Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: May 5, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses why the Netanyahu government threatens to refuse to negotiate with a Fateh-Hamas Palestinian Authority unity government; what settler "price tag" attacks and provocations focused over the past two weeks on targets in Israeli Arab towns and villages rather than in the West Bank and East Jerusalem tells us; PM Netanyahu's renewed effort to legislate a basic law proclaiming Israel a Jewish state and Israel's sixty-sixth Independence Day.

Q. A footnote to last week's discussion of the demise of the peace process: The Netanyahu government threatens to refuse to negotiate with a Fateh-Hamas Palestinian Authority unity government. But doesn't Israel negotiate with the PLO, not the PA?

A. Yes, that is precisely what the Oslo Declaration of Principles specifies. The DOP was signed with the PLO and created the PA. So technically, regarding future two-state solution negotiations, the government of Israel should be monitoring the attempts of Fateh and Hamas leaders in the coming weeks to integrate Hamas into the PLO.

But of course the PA is relevant and important. Israeli-Palestinian security and economic relations are channeled through the PA, which governs the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and, if unity is effected, in Gaza as well. The PLO, in contrast, represents not just the Palestinians in Palestine but the even larger concentration of Palestinian refugees and exiles in the diaspora as well. That explains why the refugee/right of return issue is so problematic in two-state solution negotiations.

Mahmoud Abbas heads both bodies, which are in any case constantly confused and conflated in the statements of Israelis, Palestinians and third party leaders alike. Moreover, it's not likely that a unified PA government will be agreed without an agreed new parallel unity arrangement for the PLO. On the other hand, it might be easier to unify Hamas and Fateh within the PLO than in the PA, where the main sticking point will be command over Hamas' large Gaza-based security force.

Most likely the two unity deals, PA and PLO, will constitute a single package--which still looks like a doubtful achievement.

Q. Settler "price tag" attacks and provocations have focused over the past two weeks on targets--mosques, cars, graffiti--in Israeli Arab towns and villages rather than in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is causing considerable Arab-Jewish tension inside Israel proper. What does this tell us?

A. First, it tells us that the extremist settler movement that is behind the price tag attacks has not been deterred by a few scattered arrests and is escalating, at least in the sense of expanding the population it targets. Second, it tells us that at least in the eyes of these settlers and their supporters, Palestinian citizens of Israel are no different than Palestinian citizens of the Palestinian Authority, and Arab Muslims are no different than Arab Christians: all are anathema to these Jews. (Note that churches and monasteries have been targeted as well as mosques.)

The Israeli political establishment, on the other hand, appears to be taking these latest attacks much more seriously than those in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This reflects recognition that they could breed serious Arab-Jewish friction and unrest inside Israel proper. Hence last week we saw senior Likud politicians, among others, travel to Israeli Arab villages like Furaidis near Zichron Yaakov to express solidarity with Arab residents. No such solidarity has been displayed with West Bank Palestinians whose mosques and cars have been trashed.

Yet despite this escalation, the General Security Service (Shin Bet) still does not appear to have either the authority or the motivation to round up the price tag perpetrators, virtually all of whom are reportedly known to it. This in turn reflects two phenomena.

One is a general reluctance to label the price tag attacks "terrorism". This sustains the myth that only Arabs carry out acts of terrorism. In case you never noticed, when a Jew (usually a settler, often of American extraction) deliberately kills an unarmed Arab he is labeled "mentally unbalanced". Defining the attacks in legal terms as terrorism would make it possible to invoke drastic legal measures against them, such as preventive detention. One additional mitigating factor that must be acknowledged is that the attacks generally focus on buildings and cars, not people: no Palestinian has been physically attacked or killed in the price tag actions--though it is almost certainly only a matter of time until that happens.

But the real reason the attackers are not in jail is the broad political influence over security affairs that the settler mainstream has achieved, both in the ruling coalition and within the security services. Of course the settler mainstream rolls its eyes and claims no knowledge of the attackers' identity. In fact, the attackers are (ideologically speaking) the mainstream settlers' illegitimate children.

This will not end well.

Q. This brings us to PM Netanyahu's renewed effort, announced just before Israel's Memorial Day and Independence Day (this Monday and Tuesday, respectively) to legislate a basic law proclaiming Israel a Jewish state. This legislative initiative failed in the past. Why now, again?

A. First of all, it is appropriate that this question be asked as a follow-up to the discussion of price tag attacks. There is an obvious link between the jingoistic, at times McCarthyist legislative initiatives of leading Likud and Yisrael Beitenu members of Knesset in recent years--e.g., mandating loyalty oaths and pledges of allegiance--and the inflated and racist patriotism that produces price tag attacks, even if the political right refuses to acknowledge the connection.

Most of these reactionary initiatives have thus far failed in the Knesset because that body still has a majority of sane Zionists from the left and center, including moderate Likudniks, as well as Arab MKs. Netanyahu knows that an initiative to pass a basic law (basic laws have constitutional authority in Israel's system) that tilts the "Jewish and democratic" balance in favor of just "Jewish" will encounter stiff opposition, even from within his coalition (Yesh Atid and HaTnua).

His timing appears to reflect a perceived need to provide a dynamic new national agenda--one that constitutes an "appropriate Zionist response" to the Palestinian rejection of the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state--now that the peace process is at least temporarily on the back burner. This might also be Netanyahu's way to keep the far right behind him even as he rejects its post-peace process demands to annex most of the West Bank.

Indeed, the timing could also be explained in Machiavellian terms. To avoid a defection from the coalition by HaTnua and its leader Tzipi Livni, who joined the government for the express purpose of advancing a peace process, Netanyahu has given Livni a new cause to justify remaining. As justice minister and a liberal, Livni has vowed to lead the opposition against the latest Jewish state initiative.

On Sunday, Netanyahu explained that "Israel gives full equal rights to all its citizens, but it is the nation-state of one people--the Jewish people--and no other." What an Arab citizen of Israel is supposed to feel about this when Netanyahu's initiative does not even mention guaranteeing ethnic or religious minority rights, the prime minister did not say. Nor did he address the fact that his initiative is totally redundant: the term "Jewish state" is used in the United Nations resolution (181) that created Israel in 1947and is also enshrined in Israel's Declaration of Independence, which already has the status of a basic law.

One of the more biting expressions of opposition to Netanyahu's Jewish state legislative initiative came from Yaron London, a veteran liberal pundit and commentator. London wrote in Yediot Aharonot on May 4: "We need [Israeli Arabs] in order to test the substance of Israeliness and the significance of citizenship in a state that defines itself 'Jewish and democratic'. . . . The minority defines the majority through the attitude of the majority toward the minority."

Addressing Netanyahu's political motive against the backdrop of the epidemic of price tag hate crimes, London added that the prime minister "needs this law to satisfy the feeble Jews who support right wing parties yet are not sure of their identity and require that it be forged through the medium of inciting to hate the other. Independence has not freed these Jews of the need to be hated in order to be Jews."

Q. Is that your final word on Israel's sixty-sixth Independence Day?

A. No. We have a great many positive accomplishments to celebrate Tuesday and now is the time to recall them: a strong country that has avoided involvement in regional turmoil and remains largely unaffected by it; a robust economy; energy independence; vibrant Jewish and democratic life of every variety; and a population that (according to all comparative international polls) remains highly optimistic despite all the challenges and the problems.

Hag Sameach.