Israel: Netanyahu asked the world to forget the occupation. Ben-Gvir wants it front and centre

Meron Rapoport

Middle East Eye  /  November 22, 2022

Israel’s incoming prime minister worked hard to push Palestinians down the list of priorities for Israelis and Arabs alike, but confrontation is key for his new coalition partners.

About two weeks before the latest election in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu outlined his perception of Israel’s future in an article published in Haaretz. “For the past 25 years, we were told repeatedly that peace with other Arab countries would come only after we resolved the conflict with the Palestinians,” he wrote. But he believed “that the road to peace does not run through Ramallah, but rather around it”. 

His way, he claimed in Haaretz, has been proven right. He has signed normalization agreements with four Arab countries, and deals with additional countries are in the offing. In other words, not only can Israel prosper without resolving its conflict with the Palestinians, he tells us, the way to prosperity is actually to ignore the Palestinians. They are not important.

Another three weeks have passed since the 1 November election in which the Netanyahu-led bloc of right-wing parties won an apparently comfortable majority of 64 seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. As yet it remains uncertain what the exact composition of his next government will be and who will hold key portfolios like Defence, Finance and Foreign Affairs.

One thing, however, is already clear: for Netanyahu’s expected partners, most notably Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the two leaders of the racist and nationalist Religious Zionist list that won 14 seats in the election, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is not merely an important factor; it is the only important factor.

Netanyahu has demonstrated unequivocally that removing the Palestinian question from the public agenda in Israel, and also, globally has been one of his preeminent goals, especially since his return to power in 2009.

He has pursued this goal using three main approaches: first, erasing the 1948 border (known as the Green Line) from the consciousness of the majority of Jews in Israel by expanding the settlements and in practical terms annexing large swathes of Area C in the West Bank.

Second, promoting the claim that “there is no partner for peace” on the Palestinian side by almost completely ignoring the Palestinian leadership and its demands to end the occupation; and finally, somewhat moderating the use of Israeli military force on the theory that the less violent the conflict, the less attention it would accrue – in Israel, in the Middle East and around the world.

This approach has been largely successful. Most Israeli Jews today don’t know where the Green Line is. The term “occupation” has become a dirty word that is almost never mentioned in the mainstream Israeli media. The assertion that “there is no one to talk to” on the Palestinian side has solidified into a consensus not just on the Jewish right and centre, but also on the moderate left.

The avoidance of extensive military operations, apart from the deadly war in Gaza in 2014, has reduced the number of Israelis killed due to the conflict to just over 10 per year, so that discussion of what used to be called the “price of the occupation” has almost disappeared.

Creeping annexation

Netanyahu’s proposed status quo has not really been a status quo, of course, as creeping annexation of the Palestinian territories has continued and an apartheid regime has gradually taken shape on the ground. But for (Jewish) Israelis, on the whole, sticking with this situation seems preferable to attempting to change it.

Part of Netanyahu’s success derives from processes not directly related to Netanyahu himself. When he became prime minister for the second time in 2009, the Second Intifada had ended. The split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank had greatly weakened the Palestinian position, and Netanyahu was able to exploit this weakness.

With the advent of the vaunted Arab Spring in 2011, neighbouring Arab countries were inclined to devote more attention to their own affairs and less to the Palestinian cause. And the growing tide of right-wing populism around the world, peaking with the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016, created an atmosphere congenial to Netanyahu and his policy of creeping apartheid.

But something in this balance promoted by Netanyahu has gone awry in recent years. The disappearance of the conflict with the Palestinians from Israel’s national agenda actually prompted the right-wing settler movement to push for annexation or, in their lexicon, “the application of sovereignty”. Settler logic holds that if the Palestinians are no longer a threat, there is no reason to shy away from annexing the West Bank, either in whole or in part. Although Netanyahu backed away from annexation at the last minute, this push from the right to disrupt the status quo has not evaporated.

The juncture at which it became clear that the fake status quo built by Netanyahu was no longer working came in May 2021. The Palestinians, whom Netanyahu had tried to exclude from the public discourse in Israel, revolted not only in East Jerusalem and Gaza, but also in the so-called “mixed cities” within Israel: Lydd (Lod), Ramla, Acre (Akka) and other towns.

Instead of receding beyond the mountains of darkness in the West Bank, the conflict with the Palestinians was suddenly at the doorstep of many Jews in the centre of the country.

Soon thereafter, right-winger Naftali Bennett opted to team up with centrist Yair Lapid to form an alternative government and leave Netanyahu, for the first time in 12 years, in the opposition. There were many reasons for this move, but the fact that Netanyahu is no longer seen as capable of providing an answer to the “Palestinian problem” may also have contributed to his downfall.

Into the void left by Netanyahu stepped the racist right under prominent settler Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party, resident of Hebron (Al-Khalil), and an admirer of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. The events of May 2021 were leveraged by Ben-Gvir as proof that the Jews in Israel live under the threat of “Arab violence”, which can be countered only by reminding the Arabs that the Jews are the sole “owners” of this place. To buttress this argument, Ben Gvir also invoked people’s fear of an increase in crime in the cities of Israel’s south, with the crime attributed mainly to the area’s Palestinian Bedouin residents, who live in conditions of extreme poverty and longstanding discrimination.

Conflict the priority

Ben-Gvir did not, of course, invent the idea of ​​Jewish supremacy, which has been an aspect of Zionism to a greater or lesser degree from the outset. But with his actual success in transforming the ambition for Jewish supremacy into a broad political platform, Ben-Gvir challenged, consciously or unconsciously, Netanyahu’s premise about ignoring the Palestinian issue.

While Netanyahu was arguing that the problem no longer exists, or at least is not affecting the lives of Israelis, Ben-Gvir came along and argued that the Palestinian conflict affects the lives of Jews, all the time and everywhere, within the Green Line or beyond it. Ben-Gvir’s solution is violent and racist  – killing or deporting anyone, Palestinian or even Jewish, who opposes the regime of Jewish supremacy – but, meanwhile, he has positioned the question of Jewish-Palestinian relations as primary.

Bezalel Smotrich, Ben-Gvir’s partner in the “Religious Zionism” alliance, also makes the issue of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict his highest political priority. And Smotrich, like Ben-Gvir, proposes a violent and racist solution. In his “Israel’s Decisive Plan” essay published in 2017, Smotrich offered three options to Palestinians in the West Bank: agree to live without political rights under Jewish rule, immigrate to another country, or face an outcome to be decided by war.

Like Ben-Gvir, Smotrich thinks that under no circumstances should Jewish supremacy within Israel ever be relinquished. In 2021, he withheld support for allowing Netanyahu to form a government because to do so, Netanyahu would have had to rely on an Arab party, the United Arab List led by Mansour Abbas. “An enemy is not a legitimate partner. Period,” wrote Smotrich at the time, as justification for his decision.

Ben-Gvir has managed to persuade voters in the peripheral cities that Netanyahu offered them no answers – not with regard to their concerns about the growing economic, academic and political strength of their Palestinian neighbours, and not with regard to the fact that they, residents of outlying areas, had yet to enjoy the vaunted economic prosperity that Netanyahu bragged about.

Smotrich has been popular mainly with the religious public, which today is part of the economic and governmental elite in Israel. But what is clear is that both these men are the big winners in the latest election, after increasing their collective share from six seats in the previous round to 14 in the current Knesset, enabling them to dictate conditions to Netanyahu, who knows that without them he has no government.

Winning promises

These circumstances, as might be expected, first of all concern questions involving the conflict with the Palestinians. Even before negotiations on the formation of the government were completed, Netanyahu had already promised Ben-Gvir the following: electricity and water hookups would be provided to 60 West Bank outposts established without permits, most of them constructed on private Palestinian land; a yeshiva could be established at a site the settlers call Evyatar, on land belonging to the Palestinian town of Beita; and a 2005 law adopted to enable official evacuation of three northern West Bank settlements would now be repealed to allow a settlement to be reestablished there, again on private Palestinian land, along with huge investments in intercity roads to serve West Bank settlements.

Also promised was the public security ministry, which oversees the police, where Ben-Gvir seeks a free hand in suppressing the Palestinian Bedouin in southern Israel and wants changes to the force’s open-fire regulations so that officers can, without fear of prosecution, shoot to death anyone they deem suspicious.

Smotrich is aiming higher. He wants to be Defence minister. In that capacity, Smotrich would effectively be the sole sovereign in the West Bank and could more or less do as he pleases there. Not to mention that he has vowed to send the army to the so-called “mixed cities” inside Israel if and when the violent events of May 2021 recur.

Netanyahu has so far refused on this one, in part because the Biden administration has apparently been clear that it would be unwilling to cooperate with an Israeli Defence ministry under Smotrich. And also because Netanyahu perhaps realizes that if the racist warmongers of Religious Zionism control both the public security ministry and the Defence ministry, he will no longer control the manner in which Israel manages its conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu might have wanted to do without Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and opt instead to include in his government the current Defence Minister Benny Gantz from the centre-right of the political spectrum, thereby perpetuating the “conflict management” approach he has piloted so successfully over the past 15 years. The Americans evidently are pressuring him and Gantz to reach such an agreement. But it may not be up to Netanyahu. The racist right, fed up with the status quo he sold to Israeli voters, is stronger than he is.

Rising violence

It is still too soon to predict the consequences of this new situation. Will Netanyahu succeed, despite everything, in imposing his preferred policy and sidelining the Palestinian issue? It won’t be easy, and not just because he will be returning to the prime minister’s office during a very violent period, with the number of Palestinians and Israelis killed since the beginning of 2022 at record levels not seen since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005: 139 Palestinians and 27 Israelis, as of 18 November.

Even if the racist right does manage to take charge of the police and the army, its ability to realize its violent fantasies is not a foregone conclusion. The Palestinians are in a different place than they were in 1948 or 1967 and they will not  board the buses to deportation without resistance.

The international community, with all its limitations, already has difficulty accepting Israeli apartheid (as evidenced in the recent decision to shift discussion of the legality of the Israeli occupation to the International Court of Justice). Furthermore, the economy of Israel is completely dependent on the world economy; and Israeli Jewish society is also more divided than ever now, after the recent election, with substantial parts of the centre-left viewing the “religious” parties of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as a threat to their secular way of life.

In his article quoted at the beginning of this report, Netanyahu adopted the concept of the “Iron Wall”, the title of a famous text by the father of the Zionist right, Zeev Jabotinsky, who wrote in the 1920s that only after the Jews take over the Land of Israel by force would the Palestinians accept their existence here. But in the Iron Wall that Netanyahu has attempted to build, to keep the Palestinian question at a distance, serious cracks have appeared. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer