Last week, Israeli parliament voted a controversial law that acknowledged Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”.
The bill, approved as one of the Basic Laws, gives the guidelines to Israel’s legal system, serving as the country’s Constitution. Among other points, the law defines Jerusalem, “complete and united”, as the capital of Israel, promotes the development of Jewish settlements, defines Hebrew as the state’s language, giving Arabic a “special status”, and more. For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the approval of a law that defines the Israeli “nation, language and flag” is “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel”.
Naively, I had always thought that the word “zionist” was the “Z-word” many would think of without saying it out loud. If a government were to be Zionist, it could be, and still hypocritically deny it. After all, with the time, we get used to the political rhetoric and decode it. We get used to differentiate a certain hypocrisy for some and a plausible inability to act for others.
Well, my first surprise when I stepped out of the plane last month at Ben-Gurion airport was to face a wall on which we had written, “Zionism is an infinite ideal.” The mural did not make an apology for Zionism, it celebrated it from all its angles.
When I heard Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu define the new law “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel” last Thursday, it was without any surprise anymore. The State of Israel cannot be boasted to be a hypocritical state, not on this specific point at least, in fact, the intentions of the State make no doubt. Over the last years, we have witnessed an acceleration and intensification, not to say “radicalization”, of the State’s positions in national matters. But this freedom to act might just be the result the current regional dynamic, a “momentum” the current Prime Minister was able to seize.
The “BB” Undertaking
According to the New York Times journalists, David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner, Netanyahu’s government has been nothing less than “the most right-wing and religious coalition in Israel’s 70-year history”.
Let’s explore how it has taken place in the Israeli-Palestinian question.
In 1993, Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat concluded a historical agreement. Two years later, Rabin is assassinated by a Jewish extremist who disagreed with the peace negotiations. In the following elections, former Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, and leader of Likud’s party, Benjamin Netanyahu, was elected.
If some Israeli administrations demonstrated the will to negotiate over the Israeli-Palestinian question, the current administration of Benjamin Netanyhu has clearly no will to do so. The image of Arafat and Rabin shaking hands has long been buried.
Netanyahu doesn’t even lose energy in faking intentions, he prefers to put all his energy in being proactive. Obviously, not known for going half-measures, Netanyahu is a figure who divides, both among Israelis and among Jews from all over the world. That said, it has not prevented him from occupying an important place in Israeli politics since 1996, either as Prime Minister or Minister of Foreign Affairs.
During the last elections, Netanyahu evoked his party’s priorities as being Tehran and its world opinion against the regime. As for talks with Palestinians, he was not completely closed, but quickly excluded any withdrawal from land or the division of Jerusalem. Anyone who is a little aware of the issue knows the key status of Jerusalem for all parties involved in the long-running conflict.
As for the funding of settlements, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, has always shown a clear enthusiasm for Zionism. At a Likud Central Committee meeting at the end of 2017, members voted a resolution calling on Israel to annex the West Bank and build more settlements. The West Bank, since the 1995 Oslo II Accord, is divided into three administrative divisions: area A, administered by the Palestinian Authority; area B administered by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel; and area C, administered by Israel. To this, we must add the special “H1/H2” status of Hebron, a city where more than 200,000 Palestinians, 800-1000 Jews and twice as many Israeli soldiers cohabit. The soldiers assure the security of the settlers, mostly hardliners Jews in a messianic mission to reconquer the land of “Judea and Samaria.”
Even though the International Court of Justice recognizes the landlocked territory as an “occupied territory” since 1967, following the many incentives, the funding and support of Jewish settlements in West Bank, the administrative map looks more like a Swiss cheese than anything else. Unsurprisingly, you find kibbutzim here and there in the West Bank. Area C definitely proliferates. However, Netanyahu stresses that those “assistance plans”, as he calls them, are “intended to strengthen security for the settlements as well as to bolster small businesses and encourage tourism”. Or, say it, “Zionism”.
The “Trump” Factor
Yet, the so-called momentum was also determined by the arrival of a new face at the White House.
At the 2017 United Nations General Assembly, during Donald Trump’s speech, the cameras kept on showing a happy and satisfied Benjamin Netanyahu. As he was listening to Trump’s denunciation of the Iranian regime, Netanyahu knew he was on the “right side” and had a new friend. U.S. foreign policies towards Israel has not changed much over the last decades, but it is not bold to say that his relation with prior American President Barack Obama were “colder”. Today, I am not sure whether Benjamin Netanyahu praises Donald Trump’s political intelligence or Donald Trump’s political ignorance. In both cases, he knows he can work with the new president, because they have common views on Iran and over the Palestinian issue.
Since he took office in the beginning of 2017, Donald Trump has been very critical of the Islamic Republic of Iran, withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal, cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council, citing anti-Israel bias, and, last but very not least, recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu knows he receives a green light from Washington.
The Palestinian Divide
Though all those decisions are part of a dynamic. If Netanyahu adopted a comfortable cruising speed, the division between Palestinians has surely facilitated it. Today, when we talk of Palestinians, do we talk about people of Gaza, of West Bank, an internationally spread-out diaspora or the 5 million refugees recognized by the UNRWA? Is there any cohesion between all these people anymore? Palestinians have evolved in very different realities since 1948. Was it part of the plan?
One fact remains, Palestine’s numerous weaknesses of their leadership have given wings to any Israeli administration whose plan was to pass over any existing Palestinian political leadership.
Last autumn, the political entities representing the Palestinian territories attempted to overcome their geographical and ideological divide signing a historical agreement. Since 2007, Hamas is at the head of the Gaza Strip, while Fatah, through the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas is mainly effective in West Bank. Under the agreement, signed on 12 October 2017, the Palestinian Authority was supposed to reassume control of the Gaza Strip by 1 December 2017. Then, the parties kept on arguing details of the agreement, mostly the weapons of terrorist groups in Gaza, then kept on delaying the application, then Donald Trump made his “Jerusalem statement”, and people had another reason not to hand over those “terrorists arms”. All reconciliation hopes were buried.
As of now, the Palestinian leadership is still on the ropes. As a consequence, without any cohesion, talks will not be effective nor will Israel consider a need to discuss with a leadership that lacks so much legitimacy.
David against Goliath
The problem with Netanyahu’s undertaking is that radicalism attracts radicalism. The other issue is that there are currently absolutely no incentives for negotiations. The “David against Goliath” conflict shows such a difference of strength between parties that Israel’s Prime Minister feels he is currently in a “green light momentum” to do whatever he wants. After all, Benjamin Netanyahu has completely understood what the founder of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, had understood, “to maintain the status quo will not do. We have to set up a dynamic state bent upon expansion.” In short: Zionism.
The other day, I was talking to a Canadian-born Jewish friend, who, in the name of justice, secretly wished that Israel would someday do something so terrible that the International community would have no choice than to fairly react. I do not wish we reach that point, but, as of now, these “little by little” land-gobbling Israeli policies make the world tolerate the intolerable.