(Prefatory Note: This is a much modified version of an article published online by Al Jazeera America on March 19, 2015; its ambition is to grasp the dual significance of the Likud victory for strengthening the role of civil society activism in the Palestinian struggle and with respect to the ongoing diplomacy associated with Iran nuclear program.)
My immediate reaction to the outcome of the Israeli elections is that for Palestinian solidarity purposes, it was desirable for Netanyahu to receive this electoral mandate. It exhibits as clearly as possible that the long discredited Oslo ‘peace process’ is truly discredited. But don’t believe that the call for bilateral talks will not be revived within the ranks of the so-called liberal Zionists. Already Israeli commentators, including Likud operatives, are saying that Israel would welcome a resumption of direct negotiations. In the words of the Likud Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, “[w]e would be delighted to renew the negotiations..[i]t is to the benefit of both parties.” Really! Why wouldn’t they? How have the Palestinians benefitted during the past 22 years from these negotiations during which the Israel has been relentless in accomplishing the creeping annexation of the West Bank and the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem past the point of return? As Jeff Halper points out the only question about the future is whether Israel’s state will be secular and Democratic or Zionist with an apartheid apparatus of discrimination and exploitation.
And as for the embarrassment of Netanyahu’s pledge never to establish a Palestinian state in the closing days of his campaign, it can be put aside as we all know that Bibi is ‘a pragmatist’ who knows the difference between campaigning and governing. As a prominent Israeli think tank personality, Grin Grinstein, put it, Netanyahu now that he is securely elected can shift attention to his legacy, and will want to avoid Israel’s international isolation: “I would not rule out his going back to the two-state solution.” Neither would I, at least rhetorically and opportunistically. It should have long been obvious that there has never been an Israeli willingness to endorse a viable Palestinian state based on the equality of the two peoples, the sina qua non of a sustainable peace based on implementing the two-state consensus. The only way to understand this long afterlife of the two-state solution is that provided governments and decent people to hold onto a belief that a just solution to the conflict remained within reached, and that its attainment depended on ‘painful concessions’ made by both sides. Such a contrived myopia enabled liberal Zionists to pretend that Israel could remain democratic and Zionist, while not permanently dispossessing and subjugating the Palestinian people.
The cynically obvious conclusion is that when Netanyahu craves votes from the ultra-right in Israel he reassures Israelis that there will never be a Palestinian state so long as he remains the leader. When the election season is finished, then it is time to reassure Washington and Europe that he remains as committed as ever to the two-state mantra, with the unspoken clause, “so long as it remains a mantra.” What should disturb us most is the willingness of so many in the United States and elsewhere to embrace such tactics that consign the Palestinian people to the cruelty of their various circumstances (under occupation, in refugee camps, in exile, subject to blockade). Whether this last phase of disclosure associated with Netanyahu successful campaign strategy will offend the Obama presidency sufficiently to alter American foreign policy in the Middle East is uncertain at this point.
If the Zionist Union coalition of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni had been elected on March 17th, liberal Zionists would undoubtedly have had a field day, proclaiming a new dawn, restoring good will and inter-governmental harmony in relations between Washington and Tel Aviv. Even now a leading liberal Zionist, the NY Times columnist, Roger Cohen, throws his support behind the idea of a ‘national unity government’ that would supposedly rein in the extremist tendencies of Netanyahu. It is also reported that Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president and Likud member who is an avowed Zionist maximalist (that is, one Jewish state in all of historic Palestine) and unilateralist (‘peace’ by Israeli fiat without the bother of negotiations and diplomacy) is seeking to form such a unity government on the basis of the election results. Despite these views, Rivlin, unlike Netanyahu, is an advocate of human rights and equality for Palestinians living within whatever boundaries Israel achieves, a position almost as incapable of realization as the old delusionary embrace of the Oslo framework as something other than a device to allow Israel to consolidate its hold over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Principled liberal Zionists, such as Rabbi Michael Lerner and even more the admirable Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, view Netanyahu’s reelection as an unconditional disaster both for what it means for Israel’s governing policies and even more so for what it tells us about the prevailing political culture of racism and militarism within Israel. In contrast, an ideological liberal Zionist of the Thomas Friedman variety laments the emergent picture is such a way as to distribute an equal portion of blame to the Palestinians, both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Ponder these slanted words: “It would be wrong to put all of this [blame] on Netanyahu. The insane, worthless war that Hamas started last summer that brought rockets to the edge of Israel’s main international airport and the Palestinians’ spurning of two-state offers of Israeli prime minister (Ehud Barak and Edud Olmert) built Netanyahu’s base as much as he did.” [NY Times, March 18, 2015] This pattern of distributing responsibility for the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people and the denial of their most fundamental rights to both sides equally is the most authentic signature of ideological liberal Zionists, purporting to be objective and balanced in assessing responsibilities while effectively supporting Israeli expansionism. Any reasonable assessment of the massive Protective Edge attack launched by Israel last July would acknowledge the Netanyahu provocations that started with the manipulation of the June kidnapping incident resulting in the murder of three young West Bank settlers and the anti-Hamas rampage that followed, as part of the timeline, not to mention Israel’s furious reaction to the unity agreement reached between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas some weeks earlier. As well, for Friedman to present the proposals of Barak and Olmert as offering the Palestinians equality and a viable state coupled with a recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees, is to serve as a reckless purveyor of Israeli propaganda.
It is on the basis of repudiating such reasoning that the most credible advocates of Palestinian justice, otherwise as far apart as Ali Abunimah and Gilad Atzmon, agree that it is better that Netanyahu and the Likud won the election rather than their supposedly centrist opponents. These more upbeat commentaries on Netanyahu’s triumph believe that this heightened transparency relating to Israel’s true intentions will lead to a long overdue burial of Oslo-generated delusions about a diplomatic settlement of the conflict and that this will, in turn, awaken more of Western public opinion to the true nature of Israeli ambitions, and strengthen the BDS approach to peace with justice. This development should help people throughout the world understand that a positive outcome for the Palestinian national movement is utterly dependent on struggle and that diplomacy has nothing to offer at this time, nor does the revival of armed struggle.
From these perspectives, a positive future is dependent upon Palestinians waging and winning a Legitimacy War directed at realizing Palestinian rights under international law. This is the central argument of my recently published Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope (Just World Books, 2015); see also to the same effect, Ali Abunimah, The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books, 2014). This reliance on civil society activism implies growing support in the court of public opinion being reinforced by a worldwide militant nonviolent solidarity movement that challenges Israel by way of such tactics as the BDS Campaign and Freedom Flotillas. It should be clear that such a movement from below is not seeking the delegitimation of Israel as such, but of its policies and practices that are precluding a just peace, which as of now presuppose the formation of a single democratic secular state with equal economic, political, social, and cultural rights for all residents regardless of ethnicity and religious identity.
On Iran Diplomacy:
Unfortunately, in my view, this is not the whole story of the Israeli elections. The Netanyahu victory cannot be assessed exclusively through a Palestinian optic. The dangerous implications for broader regional issues of a Netanyahu controlled foreign security policy cannot be overlooked, nor the grave danger of coordination between the militarist approach to the Islamic world of the Likud Party in Israel and the Republican Party in the United States, or less dramatically, of a restored cooperative regional strategic partnership between the two countries. These concerns most obviously pertain to the prospects for a stable termination of the dangerous encounter with Iran. The Netanyahu/Republican approach is likely to have at least two harmful effects: shifting the internal Iranian balance toward a harder line and creating pressures in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East to move closer to the acquisition of nuclear weaponry, which will likely cause a regional arms race, including the proliferation or near proliferation of nuclear weapons and/or be the proximate cause of one more devastating war within the region, which regardless of outcome is almost certain to strengthen ISIS and other extremist non-state actors throughout the Middle East.
Of course, the Netanyahu Republicans see this core conflict differently, more in the spirit of poker (than chess), supposing that raising the stakes in the game still higher will prompt Iran to fold. This does not seem plausible. If Iran’s efforts to accommodate the West (including Israel) by accepting an unprecedented level of regulation and foregoing a nuclear option despite Israel’s arsenal and threatening posture, would make additional constraints on Tehran depend on the willingness of a more hard line Iranian leadership to give way further than its moderate predecessors.
From this vantage point, the Lerner view of the Netanyahu victory as a major disaster for Israel and the world seems the most sensible interpretation, even if never fully consummated by the transformation of bluffs into policies, and not nearly as threatening as it will become if a Republican wins the presidential election in 2016. Even if Hilary Clinton rises to the occasion and is elected the next American president I would not invest much hopes that she will challenge the Netanyahu approach toward Iran except possibly in matters of style and at the margins. Even supposing, as now seems unlikely, that Rivlin convinces Likud to go along with his preference for a unity government it is almost certain to be dominated, especially in relation to security policy, by Netanyahu. Beyond this, even as Netanyahu shows his readiness to rehabilitate his never credible endorsement of a two-state solution for Palestine, confident that it will lead no further than in has over the decades, he is almost certainly not going to budge on Iran.
Why? It is entirely possible that Netanyahu has swallowed his own propaganda, and honestly believes that Iran poses a real threat to Israel’s security, and possibly survival, rather than seeing the calculus of fear the other way around. In actuality, it is Iran that is threatened, Israel that poses the existential threat. Beyond this, the Iran card has proved exceedingly helpful to Netanyahu, allowing him both to play on Israeli fears to build support at home and to divert international attention from Israel’s refusal to act reasonably and lawfully with respect to Palestine. In light of this combination of adverse circumstances, I am not sure what I would advise the Iranian government to do at this point other than to bide its time. If Netanyahu had been soundly defeated, then it would have made sense to do everything possible to reach an agreement while Obama is still in office. But now to invite a repudiation of whatever is agreed upon is to choose what would likely turn out to be the worst alternative available.
For these reasons, as helpful as Netanyahu’s electoral victory seems from the viewpoint of building a stronger Palestinian national movement, this political result in Israel is a definite setback from the perspective of resolving the conflict with Iran. Is there any way to separate these two concerns, taking advantage of Netanyahu’s victory in the Palestinian context while seeking at the same time to mobilize a movement favoring denuclearization of the Middle East as a vital ingredient of a peaceful future for the Middle East. This seems to be the challenge facing civil society activism that seeks justice for the Palestinians, peace for both peoples, and an end to fear-mongering and saber-rattling in relation to Iran.