Apart from the Obama trip and a follow-up visit by new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Israel has not featured much in the news lately, largely because Benjamin Netanyahu was struggling to form a government in the wake of the January elections, which gave no party a simple majority. Bibi finally cobbled together a coalition shortly before the Obama visit but what the new government will actually do is still somewhat a work in progress. It is clear that the former arrangement relying on the religious parties for support has now been replaced by a new coalition headed by Likud that includes the two leading right wing nationalist parties HaBayit HaYehudi (the Jewish Home) and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party, headed by Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman respectively. Yisrael Beiteinu, which ran together with Likud, is now part of the largest party in the Knesset while HaBayit HaYehudi is third largest.
The new Israeli government will not be interested in compromise on any front, though it is somewhat divided on when and how to attack Iran (or how to get the United States to do the job for it). It will exhibit much of the racist extremism that has characterized Israeli politics of late. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes “The Jewish Home party advances an ideology that will bring about the destruction (the self-destruction) of Israel. The Jewish Home party seeks to erase the dividing line between Israel and the West Bank; it seeks to build more and more settlements; it seeks to absorb the West Bank’s Arabs into Israel as, at the most, second-class citizens.” Lieberman’s Israel is Our Home party is also no slouch in the Arab baiting department, having called for the expulsion of Arab citizens and loyalty oaths administered to Muslims and Christian citizens affirming that Israel is a Jewish state. Lieberman himself has been described as a fascist and “certified gangster.” He is currently facing trial on corruption charges.
Bennet, who is widely seen as the leader of the settler movement, will control Industry, Trade, and Labor and his party will also run Housing, which includes settlement expansion. Netanyahu will hold the Foreign Ministry position as a proxy for Lieberman who will again take over the position when his trial is concluded. The new Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon entertains the interesting view that “the world creates excuses for Palestinian misbehavior,” presumably meaning that Israel must take whatever steps are necessary to punish the miscreants. The new government, with its dominance by settler interests, has been described as the most extreme right wing coalition in the history of Israel, which is certainly saying something when one recalls Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and also the previous incarnations of Netanyahu.
During his visit, Obama made what appeared to be a semi-serious effort to restart negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, though he did so in the usual fashion by pressing the Palestinians for concessions while accepting the fact that Netanyahu has no intention of permitting the development of a Palestinian state that has any of the attributes of actual sovereignty like control of its airspace, borders, and water supply. So it was essentially another bit of wishful thinking, but Obama left his new secretary of State John Kerry behind to jump start the non-process. Kerry was able to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to desist from his demands for a halt in Israeli settlement activity as a precondition for negotiations. Abbas also agreed to delay any appeal to the International Criminal Court or the United Nations for redress from Israel’s repeated violations of international law. Kerry believed it might be possible to have both sides take small steps to build confidence in the process, but he failed to reckon with the fact that Israel has no interest in small steps nor in negotiating at all since it is completely militarily dominant, holds all the cards due to Washington’s acquiescence in its policies, and is quite happy to continue with its never ending expansion into the West Bank.
And Kerry soon learned the hard way what dealing with Israel without any effective means to pressure its government can be like. In fairly short order the Israelis told him who was boss. Haaretz reported that a “senior Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject, expressed considerable skepticism regarding Kerry’s steps, and made cynical, slightly scornful comments regarding his attitude. ‘Kerry believes that he can bring about the solution, the treaty and the salvation,’ he said. ‘He thinks that the conflict is primarily over territory…and that is wrong.’” Actually, the conflict is over territory, namely the land on the West Bank that Israel continues to appropriate, but that the one issue that Bibi does not want to talk about. The new Netanyahu government also demanded that denial of the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees and the definition of Israel as a Jewish state be integral parts of the discussions, knowing that Abbas could not concede on either issue without some quid pro quo from Israel, which was not offered.
Hagel’s subsequent visit confirmed that the lesson had been learned, with the Pentagon chief exuding warmth while affirming that Israel and the U.S. see Iran in an exactly the same way, i.e. as a nuclear weapons proliferator, though he also noted that Tel Aviv and Washington differ on the point at which it will be necessary to take military action to thwart those ambitions. He also observed that Israel has a perfect right to attack Iran any time it sees fit, though he fortunately did not add that the U.S. would join in the fray, something that congress is currently seeking to guarantee. He avoided commenting on the recent assertion by a Netanyahu government spokesman that the terror attack on the Boston Marathon would be good for his country because it will make Americans like Israel even more. And presumably provide them with more weapons and money.
One of the first moves of the new Israeli government was to confirm a citizenship law that has been in place since 2003. In most countries one can become a citizen or permanent resident on a pathway to citizenship by marrying someone who already has that status. In Israel that is not true. Foreign Jews can become citizens automatically under the law of return but a non-Jew marrying an Israeli Jew does not qualify for citizenship. When an Israeli Jew marries a Palestinian the spouse is routinely denied entry into Israel because all Arabs constitute “security threats.” And even though the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled the law to be unconstitutional, it has been rigorously enforced by the government. Marrying outside the Jewish faith can also lead to disenfranchisement. In one bizarre case, a Jewish woman who moved to Gaza to marry a Palestinian has been denied the right to return to Israel to visit her mother.
It is a given that with the new Israeli government the drive to turn Israel into a state for Jews only will continue in spite of the demographic trends that suggest that Jews will soon be a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The belief that there should be one set of rules for Israel because of its alleged unique and possibly God-Given circumstances has also taken hold of the United States Senate, where Barbara Boxer has been pushing the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, which she co-sponsored. The bill, which has passed out of committee, seeks to grant to Israel visa exemption status meaning that Israeli citizens can travel to the United States freely. But visa exemption is regarded as reciprocal, which means that the Israelis must agree to likewise admit Americans who seek to travel to Israel. But Israel routinely turns away Arab Americans and also other U.S. citizens who are believed to be “trouble makers.” The practice is so pervasive that even the normally submissive U.S. State Department warns “Some U.S. citizens holding Israeli nationality, possessing a Palestinian identity card, or of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties in entering or exiting Israel or the West Bank.”
Boxer is attempting to create a unique exemption to American law to benefit Israel, requiring only that Tel Aviv make “every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all US citizens.” The Boxer language permits Israel to refuse entry to anyone and is a violation of fundamental human rights as well as a betrayal of Washington’s responsibility to ensure that all American citizens receive equal treatment from other governments overseas. But that doesn’t seem to bother Boxer in the least.
As Israel slides even further in the direction of an extremist run apartheid police state, it is regrettable to note that the American media and congress continue to slide right along with it. There is no law that cannot be broken if Israel is involved and no policy that cannot be embraced if Benjamin Netanyahu is for it. Barbara Boxer is only one of many Israel-Firsters in Congress who are always working on the fringes to make Israel’s questionable standards of justice and fair treatment appear to be compatible with American practices. It is ultimately a self-defeating process for Israel, which ignores its geopolitical isolation at its peril, but also for the United States, which is apparently willing to abandon all principle in exchange for a grin and a nod from the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu.