial.

For both Netanyahu and Gantz, this is, perhaps, the most crucial fight of their political careers: the former fighting for his freedom, the latter fighting for survival.

One issue, however, is acceptable to both leaders: the understanding that military strength will always garner greater support from the Israeli public, especially if another election becomes inevitable. A successive, fourth election is likely to take place if the budget battle is not resolved.

As a military showdown in South Lebanon becomes unattainable due to the massive explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4, the two Israeli leaders have turned their attention to Gaza. Moving quickly, as if on the campaign trail, Gantz and Netanyahu are busy making their case to Israelis living in the southern towns bordering the Gaza Strip.

Gantz paid the leaders of these communities a visit on August 19. He was joined by a carefully selected delegation of top Israeli government and military officials, including Agriculture Minister, Alon Schuster and Gaza Division Commander, Brig.-Gen. Nimrod Aloni, who joined via video conference.

Aside from the customary threats of targeting anyone in Gaza who dares threaten Israeli security, Gantz has engaged in election campaign type of self-promotion. “We have changed the equation in Gaza. Since I entered office, there has been a response to every breach in our security,” Gantz said, emphasizing his own achievements, as opposed to those of the coalition government – thus denying Netanyahu any credit.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, has threatened harsh retaliation against Gaza if Hamas does not prevent protesters from releasing incendiary balloons. “We have adopted a policy under which a fire is treated as a rocket,” he told the mayors of southern towns on August 18.

Netanyahu is keeping the Gaza war option open, in case it becomes his only recourse. Gantz, as Defense Minister and Netanyahu’s rival is, however, enjoying greater political space to maneuver. From August 10, he has ordered his military to bomb Gaza every night. With every bomb dropped on Gaza, Gantz’s credibility among Israeli voters, especially in the south, increases slightly.

If the current conflagration leads to an all-out war, it will be the entire coalition government – including Netanyahu and his Likud party – that will bear responsibility for its potential disastrous consequences. This places Gantz in a powerful position.

The current military showdown in Gaza is not entirely the outcome of Israel’s own political fight. Gaza society is currently at a breaking point.

The truce between Gaza groups and Israel, which was reached through Egyptian mediation in November 2019, amounted to nothing. Despite much assurance that besieged Gazans would receive badly needed respite, the situation has, instead, reached an unprecedented, unbearable phase: Gaza’s only power generator has run out of fuel and is no longer in operation; the Strip’s tiny fishing zone of barely three nautical miles was declared a closed military zone by Israel on August 16; the Karem Abu Salem Crossing, through which meager supplies enter Gaza through Israel, is officially shut down.

The 13-year-old Israeli siege on Gaza is currently at its worst possible manifestation, with little room for the Gaza population to even express their outrage at their miserable plight.

In December 2019, the Hamas authorities decided to limit the frequency of protests, known as Gaza’s March of Return, which had taken place almost daily, starting March 2018.

Over 300 Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers during the protests. Despite the high death toll and the relative failure to ignite international uproar against the siege, the non-violent protests permitted ordinary Palestinians to vent, to organize and to take initiative.

The current growing frustration in Gaza has compelled Hamas to open up a space for protesters to return to the fence in the hope that it pushes the subject of the siege back to the news agenda.

The incendiary balloons, which have ignited the ire of the Israeli military recently, are one of several Palestinian messages that Gazans refuse to accept that the protracted siege is now their permanent reality.

While Egyptian mediation may eventually offer Palestinians a temporary fix and avoid an all-out war, Israeli violence in Gaza, under the current political arrangement, will not cease.

Certainly, for as long as Israeli leaders continue to see a war on Gaza as a political opportunity and a platform for their own electoral games, the siege will carry on, relentlessly.

The Likud Conspiracy: Israel in the Throes of a Major Political Crisis

Protests against Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have raged on for weeks, turning violent sometimes. Israelis are furious at their government’s mediocre response to the coronavirus pandemic, especially as COVID-19 disease is experiencing a massive surge throughout the country.

Netanyahu warned protesters, thousands of whom have been rallying outside his residence in Jerusalem, against “anarchy (and) violence”. Scenes of utter chaos and violent arrests have been a daily occurrence in a country that is already in the throes of a political crisis, largely, if not exclusively, linked to the Prime Minister himself.

Desperate to create any distractions from his many woes at home, Netanyahu has been pushing for a confrontation with the Lebanese resistance group, Hezbollah. But that, too, has failed, as Israeli media has denied earlier claims that a violent confrontation was reported at the Israel/Lebanon border.

Hezbollah insists that it would be the group, not Netanyahu, that will determine the time and place for its response to Israel’s recent killing of Hezbollah’s influential member, Ali Kamel Mohsen.

Mohsen was killed in an Israeli aerial raid targeting the vicinity of the Damascus International Airport, likely another desperate attempt by Netanyahu to deflect attention from his troubled coalition government and his corruption trial to an issue that often unifies most Israelis.

The turmoil in Israel is not just about an obstinate, divisive leader who is manipulating public opinion, the media and the various political groups to remain in power and to avoid legal accountability for his corruption.

The Disunited Coalition 

Israel is suffering a crisis of political legitimacy, one that goes beyond the embattled Netanyahu, and his coalition with the head of the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) centrist party, Benny Gantz.

The political marriage between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Kahol Lavan last April was fundamentally odd and unexpected. The announcement that Gantz — who endured three general elections in less than a year to finally oust Netanyahu — was uniting with his archenemy has devastated the anti-Netanyahu political camp, forcing Gantz’s partners, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, to abandon him.

But the new coalition government between the right and center became dysfunctional immediately after it was formed. Israel’s political marriage of convenience is likely to end in an ugly divorce.

The war between Netanyahu and his main coalition partner is now manifest in every aspect of Israel’s political life:  in the Knesset (parliament), in media headlines and on the streets.

When the new government assumed its duties after one of the most tumultuous years in Israel’s political history, the mood, at least immediately, was somewhat calm; both Netanyahu and Gantz seemed united in their desire to illegally annex nearly a third of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Israel’s right wing camp was delighted; the center tagged along.

However, the international response to the annexation scheme forced Netanyahu to rethink his July 1 deadline. Now that annexation has been postponed indefinitely, Netanyahu is being denied a major political card that could have helped him replenish his fading popularity among Israelis, at a time when he desperately needs it.

On July 19, Netanyahu’s corruption trial resumed. Although the Prime Minister did not attend the opening session personally, his image — that of a strong commanding figure — was tarnished, nonetheless.

Gantz, who already agreed to the annexation plan, was too clever to fully associate himself with the risky political endeavor. That task was left to Netanyahu who knew the risks affiliated with a failed political scheme, but with no option except to follow through with it.

Awaiting the right opportunity to pounce on his beleaguered ‘partner’, Gantz found his chance in a report published by the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz.

The Budget Conspiracy 

On July 22, Haaretz reported that, “Netanyahu decided to not pass the budget for 2020 and to call a general election to take place on November 18,” to avoid the possibility of being forced to “handing over the keys to Defense Minister and Kahol Lavan Chairman, Benny Gantz” so that he, Netanyahu, may “attend legal proceedings” related to his corruption trial.

According to this claim, Netanyahu only agreed to swap the Prime Minister seat with Gantz come November 2021 just to buy time and to avoid a fourth election that would leave him vulnerable to an electoral defeat and to a corruption trial without a political safety net.

Despite the risk of yet another election, Netanyahu is keen to wrestle the Justice Ministry from Kahol Lavan’s hands, because whoever controls the Justice Ministry controls Netanyahu’s fate in Israeli courts. Leaving Gantz with such a powerful card is neither an option for the Likud nor for Netanyahu.

Hence, the Likud is insisting that the budget agreement can only last for one year, while Kahol Lavan is adamant that it must cover a period of two years. The Likud conspiracy, as revealed in Israeli media, suggests that the Likud Finance Minister, Israel Katz, plans to use the next budget negotiations as the reason to dismantle the right-center coalition and demand another election, thus denying Gantz his chance to serve his term as a prime minister, per the unity government agreement.

Crisis of a Fake Democracy

However, the crisis is larger than the dispute between Netanyahu and Gantz. While Israel has long prided itself on being “the only democracy in the Middle East”, the truth is that Israeli ‘democracy’ was, from the start, fraudulent, in that it catered to Israeli Jews and discriminated against everyone else.

In recent years, however, institutionalized racism and apartheid in Israel were no longer masked by clever political discourses.  Netanyahu, in particular, has led the charge of making Israel the right-wing, chauvinistic, racist haven that it is today.

The fact that Netanyahu recently became Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, elected repeatedly by Israel’s Jewish citizens, indicates that the Israeli leader is but a reflection of the larger ailments that have afflicted Israeli society as a whole.

Reducing the discussion to Netanyahu’s many failures might be convenient, but the demonstrable truth is that corrupt leaders can only exist in corrupt and unhealthy political systems. Israel is now the perfect example of that truism.

Can the Anti-Netanyahu Protests grow into a Larger Movement?

Israel is roiling with angry street protests that local observers have warned could erupt into open civil strife – a development Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be encouraging.

For weeks, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have been the scene of large, noisy demonstrations outside the official residences of Mr Netanyahu and his public security minister, Amir Ohana.

On Saturday night around 13,000 marched through Jerusalem shouting “Anyone but Bibi”, Netanyahu’s nickname. Their calls were echoed by tens of thousands more at locations across the country.

Turnout has been steadily growing, despite attacks on demonstrators from both the police and Netanyahu’s loyalists. The first protests abroad by Israeli expats have also been reported.

The protests, in defiance of physical distancing rules, are unprecedented by Israeli standards. They have bridged the gaping political divide between a small constituency of anti-occupation activists – disparagingly called “leftists” in Israel – and the much larger Israeli Jewish public that identifies politically as on the centre and the right.

For the first time, a section of Netanyahu’s natural supporters is out on the streets against him.

In contrast to earlier protests, such as a large social justice movement that occupied the streets in 2011 to oppose rising living costs, these demonstrations have not entirely eschewed political issues.

The target of the anger and frustration is decidedly personal at this stage – focused on the figure of Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Protesters have renamed him Israel’s “crime minister”.

But also fuelling the protests is a larger mood of disenchantment as doubts grow about the state’s competence to deal with multiple crises unfolding in Israel. The virus has caused untold social and economic misery for many, with as much as one fifth of the labour force out of work. Netanyahu’s supporters in the lower middle-classes have been hit hardest.

Now well into a second wave, Israel has a per capita rate of infection that outstrips even the US. The shadow of a renewed lockdown amid government mishandling of the virus has undermined Netanyahu’s claim to be “Mr Security”.

There are concerns too about police brutality – starkly highlighted by the killing in May of an autistic Palestinian, Eyad Hallaq, in Jerusalem.

Police crackdowns on the protests, using riot squads, undercover agents, mounted police and water cannon, have underlined not just Netanyahu’s growing authoritarianism. There is a sense too that the police may be ready to use violence on dissenting Israelis that was once reserved for Palestinians.

After manipulating his right-wing rival, the former military general Benny Gantz, into joining him in a unity government in April, Netanyahu has effectively crushed any meaningful political opposition.

The agreement shattered Gantz’s Blue and White party, with many of his legislators refusing to enter the government, and has widely discredited the ex-general.

Netanyahu is reportedly preparing for a winter election – the fourth in two years – both to cash in on his opponents’ disarray and to avoid honouring a rotation agreement in which Gantz is due to replace him late next year.

According to the Israeli media, Netanyahu may find a pretext for forcing new elections by further delaying approval of the national budget, despite Israel facing its worst financial crisis in decades.

And, of course, overshadowing all this is the matter of the corruption charges against Netanyahu. Not only is he the first sitting prime minister in Israel to stand trial, but he has been using his role and the pandemic to his advantage, including by delaying court hearings.

In a time of profound crisis and uncertainty, many Israelis are wondering which policies are being pursued for the national good and which for Netanyahu’s personal benefit.

The government’s months-long focus on the annexation of swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank has looked like pandering to his settler constituency, creating a dangerous distraction from dealing with the pandemic.

Similarly, a one-off handout this week to every Israeli – over the strenuous objections of finance officials – looks suspiciously like an electoral bribe. As a result, Netanyahu is facing a rapid decline in support. A recent survey shows trust in him has fallen by half – from 57 per cent in March and April, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, to 29 per cent today.

Many Israelis increasingly see Netanyahu less as a father figure and more as a parasite draining resources from the body politic. Capturing the popular mood is a new art work called the “Last Supper” that was covertly installed in central Tel Aviv. It shows Netanyahu alone, gorging on a vast banquet by stuffing his hand into an enormous cake decorated with the Israeli flag.

In another move designed to highlight Netanyahu’s corrupt politics, better-off Israelis have been publicly organising to donate this week’s state handout to those in need.

Netanyahu’s repeated incitement against the protesters – disparaging them as “leftists” and “anarchists”, and suggesting they are spreading disease – appears to have backfired. It has only rallied more people to the street.

But the incitement and Netanyahu’s claims that he is the true victim – and that in the current climate he faces assassination – have been interpreted as a call to arms by some on the right. Last week five protesters were injured when his loyalists used clubs and broken bottles on them, with police appearing to turn a blind eye. Further attacks were reported at the weekend. Protest organisers said they had begun arranging defence units to protect demonstrators.

Ohana, the public security minister, has called for a ban on the protests and urged a heavy hand from the police. He has delayed appointing a new police chief – a move seen as incentivising local commanders to crack down on the protests to win favour. Large numbers of protesters have been forcefully arrested, with reports that police have questioned some on their political views.

Observers have wondered whether the protests can transcend party political tribalism and develop into a grassroots movement demanding real change. That might widen their appeal to even more disadvantaged groups, not least the one fifth of Israel’s citizens who belong to its Palestinian minority.

But it would also require more of the protesters to start drawing a direct connection between Netanyahu’s personal abuses of office and the wider, systemic corruption of Israeli politics, with the occupation its beating heart.

That may yet prove a tall order, especially when Israel faces no significant external pressure for change, either from the US or from Europe.

• First published in The National

List of Israeli Targets Leaked: Tel Aviv Fears the Worst in ICC Investigation of War Crimes

When International Court of Justice (ICC) Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, confirmed last December that the Court has ample evidence to pursue a war crimes investigation in occupied Palestine, the Israeli government responded with the usual rhetoric, accusing the international community of bias and insisting on Israel’s ‘right to defend itself.’

Beneath the platitudes and typical Israeli discourse, the Israeli government knew too well that an ICC investigation into war crimes in Palestine could be quite costly. An investigation, in itself, represents an indictment of sorts. If Israeli individuals were to be indicted for war crimes, that is a different story, as it becomes a legal obligation of ICC members to apprehend the criminals and hand them over to the Court.

Israel remained publicly composed, even after Bensouda, last April, elaborated on her December decision with a 60-page legal report, titled: “Situation in the State of Palestine: Prosecution Response to the Observations of Amici Curiae, Legal Representatives of Victims, and States.”

In the report, the ICC addressed many of the questions, doubts and reports submitted or raised in the four months that followed her earlier decision. Countries such as Germany and Austria, among others, had used their position as amici curiae — ‘friends of the court’ — to question the ICC jurisdiction and the status of Palestine as a country.

Bensouda insisted that “the Prosecutor is satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to initiate an investigation into the situation in Palestine under article 53(1) of the Rome Statute, and that the scope of the Court’s territorial jurisdiction comprises the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza (“Occupied Palestinian Territory”).”

However, Bensouda did not provide definitive timelines to the investigation; instead, she requested that the ICC’S Pre-Trial Chamber “confirm the scope of the Court’s territorial jurisdiction in Palestine,” an additional step that is hardly required since the State of Palestine, a signatory of the Rome Statute, is the one that actually referred the case directly to the Prosecutor’s office.

The April report, in particular, was the wake-up call for Tel Aviv. Between the initial decision in December till the release of the latter report, Israel lobbied on many fronts, enlisting the help of ICC members and recruiting its greatest benefactor, Washington – which is not an ICC member – to bully the Court so it may reverse its decision.

On May 15, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, warned the ICC against pursuing the investigation, targeting Bensouda, in particular, for her decision to hold war criminals in Palestine accountable.

The US slapped unprecedented sanctions against the ICC on June 11, with President Donald Trump issuing an ‘executive order’ that authorizes the freezing of assets and a travel ban against ICC officials and their families. The order also allows for the punishing of other individuals or entities that assist the ICC in its investigation.

Washington’s decision to carry out punitive measures against the very Court that was established for the sole purpose of holding war criminals accountable is both outrageous and abhorrent. It also exposes Washington’s hypocrisy — the country that claims to defend human rights is attempting to prevent legal accountability by those who have violated human rights.

Upon its failure to halt the ICC legal procedures regarding its investigation of war crimes, Israel began to prepare for the worst. On July 15, Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz, reported about a ‘secret list’ that was drawn up by the Israeli government. The list includes “between 200 and 300 officials”, ranging from politicians to military and intelligence officials, who are subject to arrest abroad, should the ICC officially open the war crimes investigation.

Names begin at the top of the Israeli political pyramid, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his current coalition partner, Benny Gantz.

The sheer number of Israeli officials on the list is indicative of the scope of the ICC’s investigation, and somehow is a self-indictment, as the names include former Israeli Defense Ministers — Moshe Ya’alon, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett; current and former army chiefs of staffs — Aviv Kochavi, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot and current and former heads of internal intelligence, the Shin Bet — Nadav Argaman and Yoram Cohen.

Respected international human rights organizations have already, repeatedly, accused all these individuals of serious human rights abuses during Israel’s lethal wars on the besieged Gaza Strip, starting with the so-called ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in 2008-9.

But the list is far more extensive, as it covers “people in much more junior positions, including lower-ranking military officers and, perhaps, even officials involved in issuing various types of permits to settlements and settlement outposts.”

Israel, thus, fully appreciates the fact that the international community still insists that the construction of illegal colonies in occupied Palestine, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the transfer of Israeli citizens to occupied land are all inadmissible under international law and tantamount to war crimes. Netanyahu must be disappointed to learn that all of Washington’s concessions to Israel under Trump’s presidency have failed to alter the position of the international community and the applicability of international law in any way.

Furthermore, it would not be an exaggeration to argue that Tel Aviv’s postponement of its plan to illegally annex nearly a third of the West Bank is directly linked to the ICC’s investigation, for the annexation would have completely thwarted Israel’s friends’ efforts aimed at preventing the investigation from ever taking place.

While the whole world, especially Palestinians, Arabs and their allies, still anxiously await the final decision by the Pre-Trial Chamber, Israel will continue its overt and covert campaign to intimidate the ICC and any other entity that aims to expose Israeli war crimes and to try Israeli war criminals.

Washington, too, will continue to strive to ensure Netanyahu, Gantz, and the “200 to 300” other Israeli officials never see their day in court.

However, the fact that a “secret list” exists is an indication that Tel Aviv understands that this era is different and that international law, which has failed Palestinians for over 70 years, may for once deliver, however small, a measure of justice.

“Feeding a Bedouin”: Roy Oz and Israel’s Outrageous Racism 

On July 11, a video footage which showed a popular Israeli TV celebrity demeaning Palestinian children from the Bedouin community in the Naqab area, went viral on social media.

“Let’s feed a Bedouin. Don’t you want to feed a Bedouin?” Israeli Children TV host, Roy Oz, repeatedly asks his children, who were seated in the back seat of his car. Outside the vehicle, two Palestinian children were filmed as they stood waiting eagerly for the cookies promised to them by the Israeli driver.

Palestinian Bedouins are treated like “monkeys”, said Atia al-Asem, head of the Regional Council of Palestinian Villages in the Naqab, after viewing the disturbing footage.

Arab Member of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), Ahmad Tibi, described Oz’s behavior as the “lowest of human behavior, racist and despicable brutishness.”

In truth, Oz’s actions were merely consistent with the very racist reality that governs Israeli society — its laws, political institutions, media apparatus, its economic sector and popular perceptions.

In particular, the thousands of Palestinians who are still living in the Naqab desert have been subjected to a relentless Israeli campaign of dehumanization, racism, and ethnic cleansing.

Racism and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Bedouin communities go hand in hand.  Oz’s video cannot be viewed separately from the Israeli government’s plans to corral Palestinians in the Naqab into isolated and impoverished communities in order to make space for Jewish-only housing developments.

For this sinister scenario to succeed, the Palestinian Bedouins need to be dehumanized by the Israeli political and media establishments. Oz’s racist video is a mere expression of this outrageous reality.

However, the issue exceeds that of the devastation and racism underway in the Naqab, into all aspects of Israeli lives.

In July 2018, Israel approved a “basic law”, dubbed the “Jewish nation-state law” that gave ascendency to everything Jewish and denigrated all else. It was a desperate, and ultimately failed, attempt at reconciling between the “Jewishness” of the state with universal democratic ideals.

“The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established,” the new law said, celebrating the country as “the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.”

In accordance with the above assertions, the new definition grants the “Jewish people”, everywhere, the right to “exercise  … the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel.”

The millions of Palestinian Arabs — Muslims, Christians and Druze — who share that same piece of land, though not as equals, have no place in Israel’s undemocratic definition of itself. Needless to say, the nearly 7 million Palestinian refugees were also excluded from claiming any rights in “the State of Israel”, including their internationally-enshrined Right of Return.

The Israeli Nation-State Law, however, must not be seen as the event that ushered in institutionalized racism in this country. Israel was founded on the racist principle that it belonged to the “Jewish people” only, and no one else, not even the Palestinian Arab natives of the land.

However, the law is significant in the sense that it represents the final blow to the hope that Israel will eventually come to terms with its past, and embrace the humanistic principles of equality, justice and democracy.

That hope — really an illusion — was dashed, and irrevocably so, as there is little resistance within Israel itself by any significant political force that is capable of confronting and defeating the racist, chauvinistic and ultra-nationalist trends that have always dominated the country.

According to an election survey published in January 2019, those who identified as “leftists” have dwindled  significantly, as they now represent only 12 percent of all Israelis – a number that includes Arab communities, where the left has historically had a strong presence.

This realization might be one of the reasons that made some optimists imagine that the supposed next best thing — Israel’s centrist Blue and White Party coalition under Benny Gantz — was still able to, at least, slow down the advancement of right-wing and religious parties.

These hopes persisted over the course of a tumultuous political year that witnessed three major elections in a row, despite the fact that many of Gantz’s stances were equally — if not even more — hawkish than those of right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unsurprisingly, on April 20, Gantz joined Netanyahu to form a coalition government that is arguably the most militaristic in the country’s modern history, as both camps are keen on a new military confrontation with Gaza and a massive annexation scheme of nearly 30 percent of the occupied West Bank.

Armed with constitutional racism, Israeli leaders can now justify, at least to themselves and their constituencies, any action that may be deemed abhorrent, illegal or racist by the rest of the world.

This is the very reality that allows racist ‘celebrities’, such as Roy Oz, to go on safari-like adventures with his well-fed children in their air-conditioned top model vehicles to hand cookies to malnourished and poor Palestinian Bedouin children in the Naqab.

For Israel, Oz is the epitome of the ultimate victory of the “Jewish people” — as defined by Israel’s racist Nation-State Law — over the alienated, corralled and victimized Palestinians.

But racism in Israel is not only the work of political institutions as a direct outcome of the disparities created by Israel’s military superiority and expansive colonial enterprises. It has long passed all of that into many other aspects of Israeli society, and can be felt in other sectors of law, economy, the health care system and education; especially education.

Aside from the “racist ideology” taught in Israeli public schools, which denies the historical roots of Palestinians in their own land, and often demeans the Palestinian natives in ways that violate the minimal standards of modern education — let alone human rights — the very set-up of the educational system is a testimony to Israel’s deeply entrenched racism.

Schools dedicated to Palestinian Arab children in Israel are “a world apart in quality from the public schools serving Israel’s majority Jewish population,” according to one Human Rights Watch report.

“Often overcrowded and understaffed, poorly built, badly maintained, or simply unavailable, schools for Palestinian Arab children offer fewer facilities and educational opportunities than are offered other Israeli children.”

Racism accompanies the average Jewish citizen of Israel from the hospital where he is born, to the iniquitous school system, to the discriminatory business sector, to the utterly racist fans at the soccer field, to the unruly, murderous army and beyond. And every step of the way, Palestinians are belittled, dehumanized, exploited, subjugated, confined, imprisoned and, in many instances, killed.

With that being the everyday reality in Israel and Palestine, should we really be surprised that a morally bankrupt fool like Roy Oz mistreated Bedouin children, offering them candy as if zoo animals?

The truth is, Oz is the actual face of Israel — privileged, entitled, racist and delusional. And the same way Israeli media — which gives the likes of Oz his celebrity status — should be shunned and boycotted, Israel should also be sanctioned and boycotted. Because, without international pressure, Israel will never, on its own, confront its demons of military occupation, apartheid and deep-rooted racism.

Why is Mike Pompeo risking a One-day Trip to Israel Amid the Pandemic?

As part of its battle against Covid-19, Israel has closed it borders to foreigners and imposed a two-week quarantine on anyone entering the country. There are also strict requirements to wear masks in public places.

Israel, however, has thrown the rules – and caution – to the wind in approving the arrival on Wednesday of the one of the world’s most powerful statesmen.

It seems strange timing – with the world hunkered down – for the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to be making an urgent, lightning visit to a tiny country in the Middle East. But then Israel-US relations have never been normal.

Pompeo’s arrival has been preceded by assurances that no one will be put in danger. The one-day visit would be “highly choreographed” to ensure it was “very, very safe”, a senior medical adviser told the media on the weekend.

One might wonder why – given the need for a medical team, for screening beforehand of the flight crew and state department staff, and for Israel’s intricate arrangements to ensure social distancing – it is so important right now for Pompeo to meet in person the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Could they not have just chatted on a secure phone line and avoided all the hullabaloo?

It may not be entirely coincidental that Pompeo’s visit comes the day before Netanyahu’s fourth consecutive government will be sworn in after a year of inconclusive Israeli elections.

Pompeo will be able to congratulate him in person, as well as Netanyahu’s adversary-turned-coalition partner Benny Gantz, a former general who will serve as defence minister. Gantz is expected to become prime minister in 18 months’ time under a rotation agreement approved by Israel’s Supreme Court last week.

Now with a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu is keen to forge ahead with his long-delayed political priorities while Donald Trump is still in the White House and offering a near-blank cheque.

Trump, meanwhile, wants Israel in lockstep with his own priorities as he takes on the presumed Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in November’s presidential election.

With his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic coming in for increasingly tough criticism, Trump will need all his electoral bases shored up. Keeping Netanyahu happy will be key to bringing out the fervently pro-Israel, Christian evangelical vote that helped him win in 2016.

Top of the pair’s official agenda are discussions about the pandemic and Iran’s influence on the region. But Israeli media have been full of reports that even more prominent will be talks about annexation of the West Bank.

Regarding Iran, both wish to see its influence diminished, and are determined to prevent a stringent sanctions regime being eased on humanitarian grounds, as Tehran struggles against a mounting death toll from the virus. Both are also gearing up for a campaign to renew an arms embargo on Iran when it expires in October.

But things get trickier in relation to Syria, Israel’s northern neighbour, where Iran is in a contest with Russia for influence over Damascus.

The US has been supportive of Israel stepping up attacks on Iranian positions in Syria, with at least six airstrikes alone in the past two weeks. Both would like to see Tehran denied any say in the post-war rebuilding of Syria.

But their agreement is less clear-cut about Russia filling any vacuum left by Iran’s departure.

The US state department is still in thrall to a Cold War agenda of containing Russia and treating it chiefly as a military threat.

Israel’s approach is more ambivalent. Reportedly on good terms with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu cannot afford to antagonise a great power on his doorstep.

He also needs to weigh Moscow’s influence over 1.2 million Russian speakers who immigrated to Israel in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago and usually support his right wing bloc.

Fault lines with Washington could quickly open over Syria, where Russia is angling to turn Bashar Al Assad’s government into a client state, guiding and controlling economic and military reconstruction.

Moscow wants Iran out of Syria nearly as badly as Israel and the US, and has been turning a blind eye to Israel’s attacks. For that reason, a Russian-controlled Syria may prove the least of all bad options for Israel.

For the US, on the other hand, it would allow Putin an escape hatch from the box into which Washington has been progressively corralling Russia over the past 30 years. Should Moscow make a success of rebuilding Syria, its influence might grow in the region’s other war-ravaged areas – from Iraq to Libya and Yemen.

Discussions are likely to be less contested on the issue of annexing swaths of the West Bank, as envisioned by Trump’s Middle East “peace plan”.

Last month, shortly before Netanyahu finalised his new coalition, Pompeo stated of annexation that “the Israelis will ultimately make those decisions” – apparently unconcerned by how the Palestinians might view their land, and a future Palestinian state, being stolen from them.

The coalition agreement allows Netanyahu to advance annexation any time from July – well ahead of the US elections. But Trump will expect close coordination in order to maximise the benefits in the final stages of his re-election campaign.

The fly in the ointment could be Gantz. He has not opposed annexation but has said it must happen with US approval and in ways that maintain regional stability and do not jeopardise Israel’s peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.

Most likely, Pompeo will use his visit to sound out Gantz more closely now he is inside the government and, if needs be, gently lean on him – on Netanyahu’s behalf – to ensure he doesn’t publicly waver on annexation from within the coalition.

With Gantz as defence minister, and his colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, another former general, as foreign minister, any dissension could embarrass the US administration just as it is trying to sell annexation as a peace move in skeptical foreign capitals.

Pompeo and Netanyahu – whether masked or not – may prefer to give away little beyond platitudes about their discussions, but events on the ground may soon tell the full story.

• First published in The National

Netanyahu’s Coalition Deal paves the Way to Annexation

Only weeks ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was a hair’s breadth from being ousted from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office in disgrace, after 11 years of continuous rule. But after a dramatic turnaround in fortunes last week – that saw him signing a pact with Benny Gantz, his chief political rival – Netanyahu has begun to rapidly consolidate his power.

In what many critics claim amounts to a power grab, he began pushing through changes on Thursday to Israel’s basic laws, the equivalent of a constitution. The move was described as “terrifying” by Elyakim Rubinstein, a conservative former supreme court judge.

Another commentator warned that, under cover of forming an “emergency government” to deal with the coronavirus epidemic, Netanyahu had driven Israel into the early stages of totalitarianism.

What has especially alarmed observers is the apparent ease with which Netanyahu has manoeuvred Gantz, a former general, into rubber-stamping the new arrangements.

Gantz led a bloc of parties whose anti-corruption platform expressly promised to bring down Netanyahu, who is due to stand trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in a month’s time. After an election in March, the third in a year, Gantz vowed to use his bloc’s 62-seat majority to pass a law making it impossible for a criminal defendant to serve as prime minister.

Netanyahu was on the backfoot, too, fearful of a fourth election in the late summer when he risks being blamed for the expected collapse of the Israeli economy after more than a month of lockdowns.

Instead, Gantz has caved. He has not only secured Netahyahu at least another 18 months in office but, in the words of one Israeli commentator, has offered to serve as his “bodyguard”.

The coalition agreement means Gantz cannot dislodge Netanyahu during the government’s three-year term. The two stand or fall together. That gives Netanyahu a solid advantage in his court proceedings, as he fights the case not only with the authority of a prime minister but with Gantz’s complicit silence.

Even if Netanyahu is found guilty, Gantz’s faction is barred from ousting him or voting to bring down the coalition, leaving Netanyahu free to launch an appeal from within the government. Likewise, under a rotation agreement, Gantz must let Netanyahu serve out the second 18-month period as his deputy. Assuming, that is, that Netanyahu steps back.

Despite some two-thirds of Israelis supporting the emergency government, a poll shows more than 40 per cent doubt Netanyahu will honour his commitment to hand over power. In any case, even as Gantz’s deputy, Netanyahu will enjoy the allegiance of the vast majority of the governing coalition’s legislators. He could still be in the driving seat.

Most expect him to use his position to intensify his long-running campaign to demonise the courts, accusing them of overseeing an undemocratic, “leftist” plot to unseat him.

To an increasing number of Israelis, the country’s political system looks broken. Several thousand of Gantz’s former supporters defied Israel’s lockdown at the weekend – as they did the week before – to attend a rally in central Tel Aviv.

Standing on marked positions to maintain two metres’ distance, they protested Netanyahu’s increasing accumulation of powers. Carmi Gillon, a former head of Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet, told the crowd the courts were now all that was left to “defend Israeli democracy before it is finally crushed”.

Critics note that the Shin Bet have already been given an unprecedented right – previously available for use only against Palestinians – to track Israeli citizens. Combined with anti-coronavirus restrictions, opponents fear Netanyahu is establishing a security regime at home that can be used to oppress dissenters.

They point to his imminent trial, noting that most of the charges relate to his alleged efforts to intimidate or bribe major Israeli media outlets into becoming little more than his personal cheerleaders.

Meanwhile, other checks on the executive branch he heads are being sacrificed on the altar of the emergency government.

Despite being a criminal defendant, Netanyahu will have a veto on the appointment of the two most senior law-enforcement officials – the state prosecutor and attorney general – who are supposed to oversee the case against him at trial.

Netanyahu has already installed an acting prosecutor considered loyal to him who, according to the coalition agreement, cannot be removed for many months. Israeli commentators have expressed little faith that he will prosecute Netanyahu with full vigour.

Netanyahu will also continue to wield control over the appointment of judges to the supreme court, which has been drifting ever further rightwards after more than a decade of Netanyahu’s influence.

In these circumstances, the courts may baulk at the prospect of inflaming a constitutional crisis – and possibly civil war – by trying to remove a sitting prime minister.

With the judicial and legal branches increasingly enfeebled, the coalition agreement also strips the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, of any meaningful oversight. The government will be able to strangle legislative proposals at birth, before they can be debated. Unusually the main parliamentary committees will be under the governing parties’ control, too. And a Netanyahu loyalist will be the Knesset Speaker.

But the coalition agreement does allow for one emergency legislative move unrelated to tackling the virus: annexation of swaths of the West Bank in violation of international law but under licence from the “vision for peace” published earlier in the year by US President Donald Trump.

The government can set forth an annexation plan from July – well before Trump faces a re-election contest in the US in November. Mike Pompeo, his Secretary of State, offered what appeared to be Washington’s blessing for fast-track annexation last week.

While Gantz headed the opposition bloc, he refused to rule out annexation, expressing concern only that it would prove unpalatable to some western allies.

But aside from formulaic denunciations from a few European states, Israel fears little in the way of repercussions. And Gantz now appears on board.

As defence minister, he will be responsible for crushing any Palestinian resistance to Israel’s annexation moves, while Gabi Ashkenazi, his political ally and another former general, will be responsible as foreign minister for putting a respectable face on the annexation drive in overseas capitals.

Netanyahu appears to have the wind behind him, and three more years in which to meddle in ways that could see him maintaining his grip on the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office well beyond that.

• First published in The National

A Machiavellian Fiasco: How ‘Centrist’ Gantz Resurrected Netanyahu, Israel’s Right

It was intended to be a Machiavellian move, but the decision by Benny Gantz, leader of Israel’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) coalition, to join a Benjamin Netanyahu-led government is likely to destabilize the political fabric of Israeli society for years to come.

In a surprising move, Gantz has entered into precarious political compromises, whereby he would become the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), as a prelude to the formation of a national unity government which will include the ruling Likud party and Blue and White.

The move, however, proved disastrous.

As soon as Gantz declared his intentions to join hands with Netanyahu, thus throwing the discredited Prime Minister a lifeline, the Blue and White coalition quickly disintegrated.

Blue and White has stood on shaky ground since its formation to contest the April 2019 general elections. The leaders of the coalition, Gantz (Israeli Resilience Party), Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), and Moshe Ya’alon (Telem) seem largely unified, not by a common ideological foundation, but by their sheer hatred of Netanyahu and burning desire to oust him.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, with his terms in office linked to an era of nepotism and corruption. Over time, Netanyahu has turned whatever semblance of democracy his country enjoyed into a personal and family affair. In his constant readiness to concede to his extreme right-wing government coalition partners to ensure his own political survival, Netanyahu offered his country little by way of a viable political vision.

For many years, Netanyahu’s enemies did little to counterbalance the Prime Minister’s excesses. While Netanyahu succeeded in wooing Israel’s right-wing constituency, Israel’s so-called left dwindled to represent, at times, a mere margin of error in Israeli elections and opinion polls.

A telling example is the most recent poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 12 earlier this month. According to the results, if Israelis were to vote in a general election on the day of the polling, the country’s historic Labour Party (which founded Israel in 1948) would fail to garner a single seat at the Knesset.

In retrospect, Gantz and his allies had no other option but to brand themselves as ‘centrists’. On forming their coalition a year ago, they aimed to appeal to various groups of disgruntled Israelis: right-wing voters disenchanted with the political deadlock and economic inequality; leftists, who have lost faith in the traditional left’s ability to resurrect itself as a strong oppositional force and the remnants of independent and centrist voters.

Gantz and his allies’ calculations proved to have merit, as Israeli voters came out on three different elections in less than one year to breathe life into what once seemed like an impossible mission: ousting Netanyahu.

In the last March elections, Blue and White has won 33 seats in the Knesset, certainly not enough to form a coalition on their own, but enough to build a relatively stable coalition that would seize control of the Knesset and, ultimately, form a government.

For the first time in years, it seemed that Netanyahu’s political career was over, and that the Prime Minister, who is facing serious corruption charges, will see his day in court, if not prison.

But Gantz faced a dilemma, which eventually resulted into his seemingly erratic decision to form a national unity government with Netanyahu.

To form a government that excludes the Likud, Blue and White would have been forced to include the third-largest political force in the Knesset, the Arab parties which are united under the umbrella of the Joint List.

Despite the Joint List’s willingness to join Gantz’s precarious coalition (which would have included some of the most notorious anti-Arab and racist political figures in Israel, like Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman), Gantz did everything in his power to avoid that possibility.

Racism in Israel is at its worst, and any political concessions made to Arab parties would have been considered by many Israelis as a betrayal to the ‘Jewish identity of the State’ as enshrined in the chauvinistic ‘Nation-State Law’ of July 2018.

Masquerading his decision as a concession that is compelled by the coronavirus pandemic, Gantz agreed to form an emergency national government with Netanyahu, which excludes the Arab Joint List.

On March 26, Gantz nominated himself for the position of the Speaker of the Knesset, replacing the abruptly resigned former Likud Speaker, Yuli Edelstein, setting the stage for negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud regarding the structure of the new government.

Whether Gantz had anticipated the fallout of his decision or not is irrelevant because, consciously, he opted to make a deal with the devil rather than being the Israeli Jewish politician who has paved the road for Israel’s Arab community to be part of the country’s decision-making.

Everything that Gantz has worked for – three consecutive elections and the desperate attempt at carving up a centrist political narrative in a country inclining more to the right – have all come crashing down. Yesh Atid and Telem, two of the three main pillars in the Blue and White, officially filed for, and were granted, permission from the Knesset Arrangement Committee to break away from Gantz’s faction.

Unsurprisingly, if elections were to be held in Israel now, Gantz’s party would win a measly 19 seats – compared with the Likud’s growing popularity of 40 seats.

With the balance of power finally shifting in his favour, Netanyahu has toughened his political stance, insisting on playing a role in the appointment of judges (thus protecting himself from future prosecution), and on his right to block any High Court of Justice decision of disqualifying him from serving as a Prime Minister.

After failing to reach an agreement, the task of forming the government has been transferred to the Knesset. A failure to do so within 21 days would take the country to a fourth election, one that the Likud and their allies are sure to win, and this time decisively so.

It is ironic that the person who resurrected Israel’s political ‘center’ is the same one who eventually destroyed it. By doing so, Gantz has granted Netanyahu a new lease on life and, consequently, strengthened the Israeli right’s grip on power for years to come.

How the Joint List Got it All Wrong for ever Believing Benny Gantz

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, abandoned the central plank of his platform at the weekend – that he would never sit in a coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led Israel continuously for the past 11 years.

A former military general, Gantz justified his dramatic change of course under cover of claims that Israel needed an “emergency” unity government to deal with the coronavirus epidemic.

Israel’s government has been paralysed by three elections in which neither Netanyahu’s bloc of ultra-nationalist and religious parties, nor Gantz’s anti-Netanyahu bloc of secular, largely right-wing parties, could muster a parliamentary majority.

Gantz argued it was time to set aside differences, ignore Netanyahu’s impending criminal trial for corruption and rally against the virus. The about-face means that Netanyahu will remain prime minister for at least the next 18 months – and possibly longer if he makes good on his well-earned reputation for subterfuge and double-dealing.

“No alternative”

Gantz has said he is “at peace” with his decision. “There was no other alternative route, and had there been, we would have taken it,” he told supporters stunned by his decision.

The reality is rather different.

Gantz actually enjoyed a narrow majority of legislators in parliament after the 2 March election. As a result, President Reuven Rivlin had tasked him last week with forming a government. His majority bloc was resolutely opposed to Netanyahu as prime minister, accusing him of increasingly authoritarian rule and pointing to his indictment for corruption.

The bloc also opposed Netanyahu’s cultivation of a new, more religious kind of politics, in which extremist rabbis and settler leaders have moved ever closer to centre-stage.

So why is Gantz now sitting in a government with a man he supposedly despises – one that Haaretz this week called “the king of corruption” – rather than leading a majority government of his own?

There is only one honest answer: racism. Gantz and his bloc may passionately hate Netanyahu and his megalomaniacal style of politics, but they detest with even greater intensity, it seems, one faction of their majority bloc: the Joint List.

Degraded citizenship

The Joint List, which currently has a record 15 seats in parliament, is an alliance of four parties that represent the fifth of the country’s population who are Palestinian by heritage.

They are the remnants inside Israel of the Palestinian people, most of whom were driven from their lands in 1948 to create a “Jewish state” on the ruins of their homeland, an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Today, some 1.8 million Palestinians have Israeli citizenship and are entitled to vote in Israeli elections. Nonetheless, theirs is a very degraded form of citizenship. They enjoy far fewer rights than Jewish citizens, especially in language, land and housing rights.

After many months of Gantz and his allies denouncing Netanyahu as corrupt, what lesson is the Palestinian minority supposed to draw from his decision now to abandon his own bloc in favour of Netanyahu?

Gantz and his supporters have demonstrated through their actions who they really abhor. They have chosen the criminal suspect, Netanyahu, over the Palestinian minority.

Gantz and the so-called Jewish “centre-left” may claim to be guardians of Israel’s democracy, but it is clearly a version of democracy that does not include a fifth of the population – because they are of the wrong ethnicity.

Annihilation and fraud

The discourse of Gantz’s bloc throughout the three election campaigns focused on maintaining a “Jewish majority” government – the only one they considered “legitimate”.

Gantz’s secular Jewish right, masquerading as “centre-left”, has ended up spurning representatives of the Palestinian minority on exactly the same grounds as Netanyahu.

“For each of these supposed ‘two sides’ of the political debate, the ‘Arabs’ are not seen as included in Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state,” Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at the University of Haifa, observed to Middle East Eye.

Netanyahu has been intensifying his incitement against the Palestinian minority since 2015, when he presented their very act of voting – or their coming out in “droves” to vote, as he phrased it – as a threat to Israeli democracy. More recently, he warned that Jewish opposition parties must not ally with the Joint List because “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men”.

In recent months, he has repeatedly called Palestinian parties “terror supporters”, thereby not only discrediting those parties in the eyes of the Jewish public, but also discrediting the Palestinian citizens who sent them to parliament.

Gantz, supposedly running a campaign against Netanyahu to uphold democratic values and institutions, has not rejected this anti-democratic incitement. He has accepted and complied with it, treating Palestinian parties like some kind of contagious coronavirus patient, to be kept at a safe distance.

Treated ‘like a mistress’

From the outset of every election campaign, Gantz made it starkly clear that he had no intention of including the Joint List in any future government. As he said in the run-up to the 2 March election: “I’m not afraid of talking to any legitimate political party, but the Joint Arab List won’t be a part of my government.”

With no credible path to power without the Joint List, however, Gantz was reluctantly forced to engage in pro forma talks with its leaders.

Those discussions were never about more than whether the Joint List might be allowed to support a minority Gantz government – comprising only Jewish parties – from the outside. A similar situation unfolded in the early 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin needed Palestinian parties to pass legislation supporting the Oslo peace process through the parliament’s hostile majority of Jewish members.

As with Rabin, the goal of Gantz and his bloc was never to let the Joint List anywhere near government, Ghanem noted. The negotiations were intended as leverage over a power-hungry Likud party, pressuring it to ditch Netanyahu as leader.

That was why Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, argued that Gantz was using his party “like a mistress”.

Made to look foolish

When Gantz unexpectedly called last month for a unity government that would include “representation of all parts of the house” – a reference to sections of the Joint List – he was again not playing straight. As his latest actions reveal, he was using the Joint List as a sword over Netanyahu’s head, “hoping to secure better terms for his own entry into the government”, Ghanem pointed out.

The Joint List suspected all this. But even so, in the September election and then again after the March vote, Odeh broke with the prior, natural caution of Palestinian parties in dealing with right-wing Zionist politicians and backed Gantz to head the government, rather than abstaining.

All of this was done in the desperate hope that Gantz and the Jewish “centre-left” really were concerned about the state of Israeli democracy and getting rid of Netanyahu. In recent weeks even Balad, the most hardline and recalcitrant faction in the Joint List, agreed to support Gantz.

They will pay a price with their own public for that mistake, according to Wadea Awawdy, a senior Israeli-Palestinian journalist from the Galilee.

“This has not just embarrassed the Palestinian parties; it has demoralised the wider Palestinian community,” he told MEE. “On social media, the Joint List members are being called foolish and naive for ever believing Gantz. The List made big claims that they would use their 15 seats to stop the Trump plan, that they would help send Netanyahu to jail. Now they have been left entirely empty-handed.”

It will be hard to persuade Palestinian citizens to turn out again in the large numbers that were seen in September and March – which is exactly what Netanyahu hoped to achieve when he began the incitement campaign against Palestinian voting back in 2015.

Avoiding the ‘Zoabis’

Those sections of the Blue and White alliance that have refused to follow Gantz into Netanyahu’s government are no less racist, Nabila Espanioly, an education expert from Nazareth who has run as a candidate for the Israeli parliament, observed to MEE.

“They may present themselves as an alternative to Netanyahu, but it is all baloney,” she said.

Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid faction will now head the opposition to Netanyahu. But back in 2013, he rejected an earlier chance to oust Netanyahu if it meant sitting in a government supported by Palestinian parties. In ugly fashion, Lapid dismissed Palestinian politicians as “Zoabis” – a reference to Haneen Zoabi, a prominent and much-reviled female Palestinian politician of the time.

Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, a former defence minister, is an even worse inciter than Netanyahu against Palestinian parties – as well as Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

He has called the Palestinian leadership in Israel “terrorists” and called for them to be beheaded. He has threatened to strip the Palestinian public of citizenship if they fail his “loyalty” test, and called for an area where many Palestinian citizens live to be transferred to the occupied West Bank.

Secular backlash

None of these “opposition” politicians are really guardians of democracy, except in the sense of a democracy for Jews only. All have sat in previous Netanyahu governments that incited against and legislated against Palestinians.

Rather, noted Espanioly, their current opposition to Netanyahu is chiefly an angry backlash by right-wing secular politicians – on behalf of right-wing secular parts of Jewish society – to the increasing power Netanyahu has handed over to the Jewish religious leadership, including the more extreme, messianic sections of the settler community.

Lapid, Lieberman and Moshe Yaalon of Telem also share a deep personal antipathy to Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stabbed them in the back. Their supposed concern for democracy emerged only when Netanyahu was at his weakest, as the noose of an impending corruption trial tightened around his neck.

And the vitriol they have now directed at Gantz, the novice politician, is recognition that he is treading the same credulous path they previously followed.

But even these phoney “centrists” have been outdone by the so-called “left” part of their bloc. The Labor party, which founded Israel more than 70 years ago, has gradually become a pale shadow of its former self as the Israeli Jewish public has lurched ever further rightwards. In March, the party won a mere three seats, passing the electoral threshold only by allying with another tiny leftist party, Meretz.

Its current leader, Amir Peretz, and another Labor legislator intend to head into the Netanyahu government too, keen to get their hands on a small slice of the corrupt power they have been excoriating Netanyahu for wielding.

Negligible differences

The negligible differences between Gantz and Netanyahu should become starkly clear in the coming months.

Ghanem observed that Netanyahu would be “freed to pursue the same policies he has been implementing for the past 11 years. Apart from the Joint List, there is a consensus across Israeli politics on how to treat the occupied territories and on the importance of Jewish supremacy.”

Like Netanyahu, Gantz has backed US President Donald Trump’s so-called “peace” plan, which includes provisions to annex swaths of the occupied West Bank that have been illegally colonised by Jewish settlers, stripping Palestinians of any hope of a state.

Now that Netanyahu has a majority government, there is nothing standing in the way of this plan. This week, Peace Now and other Israeli groups that back a two-state solution sent an urgent letter to Gantz, pleading with him to block the drive towards annexation.

Gantz, the former head of the army who oversaw the widespread destruction of Gaza in 2014, is also unlikely to oppose future attacks on Palestinians under occupation, or the worsening of their conditions. In fact, his party will be in charge of the defence ministry, organising any such attacks.

Deep crisis

And Gantz will undoubtedly abandon his main promise relevant to the Palestinian minority – “fixing” the 2018 nation-state law. The law confers constitution-like status on Israel’s Jewishness, revokes Arabic as an official language, and puts as a top priority Judaisation – a policy of settling Jews into Palestinian areas inside Israel and the occupied territories.

According to Espanioly, Gantz’s actions have brutally exposed the sham of an Israeli “opposition” to Netanyahu.

“The reality is that Israel’s political scene is in a deep crisis about values,” she said. “Opposition politicians talk about the importance of democratic values, but no one actually wants to do the hard work of embodying those values – or of protecting them.”

• First published in Middle East Eye