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A choice between extremists


As the election looms the political landscape in Israel looks increasingly consumed by militarism and right-wing nationalism. The Washington Post reports that "elections here often turn on a single question: Who looks tougher on national security?" This is a polite way of saying that killing Palestinians is a guaranteed vote-winner for Israeli politicians. Throughout its duration the slaughter in Gaza enjoyed the virtually unanimous support of Israeli Jews, dozens of whom made their way to the south to watch smilingly on as Gaza burned. As entire villages were wiped off the map and hundreds of children were incinerated, Israeli Jews expressed satisfaction that the destruction had not "gone too far". The football season resumed last week to chants of:

"Why have the schools in Gaza been shut down? … Because all the children were gunned down!"

During the war polls showed surges in support for Labor (its leader Ehud Barak is the Defense Minister) as well as for the far-right. Even the Israeli ‘left’, such as it is, came out in support of the attack, with Meretz providing "nothing more than a weak echo of the positions of the large parties". The media ran out of superlatives to bestow upon the bombing, with Israel’s leading daily hailing the attack as "a stroke of brilliance", explaining excitedly that "the element of surprise increased the number of people who were killed". Yoel Marcus, a leading Israeli columnist for the left-of-centre Ha’aretz newspaper, spoke for most when he wrote:

"I will not conceal my enjoyment of the flames and smoke rising from Gaza that have poured from our television screens. The time has finally come for their bellies to quiver and for them to understand that there is a price for their bloody provocations against Israel".

With the onslaught over, much of the relative gain in support for Labor and Kadima has evaporated. As usual, as hard as Kadima and Labor try to ape the blood-thirsty rhetoric of the right, Likud is always viewed as more credible when it comes to killing Palestinians. Israelis are divided over whether the Gaza offensive was a "success", but only 11% of those saying it wasn’t do so on the basis that too many innocent Palestinians were killed. In fact much of the public feels that ‘Operation Cast Lead’ did not go far enough, a sentiment Netanyahu has exploited in recent days, arguing that the invasion was halted too early and should have pushed for the complete destruction of Hamas.

Israeli politics has now swung so far to the right that Yisrael Beiteinu looks set to overtake Labor to become the third largest party in the Knesset. This ‘Liebermania’ is such that both Likud and Kadima now admit [that] Avigdor Lieberman will determine who forms the next government’. Yisrael Beiteinu’s electoral slogan is "No loyalty without citizenship", and one of its policy proposals is the introduction of a law requiring all citizens to swear an "oath of loyalty" to the state or else risk their citizenship. One of its campaign ads shows Lieberman shouting down an Arab MK as a traitor, and concludes: "Only Lieberman Understands Arabic".
Detestable though they are, Yisrael Beiteinu’s positions are entirely mainstream in Israel. The party’s president Avigdor Lieberman – an extreme racist, advocate of "transfer" and former Kahanist – was a Cabinet Minister in the Kadima-led coalition government. His frequent charges of "treachery" and "disloyalty" against Israel’s Palestinian minority are in practice  supported by all mainstream parties in Israel. Both Labor and Kadima voted with the ultra-nationalists to ban two leading Arab parties from participating in the elections, a decision described by Meretz as "a declaration of war on Israel’s Arab citizens" (there is now a growing Arab movement for an election boycott, further illustrating the limitations of Israeli democracy). Lieberman views Palestinian citizens of Israel as a "problem" to be dealt with, but so does virtually the entire political mainstream, for example Ehud Olmert, who as Deputy Prime Minister described Israeli Arabs as a "manageable problem". As far as I can tell there was no outcry about this statement. In fact polls consistently show that a significant proportion of the Israeli public favours the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories and even from Israel itself. A 2007 poll found that over 75% of Jewish Israelis opposed sharing apartment blocks with Arabs and over half viewed the marriage of a Jewish woman to an Arab man as ‘national treason’.

So as worrying as the surge in support for the far-right is, the real problem is that what is called the ‘far-right’ has long been pretty close, if not virtually identical, to the ‘liberals’ and the ‘centrists’, at any rate vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Liberals in the US and Britain are fretting about the probable return of the ‘nightmare of Netanyahu’, and understandably so. His party’s Platform still describes settlement in the occupied territories as "a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel" and "flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river". Instead of a genuine peace process Netanyahu has proposed an "economic peace" (much like Gordon Brown’s "economic roadmap"), in which talks with the PA would be focused on investment and policing rather than on trifles like the occupation and Palestinian national rights. This despite the fact that international observers have repeatedly emphasised that sustained economic development is impossible while the occupation persists:

"Palestinian economic revival is predicated on an integrated economic entity with freedom of movement between the West Bank and Gaza and within the West Bank". (World Bank)

Netanyahu has repeatedly pledged to "keep Jerusalem the unified capital of Israel under Israeli sovereignty" and refuses to accept any responsibility for the plight of Palestinian refugees. Warning that any territory evacuated by Israel would be "grabbed by extremists", Netanyahu plans to retain control of the Jordan Valley and has promised to expand existing settlements, declaring,

"I will not keep Olmert’s commitments to withdraw and I won’t evacuate settlements … Those understandings are invalid and unimportant".

But – and this is the key point – this evaluation of international agreements and obligations to evacuate the settlements as "invalid and unimportant" is in fact shared by Olmert himself, along with Labor and the rest of the Kadima leadership. Despite Olmert’s promises to dismantle outposts and freeze settlement expansion, construction has not only continued but sharply accelerated. Last year the rate of settlement construction increased by 60%, while building in the ‘outposts’ more than doubled. The ‘Judaisation’ of East Jerusalem was also accelerated:

"Tenders were issued to build 1,184 housing units in east Jerusalem in 2008, compared with 793 issued in 2007. A staggering 94 percent of the 2007 tenders were issued in December, right after the Annapolis Conference.

In addition, plans to construct 2,730 housing units in east Jerusalem received final approval in 2008, compared with 391 units in 2007." [my emph.]

The bit in bold deserves repeating, for it encapsulates perfectly the cynicism with which Kadima and Labor have always viewed the ‘peace process’: 94 percent of the 2007 tenders were issued immediately following the Annapolis Conference, at which Ehud Olmert promised to freeze settlement construction. Moreover, 200 million shekels have been spent in the past two years building infrastructure in the ‘E1′ area of the West Bank, located between East Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim and "essential for the territorial contiguity of the West Bank" [.pdf], in preparation for the construction of a new settlement there. Israel has long had designs on E1, since its settlement would enable Ma’ale Adumim to be territorially contiguous with Jerusalem. Under Kadima’s watch Israel built a police HQ in E1 and expropriated over a thousand dunams of land from four Arab villages between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim for the purpose of building a Palestinian road that would then "free up" E1 for Israeli settlement. As Ha’aretz reports, the settlement of E1 would "effectively sever the territorial contiguity between the northern and southern West Bank" and would isolate East Jerusalem from the rest of Palestinian territory. It would, in short, be "an end to … the principle of two states with territorial contiguity". A recent Ha’aretz editorial comments,

"…the construction [in E1]  reveals that the government sought to entrench the Israeli occupation of the West Bank at the same time that it spoke about reaching a settlement with the Palestinians.

During his tenure as prime minister, Ehud Olmert held extensive talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni engaged in parallel negotiations with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia. The ostensible aim of those talks was to reach an agreed settlement – but now that has turned out to be a ruse. As his term neared its end, Olmert made some of the bravest declarations ever by a prime minister about the need to end the occupation and reach an agreement – but now that has turned out to be a fraud. As he talked and talked, and the negotiations dragged on and on, the government did the opposite of what it said its aim was. The only purpose of Mevasseret Adumim is to break up the West Bank, ruin ties between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and wreck the last chance of reaching a peaceful settlement."

As Peace Now explains, settlement "[e]xpansion continues — the settlers do not need to wait for Bibi". In fact, as Chomsky points out, Labor governments have historically been at least as supportive of the settlements as those led by Likud (for example, settlements expanded faster under Barak than under Netanyahu). The principle difference between them has been that, as Shimon Peres’s (Labor) housing minister put it, while the Likud flaunts its violations, "we build quietly". Hardly a yawning ideological chasm.

This trend appears to be continuing: Barak this week proposed the construction of a new settlement east of the wall to house families slated for evacuation from the ‘Migron’ outpost, which was built on private Palestinian land. This position is even more extreme than Netanyahu’s, under which existing settlements would be expanded but no new settlements would be constructed.

It is true that Livni is prepared to "concede part of the Land of Israel" for the creation of a Palestinian "state", but this is hardly a new or particularly positive development. Even Sharon was willing to withdraw from those parts of the West Bank he didn’t want, and he would have been happy for the Palestinian to call the bantustans they were left with a "state" (or alternatively, as Netanyahu’s spokesperson suggested when Netanyahu was Prime Minister, they can call it "fried chicken" – it really doesn’t matter, so long as Israel retains overall control). Livni has stated publicly that the wall, which annexes some 10% of the West Bank including its most fertile land and water resources, will serve as "the future borders of the state of Israel", and her record in government (see above) makes it clear that her talk of withdrawal is extremely limited.

On Jerusalem, too, there is little difference between the ‘right’ and the ‘centrists’, as the above would suggest. Compare:

Netanyahu: "We did not return to Jerusalem after praying for it to be rebuilt for 2000 years in order to give it up … We did not unite the city in order to divide it, and my government will maintain a united Jerusalem. A sane country does not give its capital to its enemies."

Livni: "Ma’aleh Adumim will remain part of the State of Israel in any future peace agreement". [This implicitly includes a 'corridor' between Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem, which would sever the latter from the West Bank. As the city's mayor explained in 1998, Ma'ale Adumim "functions as a corridor between the Palestinian communities, preventing them from creating continuity of Arab construction around Jerusalem" and its development "will create a buffer that will prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, because every state requires [territorial] continuity". Similarly, the UN reports that Ma’ale Adumim constitutes, together with surrounding settlements, "a bloc which effectively divides the West Bank into north and south" (.pdf)].

Barak: "Ma’aleh Adumim is an inalienable part of Jerusalem and the State of Israel in any permanent settlement … E1 is a corridor that connects Ma’aleh Adumim to Mount Scopus and therefore it is important for it to remain part of the country. This is the position of Labor since Yitzhak Rabin and also of the government of Barak in 1999, and the Americans know this position."

Barak is correct to appeal to Rabin to justify his rejectionism. He could also have pointed to the supremely "dovish" government of Shimon Peres, whose housing minister explained:

"It is no secret that the government’s stand, which will be our ultimate demand, is that as regards the Jerusalem areas – Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Beitar, and Gush Etzion – they will be an integral part of Israel’s future map. There is no doubt about this."

In short, all the mainstream parties in Israel – Likud, Labor, Kadima and now Yisrael Beiteinu – remain explicitly rejectionist. They all support Israeli settlement and expansion in occupied Palestinian territory and reject the principle of two viable, territorially contiguous states on the pre- June 1967 borders. Moreover, they are also in agreement over how to respond to any Palestinian who dares resist the implementation of their criminal consensus. Barak and Livni helped orchestrate the recent massacres in Gaza, in which over 1,300 people were killed, the vast majority of them civilians, and some 15% of all buildings in the territory were demolished. Referring to this slaughter, Barak commented, "Hamas received a heavy blow and if needed will receive another one", adding that "they should be wacked when they’re on the toilet". Lieberman suggested that "[w]e must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II," while Barak similarly promised "war to the bitter end" and "an all-out war against Hamas and its kind". Livni was having none of this, declaring:

"There are those sitting with the Hamas regime who want to reach understandings with the group, and there are those [referring to herself] working to bring an end to the Hamas regime. A settlement with Hamas would give it legitimacy, and those working for that with the Egyptians need to understand that".

"I have been fighting for three years that the world will not talk with Hamas", she boasted. Both Livni and Netanyahu have promised to "topple the Hamas regime". One leading Kadima MK accused Barak of using inadequate force in Gaza since the invasion, declaring that "[i]t will take the workers in Gaza just a few hours to fix the holes that the IDF punched into the sand". Livni has similarly demanded a "strong and immediate" attack on Hamas in response to rocket fire, despite the fact that according to Israel’s military intelligence Hamas is "respecting the cease-fire". Barak’s response:

"All of these critics were in decision-making positions and Hamas never received such a blow as this. After eight years of [rocket] fire from the Strip, I arrived and gave the IDF an order to batter Hamas, with deeds and not words".

As Akiva Eldar concludes, "when it comes to the policies in the territories in general and in the Gaza Strip in particular, the sole difference between Livni and Barak and the right is that the right proposes using a bigger club" (in fact the ‘centrists’ have probably caught up on this front, too).

If Netanyahu wins he will seek to form a coalition government with Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu (a prospect that, to the distress of Labor MKs, Barak refuses to rule out) on the grounds that with the parties’ shared "fundamental ideals" there is "no reason" why they cannot sit together in government. This is, as we have seen, a persuasive argument. As Gideon Levy writes, all "three leading candidates for prime minister are extremists". Contrary to the deception that contrasts the ‘moderate’ ‘centrists’ with the ‘extreme’ Netanyahu, the unfortunate reality is that "[e]very ballot cast for Kadima, Labor and Likud is an endorsement of the last war and a vote for the next one."

The lack of political alternatives in Israel is so striking that some Israeli leftists are rooting for a Netanyahu win, on the grounds that at least Netanyahu would "arouse the world’s rage towards us" and thereby force "the kind of dramatic change that is needed". Livni and Barak would pursue substantially identical policies but would enable the "self-delusion" to continue, while the election of Netanyahu could finally "bring the curtain down on the great fraud – the best show in town – the lie of ‘negotiations’ and the injustice of the ‘peace process.’" Writing in The New Republic Arik Ben Zvi similarly suggests that Israel’s "unprecedented shift to the right" (he’s referring specifically to the rise of Yisrael Beiteinu) could threaten Israel’s "position as a democracy and a member in good standing of the international community", although unlike Levy he does not welcome this prospect.

In fact, Israel’s position as "a member in good standing of the international community" was lost a long time ago (Israel’s global popularity ranks alongside that of Iran and North Korea) and even in the US and Western Europe public discourse about Israel is undergoing a substantial transformation, due in no small part to the depravities inflicted on Gaza. This is of no small importance, given that whoever wins the election will have to operate within limits defined by Israel’s international backers, chiefly the Obama administration. There are a few hopeful signs on that front as well, but that’s a topic for another post.

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