As Israel prepares for a general election next week in the midst of widespread Middle East turbulence and uncertainty, one of the country’s most influential politicians has accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of endangering the security of the Jewish state by seeking a Greater Israel through his policy of expanding Jewish settlements in Palestinan territory.
Netanyahu claims, in the face of international criticism, that these settlements are to reinforce Israeli security in a hostile environment. But Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, insists they are killing prospects of achieving a two-state solution with the Palestinians and will lead to a single state in which Arabs will be in the majority.
Israelis will then find themselves a minority group in a country dominated by Palestinians. Thus, says Livni, the country will cease to be a Jewish state – in much the same sense, presumably, as South Africa ceased to be a “white” country with the ending of apartheid. It became Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation”.
This column, along with other commentators around the world, has made the same point about the settlements many times before, but this is the first time I am aware of it becoming a central issue in an Israeli election. Livni has made it her election platform.
The importance of this is that it brings the settlement issue to centre stage and confronts the international community with what indeed Israel’s policy intentions are. Does the Netanyahu administration, allied with right-wing extremists, want a settlement with the Palestinians, or is its intention to expand Israel to include the whole of the Holy Land?
Livni believes such a strategy would lead to Jews being swamped by the Palestinians living there, but there are Israeli extremists who believe the Palestinians don’t belong in the Holy Land anyway and should be accommodated in Jordan. Is Netanyahu among them? Is ethnic cleansing an issue?
Livni is no great liberal, but she is a heavyweight in Israeli politics and highly regarded in many Western countries, particularly the US where she developed a close bond with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her accusations will be taken seriously.
Livni became leader of the Kadima party after former prime minister Ehud Olmert stepped down, and led it to become the majority party by a narrow margin in the 2009 general elections – but then failed to form a large enough coalition to govern, leaving Netanyahu to do so by aligning his Likud party with the extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party of Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman.
Now, even though Lieberman has stepped aside in the face of corruption allegations, Netanyahu has linked Likud with the Beiteinu party, most of whose supporters are Soviet immigrants with hard right-wing attitudes.
In the wake of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent success in winning observer status at the UN, a step towards Palestinian statehood recognition, Netanyahu has intensified his settlement programme as a form of punishment, with big new settlements being established in the West Bank and, only last week, plans to build 1 500 new Jewish homes across the Green Line in East Jerusalem.
Apparently wary of Israel’s seemingly dead-end politics, Livni retired as leader of the opposition last year. But now, outraged by Netanyahu’s actions, she has come roaring back with a new party called Hatnuah, which has already attracted some previous members of Kadima.
The settlements issue first sprang to life in 1977 when Menachem Begin of Likud led the party to victory and began establishing Jewish settlements in what he called the holy lands of Judea and Samaria, (the West Bank).
This reflects a factor seldom mentioned in the Western media, as well as South Africa’s, which is that while Israeli politicians and the media constantly cite radical Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist as a reason for refusing to negotiate with it, there is seldom any mention of the fact that Likud has never recognised the right of a Palestinian state to be established in the Holy Land.
Indeed at the founding of Israel in 1948 the Revisionist Zionists, who evolved into today’s Likud, sought to occupy what they called Eretz Yisrael, meaning the Greater Land of Israel. However, Begin did not annex the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel had overrun in the Six Day War a decade before he came to power, presumably because he realised that absorbing the Palestinians living there would turn Israel into a bi-national state.
So the occupation of those lands has simply continued in violation of international law, which holds that conquered territory must either be annexed, inhabitants and all, or the occupying power must withdraw after a reasonable time. No building or exploitation of land is supposed to take place during that limited occupation period, but it has happened nonetheless.
Nine years ago Ariel Sharon, the tough military commander who quit Likud to found Kadima, recognised the demographic implications of the settlements to Israel’s Jewish status and embarked on a unilateral “disengagement plan”, which involved withdrawing Jewish settlers from Gaza and from four settlements in the northern West Bank. Livni was one of his strong supporters in this programme, which came to a halt when Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke.
In an interview with Israel’s Haaretz newspaper last week, Livni came close to accusing Netanyahu of reverting to the Eretz Yisrael dream by accusing him of sabotaging the two-state solution with his settlement programme and going instead for the Greater Israel option, which she contended would eventually bring about the demise of the Jewish state.
Asked whether she herself had abandoned the ideal of the Greater Land of Israel, Livni offered a careful reply: “I believe, to this day, in the Jewish people’s right to the Greater Land of Israel,” she said, “but in addition to this right I believe in the values of equality – for everyone.
“The Zionist vision in my eyes is the preservation of a Jewish and democratic Israel while these values do not contradict each other, and for this reason we must choose between two possible states. One is Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and the other is a state between the sea and the Jordan river, which will ultimately be an Arab state… “
Livni also accused Netanyahu of allowing negotiations with the Palestinians to peter out, saying she believed a settlement was reachable. “I conducted negotiations for nine months,” she said, “and these talks didn’t reach a dead end, but they dissipated after the election of Netanyahu, who refused to say two nation-states and blocked any hope of an arrangement.”
In an election speech later, Livni was even blunter. “Netanyahu will be the demise of the Jewish state,” she said. “The choice faced by Israeli citizens (in next Tuesday’s elections) is between Zionism and extremism.
“Netanyahu and the extremists that surround him accuse me of collaborating with the enemy, but faced with a choice between Greater Israel and a Jewish state, I choose a Jewish state.”
Hopefully, bringing this issue to centre stage in Israeli politics will help focus international attention, particularly in the US, on what Israel’s intentions really are. Especially since the latest opinion polls indicate that Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu alliance is on the rise and likely to win next Tuesday.
l Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.