Has there ever been a more desperate time to be a Palestinian? The dry and dusty Gaza Strip is effectively a prison and much of the West Bank has been claimed by Israeli settlers. In July, the Israeli Parliament passed the nation-state law which some commentators have compared to apartheid. One of the basic principles of the law is that ‘The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfils its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.’ It also relegated the Arabic language to ‘special status’. In a country where 20% of the population are Arabs, it is no wonder that they feel this is a confirmation of their belief that are second-class citizens.
So it was no surprise when the world’s leaders erupted with fury, with threats of sanctions and more against the Israeli rulers. Oh, hold on. That didn’t actually happen.
The reason why the plight of Palestinians has never looked so bleak, is that it appears that the rest of the world has lost interest in them. Even the Arab world seems largely disinterested. For years, it seemed like a genuine two-nation state could be an answer to the interminable turmoil in the region. Such a notion has surely never been further away.
Over the following few pages, I will try to explain why Israel embraced a hardline rightwing politician – a man who is looking for an unprecedented fifth term in power.
Of course, trying to write a balanced article on the Middle East without living in the region is an act of pure insanity - but here goes anyway!
A very short history of Israel
The problem with Israel/Palestine is the lands are revered by followers of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. In fact, everything can be traced back through ancient history to Abraham, regarded father of all three religions, the Judaism strand through Abraham’s son Isaac.
Around 1000 B.C. the region was ruled by King David followed by his son Solomon. After 772 B.C. the lands were conquered by Assyrians and over the centuries the lands were repeatedly seized by the strongest armies. For the 400 years up to the First World War the lands were controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Jews scattered across Asia and Europe, frequently facing persecution and bloody pogroms (violent anti-Semitic attacks).
During World War One, as means to garner support in the war effort, the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine - known as the Balfour Declaration. But the British, in the most cack-handed example of diplomacy, had also promised Arab independence if they agreed to rise up against the Ottomans. Between the wars, wary of inflaming tensions with the Arabs, the British continually restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine.
As WWII reached its end, the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed and there could be no denying a Jewish homeland. The United Nations approved a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state in 1947, but the Arabs refused to accept the plan. Even so, in May 1948, Israel was officially declared an independent state. The response was almost immediate. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon invaded the new Israel in what was the first Arab-Israeli War.
The 1948 war created 700,000 Palestinians refugees who were forced from their homes, a mass eviction described by Palestinians as the ‘Nakba’ — Arabic for ‘catastrophe’. This year saw the 70th anniversary which was marked by demonstrations and bloodshed on the Gaza Strip.
The second half of the 20th Century saw repeated wars and skirmishes as Israel and its neighbours battled over the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The Israelis proved to be skilled fighters, determined to finally have a safe refuge beyond persecution.
Today all of the disputed lands are in the hands of Israel. The country no longer looks nervously at its Arab neighbours, fearing invasion attempts. The Arab countries are content to tolerate their Jewish neighbour, because both sides fear and despise a mutual enemy - Iran. And for the Palestinians, the Nakba continues.
Strength through Fear
When you have witnessed an attempt to wipe your people from the face of the earth, then you are not in the mood to take prisoners. We found this out to our cost when a Jewish insurgency used ruthless terrorist methods and guerrilla warfare against British troops straight after WWII, after the British administration refused to allow mass Jewish migration into Palestine.
After centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, the settlers would do anything to protect their new country. In successive wars against their neighbours, there was only going to be one victor. The approach was clear. If you attack us, we’ll attack you back harder.
In the Munich Olympics of 1972, a Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, took eleven Israeli Olympic team members hostage, and savagely beat the athletes before killing them. It was an act of brutality, deliberately staged in the country of the Holocaust, but Israel hit back with force. Airforce raids on Lebanon destroyed suspected PLO targets (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) and Mossad, the Israeli secret service, launched Operation Wrath of God, where every hostage-taker was tracked down and assassinated. An eye for an eye was the message for murderers, but it was perhaps the audacious raids on Lebanon that had the biggest impact. Some of the less radical Arab governments began to tire of their countries being attacked because of the attacks by the Palestinians on Israel. For Israel’s neighbours, it was becoming a case of why bother stirring a hornet’s nest?
When Peace was Close
After the wars of 1967 and 1973, there was an appetite on all sides to find a way to live together in safety, with the first real sense of hope coming in 1978. In 1977, US President Jimmy Carter had persuaded Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to visit Jerusalem and meet Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. The following year’s talks in Camp David, near Washington crucially included Egypt’s recognition of the Israeli state. The next breakthrough was in 1994 when Jordan also recognised Israel, but progress was painfully slow.
It was the arrival of Bill Clinton as US President that got things moving. The Oslo Agreement in 1993 saw the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shake hands with Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin, and there was talk of each side recognising “their mutual legitimate and political rights”. The implication was that eventually this would lead to a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the West Bank.
The negations stalled and seven years later, Clinton brought Arafat to America again, this time to meet the Israeli Prime Minister, now Ehud Barak. Israel offered the Gaza Strip, a large part of the West Bank, plus extra land from the Negev desert, while keeping major settlement blocks and most of East Jerusalem. It proposed Islamic guardianship of key sites in the Old City of Jerusalem and contributions to a fund for Palestinian refugees. This wasn’t enough for the Palestinians and talks broke down.
The international community (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) pulled together in 2003 to propose a ‘Roadmap’.
It proposed a phased timetable, putting the establishment of security before a final settlement.
Phase One stated that both sides would issue statements supporting the two-state solution, the Palestinians would end violence, act against “all those engaged in terror”, draw up a constitution, hold elections and the Israelis would stop settlement activities and act with military restraint.
Phase One still looks a million miles away.
Benjamin Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949 and in 1963 his family moved to the US when his father Benzion, the historian and Zionist activist, was offered an academic post.
Benjamin (known as Bibi) returned to Israel at the age of 18 to do his National Service. The BBC biography of Netanyahu records that he spent five distinguished years in the army, serving as a captain in an elite commando unit, the Sayeret Matkal. He took part in a raid on Beirut’s airport in 1968 and fought in the 1973 war.
After his military service ended, Mr Netanyahu went back to the US, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
In 1976, Mr Netanyahu’s brother, Jonathan, was killed leading a raid to rescue hostages from a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda. His death had a profound impact on the Netanyahu family, and his name became legendary in Israel.
In 1988, Benjamin returned to Israel and won a seat in the Knesset (parliament) standing for the Likud Party, the Israeli equivalent of the Conservatives, with Netanyahu representing the more right wing policies of the party. In 1996, he became Prime Minister.
Netanyahu was a vocal critic of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, but he was still open to making concessions to the Palestinians. In 1997 Mr Netanyahu signed a deal handing over 80% of the West Bank city of Hebron to Palestinian Authority control and promised further withdrawals of Jewish settlers from the West Bank.
However his premiership was relatively short-lived and Likud lost the 1999 election. He returned as Prime Minister in 2009 (and has remained in power since), the same year as Barack Obama entered The White House. Obama was keen to make an impact on the Palestinian issue, and he revitalised talks between the two parties. In 2009, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, which the Israeli leader hailed as “the first meaningful step towards peace”. For Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, just like Arafat all those years before, it was not enough. It did not cover East Jerusalem and he wanted a guarantee of a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines, i.e. the borders in place before the 1967 War where Israel won control of the West Bank from Jordan, Gaza from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria.
With another stalemate in place, Netanyahu honoured the 10-month freeze, but once it ended, the settlements in the West bank continued at pace.
If there is one issue that continues to define the bitter divide between Jews and Palestinians, it is the settlements in the West Bank, where Jews build gated communities in the lands that Palestinians believe should be theirs. According to Wikipedia there were 400,000 settlers in the West Bank in 2014, as well as up to 350,000 in the equally disputed East Jerusalem.
Last year, in a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Netanyahu declared, “We are here to stay, forever. There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel. It has been proven that it does not help peace. We’ve uprooted settlements. What did we get? We received missiles. It will not happen anymore.”
The land of Kibbutzim and LGBT equality
You don’t find many left-wing Labour supporters in the UK declaring their love of Israel. It has been well-documented that Corbyn’s Labour struggles with the fine line of being critical of Israeli policy and not sounding explicitly anti-Semitic.
Israel didn’t always have such a bad name among leftist radicals. Throughout Israel’s short history, but particularly in the 1970s, idealistic young (often non-Jewish) Europeans and Americans travelled in their thousands to volunteer on Kibbutzim. A Kibbutz is a commune, usually rural, where people pitch in with the work and share the spoils of their labours. Effectively the kibbutz was seen as a miniature communist society. It was, for the radical dreamer, an idyllic Marxist holiday, albeit with a dose of Zionism thrown in for good measure.
In fact Israel itself has a strong socialist heritage. US Democratic politician Jonathan Miller makes exactly this point on The Huff Post: “The State of Israel was established in 1948 as a socialist nation, built on the wealth-sharing principles of its treasured agrarian collectives, known commonly as kibbutzim.”
He also points out that, “Israel is the only nation in world history to deliver huge numbers of black men, women, and children out of slavery in Africa, into freedom abroad… More than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews have emigrated to Israel in recent decades, most dramatically in two covert military operations, Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). With their lives endangered due to famine and political unrest, thousands were airlifted to Israel to enable them to begin their lives anew.”
And then there is the issue of gay rights. Miller writes:
“The Palestinian flag at a gay rights rally?
“It’s the iconic ironic image of the New New Left.
“The sentiment’s familiar: a maltreated minority identifying with the victim célèbre of radical academia.
“But the juxtaposition of these two particular causes would be absurdly hilarious if it weren’t profoundly tragic: The Hamas regime represented by that flag demeans, oppresses, jails, harrasses, assaults, and tortures gays and lesbians.
“Imagine what would happen if you flew a gay rights flag in Gaza City.”
In 13 countries, being gay or bisexual is punishable by death. Just look at how many of these are in the Middle East or North Africa (the neighbours of Israel): Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, UAE, parts of Somalia, parts of Syria and parts of Iraq.
Meanwhile restrictions on ‘propaganda’ interpreted as promoting LGBT communities or identities are in place in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Israel is welcoming to the LGBT community, and, probably as a dig at the Arab world, tells the world about its openness through the unlikely vehicle of the Eurovision Song Contest, won this year by gay icon Netta Barzilai. And who can forget the most famous winner, the Israeli transgender woman, Dana International?
Liberal attitudes, Conservative politics
Liberal in some ways, oppressive in others, Israel is a continual contradiction. For a country of Western values and tolerance, why Netanyahu? He’s not just a political hard-liner - he has repeatedly faced accusations of corruption, including kick-backs, undeclared gifts and gaining favourable media coverage from a news website in exchange for regulatory changes.
So why do Israelis vote for him? The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman supplies seven possible explanations including:
“One. Israelis like their leaders a little corrupt… Israelis like their leaders to have elbows, because they will be the ones fighting for Israel on the world’s stage, and the worst thing you can be in Israel is a freier (sucker).
“Two. Netanyahu keeps Israelis safe, and that’s what matters. Netanyahu has persuaded Israelis that he and only he can protect them in the face of the nuclearisation of Iran and other threats. Until someone else comes along who can make Israelis feel nearly as safe and secure as Netanyahu, he will keep winning elections, no matter what he is accused of next. Israelis vote on security, and on that, there is currently no alternative to the prime minister.”
What it boils down to is Israelis feel safe with Netanyahu. All else can be forgiven. All sympathy for the Palestinians was cast aside when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. Until relatively recently, Fatah, set up in the 1950s to liberate ‘Historic Palestine’ was the main voice of the Palestinians and the PLO, led by the familiar figure of Yasser Arafat. For decades it waged an armed struggle from its bases in Jordan and Lebanon. It renounced violence in the 1990s, and still seeks a negotiated solution.
In 2007, Hamas, a hardline party which was originally an off-shoot of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, won the parliamentary elections in Gaza. Fatah disputed the results, leading to a Palestinian Civil War, and the expulsion of Fatah from the Gaza Strip, although it retains the dominant Palestinian party in the West Bank.
Hamas refuses to accept that Israel has a legitimate right to exist and Israel refuse to have any dealings in return. Israel closed the borders with Gaza, leaving its inhabitants largely in abject poverty.
There is scant sympathy from Israelis who continue to see Hamas as a existential threat to the nation of Israel, and as such Netanyaha’s strong-arm approach plays well with the electorate.
Our enemy’s enemy is our friend.
The other factor in Netanyaha’s success is the relationships he is building with overseas powers, although this is more about the global power struggles than his charisma. At a G20 summit in 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told President Obama, “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.” He was unaware that the conversation was being picked up by journalists.
Obama replied, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.” Ouch.
But the world is a different place now. An enemy of Obama is a friend of Trump, although in any case, the Trump-Netanyahu links go back a long way. Donald’s father, Fred became firm friends with Netanyahu in the 1980s when he was Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations. And there is also a strong link with the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The Kushners are Orthodox Jews who made their fortune in the real-estate business and hold conservative views on Israel. They have donated large sums of money to Israeli causes and charities, including tens of thousands of dollars to a yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish school) in the Beit El settlement, in the West Bank.
Not one for small gestures, Trump firmly demonstrated his support of Israel in December with the announcement of United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and a plan to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Few can deny that Jerusalem is the obvious capital of Israel, but diplomacy (i.e. fear of offending the Arab World) has prevented the world’s major nations or institutions from endorsing such an idea. Netanyahu found it impossible to disguise his delight. He glowingly compared Trump to Harry Truman, the president who conferred the historic American acceptance of Israel’s independence in 1948.
Adam Entous in The New Yorker, wrote, “With Obama finally out of the way, Netanyahu could concentrate on getting the Trump team to embrace his grand strategy for transforming the direction of Middle Eastern politics. His overarching ambition was to diminish the Palestinian cause as a focus of world attention and to form a coalition with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to combat Iran, which had long supported Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and had taken strategic advantage of the American folly in Iraq and the war in Syria.”
If Hamas is an irritant that has to be controlled, Iran is the real enemy; the spectre that haunts Israel. But the good news for Israel and Netanyahu is that they are not alone. The divide in the Middle East is not the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is the Sunni-Shia struggle for power. In Yemen and Syria, proxy wars rage between Iran and the Sunni world, led by Saudi Arabia and the emirates. The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates have never been friends of Israel but they fear the growth of Iran’s influence more than anything else. The unsaid mantra is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Netanyahu may not have been formally invited for a summit in Riyadh (yet!), but there is undoubtedly an unspoken mutual appreciation.
Israel, a Jewish state surrounded on all sides by Muslim nations has always had bitter enemies. The enemies change - once it was Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the PLO. Now it is Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Either way the siege mentality remains. But Israel is looking powerful with Netanyahu in control and the Israelis will overlook his authoritarian approach towards the Palestinians if they feel safe. He has a rock-solid ally in Trump, Hamas is weak and Fatah is no threat. The only genuine threat is Iran but Israel does not stand alone against the Shia threat.
It may be good news for the Israelis but there is no longer the need to pay lip-service to a two-nation state. Netanyahu’s nation-state law is a dreadful proposition for Israeli-Arabs. But the world is looking away. There has never been a more desperate time to be a Palestinian.