New legislation is designed to intimidate and silence Israeli human rights organisations – the international community’s eyes and ears in the occupied territories. These groups are to be defined as “moles”, or agents of foreign governments. The problem is that the governments funding the human rights activity are not Israel’s enemies, but some of its staunchest supporters – European states.
The appointment by Benjamin Netanyahu of one of his most hawkish and outspoken rivals as Israel’s new ambassador to the United Nations has prompted widespread consternation. As one Israeli analyst noted last week, Danny Danon’s appointment amounts to a “cruel joke” on the international community. The new envoy “lacks even the slightest level of finesse and subtlety required of a senior diplomat”.
As Benjamin Netanyahu warns that Israel must “rebrand” itself to avoid pariah status, ordinary Israelis are being conscripted into an army of spin doctors in a campaign termed “hasbara” – Hebrew for “public diplomacy”. In the latest offensive, the education ministry has launched a compulsory hasbara course for students travelling abroad so that they can learn how to justify Israel’s policies in the occupied territories to outsiders and challenge those who “seek to delegitimise Israel”. It is yet more evidence that hasbara has become a national obsession in Israel.
Israelis soldiers have conducted prominent relief operations following recent natural disasters – not only in Nepal but in Haiti, Japan and the Philippines. There has to be at least a suspicion that Israel is exploiting these catastrophes to win itself new international friends, try to refute global opinion surveys that regularly identify Israel as a major threat to world peace, and reassure a public back home that Israel really does have the “most moral army in the world”.
Palestinian solidarity groups have taken to social media to step up the pressure on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to include Israel for the first time on a “shame list” of serious violators of children’s rights. Although indications are that Israel is exerting enormous pressure to avoid being named, a senior UN source said Ban’s chief advisers had recommended that the Israeli army be identified alongside the Islamic State and Taliban.
The question of punishing illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory was considered separately in Europe and Israel last week, with only superficial differences in the conclusions reached. Israel’s near half-century occupation is in no immediate danger, either at home or abroad. After years of internal debates, only a small majority of the 27 EU states have been able to agree on the most ineffectual measure imaginable against Israel.
Right-wing Israeli groups have been quietly escalating “legal warfare” against the Palestinian leadership in an attempt to dissuade it from bringing war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court. The campaign, which exploits loosely defined anti-terrorism laws in the US, appears designed to push Palestinian institutions toward collapse, as a way to weaken efforts to resist Israel’s occupation and to destroy any possibility of Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu has found himself in a mounting conflict with the White House because no president likes to be ritually humiliated by the leader of a vassal state. But the very public disagreements between the two are not, as is generally assumed, focused on outcomes: ending the occupation or offering a just solution to the Palestinians. Rather, the feud is itself part of a drama designed to divert our attention from the substantive issues. Washington’s Plan B involves the US and Europe acting the role of the aggrieved party.
Some 200 veterans of the Israeli security services have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of doing irreparable harm to the country’s ties with Washington, just two days before he is due to address the US Congress. It is the first time he has faced a large-scale backlash from Israel’s security establishment – and could damage Netanyahu’s popular image as a strong leader on security matters.
Why is Netanyahu acting like a bull in a diplomatic china shop over Iran, and doing so at the cost of imperilling relations with the US, when his own advisers say there is no obvious threat and a deal next month is unlikely? The answer is to be found on two levels: one related specifically to Netanyahu’s personal political survival; and the other to Israel’s longer-term regional interests.
The contents of a secret report by Israel’s Mossad spy agency on Iran’s nuclear programme leaked to the media are shocking and predictable in equal measure. Shocking because the report shows Netanyahu spent years lying to the international community against Mossad’s advice; predictable because for four years Israel’s security establishment has been screaming as loudly as it realistically could that Netanyahu was not to be trusted on the Iran issue.
A leaked government report paints a dark future for Israel. Western support for the Palestinians will increase, the threat of European sanctions will grow, and the US might even refuse to “protect Israel with its veto” at the UN. One might assume that, faced with this, Israel would reconsider its obstructive approach to peace negotiations and Palestinian statehood. Instead, Netanyahu has begun looking elsewhere for patrons.
For 20 years, the White House stood guard over the peace process, reserving for itself the role of stewarding Israel and the Palestinians to a resolution of their conflict. But Washington’s primacy in the relationship with both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships is unravelling at astonishing speed, opening up for the first time diplomatic wriggle room.
The Paris killings have reinforced Israeli suspicions that Europe, with its rapidly growing Muslim population, is being dragged into a clash of civilisations it is ill-equipped to combat. And the targeting of a kosher supermarket that killed four Jews has heightened a belief that Jews outside Israel are in mortal danger. In Netanyahu’s conception, a Jew’s primary bond should be to their “true home”, the Jewish state of Israel. Paradoxically, that view is shared by Europe’s far-right.
Netanyahu was probably the least welcome of the 40 world leaders who participated in the rally in Paris on Sunday to demonstrate their outrage at last week’s attack that left 17 people dead, including four French Jews. According to Israeli media, President Francois Hollande’s advisers had urged Netanyahu not to come, concerned that he would exploit the visit – and the deaths – to increase divisions in French society. They had good grounds for concern.
Abbas knows a decision to pursue war crimes trials against Israel at the Hague threatens the PA’s very existence. If he ends coordination and goes on the offensive, why would Israel allow the PA to continue functioning? But if his security forces continue to collaborate with Israel, how can he retain credibility with his people? This leaves the Palestinian leader with only two credible strategic options – aside from dissolving the PA himself.
There are many obstacles to be cleared before anyone in Israel reaches the dock in the Hague accused of war crimes. The first test will be whether Mahmoud Abbas’ nerve holds. It will be 60 days before the application to join the International Criminal Court takes effect. In the meantime, Israel and the US – neither of which has ratified the Rome Statute – will exert as much pressure on him as possible to change course.
It is astonishing that the reconstruction of Gaza, bombed into the Stone Age according to the explicit goals of Israeli military doctrine, has tentatively only just begun. Where else apart from the Palestinian territories would the international community stand by idly as so many people suffer? The reason for the hold-up is, as ever, Israel’s “security needs”. Gaza can be rebuilt but only to the specifications laid down by Israel.
The unity government simply breathes new life into the illusion – created by the Oslo accords of two decades ago – that good governance by the Palestinian Authority can change the Palestinians’ situation for the better. In practice, such governance has entailed submitting to Israel’s security demands. An occupied people needs not better rubbish collection but an effective strategy for resistance.
Israelis rarely hear facts about the abuses faced by Palestinians under occupation, either from their politicians or the media. Israelis have grown content to live in a large bubble of denial. Netanyahu and his ministers are making every effort to reinforce that bubble, just as they have tried to shield Israelis from the fact that they live in the Middle East, not Europe, by building walls on every side – both physical and bureaucratic – to exclude Palestinians, Arab neighbours, foreign workers and asylum seekers.