Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This week, Alpher discusses how, at the far right and far left extremes of any prospective Likud-Labor coalition, we encounter views considered by many Israelis to be extremist: anti-Arab racism on the one hand, and a readiness to label some varieties of “terrorism” as legitimate resistance to occupation on the other; What the significance is of secret Netanyahu-Herzog unity government negotiations, a year into Netanyahu’s current right-wing coalition government; and what the backdrop is for the PLO's plan for the UN Security Council to vote on a motion to condemn the settlements on Pesach eve, April 22, and then reportedly backing down.
Q. Apropos, at the far right and far left extremes of any prospective Likud-Labor coalition we encounter views considered by many Israelis to be extremist: anti-Arab racism on the one hand, and a readiness to label some varieties of “terrorism” as legitimate resistance to occupation on the other. Can you comment?
A. Last week, Jewish Home MK Betzalel Smutrich called for separation of Jewish and Arab women in Israeli hospital maternity wards. Last week, too, Labor MK Zoher Bahalul, an Arab, argued that a Palestinian who attacks and kills an IDF soldier (as opposed to killing a civilian) in the West Bank is not a terrorist. Both statements generated major public controversy. The moderate right (as well as the left, of course) condemned Smutrich, as did his own party head, Naftali Bennet. Some of Smutrich’s critics called him a fascist. The moderate left (as well as the right, of course) condemned Bahalul. Labor leader Herzog joined the chorus of condemnation.
Smutrich’s blatant racism is not new. He is a religious settler positioned on the far right of a right-wing settler party and he has made his views known for years. The only remarkable aspect of his racist excursion into the Israeli health system—his remarks were made after his wife gave birth in a “mixed” ward--is the fact that Israeli hospitals, clinics and pharmacies are probably the most integrated institutions in the country. Some 12 percent (and rising) of doctors are Arab; three hospital directors are Arab; and casual observation would seem to indicate that a large percentage of pharmacists and nurses are Arab. So Smutrich appears to be whistling into the wind.
Bahalul, on the other hand, represents a different case. He is an Arab who achieved great popularity as a sports commentator and translated it into Knesset membership in a left-center Zionist party. When he declared, against the backdrop of the controversial killing in Hebron by a soldier of a mortally wounded Palestinian who had knifed another soldier (see Q & A two weeks ago), that the knifing was an act of resistance against occupation rather than an act of terrorism, he brought the entire Labor party down on him. When Palestinians attack the soldiers who protect us all, Bahalul’s fellow (Jewish) MKs declared, they are terrorists. The Labor party called upon Bahalul to recant his remarks. Some Labor MKs spoke of expelling him from the party.
Personally, I believe that Smutrich is not a fascist and that Bahalul is technically correct. But I hasten to add that my opinions mean nothing in this day and age. The term “fascist” is pinned by the Israeli left on virtually anyone who favors the occupation and settlements, denigrates Arabs, and seemingly believes in the inordinate use of force. These characteristics have little to do with the original twentieth century fascists in Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy, all of whom had a well-conceived ideology that involved, for example, politically co-opting the working classes into quasi-militarized unions. Smutrich is despicable, but in my book he’s not a fascist.
And terrorism, strictly speaking, refers to the use of violence against civilians to achieve a political (as opposed, say, to criminal) aim. That’s the classic definition. Attacks on soldiers of an occupying force are not terrorism but rather acts of war to which different legal standards apply under international law. Even PM Netanyahu alluded to this difference in his 1986 book, “Terrorism: How the West Can Win”. But Bahalul, who was careful not to condone Palestinian attacks on soldiers either, cannot convince his fellow Laborites that he is literally correct; his is a lost cause.
In the digital age where social media enable the mass dissemination of views that have little objective basis in fact or scholarship, we’ll only see more fascists and more terrorists in Israeli discourse. But less “occupation”: after all, removing the terrorism label from attacks against an occupying army would oblige Israeli politicians--including Bahalul’s fellow Laborites--to confront an occupation they would rather not mention.
Q. Last week it was reported that secret Netanyahu-Herzog unity government negotiations had been derailed by a police investigation into possible illegal fundraising practices by Labor leader Herzog. What is the significance of such negotiations, a mere year into Netanyahu’s current right-wing coalition government?
A. The significance really depends on whether you are an optimist, a pessimist or a realist regarding the prospect that a more balanced Israeli coalition could emerge--one that would attempt to do something serious about the Palestinian situation and stem the country’s extreme right-wing drift. In any case, Herzog cannot even dream of entering the coalition as long as the police investigation continues. Lest we forget, back in the days of PM Ehud Barak, Herzog dodged similar allegations that appeared to be substantive, but only by refusing on legal grounds to answer investigators’ questions.
Optimists would point to the fact that Netanyahu and Herzog have been negotiating, usually via proxy representatives, since even before the current coalition was formed a year ago. They would note that Netanyahu cannot possibly be comfortable with a narrow coalition (61 out of 120 members of Knesset) that leaves him vulnerable to political blackmail by the most insignificant backbencher. They would add that, factoring in the activities and views of extremist Likud MKs along with the Jewish Home coalition faction, Netanyahu finds himself constantly seeking to rebuff or dilute far-right influence in the government without being able to balance it with a substantive center-left faction like Labor.
Then too as Labor’s leader, Herzog is almost “programmed” to pursue a role in any ruling coalition. He needs to satisfy both Labor’s “founding fathers” self-image as a movement destined to rule, as well as the individual aspirations of both his supporters and his competitors within the Labor Knesset faction (the latter--Yacimovich, Peretz and others--can’t challenge him for the leadership position once he has fixed them up with plum ministries). Finally, the optimist would note that gathering clouds of international pressure and condemnation, for example in the UN (see below), coupled with the totally unpredictable state of the US presidential contest, presumably militate in favor of Netanyahu putting in place a coalition that is seen to be working toward both progress with Palestinians and moderation domestically.
And the pessimist? He or she would point out that Herzog is a political rookie alongside Netanyahu and that the record of the two negotiating a unity government reflects a pattern of clever manipulation by the latter. After all, Netanyahu deliberately formed a right-wing government a year ago when it would have been comparatively easy to co-opt the Labor/Zionist Union faction into a centrist coalition. Reportedly, Likud and Labor actually began several months ago to divide up portfolios (on paper, of course), with Herzog getting the Foreign Ministry and Livni in charge of renewed negotiations with the Palestinians. Then, after his latest meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu seemingly changed his mind.
In fact, at no point have the two sides resolved their most profound differences: Herzog needs a commitment to a serious peace process and he won’t enter the coalition if the far-right Jewish Home party remains; Netanyahu is not really serious about either concession.
Enter the realist: why, then, does Netanyahu bother? Why does he need the appearance or illusion of an expanded coalition with Labor that seemingly never reaches fruition? Here we again have recourse to his skill at political manipulation. The implicit threat of “advanced” coalition negotiations with Herzog that the latter will discreetly confirm makes it easier for Netanyahu to keep his own Likud extremists and those of Jewish Home in check. Then too, the prime minister can rebuff American and European pressures by reassuring Washington and Brussels that he fully appreciates the need for a coalition peace initiative and is hard at work to produce it.
Meanwhile he can continue to expand settlements, “legalize” outposts, and appoint extremists to key ambassadorial and consular posts abroad.
Q. On Pesach eve, April 22, the PLO had planned for the UN Security Council to vote on a motion to condemn the settlements. Then the Palestinians reportedly backed down. What’s the backdrop?
A. According to press reports, the Palestinian resolution, which was drafted and presented hastily and without much prior coordination with the US and the EU, also called on the two sides to negotiate a two-state solution within a year. The big question was whether the Obama administration, which condemns the settlements, would break with traditional knee-jerk support for Israel and allow the resolution to pass. (As APN’s Lara Friedman notes this week in the NY Times, Obama alone among recent presidents has never done so.)
Yet the resolution was reportedly withdrawn on Sunday as quickly as it was proposed. Apparently, Washington and Brussels told the PLO leadership that now was not the time. The French are still working on their UNSC resolution. The Obama administration is still debating whether to offer its own plan, and has no desire to create tensions with Israel that embarrass likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Stay tuned for more developments.
The backdrop to the PLO move is the declining wave of Palestinian violence in the West Bank and political stagnation between Israelis and Palestinians. Accordingly, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas apparently perceived a domestic need to be seen making a pro-active move. Abbas presumably knows that with or without a US green or yellow (abstention) light at the Security Council, nothing of consequence would in any case follow between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
One key venue that Abbas had his eye on as he planned to approach the UN is the Temple Mount, which is where the past six months of violence originated. Things have been relatively quiet there of late as Israel has kept right-wing MKs away, Jordan has installed closed-circuit monitoring cameras and Palestinian Authority security forces have worked closely with their Israeli counterparts. But Pesach is approaching, meaning that right wing Jewish Messianic extremists and Israeli Arab Islamists are more liable than usual to foment trouble on or about the Mount--just the atmosphere Abbas might have needed to generate support for his resolution at the UN Security Council.