The Guardian / March 3, 2023
There must be outside intervention to facilitate new negotiations with the Palestinians – and international pressure to halt Netanyahu’s excesses.
We are seeing the worst violence for many years erupting in Gaza and the West Bank. I have just returned from a week in Israel, my first visit since 1994. I spent half the trip with Labour Friends of Israel, a grouping of like-minded Labour MPs, and half with the New Israel Fund, an NGO that funds organisations that promote democracy and equality for all Israelis, based on the vision of Israel’s founders. A packed itinerary enabled me to see what had changed.
I have always supported the untrammelled right of Israel to exist and, like many others, have advocated for a two-state solution, ensuring a stable and secure home for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
But the two-state solution seems a fantasy at this moment, with little prospect of it developing into a political reality. The tensions are febrile and yet the international community, preoccupied with other crises, is doing little more than expressing concern at the heightened violence. In my humble view, it is simply not pro-Israel, nor pro-Palestinian, to do nothing.
There are so many wonderful things about Israel but the deeply anti-democratic proposals being considered by Benjamin Netanyahu’s new extreme right-wing government, alongside a renewed assault on the homes and most basic rights of Palestinians living in the occupied territories, will only deepen division and heighten tensions. They will end the dreams of the post-war idealistic Zionists who sought to build a new Jerusalem in the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s government plans to undermine judicial independence by instituting the political appointment of judges and introducing a new “overriding” clause, allowing any decision by the supreme court of Israel to be overridden by a simple majority vote in the Knesset. This would destroy the independence of the judiciary. This is especially damaging because Israel does not have a written constitution and depends on its basic laws, upheld by an independent judiciary, to protect fundamental rights. Israel prides itself on being the only genuine democracy in the region – yet no credible democracy would undermine judicial independence in this way.
Netanyahu secured office after the last election by forming a coalition with the extreme right, and rewarding two of its most extremist leaders, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, with jobs – responsible for national security, defence and finance – and a series of damaging proposals are now being developed. There are threats to LGBTQ+ rights; debate about segregating men and women at public events funded by the government; and there are colossal taxes imposed on funds awarded to civil society organisations by a foreign source. This last proposal represents a deliberate attack on those NGOs who work to protect the rights of the most marginalised in Israel.
Netanyahu secured his mandate in democratic elections, so many might question the right of others to comment, let alone intervene. But this is a very dangerous moment for Israel that could easily tip into a third intifada. Can we really stand aside?
The Jewish Israeli community is completely divided. Massive demonstrations against Netanyahu and his backers are now the order of the day. The parties on the left are in disarray and unable to provide an effective opposition.
Negotiations between two dysfunctional forces, the Palestinian Authority and the Netanyahu executive, are impossible. Threats from Iran continue to dominate, and many believe an attack on the Iranian nuclear capability is inevitable. Right now, Israel is in no fit state to navigate a peaceful way forward.
Everybody is rightly concerned with security. When visiting an Israeli kibbutz, founded in 1951 by Egyptian Jewish refugees, we were shown around by a third-generation kibbutznik woman. The kibbutz lies so close to the Gaza border that we could hear the call to prayer for Muslims. The kibbutz inhabitants live under constant threat of rocket attacks and we saw the damage done to our guide’s modest home by a nailbomb that struck her reinforced external wall.
I also visited Sheikh Jarrah, a deprived neighbourhood in east Jerusalem. I sat in the garden of a 20-strong family of Palestinians, who had also lived in their modest home for three generations and who were now threatened with eviction by Jewish Israelis. The security minister, Ben-Gvir, had erected a small gazebo on a patch of grass in front of this family’s home, claiming it as his office. In fact, it was a provocative assertion of his authority over the area and its inhabitants.
Here I also witnessed a weekly demonstration by Jewish Israelis in support of those Palestinians threatened with eviction. The demonstration was disrupted by a group of right-wing Israelis, led by a local councillor with a loudhailer who screamed abuse at the Palestinians and the protesters inches from their faces, with the police just watching on.
And yet, amid all this chaos I met wonderful people trying their best to bring the two communities together. A group of doctors who visited different Arab villages every Saturday to provide healthcare; an Arab Israeli professor who ran further education courses both for Arab and Jewish Israelis.
But with a broken political landscape and a government focused on measures that can only entrench division and hatred, what can be done?
Funding grassroots organisations that work to build confidence between Arabs and Jews from the bottom up is hugely important. However, international pressure, especially from the diaspora Jewish community, to curtail the excesses of the present government, is also needed. And it needs a country outside Israel to actively work to facilitate negotiations between the two warring communities.
A two-state solution seems politically impossible for now, but I believe it is historically inevitable. We must play our part in getting there without more unnecessary hatred and bloodshed.
Margaret Hodge is MP for Barking and the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement