All Of It
IX. THE MORE THINGS CHANGE . . . .
Meanwhile in, one could say, an alternate reality, politics was still politics. On June 3, 2021, in the aftermath of violence that had shaken Israel to its core, Mansour Abbas of the Arab List Party, Ra’am in Hebrew, holding four seats in the Knesset, joined the “change bloc” of ultra-Zionist Naftali Bennett and secular centrist Yair Lapid to oust Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s Prime Minister.
Scratch-my-back deals are standard fare in Israeli parlimentary politics, but for Arabs this was a watershed moment. Until then, Jewish politicians had refused to make any alliances with Arab parties because they would be seen as compromising the “Jewish nature of Israel.”
Bennett himself has referred to Arabs as “a shrapnel pain in the ass,” and he adamantly opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.
But this time round Bennett had no choice, he and Lapid could not form a government and get rid of Netanyahu without the four Ra’am votes.
As for the always pragmatic Mansour Abbas – not to be confused with Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank – it was too good a deal to pass up, as he leveraged his four votes into a doubling to NIS 35 billion shekels ($16.3 billion) the share of Israel’s five-year budget allocated to Arab communities.
Diana Buttu, the former PA negotiator, is confounded by his Faustian bargain. “Morally, you can’t ignore the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to improve the situation of Arabs in Israel. Being part of the government means [being a party to] maintaining the blockade and dropping bombs on Gaza, evicting Palestinians and building settlements. You can’t say, ‘I’m part of the coalition, but my hands are clean.’ We are one people.”
Others were more harsh, calling Abbas a traitor, one Palestinian journalist wrote that he was now “part of a Vichy government,” and when Abbas showed up at a police brutality protest, two of his fellow demonstrators punched him in the head. Now he no longer feels safe attending services at Al-Aqsa. Damned if you do . . . .
Abbas, bound to find himself, sooner rather than later, with one foot on the boat and one on the dock, for now says with whistling past the graveyard understatement, “There will be difficult decisions to be made, . . . We will have to juggle our identity as Palestinian Arabs and citizens of the State of Israel.” Juggle? If only it were that easy.
In the new government, Bennett will be Prime Minister and Lapid the Foreign Minister for two years and then they will switch roles. Bennett, setting the tone for now, told the Knesset in his first speech on June 13 that his goal was “shrinking the conflict,” a turn of phrase, an approach, borrowed from Micah Goodman, author of “Catch 67: The Left, the Right and the Legacy of the Six-Day War.”
Two months later, in an August 24 interview with Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner of the New York Times, Bennett spelled out what he meant. “They’re not going anywhere, we’re not going anywhere – we’re here together, stuck. So what do we do?”
“Economy, economy, economy. . . . This government will neither annex [the West Bank] nor form a Palestinian state, everyone gets that. I’m prime minister of all Israelis, and what I’m doing now is finding the middle ground – trying to focus on what we agree upon.”
On a September 4 Zoom call with heads of leading U.S. Jewish organizations, Bennett expanded on this theme, “Everyone understands that we are not expecting a political breakthrough in the near future. . . . [But] employment and living with dignity can improve people’s situations. Both sides can take steps to reduce tensions and improve life.” As for West Bank settlements, he added, “We will maintain the ‘status quo,’ we will not take radical steps, we will freeze construction.”
And his government has since lent the Palestinian government $156 million to help it get through a severe financial crisis, one precipitated, to be sure, by the Occupation, legalized the residency of 4,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, and pledged to give 15,000 Palestinians – Israel’s braceros – permits to work legally inside Israel.
Bennett is betting that making minimum wage on an Israeli construction site will mollify West Bank Palestinians even if Jewish settlers keep burning their olive trees, and that Israeli Arabs will be satsified with better schools and housing.
In short, Bennett threw shekels at Mamoud Abbas to buy his four votes and assumes that will work with the Palestinian street too. It won’t. Palestinian dignity and self-respect are not for sale.
Even Bennett’s strategic guru, Micah Goodman, called him out. “It’s misunderstood . . . that shrinking the conflict means making life easier and better for Palestinians. I am all for that. But that’s not what stands at the heart of a shrinking-the-conflict paradigm, . . . [rather] increasing Palestinian self-governance, . . . and freedom – freedom to build, freedom of movement.”
But not Bennett’s game plan, never was. Before the 2021 elections, after boasting, “I am more right wing than Bibi,” he declared, “As long as I have any power and control, I won’t hand over one centimeter of the Land of Israel. Period.”
No one should have been surprised. In 2010 Bennett was appointed head of the Yesha Council of Settlements, and in 2013 became leader of HaBayut HaYehudi, the Jewish Home Party, which is pushing annexation of the West Bank. Indeed, when Donald Trump’s so-called “peace plan” was unveiled in 2020, promising Israel control of one-third of the West Bank, Bennett responded, ‘Why only part? We need to annex all of it.”
Rather than the anti-Netanyahu, Bennett is Bibi 2.0.
Status quo on West Bank settlements? For Bennett this means continuing “natural growth,” i.e., expansion, of existing settlements, and in late October 2021 his government gave the go-ahead on construction of 3,130 new homes for Jewish settlers deep inside the West Bank.
Also on the drawing boards is a new ultra-Orthodox settlement with 9,000 homes on the site of the now shuttered Qalandiya Airport – Israelis call it Atarot – which until 1967 under Jordan was Palestinians’ gateway to the world.
Qalandiya is a tangible reminder to Palestinians of what Israel has taken from them, not just land, but freedom to travel and access to the outside world. Here, especially, nostalgia and bitterness go hand in hand.
During the on-again, off-again – well, mostly off, the last in 2014 – peace talks with Israel going back 30 years, Palestinians proposed that Qalandiya would reopen as their international airport.
Even in Donald Trump’s otherwise deeply flawed 2018 “Peace to Properity” plan, it would have been included in the “sovereign capital of Palestine,” and as the last open space left in East Jerusalem could alleviate the severe overcrowing in the adjoining Kafr Aqab neighborhood and Qalandiya refugee camp.
But if it goes ahead as a Jewish neighborhood – really a city of 50,000 people – beyond the Green Line, Atarot would be yet another link in the chain of Jewish settlements Israel has put in place, most of them in the last 20 years, to cut East Jerusalem off from the West Bank.
And then there are the 65 and counting so-called “illegal” settlements, outposts and farms that militant religious Jews have established across the West Bank since 2010, taking Palestinian farmland and burning olive trees as they go.
Nominally “illegal,” as in not formally authorized by the government, but aided and abetted by state subsidies and IDF muscle. More and more every year. Relentless. Non-stop.
Bottom line, Bennett’s catch phrase, “shrinking the conflict,” is just hasbara, which translates literally in Hebrew as “explanation,” but really is what we would call spin, gaslighting and double talk that glosses over his long-term strategic objective: a one-state solution that perpetuates Israeli military rule over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
Bennett’s mind set is compounded by radical changes in the composition of Israeli security forces. Until ten years ago, most IDF soldiers were secular or observant Jews, its command staff dominated by the left wing elite who founded Israel in 1948.
But when in 2005 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the IDF to evict 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, 60 religious solders were court martialed for refusing to obey orders, and right wing rabbis and politicians encouraged young Zionists, many who live in a West Bank settlement or have relatives who do, to join the IDF in much greater numbers.
Did they ever. National-religious Jews, as they are commonly called, make up only 10% of the population, but now are almost 50% of all IDF recruits and 40% of its junior and mid-level infantry officers, and in the last five years have been heads of the Shin Bet, Mossad (Israeli CIA) and national police.
As their numbers grow, so does the influence and meddling of rabbis who resolutely oppose to the Oslo Accords, believe that Jews have a God-given right to every square inch of Palestine, and want to destroy Al-Asqa and rebuild Solomon’s temple in its place.
It amounts to a theocratic takeover of a professional army, blurring the distinction between armed settlers and the IDF, and any Israeli leader who tries to evacuate even illegal settlements now runs the risk of mutiny in the ranks.
To highlight that reality, on May 28, 2022, in a Jerusalem Day speech to yeshiva students at the Elon Moreh settlement, Brig. Gen. Roy Zweig, who heads the Samaria Regional Brigade in the northern West Bank, declared that the IDF and settlement movement are “one and the same.”
In “Laws of the Military and Warfare,” Rabbi Shlomo Min-Hahar declared that “the right of Jews to the Land of Israel” supercedes individual conscience and common humanity.
“A soldier serving in the territories shoots a terrorist and sees his mother and sister crying over his body, arrests a terrorist and see his little children dragging after him as he leaves the house. A soldier who passes by refugee camps sees them living in horrible poverty, and remembers that he or his friends live in a place where they may have been before, in the homes of some of the refugees. . . . The moral problem . . . [the soldier] asks himself: Why are they hungry and homeless, and we are sated? Why do we rule them against their will? What right do we have to wield our force?”
“The justification,” opined Rabbi Shlomo, “for our right to impose our will on a hostile population, for our right to settle everywhere throughout the Land of Israel, for our right to shoot terrorists and blow up their homes even if they appear in a place where there are women and children, the justification for all this . . . lies in our right to the Land of Israel.”
Give this much to Rabbi Shlomo, he says what he means, without apology, we can do whatever we want to the Palestinians because God gave this land to us. All of it. And any one of them who opposes us in any way is a terrorist.
This world view is not limited to ultra-orthodox rabbis and their religious right followers. Israelis across the board are becoming more right wing, more intransigent, not less so.
In contrast to young American Jews who lean left and increasingly oppose the Occupation, according to a 2018 annual study by the Israeli Democracy Institute, 64% percent of Israeli Jews aged 18-34 now identify as right wing, compared to 47% of those over 35.
Why? Guilt is part of it. In their heart of hearts, Israelis know, every Palestinian they see reminds them, that they live on stolen land. They may try to ignore, avert their eyes from, choose not to admit, try to explain away, the violence done to Palestinians in big and small ways, day in and day out. But they know what Good Germans knew.
And there is fear. Jews under 30, just toddlers in the 1990s, the benign heyday of the Oslo peace process, grew up during the Second Intifada, 2000 – 2005, when suicide bombers killed 1,400 Israelis.
They were never taught, or have chosen to forget, that the Second Intifada was triggered by Ariel Sharon, who, as part of his Likud campaign for Prime Minister and trying to scuttle the delicate peace talks between Ehud Barak’s government and the PLO, muscled his way onto the Haram with a phalanx of 1,000 police officers and declared that it would forever remain under Jewish control.
When Palestinians came to the Haram to protest, police killed the first four of the almost 7,000 Palestinians who would die during what became known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Mind the math: a more than 5 to 1, Arabs to Jews, kill ratio.
Even left wing secular millenials, known as hilonim, are afraid to swim against the right wing current. As one 20-something, the child of Oslo-era peace activists, told Stacey Gutkowski, Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies, King’s College London, “I’m kind of hopeless actually. I think we’re stuck. . . . We’re really numb. . . . Our life is too good, we have too much to lose. If you want to intern at the U.N., you don’t want to get caught at a protest and have a police file. We’re like, yeah, the occupation sucks, but fighting it is too risky.”
More deeply, many young Israelis have ingested the narrative, indeed are taught in their segregated schools, that Palestinians are religious fanatics bent on the annihilation of Jews, a threat that must be eliminated, and so house demolitions, home invasions, shooting boys who throw stones and killing hundreds of civilians in Gaza are somehow justified as “self defense.”
In his 2008 study, world-renowned political psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University found that “Israeli Jews’ consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering.”
“The problem with this,” warns Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, whose parents are Jewish immigrants from South Africa, who attends an Orthodox synogogue in New York City, keeps kosher and sends his children to Jewish schools, “is that if you are always on the precipice of the Holocaust, then your only obligation is to survive. You don’t have to deal with the moral obligations of how you treat other people. . . . It gives you tremendous license to do whatever, . . . and you fall into the abyss.”
Daniel Boyarin, a Talmudic scholar at the University of California – Berkeley: “It has been said by many Christians that Christianity died at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobidor, . . . I fear – God forbid – that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Dheisheh (refugee camp outside Jerusalem), Betein (town near Ramallah, site of many “price tag” assaults) or El Khalil (Hebron).”
Yaakov Sharett’s father, Moshe Sharett, signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence, served as its first foreign minister under Ben-Gurion and succeeded him as prime minister. His grandfather Yaakov – for whom he is named – arrived in Israel in 1882 and was one of the founders of the Bilu “Palestine pioneers” movement.
Yaakov himself served in the Palmach, an elite unit of the Haganah, the underground Jewish army during the British Mandate, 1941 – 1948, and later in the Shin Bet. He has unassailable Zionist credentials.
But today, at 93, Yaakov says without blinking, “The State of Israel and the Zionist enterprise were born in sin. . . . We justify it, and it has become an existential fear, which expresses itself in all sorts of ways. . . . Every day I’m a forced collaborator with a criminal country. It won’t leave me, knowing that in the end Israel is a country occupying and abusing another people.”
“How did it happen that this new place, that was to have brought innovations, became the blackest place, controlled by the nationalist ultra-Orthodox? How is it that here of all places, there’s reactionism and zealotry, messianism, the desire to expand and control another people? For a certain period there was great hope here that something new had been created. I was a part of that. But now, Zionism, and all the promises we made, have disappeared. . . . Our national agenda has become blood, death and violence.”
This agenda certainly is not about the security, much less survival, of the State of Israel. As Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet, makes plain, “At some point between 1973 and 2002, we were victorious. . . . All of the Arab League states recognized Israel’s existence. . . . Continuation of the war, after we were victorious, makes it unjust and immoral, [and] will bring about the end of a democratic state in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
Nor is it about Palestinian terrorism, Hamas or any other kind. Most telling is that after Israel constructed the Wall during the Second Intifada to keep suicide bombers out of Israel, it continued building settlements on the outside, the unsafe side, of the barrier.
Make no mistake, it comes down to this: Israel’s agenda is Jewish sovereignty over every square inch of Palestine. All of it.
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