x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A Palestinian resistance that Netanyahu cannot answer

The hunger strike has been an effective use of non-violent protest to show the lack of moral authority of the Israeli state.

Today, Palestinians and their supporters around the world will commemorate the Nakba, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948. Last year, Israeli soldiers shot unarmed protesters. Is it too much to hope today will pass without more deaths?

It can be hoped, but there is a genuine anger in the Occupied Territories today, and indications of change that Israel's leadership seems determined to ignore. Look, for instance, at the coordinated hunger strikes that have involved so many Palestinians in Israeli jails. The action started to protest the use of imprisonment without charge or trial, a controversial practice that Israel calls "administrative detention".

It is a practice that has gone on for decades, and is now facing a decisive challenge. There are hundreds of Palestinians in Israel jails, held without trial for months and years, without knowing what they are accused of or having their lawyers see any evidence against them. It is an astonishing violation of basic human rights.

Some of those protesting are near death. One, Thaer Halahleh, has gone without food for 78 days, the longest hunger strike ever recorded.

The protest has been an effective use of non-violence to show the lack of moral authority of the Israeli state - and the Israeli state, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has tackled it in the worst possible way, attempting to suppress protests, using solitary confinement and a denial of family visits to break the will of the protesters.

Israel is in the midst of its most challenging political environment in years, but Mr Netanyahu cannot understand the problem, let alone offer a solution.

That point was driven home last week, when Mr Netanyahu stalled a promised election by forming a new coalition with the centre-right party Kadima, which leaves him less beholden to the militant elements of Israeli politics.

Since then, some commentators have tried to put the best gloss on this new coalition, seizing on Mr Netanyahu's reply to a letter from Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, which discussed the moribund peace process. This letter, and the possibility that the new coalition would be less radical than the last, purportedly suggested a possible way forward towards a two-state solution.

If only. Such extraordinary displays of Pollyanna-like optimism can only be reached by ignoring Mr Netanyahu's past record and the other political issues now vying for his attention.

Even committed supporters are losing patience with Israel's intransigence. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who has been openly pro-Israeli in dealing with the Palestinian issue, despite being the representative of the Middle East Quartet, has warned Israel that the death of a hunger striker "could have serious implications for stability and security". UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on Israel to charge those detained or release them. Yet Mr Netanyahu shows no sign of heeding international pressure, nor of recognising how damaging the protests are.

Elsewhere, there is likely to be more of the same. The illegal settlements keep growing all across the West Bank, and remain the single biggest obstacle to a just solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

The suggestion is that this new coalition will be less beholden to extreme right-wing parties, especially the militant settler movement. Yet, even if that were true, all the signs are that Mr Netanyahu is committed to the settlement project, not just politically, but personally.

Yet the biggest problem with Mr Netanyahu is that he is a politician of the past. A new era has dawned in the Middle East, even if it will take years to fully understand the implications of the Arab Spring. Many in Israel have detected this - last summer, young Israelis inspired by the Arab Spring took to the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities, shaking Mr Netanyahu's political standing. They may return to the streets this summer.

There are region-wide changes occurring and Israel needs to be part of them: continuing to refuse to integrate politically with the region, continuing with a settler project and a decades-long occupation are no longer viable.

There are few signs that Mr Netanyahu gets it. His obsessive focus on the "Iranian threat" has drawn sharp criticism even from his own security establishment, and is obscuring the reality that the possibility of a genuinely two-state solution is coming to an end. Just last month, two of the architects of the Oslo Accords, the former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei and the former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin, publicly stated the belief that the two-state solution is finished and a one-state solution should be considered.

If US President Barack Obama is re-elected in November, 2013 may well be Israel's last chance to implement a two-state solution with Washington's support. Expect Mr Netanyahu to squander it. By the time a new prime minister is elected in 18 months, the window of opportunity may have closed.

And what of that response to Mr Abbas, a small ray of hope that perhaps this new Mr Netanyahu might genuinely pursue peace? The PLO pointed out it contained nothing new and no clear answers on the central questions. An apt statement on Mr Netanyahu's new coalition.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai