Israel: The centre isn't holding

Jeremy Gordin says Bibi Netanyahu didn’t expect what happened to happen

In his book about his father, Telling People What They Don’t Want to Hear: A Liberal Life Under Apartheid, my friend Roy Isacowitz, who lives in Israel, remarked almost en passant: “[Writing this book,] I had to reshuffle my internal pack to come to grips with a period in which Zionism could be regarded as redemptive [pre-1967, say] and the ANC was not out to ransack the coffers”.

Ja-nee, it’s an exceedingly difficult shuffle indeed – both when it comes to SA post-1999, let’s say, and Israel post ... when? Well, let’s say post-1992, which was the last time the Labour Party, led by Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995 by a rightwing zealot, led the government.

Labour’s then guiding principle seemed to be “land for peace,” as enunciated by the Oslo Accords. Israel would return land occupied in 1967 (though possibly not all) in return for “peace” with its numerous enemies, Egypt, Jordan, and so on, and also steps would also be taken towards “fulfilling the right of the Palestinian people [those who’d left or been forced out of Israel in 1948 and were living in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem] to self-determination”. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

But nothing came of the Oslo Accords – for example, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, then Israeli prime minister, continued building in the occupied territories during its never-completed implementation – and in any case the Palestinians felt they were being led up the garden path.

Anyway, it seemed to be the end, one could fairly say, of the idea of compromise, of people trying to find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to live alongside one another.

It was also the start of a new “era” in Israel – the Netanyahu era. He, rather cleverly (it seems to me), seemed to work on the basis that if he did as little as possible in terms of peace-making while at the same time worked as hard as he could to facilitate the improvement of the living standards and economy of Israel, all would be well (for Israel and himself).

He was right. He has been repeatedly returned to power by about half the Israeli electorate since 2009 – that’s 12 years – and he is still hanging onto power despite having been charged with fraud, breach of trust, and bribery. Also, just recently, the main opposition party leader, not Netanyahu, has been given the mandate by the President to form a new government. We’ll get back to this in a minute.

Meanwhile, one of the weirdest things that’s happened during the last 12 years is that Israelis seem to have forgotten all about the Palestinians and the occupation. It’s as though the issue doesn’t exist; one can see this from looking at the Israeli media.

About four weeks ago, I sent Isacowitz my Politicsweb piece about the Constitution to which he replied: “Believe it or not, I envy the fact that you have public figures who discuss weighty issues on TV. There’s none of that here. Politics here are trivial; it’s all about who can bribe or mislead who to form a government. Actual issues are never discussed. I doubt whether the occupation has actually been mentioned on TV in years.”

Wait a minute, hold the phone, I hear you cry. What about the 2014 “Gaza War,” the military operation launched by Israel on 8 July 2014 in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip?

As Wikipedia tells us: Following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by members of Hamas, the IDF (Israel Defence Force) conducted Operation Brother’s Keeper to arrest militant leaders, Hamas fired rockets into Israel, and a seven-week conflict broke out. It was one of the deadliest conflicts between the Palestinians and Israel in decades. The combined Israeli airstrikes and ground bombardment and Palestinian rocket attacks resulted in thousands of deaths, the vast majority of which were Gazans.

So, your expostulation/question would be a good one. But, despite this, most people, at least in Israel, simply went back to their lives. One reason for this was that Bibi had another stroke of luck – not the only one, but an important one for him. In 2017 Donald Trump became US president. The two seemed to get along like peaches and cream – and so it seemed clear that Israel was going to be left alone for a while, at least by its major financier.

Even while the world PR war was becoming ever more virulent against Israel as the oppressor of the Palestinians, Netanyahu and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, set up the 2020 Abraham Accords, agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Everybody was apparently incredibly happy – “the first public normalization of relations between an Arab country and Israel since that of Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994,” and so on. The Palestinians, however, were not. They felt as though they were being left to their plight in their shxx-hole territories by people who ought to have been their allies [1].

Trump, by the way, had been busy long before this, undoubtedly with Bibi’s blessing. In 2018 the US announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the “Iran nuclear deal”.

Bibi also kept busy (although the following has never been “admitted to” by Israel). In November last year, “a satellite-controlled machine-gun with ‘artificial intelligence’ was used to kill Iran's top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh”. Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to avenge the assassination, demanding the “definitive punishment” of those behind it.

Guess who, probably among others, finances Hamas, the militant and political organization currently in power in the Gaza Strip? Iran does – or so it is claimed by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, and he ought to know.

Fast forward to a few days ago. There were tussles between Palestinian residents and Jewish “settlers” in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem. It happened close to the culmination of a long court case, in terms of which the settlers claimed that Jews had originally owned the land, even though the Palestinians had been settled there for decades – and it looked as though the Palestinians were going to be evicted by an Israeli court. This, by the way, at the end of Ramadan, the holiest period on the Islamic calendar.

Then Palestinian youths started creating havoc on what Jews call The Temple Mount, and Muslims call Haram esh-Sharif and the Al Aqsa compound. The Israeli police – probably the Border Police, Mishmar ha-Gvul – decided to shut down the commotion – and, trust me, when Mishmar ha-Gvul come calling, you’d best move along. The police threw stun grenades into the Al Aqsa mosque, and they also stopped buses, carrying Israeli Arabs intent on supporting the folk in Jerusalem, from entering Jerusalem.

Then Hamas fired large barrages of rockets (Iranian-designed, one reads) from Gaza, targeting wide swathes of southern and central Israel – enough of them getting through Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system to cause chaos and to kill people – and immediately Gaza came under devastating air attack from the IDF. What’s happened since then, in terms of carnage and devastation, you know all about from the TV.

Back to Bibi. He was never going to give up the PM’s office quietly, no more than Trump was. Remember, just before the violence began, his political opponents seemed set to announce a new government, one which would, above all, be without one Bibi Netanyahu.

In his attempt to pull together a new government (which failed), Netanyahu had also selected a few of the small, neo-fascist right-wing parties and they were not at all happy at the prospect of not being in the government. It was followers of these parties who have been helping stoke trouble in Jerusalem.

I’m not suggesting Bibi had a little plan in his bottom drawer – which has resulted in the massive violence we are watching on TV and which people are suffering from in Israel and Gaza. But it certainly would have suited him.

He’s made a big mistake, however. Take a look, if you can, at how he looked just a few days ago. He’s off-kilter; he simply didn’t expect what happened to happen. The first reason for his poor thinking is not dissimilar to the Israeli mind-set before it was attacked by Egypt and Syria in 1973.

He – and presumably the military – simply misread Hamas and, for once, Israel’s much-vaunted intelligence capabilities seemed not to be on the ball. Still, it’s reliably said that the IDF has a plan ready for every contingency – and doubtless the IDF will bomb Gaza back to the Stone Age.

But, more seriously, what Bibi has misread is the alienation and anger of the Israeli Palestinian and Arab population.

They have turned the town of Lod (which is inside Israel) into a no-go area – and there are disturbances and riots in other towns where Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs/Palestinians have lived together for decades.

Worse, last night, marauding gangs of Jews – recruited over social media – attacked Arab shops and assaulted drivers who they pulled from their cars in Bat Yam, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Tiberias, and other places (see Thekibbitzer.com).

The proposed anti-Bibi government is probably dead in the water (no one will push for a new government in a time of emergency, certainly not one that needs Arab parties to reach number of seats required to govern). But even worse, as Isacowitz remarked to me, the centre isn’t holding, the maniacs are taking over.

In Israel right now, it looks a lot like a nasty civil war.


[1] And, by the way, trust me on this, if on nothing else: it is not good, wholesome fun to live under military occupation (whatever it’s called) – life tends more towards brutalization and humiliation than fun. No, I don’t know how it could be halted and changed on an equitable and just basis; but I do know that the first step must be wanting to compromise and to change the situation.