In terms of the peace narrative, Netanyahu wins even when he loses
The ballots in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s historic campaign for re-election were still being counted when Israeli bulldozers arrived at the West Bank village of Haje.
The Palestinian press agency WAFA said 145 dunams of agricultural land owned by five families were cleared to enable the expansion of a nearby block of settlements.
Whether or not Netanyahu succeeds in extending his unprecedented tenure as Israel’s longest serving prime minster, unremarkable events such as the one at Haje will continue to define Israeli policy.
There is no hope that the results of the election in Israel will slow Israel’s relentless determination to create settlement “facts” throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the associated policy of settlement construction, which over the last half century has radically altered the area’s physical and demographic landscape, was all but absent as a campaign issue.
When it comes to Israel’s appetite for Palestinian lands, the differences between Netanyahu's Likud and his myriad challengers -- left and right -- barely register.
Netanyahu’s failed effort to cobble together a majority of 61 in the 120-member Knesset after elections last April set the stage for the vote September 17. His plans collapsed not because of a dispute about grand occupation strategy but for far more prosaic differences over whether mandatory military service should apply to ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The results of the vote failed to resolve the crisis that produced the unprecedented election. Both Likud and the rival Blue and White won fewer Knesset seats than the April contest, complicating the creation of a coalition. Netanyahu may well have lost this election but it is also the case that the opposition, headed by former chief of staff Benny Gantz, failed to win.
The rise of Lieberman?
Former Netanyahu Chief-of-Staff Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, may well emerge as the kingmaker in efforts to construct a ruling majority.
Lieberman, a native of Moldova, is fiercely secular and an opponent of the outsized power wielded by Israel’s growing ultra-religious community. His natural constituency is the 1 million Russians who have moved to Israel in recent decades.
Lieberman’s signature foreign policy credentials rest on his support for occupying Gaza and annexing settlement areas of the West Bank as part of a “swap” that would see parts of Israel where Arabs are a majority transferred to a Palestinian state. He is insisting on the creation of a national unity government open to all except the Arab Joint List, on course to be the third largest bloc in the Knesset.
No matter the composition of the new government or indeed if one can be formed without yet another election, Netanyahu has permanently altered the terms upon which Israel will engage the future of the West Bank. Election season declarations of intent to annex various parts of the West Bank, notably the Jordan Valley and, more recently, Hebron, helped energise Netanyahu’s supporters and sparked international opposition.
As prime minister, Netanyahu may have an opportunity to make good on such promises. But his enthusiasm for annexation is only the most visible evidence of a radical transformation in the terms of reference used to frame Israel’s diplomacy towards the occupied territories.
Whereas Netanyahu promises to annex Hebron, there was a time when by signing the Hebron agreement in 1997, he acknowledged a role for the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank.
Similarly, as a new prime minister in 2009, Netanyahu allied himself squarely with the international consensus in declared acknowledgement of the positive role played by a Palestinian state. In what became known as the Bar Ilan speech Netanyahu declared:
“Friends, we must state the whole truth here. The truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them. In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighbourly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbour’s security and existence.”
This era has ended. The Obama administration’s diplomatic failure marked the ignominious end of US efforts to force Netanyahu to honour his pledge and agree to an Israeli retreat from the West Bank. Trump’s soon-to-be-revealed Deal of the Century only confirms this.
Palestinian senior official Saeb Erekat said Israel “cannot have peace or security without ending the occupation, without two states, the state of Palestine to live side by side with the state of Israel in peace and security on the 1967 lines.” However accurate such lamentations, they are all but irrelevant to the balance of forces today.
Give or take?
Netanyahu's recent announcements heralding annexation generated a lot of noise. It is a fair bet that the next Israeli government, whoever leads it, will have more urgent issues than annexation of the West Bank to address.
One of the prime minister’s insights, however, stands out. He noted that whereas in the past -- actually since June 1967 -- all discussion about Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy focused on how much territory Israel would "give," the focus is now on how much Israel will "take" of the West Bank.
“You need to prepare international public opinion. First, I had to block the immense pressure from the previous [Obama] administration to return to the 1967 borders,” Netanyahu said in an interview on the eve of the election. “Over the last three years, I have been leading a historic shift. We are no longer talking about what we will give up but about what we will take and where we apply sovereignty.”
Netanyahu is correct in this central point. He has moved diplomacy 180 degrees in this direction. Whatever the results of Israel's election, Netanyahu has upended half a century of Middle East diplomacy. He has forced the world to contemplate what Israelis have long understood -- that the policy of "creating facts" on the ground paves the way for Israel’s expansion, annexation and the destruction of the territorial base for Palestinian sovereignty.