Mahrukh A Mughal
THE world was watching with enthusiasm and zeal the elections in Israel as it was deemed to be a choice between hawks and doves, between extremists and moderates and between war-mongers and peace lovers. After three continuous stints and carrying a banner of hate and racial prejudice, Netanyahu looked confident of his success. He preached violence and extremism, grabbing the lands of Arabs and Palestinians and creating new settlements, much against the resolutions of United Nations. On 4 September, Netanyahu had set the perfect political stage to announce Israeli sovereignty over the ancient shrine, Tomb of Patriarchs, where Israel’s biblical forefathers and foremothers are buried in what is now predominantly a West Bank Palestinian city.
That day, Netanyahu was in Hebron to appease right-wing voters in the Otzma and Yamina parties’ stronghold. He became the first prime minister to deliver a public address in the city, whose placement within Israel’s final sovereign borders has always been a question mark. It was the moment when a few words could have made history. In an interview with Army Radio, he impatiently tossed out the idea of Hebron sovereignty in the Jewish area – as if it was obvious, something that he would clearly do, but just somehow hadn’t got around to in the last decade. Gone was the cautious diplomat who stood in Hebron by a podium with the seal of Israel on a stage festooned with Israeli flags. Then he was all about the campaign of diplomatic dignity, preserving the option to take right-wing or left-wing actions based on the demands of the international arena or the demands of US President Donald Trump. In the last few days, Netanyahu has been campaigning in full-throttle fear mode. Like a street brawler throwing punches for political survival, he has been wildly swinging his fists with the sole objective of knocking out his rivals.
In the last decade, Netanyahu has raised diplomatic ambiguity to an art form. He maintained his diplomatic cachet with former democratic US President Barack Obama, who was intent on a deal for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines. At the same time, Netanyahu held his seat as the leader of an Israeli-right wing government determined not to give up a centimetre of territory. At the heart of this dizzying seesaw of left- and right-wing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an internal debate over diplomatic and political legacy. Netanyahu branded himself early in his career as a right-wing thinker. Using the pseudonym Ben Nitay, he participated in a 1978 debate about Palestinian self-determination in Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, footage of which can easily be found on YouTube.
Netanyahu speaks there of Jordan as the Palestinian state, and disavows the creation of one in the West Bank. “There is no right to establish a second Palestinian state on my doorstep – no right whatsoever,” he declared. He didn’t stop there. As Likud opposition head, he railed against the Oslo Accords and the dangers of Palestinian statehood. Then Netanyahu pivoted after the 1996 election even as he still claimed his place on the Right. Upholding the Oslo Accords, he famously shook hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and signed the Agreement with the PA in 1998. He also divided Hebron in 1997, placing 80% of it H2, under the auspices of the PA, and the rump under Israeli rule in H1. Upon re-election in 2009, he delivered his famous Bar-Ilan address committing himself to two states for two peoples, and stating his support for “a demilitarized Palestinian state side-by-side with a Jewish state.” He followed that by imposing the strictest settlement freeze ever put in place by any Israeli prime minister.
Former Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon of the rival Blue and White Party charged last week that during the nine-month US-led Israeli-Palestinian peace process that ended in failure in April 2014, Netanyahu was willing to give up Jordan Valley settlements in exchange for a temporary Israeli military force there for a period of three to five years. “I was the one who stopped him,” Ya’alon said. Martin Indyk, who was the US envoy at the time working with Kerry, tweeted his support for Ya’alon’s version of events. In Hebron, he authorized new buildings, created a local Governing Council for its Jewish community and ended the mandate of the international observers, known as the Temporary International Presence in Hebron.
Effectively he also erased the entire Clinton era idea of settlement blocs, allowing for Jewish building in all of Area C in the West Bank. It has been Netanyahu’s pattern to lean right just prior to an election before turning left in its aftermath. But in none of the last four elections has he so actively embraced sovereignty as he has in the last week, promising to annex 31 West Bank settlements, including all of the Jordan Valley, immediately upon the formation of a government. Netanyahu entered his pledge into Israel’s public record by speaking of his annexation plan at a cabinet meeting which he held for the first time ever in the Jordan Valley – and underscoring it by offering initial approval for a new West Bank settlements in that region.
As Netanyahu’s tenure in office lengthens, each election – and this was his fifth – increasingly becomes a referendum on his performance. This one is no different. But it is telling that a prime minister who entered office with a pledge to recognize Palestinian statehood has gone back on it. If Netanyahu’s worst fears are correct — and he loses the election — then Sunday’s Jordan Valley meeting could mark his last moment on the diplomatic stage. If he wins, it will be hard to walk back the pledge he made under the shadow of a monument of fallen IDF soldiers. As for now, his fate still hangs in the balance. He has failed to get majority and is in a tie with Gantz, the former military commander and now his main political opponent. The latest is that they are holding talks for a unity government.
— The author, a freelance columnist, is based in Lahore.