Going All In With Netanyahu

September 13, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: IsraelMitt RomeyRepublican PartyGOPDonald Trump

Going All In With Netanyahu


The Republican Party and Republican candidates have been moving over the past few years ever more fully into the embrace of Israel's right-wing government, even more than American politicians in general do. This trend has been apparent notwithstanding the traditional preference of AIPAC, the core of the Israel lobby, to keep its support bipartisan so that its influence on U.S. policy will not be largely dependent on the success of only one U.S. party. The de facto alliance between the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the 2012 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney can be considered a part of this trend. A more obvious part was the spectacle last year of Congressional Republicans inviting the head of a foreign government—i.e., Netanyahu—to denounce from the podium of the House chamber a major U.S. foreign policy initiative.

For this year's campaign, the Republican Party platform surrenders all traces of independent thought on issues involving Israel and defers completely to the preferences and themes of Netanyahu's government. The platform makes no mention whatever of Palestinians, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or of a two-state solution or any other resolution of that conflict. It explicitly denies that there is any such thing as an Israeli occupation. It calls for outlawing any boycotts or other peaceful measures directed against Israeli policies in Israeli-controlled territories. It speaks of “no daylight between America and Israel”. This section of the platform would read no differently if it had come straight out of a printer in Netanyahu's office.


Republican canvassers for Donald Trump are showing in another way their attitude toward the occupation by opening offices in settlements in the occupied West Bank to seek votes from U.S. citizens who live there. Those running the operation say their funds are raised locally but they coordinate daily with the Trump campaign. Their operation is based in what, according not only to long-established U.S. policy under multiple administrations but also the position of the international community generally, is an illegal Israeli presence.

Now the Trump campaign has endorsed a video from Netanyahu asserting that Palestinian leaders call for “ethnic cleansing” of Jews from any future Palestinian state. Such an endorsement is especially significant because the assertion in the video is an especially inapt portrayal of relevant issues. Any objective and fair-minded observer would conclude, as a matter of accuracy and of propriety, that the video should be roundly criticized. That is what the Obama administration—even though it has no reason to be picking new fights with Netanyahu's government—has done. A State Department spokesperson stated, “We obviously strongly disagree with the characterization that those who oppose settlement activity or view it as an obstacle to peace are somehow calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from the West Bank. We believe that using that type of terminology is inappropriate and unhelpful.”

Netanyahu's statement in the video that “the Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one precondition: no Jews” is false. The Palestinian leadership has clearly and explicitly stated that Jews and members of any other religious or ethnic groups would be welcome to reside in, and accept citizenship of, a Palestinian state. What the Palestinians have rejected is continuation of Israeli citizens in Israeli settlements as a kind of extra-territorial Israeli presence within a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu appears to have based his assertion on a comment in 2013 by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas that “in a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli—civilian or soldier—on our lands.” Netanyahu's substitution of “Jew” for “Israeli” in his incorrect assertion is the same technique he uses more broadly to wrap everything his government does in the cloak of world Jewry. It is the same false equivalence that underlies the habitual pinning by some of Netanyahu's defenders of the label anti-Semitism on any and all criticism of his government's policies.

The whole matter of minorities in states with a Jewish or Arab majority has a relevant and painful history. A continuing characteristic of that history has been one of Arabs having control of less land than the relative sizes of the populations would suggest. In the United Nations partition plan that in 1947 laid out boundaries for new Jewish and Arab states in what had been the British mandate of Palestine, the Jewish state was allocated 56 percent of the land even though Jews constituted only 33 percent of the population. As a result, while the projected Arab-run state would have had only a tiny (one percent) Jewish minority, the projected Jewish-run state would have had a population that was 45 percent Arab. What many Arabs considered the injustice of such a division of land underlay the rejection of the UN plan by Arab governments and leaders. In the ensuing war of 1948-1949, the Arabs' military failure left them with only about 22 percent of Palestine. And then Israel's military conquests in 1967 gave it control of the whole thing. It is hardly surprising that today, as Palestinians think about a future Palestinian state that would be only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what they consider to have once been theirs, they reject even more inroads, in the form of permanent Israeli settlements, on whatever fraction they would be left with.

The international community has seen things the same way. Every peace plan over the last couple of decades has included the concept that, wherever final boundaries might be drawn, withdrawal of some Israeli settlements would be necessary, partly to make possible the economic viability of a Palestinian state. As Matt Duss observes, if the “ethnic cleansing” accusation were to be applied to Palestinian leaders, it also would have to be applied to other international figures who have worked on the problem, including at least the last three U.S. presidents.

In his video, Netanyahu highlights the fact that Israel has a 20 percent Arab population and that this shows Israel's “diversity” and “openness”. He tries to pair this observation with the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The Israeli Arabs are not an obstacle to peace, he says, so why should the settlements be considered illegitimate and an obstacle to peace? Of course, there is really no comparison at all between colonization of conquered territory by the conqueror against the will of—and to the detriment of—the existing inhabitants, and the residence of Arabs within Israel because they and their ancestors had been living there all along. But another observation to make about Netanyahu's rhetoric on this subject is how much it contrasts with his insistence at other times that the Palestinians explicitly recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”. This precondition has been one of the current impediments to getting any productive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under way. Palestinian leaders reject that demand not only because it might prejudge resolution of the so-called right of return issue but also because they would be formally endorsing the second-class citizenship of their Arab brethren within Israel. Consistency evidently is not Netanyahu's objective; indefinitely putting off any peaceful settlement of the conflict, while finding ways to blame Palestinians for the impasse, is.

A major backdrop to the charge about ethnic cleansing, one that liberal voices in Israel have noted, is the forcible replacement of one population with another that actually has occurred in Palestine. The biggest instance was when some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were forced from their homes during the 1948 war in what Arabs call the Nakba or catastrophe. That is a major reason why that 20 percent Arab population that Netanyahu used as a rhetorical prop in his video is not any larger than it is. Currently Netanyahu's government conducts a more gradual form of forcible replacement of one population with another through, on one hand, continued expansion of Israeli settlements and, on the other hand, the confiscation of land, demolition of homes, erection of economic impediments, lethal force, and other measures that squeeze life out of the Palestinian community in the West Bank. Use of the term ethnic cleansing may be appropriate, but not because of anything that Palestinians are doing or have the ability or opportunity to do.

The Trump campaign's reaction to all of this, as voiced by Trump's adviser on U.S.-Israeli relations, is that Netanyahu “makes exactly the right point” and that the Obama administration “should be ashamed of their misguided reaction” to Netanyahu's video. Evidently the strategy—notwithstanding Trump briefly making the lobby nervous earlier this year by saying he would be “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—is an especially uncompromising version of the usual American political strategy of making sure one is not out-Israeled by one's opponent. And it is not as if Hillary Clinton has given any indication that she will mount a challenge on these issues from the other direction.