Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Even if Benjamin Netanyahu is dethroned, the alternative is just as bleak for Palestinians

Avigdor Lieberman's manoeuvring might unseat the prime minister but most Israeli parties have no interest in establishing a Palestinian state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu' failed to form a coalition in the April election. EPA
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu' failed to form a coalition in the April election. EPA

With just over two months to go before the second Israeli election this year, and with the latest polls predicting prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will struggle to meet the 61 seats needed to form a governing coalition, former Israeli minister and current Yisrael Beiteinu party chair Avigdor Lieberman has emerged as the kingmaker. Last month the veteran politician expressed his desire for a unity government between Likud and the opposition Blue and White list. Mr Lieberman, whose refusal to form a coalition with Likud triggered the dissolution of the Knesset in May, told Israeli radio: “We will aim for a government with Likud and with [the Blue and White party] and that will be an emergency government, a national liberal government. We will do everything to limit the haredim [ultra-Orthodox] so that they won’t enter government.” Blue and White number two Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist party Yesh Atid, quickly backed Mr Lieberman’s call.

It marks a remarkable volte face for Mr Lieberman, who just days earlier had claimed he would never recommend Mr Gantz as prime minister and that the Blue and White could “go to the North Pole to form a government with polar bears”. In a later Facebook post, he appeared to relent by stating the party with the most seats in the September 17 election would get his support.

What is driving his loyalties is his stated goal of the exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox parties. The contentious issue of conscription of the haredim, a bill that former defence minister Mr Lieberman fiercely supported before his sudden resignation, was cited as the reason why he would not join a coalition with Mr Netanyahu after the last election in April.

Avigdor Lieberman announcing his resignation in 2018. Lior Mizrahi / Getty
Avigdor Lieberman announcing his resignation in 2018. Lior Mizrahi / Getty

A national unity government could secure an estimate 70 seats, well above the 61 needed to secure a majority in the Knesset. However, Mr Lieberman is effectively calling for a government without Mr Netanyahu, since Mr Gantz has rejected the idea of a coalition with the Likud leader, who faces indictments over alleged corruption. By default, Mr Lieberman is inviting Likud to get rid of Mr Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, there are elements on the Israeli right – including the orthodox nationalists – who are starting to question whether Mr Netanyahu has become more trouble than he is worth. Within Likud, somewhat discreetly, key players are manoeuvring for the day after.

Mr Lieberman’s gamble may not pay off, however. Mr Netanyahu could very well emerge victorious from the new elections and face corruption charges as a sitting prime minister. He is likely to seek a Knesset majority by trying to unite the right, issuing the battle cry that Mr Lieberman is trying to force a “leftist” government.

However, in the context of both a second election after failing to secure a majority, and a possible indictment, it is becoming increasingly possible to imagine Israeli politics without the man who has held the position of prime minister for the past decade (in addition to his three years in office in the 1990s).

For many international leaders and pundits, Mr Netanyahu’s dominance, along with his open opposition to Palestinian sovereignty and alliances with far-right political forces, has made it easy to pin the blame for Israel’s ongoing military occupation firmly on the long-time Likud leader.

However, if Mr Netanyahu is removed from the picture, a more disturbing reality will become clearer; namely, that the opposition to basic Palestinian rights is not restricted to Mr Netanyahu, or even his party, but rather is shared across the majority of the Knesset.

Israel’s goal is not the establishment of a genuine Palestinian state but an apartheid-style scenario that provokes the unrest that becomes the justification for the policy

Over the years, an argument framed in terms of “security” has helped mask Israel’s true intentions with regards to the occupied Palestinian territory.

SOAS scholar Mushtaq Khan, co-author of the 2005 book Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground: The Case of Palestine, writes that a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state would not resolve – and would possibly exacerbate – the challenges posed to Israel’s identity as a “Jewish state” by two key constituencies – Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian refugees in the wider region.

Thus, Khan wrote, Israel’s security-focused argument, along with the facts on the ground of relentless settlement expansion, only make sense as “part of an Israeli strategy of long-term management of its ‘Palestinian problem’ through conditional, partial, and reversible transfers of governance responsibilities in densely populated parts of the occupied territory”.

Israel’s goal, then, is not the establishment of a genuine Palestinian state but rather, the creation of “a series of reversible bantustans” – an apartheid-style scenario that, by denying Palestinians their legitimate aspirations, provokes the unrest that becomes the justification for the policy itself.

This approach – one of so-called conflict management, limited Palestinian self-rule and endless transition – can be seen in the positions of today’s main parties and coalition candidates.

For Likud’s part, the rejection of Palestinian statehood is explicit – indeed, prior to the last election, senior figures in the party contributed to a video calling for annexation of the settlements. Among other factions on the right, overt support for variations of annexation is even more prevalent.

But what about the opposition? Blue and White – an alliance of convenience of former Israeli military chiefs and centrists – includes both proponents of a vaguely expressed separation from Palestinians and more open opponents of a two-state solution.

Israel’s Labour party, which hopes to recover from its abysmal showing in April, also fails to back Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination, instead pushing for a demilitarised state to be established in the future – if, of course, the conditions are right, as determined by Israel.

It is a bleak picture. Mr Lieberman’s manoeuvrings or the attorney general’s indictments may or may not sink Mr Netanyahu. But a Likud without Mr Netanyahu, with or without the Blue and White party as a coalition partner, is not going to be any more forthcoming in respect to core Palestinian rights.

Mr Netanyahu has loomed large over Israeli politics for some time but his domination has obscured a truth much more unpalatable than the impact of one demagogue; namely, that there is a consensus among the Israeli political mainstream for apartheid and against Palestinian statehood.

Ben White is an author, journalist and analyst. His latest book is Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel

Updated: July 7, 2019 04:05 PM

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