Asked if it was true that a Palestinian nation would never be formed while he’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu replied: “Indeed.”
“Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks by radical Islam against Israel.”
This statement, made just days before the 17 March Israeli election, sparked outrage around the world, including from the White House. Not because it represented an actual policy shift – Netanyahu’s opposition to a Palestinian state has been a defining feature of his whole political life – but because it so vividly exposed the lie pushed by Western politicians that Israel must be supported because it is genuinely interested in peace.
But Netanyahu was not content with a declaration condemning millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to permanent military occupation and statelessness. On the morning of the election, he put out a video making clear that any hope Palestinian “citizens” of Israel might have for equality with Jewish Israelis is a foolish illusion. “The rule of the right is in danger”, he said. “Arab voters are advancing in large numbers toward voting places. Leftist organisations are bringing them in buses.”
The subjugated position of Palestinians living inside Israel is not news to them. But in the context of intense international interest, Netanyahu’s call to arms exposed the deep racism at the heart of the Israeli political system.
As Gershom Gorenberg put it in Haaretz, “The Israeli prime minister sees the Green Line as the border between where Arabs can’t vote and where they shouldn’t.”
Netanyahu has done more than any other Israeli leader to explode the myths pushed by the Israel lobby in the West. Israel wants to pursue a peace process with the Palestinians? Not according to Netanyahu. Palestinians living in Israel are equal citizens? No, according to Netanyahu, they are a dangerous fifth column.
As Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah writes: “Netanyahu’s re-election is like the ‘Nutrition Facts’ label on a box of junk food: it tells you about the toxic ingredients inside … [He] strips away the opportunities for the so-called ‘international community’ to hide its complicity with Israel’s ugly crimes behind a charade of a ‘peace process’. Israel can no longer practise apartheid at home while falsely presenting itself as a beacon of liberalism around the world.”
Some Palestine supporters hope that the increasing political rift between the Israeli government and the White House will force the US to break with its policy of unequivocal support for Israel.
But in spite of recent political animosities, the US has done nothing concrete to reduce its support for Israel. Threats to abandon the US veto of motions against Israel in the UN are, so far, just that. And at the height of the debate over the US nuclear deal with Iran last month, the Israeli Defence Ministry signed a deal with the US to purchase 14 more F-35 planes for the Israeli Air Force at US$110 million each, part of a deal worth US$2.8 billion.
That is not to say the tensions that have been on display over the last few months, and which will likely be exacerbated in the coming period, are unimportant.
Obama pointedly waited for two days before phoning Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory, and then told Netanyahu directly that the United States would have to “re-assess our options” after Netanyahu’s “new positions and comments”.
But the Obama administration’s frosty relationship with Netanyahu has nothing to do with sympathy for the Palestinians. Obama stood by last year without a word of protest as the Israeli military carried out the massacre of more than 2,000 Gazans – a war crime of monstrous proportions. It has done nothing to end the blockade of Gaza or halt the construction of settlements across the West Bank.
What is driving the Obama-Netanyahu rift is the negotiations over a US deal with Iran. Netanyahu and his most feverish backers in the US, in alliance with the US arms manufacturing lobby, want war with Iran – a position that the White House and most serious strategists in the US ruling class sensibly view as lunacy.
While avoiding the bloodbath of a war with Iran would of course be a good thing, the concern from the White House point of view is not to save innocent life, but merely to advance the US’s strategic interests, whatever the cost.
Illustrative of this fact was the interview secretary of state John Kerry did with CBS on 15 March, in which he signalled a significant shift of position towards the Iranian-backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose medieval war on his own people has cost more than 200,000 lives and displaced millions. “We are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we can reignite a diplomatic outcome”, he said. “To get the Assad regime to negotiate, we’re going to have to make it clear to him there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome.”
If negotiating a deal that leaves the butcher of Damascus in place is the price for a revival of the old alliance with Iran that served the US so well under the shah, the White House is more than willing to pay it.
Not that it will be that easy. The ideological and political battle in the US is far from straightforward. While, at its core, the US alliance with Israel is based on US self-interest, the deep interpenetration of the Israeli and US political establishments makes it hard for a US president to defy Israel just because of a divergence of aims. Added to that, the long term hostility of the US right to the Iranian regime adds immense political complications to a logical strategic reorientation.
All of this means that while a fundamental break between the US and Israel remains very unlikely in the coming years, there is the possibility for tensions to create cracks in the monolithic Western support for every aspect of Israeli policy. Supporters of the Palestinian cause can have no illusions that the US will ever be an “honest broker” in the Middle East, but we can use the exposure of the lies told by Israel and its supporters to help build a movement in the West in support of Palestinian liberation.