Netanyahu’s nonsensical occupation

After a well-publicized visit to Oman, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the Likud faction in the Knesset saying: “The occupation is nonsense.” This is not a slip of the tongue or a jab at the Left. On the surface, it is a reasonable statement backed by facts. First, the three Jewish wise men responsible for American policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians – Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman – are acting on the assumption that the occupation is nonsense. Their puppet master in Washington, Donald Trump, believes he took the occupation off the table when he transferred the American embassy to Jerusalem. He also concocted the “deal of the century” aimed at “recognizing reality,” that is, allowing West Bank settlements to remain intact. According to Trump’s plan, the Palestinian Authority will become an extended autonomy, a state-minus.

Anyone who thinks the “deal of the century” is another of Trump’s sleights-of-hand to satisfy his evangelical voters will be surprised to hear that this inchoate plan receives the full backing of the Gulf states, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS), the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia. MBS’s backing for Trump’s deal stems from a change in America’s Middle Eastern policy, namely, ditching the nuclear agreement with Iran and full-throated support for the crown prince’s quiet and violent revolution against his opponents at home. Senior Saudi journalist Abdulrahman Al-Rasheed, a columnist for Asharq al-Awsat, backs Saudi support for Trump and accuses the Palestinians of being unrealistic: “With the passage of time, and because of their constant rejectionist stance and inflammatory rhetoric, their rights have been eroded.” (Asharq al-Awsat, Sept. 18, 2018).

Netanyahu explained to members of Likud that “power is the key” and that “power changes everything in our policy toward Arab countries.” During rare visits, public and clandestine, to the Gulf States, Israeli politicians hear encouraging words from the region’s leaders that reinforce the feeling that indeed “the occupation is nonsense.” The reason is clear. Iran is a strategic threat to Arab regimes, and Netanyahu is a main player in the war to curb Iranian influence. Thus, the Trump-Netanyahu duo is the best guarantee to prolong the stability of those regimes after the tsunami created by the Arab Spring.

The same Abdulrahman al-Rasheed praised Sultan Qaboos of Oman and stated that the days of boycotting Israel have passed. He attributed this to Israel’s role in Syria: “Israel was once considered a poisonous bulge that everyone feared, but now a new balance of military power has been created, and Israel is an important factor in the region’s security” (Asharq al-Awsat, October 28). The new Arab doctrine can be defined as follows: We, the Arab regimes, are undergoing a turbulent period that threatens our very existence. The disappearance of Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq as political entities has created fertile ground for the spread of Iran. Our existential danger trumps the woes of Palestinians, who for the 25 years since the Oslo Accords have not been able to solve their problem. Israel’s military and technological power is extremely important to us as a counterweight to the Iranian threat.

In other words, the Palestinian problem may be off the table, no longer an Arab problem, and Netanyahu may be encouraged by Trump’s support plus the strategic shift in the Arab world, but turning the Palestinian question into an internal Israeli problem does not make it disappear. On the contrary, the Palestinian question falls squarely on Israel’s shoulders, since five million Palestinians have not disappeared.

The occupation may have become nonsense, but the recent downpour of 500 missiles on Israel’s southern cities is not nonsensical. The same goes for the weekly Gazan protests at the fence, not to mention the humanitarian disaster in the Strip. These are serious problems for Israel, and Netanyahu has no solution. He defended his agreement to allow an injection of Qatari cash into Gaza to pay the salaries of Hamas officials in exchange for stopping the demonstrations. “There is no diplomatic solution for Gaza just as there is no diplomatic solution for ISIS,” Netanyahu said, adding that he is willing to pay a political price for an arrangement with Hamas whereby the blockade on Gaza is eased and the border quiets down.

Even if the occupation is nonsense, Netanyahu will carry on paying for his lack of policy and his reliance on dubious friends from the Gulf. The absurdity of his position was revealed in full force this week. He negotiates with Hamas, with whom he admits it is impossible to reach a political arrangement, and he refuses to negotiate with Abu Mazen, who is willing to reach one. Negotiating with Abu Mazen would force Netanyahu to make concessions, which is a red line for him.

Considering the intra-Palestinian conflict, as evidenced in the disconnect between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, an “arrangement” between Hamas and Israel is impossible. The PA objects to any such, including the financial backing by Qatar. An arrangement is seen as lending a hand to the Trump “deal” and abandoning the idea of a Palestinian state. This forces Hamas to declare that it is not deserting the path of armed resistance which negates any settlement with the occupier.

Israel’s strength tempts the Arab dictatorships, but Israel does not address its internal Palestinian problem. Worse, the past week has revealed how fragile Netanyahu’s coalition is. First, the midterm election results in the US were very irritating to Trump, who ignored the political upheaval and hoarsely claimed a “tremendous victory.” However, in reality, women and young people, driven by loathing for him and all he represents, flipped the House of Representatives to the Democrats. Explosive envelopes targeting Democrats, and the carnage in the Pittsburgh synagogue, show where Trump’s incitement leads. Netanyahu should be concerned that the results in the US do not bode well for him and his Gulf cronies.

Second, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, under MBS’s command, shows how much the position of the Saudi leader has been undermined. The fact that Netanyahu invested much of his political capital in dubious figures like Trump and MBS points to his nearsightedness. Just as Netanyahu claims the occupation to be nonsense, Trump boasts about winning the midterms. The reality is different in both cases. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation foreshadows how much the events in Gaza will cost Netanyahu. The eventual disappearance of Trump and MBS will leave Israel facing an even more difficult political scene. The American democratic establishment is disgusted with Netanyahu, while the Arab regimes on which he relies are weak, corrupt and alienated from their peoples.

Netanyahu is flying solo into a gloomy night. He is responsible for the fate of the 5 million Palestinians under Israeli occupation, even if in his stupidity he calls it “nonsense,” while the future of his cheerleaders in the White House and in the courts of the Gulf is shrouded in doubt.

 * Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat