+972 Magazine » Noam Sheizaf http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Sun, 05 Jul 2015 20:06:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 A most moral occupation: Keeping the prisoners in line http://972mag.com/gaza-and-the-issue-of-the-israeli-armys-moral-standards/108244/ http://972mag.com/gaza-and-the-issue-of-the-israeli-armys-moral-standards/108244/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 11:54:03 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=108244 Does Israel have the right to turn millions of the people under its control into prisoners simply because it is afraid of what might happen once they are released?

An olive tree in front of the Israeli separation barrier in Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

An olive tree in front of the Israeli separation barrier in Bethlehem. (Activestills.org)

The UNHRC report on Gaza and testimonies published by local watchdog group “Breaking the Silence” have sparked yet another round of debate over the IDF’s moral standards, or lack thereof. These debates have become yet another way for Israeli society — and at times, the international community — to talk about the occupation without actually discussing it. My heart goes out to the people at Breaking the Silence, since I have a feeling that this time around they are in the midst of a war they cannot win.


The objective of the Israeli occupation is control. In fact, that has long been Israel’s goal vis-a-vis the entire Palestinian people, even before 1967. Unlike many Palestinians, I do not think that the Zionist movement made a decision to ethnically cleanse the land of its residents; 1948 was the exception — not the rule. In the years following the war, and to this day, Palestinians have been removed from their homes and land, but in most cases they are not expelled from the country. In fact, the Israeli strategy stems from a recognition — on the part of the ruling elites, including both Labor and Likud — that the Palestinian population will ultimately remain here alongside the Jewish population.

There is zero chance that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will ever agree to their current situation of their own volition. And unlike most other occupying powers eventually do, Israel is not interested in granting them citizenship. Therefore, Israel’s only course of action is to control the Palestinians by force. This has been the objective of Israeli policy for decades, again, with the support of Labor and Likud alike.

This objective is the only way to explain the many actions Israel takes, which are sometimes improvised, other times planned ahead of time, and often seem to contradict each other. In practice, they are all put in place to maintain a system of control. This is the line of thinking that connects the anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset, the military operations in Gaza and the prime minister’s declared war on the BDS movement.

Testimonies: ‘This is how we fought in Gaza’

In order to maintain this policy, Israel has turned the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into a giant prison (Egypt helps by sealing in Gaza from the south). Like in all prisons, the guards strip the prisoners of almost all their rights, aside from those that they are willing to grant, usually in return for good behavior. Such privileges can include work permits, travel permits, or visitation rights. A Palestinian needs permission from the army to leave and return to the country. A foreign national who lands in Israel risks deportation should they openly state their intention to travel to the West Bank (save for a few exceptions).

Take note of how Israelis see nearly every “right” granted to Palestinians in the occupied territories as a “concession” or a “privilege”— the privilege to leave the country (which was recently given and then subsequently denied to 500 people due to a single crime that none of them had any connection to); the “privilege” to build homes; the “privilege” to host friends; the “privilege” of being given work permits. None of these rights are granted simply because Palestinians are human. They are carrots and sticks used to leverage an entire population, whose only goal is to maintain quiet (“peace”). This is how prison works. That is how guards speak.

The new camera-equipped weapon installed on the separation wall in Bethlehem. (photo: Activestills.org)

The new camera-equipped weapon installed on the separation wall in Bethlehem. (photo: Activestills.org)

Israel is a democracy that maintains a sub-regime that is a dictatorship. The prisoner cannot resist his or her imprisonment, which is how Israel sees every political (or military) action by the Palestinians. The Palestinians cannot, obviously, attack their guards. They cannot throw stones, they cannot call for boycotts, they cannot turn to the UN, they cannot go on hunger strike, they cannot attempt to sail to Gaza, etc. In the spirit of the times, every single one of these actions is labeled “terrorism”—meaning that they are beyond the pale of legitimate political conduct, and therefore must be fought using any and all means.

Israeli society has become accustomed to this guard-prisoner relationship over the last few decades. The IDF went from being a traditional military, whose expertise is in large-scale, offensive maneuvering, to an army that leads the world in maintaining order (over prisoners, that is). Actually, many places in the West Bank and on the border with Gaza already look very much like a prison. Israel’s technological developments — tracking systems, remote crowd dispersal methods, UAVs, remote assassination methods that cause as little collateral damage as possible — are intended to maintain that prison at both minimal cost and minimal victims. Groups of Israeli generals travel the world in order to market the experience we have gained in holding a civilian population under our control. This kind of expertise will always be in demand.

Read: How an army of defense became an army of vengeance

Alongside the generals is an entire system that creates an ideology of occupation — a public sense of justice. We can read about it in the weekend edition of every major newspaper. The differences are insignificant between Yedioth columnist Ben-Dror Yemini with his BDS obsession, the military correspondents who talk about “security challenges in the territories,” Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit’s talk of delegitimization and proper right-wing ideologists. Their goal is to justify the various aspects of controlling the Palestinians, without actually talking about the elephant in the room: the degree to which that control is legitimate in the first place.

Israel has no intention of granting citizenship to Palestinians under its control. In contrast to what Israelis tell themselves, we have no intention of separating from even some of the Palestinians either (full separation is impossible since the two populations are far too mixed at this point). If Israel intended to, we would have already left the West Bank and stopped controlling everything that happens there. But we won’t do it, since such a move carries an internal political price, not to mention serious dangers. The Right’s nightmare scenario  —rockets on Tel Aviv, for instance — is a real possibility.

It is also obvious that no agreement will fully ensure Israel’s security; even if Mahmoud Abbas becomes a card-carrying Likud member tomorrow, there is no telling who will be in charge of a Palestinian state five years from now. Therefore, any withdrawal, regardless of a peace agreement, is a real risk. This was true 10 years ago, it is true now, and it will be true in the future.

Yet this is precisely the issue of putting an end to foreign rule — once you no longer control the other side, you have no idea what it will do, and you need to come up with other ways to maintain relatively peaceful relations with it. The risks is such a case are unavoidable and Israelis are simply not willing to take them. This is why they choose leaders who promise not to reach peace agreements, and why there is a better chance for a temporary agreement with Hamas in Gaza than a permanent accord with Abbas, which could translate to an irreversible loss of control with the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Funeral in Bani Suhaila for the 21 members of the Al-Najjar family, who were killed just before the ceasefire, east of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014.  The Al-Najjar family flew their homes in Khuza'a to take refuge fi-urther west.  Israeli attacks have killed 550 Palestinians in the current offensive, most of them civilians. Khuza'a has been under heavy attacks and many fled their village as the Israeli army physically occupies the village. Israeli attacks have killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and injured around 5,000 in the current offensive.

Funeral in Bani Suhaila for the 21 members of the Al-Najjar family, who were killed just before the ceasefire, east of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014. The Al-Najjar family fled their homes in Khuza’a to take refuge further west. (photo: Activestills.org)

Israel receives special attention from time to time because the occupation is exceptional among the nations of the world. What other legitimate member of the international community seeks to continue imprisoning (at least) a third of its population? This is the real issue that lies at the root of all military operations and their many victims. The occupation systematically denies Palestinians their human rights, and it continues unabated, regardless of the circumstances of every flare up or round of violence.

At the end of the day, the debate over the IDF’s morality — which makes headlines every time an NGO publishes a report or the murder of an innocent person is exposed — is a distraction. It is convenient for Israel and its citizens to cope with that question, since if we prove that the army makes every effort to continue controlling Palestinians with the minimum amount of innocent victims, we will feel better about ourselves and our international image won’t be tarnished. And when we cannot prove as much, we can always replace the question of morality with one of discipline: the soldier who didn’t follow orders, the commander who gave problematic orders. And hey, what is happening in Syria is way worse.

But even if another army killed 4,000 people — or 40,000 — in Gaza, would that make Israel’s policies legitimate? Does this country have a right to turn millions of the people under its control — a civilian population — into prisoners, because it is afraid of what will happen once they are released? Can we expect anything from this policy but repeated cycles of “security challenges” and “military responses?” I do not believe so, but I appreciate the honesty of the few who are willing to say “yes.” Most Israelis simply ignore the question.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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How every Israeli profits from the occupation http://972mag.com/how-every-israeli-profits-from-the-occupation/107629/ http://972mag.com/how-every-israeli-profits-from-the-occupation/107629/#comments Tue, 09 Jun 2015 20:24:37 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=107629 Israel’s government, economy and citizens regularly exploit everything they can from the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians the bare minimum for survival. If Israelis want change, they’ll have to come to terms with reality.

A Palestinian vendor sells coffee outside the entrance to an Israeli military checkpoint separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem, June 12, 2014. (Activestills.org)

A Palestinian vendor sells coffee outside the entrance to an Israeli military checkpoint separating Bethlehem and Jerusalem, June 12, 2014. (Activestills.org)

Contrary to popular belief, the boycott is not the greatest threat facing Israel, at least not at the moment. However, now that BDS has become a household name, it is perfect opportunity for Israelis to have an honest conversation about the occupation. As opposed to the angle being peddled by Yedioth Ahronoth — which has been leading an open campaign against the BDS movement through a series of articles and op-eds — it is clear that the support for the BDS movement overwhelmingly stems from our control over millions of people in the West Bank and Gaza who lack basic rights.


The occupation is one of Israel’s biggest national projects, if not the biggest. Every single part of the population — not to mention the Israeli economy — take part in it. From the hi-tech industry that develops our most advanced combat and surveillance devices, to the major Israeli corporations of the Israeli economy, to the thousands of people who have manned checkpoints and patrolled the streets of the West Bank over the years — everyone has had a role.

There are those who claim that the occupation is a burden on the State of Israel. Perhaps they are right. But we cannot ignore the fact that it is also profitable, even for those who live in central Israel and are convinced that the “extreme right” is to blame for everything. First and foremost, there are the profits that come from a number of business ventures in the West Bank: the mines that Israel controls, which bring down the costs of building across the country; tourist sites; or just about any industry that relies on the cheap Palestinian labor.

Even the land itself is profitable for Israel. The Israeli government solved the housing crisis in the ultra-Orthodox community by moving over 100,000 people to two cities on the other side of the Green Line. Imagine how much this kind of land would be worth in central Israel. Or what about Jerusalem, which for years has ceased expanding westward, only eastward?

The markets of Ramallah and Khan Younis carry Israeli goods. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are a captive market for Israeli products, worth billions of shekels a year. Perhaps the Palestinians would prefer to buy cheaper goods from Jordan and Egypt, but developing open trade under occupation is nearly impossible.

Palestinians Burn Settlment Products in Front of the Karmei Tzur Settlement. Picture Credit: Joseph Dana

Palestinians burn Israeli settlement products in front of the West Bank settlement of Karmei Tzur. (photo: Joseph Dana)

And what about all those smaller forms of profit that we’ll never actually be able to quantify. Imagine a truck that leaves from Eilat toward Kiryat Shmona on the northern border — how much would the drive cost if it had to circumvent the West Bank? What if it had to pay a toll to the Palestinian Authority? What would happen if we had to pay the Palestinians to use Route 443, which cuts across the West Bank? Or if we leased the land beyond the Green Line upon which the high-speed railway to Jerusalem is slated to be built? And what about air space, aquifers or electromagnetic frequencies?

Partner, the local Israeli supplier of Orange, a French cellphone company whose CEO stated late last week that he intends to stop doing business in Israel — has antennas all across the West Bank, much like every other other major Israeli cellphone company. The problem does not only stem from land theft; Israeli companies alone have the right to operate 3G networks across the country. The Palestinian network, on the other hand, allows only for phone calls and text messages. As a result, thousands of Palestinians who want to use 3G must obtain it through Israeli companies. This is a clean profit for Partner and the other companies. And this is without even getting into strange stories, like how Orange paid rent to Israeli settlers who illegally established an outpost on privately-owned Palestinian land.

The bottom line is very simple: Israel — its government, economy and citizens — regularly exploits everything it can from the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians the bare minimum for survival. There is no such thing as “democratic Israel” to the west of the Green Line and “occupying Israel” to its east. Occupying Israel exists in Tel Aviv as well.

Instead of rolling our eyes and crying “anti-Semites” like the Right does, or blame the settlers and Netanyahu — like the Left does — the time has come to recognize these facts. Only then will we be able to start making a change.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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What to expect from Netanyahu’s fourth government http://972mag.com/what-to-expect-from-netanyahus-fourth-government/106738/ http://972mag.com/what-to-expect-from-netanyahus-fourth-government/106738/#comments Fri, 15 May 2015 12:15:35 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=106738 The new government, which could  survive longer than most observers expect, intends to resume the implementation of the Prawer Plan, aimed to force the Bedouin Palestinian population in the “unrecognized villages” into a narrow territory. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu at the first Knesset session following the 2015 elections (photo: Haim Tzach, Government Press Office)

Prime Minister Netanyahu at the first Knesset session following the 2015 elections (photo: Haim Tzach, Government Press Office)

Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government was sworn in in the nick of time. Due to last-minute controversies over cabinet positions, President Reuven Rivlin and the family members of the new ministers had to wait a couple of hours for the special Knesset session to begin. Alongside the coalition negotiations, prolonged to the very maximum allowed by the law, Thursday night serves as a reminder of the difficulties Netanayhu is sure to face in maintaining his narrow coalition, which rests on the support of a mere 61 lawmakers out of the Knesset’s 120.

This, however, doesn’t mean that it will be a short-lived government, as some observers were all too quick to predict. Israel had similarly narrow governments in the past, and some of them even carried out major policy decisions: Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo II agreement in 1995 with an unstable 61 government, and Menachem Begin invaded Lebanon in 1982 with the same majority. (Though, admittedly, declaring war with a narrow coalition is not a big deal, since most of the opposition usually supports any military action the government undertakes.)

The fate of a coalition is often determined by the interests of a certain party in breaking away from the government and risking elections or, worse still, being left out when an alternative government is formed. Right now, I don’t see any party with such an interest, nor do I see any member of the coalition – not even the mere two necessary – who would benefit from siding with the opposition. The settlers and the hard right certainly don’t have a better alternative than this government, and the same goes for the ultra-Orthodox. My hunch is that for the time being, Netanyahu is not going anywhere.

Executing policies is a different thing, though, and this government will have very limited room to maneuver. This means an endless give and take with every MK on each bill – be it inconsequential legislation or major reform.

It’s clear that this government will not change course on the Palestinian issue. The traditional distinction between “pragmatists” and “hardliners,” or “hawks and doves,” doesn’t make sense here. All of the members of this government who have some sort of bearing on the Palestinian issue – from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely to Netanyahu himself – are united in their opposition to Palestinian statehood or to any sort of territorial concessions.

And it’s not that they have an alternative way to end the occupation – they simply want to keep things as they are, while expanding settlements. And the rest – Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon or the ultra-Orthodox ministers – simply don’t care. There was a funny moment in Netanyahu’s speech last night, when he said that his government will seek peace, and all the Arab MKs broke into spontaneous laughter, which pretty much captures everything (watch it here, around 0:30).

هههههاحلى 5 دقايق ب 2015حفلة!!!!الكل يحضر

Posted by Anan Soheil Muzalbet on Thursday, May 14, 2015

Don’t believe their pledges to annex Area C, the 60 percent of the West bank that is under direct Israeli administrative control, either. Though settler leaders call for that from time to time, it would be counterproductive for their purposes. It’s actually easier to build settlements or expropriate land under military law, and why risk the international outcry that such a change to the status quo would provoke? What we see now is Netanyahu’s final-status solution. There is no need to look any further.

With the fate of the West Bank and Gaza on hold, and major reforms depending on the goodwill of every single coalition member, I believe that much of the political energy will be invested in the internal culture war, including steps against the Palestinian minority in Israel proper – the so-called Arab-Israelis.

The right already expressed the desire to push legislation that would limit the ability of human rights NGOs and other anti-occupation groups to fundraise abroad, and the new justice minister – Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked – is a strong supporter of curtailing the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down Knesset legislation that it deems unconstitutional. If such legislation passes, it will have an effect on issues of state and religion and on the treatment of asylum seekers, where the court has taken a stand in recent years, as opposed to the Palestinian issue, where most rulings are in line with the government and the IDF.

Closer attention should be paid to the relations between the Knesset, the government, and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up more than 20 percent of the population. The coalition agreement includes a commitment by the government to implement the Prawer Plan, which aims to force most of the indigenous Palestinian-Bedouin population into a narrow territory in the north of the Negev – while making room for new housing projects, settlements and farms to be built for Jews. There has already been a rise in Palestinian home demolishes, especially in the south. The experience of the previous Knesset shows that some right-wing MKs will also try to undermine the Palestinians’ political representation or freedom of speech – as they did with the Nakba Law, or through the attempts to ban Arab legislators from running for parliament.

On those issues – the Palestinian minority, the Supreme Court, the opposition to the occupation – the government will enjoy the support of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s six MKs, who are now in opposition, which means a de-facto solid 67-53 majority. Lieberman or some of his party members might also be tempted to join the coalition in the coming months, and make things way easier for Netanyahu. That’s another reason I don’t expect this government to fall so soon.

The cabinet itself will be very right-wing, as one might expect from such a coalition. There are a couple of troubling appointments which went largly under the radar: Yariv Levin, a talented and very radical MK from Likud – one of the party’s rising stars – will have the public security portfolio, in charge of the police. (The Shin Bet is under the charge of the Prime Minister’s Office.) Levin might adopt harsher policing policies vis-a-vis Palestinians in the south and East Jerusalem.

The new deputy defense ministry is Eli Ben Dahan, a radical rabbi from the Jewish Home party, who went on record lately calling the Palestinians “sub-human.” This will be the man in charge of the civil administration – the IDF agency that runs the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. Even retired army general Ilan Paz, a former commander of the civil administration, called this nomination “a terrible, unacceptable thing.” Brigadier General (ret.) Paz called on the current commander of the civil administration to resign.

Finally, one should note the two senior cabinet portfolios left unmanned (meaning that the prime minister is keeping them for himself): Media and communication and foreign affairs. The latter is clearly kept as bait for prospective coalition partners – be them  Liberman or Labor’s Isaac Herzog.  The Communication Ministry, on the other hand, will not be handed to anyone but rather kept closely by Netanyahu himself, so he can use its tremendous regulatory power against those seen by him as his political rivals in the media.

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Israeli Right renews its fight on funding for human rights orgs http://972mag.com/israeli-right-renews-its-fight-on-funding-for-human-rights-orgs/105989/ http://972mag.com/israeli-right-renews-its-fight-on-funding-for-human-rights-orgs/105989/#comments Mon, 27 Apr 2015 09:59:04 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=105989 Legislative attacks on EU funding of human rights activities could backfire by forcing the Europeans to revisit the basis for its entire economic relationship with Israel — something that not even BDS has succeeded at accomplishing.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 11, 2014. (EU Photo)

EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 11, 2014. (EU Photo)

The Israeli Right is once again seeking to introduce legislation that would limit the ability of human rights and anti-occupation organizations to seek funding abroad. As part of coalition negotiations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party is demanding that foreign-government funding of local institutions require approval by the Defense Ministry and the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The next government is unlikely to adopt Bennett’s demand as policy, but some softer version may very well reach the Knesset floor, and even gain the necessary majority to become law.


The right-wing media is already preparing the ground. Right-leaning newspaper Makor Rishon (now owned by Jewish American billionaire Sheldon Adelson) published a major article last weekend based entirely on press releases by NGO Monitor, and focused on the European Union’s support for human rights organizations and other similar groups in Israel.

Like most of the public debate around this issue, the portrait the article painted was biased and one-sided — the organizations themselves weren’t even given a chance to comment. The Jewish Home party and NGO Monitor are not interested in the wider, general effect of foreign entities on the public debate in Israel, nor do they seek to look into the entire array of political organizations that are funded from abroad. They will not, for instance, tell you very much — if anything at all — about right-wing non-profits’ sources of funding. (NGO Monitor itself is funded abroad, and doesn’t have the most transparent record.) The goal of the Jewish Home and NGO Monitor is to attack what they see as the last political platform for anti-occupation activity inside Israeli society. (Full disclosure: the non-profit that operates this site is among the organizations that are often attacked by NGO Monitor. Eight percent of +972′s budget last year came from the Heinrich Boell Foundation, which is defined as “a representative of a foreign government” under Israeli law.)

There is little doubt one way of gaining influence is to fund certain activities, and that includes gaining political influence. “Soft power,” the common phrase used to describe such humanitarian, cultural or economic activities by governments, already betrays this fact. Every country engages in similar activities – including Israel, which, among other things, sends paid envoys to university campuses and synagogues overseas to engage in political activities designed to influence public opinion, with the eventual goal of influencing governments’ foreign policies to support the Israeli side of the conflict.

A debate about foreign influence in local politics is a good thing, but it should encompass the whole picture and put things in proper context. Most of the European Union money that is sent to Israel, for example, does not go to human rights activities, but to other fields, most notably to scientific research. As part of the Horizon 2020 program, for example, Israeli scientists and institutions are about to receive up to NIS 1.5 billion, which is more than what all of the human rights organizations got from all European countries combined (not just the EU), over a period of several years, and that’s according to NGO Monitor’s own data.

In other words, there is no “political” and “non political” money, but rather support for all sorts of activities that fall under the broad agenda of the EU (or the American government, for that matter). Anyone seeking to stop funding for human rights organizations will also necessarily risk losing university grants as well. That is the reason Netanyahu torpedoed previous versions of anti-NGO legislation in the Knesset.

And it doesn’t end there: Article 2 of the 1995 agreement between Israel and the Europe, the very document that made Israel a favorable trade partner to the EU, states that:

Relations between the Parties, as well as all the provisions of the Agreement itself, shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides their internal and international policy and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.

I believe that the EU should have long ago realized that the permanent state of occupation Israel perpetuates, which deprives millions of people of their most basic human rights, is a major violation of Article 2 of the agreement. But Brussels has never applied Article 2, let along considered backing away from the Israeli-European agreement. The public discourse in Israel — full of conspiracy theories about European agents — tends to miss that simple fact.

If Israel decides to place limits on the EU’s ability to support human rights causes, it will be inviting the Europeans to revisit the 1995 agreement, including Article 2. As I said, I believe this – and not the fear of the Supreme Court or a non-existent opposition – is the only thing standing in the way of new attempts at passing anti-NGO legislation.

The irony is that the Israeli Right might actually succeed where all the boycott movements failed – in making European governments reconsider their special relationship with Israel, and not just engaging in symbolic actions and statements against the settlements, as they do now. If the Israeli anti-occupation organizations really supported BDS – as they are often accused by the Right – they would be wishing the Jewish Home party and NGO Monitor the best of luck in their current efforts.

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You can boycott anything in Israel — except the occupation http://972mag.com/you-can-boycott-anything-in-israel-except-the-occupation/105600/ http://972mag.com/you-can-boycott-anything-in-israel-except-the-occupation/105600/#comments Thu, 16 Apr 2015 14:06:50 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=105600 The ‘boycott law’ won’t put an end to the BDS movement — its real importance lies in the criminalization of all opposition to the occupation.

A few months ago, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called for a boycott of businesses owned by Arab citizens of Israel. Such remarks — blunt racism directed at 20 percent of Israelis, regardless of their actions, opinions or political affiliations — are now well-embedded within the Israeli mainstream. Liberman himself is a legitimate coalition partner as far as either Labor or Likud are concerned. Meanwhile, the call to boycott those who profit from the occupation is now officially considered a civil offense. This is the bottom line of the High Court of Justice’s verdict, which approved the Knesset’s anti-boycott law (with the exception of a single article) on Wednesday afternoon.


The verdict is a 200-page long formidable act of legal acrobatics and eye-rolling. A boycott, the court declares, is a form of discrimination. One of the justices even goes so far as to use the Orwellian term “political act of terror.” Yet boycotting is a very common political act, both in Israel and elsewhere. There are those who boycott shops that sell animal fur, others who boycott restaurants that serve non-Kosher food, people who boycott Turkey due to its politics, and much more. All of the these take place unperturbed in broad daylight, and are often promoted by political parties, civil society organizations and public figures. And this is before we even begin to speak of racially-motivated boycotts that target the Palestinian population — these go unhindered as well. But a boycott of settlements products? Forbidden. The bottom line is that today in Israel, one can boycott anything and anyone, except the occupation.

Justice Meltzer, who wrote most of the verdict, argues that the boycott — and especially the academic boycott — “silences intellectual discourse.” In other words, it is the boycott that hurts democracy and freedom of speech. In the abstract world of the High Court, the occupation is an intellectual issue to be debated rationally in the public sphere. In reality, however, the occupation is a regime that deprives millions of their political rights, thus denying them the possibility of participating in the public decision-making process. If Palestinians had the right to vote and participate in the political sphere that determines their destiny, there would be no need for boycotts.

Israelis have no right to “democratically” decide to deny the rights of millions. Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to oppose such a decision, regardless of the majority that stands behind it. Boycotts are a nonviolent tool in this political battle, and therefore is among the most legitimate forms of opposition. It is no coincidence that the history of civil rights movements across the world includes countless examples of successful boycotts. The High Court and the Knesset have outlawed one of the most acceptable forms of political action, both in Israel and around the world, in order to sustain the occupation. It’s as simple as that.

BDS graffiti on Israeli separation wall, Bethlehem, West Bank, June 17, 2014. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

BDS graffiti on Israeli separation wall, Bethlehem, West Bank, June 17, 2014. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

This verdict should put an end, once and for all, to the myth of Israel’s “liberal” High Court. Just in recent years, the court has approved the Nakba Law (allowing the state to withdraw funds from institutions that teach about the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948); the “admission panels” law (allowing small communities to reject applicants based on race or ethnicity); The “citizenship law” (forbidding Arab citizens who marry non-citizen Palestinians to settle in Israel with their spouse); and now the boycott law. There were also other troubling rulings, which received little public attention, such as the one allowing Israel to operate quarries in the West Bank, profiting from the little resources Palestinians actually own, in direct violation of international law regarding occupied territories.

A broader historical look shows that the High Court never really tried to prevent any of the major measures Israel exercised in the territories it occupied in 1967. Not the land confiscations, not the settlements, not the torture, not the targeted assassinations and not the building of the separation wall on Palestinian land. However, the court did set some restrictions. In other words, it provided the legal framework for how to confiscate land and then settle it, when to torture and who to assassinate. The court was never a tool in the battle against the occupation, but rather an inherent part of its structure. Its role was to introduce the necessary adjustments between the occupation and the Israeli legal system.

Read more: High Court upholds controversial ‘boycott law’

Now the High Court is taking part in the poisonous turn Israel has taken — the gradual adaptation of a nationalistic, Jewish-ethnic discourse, which promotes segregation and places restrictions on ideas and thoughts. This includes a restriction on discussing the Nakba; on promoting the liberal idea of a state for all its citizens; and on using boycotts as a political tool. Unpopular ideas become illegitimate, and are later outlawed. And it all happens with the support of the High Court.

The occupation has poisoned every Israeli institution, one after the other. Universities are offering courses in propaganda (“hasbara”) while distancing themselves from “anti-Israeli” content, the media is applying more and more self-censorship, and the High Court is going places no Western democracy has been. Israel is changing its own internal code of conduct, all for the sake of maintaining its control over the Palestinians.

The boycott movement wasn’t born in Israel, and verdict will not do much to affect it. If anything, the movement is only likely to gain more ground. But a major transformation is taking place within Israeli society. Judging from the elections results — which the right is interpreting as a clear mandate to execute more of its ideas — this is only the beginning.

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]]> http://972mag.com/you-can-boycott-anything-in-israel-except-the-occupation/105600/feed/ 9 Obama, Netanyahu and the Palestinian conflict: What’s next? http://972mag.com/obama-netanyahu-and-the-palestinian-conflict-whats-next/105066/ http://972mag.com/obama-netanyahu-and-the-palestinian-conflict-whats-next/105066/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 14:07:15 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=105066 Something indeed changed in the Israel-U.S. relationship, the question is what actions will the U.S. take and how Netanyahu reacts — from the Security Council to Gaza.

I just got back from the annual J Street conference. The atmosphere was very different from the 2013 conference. Back then it was all about the Kerry mission. This year, talk of peace was replaced by a certain state of shock from Netanyahu’s victory at the polls. Most of the conference participants get their information about those elections from the American media, which was in turn fed by the Israeli media, which presented the unrealistic probability of a Labor victory as a probably scenario. Nobody made any effort at hiding their disappointment with the actual results.


But there was also something else in the air. It wasn’t just Netanyahu’s victory that made the difference; it was the way he did it — sealing shut the door to the idea of a two-state solution and using racist scare-tactics to drive Jewish voters to the polls. The two-state solution is J Street’s main policy objective, and the history of the civil rights movement is at the core of liberal Jewish American identity. The fact that Netanyahu directly confronted everything they stand for – and was rewarded for it by Israelis – shook people to their core. The kind of talk heard from J Street people this year was unlike anything I’ve witnessed before. President of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, declared on stage – twice! – that “Netanyahu doesn’t represent us,” and the head of J Street’s board, Morton Halperin, said in his in opening remarks that, “Netanyahu will not convince us that he isn’t a racist.” Both were met with cheers from the audience. There was also a general sense that the U.S. administration is readier than ever to confront Netanyahu (a sentiment that was strengthened following the address by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough)

Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org  / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

White House Chief of Staff Denis Mcdonough speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israelis tend to view such developments in one of two ways: either to claim that the country is headed on a one-way path to becoming a pariah state, the way South Africa was; or to believe that nothing actually happened, and that it’s all just empty words, at best.

The truth, I believe, lies elsewhere. The shift in American views and policies on Israel cannot be narrowed to “better” or “worse,” but a change is taking place nevertheless. The Republican commitment to Israel, and to the Israeli Right, is deepening. The Democratic Party is moving the other way, especially with its base and on a grassroots level. And there are more important developments that have to do with new dynamics in the Middle East and the way America understands its interests in the region. The pieces are moving very fast and the story is much bigger than the soap opera of Bibi vs. Obama we are being sold by political talk shows.

But where are things heading in the coming months? Here are some of the assessments I heard in Washington (take into account that I only spoke with people from one side of the aisle):

1. The change in the way the White House views Bibi and Israel is indeed real. It can be seen in the marginal role Israel played in forming Washington’s new policy toward Iran (Bibi can mostly blame himself for that), but also in ways that received almost no attention, like the appointment of Rob Malley as the Middle East advisor on the National Security Council. Malley, who served on the U.S. peace team during the Clinton Administration, was the author of a controversial piece in the New York Review of Books that laid the blame for the failure of the Camp David summit on Clinton and Ehud Barak, and not just on Arafat, as the administration (and the Israelis) claimed. After advising Obama during the 2008 campaign, Malley became the target of a smear campaign by right-wing pro-Israeli organizations. Now he has been appointed to a major policy making position, and nobody uttered a word.

2. The administration is now at a moment when presidents and their staff start thinking about their legacies. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama risks being the first president since Ronald Reagan – and perhaps even since Ford — who saw things move backwards on his watch. George H.W. Bush got the parties to the Madrid peace conference. Clinton had Oslo. George Bush put the idea of Palestinian statehood on the record. Obama, who promised in his Cairo speech that the United States “will not turn its back on the Palestinians,” might not want to be remembered as the one who did exactly that.

3. The first policy option the administration has is to publish the parameters for a future Palestinian state. In other words, to let it be known how the U.S. envisions this state (probably pre-’67 borders with land swaps, the division of Jerusalem and no substantial refugee return). Such positions matter because they serve as the starting points for future negotiations. Since Israel is the stronger party, which holds all the cards, publishing parameters is traditionally considered as a move that serves the Palestinians. (That is why Bill Clinton withdrew his parameters after the sides rejected them in December 2000.)

Israel will try to oppose the parameters, but if it fails, the fallback option will be a battle over the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, against clear language on East Jerusalem, and attempting to marry the end goal to direct negotiations between the two parties. The latter is the most important part. By conditioning everything on negotiations, Israel pretty much guarantees that the parameters can’t be used for any practical measure, even if they are adopted in the UN Security Council. The parameters will sound like a big deal, but have little implications on the ground.

4. The Administration can also support or abstain in a UN Security Council resolution on the settlements. On the surface, this might seem like a much more restrained measure than the parameters, but it has broader implications because it will provide the Palestinians with a formal decision by the international community that has consequences in other institutions. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has fought any attempt to take the Palestinian case to international institutions – from UN agencies to the International Criminal Court. When it couldn’t prevent the proceedings, the U.S. defended Israeli viciously. This is the diplomatic shield that allows Israel to avoid many of the occupation’s consequences. Withdrawing it is a big deal, which could affect the behavior of all parties involved. For this exact reason, I think that the administration might go for the cheaper, more public option (the parameters).

Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015 (photo: JStreet.org  / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Former Secretary of State James Baker speaks at the J Street Conference in Washington DC, March 2015.  (photo: JStreet.org / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

5. When the 2016 campaign starts, the administration’s options will narrow and Democratic support for confronting Bibi – which is very limited as is – might dissipate altogether. Things should happen now, or not at all. Another unknown factor is the way Europe will interpret those developments. Personally, I believe that there is a tendency to exaggerate the European appetite for confronting Israel, but things are also moving in Brussels.

6. Finally, I heard some interesting speculation about the way in which Netanyahu can take some of the pressure of him. It is clear that Bibi opposes any changes to the status quo in the West Bank. Dennis Ross wrote in Politico that Netanyahu should indefinitely freeze all settlement activity beyond the wall. This will not happen, since Bibi’s political base is in the settlements, and he didn’t win these elections by alienating the settlers, quite the opposite.

What Netanyahu could do, and probably only under serious pressure, is to partially or entirely lift the blockade on Gaza. I think such a move (which I support wholeheartedly) could only happen under intense pressure, and it would be accompanied by vocal opposition from the Right and perhaps even the political center in Israel. And yet, it will be less costly than confronting the settlers in the West Bank, and Bibi will have some of the security establishment behind him. Plus, Netanyahu has already shown his willingness to strike deals with Hamas in the past – way more than he was ever ready to engage with Abbas.

A version of this article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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Netanyahu’s fourth gov’t: The good, the bad and the ugly http://972mag.com/netanyahus-fourth-govt-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/104656/ http://972mag.com/netanyahus-fourth-govt-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/104656/#comments Fri, 20 Mar 2015 15:52:03 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=104656 The next Israeli government will attempt to preserve the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza at all costs. Facing international backlash, the persecution of leftists and Arabs could rise to dangerous levels.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a painting of former Likud prime minister Menachim Begin. (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a painting of former Likud prime minister Menachim Begin. (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

It’s quite clear what the fourth Netanyahu government will look like: A coalition of the Likud’s “natural partners.” These are the same people who have been following and backing Netanyahu since the 1990s: Avigdor Liberman, Bennett’s Jewish Home, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Moshe Kahlon, who is actually comprises the moderate wing of the Likud. There are all sorts of rumors about sending feelers to the Labor party, but I believe Isaac Herzog will stay in the opposition this time. There is a slightly bigger chance that Yair Lapid can be lured in by Bibi, but the chances are that won’t happen right away.

Socio-economically speaking, it will likely be a better government than its two predecessors. The Jewish Home party, which espoused a radical free market ideology, shrunk dramatically. Lapid, who dedicated his time in power to going after the ultra-Orthodox (the poorest population segment in Jewish Israeli society), will be replaced by Moshe Kahlon, who is in touch with the day-to-day hardships of most Israelis, and especially those with lower incomes. Kahlon has indicated that he has far more well-off targets than the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox in his cross-hairs: the banks, for instance. I sincerely hope if he heads in that direction that he will receive the backing of both Netanyahu and the opposition parties.


In other ways I think that we are headed into a very dangerous era. Netanyahu believes in maintaining the status quo in Gaza and the West Bank. But the Palestinians will continue their anti-occupation struggle; they are not waiting to for Israel’s instructions on that matter. International pressure is building, along with efforts to confront Israel in international institutions. Israel doesn’t have an answer to such steps — it’s enough to look at the distrust with which Netanyahu’s zigzagging on the matter of Palestinian statehood is being met.

In such a case, with each international or diplomatic move or any renewed outbursts of violence, the pushback will be directed at “the enemy from within” — in other words, the Israeli Left, and especially those groups and activists working in the occupied territories, as well as Palestinian citizens. There’s not much Netanyahu can do against the UN or the American government, or even against the Palestinian Authority, which Israel doesn’t want to collapse. But you can always go after B’Tselem, Haaretz or Adalah. Our failure to deal with the occupation — the fact that it has become something nobody knows how to solve — will fan the flames heating the pressure cooker that is Israeli society and politics.

It is clear that we will see new versions of laws targeting human rights NGOs, the “Jewish Nation-State Law” will make a comeback, and there will be attempts to change the character of the judicial system. But I’m even more bothered by the public mood, which could be far worse than the Netanyahu governments of 2009-2013, or during Operation Protective Edge.

The final two weeks leading up to the elections taught the Right a very dangerous lesson: that breaking to the right politically, that reckless incitement against Arabs and leftists not only causes them no harm, but that it leads to electoral victory. This is why Netanyahu was able to strip so many votes from Eli Yishai and the Jewish Home. The far-right Kahanist activists may have been pushed out of the Knesset, but only because the spirit of Kahanism permeated Netanyahu’s messaging. Even Netanyahu’s election-night victory speech didn’t include any attempts at reconciliation or an outstretched hand to the other side, certainly not to the Arabs. Not even the lip service that one could expect in such moments. There is a spirit of “settling the score” among the Israeli Right now, which won’t calm as the dust settles.

These elections were more about identity and culture than ideology. I think those blaming the Right for fear-mongering themselves into power miss the point. It’s not fear they were dealing to the masses. There is no great difference between the ways the Zionist Camp and the Likud view the Middle East, or relations with the Palestinians. What does stand between the Right and Left is deep loathing. It goes both ways, but it is the Right that holds power, with very few checks on it remaining. Politics are seen as a zero-sum game in which he who controls the state organs has the legitimacy to destroy the other side.

That is a phenomenon that exists in a lot of other places in the world, and it is related to the disintegration of national identities that once held together otherwise rival communities. On the least violent end of the spectrum is the cultural war in the United States between Republicans and Democrats that is paralyzing Washington. On the other end of the spectrum are Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egypt’s General a-Sisi. You can decide for yourselves where Israel fits on that spectrum, and where we are headed. Lest we forget, Israel is already a country that violently oppresses a civilian population under its control.

Personally, there are days when I believe strongly in Israeli society, in our feeling of a shared destiny and in the unbridled intimacy that Israelis feel for each other. On other days I am very worried — this past summer, or in the last two weeks, for example. It’s not because of Netanyahu’s election victory — we’ve gotten used to that by now — but rather the way it happened, and because of the lessons both the Left and Right are drawing from it.

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What now, Bibi? — Early election takeaways http://972mag.com/what-now-bibi-early-election-takeaways/104539/ http://972mag.com/what-now-bibi-early-election-takeaways/104539/#comments Tue, 17 Mar 2015 23:36:44 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=104539 Netanyahu picked a fight with a sitting U.S. president and declared there will never be a Palestinian State. It might have helped him squeeze out another election victory, but where is Israel heading?

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a victory speech on election night, March 18, 2015. (Photo: +972 Magazine)

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a victory speech on election night, March 18, 2015. (Photo: +972 Magazine)

The Likud and Labor (The Zionist Camp) are tied with 27 seats, but Benjamin Netanyahu has way more paths to bring together the 61 seats necessary for forming a government, and another term for himself. That’s the bottom line of the exit polls published by the Israeli TV channels as the polling stations closed on Tuesday night. Netanyahu and his party members are celebrating, and Bibi is already testing the waters with potential coalition partners.

(Update: Early Wednesday morning, with over 90 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu took a large lead with 30 seats to the Zionist Camp’s 24. Read more here.)

Netanyahu was able to surge in the last few days, following a desperate – and at times, racist –campaign that warned right-wing voters of a “left-wing government backed by the Arabs.” On election day, he published a Facebook status declaring that “Arabs are heading to the polls in masses” and called for his supporters to rush and save the Right from losing power. This was a prime minister warning that his own citizens are voting. But in Netanyahu’s rhetoric, Palestinians were never really citizens anyway, even those who have Israeli identity cards; he sees himself as the leader of the Jewish people, not of Israelis.


The warnings worked. Other right-wing parties hemorrhage support – Bennett and the settlers dropped to eight seats in the exit polls (they had 12 until now), Liberman dropped five, and the far-right Yahad party probably didn’t even make it in. But Likud rose from 20-21 seats to 27-28, and the Right, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties and Moshe Kahlon’s centrist party has about 64 seats. Despite all the recent drama, there wasn’t much movement between the political blocs, compared to 2013 (61:59) or 2009 (65:55).

Sixty-four seats doesn’t constitute a huge majority, but it’s enough for a stable government – as long as Kahlon doesn’t pull any surprises and refuse Bibi’s offer (it’s highly unlikely). Netanyahu will probably try to have a larger majority by inviting Labor or Yair Lapid to join, but whether they do or not, they won’t be able to deny him the victory. Assuming there are no major changes when the final results are in, Bibi will probably remain Israel’s prime minister – for the third consecutive time, and the fourth altogether.

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The big question is – to what end? Netanyahu may have won a major victory – he destroyed the opposition on the right and he will once again lead a big party – but he ran a nasty campaign that alienated major parts of the public. He put himself in a diplomatic corner on Iran and committed to never permit the creation of a Palestinian state. What now, Bibi?

In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu said twice that there will be no Palestinian state – not on his watch. But what alternative Bibi is offering? In two years, Israel will mark 50 years of military control over the lives of millions of Palestinians. The international community is more vocal in its demands for change, and the Palestinian Authority is more desperate than ever. Netanyahu won’t be able to blame the PA for the failure of the ever-lasting peace process when he himself declares that no matter what the Palestinians do, they will never gain their independence, nor will they become full citizens of Israel.

There is symbolic significance to the fact that Netanyahu openly campaigned on his opposition to Palestinian statehood. It means that he is backed by a majority of Israeli voters, and an absolute majority of the Jewish vote. There needs to be, and I think there will be, a debate on the implications of this decision by the Jewish public. For years we have been hearing that Israel will either end the occupation or cease to be a democracy. Could it be that the Jewish public has made its choice?

There is also the problem of picking a fight with an American president on his signature foreign policy issue. Netanyahu pretty much made it clear in Washington that he has no alternatives to offer on the deal with Iran, but that he will still do everything in his power to prevent it. Not only is the conflict with the White House is far from over, Bibi will need to decide what to do if and when a deal does go through. Tonight I really don’t know where Bibi is heading, and for that matter — Israel.

A couple of side notes following the exit polls:

The Joint List. The combined list of Palestinian parties known as the Joint List is now the third-largest party in the Knesset. If Labor enters the government, the Joint List could even assume the formal role of the leader of the opposition. The Palestinian parties were hoping to gain more from this situation – they would have been in a better bargaining position had Herzog ended up with a clear path to a majority – but this is still a significant development.

Will the unified list survive? There are major challenges ahead, for example, over whether to support Herzog’s bid for the premiership in consultations with the president next week. This is part of the larger dilemma the list faces surrounding any possible cooperation with other (lefty, but Zionist) parties. There are two distinct approaches on this question that split the four factions that make up the Joint List. In fact, it won’t be that surprising if the list breaks up over this very question, which touches on the deepest conflicts in the political identity of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Meretz. The small liberal party seemed to have survived this campaign, which almost saw it eliminated as lefty voters turned to Herzog in order to increase the chances of toppling Netanyahu. The exit polls give Meretz five seats, as oppose to the six they have now. But the campaign revealed deeper problems with Meretz, which can’t seem to break out of its small circle of core supporters, most of them centered in and around Tel Aviv. Squeezed between “The Zionist Camp” and the Palestinian list, Meretz’s fate is but another symbol for the grim state of affair in the Jewish left.

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Election preview: Netanyahu’s moment of truth http://972mag.com/election-preview-netanyahus-moment-of-truth/104344/ http://972mag.com/election-preview-netanyahus-moment-of-truth/104344/#comments Mon, 16 Mar 2015 10:35:13 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=104344 The Israeli prime minister called elections hoping to strengthen his coalition, but he underestimated the personal resentment many Israelis feel toward him. One shouldn’t, however, confuse the fierce competition for power with a battle over ideas: even if Labor wins, the end of the occupation is not around the corner.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a right-wing election rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, March 15, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a right-wing election rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, March 15, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org) With his numbers dropping, Netanyahu was forced to shift his campaign strategy. In recent days he has given more interviews to the Israeli media than he has in all of his years in power.

When Benjamin Netanyahu decided to fire Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and send Israelis to the polls for the second time in a little over two years, many people (myself included) defined these elections as “a referendum on Netanyahu.” Final results will only be in on Wednesday morning – possibly even later – but one thing is clear: Netanyahu’s goal – to rid himself of an unstable coalition and secure a clear majority – will be denied.

Instead, Bibi was forced to conduct the political battle of his life. In this campaign, he poked the American president in the eye, made all sorts of promises to just about everybody, declared war on the publisher of one of Israel’s largest dailies, and buried the Bar-Ilan speech, in which he expressed support for the two-state solution. If Bibi somehow becomes prime minister again, he will have many pieces to pick up. But all that is still far off. Right now, all Netanyahu wants is to remain in power.


Israelis will vote tomorrow on a single ballot — for the party they support. The polls close all over the country at 10 p.m. local (4:00 p.m. EST) — that’s when the exit polls will be published (including on this site). Modified polls will be published toward midnight; results are expected in the early morning. Final results and seat allocations might only come in on Thursday or Friday, once the votes from soldiers are counted (this process takes longer because the Central Election Committee needs to verify that no soldier voted twice — on base and at their home address).

Here are a few things to watch for during those days:

1. Netanyahu’s fate: A few days after the final results are published, the president – who is the formal head of state – will give the opportunity to form a government to the member of Knesset with best chances to succeed. So if a Knesset member can prove he has at least 60 other MKs backing him, he is likely to be granted this opportunity. But the law isn’t clear on this issue, and there are no rules for a scenario in which nobody gets 61. Netanyahu’s main challenger, Isaac Herzog, believes that in such a case, President Rivlin will hand the leader of the largest party the opportunity to form the government. His party (formerly Labor, now called “The Zionist Union”) built its campaign on an attempt to pull ahead of Likud. In the final pre-elections polls, The Zionist Union had an advantage of around four seats over Likud. Herzog, it seems, got what he wanted. But is it enough to form a government? This is where things get really complicated.

Netanyahu has the entire Right behind him (Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, Eli Yishai’s Yahad and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu). He is also likely to get the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). Along with his own Likud party, this bloc polls around 53-55 seats. The anti-Netanyahu camp includes the Zionist Union, Meretz, the Joint List (which is the united list of the Palestinian parties) and probably Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Those parties will not align behind Netanyahu following the elections. They poll now at around 55 seats.

The 10 remaining seats (out of the Knesset’s 120) are held by Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who hopes to become the next finance minister. Kahlon was careful not to reveal who he will support. If the election results are the same as the final polls, Kahlon will become the kingmaker of these elections. He can determine who will be prime minister. With a good enough showing, he might even be able to partner with Lapid and try to become prime minister himself, or make Lapid prime minister (though this is less likely).

But the polls might be wrong — recent elections saw shifts of up to 5 percent of the votes in the final 48 hours of the campaign. In such a case, the closer the anti-Netanyahu bloc gets to 60, the worse Netanyahu’s troubles get. If the opposition gets 60 or above, it means that Netanyahu has no path for forming a government, and he is likely to retire from politics immediately. On the other hand, the closer Netanyahu, the Right and the ultra-Orthodox parties get to 60, the less bargaining power Kahlon has, and the task of forming another government becomes easier for Bibi.

2. Herzog (I): The anti-Netanyahu bloc is not a government. Even if Netanyahu is denied a victory, Isaac Herzog might still have trouble forming a government. It is not clear whether the Joint List will support him (it will surly oppose Netanyahu, but it might not support Herzog); UTJ made it clear it will not sit in the same government with Yair Lapid; Liberman and Meretz will not go together … things are fairly complicated. This is why Herzog is not ruling out having Likud as his primary partner following the elections – with or without Netanyahu. But this option is also not without problems. In other words, if Bibi indeed loses the elections, things will get much more complicated. In the fragmented system that will emerge – comprised mostly of medium or small parties – nobody can be a clear winner. We could end up with a deadlock, an ongoing political crisis, or a weak government that might lead to another election in a year or two.

3. Herzog (II): Labor’s leader is not an impressive candidate. He ran a confused campaign that was fed mostly by the anti-Netanyahu sentiment unleashed in the past few weeks. Even worse: his opinions and ideas are as unclear as they were three months ago – or three years ago, for that matter.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog at an election event (photo: activestills.org)

Labor leader Isaac Herzog at an election event. After three months of campaigning, his positions are still unclear (photo: activestills.org)

4. The Buzz: Election laws prevent the Israeli media from publishing polls in the final days of the campaigns, and there are all sorts of rumors flying around about “internal polling” done by the parties and the polling companies in those final moments.

Ten days ago Yair Lapid was rising, and some people predicted he will end up in the high teens – a remarkable achievement, given his poor performance as finance minister. Then it seemed that undecided voters were moving to Herzog, allowing Labor to open its current lead in the polls. This weekend, the wind blew in the favor of Kahlon, who was suddenly becoming the default candidate for voters who were disappointed with Bibi but didn’t want to go all the way and vote for Herzog (this led Netanyahu to publicly declare that Kahlon will be the next finance minister in his government). Over the past 24 hours it seems that Netanyahu has been getting some of his mojo back. After avoiding the media for years, the desperate prime minister gave interviews to just about every radio and TV station. He also made a rare public appearance at a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv‘s Rabin Square Sunday night. Likud voters are returning home, the rumors say.

5. The parties that won’t make it in. The Knesset threshold is the highest in Israel’s history, and three parties are on the verge of being left on the outside: Meretz, Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu and Eli Yishai’s Yahad. The former is from the Left, the last two are on the Right. Since votes for a party that didn’t make past the threshold are not counted, the elections could be decided by a party failing to make the 3.25 percent threshold, denying the entire bloc four precious seats.

6. Beyond the horse race. What does this election mean for the real existential issues, and most importantly, the occupation? A lot, and not much. I don’t think any Israeli leader – certainly not Herzog or Bibi – is about to end the occupation and allow the creation of an independent Palestinian state. I don’t think that any one of them can agree to the minimum that the most willing (or capitulating — depending on your perspective) Palestinian leadership can accept. The coalition that would support such moves simply doesn’t exist.

At the same time, if Herzog is elected I think we will see another push from the U.S. and Europe for an agreement. Yet at the same time, some of the pressure Israel has been facing will lift, as will the local incentive to end the status quo. Furthermore, Herzog never struck me as a man who would rise to the occasion, Abbas has a legitimacy crisis of his own, and other alternatives for ending the occupation simply don’t exist outside the realm of think-tanks, academic institutions and other such forums.

If Bibi is elected, on the other hand, the trends of the last few years will continue and even intensify: Israel will continue to settle the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but at the same time it might face growing pressure from the world. Netanyahu has no strategy for this challenge beyond maintaining the status quo, and nobody in Israel has any idea what to do should — or when — the PA ceases to function.

There is a fierce competition over power in the Israeli political system, but there is almost a consensus over issues — this is why you heard almost nothing about Gaza or the occupation during these elections. Almost all of the Jewish parties have some common denominator they can live with – the status quo, or some modified version of it. The various political parties differ from one another not so much in ideology (although sometimes they like to pretend they do) but in culture. They represent different groups, which are more and more alienated from one another. This has been the most tribal election campaign I remember – a product of the age of identity politics, the multi-cultural nature of Israeli society and the fragmented structure of our political system. There was a lot of nostalgia in the air during this campaign, especially within the center-left, but what you saw is the new face of Israeli politics. That is why making predictions is so difficult these days.

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Netanyahu’s Congress speech: An election stunt, after all http://972mag.com/netanyahus-congress-speech-an-election-stunt-after-all/103716/ http://972mag.com/netanyahus-congress-speech-an-election-stunt-after-all/103716/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 20:12:52 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=103716 Netanyahu didn’t offer any new thinking on Iran, but he might have succeeded in regaining control over elections that were slipping away from him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of Congress at a joint Session in Washington DC, US. (photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of Congress at a joint Session in Washington DC, US. (photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Ever since Speaker of the House John Boehner revealed his invitation to the Israeli prime minister to speak before a joint session of Congress, people have been wondering who exactly is playing who here. Is Bibi risking Israeli-American relations in order to help the GOP score points against President Obama, or did Boehner break protocol — by not informing the White House of the invitation — in order to help Netanyahu in the coming elections? Tonight we got our answer: more the latter than the former.

As far as the international debate on the deal with Iran goes, Bibi’s positions were absurd. Not only did he provide zero alternatives to the deal he is seeking to prevent, he actually asked his biggest ally to walk out of negotiations with Iran, tighten sanctions and wait for regime change. That is not only highly impractical (even if the U.S. is convinced to adopt Netanyahu’s proposed policy, there is little chance Russia or China will do the same), but most chances are that Iran would only intensify its enrichment efforts. In Netanyahu’s playbook, this leads to the military option. Since very few people in the U.S. are anxious to go to war with Iran, Netanyahu actually made selling the deal easier, as the Washington Post  was quick to point out. If even Bibi doesn’t have an alternative strategy to negotiations, the logical conclusion would be to go ahead with the deal. After all, one could always end up going to war if Iran breaks its obligations, and there is no need to do that right now.


Sure enough, the Republicans might have had some fun Tuesday night, especially in seeing all of Israel’s supporters in the Democratic Party moving uncomfortably in their seats. However, I do not think Bibi gave them much to work with; war with Iran does not seem like a winning ticket.

As far as Netanyahu’s political interests are concerned, however, the speech was a major success. Israelis were highly impressed, a sentiment I even heard coming from Bibi’s critics. Likud supporters were practically euphoric, acting as if their quarterback delivered the perfect pass at the last second. This week’s polls were bad for Likud, especially one published several hours before the speech, which gave the party only 21 seats, as opposed to Labor’s 24. Netanyahu’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc was given 54 seats — the same as the left/center/Palestinian opposition. Netanyahu can still end up prime minister with such an outcome, but the trends are certainly against him. The most troubling aspect, at least as far as Bibi is concerned, is that some of the undecided voters have begun breaking — and not in his favor.

This is where the speech can make a difference. Almost all political strategists expected Netanyahu to get a bump from his trip to Washington, perhaps even two to three seats. If this modest effect takes place (not to mention lasts), it could be enough for Bibi to secure a clear majority in the Knesset, thereby forcing Labor to sit in his government under his own terms. The other option is for him to form a narrow right-wing coalition.

Bibi used every card in the Israeli book — from the Holocaust to ISIS — but what really won over the Israelis was watching him receive countless standing ovations. Recently, Israelis have gotten used to seeing the dark side of Bibi’s imperial style, especially in the wake of the revelations over the Netanyahu family’s expenses, as well as their attitude toward workers in their household. But Congress saw King Bibi at his best, and I think many Israelis appreciated that. It wasn’t the policy but the spectacle that made the difference.

Again, my impression is that this speech was received very differently abroad and in Israel, which means that some of the things that Israelis liked probably alienated everyone else. Right now, however, all Netanyahu cares about is the domestic game. The irony is that if he does win the election, perhaps even thanks to his performance tonight, he will have to deal with the fallout from the speech, which will include a very upset Obama administration.

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