Confused by Netayahu? Look at Likud

Jonathan Shamir and Aaron Simons

It has now been fourteen years since the Left were exiled to opposition in Israel. Despite the Zionist Union’s hopeful campaign, Netanyahu showed his political experience as he undercut his right-wing coalition partners (Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi) by pandering to their supporters in the final stretch of the election campaign. The result is the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

Attempting to unpick what Netanyahu actually believes, especially in relation to the Palestinians, is a challenge. He has gone back and forth on the issue of a two-state solution innumerable times.  His 1996 election campaign centred on the backlash to the Oslo accords, whilst the campaign for his second tenure saw him unequivocally advocate a two-state solution. Then just before the 2015 election, he stated in Conservative newspaper Makor Rishon “If I’m elected, there will be no Palestinian State.” He subsequently brushed off this comment as an innocent faux pas after criticism from the international community, and on his recent visit to Britain stated “I am ready to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians with no conditions whatsoever to enter negotiations, and I’m willing to do so immediately”.

How do we best understand Netanyahu’s continuous reversals? Netanyahu’s ambiguity is partly the product of the political tightrope he has to walk. Bibi must appear to be sufficiently enthused about a two state solution to placate the international community, whilst prevaricating enough to allow his right-wing Greater Israel coalition to believe it won’t actually happen.

However there are deeper reasons behind this apparent inconsistency on the two state solution. The best diagnosis of Netanyahu comes in Foreign Affairs, where Natan Sachs argues this back-and-forth reflects an anti-solutionist strategy, where Netanyahu simply believes there are currently no solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sachs diagnoses Netanyahu as a strategic conservative, choosing perpetual occupation over any potentially hazardous decisions.

This anti-solutionism is not based on nothing. The current administrative split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Abbas’s diminutive mandate, persistent incitement from the Palestinian Administration and Hamas and the current wave of unpredictable violence all feed Netanyahu’s view that a realistic peace is currently impossible. Not that Netanyahu has much room to manoeuvre anyway. Any positive moves towards a two-state solution, such as a repeat of the 2010 settlement freeze, would shatter his fragile coalition.

Yet there is more to Netanyahu than conservative strategy and coalition politics, and this anti-solutionism is not merely a tactical decision. It would be wrong to portray Bibi’s worldview as traditional pessimism resulting from a sober and detached analysis. Netanyahu’s view comes right from the heart of Revisionist Zionism.

Netanyahu may be a political chameleon, but his party is not. Netanyahu’s habitat, the jungle of Israeli Rightist politics, provides the ideological view that shapes Netanyahu’s strategy. Netanyhu’s charisma and the Bibi persona may divert attention away from his party, but it is Likud ideology that holds the key to understanding Bibi.

Likud follows a secular Revisionist Zionism, rooted in the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which contains three key elements which influence Netanyahu today and produce his anti-solutionist strategy: the Iron Wall, a vision of Greater Israel, and a view of the Palestinians as the implacable enemy.

Jabotinsky’s seminal 1923 essay ‘The Iron Wall’ argued that Zionism would only survive behind a barrier of force – an iron wall. Violence was not only legitimate, but necessary in bringing the Palestinians to a point of desperation at which they would negotiate with the Jewish state. For Netanyahu, it is this idea of necessary violence that justifies continuing the occupation in perpetuity. This is the core of his anti-solutionist strategy.

The concept of ‘Greater Israel’ is prominent in right-wing Israeli politics today, in the form of both secular and religious nationalism. There is very little evidence that Likud MKs believe in a Palestinian state, or oppose settlement expansion. Danny Danon, on the right wing of Likud and the current Israeli envoy to the UN, promotes a three-state solution where Israel’s responsibility towards the Palestinian people is abrogated to Jordan and Egypt. Netanyahu’s anti-solutionism is not just a tactical decision, but one that also follows Likud ideology in allowing for the settlement project to continue. Netanyahu’s calls for Abbas to come to the table with no preconditions ring hollow as settlements are erected in the background.

Most importantly, underpinning Netanyahu’s strategy is his view of the Palestinians as an implacable enemy. This was the core of Jabotinksy’s justification for the Iron Wall – the belief that Palestinians would never accept Zionism. Netanyahu takes this even further: he views the Palestinians as radicalised Jew-haters, meaning that no political agreement can cure the conflict. It is within this mind-set that Netayahu can make the extraordinary claim (which he later retracted) that the Mufti, rather than Hitler, came up with the Final Solution. Anti-solutionism makes sense if you see Palestinians as inherently anti-Semitic.

Sachs is right; Netanyahu is a strategic conservative and anti-solutionist. But he is not devoid of ideology, and we view Netanyahu as a traditional pessimist at our peril. Netanyahu is much more than that. Jabotinsky lives on in Netanyahu today.


Newton’s Third Law of Palestinian Stabbings

Aaron Simons

Where there is an action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This has been the line taken in a series of op-eds on the recent wave of violence in Israel and Palestine. Many of them say the same thing over and over again: Palestinian violence is the inevitable response to the occupation.

Gideon Levy wrote Even Gandhi Would Understand the Palestinians’ Violence. In the Guardian, Marwan Barghouti argued There will be no peace until Israel’s occupation of Palestine ends, whilst Mairav Zonszein opined that Israel’s domination of Palestinians makes violence inevitable. In September, Samah Salaime asked Why do they throw stones? The answer, of course, is the occupation.

It seems like an obvious point. The Palestinians live under a violent occupation. Many live in refugee camps, with little or no basic rights. Jewish settlements in the West Bank proliferate. Settlers and Palestinians are treated under two different legal systems. Settler violence is often ignored, whilst snipers are used against stone-throwing Palestinian children, who are then tried in military courts.  The settlers have vastly more rights and resources than the Palestinians. Is violent resistance any surprise as the occupation nears its 50 year anniversary?

Yet this point is often lost; the occupation is often ignored. Palestinian violence is seen as the product of incitement and incitement alone, in a sort of Jew vs Arab clash of civilisations. It’s easier to pretend not to see the occupation and to portray the Palestinians as an implacable enemy, as this allows for the avoidance of any degree of self-reflection, or recognition of Israel’s role in perpetuating the conflict.

But pieces such as Barghouti’s and Levy’s do more than just explain Palestinian violence in the context of the occupation. Explanation moves quickly into justification.

In many of these op-eds, it follows that if one recognises that the occupation is the core motive behind the stabbings, then terrorism is merely a functional response.   Terrorism is not condemned, but rather seen as the inevitable output of the structural logic of the occupation.

It’s Newton’s third law of Palestinian stabbings. The occupation is the action, terrorism is the reaction. Nothing else occurs within this logic, and no other causes of violence are deemed important.

This neutral functionalism, where the terrorist is solely and exclusively the product of occupation, absolves the terrorist from any moral judgement. Occupation and terrorism is understood exclusively as action and reaction and nothing more. Under this argument, it doesn’t make sense to condemn a causal inevitability. The terrorist is not condemned for murder in the same way that a balloon isn’t condemned for popping under pressure. Both are the inevitable reaction to the initial action.

This argument goes further. Under this logic, the blame for violence shifts to what is perceived as the root cause. What this means, quite literally, is that it is Netanyahu’s fault that there are stabbings in Tel Aviv. If Netanyahu creates occupation, and occupation creates terrorism, then under Newton’s third law it follows that terrorism is Netanyahu’s fault. Zonszein writes “This current round of violence… is a direct result of government policy”.

And if one thinks the occupation is wrong, then following this functional logic, ultimately terrorism is justified as a form of opposition to it. If not justification, there is sympathy for those carrying out the stabbings. At the very least, the terrorist is blameless. All these arguments have been made explicitly and implicitly in discussion of Palestinian terrorism on social media and in the wider press.

But Newton was a physicist. Not a political theorist, not a sociologist. It is a complete and utter fallacy to reduce Palestinian terrorism to such a simple and monocausal explanation.

Palestinian terrorists are not merely physical objects in the Newtonian world of action and reaction. A terrorist has moral agency.  The terrorist who picks up a screwdriver and stabs five Israelis in Tel Aviv has made an explicit choice to do so. Zonszein reduces the Palestinian terrorist to the “noble savage”; unthinking, unchoosing, and unaccountable for his or her actions. It is only by the Newtonian logic of the noble savage that Zonszein can dismiss the agency of the terrorist, and make Netanyahu directly to blame, rather than the actual perpetrator of the attack.

Yes, the occupation is the central cause of terrorism. But it is also not the only cause. This most recent wave of violence was triggered by the (false) rumour that Israel was planning on changing the status quo on Temple Mount. And that’s to say nothing of brutal and violent incitement. Say, for example, Hamas creating handy ‘how to stab’ videos. Or the Gaza Imam commanding Palestinians to form stabbing squads in a terrifying sermon given last Friday.

Commentators like Levy also seem unable, or simply think it’s irrelevant, to differentiate between just cause and just method. Opposing the occupation is just. Using terrorism as a method is not. But again, all this is lost when terrorism is reduced to nothing more than inevitable reaction to occupation, where Palestinians are conceived of as an unthinking mass, for whom violence is the only way.

Contextualising Palestinian violence in opposition to the occupation is important. But it should never mean reducing terrorism to this logic of inevitability, where the terrorists are blameless or their actions justified. There are indiscriminate stabbings, shootings, and car rammings of civilians on Israel’s streets. Newton’s law just won’t cut it here.