What’s behind the Israeli right’s renewed war on Palestinian citizens ?

Palestinian Bedouin in the Naqab-Negev protest against an afforestation plan carried out by the JNF (Oren Ziv)

Meron Rapoport

+972 Magazine  /  February 10, 2022

Having moved on from its failed bid to formally annex the West Bank, the Israeli right has trained its sights back on an old target.

Listening to the rhetoric of the Israeli right this past year felt like falling into a time-warp — back to the days before Israel’s founding. The violent events of May 2021 were labeled “riots” and “pogroms,” while planting trees in the Negev/Naqab was considered a “natural and Zionist” activity, as per commentator Amit Segal: an activity whose goal, according to Jewish National Fund (JNF) Chairman Avraham Duvdevani, is to “seize the open spaces near Bedouin settlements through afforestation, designed to block land takeover.” If you listen to journalist Kalman Liebskind, what is currently taking place across the country is a “war on Zionism, on sovereignty, on the homeland.”

These three men are all members of the militant wing of religious Zionism, which, while drawing the votes of at most around 10 percent of the Israeli Jewish public, holds some of the most vaunted positions at the heart of the Israeli media and political establishment. Segal is the leading political commentator for Channel 12 and the Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper, Liebskind has his own show on the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (KAN), and Duvdevani is the leader of an organization that controls more than 10 percent of the country’s land.

Of no less interest than the disproportionate representation of this radical wing in the state’s power structure is the language that right-wing ideologues and politicians have taken to using in the past year, particularly since the violence of last May and the formation of the Bennett-Lapid government: a language that creates the impression that the Jewish community in Israel is yet to gain a state of its own. They make it sound as if Zionism were still in its pre-state, pre-sovereign phase. As if Israel had not yet established itself on the ruins of the Palestinian people in 1948 nor gone on to establish over 700 settlements, towns, and cities for Jewish citizens alone. As if it had not kept 4.5 million Palestinians under military occupation for more than 50 years.

There are various reasons for the emergence of this concentrated and deliberate rhetorical effort — which comes from the far right but has become firmly embedded in the Israeli mainstream — to return to the “roots of Zionism” that lie before the establishment of Israel. But they can be summed up as such: the far right fears that Zionism and the State of Israel have deviated or are about to deviate from their path, and that instead of establishing a “Jewish state” whose sole purpose is to serve the Jewish collective, Zionism may inadvertently lead to the establishment of an actual democracy in which all citizens, including Palestinian citizens, will have a share in power.

The very idea of democracy — a state that serves all of its citizens equally — is seen as an imminent threat. This is the central message coming from almost all the speakers at the string of recent right-wing, pro-Netanyahu demonstrations in Tel Aviv: the Jewish state must be saved and the establishment of a “state of all its citizens” must be prevented at all costs. It is as if they had read the Amnesty report before it was published, and agree with its diagnosis but reject its conclusions: Israel is an apartheid state, and it must remain so.

Seeking a new frontier

 The right’s war against a state of all its citizens, which is manifesting as a war against Palestinian citizens of Israel, is the result of the failure of its annexation project. The failure to formally annex the occupied territories — a project that the right has nurtured for more than a decade — is a signal to the base that, at least in the foreseeable future, it is not possible to expand the borders of Israeli sovereignty in an orderly and agreed-upon manner without going to war. The settlers effectively watched how the last frontier, the final border, was closed shut in front of their eyes.

For the right, Zionism is a movement in the throes of a constant expansionist struggle, and thus always needs to find “new frontiers.” This is the backdrop to the birth of the Garinim Toranim, the cells of the settler movement that have been seeking in recent years to further Judaize the “mixed cities” across Israel.

It is also the backdrop to the flourishing of an organization like HaShomer HaChadash, which claims to “safeguard the land, assist farmers and ranchers, and strengthen the Jewish people’s connections to the land, Jewish values, and Zionist identity.” All this is part of the “War for the Negev,” the right’s central battle slogan today — which made headlines again this week when right-wing activists attempted to establish a “new settlement” for Jews near the Bedouin city of Rahat, in much the same way as settlers establish unauthorized outposts in the West Bank.

But as soon as the right turned its gaze from the West Bank back into Israel, it discovered a reality it had not known before. Over the last decade, and particularly over the last four election cycles, Palestinian citizens of Israel have gained educational, economic, and especially political power that far outweighs that which it had in the past.

That Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party became part of the Israeli government is a direct result of rising Palestinian political power in the Israeli arena. It is true that this is not the first time an Arab party has been part of an Israeli coalition, but it is difficult to deny that the recognition of the political power of Palestinian citizens, and particularly the legitimacy it has to sit at the helm, has become very broad.

This rising Palestinian power threatens to undermine the historic “division of labor” between “Official Israel,” which claims to be democratic and based on equality for all its citizens, and “Unofficial Israel,” which works systematically for the benefit of the Jewish collective in almost every field imaginable. The JNF, which is responsible for confiscating Arab-owned land by planting trees in the Negev/Naqab, is one of the main agents of this Unofficial Israel.

To see just how unapologetically racist Unofficial Israel is, it’s enough to consider some quotes from the JNF’s chairman. At a conference in early December, Duvdevani recalled that when he was at the Jewish Agency, he pushed for the state to limit its child allowance to up to two or three children per family, while the Agency would commit to supporting larger families — but only if they’re Jewish. “Because the Agency is only focused on Jews,” he explained, you could just about make this work. Today, however, you could not. “The state took a turn,” he complained, “today there’s more talk for equality and against racism, and you can’t even move.” In short, democracy is hamstringing “true” Zionists like Duvdevani.

The Jewish Nation-State Law was an attempt to institutionalize this racist discrimination and make it a part of Official Israel, but it appears it fell short of its aims, at least according to the right: its passing only spurred the growth of the Palestinian constituency’s political clout, propelling some of its representatives into government.

The risk here, for the right, is not only that the Jewish collective is losing its absolute monopoly on power in Israel, or even that the Islamic Movement acquires some of that power for itself and is able to make policy decisions concerning both Arabs and Jews. The real danger is that parts of the Jewish public beyond the radical left are now ready for this partnership. In other words, what they fear is that too many Jews and too many Palestinian citizens of Israel might start actualizing Israel’s pretense at being a democratic state and make it indeed “a state of all its citizens.”

Bezalel Smotrich, perhaps the sharpest politician on the far right, identified this risk early on and therefore refused to enter coalition with Abbas, even if it would have allowed Netanyahu to stay in power. To Smotrich, Israel can be either Jewish or democratic. There is no room for compromise between the two. He made his choice, and the rest of the far-right followed suit.

Violent conflict as the ultimate objective

 The intercommunal violence in May poured fuel on the fire. This isn’t the place for a blow-by-blow account of what took place, but to the right — in fact, not only to the right — these events were proof that the real enemy is inside Israel’s sovereign borders, including the annexed territory of East Jerusalem. There is little doubt that the right has used the violence of both Arab and Jewish rioters in the so-called mixed cities of Lydd, Ramle, Acre, and Jaffa to present all of Israel’s Palestinian citizens as “the enemy within.”

The coinage in Hebrew of the 5781 Riots (a play on the 1929 Riots in Palestine during British rule, or 5689 in the Hebrew calendar) is done for that same purpose. To anyone raised in the Israeli-Jewish education system, the word “Meoraot” (Hebrew for “riots”) instantly harks back to the very bedrock of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict: the Arabs didn’t want us here and left us no choice but to fight them and eventually evict them — or so the story goes. “Meoraot” sends the conflict hurtling back to the communal level, extricating the civil element: we aren’t citizens of the same democratic state, we are Jews and Arabs, two communities eternally at war.

In this sense, the aim of the Zionist fundamentalists is as blatant as it is straightforward: to instigate violence between Arabs and Jews within Israel proper, or, more precisely, to instigate conflict between the state and its oppression mechanisms on one hand (especially the army and police), and its Arab citizens on the other — not remotely metaphorically, but in the very immediate, physical sense.

“The fact that the rioters of Arab Lod aren’t counting their dead this morning isn’t containment and restraint. It’s cowardice and willful blindness,” journalist Amit Segal tweeted on May 12, 2021, two days after the clashes began. “The fact that the Jew who shot a rioter to protect his family is still detained should rock the entire state,” he added. It almost goes without saying that the Jew who shot and killed Musa Hassuna in Lydd was, indeed, soon released without charges; the Arab residents of Lydd accused of killing Jewish resident Yigal Yehoshua, on the other hand, were indicted.

At a conference in the final week of January that he organized together with the far-right organization Im Tirzu, Likud MK Yoav Galant demanded to expand the paramilitary Border Police with “three regular battalions and a high-quality reserve force” to take on the fight against “raging nationalist criminality.” Galant further warned: “If we lose the Negev and the Galilee, we’ll lose Tel Aviv and Jerusalem too.” Other speakers echoed this sentiment.

The dangers of this discourse, which is calling for the violent suppression of Palestinian citizens in Israel under the thin guise of a return to Zionist roots cannot be underestimated — precisely because this discourse, from planting forests to fighting “rioters,” is rooted so deeply in the Israeli consciousness that it is almost impossible not to foresee it culminating in the violence it seeks to foment.

Formalized apartheid, or a second Nakba

 We should also remember that at the head of the same government that includes the Islamic Movement sits a man of the right, with whom the rhetoric about the danger of the May “riots” and the need to defend the nation’s land resonates as much as anyone. “The idea is to gather [the Bedouin] and concentrate them in a handful of recognized communities,” Prime Minister Bennett told Maariv over the weekend.

“It would be a win-win for Zionism, for the state, for preserving state land,’ Bennett continued. “We’ll erect an iron wall against ungovernability. It’s a real threat. The eruption during Guardian of the Walls [Israel’s name for the military operation in Gaza in May 2021] shook us all. It was a wake-up call.” Bennett’s longtime ideological partner and current Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked added later that week, in the context of the Citizenship Law that she’s trying to push through the Knesset, that “the data speaks for itself, without the Citizenship Law we’ll lose the Negev to Palestinian nationalism.”

But there is a flip side to the threat. The Israeli reality of 2022 is not that of the Jewish communities of 1929, 1936, or even 1948. In the 1930s, land purchases conducted by Yosef Weitz on behalf of the JNF led to the eviction of Palestinian tenant farmers and their replacement with Jewish settlers. Today, even if the JNF turns the Negev into a lush and sprawling jungle, the chance of anyone from Sawe al-Atrash leaving their land is virtually nil. The Palestinian-Arab residents of the “mixed cities,” survivors of many decades of evictions, crackdowns and discrimination, aren’t going anywhere either.

Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” One may well wonder if the right’s return to early Zionist history is little more than farce and, beneath the bluster, an admission of failure. “We’ve decided not to report [to] that battle” against the Bedouins of the Negev, writes Liebksind in the article I quoted above. And by “we” he doesn’t mean himself and his comrades on the far right. He means the entire Jewish community. The very call for action is infused with the admission of defeat.

The reason that Liebskind, Smotrich, and co. fear the battle is lost is precisely because they see the rising power of Palestinians in Israeli politics; precisely because they estimate that far larger parts of Jewish society than ever before are making their peace with the legitimacy of Palestinian presence in the Israeli government; precisely because they understand the long-term implications of this presence, both for Israeli democracy and the future of the occupation.

The only two options that remain to the right are formalized apartheid or a second Nakba, neither of which appears particularly likely in the near future. Smotrich, incidentally, seems to be pushing for both: on the one hand seeking to disenfranchise Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and on the other, quipping to Arab parliamentarians that “You only happen to be here because [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and kick you out in ’48.”

It’s important to understand what we are facing with the sudden revival of vintage, pre-state Zionist slogans, and what stands behind it. Doing so will enable us to comprehend the risks embedded in this discourse — but also to be mindful of its limitations.

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call (Tel Aviv)