When occupation is made legal – The latest chapter in a saga of expropriation and humiliation

 

The law approved by the Knesset legalizes Israel’s territorial occupation and adds a step to Netanyahu’s run towards the cancellation of any viability of the two-state solution

 

Last Monday the Israeli Knesset approved 60 to 52 the so-called Regulation Bill. According to this law, about 4,000 Israeli settlements built in the West Bank on private Palestinian land will obtain retroactive legitimization as long as the settlers can prove that they were not aware that land was Palestinian private property. Once this is proved, they will obtain the legal permit to remain in their houses, while the legitimate Palestinian owners will have two possibilities: either accept an alternative plot of land where such an offer does exist; or accept a financial compensation set by an ad hoc committee created by the Israeli government.

The Regulation Bill results from a proposal advanced over the past months by the ultra-right Jewish Home Party in reaction to the High Court’s decision to dismantle the illegal outpost of Amona. The choice to refer this proposal to the Knesset reveals thus Netanyahu’s need to find an uneasy balance between external and internal pressures. On the one hand, the Israeli PM has to take into account the stance of the international community and avoid policies that might condemn Israel to isolation; on the other hand, Netanyahu is leading a coalition government whose survivability depends on ultra-right parties (such as Jewish Home), which forces him to take into due consideration these parties’ requests.

That the proposal was not only submitted to the Knesset but even received its endorsement is then sign of a whole other series of factors –both internal and external- that characterize and influence today Israel’s politics.

Above all, the law’s approval reveals the high degree of influence that ultra-right groups have managed to carve out for themselves in the current political environment, where fra from being a marginal force they are a leading force capable of directing policies and law. Tightly linked to the ultra-right ascent is that of those groups that support the policy of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and that, over the past months, have obtained important victories (among the latest the announcement that 6,000 new settlements will soon be built).

Finally, the Knesset’s vote comes as latest confirmation of the renewed confidence of the Israeli Right in front of an American administration that has adopted until now a mild line on Israel’s settlements. After Monday’s vote, in fact, Trump’s government limited itself to make reference to a previous comment on how settlements “may not be helpful” in the framework of negotiating a future Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it postponed further comments to the Israeli Supreme Court’s upcoming pronouncement.

Different reactions, instead, have come from the international community, the Palestinian government, and also from leading figures and NGOs within Israel.

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has condemned the vote as a violation of international law, and similar words also came from the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs who recalled the UNSC Resolution 2334 recently adopted in condemnation of Israel’s settlements.

In line with the international community was also the reaction of some Israeli NGOs such as Peace Now and Yesh Din that voiced their intention to appeal to the Supreme Court, as well as from the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who warned against the adoption of a law that violates Palestinians’ property rights and who stated his refusal to defend the law.

On its part, the PLO defined the law a “legitimization of theft” that violates international law and ends any prospect of a two-state solution, and it declared its intention to appeal to the ICC to fight the impunity that Israel seems to enjoy in front of a Statute of Rome that should apply to all states.

After Monday’s vote, it is now to be waited for the Supreme Court’s verdict. In any case, the mere fact that the law met the approval of the Knesset confirms how the Israeli government is far from seeking a solution that leads to a Palestinian state ad how it aims on the contrary to have a single Jewish state built on as much land as possible and legitimized by any legal means possible.

 

[Picture Rights: Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]

 

Is Bibi’s political career coming to its end?

The official opening of the investigative process against Netanyahu is the chance to shed light on moves and strategies of the major Israeli political forces in a moment of high uncertainty and fragility  

 

On January 2nd, the visit to the house of the Israeli PM on part of an investigative team of the Anti-Corruption Unit Lahav 433 marked the official beginning of the criminal enquiry against Netanyahu. The talk with the PM lasted three hours and marked the outset of an investigative procedure that that has placed Bibi at the heart of the Israeli public debate.

At this respect, though, it is to be noted that it is not an unprecedented debate, since it is not the first time that a similar episode comes to challenge Israel’s political stability: as early as 1996, in fact, Netanyahu was the first PM to be placed under criminal investigation while in office; after him, it was the turn of Barak and Sharon; and, finally, there was the trial against Olmert, the first PM to be found guilty and sentenced to prison.

 

Last Monday, the criminal investigation against Netanyahu was initiated by the police with the approval of the Attorney General Mandelbit, who had first opened a probe against the PM last June, following alleged proves of corruption raised by the Unit Lahav 433.

To be under investigation are relationships founded on the exchange of gifts and favors that Netanyahu seems to have maintained with various businessmen, both Israeli and foreigner, and that might involve criminal activities and affairs. In particular, the attention of the police is focused on deals for the purchase of arms signed with the German firm ThyssenKrupp and on the relationship between Netanyahu and the French Arnaud Mimran, already condemned for fraud.

 

The above picture was then made even more complex by the news reported by Haaretz according to which the investigation would also involve the tape of a conversation between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes –owner of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth– in which the two men seem to reach a deal that would grant Mozes financial and business benefits in exchange for a pro-Netanyahu coverage. The deal, that would ensure Mozes primacy within the Israeli media and journalistic system, has caused much scandal because it directly affects the faith of the Israelis in their information system and –more specifically- in Mozes’s newspaper, whose impartiality and independence has always been praised by the Israelis.

 

While the procedure has just entered its first stage and we are still in a phase of speculations, suppositions, and waiting, what is interesting to look at is what the affair reveals on the current reality of Israeli politics and its major actors – Netanyahu, his Likud Party, and the Opposition to it.

 

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the episode reveals his great capacity (already proven along the years and in the previous periods of ups and downs of his political career) of turning the cards of the Israeli political game in his favor. Faced with the accusations, in fact, Netanyahu promptly admitted having accepted gifts from businessmen with whom he had/has relationships, but stressed that they never went beyond what is legal.

By so doing, Netanyahu effectively presented himself to the Israeli public as the “victim” of a series of accusations that have no foundation and are politically-motivated. With a post on his Facebook page, Netanyahu has thus tried to turn the entire issue on his favor talking of a “persecution” that has been going on for years against him and his family and creating a sense of “discrimination” among his electoral basin – that seems indeed to have rallied around the leader to defend his innocence.

In a delicate juncture, in which Netanyahu’s political future is at stake, the PM has shown great ability in strengthening the consent of his voters; in making them a united front suspicious of all the forces (political and non-political alike) that lie outside the Likud and its ultra-right coalition; and in creating cohesion within the right-wing fringes of the Israeli population. Successfully exploited by Netanyahu, this strategy is worth being given attention as it seems to be the main factor that it is enabling Netanyahu to ride the wave of events rather than being drawn by it.

 

Similar dynamics of “rallying around the leader” are at play even within the Party that Netanyahu leads. Indeed, faced with the accusations raised against Netanyahu and with the risk incumbent upon the party’s prestige and power, even the Likud members traditionally less close to the PM have set aside their personal frictions and made themselves united in the defense of their leader and in labelling as merely “political” the accusations against him. Following the line adopted by Netanyahu himself that shouts at the political machination and plot, ministers such as Tzachi Hanegbi and Miri Regev have depicted the whole process as a “persecution” conceived and carried out by an Israeli left that is trying with all means to end Netanyahu’s government.

 

However, observing the behavior of this final actor of the Israeli political theatre –the Opposition to the extreme right led by Bibi- it emerges interestingly how it is actually maintaining a low profile with respect to the issue and avoiding fierce attacks against the PM.

The logic behind this strategy is the awareness that, in a delicate moment for the country’s political future as this might turn out to be, any reckless move and any hasty word could backfire. It is therefore reckoned to be wiser to wait the unfolding of events before embracing a harsh rhetoric that might risk legitimizing Netanyahu’s claims of a political plot being set up against him. It is thus in the context of this logic that it is possible to explain the caution shown until now by the Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who limited himself to moderate words of criticism towards the PM and who seems determined to wait for the outcome of the affair before moving to the offensive and conducting the final attack against Netanyahu.

 

As of now, Israel finds itself in a situation of nervous waiting, of uncertainty on the PM’s political future, of internal debate on the meaning of the accusations against him; and only the outcome of the investigation will be able to tell what the next moves of the major actros of the Israeli politics will be.

The US-Israel friendship between military agreements and the American elections

The military agreement signed by the US and Israel reinforces not only the military partnership between the two allies but also the tacit support given by Bibi to Trump’s eventual victory

 

Last week, after months of long negotiations and tiring compromises, the US and Israel signed a new military agreement that strengthens their bilateral cooperation in the sector.

 

According to the agreement, which will enter into force in 2019 and will last for a decade, the US will give Israel 3.8 billion $ per year in military support, for a total of 38 billion $ – of which 33 billion devoted to the purchase of armies and munitions and 5 billion destined to missile defense. The agreement implies thus an important increase in terms of financial support, if compared with the 30 billion foreseen in the current agreement and due to expire soon. The latest agreement between the US and Israel –known as Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)- is indeed the biggest military support ever approved by Washington towards an allied country.

Nevertheless, the agreement did not come without a cost for Israel and Netanyahu’s government, that had not only to renounce the initial request of 45 billion $ in ten years but also had to bend to some provisions that raised voices of criticism in Tel Aviv. In the specific of these provisions, Israel accepted not to seek further financial aid on part of the American Congress over the next ten years and to limit expenditures in the Israeli military industry to give precedence to the American one.

 

The just-signed MOU represents thus an important milestone in the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, but it is also a useful lens through which to read the approach of both Obama and Bibi to the upcoming American Presidential elections.

 

On Obama’s side, many analysts and experts have underlined how the American President invested the last months in reaching an agreement with Israel in order to conclude with a diplomatic victory his political legacy – especially in fields in which he has been widely criticized such as of foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics.

In terms of the next American Presidential elections, then, the agreement can be read as the fruit of Obama’s attempt to strengthen the image of the Democratic Party in the eyes of two influence groups of traditional Republican leaning – the arms lobby and the American Jewry. Indeed, the agreement contains provisions that (as seen above) ensure economic advnategs for the American military industry and, being an unprecedented agreement in terms of numbers, it hails the relationship between the Obama administration and those pro-Israel American Jews who have in the past denounced as too cold the President’s approach to Israel.

Specular is then the attempt to delegitimize those voices within the Republican Party that criticize Obama for the tensions that during the years of his mandate have risked damaging the traditional friendship between the US and Israel – a country that large part of the American electorate still regards as Washington’s only reliable ally in the Middle East and as only reliable bulwark against the threat posed by terrorism and radical Islamism.

 

On Netanyahu’s side, instead, the agreement was sought because seen as crucial to preserve the qualitative military superiority of Israel vis-à-vis its neighbors and thus ensure the Jewish state’s security and deterrence capacity.

In terms of the next American Presidential elections, then, the decision of signing the agreement before Obama goes home rises from the uncertainties that surround the choice of the next American President. At this respect, Netanyahu has thus far refused to take an explicit position (contrary to what he did in 2012 when he was a professed supporter of Romney). Nevertheless, it is plausible to assume that in Tel Aviv the ascent of Trump to the White House is seen more favorably than that of Clinton, whose stance on Israel is deemed by Bibi as not sufficiently different from Obama’s and excessively centered on the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and the condemnation of Israel’s settlements.

Now, the recent military agreement goes to reinforce such assumption.

 

Indeed, as far as Middle Eastern politics and Middle Eastern security dynamics are concerned, Netanyahu and Trump have over the past months revealed to share not few opinions. Just like Bibi, Trump has more than once criticized last year’s nuclear agreement with Iran and he too reads Iran’s economic and political ascent as a major threat to the region’s stability and security. In addition, unlike Clinton, Trump has not made the US-Israel friendship conditional upon Israel retrieveing dialogue with the Palestinians in the framework of a “two-state solution”. Rather, he has even supported Israel’s claim to build further settlements in the West Bank, and scored in this way an important point last week, when Netanyahu to both the Israeli and American public presented the opposition to settlements as a policy of “ethnic cleansing”. As said above, this similarity of positions on part of Netanyahu and Trump is now reinforced by last week’s military agreement. Trump, in fact, has always promoted in his political rhetoric an American foreign policy made of non-intervention and isolationism, and this approach of his goes well with the increased capacity of self-defense that the new agreement gives to Israel and that was largely praised by the head of Israel’s National Security Council. Moreover, the agreement contains provisions that force Israel to buy weapons and munitions from the American military industry. These provisions could thus favor the Trump-Netanyahu relationship if the latter’s desire of securing the best munitions and the best contracts possible led him to seek closer ties with a Republican candidate who is strong of the historical bound between his Party and the arms lobby.

 

Therefore, the military agreement signed last week by Washington and Tel Aviv not only strengthens the US-Israel relationship that in the past few years was more than once questioned, but it also influences Netanyahu’s approach to the American elections.

The land of Palestine and its ghosts

Behind the most recent wave of violence, the same old obstacles are at play. The last chapter of a tragedy began in Palestine decades ago and still too far from any hope of solution.

Of all the magical places our world is abundant of, I think few can compete with the land of Palestine.
From the warm waters of the Mediterranean to the salty waters of the Dead Sea, from the torrid air in Masada to the fresh breeze on Mount Scopus, from the liveliness of Tel Aviv to the millennial history of Jerusalem, it is impossible not to get lost in its beauty.
Yet, few places in the world are less at peace.

For a land whose past has been made of wars, blood and hate, October 2015 will be another month remembered for its violence, for the death that brought with it and for the hopes of coexistence (if there still are) it broke.
In one single month, 54 Palestinians and 10 Israelis lost their life. The latest victims of a wave of daily violence triggered by the crisis erupted last month when Israelis entered the Al-Aqsa mosque for what their forces defined (quite vaguely) “security reasons” and Palestinians denounced it as Israel’s renewed attempt to change a status quo as old as that painful 1967 war.
It is indeed since that crucial armed conflict, that the holy site has been managed by Wafq – an Islamic foundation backed by Jordan – and that Israel has accepted that the site is open to prayer for Muslims only, and to visits only for Jews – whose prayer site is the Western Wall.
A status quo, though, too fragile for a place so relevant for the religious and historic identity of both peoples.
Third holiest site for the Muslims who believe it is from there that Mohammad ascended to Heaven, and first holy site for the Jews who believe their Biblical Temple was there, it has always – and inevitably – been a core issue at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One of the most delicate ones actually, in which politics and religion confuse with each other and seem to leave no hope for solution.
An ever-open question that last month came once again on the surface to take the lives of too many.

It is indeed to address this latest wave of conflict and death that last week – after a series of meetings – the United States, Jordan, PA and Israel agreed on some steps to be taken to increase security at the holy site, that – under the proposal of King Abdullah II – will now be under 24-hour video surveillance.
Israel, moreover, reiterated that it recognizes “the importance of the Temple Mount to peoples of all three monotheistic faiths … and reaffirms its commitment to upholding unchanged the status quo of the Temple Mount, in word and in practice.”
However, if the aim of such proposal is to de-escalate violence, it will hardly be successful.
The issue of al-Aqsa, in fact, goes well beyond enforcing surveillance to preserve a decades-long status quo. It is expression of a much deeper tragedy – that of two peoples who are too apart to share so much.
A tragedy that both sides have learnt to deal with only by exacerbating it.

On the Israeli side, in fact, what makes it difficult to expect any serious and long-term distension is Netanyahu’s political rhetoric and action, that doesn’t leave room to any compromise.
To deal with the current crisis, Netanyahu’s security cabinet opted for a series of steps that – if anything – will just have the effect of increasing resentment among Palestinians.
These include the order to reinforce the police; the authorization to enforce “closures” in some areas of East Jerusalem; the order to complete the fence raised in the West Bank; the decision to proceed with the confiscation of the property of Palestinian attackers and the demolition of their houses, as well as the revoke of residence rights.
The same old strategies that reveal a deep incapacity – or unwillingness – to give a honest and responsible lecture of the situation. The same old strategies that will bring Palestinians and Israelis even further apart, that will increase suspicion, fear and hostility among Israelis and that will feed Palestinians’ rancor towards a State that treats them as second-class citizens. As if it wasn’t enough, then, such measures will also weaken the moderateness of many Palestinians, strengthen the influence of those who see in attacks the only way to assert their rights, and increase the distorted perception – shared by not few young Palestinians whose life has been a continuous struggle for existence – that there is heroism in dying hitting Israel.
A reality that, after all, even Herzog reckoned when saying that terror is – at least partially I feel to add – the result of the frustration and hopelessness felt by Palestinians in front of Netanyahu’s policies, and when opposing to Netanyahu’s strategy of “managing the conflict” his preference for a “large and dramatic diplomatic action”.
For someone who states to be seeking security like Netanyahu is, responding to attacks with repression instead of offering the Palestinians living in Israel the opportunity of a lawful and continuous political expression that could reduce their reasons for resorting to violence is a debatable choice.
If to these measures, then, we add the aggressive and blind rhetoric of Netanyahu’s speeches, the situation could hardly be more gloom.
At a press conference held last Thursday, indeed, he couldn’t have chosen better words to alienate the Palestinians, when he referred to them as “terrorists” and “extremists” who have since the beginning obstructed the Zionist enterprise and who will be eventually rebuffed and defeated. Same dangerous and counter-productive rhetoric of the speech delivered at the Zionist Congress, when he referred to the ideology lying behind Palestinians’ attacks as a “medieval” one.
Nothing worse than delegitimizing the opponent’s ideology to close the door to dialogue.

Obstacles though, do no end here. On the Palestinian side, the main problem is represented by the lack of a unifying leader able to represent the Palestinian people in its unity.
Not only is the rivalry between Hamas and PA a perennial constant of Palestinian politics, but also Abbas has proved his failure to bring Palestinians together under a same clear, defined and cohesive political project. Incapable of giving his people a political path to follow, incapable of adopting at the eyes of Israel and its leaders a firm and coherent stance, Abbas is simply the wrong person in the wrong position at the wrong time.
What Palestinians need, in fact, is a political leader able and willing to give representation to all Palestinians: those in Gaza, those in Israel, those in the West Bank. A political leader able to draw a program of bilateral and international dialogue, able to adopt a determinate but peaceful project aimed at giving Palestinians that undeniable right of self-determination that they deserve as much as any other people do.
Only through such a political figure it would be possible for Palestinians to have a credible alternative to attacks that illusively appear to many as the only way out of oppression and discrimination, but that are actually a door that leads to self-destruction.
A crucial change is therefore needed in Palestinian policy at the leadership level. Clearly, not something that can be realized in a night, but not even something that can’t be realized at all.

That said, if implementing a system of video-surveillance in the Al-Aqsa compound has a chance to help to maintain the status quo and to prevent one of the holiest places in the world from becoming a cause of conflict and death, then it is clearly a news to be welcomed.
However, we should not forget that the al-Aqsa crisis was only a small part of a broader one. Which means that until the Israeli government adopts a more moderate stance and gives to Palestinians the possibility to make their voice heard through a legitimate channel of political expression, and until the Palestinians get united under a leader able to replace the logic of attacks with that of dialogue, that unique land that Palestine is will hardly get rid of its ghosts.