Thursday, December 03, 2020

With Israeli coalition formed, outcome looking ever worse for Palestine

By John Space - March 21, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Israeli Elections] [US President Barack Obama]

Photo by Lazar Simeonov.

President Barack Obama's visit to the country, as secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative Dr Mustafa Barghouti noted, will be met by unethusiasm by the Palestinian people. As Obama touched down at the Ben Gurion airport yesterday and was greeted by Israel's President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who had managed to form a government before the given deadline), Obama proceeded to give a speech where he reaffirmed the USA's solid support for Israel precisely because it is the USA's "fundamental national security interest" to do so.

Yet if Obama's visit is widely seen by Palestinians as only to stand with Israel and not as bringing peace to both sides, they can expect even worse from Israel's newly formed coalition government as a "partner for peace."

On the surface, Israeli political star Yair Lapid's first speech to the Knesset was a ray of hope in a dark landscape of institutionalized racism and violence. Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party has 19 of 68 seats in the newly formed coalition government, spoke out against settler violence and the impunity granted to settlers by Israel, describing West Bank settlements as existing in a state of "anarchy." Israeli newspaper Haaretz emphasized Lapid's pro-peace process rhetoric, noting that he "urge[d] a swift return to talks with the Palestinians."

But a deeper look at Yesh Atid's policies and Yair Lapid's personal views reveals a deeply incoherent stance on peace talks and a troubling undercurrent of collaboration with extremist settlers.

Hypocrisy in calls for peace negotiations

From the moment of Yesh Atid's founding, Lapid has insisted that peace talks leading to the creation of a Palestinian state are a necessary step forward for the Israeli government. In his first speech as the party's chairman, Lapid stated categorically that "Yesh Atid will not join a government that will not conduct diplomatic negotiations" with Palestinians.

But Lapid's own party platform forestalls the possibility of "diplomatic negotiations." Although Lapid agrees that no new settlements should be built during negotiations, he rejects the idea of a settlement freeze. Lapid believes existing settlements should be allowed to expand to accommodate growing populations. As +972 magazine points out, this has been the Israeli government's official position since the signing of the Oslo accords, during which time the settler population has more than tripled.

Since a settlement freeze is a necessary precondition in order for Palestinians to reenter peace talks, this means that Lapid himself is acting as the main obstacle to reopening negotiations, while at the same time insisting that negotiations must be reopened. 

This kind of pernicious doublespeak is nothing new in politics, and Lapid may very well have learned the game from the man whose success he modeled his campaign after, US President Barack Obama. In the run-up to the 2008 elections that made him president, Obama promised that, if elected, he would close the notorious GITMO prison where thousands of human-rights violations have taken place over the last decade. 

But Obama's plan to close the prison, located in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, contained within it a proposal that made the prison's closing impossible. In fact, Obama did not attempt to actually close the prison, but merely to relocate it (and all the prisoners currently held there) into US territory, a plan that was unacceptable to the US Congress for obvious reasons. Obama then blamed the failure to close GITMO on Congress, rather than taking personal responsibility for his refusal to free the wrongly accused at GITMO, many of whom are still held in inhuman conditions despite the fact that over half the prisoners there have been cleared for release. In a final signal that Obama has no intention of ever ending the injustice taking place at GITMO, his administration recently closed the office responsible for closing GITMO.

Now that Israel's new coalition government has formed, it will likely be a very short time before Lapid makes a similar move. In the coming months, look for him to sabotage peace negotiations and then blame rival Knesset parties for this failure.

The centrist and the settler

Perhaps more disturbing still is Lapid's emerging alliance with extremist settler Naftali Bennett, whose HaBayit HaYehudi ("Jewish Home") party has 12 seats in the newly-formed coalition government. This means the new coalition government is made up of three main elements: Netanyahu's war-mongering Likud party, the malleable "centrists" of Yesh Atid, and the far-right Jewish Home.

Bennett and Jewish Home represent a tangible threat not only to the creation of a Palestinian state, but to the safety of the Palestinian people. Bennett's platform, explained by the Jewish Home party itself in this video, basically consists of the annexation of all of Area C and the forced removal of tens of thousands of Palestinians from their homes.

The party's extremist ideology is even worse than what's alluded to by the so-called "Partial Annexation Plan." One member of the Jewish Home party publicly called for the destruction of al-Aqsa mosque, and Bennett himself is not averse to engaging in racist revisionist history, such as when he claimed that "When Palestinians were climbing trees, we already had a state."

Disturbingly, the new Housing Minister is a member of the Jewish Home party who publicly vowed to increase construction in the settlements. Given that, in 2011 to 2012 alone, the Israeli government spent over 2 billion shekels (around 540 miliion dollars) on maintaining and expanding the settlements, an increase in construction is a frightening concept indeed.

Given Lapid's reputation as a centrist, it may seem surprising to hear he is building an alliance with Bennett or to see photos of Bennett and Lapid getting all buddy-buddy for the cameras at an illegal outpost settlement. But, as discussed above, Yesh Atid's platform has always been explicitly in favor of settlement expansion. In fact, the party's founding document was first revealed at a press conference in the settlement of Ariel.

Real Democracy, real change

During the elections, a committed group of Palestinian and Israeli activists worked to provide an alternative to mainstream Israeli politics. Real Democracy advocated "Electoral rebellion" through the means of providing votes to Palestinians barred from voting under the Israeli apartheid system.

As +972 magazine pointed out, 1 in 3 people living under Israeli rule are not allowed to vote. According to the members of Real Democracy, there can be no "real democracy" when so many people directly affected by Israeli policy have no voice in the elections.

"What we're saying is that there's no equality between people. So Palestinians are impacted by decisions made by Israelis, decisions that they can't take part in the making of," Real Democracy co-founder Shimri Zameret said. "And that's undemocratic, because democracy means that people influenced by a decision should have a say, an equal say in that decision."

The group used Facebook to make connections between Israelis looking to donate their votes to Palestinians and Palestinians hoping to vote in the Israeli elections. People would post messages and videos to the group's Facebook page offering to donate their vote or requesting that a vote be donated to them. Palestinians and Israelis thereby made contact and arranged where the votes would go, and on election day the Israelis posted pictures of their filled-out ballots to prove their votes really went where they were supposed to. 

Palestinians were also given the option to have Israelis boycott the elections. Zameret said thousands of people participated and the votes were split almost evenly between boycotts and votes for Palestinian or joint Jewish-Muslim parties. 

The Palestinian co-founder of the Real Democracy project, Mousa Abu Maria, said he voted for Haneen Zoabi's Balad party. Zoabi is a Palestinian citizen of Israel who was present aboard the "Freedom Flotilla" to Gaza in 2010, and she was nearly disqualified from the elections for her political views. (Yair Lapid, by the way, got himself into trouble recently by referring to all Arab members of the Knesset as "Zoabis" and stating he would not join a coalition with any of them.)

Abu Maria said the project was a symbolic statement, and he does not expect Israeli elections to ever lead to positive change for the Palestinian people. 

"It will change for worse, not for good. Because when we talk about Netanyahu, you know, all the Palestinians and many of the government know about what Netanyahu did in the past, and what he will do in the future," he said. 

The people who participated in Real Democracy, however, are not ready to give up the fight. Zameret said the group will stage a similar campaign in the next Israeli elections, and will continue the struggle for justice outside the realm of electoral politics.

"All of the people that participated in the campaign are involved in lots of other things and we're going to continue doing that work," he said. "And as for myself, I am going to still continue working on creating and democratizing institutions on all levels from local to global."

With the composition of the new Israeli government giving little hope for a better future, civil society groups like Real Democracy are the only rays of light in a political landscape scarred by racism and violence. 

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