While Europe is tentatively finding a voice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, silence reigns across the Atlantic. The White House appears paralysed, afraid to appear out of sync with world opinion but more afraid still of upsetting Israel and its powerful allies in the US Congress. Now there is an additional complicating factor: the Israeli public, due to elect a new government in three months’ time, increasingly regards the US role as toxic.
The right needs a credible enemy, one that can be feared and that keeps the Jewish tribe from feuding too viciously. The occasional rocket from Gaza hardly qualifies. The role is instead being assigned to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They and Palestinians in Jerusalem are now likely to take centre stage in any future election campaign.
In bringing forward an election, Netanyahu can try to unmake a coalition he never really desired, and one he no longer needs after even the US appear to have given up on the diplomatic track since its implosion last April. Netanyahu chose this moment to collapse the government because Yair Lapid, his biggest potential challenger, was at his most vulnerable.
Despite hailing as a victory the seven weeks of fighting that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and destroyed large swathes of Gaza’s infrastructure, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appears to have emerged as the main political casualty of Operation Protective Edge. In late July, Netanyahu’s approval ratings stood at 82 per cent. Last week, as the ceasefire began, his popularity had plummeted to 32 per cent.
Israel’s large Palestinian minority is facing an unprecedented backlash of incitement and violent reprisals as Israeli Jews rally behind the military operation in Gaza, human rights groups have warned. Palestinian citizens have been accused of being “traitors” and a “fifth column” for criticising the attack on Gaza, in a surge of ethnic hatred by the Jewish majority not seen since the outbreak of the second intifada 14 years ago.
In some parts of Israel, voters in Tuesday’s elections will be casting a ballot not on how well their municipality is run but on how to stop “Arabs” moving in next door, how to prevent mosques being built in their community, or how to “save” Jewish women from the clutches of Arab men. According to analysts and residents, Israel’s local elections have brought a tide of ugly racism to the fore, especially in a handful of communities known as “mixed cities”, where Jewish and Palestinian citizens live in close proximity.
Those who hoped that Barack Obama would be arriving in Israel to bang Israeli and Palestinian heads together, after four years of impasse in the peace process, will be sorely disappointed. At the weekend, Arab-American leaders revealed that Obama had made it clear he would not present a peace plan, because Israel has indicated it is not interested in an agreement with the Palestinians.
Will the Palestinians be able to take advantage of President Obama’s apparent renewed interest in diplomacy? Here is the rub. Benjamin Netanyahu already has a stranglehold on the politics of his potential peace partners. He can easily manipulate the fortunes of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on the two biggest tests he faces: the peace process overseen by the international community, and reconciliation talks with the rival Palestinian faction Hamas.
Shortly before polling day in Israel, the Arab League issued a statement urging Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the country’s population, to turn out en masse to vote. The call revealed a profound, if by now well-established, misunderstanding of Israeli politics. It assumed that the Israeli polity can be divided neatly into left and right wings, and that the differences between the two correspond primarily to relative willingness to make concessions to advance the cause of peace.
This election has been a personal blow to Netanyahu, but not to the right. Netanyahu misread the public mood, but not on the central issues that should define the left-right divide in Israel: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decades of belligerent Israeli occupation. Far from a collapse of the right, the election demonstrated that the right is continuing to push the center of political gravity ever further rightwards.
As Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s Palestinian minority, gears up for the country’s general election next week, the most common poster in the city features three far-right leaders noted for their virulently anti-Arab views. Paid for by one of the largest Palestinian parties, the posters are intended to mobilize the country’s Palestinian citizens to vote. They pose a blunt question in Arabic: “Who are you leaving it [the Israeli parliament] to?”
The inciting cause of the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas has little to do with the firing of rockets, whether by Hamas or the other Palestinian factions. The conflict predates the rockets – and even the creation of Hamas – by decades. It is the legacy of Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians in 1948, forcing many of them from their homes in what is now Israel into the tiny Gaza Strip. That original injustice has been compounded by the occupation Israel has not only failed to end but has actually intensified in recent years with its relentless siege of the small strip of territory.
The speculation among Israelis and many observers is that an Obama second term will see much greater pressure on Israel both to make major concessions on Palestinian statehood and to end its aggressive posturing towards Iran over its supposed ambition to build a nuclear warhead. Such thinking, however, is fanciful. The White House’s approach towards Netanyahu and Israel is unlikely to alter significantly.
Israelis barely had time to absorb the news that they were heading into a summer election when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday pulled the rug from underneath the charade. Rancourous early electioneering had provided cover for a secret agreement between Netanyahu and the main opposition party, Kadima, to form a new, expanded coalition government.
Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, appears to have driven the final nail in the coffin of the Zionist left with his decision to split from the Labor party and create a new “centrist, Zionist” faction in the Israeli parliament. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressing reasons for wanting Barak to stay in the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. He has provided useful diplomatic cover as Netanyahu has stymied progress in a US-sponsored peace process.
A new opinion poll reveals not only a further shift rightwards in popular Israeli attitudes but also hints at the reasons for Benjamin Netanyahu’s continuing inflexibility in peace talks with the Palestinians. The latest survey, published last weekend, found that 37 per cent want to deny non-Jewish citizens voting rights, and 69 per cent support proposed legislation requiring a loyalty pledge from non-Jews to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”.
Pressure is mounting on Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to bring the opposition leader Tzipi Livni into the government after last week’s difficult meeting with the US president, according to senior analysts. Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Mr Netanyahu now understood that he faced a stark choice between clashing with the White House and ditching the far-right parties in his coalition.
Ehud Olmert, who handed over the Israeli premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday after three years heading the government, suffered a slow and public political demise. The eight lame-duck months since his resignation have been spent energetically refashioning his image as a successful leader — the “Olmert myth”, as one commentator recently called it. Humiliated in a war in Lebanon and buffeted by corruption scandals at home, Mr Olmert is reported to believe he will one day make a political comeback like Mr Netanyahu, who led the government in the late 1990s.
The near-tie in parliamentary seats between the centrist Kadima party and the right-wing Likud is evidence of a dramatic lurch rightward by the Israeli electorate this week. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni won a wafer-thin victory after the final results were released yesterday because traditional left-wing voters defected to her from Meretz and the once-dominant Labor party. Likewise Mr Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party failed to muster the necessary votes to ward off Ms Livni’s challenge because traditional Likud supporters drifted into the camp of the far-right.
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