Trudy Rubin: Netanyahu's radical cabinet ministers ignore history and pursue one undemocratic state
Published in Op Eds
One of the advantages of growing older is that you accumulate something called "historic memory," which basically means you've been around long enough to recall more than younger folks.
My historic memory clicks on like an endlessly streaming TV series as I read these days about the new Israeli government led by Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the most extreme right and most religious coalition since the establishment of the state of Israel. Having visited Israel pretty regularly for over four decades, and lived there as a Middle East correspondent, this government represents something much different and much darker than anything I've seen there before.
Lots have been written about the serious threats to Israeli democracy posed by Bibi's plan to gut the power of the independent judiciary — by enabling the Knesset (Israel's parliament) to overturn any Supreme Court decision by a majority of one vote. That might enable Bibi to escape corruption charges and please his religious nationalist allies who want to cut rights for women, LGBTQ people, and minorities.
But Bibi's coalition partners also hate the court because it may thwart them from their goal of absorbing the West Bank into one state of Greater Israel.
And here's where my historic memory kicks in.
I remember why center-left Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to support the "two-state solution" in the early 1990s. That phrase is now debunked on the right — or mouthed pro forma by leftists and centrists who reluctantly admit it has lost credence. Israeli-Palestinian polls show support for a two-state solution among both sides is at an all-time low.
Yet Rabin's reluctant handshake with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat — which I witnessed on the White House lawn — took place because the Israeli leader recognized there was no good alternative to the two-state solution. A one-state solution — keeping control of Gaza and the West Bank — meant the Israeli government would eventually rule over a majority of Arabs.
Most of those Arabs would remain disenfranchised because Israel could not afford to give them the vote lest an Arab majority take control. As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put it in 2017: "[Israel] would become inevitably — that's the key word, inevitably — either non-Jewish or nondemocratic." Israelis would face a choice, he added, between becoming "a binational state with an Arab majority and civil war" or heading down a "slippery slope toward apartheid."
Israel is now heading toward one of those choices. Yet Bibi and his far-right allies do not seem to care.
I believe the two-state solution had a chance in the 1990s, during which I spent much time interviewing leaders and citizens on both sides. I still recall the meeting I attended in Gaza in 1995 of the Fatah Hawks, a group of local Gaza activists in Arafat's political movement, most of whom had spent years in Israeli prisons. I was the only foreigner in the room, huddled in a corner.
The Hawks angrily insisted that Arafat must subdue Hamas rejectionists because two states, side by side, was the only way Palestinians had a future.
Arafat did not crush Hamas, Jewish settlers expanded their hold on the West Bank, Palestinian terrorists blew up buses — and Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish religious extremist.
Those hopeful days are over, but the conundrum that Rabin grappled with now confronts Bibi and his partners. In the current political vacuum, violence is rising in the West Bank, where the Israeli army just killed nine Palestinians in a clash in Jenin.
Yet Netanyahu has given key positions to extremist coalition partners who are eager to fan the flames.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the rabble-rousing leader of the Jewish Power Party and now Israel's finance minister, has been made head of an expanded national security ministry in charge of the border police in the West Bank. He has also been handed responsibility for the plaza in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This mosque is Islam's third holiest, and the site of explosive clashes between Israelis and Palestinians for decades — including one that set off the second intifada.
Yet control over that plaza now rests with Ben-Gvir, who — get this — was disqualified from military duty because of his participation in Kach, a group classified as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Israel. And just before Rabin's assassination, Ben-Gvir appeared on television threatening the prime minister.
His party calls for annexation of the West Bank and — even more dangerously — for a change of status for Al-Aqsa that would allow hard-right Israelis to pray there (Ben-Gvir has already done so despite Bibi's opposition). Successive Israeli governments and Orthodox rabbis have opposed this, as does the White House. Ben-Gvir could incite another intifada and undermine relations with Gulf Arabs — yet Bibi has given him the tools.
And then there is Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism Party, for whom Bibi carved out a special role as head of Israeli civilian government activities in the West Bank, angering the defense minister. I remember when Smotrich was so toxic such a role was unthinkable. This is a man who was once arrested by Israeli security services on suspicion of organizing violent Jewish terrorism in Gaza. He wants to vastly expand Jewish settlements, even those deemed illegal, and annex the entire West Bank.
I remember when Israeli leaders recognized such strategies would lead to disaster and sought to find alternatives, however distasteful or difficult to implement. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is so desperate to keep power, he is willing to ignore history and appoint dangerous firebrands to key positions. As Israeli intelligence predicts a new Palestinian uprising and Bibi's men eagerly stoke the fire, no one should be surprised when the blaze explodes.
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