Israel Celebrates a Return to the Status Quo in the Middle East
Arguments about Israel/Palestine often turn, I’ve noticed, on when one chooses to start the clock. The most recent flare-up began, in this view, at 7 am on Tuesday, April 1, when Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the far-right Jewish Home Party issued tenders for 708 new homes in the illegal East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. In doing so, he set off a sequence of events that saw the Palestinians deciding to apply for membership in fifteen international organizations, which led Israel to reject the deal that Secretary of State John Kerry had painstakingly assembled (in which Israel would release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners and extend the peace negotiations for four months, while receiving the gift of freedom for superspy-traitor Jonathan Pollard in return). The day ended with chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni threatening the Palestinians not only with cancellation of the previously agreed-upon prisoner release, but with additional, potentially devastating economic sanctions. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat parried with a threat to “pursue [the Israelis] as war criminals in all the international forums.”
The breakdown was predictable. When two sides negotiate in the absence of trust, it’s easy for provocateurs to corroborate the other side’s worst fears. Ariel, for instance, was clearly looking to torpedo the talks. As he later explained, he was “personally told [Pollard] is against being released in such a shameful deal” (though this was reportedly denied by Pollard’s wife, Esther).
Israel did cancel its prisoner release, and so the entire structure of peace negotiations crafted by Kerry appeared to collapse. As one Israeli official explained to a reporter: “Our goal now is to stop everything—we are hardening our positions and then we will start from the beginning.”
This suits many Israelis just fine. Life in the promised land is peaceful and prosperous at the moment, at least for its Jewish majority. On the same day these arguments broke out, I happened to be moderating a panel in Jerusalem on the future of the two-state solution—sponsored by Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy and the Center for American Progress—designed, in part, to foster closer relations between progressive institutions in both countries. As Molad director Avner Inbar observed, “Although Netanyahu is genuinely concerned about isolation and demography, he believes that the current status quo is the best option.”
US audiences may be fooled by Netanyahu’s lip service to a two-state solution, but Israelis are not. According to a poll published on the website of Israel’s Channel 2, 50 percent of the public questioned Netanyahu’s alleged adoption of the two-state solution, compared with just 23 percent who believed him to be sincere. A few days later, a poll taken for Haaretz found a 59 to 34 percent margin on the same questions.
Netanyahu’s real priorities are revealed by his willingness to release terrorists (until recently) to protect his ability to continue to build settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and most particularly by his deeply cynical demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” “For the Israelis,” Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht writes, “Netanyahu dangles the catastrophic image of the Jews being thrown into the sea—for that must be the Palestinians’ aim, if they refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—and in doing so, strikes at the center of the Jewish central nervous system, which is, of course, fear of the Holocaust.” But for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hecht continues, “Netanyahu’s demand is that he erase his people’s history, crush the Palestinian narrative and admit that the Arabs [who constitute roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population, excluding the West Bank] are nothing more than guests in the State of Israel…. Netanyahu knows that Abbas cannot make such a declaration,” but he also knows that any Israeli or, for that matter, American politician will catch hell for opposing it.
Speaking to the Molad/CAP panel, Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations suggested that Netanyahu was playing the United States and the European Union for patsies. Both should be putting pressure on Israel to halt its settlement construction and negotiate in good faith. But like the United States, “Europe is constantly thickening and deepening its relationship with Israel,” he lamented. “So neither the Israelis nor Netanyahu himself are sufficiently discouraged” to consider the kinds of concessions necessary to offer the Palestinians anything more than a Bantustan-style solution.
Netanyahu and company actually appreciate the misguided efforts of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in the United States and Europe. As Molad’s Inbar explains, while “the ideologically driven BDS movement likes to claim credit for any instance of international pressure on Israel, it really forestalls such pressure, as the large actors whose actions count in this regard—governments, international agencies and corporations who oppose the occupation—are justifiably reluctant to be associated with the wholesale anti-Israeli rhetoric of the BDS movement.” Right-wing Israelis are therefore able to take advantage of the widespread distaste for “BDS-style rhetoric and tactics, because they know that the more attention the BDS movement receives, the more difficult it will become to build serious international pressure on the occupation itself.” (This is undoubtedly why Mahmoud Abbas opposes BDS as well.)
If nothing else, the BDS types have managed to convince a few performers, including Roger Waters and Elvis Costello, to refuse gigs in Israel. Alas, the Israelis have had to settle for the likes of Leonard Cohen and the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, those on both sides who wish to see the genuine prospects for a Palestinian state destroyed forever may be forgiven for singing “Hallelujah.” All in all, it’s just another brick in their wall.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the breakdown of the Palestine-Israel talks