Jonathan Freedland Guardian/UK 20 March 2015
Israel’s prime minister won re-election with a combination of belligerence and bigotry. His opposition to a Palestinian state is a stance the world should not accept. The result was not the worst of it. No, what made Binyamin Netanyahu’s emphatic win so dispiriting were the depths he plumbed to secure victory.
The enemy against whom Netanyahu was seeking to rally his people was not Islamic State or foreign armies, or even the Palestinians of the West Bank. He was speaking of the 20% of the Israeli electorate that is Palestinian: Arabs who were born in, live in and are citizens of Israel. A prime minister was describing the democratic participation of one-fifth of the country he governs in the language of a military assault to be beaten back.
Imagine if a US president broadcast such a message, warning the white electorate that black voters were heading to the polls in “large numbers”. Or if a European prime minister said: “Quick, the Jews are voting!” This is the moral gutter into which Netanyahu plunged just to get elected.
It worked. The result is despair – in liberal Tel Aviv, where Bibi’s Labor challenger, Isaac Herzog, topped the poll; in foreign capitals, who will note that Netanyahu has now officially disavowed the near-universally preferred solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict; and in the Jewish diaspora, which has long clung to the hope that Israel at least wants to end the post-1967 occupation, even if it has still not managed to do it. I know of at least one European leader who now says privately that Netanyahu’s “credibility is shot” and that “no one will want to work with him”. And in the fellowship of world leaders, that will not be a minority view.
How then should those outside Israel react? Some will seize on the disavowal of two states to push instead for their favoured option: a so-called one-state solution. It sounds both simple and enlightened, everyone living together under one roof, with one person, one vote. But as the Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua argued powerfully this week, any conceivable path to such a destination would be “grounded in the trampling of the Palestinians”.
The more obvious objection is the one summarised by the Israeli novelist and veteran anti-occupation activist Amos Oz: “After one hundred years of blood, tears and disasters, it is impossible to expect Israelis and Palestinians to jump suddenly into a double bed and begin a honeymoon.”
The right response is surely to match Netanyahu’s honesty with our own. In this regard, the Obama administration has already performed better than Europe. While EU diplomats greeted Netanyahu’s victory with the same tired formulas, invoking a nonexistent peace process, Washington voiced its displeasure at Netanyahu’s “divisive rhetoric” and let it be known that it was ready to make things uncomfortable.
Until now, Washington has always acted as Israel’s diplomatic protector, blocking hostile resolutions at the UN and the like. Now the White House, still smarting over Netanyahu’s Republican address to a Republican Congress, wants to remind Netanyahu that such support is not unconditional. The core message, and it should not be delivered by the US alone, would be simple. It would say, of course the world has to respect the decision of the Israeli electorate. But if this is the path Israel is taking, there will be consequences. If Israel is effectively ruling out a Palestinian state – and given that it rejects a one-state solution whereby Israel absorbs millions of Palestinians and gives them the vote – then it has committed itself to maintaining the status quo, ruling over another people and denying them basic democratic rights. And that is a position the world cannot accept.
Such a stance might entail US withdrawal of diplomatic cover. It might mean tougher European sanctions of the kind proposed in Friday’s EU report on settlement activity in East Jerusalem. It could mean a growing shift towards divestment and sanctions, targeted at the occupation, without the polarising tactic of boycott that tends to alienate as many potential supporters as it recruits.
Whatever form they take, there will be consequences for Netanyahu’s actions. He was ready to sink to a new low to save his skin, but it will be Israelis – and their Palestinian neighbours – who pay the price. [Abridged]