The dangerous triumph of Israel’s right wing

Israel faces an existential threat from the Netanyahu government’s embrace of settlements in the West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu's government appointed a panel that found Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be legal [EPA]

For Israel, a state that has always been tenacious and aggressive in combatting perceived delegitimisation from abroad, the most dangerous threat to its continued political integrity might today be engineered by its own right-wing government.

Recently, the Levy Commission, a blue-ribbon panel of Israeli jurists commissioned by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government to determine the legal status of the Palestinian West Bank, came back with findings and recommendations that represent a potential sea change in Israeli policy in the ongoing conflict. In contrast to mainstream legal opinion as well as the recognised position of the international community, including Israeli allies such as the US and EU, the Commission’s inquiry came back with the unprecedented finding that in fact there is no occupation of Palestinian lands and that the continued construction of settlement outposts, viewed as one of the major roadblocks to a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians, is in fact wholly legal both in the future and retroactively.

The potential consequences of these findings can hardly be overstated. The report asserts that because the occupation and settlement enterprise have continued for decades under successive administrations and are historically unique, they should be de facto recognised as legal, regardless of international opinion. This position maintains that the West Bank is thus not occupied territory but in fact today is a part of Israel proper. This begs the question: If, as the authors of the report say, the West Bank is indeed part of Israel, who are the millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank without the ability to move freely, vote in Israeli elections and claim the full rights of citizenship? What is their legal status in the State of Israel of which they are apparently residents?

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Implementation of the Levy Commission’s findings would make apartheid, which today is a highly controversial and politically charged description of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, into an undeniable and formalised part of Israeli government policy. This would be devastating for Israel’s already poor international standing as well as for its relationship with key backers abroad who would find it politically unfeasible to be seen as helping to facilitate such a system.

While today there exists some pretence of deniability and murkiness surrounding Israel’s relationship with the occupied territories, the acceptance of these findings would definitively remove that and would once and for all put an end to the hopes of a peace process that would establish two separate states. Despite the dire consequences this would create for Israel’s legitimacy as a democracy, prominent Israeli politicians have been effusive in their praise of the commission’s findings and have been building pressure on the present government to put these findings into action.

Future for settlers

High-ranking officials in the present government, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz have all praised the commission’s conclusions and called for their implementation. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan has seemingly taken a personal stake in the report and said, “I will work to ensure the government adopts the report’s conclusion and give a clear future and stability for tens of thousands of [settler] families after dozens of years”

Even Binyamin Netanyahu himself has said, “This report addresses the question of the legality and legitimacy of the settlements in Judea and Samaria [terminology for the West Bank] on the basis of facts and claims that must be seriously examined”, while praising the “serious work” done by the commission he created.

These enthusiastic attitudes towards annexing the Palestinian West Bank, espoused by the most senior figures in Israeli politics, raises the question: What are they thinking? Asserting formal control over these territories without enfranchising the people living there would necessarily result in a system of apartheid, whereas annexing the territory and giving voting rights to the Palestinian Arab residents therein (something which it is extremely doubtful that figures like Lieberman and Yishai would ever agree to) would result in the end of Israel as a demographically Jewish state, the historic goal of the Zionist movement.

While Israel can undeniably count on powerful lobbies such as AIPAC to lobby US government support for its policies, there is strong evidence that much of its support from the US and abroad is predicated on the continued perception of the country as a democracy, one that in theory shares common progressive values with other Western nations. Sacrificing this attribute will make US support for Israel far less durable and will give Israel much more in common with authoritarian regimes such as Russia than with the pluralistic democracies that have historically supported it.

Make no mistake: alliance with a “Greater Israel” encompassing the Palestinian West Bank without citizenship rights for Palestinians would represent an excruciatingly high cost in political capital for the United States to bear, especially in an increasingly multipolar world. The US ability to use humanitarian arguments to criticise other regimes, already weakened over the past decade, would be effectively eliminated if it were to support an Israel which has formalised racial apartheid. American influence and prestige around the world would dramatically decrease if an alliance were to continue post-annexation, and the democratic argument for US domestic support for Israel would no longer be tenable. It is unlikely such a relationship with the US would be durable even in the short term, and it is very possible that already tenuous European support may completely evaporate.

Isolated country?

Previous Israeli administrations have recognised the crucial importance of maintaining Western support for their embattled and politically isolated country. However, the current Likud-led coalition government seems to be flirting with a course of action which would inevitably make such support politically impossible. Having said this, even if the report’s conclusions were not being so enthusiastically embraced at the highest echelons of government, they are not something that the government could merely ignore or dilute.

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This is especially true due to the fact that the governing coalition consists of many hardline pro-settler political parties whose constituencies view the commission’s findings as a gift to their cause. The stark choice seemingly facing the Netanyahu government now is whether to implement the findings of its own commission or ignore them at the risk of causing the government to collapse. Given the massive stakes involved for Israel’s future, it is impossible to say which way it will go, but all leading indicators seem to point to widespread support for implementing the commission’s findings. This support ignores how disastrous such a course of action would be for Israel’s international standing and crucial alliances, and also ignores the positions of Israel’s supporters abroad, who have been strongly and unequivocally calling on it to not take this action which would irrevocably kill any hope for a peace process in the future.

Much of this short-sighted policy seems related to the remarkable and unprecedented power advantage Israel today holds over its Middle Eastern neighbours. Israel is now arguably at the peak of its historic power, both in relation to the Palestinians as well as to the other countries in the region.

While it faces some blowback in the form of economic and cultural boycott movements and a perceived threat from the Iranian nuclear programme, these have not prevented it from continuing to grow economically and expand its military advantage to ever more insurmountable levels. However, while the existential danger of foreign threats to the country have markedly decreased, a new type of threat has emerged in the form of self-destructive triumphalism among the increasingly empowered Israeli right-wing.

The Levy Commission report and the reaction to it is emblematic of the pursuit of narrow ideological goals over pragmatism and strategic thinking. Israel has the ability to negotiate peace from a position of unprecedented strength, something it has refused to do by rejecting entreaties from its Arab neighbours as well as the Palestinians, all so that it can continue to pursue a settlement enterprise that if taken to its logical conclusion will render it an international pariah. Uncritical supporters of Israeli government policy fail to see that enabling policies that are inherently self-destructive are not a real type of “support”; rather, it is a false friendship that is likely to cause grievous harm to the continued political integrity of Israel in the future.

If the findings of the Levy Commission are indeed implemented as many high-ranking officials are presently advocating, it will either mean the end of Israel as a democracy or as the Jewish-majority state envisioned by its founders – two ideals that cannot exist simultaneously against a background of annexation and apartheid. While Israel’s strength facing its neighbours and the world continues to increase, its emboldened and ascendant right-wing may be engineering an existential threat to the country on its own.

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.