Benjamin Netanyahu won reelection by outflanking Israel’s far right. If you listen closely, you can hear the rumble of fascism approaching.
In June 2009, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his support for a two-state solution. There were conditions, of course, but if the Palestinians relinquished their weapons, renounced the right of return, and recognized Israel’s right to exist, he would give them their state. Did he mean it? Probably not, though the question isn’t especially interesting. Netanyahu’s politics are a weather vane: they speak more to the direction of travel in Israeli politics than to the contents of his conscience. If you want to know where Israel is at, look to him.
For anyone wondering where Israel is now, Netanyahu recently provided an answer. Speaking on an Israeli news program in the final few days of his election campaign, he vowed that were he to win a fifth term, he would begin the formal annexation of the West Bank, territory that has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Some in the media interpreted this as proof of the demise of the two-state solution, but for those on the ground, annexation would merely confirm what has been obvious for some time: that in every meaningful sense, the West Bank is already part of Israel.
In the ten years between Bar-Ilan and this election there have been over one hundred thousand new settlers in the occupied territories, taking the overall population to somewhere in the region of six hundred thousand (counting Palestinian East Jerusalem). The Green Line, which ostensibly demarcates the West Bank from Israel proper, is increasingly blurred, occluded in law as well as by the sheer accumulation of facts on the ground. It’s no longer so easy to tell where “democracy” ends and occupation begins: everyone agrees that Tel Aviv is part of Israel, but what about Ma’ale Adumim (population forty thousand), a settlement ten minutes east of Jerusalem? Israel recognizes no difference in the rights and duties of their residents — both must serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF); both were able to vote in last week’s election. The large settlement blocs are now regarded as immutable, and the prospect of their evacuation as faintly ridiculous.
Just as the West Bank has been subsumed into Israel, so too has Israel been remade in the image of the occupied territories. Anti-Zionists have long argued that Israel is, as Meron Benvenisti put it, a herrenvolk democracy: a democracy for Jews and a Jewish state for everyone else. Netanyahu agrees, and with the passage of last year’s Nation-State Law, has etched this previously unspoken hierarchy into the constitution. The right to self-determination has been established as “unique to the Jewish people,” and Arabic, formerly an official language, has been demoted to one with only “special status.”
All this is to provide some context for Donald Trump’s self-proclaimed “Deal of the Century,” which is set to be revealed at some unspecified time in the near future. The particulars of the plan will remain a mystery until its unveiling, but it would take a special kind of chutzpah for Netanyahu to have rhetorically established Greater Israel without his patron’s approval. Given his announcement — and the fact that Trump didn’t upbraid him for it — it now seems overwhelmingly likely that the plan will include some kind of formal recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.
Not everyone agrees: some in the Israeli press have cast doubt on Netanyahu’s sincerity, pointing out that he has a history of cheap pre-election stunts intended to get his base to the polls. According to this argument, he cynically used annexation as a way of outflanking rivals on the Right who had sought to attack him as a peacenik, preparing not the settlement of Eretz Israel but the transfer of already settled land in the service of creating a Palestinian state.
But this line of thinking is something of a trap, because it assumes that Netanyahu has a set of sincere beliefs from which he sometimes deviates. It’s often forgotten that for the bulk of his career he was considered part of Likud’s moderate wing, only to shift rightwards when he began building coalitions with religious Zionists rather than liberals. Sifting through his past positions in an effort to find some animating ideological purpose is a pretty fruitless task when they so often contradict each other.
Likud moderate, then nationalist strongman, proponent of Palestinian statehood in 2009 and fanatical opponent of it in 2015: Netanyahu has observed no consistent principle throughout his career save an infatuation with power. It isn’t that he wouldn’t promise annexation to gain an edge at the polls — he unquestionably would. But he’d go through with it too, if the prize were a fifth term and immunity from his looming indictments.
Besides, that Trump’s deal would be kind to the settlers has been apparent for some time, for reasons that go beyond Netanyahu’s recent announcement. For one thing, it’s being crafted by the instinctually pro-settlement Jared Kushner, who is so close to the Israeli establishment that Netanyahu once slept in his childhood bedroom. Plus, the evacuation of Jerusalem’s settlers would be a dramatic about-face for an administration that recognized it as Israel’s capital only last May, shattering decades of diplomatic precedent in the process.
Then there is Trump’s recent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the occupation of which Israel justifies on the basis that it was captured in a “defensive war,” an obscure legal contrivance based on a deliberate misreading of international law. Since the West Bank was captured just as the Golan was, Trump’s intervention on the latter provides him with a pretext to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the former.
If there is to be an annexation, what will it look like? How far will Netanyahu extend sovereignty, and how much will Trump recognize? Will Israel’s borders extend “from the river to the sea,” or will there be a legal difference between the settlement blocs and the more fanatical outposts?
Netanyahu seemed to suggest the former in his announcement, saying, “I don’t distinguish between the settlement blocs and the isolated ones, because each settlement is Israeli, and I will not hand it over to Palestinian sovereignty.” Despite this, it seems unlikely that he wants the entire West Bank — he is too risk-averse for the administrative nightmare of governing it without a Palestinian vassal. Accounting for this instinctual risk-aversion, for his preference for words over deeds, and for the sizable backing his plan will enjoy in the Knesset, the likeliest outcome is the application of Israeli sovereignty over the main settlement blocs, with the smaller and more remote garrisons remaining in legal limbo, to be administered in perpetuity by the IDF.
This would mesh with the likely direction of Trump’s plan, though Trump will want to claim the title of peacemaker, and to that end might also press for the establishment of a nominal Palestinian state. If this occurs, what is offered to the Palestinians will not be a state in any meaningful sense, but an amorphous cluster of Bantustans, not only demilitarized but non-contiguous. Given that accepting this miserable offer would entail foreclosing on the right of return and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would be under significant pressure to reject the deal. This, I suspect, is what Netanyahu secretly wants. The collapse of Trump’s deal would allow him to spin his narrative of Palestinian “rejectionism” into a unilateral annexation, but without the hassle of having a plan to be bound by, or a partner to negotiate with.
Whatever the precise shape of Trump’s plan, it will have been devised with one eye firmly on the demographics of the West Bank. Demographic anxiety lies at the heart of actually existing Zionism, and Netanyahu is keenly aware that Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” mission could not survive the absorption of two million resentful Palestinians. If full-scale annexation were to occur, now or at some time in the future, this demographic anxiety dictates that the Palestinian population would need to be shrunk to an assimilable size before it could begin.
One report, from the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, suggests something to this effect, claiming that Trump will press Jordan to grant citizenship to a million Palestinian refugees as part of his deal, offering them $45 billion in US aid as a sweetener. A similar kickback would be given to Egypt in return for its accepting an unnamed number of refugees, and a complex series of land transfers, with Jordan receiving a small amount of territory from Saudi Arabia, would then complete the scheme.
It’s unlikely that any of the Arab parties involved would assent to this. And if Israel fails to ethnically cleanse the West Bank it might be Arabs inside the Green Line who suffer. Already there is speculation by some in the Israeli media that this marks the last election where non-Jews will have the right to vote.
It’s a minor paradox of Netanyahu’s reign that he has been one of Israel’s most destructive prime ministers at the same time as being one of its most cautious. As the Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer has noted, Netanyahu prefers brinksmanship to all-out conflict, something evidenced by the relatively low Israeli casualty rate under his tenure. But it would be a mistake to think this indicates an aversion to war, rather than a calculation on his part that military enclosure and economic immiseration are a sufficiently effective means of muzzling Palestinian ambitions.
It’s difficult to overstate just how successful he has been in this regard. Gaza still resists, but in the West Bank all is calm. Netanyahu’s occupation has been absolute: he has presided over the transformation of the Palestinian Authority into a collaborationist regime, overseen the asphyxiation of Palestinian civil society, the total repression of any violent resistance, and made it his mission to throttle any nascent Palestinian solidarity, no matter how petty it makes him look.
Having pacified the Palestinians domestically, Netanyahu has recently set about trying to divest them of their major international alliances. The official Palestinian response to Trump’s plan has been to appeal to the Arab League’s proposed two-state solution, devised in 2002 and endorsed at every league summit since.
But in the past few years the league’s members have somewhat lost interest in Palestine, having become transfixed by the threat of Iran. Israel, with its Iron Dome technology and its armory of nuclear weapons, is an unignorable ally in the fight against Iranian regional hegemony, and every Gulf state save Qatar now prefers the unholy alliance with Netanyahu to an apparently futile solidarity with Palestine.
In the long run, this might prove to be Netanyahu’s shrewdest move of all. It’s possible that much of the Western world will soon be in the hands of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn — and perhaps others with a similar outlook — both lifelong peace activists who would be inclined to forge closer ties with Palestine (there is even talk that Corbyn would like to levy sanctions against Israel). In combination with a more mainstream, muscular Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign, this could create the political leverage necessary to reopen serious peace talks.
However, if by that time Israel has cemented its new friendships in the Gulf, it might not even have to attend. Israel’s alliance with the US is predominantly strategic, not monetary, and despite Netanyahu’s closeness to Trump Israel is already less economically dependent on America than popularly assumed.
It has a robust economy, which was mostly undamaged by the 2008 crash, and a GDP that far outstrips what it receives in US military aid. Economic discontent is muffled by the fact that poverty is distributed mostly among disparate Arab and Haredi communities, making working-class solidarity difficult. Israel could feasibly carry out its program of colonial dispossession without US support, provided that its Arab neighbors continue to look the other way.
What’s to Come
In 2014, shortly after the launch of Operation Protective Edge, a bloody, month-long IDF incursion into Gaza, the Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin wrote a post criticizing its execution and outlining how he thought it should be fought. Despite Protective Edge resulting in the deaths of over two thousand Palestinians, Feiglin’s concern was its squeamishness, rather than its brutality.
Admonishing Netanyahu, he advocated a “total siege,” the “elimination” of Hamas, and ultimately the ethnic cleansing and settlement of the Gaza Strip. His plan was subtitled “the steps towards achieving quiet in Gaza,” with “quiet” presumably invoked as a tacit rejoinder to the traditional focus on “peace.” Feiglin left Likud in 2015 and went on to form Zehut, a pro-weed, pro-Third Temple party that was wiped out in last week’s election; Netanyahu, meanwhile, is readying himself for a fifth term.
It would be strange to say that Feiglin is too extreme for Israeli politics, given that some of the country’s most beloved legislators have been similarly fond of eliminationist rhetoric. No — Feiglin’s problem was that he failed to reckon with the astonishing effectiveness of Netanyahu’s suffocating brand of occupation politics. Netanyahu has already achieved quiet in Palestine; now, by stealing annexationism from them, he intends to achieve quiet on the far right as well.
And if the election results are anything to go by, it looks to have worked. Despite the indictments hanging over its leader’s head, Likud performed better than it did in 2015, and Netanyahu’s annexation ploy appears to have deprived his chief rivals of their raison d’etre: along with Feiglin, Naftali Bennett — once viewed as a prime minister in waiting — saw his hard-right Hayamin Hadash party fail to reach the electoral threshold.
However, Feiglin and his comrades on the irredentist right shouldn’t be too disheartened. Though there isn’t much of an appetite for it now, if what I predicted above transpires, with Netanyahu limiting his policy to the incorporation of the main settlement blocs, their more extreme politics will insinuate themselves into the mainstream soon enough. Once the bulk of the West Bank is seized, and the impossibility of a Palestinian state becomes undeniable, questions of full-scale annexation and ethnic cleansing will follow soon behind. Palestinians can’t be assimilated, since this would entail Israel sacrificing its Jewish majority. So where else is there to go?
Feiglin has an answer: get rid of them and claim the land for ourselves. This is fascism, but fascism doesn’t emerge unbidden from the ether: it is an ideology of solutions, and it finds its support in promising to remedy problems the establishment created but is too chicken to solve. A partial annexation now would only kick the can down the road, further impoverishing the West Bank and its moribund institutions, and clearing the way for violent ethnic cleansing to be unleashed upon the Palestinians in four years’ time.
In 1968, a year after the occupation began, the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote an essay envisaging a future in which Israel never relinquished its newly captured territory. What he saw was monstrous:
The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police – mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the state of Israel.
Administering this situation would “degenerate” the Israeli army, fostering what he elsewhere labeled “Judeo-Nazi” tendencies in its soldiers. Leibowitz was loathed by the Right, but he was a Zionist, and his concern was for Israel’s Jewish majority as well as its morality. As he put it:
Our real problem is not the territory but rather the population of about a million and a half Arabs who live in it and over whom we must rule. Inclusion of these Arabs . . . in the area under our rule will effect the liquidation of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and bring about catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole.
This belief — that the occupation would eventually destroy the state — was the founding assumption of Israeli liberalism, and one that held through five decades of war, failed peace talks, and constant, unceasing settlement. That it turned out to be incorrect shouldn’t be held against Leibowitz, who got so much else right: not even he could have foreseen five terms of Netanyahu, or a US president aligned with the settlers.
A just peace has never been more remote, but Israel has quiet and seems to have contented itself with that. “Who talks about the occupation today?” the veteran activist Anat Saragusti recently asked. “We don’t physically see it, it hardly appears in the media, except for on the fringes, and politically it is a non-story.”
It is precisely this insulation from the reality of the occupation that has set Israel on its inertial path towards annexation. Trump’s deal, whatever it does or doesn’t accomplish, will not change that.