Analysis. As polls close in Israel, another ugly campaign comes to an end. Neither the government nor the opposition talked about the Palestinians as human beings, but both eagerly debated the forms of control over their occupied lands.

The Israeli trump card: annex the West Bank

Last week, the AP news agency noted the absence of the Palestinian issue from the Israeli election campaign, making a comparison with past elections, when a mutually agreed solution with the Palestinians had been the central issue for voters. However, their analysis mostly misses the bigger picture.

It would be more accurate to say that the Palestinians, as individuals and as a people, are not something that Israeli public opinion is interested in.

This has been true for many years, and also applies for Europe, where Benjamin Netanyahu, taking advantage of the rampant Islamophobia and rejection of foreigners, whether Arabs or Africans, has been able to eliminate the support for Palestinian aspirations from the agendas of the current governments, almost all of them allies of Israel.

Capitalizing on the internal divisions of the Palestinians, and exploiting Trump’s unconditional support for his policies of occupation and colonization, the Israeli prime minister was able to go around the issue and avoid addressing the problem of the future relationship between Israelis and Palestinians in explicit terms.

He has left the whole mess to his friend, Trump, who plans to solve it with his so-called “Deal of the century,” which he aims to achieve by isolating and weakening the Palestinians on the regional and international stage.

Nonetheless, a major theme of this campaign—much like previous ones—was the forms of control (in other words, occupation) of the West Bank. For a long time, Gaza has been thought of as another world, isolated and remote, and no one is debating the future status of Jerusalem any longer. A few days ago, close to the end of the campaign, Netanyahu delivered a bombshell aimed at securing victory for his party, Likud, which would result in him being charged by President Rivlin with forming the new government.

Netanyahu boasted to the Israeli people that he had built 18,000 houses for Jewish settlers over the past two years, and was now about to begin another phase of his plan, in which Israeli sovereignty will gradually be extended to all the colonial settlements in the occupied West Bank, without exception.

He is hoping this parting shot will prove as decisive as the similar tactic he used in March 2015, when, after the polls had already opened, he sounded the alarm for Jewish Israelis to go to the polls en masse in order to counter the Arab Israelis, who were—in his words—“voting in droves.” This contributed to Likud’s clear victory, after the final polls had predicted that the center-left Zionist Union would win. Now, Netanyahu tried to bolster his settlement annexation plan by emphasizing he had been working to win US support: “I’ve been talking to the Americans for six months,” he revealed in an interview broadcast on the radio station of the Israeli military. “It’s important to proceed with the approval of the United States.”

The plan is all too obvious: Israel will annex most—indeed, almost all—of the West Bank, and Trump will recognize this move on behalf of the United States, just like he did in the case of Jerusalem on Dec. 6, 2017, and in the case of the Syrian Golan Heights last month.

This is all in continuity with the ideology of the Israeli right, proceeding in a straight line from Ze’ev Jabotinsky to Menachem Begin to Benjamin Netanyahu: according to them, Israel must extend all the way from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, and the “Arabs” living in “the Land of Israel” can only enjoy limited administrative autonomy in their population centers—or worse.

Netanyahu has plenty of smaller parties of the extreme right and religious Zionists who are willing to support him, but who are actually calling for even less “generous” conditions for Arabs. For instance, one only need to look at Netanyahu’s closeness to the electoral alliance of three parties of the far right, one of which is the unabashedly racist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). One should also note the strong climb in support in the recent polls for Zehut (Identity), a party led by Moshe Feiglin (ex-Likud), whose platform includes, on one hand, marijuana legalization, and on the other hand the annexation of the entire West Bank, with “incentives for leaving” for Palestinians.

In the past, such extreme ideas had to contend against the dominant notion of a “separation” between Israelis and Palestinians, promoted by the middle-of-the-road center-left pacifists, with the vague formula of “two peoples, two states,” which has now been made obsolete in practical terms. Today, the meaning of the notion of “separation” proposed by the Israeli opposition is not very different from Likud’s approach. Netanyahu’s main rival, former head of the Israeli armed forces Benny Gantz, at the head of the (only supposedly) centrist Blue-White alliance—known as “the Generals’ party” in Israel—has put out a response to Netanyahu’s announcement of his plan to annex most of the West Bank in which Gantz attacked the plan as “irresponsible.” However, his objections had nothing to do with respecting international law and Palestinian rights. Indeed, his message was quite the opposite.

“We said we will strive for a regionally and globally backed peace agreement while maintaining our basic principles,” Gantz said. He elaborated: “I support attempting to reach a peace agreement with security and diplomatic principles in which the Jordan Valley is our eastern security border, Jerusalem is our capital and the settlement blocs are in our hands.” Basically, what he is proposing is the same as Netanyahu’s plan, with the difference being that the current prime minister also wants Israel to annex the isolated Jewish settlements, the most militant ones, often built close to Palestinian towns. Netanyahu would leave around 30% of the West Bank to the Palestinians, while Gantz would leave them around 40%, saying that he would be willing to “negotiate,” if all his conditions are met.

This bleak outlook is not surprising in a country where—as the Yediot Ahronot wrote a few days ago—only 12% of the citizens say they are on the left—in the broad meaning of the term, not the revolutionary one. This is why the commentators who are saying, or writing, that the economy and social issues have been the central themes of this Israeli election campaign instead of the Palestinian issue are mistaken. As we have emphasized: no one has been talking about the Palestinians as human beings, but both the government and the opposition in Israel have been debating constantly about the forms of control over their occupied lands. It has been like this for decades, and it will be so for the foreseeable future.

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