Just before being sworn in as head of Israel’s new far-right coalition government March 31, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to attack Iran. Weeks earlier, incoming Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said the new government’s “first priority is to eliminate Hamas.”
With bluster like this, it may seem there has been a sea change in Israeli politics. Lieberman is seen as an extremist because he is demanding that Arab citizens take loyalty oaths or be expelled from Israel. In addition, the new Israeli leadership has rejected the “road map to peace” outlined at the 2007 Annapolis Conference and is committed to expanding illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These will supposedly be sticking points during Netanyahu’s scheduled visit to Washington in May to meet with President Barack Obama.
The election does mark the defeat of the previous Kadima-led government, which favored the U.N.-sponsored peace process. Often described as “centrist,” Kadima split off from Netanyahu’s Likud Party in 2005. If anything, this election is about the consolidation of Revisionist Zionism, which rejects any compromise with the Palestinians. Labor, heir to leftist Labor Zionists that dominated Israel’s politics for nearly 30 years, has been reduced to just 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and has joined the coalition government.
Yet breaking down Israeli parties into center, left and right is misguided, says George Galloway, British parliamentarian and noted opponent of the Israeli occupation. He told The Indypendent that “every time Israel moves right, we are invited to consider the previous right the center, and this march has led all the way to Lieberman.”
Indeed, while Kadima and Labor orchestrated the Israeli assault that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, the right gained popularity in the run-up to the election by arguing that the assault did not go far enough or meet its objectives.
Galloway says Israelis “had the option of re-electing the brutal killers of Gaza,” he said, “but they chose even more brutal, even more desperate killers in Netanyahu and Lieberman.”
Has anything actually changed then? Israel has long been committed to aggression: In the past seven years alone, it has launched three devastating wars against the West Bank, Lebanon and Gaza and reportedly bombed Syria and Sudan.
Netanyahu may warn darkly of Iran’s alleged desire for nuclear weapons, trying to justify yet another war, but other prominent Israeli politicians, such as Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, have made similar predictions in the past (while never acknowledging Israel’s extensive nuclear arsenal).
Settlement building may increase. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Netanyahu reached a “secret agreement” with Lieberman for constructing settlements to cut the West Bank in half and encircle East Jerusalem with Jewish-only settlements. But the West Bank has long been cantonized, East Jerusalem has been slowly encircled and ethnically cleansed for decades, and settlements have been constructed feverishly under almost every Israeli government.
The previous Israeli administration “might have spoken fervently about peace with the Palestinians,” the Jerusalem Post reports, “but in 2008, Palestinians watched workers break slightly more ground for new settlement homes than they did in any single year under the previous” government.
Kadima supports rebranding Palestinian bantustans as a state. Netanyahu opposes even this, and Liberman declared that Israel was not bound by the 2007 Annapolis conference. Ironically, the Bush administration cited Hamas’ refusal to accept these terms of surrender as one reason it wanted to topple the Palestinians’ democratically elected government.
Even Lieberman, who revels in declarations of cruelty, having proposed that Arab Knesset members who meet with Hamas be executed and that thousands of Palestinian prisoners be drowned in the Dead Sea, is no outlier.
Founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion talked extensively of transfers and expulsions years before Israel was established. Israel has passed numerous laws designed to suppress the birth rate of its Arab citizens. In 2003, while serving as finance minister, Netanyahu spoke of the “demographic threat” posed by Israeli Arabs. And just last December, Foreign Minister and Kadima party head Tzipi Livni said of Israeli Arabs, “there is no question of carrying out a transfer or forcing them to leave.”
If anything, the bluster may be cover for weakness. Few expect Netanyahu’s fractious government to survive long, increasing the possibility that bombing Iran would boost his popularity. One discouraging sign is that Israel recently received what Amnesty International called a “massive” new U.S. weapons shipment.
Perhaps Obama may warn Netanyahu against a rogue strike against Iran when the two leaders do meet, but the White House will not hinder Israel’s continued colonization of Palestinian lands, despite any lofty pronouncements that may come from such a meeting.
Little seems to have changed, other than perhaps removing the latest fig leaf from the occupation.