Israeli right targets Kerry

The differences between the center-left and the right over the Secretary of State's mission touch on profound issues regarding Israel’s future.

Bayit Yehudi party leader Naftali Bennett points to a map of the Palestinian state looming over the State of Israel (photo credit: FLASH 90)
Bayit Yehudi party leader Naftali Bennett points to a map of the Palestinian state looming over the State of Israel
(photo credit: FLASH 90)
AS US SECRETARY of State John Kerry put the finishing touches on his long-awaited“ framework ” for further negotiations with the Palestinians, the Israeli right began to show increasing signs of distress. Right-wingers – from the hawks in the Likud, through the national religious settler-oriented Bayit Yehudi and the Judea and Samaria Settlers’ Council to hard-line fundamentalist rabbis – mounted a virulent campaign designed to discredit Kerry and derail the process he has been trying to broker.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did little to dissociate himself from the vituperative anti-Kerry rhetoric and for the first time since the secretary rekindled the stalled peace talks last July, the Americans seemed to falter. They delayed presenting the framework document, made it clear that it would not be binding and assured the parties that they would be free to disagree publicly with any of its terms they found hard to swallow.
The message to the Americans from the Israeli center-left was quite the reverse. They encouraged Kerry to present a meaningful and largely binding document. Only tough love from the Americans, they reckoned, would have any chance of effecting a breakthrough towards a permanent peace based on two states for two peoples.
The differences between the center-left and the right over the Kerry mission touch on profound issues regarding Israel’s future.
Indeed, they are the latest manifestation of a long and bitter struggle over the character of the Israeli state.
The center-left vision of a modern, tolerant, quintessentially democratic country, well-received by the international community, dictates going along with the Kerry mission as a means of ending the occupation and securing Israel’s place among the nations.
The rightist-religious vision of a greater Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean as essential for Israel’s security and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy prescribes preemption of an insidious American formula that threatens a divinely inspired Jewish national revival. The difference is that the center-left two-state vision is in tune with predominant 21st century Western values; the insular, discriminatory rightist vision, which would deny Palestinians civil, political and national rights, is not.
With the Likud hawks and Bayit Yehudi at the heart of the Netanyahu government, the rightists have never been stronger. Likud ministers and Knesset members have been veering even further right, pandering to the party’s hawkish Central Committee, which elects them, and competing with their vociferous settler-supporting colleagues in Bayit Yehudi. The upshot is that Netanyahu is under increasingly heavy pressure not to move too far or too fast on the Palestinian track.
The right-wing campaign against the Kerry-led process employs a wide variety of tactics. These are some of the more predominant ploys: Scaremongering: Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett paints a picture of terrorists in a necessarily irredentist Palestine rocketing Ben-Gurion airport; the possibility of a well-monitored and demilitarized Palestine cooperating economically with Israel for the benefit of both is ridiculed.
Settling in the hearts: In his election campaign, the national religious Bennett presented himself as a “brother” of secular, non-settler Israelis with a view to winning them over to the settler side in the battle for Israel’s soul.
Preventive legislation: Likud Knesset Member Miri Regev has submitted two bills, one to annex the Jordan Valley and the other to apply Israeli law to all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to the roads leading to them – both designed to torpedo the Kerry process and, even if they don’t pass, to win her brownie points in the Likud Central Committee.
Her Likud colleague Yariv Levin is pushing legislation making ceding of land in sovereign Israel contingent on a two-thirds majority in the Knesset. This would make it more difficult for Israel to hand over land to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem or in the context of land swaps for West Bank settler blocs.
Intimidate the leader: Likud Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon repeatedly warns that any prime minister who advances a two-state agreement will not remain leader of the Likud. When Netanyahu raised the possibility of some settlers remaining under Palestinian rule, Bennett accused him of having “lost his moral compass,” in other words of not being fit to be prime minister. And in mid-February, a settler demonstration urging building in the controversial E-1 area between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim implicitly challenged the prime minister’s Zionist credentials. Significantly, it was joined by hawkish Likud ministers and Knesset members, signaling to Netanyahu that progress on the Palestinian track could cost him his job.
Discredit the negotiator: Israel’s relatively dovish lead negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the Tnua party, has long been the butt of right-wing attacks. Most recently Bennett took her to task for not trumping a patently distorted Palestinian historical narrative with the immutable biblical truth. Livni’s “crime” was to have urged the parties to look for constructive solutions to current problems rather than waste time on fruitless arguments over competing narratives.
Change the coalition: Housing Minister Uri Ariel of Bayit Yehudi is working to change the coalition make-up, pushing to replace the pro-peace Yesh Atid with the Haredi Shas and Torah Judaism. The Haredi parties would be promised a deal: Oppose Kerry and Bayit Yehudi would support them on softening conditions in the upcoming bill for Haredi military service.
Discredit the EU and other potential critics: When, in a mid-February address to the Knesset, European Parliament President Martin Schulz quoted Palestinians complaining that they received significantly less water than Israeli settlers, Bayit Yehudi delegates walked out en bloc. They made Holocaust allusions, noting that the speaker, a staunchly pro-Israel European leader, had made his remarks in German. The implication: Everywhere, especially in Europe, anti-Semitism lurks just below the surface, Jews can rely only on themselves, and Israelis need to dig in in fortress Israel against an untrustworthy and potentially hostile international community.
Shoot the messenger: The main thrust of the right-wing campaign is to discredit John Kerry himself. It began with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon referring to Kerry as “obsessive” and “messianic.” Then, when at the Munich Security Conference in early February, Kerry warned that failure to reach a peace deal could exacerbate boycott moves against Israel, the right-wingers had a field day.
The right deliberately distorted his message, accusing him, at best, of precipitating boycott moves and, at worst, of actually calling for them. Bayit Yehudi Knesset Member Motti Yogev found “anti-Semitic undertones,” prompting demands from American Jewish groups that he apologize forthwith. Outgoing Anti-Defamation League Chair-man Abe Foxman dismissed Yogev’s remarks as “offensive, inflammatory and totally without any basis” and American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris described them as “totally unfounded, dumb and damaging.”
Distortion and criticism of Kerry’s boycott warning also came from closer to the prime minister. Netanyahu loyalist, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, called Kerry’s boycott warning “hurtful, unfair and intolerable.” What Kerry actually said, as statement of fact, was that “Israel faces an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are sensitive to it.
There is talk of boycotts and other things.”
Steinitz, a trained philosopher presumably familiar with close textual analysis, turned this warning of trouble ahead into an insult and a threat. “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head when we are discussing the matters most critical to our national interests,” he declared, drawing State Department ire for crude misrepresentation of Kerry’s position.
An even cruder attempt to discredit Kerry came in the form of a YouTube video co-sponsored by the Judea and Samaria Settlers’ Council, which lampooned the secretary as an ignorant buffoon. For example, on Jerusalem it has an actor playing Kerry declare that the city is “holy to all religions: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Klingons and Hobbits.” And on the holy Western Wall he says, “Why fight over an old wall? I’ll build you a new one.”
Hard-line rabbis went further. The Committee to Save the Land and People of Israel led by extremist Lubavitcher Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpo accused Kerry of declaring war on God, no less. “Your incessant efforts to expropriate integral parts of our Holy Land and hand them over to Abbas’s terrorist gang amount to a declaration of war against the Creator and Ruler of the universe,” they charged, warning Kerry that if he did not desist, he would incur divine retribution.
For his part, Kerry insisted that he would not be deterred by the right-wing campaign.
“I’ve been, quote, ‘attacked’ before by people using real bullets, not words. And I am not going to be intimidated,” he declared on CNN in early February.
Ostensibly, though, it seems the rightwingers are on top. The gaps between Israelis and Palestinians remain wide, and the American mediator is having difficulty coming up with an effective bridging formula. The fact that the framework document will probably be relatively loose and non-binding does not augur well for a successful outcome. Netanyahu’s scheduled meeting with US President Barack Obama in early March could be crucial. It could determine what kind of paper the Americans eventually put on the table; where Netanyahu really stands on the land for peace issue; and whether Israelis or Palestinians will be blamed for failure.
The Israeli center-left is hoping Kerry will steam ahead undaunted. Meretz leader Zahava Galon has spoken out forcefully against a watered-down American framework document; Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog has assured both Kerry and Netanyahu that he will fully support all peace moves; and in mid-February, left-leaning Israeli writers and performing artists, including novelists David Grossman and Sami Michael, actresses Gila Almagor and Rivka Michaeli, and singer Achinoam Nini, signed an open letter to Kerry expressing “full support” for his peace efforts and urging him not to be put off by “demagogues and extremists” trying to “sabotage every effort aimed at reconciliation and a permanent peace deal.”
Looking at the big picture of Israel’s future among the nations, Livni hit back hard at Bennett and the far right. In a Facebook post, she argued that Bennett’s Israel would look worse than apartheid South Africa, implying that it would get the same short shrift from the international community.
Indeed, from the vantage point of the center left, the Israeli right seems bent on sawing off the branch on which they and the rest of Israel are sitting. True, for now, the left-right divide is not nearly as heated as it was in the days before the Rabin assassination in 1995 or the 2005 pullout from Gaza. But this time the settler right is in the government, tipping the scales from within.
Netanyahu, although well aware of the consequences for Israel’s international standing, seems likely to let them win by default. And if what emerges is an insular, illiberal and undemocratic Israel out of step with the rest of the world, the sanctions Kerry has been warning of could become widespread. An undemocratic Israel would almost certainly also eventually forfeit its two bedrock sources of support – American Jewry, predominantly deeply committed to democratic values, and America itself.
The rightist refrain that “the whole world is against us” could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that could prove far more dangerous to Israel’s long-term survival than any conceivable American-brokered peace deal with the Palestinians.