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The year ended with two terrible setbacks for those seeking justice for the Palestinian people.

One was the defeat in the British election of Jeremy Corbyn – a European leader with a unique record of solidarity with Palestinians. He had suffered four years of constant media abuse, recasting his activism as evidence of antisemitism.

The Labour Party’s electoral collapse was not directly attributable to the antisemitism smears. Rather, it was related chiefly to the party’s inability to formulate a convincing response to Brexit.

But the antisemitism allegations succeeded in stoking deep divisions within Corbyn’s party, making him look weak and, for the first time, evasive. Unfairly, it planted a seed of doubt, even among some supporters: if he was incapable of sorting out this particular mess in his party, how could he possibly run the country?

Any future political leader, in Britain or elsewhere, contemplating a pro-Palestinian position – or a radical economic programme opposed by the mainstream media – will have taken note. Antisemitism is a fearsomely difficult smear to overcome.

Defining antisemitism

The second setback was a new executive order issued by US President Donald Trump that embraces a controversial new definition of antisemitism. It seeks to conflate criticism of Israel, Palestinian activism and the upholding of international law with hatred of Jews.

The lesson of where this is intended to lead was underscored by Corbyn’s experience. Earlier, his party was forced to swallow this very same definition, formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), in an attempt to placate his critics. Instead, he found that it gave them yet more ammunition with which to attack him.

Trump’s executive order is designed to chill speech on campuses, one of the few public spaces left in the US where Palestinian voices are still heard. It blatantly violates the First Amendment, which privileges free speech. The federal government is now aligned with 27 states where Israel lobbyists have managed to push through legislation penalising those who support Palestinian rights.

These moves have been replicated elsewhere. This month, the French parliament declared anti-Zionism – or opposition to Israel as a Jewish state that denies Palestinians equal rights – as equivalent to antisemitism.

And before it, the German parliament passed a resolution that deemed support for the growing international movement urging a boycott of Israel – modelled on moves to end apartheid in South Africa – as antisemitism. German MPs even compared the boycott movement’s slogans to Nazi propaganda.

Looming on the horizon are more such curbs on basic freedoms, all to assist Israel.

Shutting down criticism

Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson, has promised to ban local authorities from supporting a boycott of Israel, while John Mann, his so-called antisemitism czar, is threatening to shut down online media outlets critical of Israel, again on the pretext of antisemitism. Those are the very same media that were supportive of Corbyn, Johnson’s political opponent.

The irony is that all these laws, orders and resolutions – made supposedly in the name of human rights – are stifling the real work of human rights organisations. In the absence of a peace process, they have been grappling with Israel’s ideological character in ways not seen before.

While Trump, Johnson and others were busy redefining antisemitism to aid Israel, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report this month revealing that Israel – a state claiming to represent all Jews – has used military orders for more than half a century to flout the most fundamental rights of Palestinians. In the occupied West Bank, Palestinians are denied “such basic freedoms as waving flags, peacefully protesting the occupation, joining all major political movements, and publishing political material”.

At the same time, the UN’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination broke new ground by berating Israel for its abuses towards all Palestinians under its rule without distinction, whether those under occupation or those with degraded citizenship inside Israel.

The panel of legal rights experts effectively acknowledged that Israel’s abuses of Palestinians were embedded in the Zionist ideology of the state, and were not specific to the occupation. It was a not-so-veiled way of declaring that a state structurally privileging Jews and systematically abusing Palestinians is a “racist endeavour” – wording now ludicrously decreed by the IHRA as evidence of antisemitism.

Egregious failures

Commenting on HRW’s latest report, Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson observed: “Israel’s efforts to justify depriving Palestinians of basic civil rights protections for more than half a century based on the exigencies of its forever military occupation just don’t fly anymore.”

But that is precisely what the new wave of laws and executive orders is designed to ensure. By silencing criticism of Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights, under the pretext that such criticism is veiled antisemitism, Western governments can pretend those abuses are not occurring.

In fact, there are two very different political constituencies backing the current crackdown on Palestinian solidarity – and for very different reasons. Neither is concerned with protecting Jews.

One faction includes Western centrist parties that were supposed to have been overseeing a quarter-century of peacemaking in the Middle East. They wish to obstruct any criticism that dares to hold them to account for their egregious failures – failures only too visible now that Israel is no longer prepared to pretend it is interested in peace, and seeks instead to annex Palestinian territory.

Not only did the centrists’ highly circumscribed, Israel-centric version of peace fail, as it was bound to, but it achieved the precise opposite of its proclaimed goal. Israel exploited Western passivity and indulgence to entrench and expand the occupation, as well as to intensify racist laws inside Israel.

 
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This was an election of two illusions.

The first helped persuade much of the British public to vote last week for the very epitome of an Eton toff, a man who not only has shown utter contempt for most of those who voted for him but has spent a lifetime barely bothering to conceal that contempt. For him, politics is an ego-trip, a game in which others always pay the price and suffer, a job he is entitled to through birth and superior breeding.

The extent to which such illusions now dominate our political life was highlighted two days before the election with a jaw-dropping comment from a Grimsby fish market worker. He said he would vote Tory for the first time because “Boris seems like a normal working class guy.”

Johnson is precisely as working class, and “normal”, as the billionaire-owned Sun and the billionaire-owned Daily Mail. The Sun isn’t produced by a bunch of working-class lads down the pub having a laugh, nor is the Mail produced by conscientious middle managers keen to uphold “British values” and a sense of fair play and decency. Like the rest of the British media, these outlets are machines, owned by globe-spanning corporations that sell us the illusions – carefully packaged and marketed to our sectoral interest – needed to make sure nothing impedes the corporate world’s ability to make enormous profits at our, and the planet’s, expense.

The Sun, Mail, Telegraph, Guardian and BBC have all worked hard to create for themselves “personalities”. They brand themselves as different – as friends we the public might, or might not, choose to invite into our homes – so that they can win the largest share possible of the UK audience, capturing every section of the public as news consumers, while feeding us a distorted, fairytale version of reality that is optimal for business. They are no different to other corporations in that regard.

Media wot won it

British supermarkets like Tesco, Sainsbury, Lidl and Waitrose similarly brand themselves to appeal to different sections of the public. But all these supermarkets are driven by the same pathological need to make profits at all costs. If Sainsbury’s sells fair trade tea as well as traditionally produced tea, it is not because it cares more than Lidl about the treatment of workers and damage to the environment but because it knows its section of consumers care more about such issues. And as long as it makes the same profits on good and bad tea, why should it not cater to its share of the market in the name of choice and freedom?

The media are different from supermarkets in one way, however. They are not driven simply by profit. In fact, many media outlets struggle to make money. They are better seen as the loss-leader promotion in a supermarket, or as a business write-off against tax.

The media’s job is to serve as the propaganda arm of big business. Even if the Sun makes an economic loss, it has succeeded if it gets the business candidate elected, the candidate who will keep corporation tax, capital gains tax and all the other taxes that affect corporate profits as low as possible without stoking a popular insurrection.

The media are there to support the candidate or candidates who agree to sell off more and more public services for short-term profit, allowing the corporate vultures to pick hungrily at their carcasses. The media’s job is to back the candidate who will prioritise the corporations’ interests over the public’s, quick profits over the future of the NHS, the self-destructive logic of capitalism over the idea – socialist or not – of a public realm, of the common good. The corporations behind the Sun or the Guardian can afford to make a loss as long as their other business interests are prospering.

It’s not the Sun wot won it, it’s the entire corporate media industry.

BBC’s role exposed

The real revelation of this election, however, has been the BBC, the most well concealed of all those illusion-generating machines. The BBC is a state broadcaster that has long used its entertainment division – from costume dramas to wildlife documentaries – to charm us and ensure the vast majority of the public are only too happy to invite it into their homes. The BBC’s lack of adverts, the apparent absence of a grubby, commercial imperative, has been important in persuading us of the myth that the British Broadcasting Corporation is driven by a higher purpose, that it is a national treasure, that it is on our side.

But the BBC always was the propaganda arm of the state, of the British establishment. Once, briefly, in the more politically divided times of my youth, the state’s interests were contested. There were intermittent Labour governments trying to represent workers’ interests and powerful trade unions that the British establishment dared not alienate too strongly. Then, countervailing popular interests could not be discounted entirely. The BBC did its best to look as if it was being even-handed, even if it wasn’t really. It played by the rules for fear of the backlash if it did not.

All that has changed, as this election exposed more starkly than ever before.

The reality is that the corporate class – the 0.001% – has been in control of our political life uninterrupted for 40 years. As in the United States, the corporations captured our political and economic systems so successfully that for most of that time we ended up with a choice between two parties of capital: the Conservative party and New Labour.

Hollowed-out society

The corporations used that unbroken rule to shore up their power. Public utilities were sold off, the building societies became corporate banks, the financial industries were deregulated to make profit the only measure of value, and the NHS was slowly cannibalised. The BBC too was affected. Successive governments more openly threatened its income from the licence fee. Union representation, as elsewhere, was eroded and layoffs became much easier as new technology was introduced. The BBC’s managers were drawn ever more narrowly from the world of big business. And its news editors were increasingly interchangeable with the news editors of the billionaire-owned print media.

To take one of many current examples, Sarah Sands, editor of the key Radio 4 Today programme, spent her earlier career at the Boris Johnson-cheerleading Mail and Telegraph newspapers.

In this election, the BBC cast off its public-service skin to reveal the corporate Terminator-style automaton below. It was shocking to behold even for a veteran media critic like myself. This restyled BBC, carefully constructed over the past four decades, shows how the patrician British establishment of my youth – bad as it was – has gone.

Now the BBC is a mirror of what our hollowed-out society looks like. It is no longer there to hold together British society, to forge shared values, to find common ground between the business community and the trade unions, to create a sense – even if falsely – of mutual interest between the rich and the workers. No, it is there to ringfence turbo-charged neoliberal capitalism, it is there to cannibalise what’s left of British society, and ultimately, as we may soon find out, it is there to generate civil war.

Shrunken moral horizons

 
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Chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has not only misrepresented the known facts about Labour and its supposed antisemitism crisis. He has not only interfered in an overtly, politically partisan manner in the December 12 election campaign by suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn – against all evidence – is an antisemite.

By speaking out as the voice of British Jews – a false claim he has allowed the UK media to promote – his unprecedented meddling in the election of Britain’s next leader has actually made the wider Jewish community in the UK much less safe. Mirvis is contributing to the very antisemitism he says he wants to eradicate.

Mirvis’ intervention in the election campaign makes sense only if he believes in one of two highly improbable scenarios.

The first requires several demonstrably untrue things to be true. It needs for Corbyn to be a proven antisemite – and not just of the variety that occasionally or accidentally lets slip an antisemitic trope or is susceptible to the unthinking prejudice most of us occasionally display, including (as we shall see) Rabbi Mirvis.

No, for Mirvis to have interfered in the election campaign he would need to believe that Corbyn intends actively as prime minister to inflame a wider antisemitism in British society or implement policies designed to harm the Jewish community. And in addition, the chief rabbi would have to believe that Corbyn presides over a Labour party that will willingly indulge race-hate speeches or stand by impassively as Corbyn carries out racist policies.

If Mirvis really believes any of that, I have a bridge to sell him. Corbyn has spent his entire political career as an anti-racism campaigner, and his anti-racism activism as a backbencher was especially prominent inside a party that itself has traditionally taken the political lead in tackling racism.

Rising tide of nationalism

The second possibility is that Mirvis doesn’t really believe that Corbyn is a Goebbels in the making. But if that is so, then his decision to intercede in the election campaign to influence British voters must be based on an equally fanciful notion: that there is no significant threat posed by antisemitism from the right or the rapidly emerging far right.

Because if antisemitism is not an issue on the right – the same nationalistic right that has persecuted Jews throughout modern history, culminating in the Nazi atrocities – then Mirvis may feel he can risk playing politics in the name of the Jewish community without serious consequence.

If there is no perceptible populist tide of white nationalism sweeping Europe and the globe, one that hates immigrants and minorities, then making a fuss about Corbyn might seem to make sense for a prominent Jewish community leader. In those circumstances, it might appear to be worth disrupting the national conversation to highlight the fact that Corbyn once sat with Hamas politicians – just as Tony Blair once sat with Sinn Fein leaders – and that Corbyn’s party has promised in the latest manifesto to stop selling weapons to Israel (and Saudi Arabia) of the kind that have been used to butcher children in Gaza. Mirvis might believe that by wounding Corbyn he can help into power a supposedly benevolent, or at least inoffensive, Tory party.

But if he is wrong about the re-emergence of a white nationalism and its growing entry into the mainstream – and all the evidence suggests he would be deeply wrong, if this is what he thinks – then undermining Corbyn and the Labour party is self-destructiveness of the first order.

It would amount to self-harm not only because attacking Corbyn inevitably strengthens the electoral chances of Boris “watermelon smiles” Johnson. It plays with fire because Mirvis’ flagrant intervention in the election campaign actually bolsters a key part of the antisemitic discourse of the far right that is rapidly making inroads into the Conservative party.

Succour to white nationalists

White nationalists are all over social media warning of supposed Jewish global conspiracies, of supposed Jewish control of the media, of supposed Jewish subversion of “white rights”. It was precisely this kind of thinking that drove European politics a century ago. It was arch-antisemite Arthur Balfour who signed off the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that sought to end Britain’s “Jewish problem” by encouraging European Jews to move far away, to a part of the Middle East then known as Palestine.

That is, of course, why today’s white supremacists love Israel, why they see it as a model, why they call themselves “white Zionists”. In creating a tribal democracy, and one heavily fortified, land hungry, belligerent and nuclear-armed, Israel has done for Jews exactly what white nationalists hope to do again for their white compatriots. The white supremacists’ love of Israel is intimately bound up with their hatred and fear of Jews.

Mirvis has given succour to white nationalist discourse both because he has spoken out against Corbyn without offering evidence for his claims and because those entirely unsubstantiated claims have been echoed across the media.

There is good reason why the billionaire-owned print media and the Establishment-dominated BBC are happy to exploit the antisemitism smears – and it has nothing to do with concern for the safety of Jews. The corporate media don’t want a Labour leader in power who is going to roll back the corporate free-for-all unleashed by Margaret Thatcher 40 years ago that nearly bankrupted the rest of us in 2008.

But that is not what those flirting with or embracing white nationalism will take away from the relentless media chorus over evidence-free antisemitism claims.

Mirvis’ intervention in the democratic process will drive them more quickly and more deeply into the arms of the far-right. It will persuade them once again that “the Jews” are a “problem”. They will conclude that – though the Jews are now helping the right by destroying Corbyn – once the left has been dealt with, those same Jews will then subvert their white state. Like Balfour before them, they will start thinking of how to rid Britain and Europe of these supposed interlopers.

This is why Mirvis was irresponsible in the extreme for meddling. Because the standard of proof required before making such an intervention – proof either that Cobyn is an outright Jew hater, or that white nationalism is no threat to the UK – is not even close to being met.

The left’s anti-imperialism

In fact much worse, all the evidence shows the exact reverse. That was neatly summed up in a survey this month published by The Economist, a weekly magazine that is no friend to Corbyn or the Labour party.

 
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The decision to indict Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on three separate criminal counts pushes the country’s already unprecedented electoral stalemate into the entirely uncharted territory of a constitutional crisis.

There is no legal precedent for a sitting prime minister facing a trial – in Netanyahu’s case, for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was charged with corruption in 2009 but only after he had resigned from office.

Israeli commentators are already warning of the possibility of civil war if, as seems likely, Netanyahu decides to whip up his far-right supporters into a frenzy of outrage. After a decade in power, he has developed an almost cult-like status among sections of the public.

He called for mass protests in Tel Aviv by supporters on Tuesday night under the banner “Stop the coup”.

The honorable thing would be for Netanyahu to step down quickly, given that the two elections he fought this year ended in deadlock. Both were seen primarily as plebiscites on his continuing rule.

He is now the country’s caretaker prime minister, in place until either a new government can be formed or an unprecedented third election is held.

His departure would end months of governmental near-paralysis. The path would then be clear for a successor from his Likud party to negotiate a deal on a right-wing unity government with rival Benny Gantz, a former army general.

Gantz’s Blue and White party has made it a point of principle not to forge an alliance with Netanyahu.

Previous experience, however, suggests that Netanyahu might prefer to tear the house down rather than go quietly. If he is allowed to press ahead with another election in March, he is likely to stoke new levels of incitement against his supposed enemies.

Until now, the main target of his venom has been a predictable one.

During the April and September campaigns, he railed relentlessly against the fifth of Israel’s citizenry who are Palestinian as well as their elected representatives in the Joint List, the third largest faction in the Knesset.

Shortly before last Thursday’s indictment was announced, Netanyahu was at it again, holding an “emergency conference”. He told supporters that a minority government led by Gantz and propped up from outside by the Joint List would be a “historic national attack on Israel”. The Palestinian minority’s MPs, he said, “want to destroy the country”.

Such a government, he added, would be an outcome “they will celebrate in Tehran, in Ramallah and in Gaza, as they do after every terror attack”.

This repeated scaremongering had an obvious goal: rallying the Jewish public to vote for his far-right, now overtly anti-Arab coalition. The hope was that he would win an outright majority and could then force through legislation conferring on him immunity from prosecution.

Now he appears to have run out of time. After three years of investigations and much foot-dragging, the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has finally charged him.

According to the Israeli media, Netanyahu turned down opportunities for a plea bargain that would have seen him resign in return for avoiding jail time.

According to the most serious allegation, he is accused of granting media tycoon Shaul Elovich benefits worth $500 million in exchange for favourable coverage.

Weighed against the crimes he and other Israeli leaders have perpetrated over many decades against the Palestinians in the occupied territories, the offences he is indicted for seem relatively minor.

Nonetheless, if found guilty, Netanyahu faces a substantial prison sentence of up to 10 years. That makes the stakes high.

All the signs now are that he will switch his main target from Israel’s Palestinian minority to the legal authorities pursuing him.

His first response to the indictment was to accuse the police and state prosecutors of an “attempted coup”, claiming they had fabricated the evidence to “frame” him. “The time has come to investigate the investigators,” he urged.

As one Blue and White official told the veteran Israeli reporter Ben Caspit: “Netanyahu will not hesitate to sic [unleash] his supporters on those institutions of government that represent the rule of law. He has no inhibitions.”

Technically the law allows a prime minister to continue serving while under indictment and before a trial, which is still many months away. Assuming Netanyahu refuses to resign, the courts will have to rule on whether this privilege extends to a caretaker leader unable to form a new government.

Netanyahu is therefore likely to focus his attention on intimidating the supreme court, already cowed by a decade of tongue-lashing from the Israeli right. Critics unfairly accuse the court of being a bastion of liberalism.

But bigger dangers may lie ahead. Netanyahu needs to keep his own Likud party in line. If its members sense he is finished, there could be a rapid collapse of support and moves towards an attempt to overthrow him.

The first hints of trouble emerged on Saturday when Gideon Saar, Netanyahu’s most likely challenger in Likud, accused him of “creating an atmosphere of chaos” by denigrating the legal authorities. On Tuesday he went further calling on Netanyahu to quit.

After the failure by both Gantz and Netanyahu to put together a coalition, the task was passed last week to parliament. Its members have just over a fortnight left to see whether one of their number can rally a majority of MPs.

This brief window could provide an opportunity for Saar to move against Netanyahu. On Sunday he submitted an official request for the Likud party to hold a snap leadership race.

Observers fear that to allay this danger, Netanyahu might consider not only inflaming his base but also setting the region alight with a conflict to rally the rest of the public to his side and make his removal impossible.

In fact, the Israeli media reported that shortly before September’s election, he had tried to pull precisely such a stunt, preparing a war on Gaza to justify postponing the ballot.

He was stopped at the last minute by Mandelblit, who realised that the cabinet had been misled into approving military action. Netanyahu had reportedly concealed from them the fact that the military command was opposed.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has stoked severe tensions with Gaza by assassinating Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu Al Atta. Last week he launched airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria.

When Olmert was being investigated for corruption in 2008, Netanyahu sagely warned of the dangerous confusion of interests that might result. “He will make decisions based on his own interests of political survivability rather than the national interest,” he said.

And that is precisely the reason why many in Israel are keen to see the back of Netanyahu – in case his instinct for political survival trumps the interests of stability in the region.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
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It has been a week of appalling abuses committed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank – little different from the other 2,670 weeks endured by Palestinians since the occupation began in 1967.

The difference this past week was that several entirely unexceptional human rights violations that had been caught on film went viral on social media.

One shows a Palestinian father in the West Bank city of Hebron leading his son by the hand to kindergarten. The pair are stopped by two heavily armed soldiers, there to help enforce the rule of a few hundred illegal Jewish settlers over the city’s Palestinian population.

The soldiers scream at the father, repeatedly and violently push him and then grab his throat as they accuse his small son of throwing stones. As the father tries to shield his son from the frightening confrontation, one soldier pulls out his rifle and sticks it in the father’s face.

It is a minor incident by the standards of Israel’s long-running belligerent occupation. But it powerfully symbolises the unpredictable, humiliating, terrifying and sometimes deadly experiences faced daily by millions of Palestinians.

A video of another such incident emerged last week. A Palestinian man is ordered to leave an area by an armed Israeli policewoman. He turns and walks slowly away, his hands in the air. Moments later she shoots a sponge-tipped bullet into his back. He falls to the ground, writhing in agony.

It is unclear whether the man was being used for target practice or simply for entertainment.

The reason such abuses are so commonplace is that they are almost never investigated – and even less often are those responsible punished.

It is not simply that Israeli soldiers become inured to the suffering they inflict on Palestinians daily. It is the soldiers’ very duty to crush the Palestinians’ will for freedom, to leave them utterly hopeless. That is what is required of an army policing a population permanently under occupation.

The message is only underscored by the impunity the soldiers enjoy. Whatever they do, they have the backing not only of their commanders but of the government and courts.

Just that point was underlined late last month. An unnamed Israeli army sniper was convicted of shooting dead a 14-year-old boy in Gaza last year. The Palestinian child had been participating in one of the weekly protests at the perimeter fence.

Such trials and convictions are a great rarity. Despite damning evidence showing that Uthman Hillis was shot in the chest with a live round while posing no threat, the court sentenced the sniper to the equivalent of a month’s community service.

In Israel’s warped scales of justice, the cost of a Palestinian child’s life amounts to no more than a month of extra kitchen duties for his killer.

But the overwhelming majority of the 220 Palestinian deaths at the Gaza fence over the past 20 months will never be investigated. Nor will the wounding of tens of thousands more Palestinians, many of them now permanently disabled.

There is an equally disturbing trend. The Israeli public have become so used to seeing YouTube videos of soldiers – their sons and daughters – abuse Palestinians that they now automatically come to the soldiers’ defence, however egregious the abuses.

The video of the father and son threatened in Hebron elicited few denunciations. Most Israelis rallied behind the soldiers. Amos Harel, a military analyst for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, observed that an “irreversible process” was under way among Israelis: “The soldiers are pure and any criticism of them is completely forbidden.”

When the Israeli state offers impunity to its soldiers, the only deterrence is the knowledge that such abuses are being monitored and recorded for posterity – and that one day these soldiers may face real accountability, in a trial for war crimes.

But Israel is working hard to shut down those doing the investigating – human rights groups.

For many years Israel has been denying United Nations monitors – including international law experts like Richard Falk and Michael Lynk – entry to the occupied territories in a blatant bid to stymie their human rights work.

Last week Human Rights Watch, headquartered in New York, also felt the backlash. The Israeli supreme court approved the deportation of Omar Shakir, its Israel-Palestine director.

Before his appointment by HRW, Shakir had called for a boycott of the businesses in illegal Jewish settlements. The judges accepted the state’s argument: he broke Israeli legislation that treats Israel and the settlements as indistinguishable and forbids support for any kind of boycott.

But Shakir rightly understands that the main reason Israel needs soldiers in the West Bank – and has kept them there oppressing Palestinians for more than half a century – is to protect settlers who were sent there in violation of international law.

The collective punishment of Palestinians, such as restrictions on movement and the theft of resources, was inevitable the moment Israel moved the first settlers into the West Bank. That is precisely why it is a war crime for a state to transfer its population into occupied territory.

But Shakir had no hope of a fair hearing. One of the three judges in his case, Noam Sohlberg, is himself just such a lawbreaker. He lives in Alon Shvut, a settlement near Hebron.

Israel’s treatment of Shakir is part of a pattern. In recent days other human rights groups have faced the brunt of Israel’s vindictiveness.

Laith Abu Zeyad, a Palestinian field worker for Amnesty International, was recently issued a travel ban, denying him the right to attend a relative’s funeral in Jordan. Earlier he was refused the right to accompany his mother for chemotherapy in occupied East Jerusalem.

And last week Arif Daraghmeh, a Palestinian field worker for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, was seized at a checkpoint and questioned about his photographing of the army’s handling of Palestinian protests. Daraghmeh had to be taken to hospital after being forced to wait in the sun.

It is a sign of Israel’s overweening confidence in its own impunity that it so openly violates the rights of those whose job it is to monitor human rights.

Palestinians, meanwhile, are rapidly losing the very last voices prepared to stand up and defend them against the systematic abuses associated with Israel’s occupation. Unless reversed, the outcome is preordained: the rule of the settlers and soldiers will grow ever more ruthless, the repression ever more ugly.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
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The United Nations’ independent expert on human rights in the Palestinian territories issued a damning verdict last week on what he termed “the longest belligerent occupation in the modern world”.

Michael Lynk, a Canadian law professor, told the UN’s human rights council that only urgent international action could prevent Israel’s 52-year occupation of the West Bank transforming into de facto annexation.

He warned of a recent surge in violence against Palestinians from settlers, assisted by the Israeli army, and a record number of demolitions this year of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem – evidence of the ways Israel is further pressuring Palestinians to leave their lands.

He urged an international boycott of all settlement products as a necessary step to put pressure on Israel to change course. He also called on the UN itself to finally publish – as long promised – a database that it has been compiling since 2016 of Israeli and international companies doing business in the illegal settlements and normalising the occupation.

Israel and its supporters have stymied the release, fearing that such a database would bolster the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that seeks to end Israel’s impunity.

Lynk sounded the alarm days after Israel’s most venerated judge, Meir Shamgar, died aged 94.

Shamgar was a reminder that the settlers have always been able to rely on the support of public figures from across Israel’s political spectrum. The settlements have always been viewed as a weapon to foil the emergence of a Palestinian state.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most obituaries overlooked the chicanery of Shamgar in building the legal architecture needed to establish the settlements after Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967.

But in a tweeted tribute, Benjamin Netanyahu, the interim prime minister, noted Shamgar’s contribution to “legislation policy in Judea and Samaria”, using the Israeli government’s term for the West Bank.

It was Shamgar who swept aside the prohibition in international law on Israel as an occupying state, transferring its population into the territories. He thereby created a system of apartheid: illegal Jewish settlers enjoyed privileges under Israeli law while the local Palestinian population had to endure oppressive military orders.

Then, by a legal sleight of hand, Shamgar obscured the ugly reality he had inaugurated. He offered all those residing in the West Bank – Jews and Palestinians alike – access to arbitration from Israel’s supreme court.

It was, of course, an occupier’s form of justice – and a policy that treated the occupied territories as ultimately part of Israel, erasing any border. Ever since, the court has been deeply implicated in every war crime associated with the settlement enterprise.

As Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard noted, Shamgar “legalised almost every draconian measure taken by the defence establishment to crush Palestinian political and military organisations”, including detention without trial, house demolitions, land thefts, curfews and much more. All were needed to preserve the settlements.

Shamgar’s legal innovations – endorsing the systematic abuse of Palestinians and the entrenchment of the occupation – are now being expanded by a new generation of jurists.

Their latest proposal has been described as engineering a “revolution” in the occupation regime. It would let the settlers buy as private property the plots of occupied land their illegal homes currently stand on.

Disingenuously, Israeli officials argue that the policy would end “discrimination” against the settlers. An army legal adviser, Tzvi Mintz, noted recently: “A ban on making real-estate deals based on national origin raises a certain discomfort.”

Approving the privatisation of the settlements is a far more significant move than it might sound.

International law states that an occupier can take action in territories under occupation on only two possible grounds: out of military necessity or to benefit the local population. With the settlements obviously harming local Palestinians by depriving them of land and free movement, Israel disguised its first colonies as military installations.

It went on to seize huge swathes of the West Bank as “state lands” – meaning for Jews only – on the pretext of military needs. Civilians were transferred there with the claim that they bolstered Israel’s national security.

That is why no one has contemplated allowing the settlers to own the land they live on – until now. Instead it is awarded by military authorities, who administer the land on behalf of the Israeli state.

That is bad enough. But now defence ministry officials want to upend the definition in international law of the settlements as a war crime. Israel’s thinking is that, once the settlers become the formal owners of the land they were given illegally, they can be treated as the “local population”.

Israel will argue that the settlers are protected under international law just like the Palestinians. That would provide Israel with a legal pretext to annex the West Bank, saying it benefits the “local” settler population.

And by turning more than 600,000 illegal settlers into landowners, Israel can reinvent the occupation as an insoluble puzzle. Palestinians seeking redress from Israel for the settlements will instead have to fight an endless array of separate claims against individual settlers.

This proposal follows recent moves by Israel to legalise many dozens of so-called outposts, built by existing settlements to steal yet more Palestinian land. As well as violating international law, the outposts fall foul of Israeli law and undertakings made under the Oslo accords not to expand the settlements.

All of this is being done in the context of a highly sympathetic administration in Washington that, it is widely assumed, is preparing to approve annexation of the West Bank as part of a long-postponed peace plan.

The current delay has been caused by Netanyahu’s failure narrowly in two general elections this year to win enough seats to form a settler-led government. Israel might now be heading to a third election.

Officials and the settlers are itching to press ahead with formal annexation of nearly two-thirds of the West Bank. Netanyahu promised annexation in the run-up to both elections. Settler leaders, meanwhile, have praised the new army chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, as sympathetic to their cause.

Expectations have soared among the settlers as a result. Their impatience has fuelled a spike in violence, including a spate of recent attacks on Israeli soldiers sent to protect them as the settlers confront and assault Palestinians beginning the annual olive harvest.

Lynk, the UN’s expert, has warned that the international community needs to act swiftly to stop the occupied territories becoming a permanent Israeli settler state. Sadly, there are few signs that foreign governments are listening.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Israel, Israel/Palestine 
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There is something profoundly deceitful in the way the Democratic Party and the corporate media are framing Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria.

One does not need to defend Trump’s actions or ignore the dangers posed to the Kurds, at least in the short term, by the departure of US forces from northern Syria to understand that the coverage is being crafted in such a way as to entirely overlook the bigger picture.

The problem is neatly illustrated in this line from a report by the Guardian newspaper of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s meeting this week with Trump, who is described as having had a “meltdown”. Explaining why she and other senior Democrats stormed out, the paper writes that “it became clear the president had no plan to deal with a potential revival of Isis in the Middle East”.

Hang on a minute! Let’s pull back a little, and not pretend – as the media and Democratic party leadership wish us to – that the last 20 years did not actually happen. Many of us lived through those events. Our memories are not so short.

Islamic State, or Isis, didn’t emerge out of nowhere. It was entirely a creation of two decades of US interference in the Middle East. And I’m not even referring to the mountains of evidence that US officials backed their Saudi allies in directly funding and arming Isis – just as their predecessors in Washington, in their enthusiasm to oust the Soviets from the region, assisted the jihadists who went on to become al-Qaeda.

No, I’m talking about the fact that in destroying three key Arab states – Iraq, Libya and Syria – that refused to submit to the joint regional hegemony of Saudi Arabia and Israel, Washington’s local client states, the US created a giant void of governance at the heart of the Middle East. They knew that that void would be filled soon enough by religious extremists like Islamic State – and they didn’t care.

Overthrow, not regime change

You don’t have to be a Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi or Bashar Assad apologist to accept this point. You don’t even have to be concerned that these so-called “humanitarian” wars violated each state’s integrity and sovereignty, and are therefore defined in international law as “the supreme war crime”.

The bigger picture – the one no one appears to want us thinking about – is that the US intentionally sought to destroy these states with no obvious plan for the day after. As I explained in my book Israel and the Clash of Civilisations, these haven’t so much been regime-change wars as nation-state dismantling operations – what I have termed overthrow wars.

The logic was a horrifying hybrid of two schools of thought that meshed neatly in the psychopathic foreign policy goals embodied in the ideology of neoconservatism – the so-called “Washington consensus” since 9/11.

The first was Israel’s long-standing approach to the Palestinians. By constantly devastating any emerging Palestinian institution or social structures, Israel produced a divide-and-rule model on steriods, creating a leaderless, ravaged, enfeebled society that sucked out all the local population’s energy. That strategy proved very appealing to the neoconservatives, who saw it as one they could export to non-compliant states in the region.

The second was the Chicago school’s Shock Doctrine, as explained in Naomi Klein’s book of that name. The chaotic campaign of destruction, the psychological trauma and the sense of dislocation created by these overthrow wars were supposed to engender a far more malleable population that would be ripe for a US-controlled “colour revolution”.

The recalcitrant states would be made an example of, broken apart, asset-stripped of their resources and eventually remade as new dependent markets for US goods. That was what George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Halliburton really meant when they talked about building a New Middle East and exporting democracy.

Even judged by the vile aims of its proponents, the Shock Doctrine has been a half-century story of dismal economic failure everywhere it has been attempted – from Pinochet’s Chile to Yeltsin’s Russia. But let us not credit the architects of this policy with any kind of acumen for learning from past errors. As Bush’s senior adviser Karl Rove explained to a journalist whom he rebuked for being part of the “reality-based community”: “We’re an empire now and, when we act, we create our own reality.”

The birth of Islamic State

The barely veiled aim of the attacks on Iraq, Libya and Syria was to destroy the institutions and structures that held these societies together, however imperfectly. Though no one likes to mention it nowadays, these states – deeply authoritarian though they were – were also secular, and had well-developed welfare states that ensured high rates of literacy and some of the region’s finest public health services.

One can argue about the initial causes of the uprising against Assad that erupted in Syria in 2011. Did it start as a popular struggle for liberation from the Assad government’s authoritarianism? Or was it a sectarian insurgency by those who wished to replace Shia minority rule with Sunni majority rule? Or was it driven by something else: as a largely economic protest by an under-class suffering from food shortages as climate change led to repeated crop failures? Or are all these factors relevant to some degree?

Given how closed a society Syria was and is, and how difficult it therefore is to weigh the evidence in ways that are likely to prove convincing to those not already persuaded, let us set that issue aside too. Anyway, it is irrelevant to the bigger picture I want to address.

The indisputable fact is that Washington and its Gulf allies wished to exploit this initial unrest as an opportunity to create a void in Syria – just as they had earlier done in Iraq, where there were no uprisings, nor even the WMDs the US promised would be found and that served as the pretext for Bush’s campaign of Shock and Awe.

The limited uprisings in Syria quickly turned into a much larger and far more vicious war because the Gulf states, with US backing, flooded the country with proxy fighters and arms in an effort to overthrow Assad and thereby weaken Iranian and Shia influence in the region. The events in Syria and earlier in Iraq gradually transformed the Sunni religious extremists of al-Qaeda into the even more barbaric, more nihilistic extremists of Islamic State.

A dark US vanity project

After Rove and Cheney had had their fill playing around with reality, nature got on with honouring the maxim that it always abhors a vacuum. Islamic State filled the vacuum Washington’s policy had engineered.

The clue, after all, was in the name. With the US and Gulf states using oil money to wage a proxy war against Assad, Isis saw its chance to establish a state inspired by a variety of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist dogma. Isis needed territory for their planned state, and the Saudis and US obliged by destroying Syria.

This barbarian army, one that murdered other religious groups as infidels and killed fellow Sunnis who refused to bow before their absolute rule, became the west’s chief allies in Syria. Directly and covertly, we gave them money and weapons to begin building their state on parts of Syria.

 
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The decades-long struggle by tens of thousands of Israelis against being uprooted from their homes – some for the second or third time – should be proof enough that Israel is not the western-style liberal democracy it claims to be.

Last week 36,000 Bedouin – all of them Israeli citizens – discovered that their state is about to make them refugees in their own country, driving them into holding camps. These Israelis, it seems, are the wrong kind.

Their treatment has painful echoes of the past. In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled by the Israeli army outside the borders of the newly declared Jewish state established on their homeland – what the Palestinians call their Nakba, or catastrophe.

Israel is regularly criticised for its belligerent occupation, its relentless expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian land and its repeated and savage military attacks, especially on Gaza.

On rare occasions, analysts also notice Israel’s systematic discrimination against the 1.8 million Palestinians whose ancestors survived the Nakba and live inside Israel, ostensibly as citizens.

But each of these abuses is dealt with in isolation, as though unrelated, rather than as different facets of an overarching project. A pattern is discernible, one driven by an ideology that dehumanises Palestinians everywhere Israel encounters them.

That ideology has a name. Zionism provides the thread that connects the past – the Nakba – with Israel’s current ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the destruction of Gaza, and the state’s concerted efforts to drive Palestinian citizens of Israel out of what is left of their historic lands and into ghettoes.

The logic of Zionism, even if its more naive supporters fail to grasp it, is to replace Palestinians with Jews – what Israel officially terms Judaisation.

The Palestinians’ suffering is not some unfortunate side effect of conflict. It is the very aim of Zionism: to incentivise Palestinians still in place to leave “voluntarily”, to escape further suffocation and misery.

The starkest example of this people replacement strategy is Israel’s long-standing treatment of 250,000 Bedouin who formally have citizenship.

The Bedouin are the poorest group in Israel, living in isolated communities mainly in the vast, semi-arid area of the Negev, the country’s south. Largely out of view, Israel has had a relatively free hand in its efforts to “replace” them.

That was why, for a decade after it had supposedly finished its 1948 ethnic cleansing operations and won recognition in western capitals, Israel continued secretly expelling thousands of Bedouin outside its borders, despite their claim on citizenship.

Meanwhile, other Bedouin in Israel were forced off their ancestral lands to be driven either into confined holding areas or state-planned townships that became the most deprived communities in Israel.

It is hard to cast the Bedouin, simple farmers and pastoralists, as a security threat, as was done with the Palestinians under occupation.

But Israel has a much broader definition of security than simple physical safety. Its security is premised on the maintenance of an absolute demographic dominance by Jews.

The Bedouin may be peaceable but their numbers pose a major demographic threat and their pastoral way of life obstructs the fate intended for them – penning them up tightly inside ghettoes.

Most of the Bedouin have title deeds to their lands that long predate Israel’s creation. But Israel has refused to honour these claims and many tens of thousands have been criminalised by the state, their villages denied legal recognition.

For decades they have been forced to live in tin shacks or tents because the authorities refuse to approve proper homes and they are denied public services like schools, water and electricity.

The Bedouin have one option if they wish to live within the law: they must abandon their ancestral lands and their way of life to relocate to one of the poor townships.

Many of the Bedouin have resisted, clinging on to their historic lands despite the dire conditions imposed on them.

One such unrecognised village, Al Araqib, has been used to set an example. Israeli forces have demolished the makeshift homes there more than 160 times in less than a decade. In August, an Israeli court approved the state billing six of the villagers $370,000 (Dh1.6 million) for the repeated evictions.

Al Araqib’s 70-year-old leader, Sheikh Sayah Abu Madhim, recently spent months in jail after his conviction for trespassing, even though his tent is a stone’s throw from the cemetery where his ancestors are buried.

Now the Israel authorities are losing patience with the Bedouin.

Last January, plans were unveiled for the urgent and forcible eviction of nearly 40,000 Bedouin from their homes in unrecognised villages under the guise of “economic development” projects. It will be the largest expulsion in decades.

“Development”, like “security”, has a different connotation in Israel. It really means Jewish development, or Judaisation – not development for Palestinians.

The projects include a new highway, a high-voltage power line, a weapons testing facility, a military live-fire zone and a phosphate mine.

It was revealed last week that the families would be forced into displacement centres in the townships, living in temporary accommodation for years as their ultimate fate is decided. Already these sites are being compared to the refugee camps established for Palestinians in the wake of the Nakba.

The barely concealed aim is to impose on the Bedouin such awful conditions that they will eventually agree to be confined for good in the townships on Israel’s terms.

Six leading United Nations human rights experts sent a letter to Israel in the summer protesting the grave violations of the Bedouin families’ rights in international law and arguing that alternative approaches were possible.

Adalah, a legal group for Palestinians in Israel, notes that Israel has been forcibly evicting the Bedouin over seven decades, treating them not as human beings but as pawns in its never-ending battle to replace them with Jewish settlers.

The Bedouin’s living space has endlessly shrunk and their way of life has been crushed.

This contrasts starkly with the rapid expansion of Jewish towns and single-family farming ranches on the land from which the Bedouin are being evicted.

It is hard not to conclude that what is taking place is an administrative version of the ethnic cleansing Israeli officials conduct more flagrantly in the occupied territories on so-called security grounds.

These interminable expulsions look less like a necessary, considered policy and more like an ugly, ideological nervous tic.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Israel, Israel/Palestine 
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It would be a grave mistake to assume that the continuing political deadlock in Israel – with neither incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his main rival Benny Gantz seemingly able to cobble together a coalition government – is evidence of a deep ideological divide.

In political terms, there is nothing divided about Israel. In this month’s general election, 90 per cent of Israeli Jews voted for parties that identify as being either on the militaristic, anti-Arab right or on the religious, anti-Arab far-right.

The two parties claiming to represent the centre-left – the rebranded versions of Labour and Meretz – won only 11 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Stranger still, the three parties that say they want to form a “broad unity government” won about 60 per cent of the vote.

Netanyahu’s Likud, Gantz’s Blue and White party led by former generals, and ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu secured between them 73 seats – well over the 61 seats needed for a majority.

All three support the entrenchment of the occupation and annexation of parts of the West Bank; all three think the settlements are justified and necessary; all demand that the siege of Gaza continue; all view the Palestinian leadership as untrustworthy; and all want neighbouring Arab states cowering in fear.

Moshe Yaalon, Gantz’s fellow general in the Blue and White party, was formerly a pivotal figure in Likud alongside Netanyahu. And Lieberman, before he created his own party, was the director of Netanyahu’s office. These are not political enemies; they are ideological bedfellows.

There is one significant but hardly insurmountable difference. Gantz thinks it is important to maintain bipartisan US support for Israel’s belligerent occupation while Netanyahu has preferred to throw Israel’s hand in with Donald Trump and the Christian religious right.

Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, has pressed the three parties to work together. He has suggested that Netanyahu and Gantz rotate the role of prime minister between them, a mechanism used in Israel’s past.

But after Gantz refused last week, the president assigned Netanyahu the task of trying to form a government, although most observers think the effort will prove futile. After indecisive elections in April and September, Israel therefore looks to be heading for a third round of elections.

But if the deadlock is not ideological, what is causing it?

In truth, the paralysis has been caused by two fears – one in Likud, the other in Blue and White.

Gantz is happy to sit in a unity government with the Likud party. His objection is to allying with Netanyahu, whose lawyers this week began hearings with the attorney general on multiple counts of fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu wants to be in power to force through a law guaranteeing himself immunity from prosecution.

Blue and White was created to oust Netayahu on the basis that he is corrupt and actively destroying what is left of Israel’s democratic institutions, including by trying to vilify state prosecutors investigating him.

For Blue and White to now prop Netanyahu up in a unity government would be a betrayal of its voters.

The solution for Likud, then, should be obvious: remove Netanyahu and share power with Blue and White.

But the problem is that Likud’s members are in absolute thrall to their leader. The thought of losing him terrifies them. Likud now looks more like a one-man cult than a political party.

Gantz, meanwhile, is gripped by fear of a different kind.

Without Likud, the only solution for Gantz is to turn elsewhere for support. But that would make him reliant on the 13 seats of the Joint List, a coalition of parties representing Israel’s large minority of Palestinian citizens.

And there’s the rub. Blue and White is a deeply Arab-phobic party, just like Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. Its only civilian leader, Yair Lapid, notoriously refused to work with Palestinian parties after the 2013 election – before Netanyahu had made racist incitement his campaign trademark.

Lapid said: “I’ll never sit with the Zoabis” – a reference to the most prominent of the Palestinian legislators at the time, Haneen Zoabi.

Similarly, Gantz has repeatedly stressed his opposition to sitting with the Joint List.

Nonetheless, the Joint List’s leader Ayman Odeh made an unprecedented gesture last week, throwing the weight of most of his faction behind Gantz.

That was no easy concession, given Gantz’s positions and his role as army chief in 2014 overseeing the destruction of Gaza. The move angered many Palestinians in the occupied territories.

But Odeh saw the Palestinian minority’s turn-out in September leap by 10 percentage points compared to April’s election, so desperate were his voters to see the back of Netanyahu.

Surveys also indicate a growing frustration among Palestinian citizens at their lack of political influence. Although peace talks are off Israel’s agenda, some in the minority hope it might be possible to win a little relief for their communities after decades of harsh, institutional discrimination.

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Odeh justified his support for Gantz. It was intended to send “a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens”.

Gantz seems unimpressed. According to an investigation by the Israeli media, Netahyahu only got first crack at forming a government because Gantz blanched at the prospect.

He was worried Netanyahu would again smear him – and damage him in the eyes of voters – if he was seen to be negotiating with the Joint List.

Netanyahu has already painted the alternatives in stark terms: either a unity government with him at its heart, or a Blue and White government backed by those who “praise terrorists”.

The Likud leader might yet pull a rabbit out of his battered hat. Gantz or Lieberman could cave, faced with taunts that otherwise “the Arabs” will get a foot in the door. Or Netanyahu could trigger a national emergency, even a war, to bully his rivals into backing him.

But should it come to a third election, Netanyahu will have a pressing reason to ensure he succeeds this time. And that will doubtless require stepping up incitement another dangerous gear against the Palestinian minority.

The reality is that there is strong unity in Israel – over shared, deeply ugly attitudes towards Palestinians, whether citizens or those under occupation. Paradoxically, the only obstacle to realising that unity is Netanyahu’s efforts to cling to power.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
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For most Israelis, the general election on Tuesday was about one thing and one thing only. Not the economy, nor the occupation, nor even corruption scandals. It was about Benjamin Netanyahu. Should he head yet another far-right government, or should his 10-year divisive rule come to an end?

Barring a last-minute upset as the final ballot papers are counted, Israelis have made their verdict clear: Netanyahu’s time is up.

In April’s inconclusive election, which led to this re-run, Netanyahu’s Likud party tied with its main opponent in the Blue and White party, led by retired general Benny Gantz. This time Gantz appears to have nudged ahead, with 33 seats to Netanyahu’s 31 in the 120-member parliament. Both parties fared worse than they did in April, when they each secured 35 seats.

But much more significantly, Netanyahu appears to have fallen short of the 61-seat majority he needs to form yet another far-right government comprising settler and religious parties.

His failure is all the more glaring, given that he conducted by far the ugliest – and most reckless – campaign in Israeli history. That was because the stakes were sky-high.

Only a government of the far-right – one entirely beholden to Netanyahu – could be relied on to pass legislation guaranteeing him immunity from a legal process due to begin next month. Without it, he is likely to be indicted on multiple charges of fraud and breach of trust.

So desperate was Netanyahu to avoid that fate, according to reports published in the Israeli media on election day, that he was only a hair’s breadth away from launching a war on Gaza last week as a way to postpone the election.

Israel’s chief law officer, attorney general Avichai Mendelblit, stepped in to halt the attack when he discovered the security cabinet had approved it only after Netanyahu concealed the army command’s major reservations.

Netanyahu also tried to bribe right-wing voters by promising last week that he would annex much of the West Bank immediately after the election – a stunt that blatantly violated campaigning laws, according to Mendelblit.

Facebook was forced to shut down Netanyahu’s page on two occasions for hate speech – in one case after it sent out a message that “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men”. That sentiment appeared to include the 20 per cent of the Israeli population who are Palestinian citizens.

Netanyahu incited against the country’s Palestinian minority in other ways, not least by constantly suggesting that their votes constituted fraud and that they were trying to “steal the election”.

He even tried to force through a law allowing his Likud party activists to film in Arab polling stations – as they covertly did in April’s election – in an unconcealed attempt at voter intimidation.

The move appeared to have backfired, with Palestinian citizens turning out in larger numbers than they did in April.

US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, intervened on Netanyahu’s behalf by announcing the possibility of a defence pact requiring the US to come to Israel’s aid in the event of a regional confrontation.

None of it helped.

Netanayhu’s only hope of political survival – and possible avoidance of jail time – depends on his working the political magic he is famed for.

That may prove a tall order. To pass the 61-seat threshold, he must persuade Avigdor Lieberman and his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party to support him.

Netanyahu and Lieberman, who is a settler, are normally ideological allies. But these are not normal times. Netanyahu had to restage the election this week after Lieberman, sensing the prime minister’s weakness, refused in April to sit alongside religious parties in a Netanyahu-led government.

Netanyahu might try to lure the fickle Lieberman back with an irresistible offer, such as the two of them rotating the prime ministership.

But Lieberman risks huge public opprobrium if, after putting the country through a deeply unpopular re-run election, he now does what he refused on principle to do five months ago.

Lieberman increased his party’s number of seats to eight by insisting that he is the champion of the secular Israeli public.

Most importantly for Lieberman, he finds himself once again in the role of kingmaker. It is almost certain he will shape the character of the next government. And whoever he anoints as prime minister will be indebted to him.

The deadlock that blocked the formation of a government in April still stands. Israel faces the likelihood of weeks of frantic horse-trading and even the possibility of a third election.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of Palestinians – whether those under occupation or those living in Israel as third-class citizens – the next Israeli government is going to be a hardline right one.

On paper, Gantz is best placed to form a government of what is preposterously labelled the “centre-left”. But given that its backbone will comprise Blue and White, led by a bevy of hawkish generals, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, it would, in practice, be nearly as right wing as Netanyahu’s.

Gantz even accused Netanyahu of stealing his idea in announcing last week that he would annex large parts of the West Bank.

The difficulty is that such a coalition would depend on the support of the 13 Joint List legislators representing Israel’s large Palestinian minority. That is something Lieberman has rejected out of hand, calling the idea “absurd” early on Wednesday as results were filtering in. Gantz appears only a little more accommodating.

The solution could be a national unity government comprising much of the right: Gantz’s Blue and White teamed up with Likud and Lieberman. Both Gantz and Lieberman indicated that was their preferred choice on Wednesday.

The question then would be whether Netanyahu can worm his way into such a government, or whether Gantz demands his ousting as a price for Likud’s inclusion.

Netanyahu’s hand in such circumstances would not be strong, especially if he is immersed in a protracted legal battle on corruption charges. There are already rumblings of an uprising in Likud to depose him.

One interesting outcome of a unity government is that it could provoke a constitutional crisis by making the Joint List, the third-largest party, the official opposition. That is the same Joint List described by Netanyahu as a “dangerous anti-Zionist” party.

Ayman Odeh would become the first leader of the Palestinian minority to attend regular briefings by the prime minister and security chiefs.

Netanyahu will continue as caretaker prime minister for several more weeks – until a new government is formed. If he stays true to form, there is plenty of mischief he can instigate in the meantime.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.