Last Tuesday, exactly a week before Israel’s September 17 elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that if reelected, he will finally annex the Jordan Valley, land that makes up more than 30 percent of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. He further promised that the remainder of the settlements in the West Bank—but not the Palestinians who call the area home—will be annexed at a later stage.
Annexation of the West Bank would be a serious violation of international law, which explicitly forbids countries from acquiring territory by force. It would encourage and legitimize the crimes of other countries that invade and annex land that does not belong to them (think Russia’s annexation of the Crimea). And it would tear away the fig leaf that Israelis have been hiding their apartheid regime behind for more than half a century, claiming Israel’s military rule is not permanent even as they work relentlessly to entrench it more deeply every day.
Despite such serious implications, it is easy to dismiss Netanyahu’s annexation plan as an empty campaign promise designed to elicit votes in the final days of a tight election. That’s largely how the other leading parties are treating it, with little meaningful criticism of the plan even by the self-proclaimed “left” parties, such as the Labor Party and the Democratic Union. Meanwhile, the Blue and White Coalition, Likud’s chief rival in the polls, went so far as to issue a statement claiming to have proposed the idea first. “We are happy that Netanyahu has come around to adopt the Blue and White plan to recognize the Jordan Valley,” the party said.
Still, while one may try to downplay Netanyahu’s annexation threat, it is impossible to ignore the larger message, woven through the rhetoric and policy planks of all the parties, about what Israeli elections have become: a race to see who can crush Palestinians more—whether that means Palestinians living under Israeli military rule or those who are citizens of the state.
This election has not been marked by a stark choice between candidates—between, for instance, a man ideologically opposed to Palestinian freedom and one who wants to end Israel’s now 52-year military rule. Rather, the campaign has been marked by a competition over who will treat Palestinians more harshly, with candidate after candidate flexing his muscles to show how tough he is. Even the much-lauded Benny Gantz launched his campaign in January by bragging about how, as Israel’s military chief, he had bombed “parts of Gaza to the Stone Age,” a reference to the devastating 2014 Israeli military assault that decimated the besieged Gaza Strip. Netanyahu, of course, has been Netanyahu, declaring on Facebook last week that “Arabs are trying to annihilate us” and warning that should the “left wing” win, the only way it will be able to form a government is by forging a coalition with “the Arabs.”
Meanwhile, there was no discussion by any of the parties of the Jewish Nation State Law, which was passed last year, and which formally enshrines inequality in Israeli law by privileging Israel’s Jewish citizens over its non-Jewish citizens. Not one leading candidate talked about its impact on Palestinians or the need to repeal it. To the contrary, Netanyahu proudly boasted that Israel is the “nation-state of the Jewish people only,” later adding that we Palestinians “have 22 nation states around them and they do not need another.” Indeed, none of the main political parties, including those who claim to be “left,” support ending the occupation, stopping settlements or lifting the siege on Gaza.
Despite the talk of this election as a “referendum on democracy,” then, what is perhaps most notable is the lack of substantive choice. This is not a referendum on Israel’s military rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in the occupied territories, its cruel and illegal siege on Gaza, or its racist policies towards Palestinian citizens of Israel. Rather it is, for Palestinians in particular, a choice between Trump versus Trump, as in substance the major parties’ policies are virtually indistinguishable.
When the election is over, pundits will ponder whether the winner will form a right-wing or center-right coalition and the impact of the corruption charges that loom over Netanyahu. What will be ignored is just how similar all the options are—and how Palestinians should view whatever new government is finally formed.
For years, Palestinians were told about the fragility of Netanyahu’s coalitions and asked to be patient with his statements and actions. With annexation now widely supported, is it really fair to ask Palestinians to ignore the repeated racist statements by Knesset candidates or Netanyahu’s attempts to intimidate Palestinians in Israel from voting, by putting cameras in polling stations? Is it really sensible to ask Palestinians to simply forget that Netanyahu will form a coalition with people who openly advocate the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? Can we just dismiss as “empty election promises” Netanyahu’s statements that he will annex the West Bank, build more illegal Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land, and not uproot a single Jewish settler, including in Hebron—particularly when his previous coalition fell apart for not being right-wing enough?
This is not only about Netanyahu but also about the remaining members of the Knesset. As it stands, only 17 of 120 elected members of the Knesset—members of the anti-Zionist Joint List party and Meretz—believe that Israel must end its occupation and grant Palestinians their freedom. This is sadly a reflection of Israeli society: While claiming to want peace, with each election it chooses leaders who promise to perpetuate Palestinian suffering, rather than end it. Indeed, today an estimated 48 percent of Israelis support the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and fascist parties such as Jewish Power—which has roots in the racist Kach Party, considered to be a terrorist organization by the US government—are likely soon to be normalized in the Knesset. It’s like Trump asking former KKK leader David Duke to join his cabinet.
Tragically, this is the reality that Palestinians have endured for decades, which will continue unless Israel begins paying a price in the form of outside pressure from the international community.
Regardless of whether Netanyahu actually annexes the West Bank, or the precise makeup of the next government, all of the major parties in Israel seek to entrench its apartheid system rather than set a path for freedom and equality. What this means is that if there is to be any movement toward peace and justice in the region, it will require intervention from the outside world, as was the case with apartheid South Africa. Now, as then, this means including boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns.
Given that Israelis are seemingly unwilling to force their government to change, the question remains whether the world will finally force Israel to pay a price for denying Palestinians their freedom.