Netanyahu's Move

The world waits to see if the prime minster is serious about peace negotiations, or prefers to keep his right-wing coalition.

Netanyahu sweating 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Netanyahu sweating 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IF ISRAEL INTRODUCES A “loyalty oath” as part of the citizenship process for foreign born nationals, it will be in good company – at least on the face of it. In the United Kingdom, for example, all immigrants seeking naturalization as British subjects have to swear allegiance to the reigning monarch and her heirs. And in the United States, the detailed oath of allegiance sworn by all would-be citizens entails renunciation of previous allegiances to other countries, swearing allegiance to the US constitution and promising to defend it against “enemies foreign and domestic,” as well as a pledge to serve in the armed forces or perform civilian duties of national importance “if required to do so.”
The big difference is that in the UK and the US, all prospective citizens must take the oath; in Israel, as the proposed law stands, it would apply only to non-Jews, opening the state to charges of discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds. Jewish immigrants would not have to take the oath, because they are entitled to automatic citizenship under the 1950 Law of Return. Justice Minister Ya’acov Neeman, aware of the potential flak, wants to insert an amendment that would obligate all immigrants seeking citizenship, including Jews, to take the oath.
The bill, as is, ostensibly creates an internal contradiction – non-Jews required to swear loyalty to a Jewish state. What does that mean? Surely not a commitment to religious observance, it refers more to recognition of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
But why is that necessary? Why not instead a commitment to obey the laws of the land?
All of which leads to the central questions: Why the right-wing insistence on such potentially divisive legislation? And why now? Indeed, critics on the left see the new loyalty legislation as the thin end of the wedge, a mild forerunner of a veritable flood of discriminatory legislation that could profoundly affect Israel’s Arab minority. They point out that the current “loyalty” saga began with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s strongly anti-Arab election campaign in 2009, with slogans bordering on the racist, including “no citizenship [always in the Israeli Arab context] without loyalty,” and “only Lieberman understands Arabic,” implying that citizenship for Arabs, even those born here, would be dependent on tests of loyalty and that the way to deal with the Arab minority would be through strong repressive measures.
Why raise these issues now, at a time when Israel is facing unprecedented delegitimization in the international arena and when the peace process with Palestinians, which could dramatically enhance Israel’s international standing, is so fragile? Surely discriminatory loyalty demands will give more ammunition to the delegitimizers and further weaken peace prospects.
RIGHT-WINGERS, however, reject both claims. They argue that the delegitimizers need to be shown that Israel is the legitimate state of the Jewish people, and that in negotiations with the Palestinians, it is imperative that Israel be recognized as the state of the Jewish people, to nullify calls for it to take in Palestinian refugees and to ensure finality of all Palestinian claims. The current legislation is presented as a symbolic first move by Israel towards these ends.
None of this washes on the left. There, new theories abound on why Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have chosen to go down this route. One answer is that they are competing for the right-wing vote, and Likud’s Netanyahu, wary of being outflanked by Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, is going along with him.
But there is another more subtle explanation: That Lieberman and Netanyahu are in working hand in glove with the same longterm strategic goal: to make the right’s position in Israel’s domestic politics impregnable.
Step one, according to this thesis, is to deliberately alienate Israel’s Arabs, 20 percent of the population, who might otherwise help the left gain power. If deeply alienated, the theory goes, the Arabs might not vote at all in Israeli elections, and if they do, it will be only for increasingly radical and marginal Arab parties.
In this way the Zionist left will get virtually no support from the large Arab voting reservoir and will not be able to cut coalition deals with the radicalized Arab parties it produces.
This is already very much the situation today; Netanyahu and Lieberman, the theory goes, want to make sure there is no reversal of current trends. Netanyahu is well aware of the fact that when he was trounced in direct elections for the premiership in 1999 by Labor’s Ehud Barak, 94.3 percent of Israeli Arab voters voted for Barak. This is the kind of scenario he wants to ensure does not happen again in any future constellation.
Step two in the alleged right-wing scheme to entrench its power is to put the peace process on the back burner. As long as there is no peace, the theory goes, the Israeli public will feel a need for strong right-wing government to protect it from potential threats of war; conversely, if there is peace, the right-wing in its present scaremongering form becomes less relevant.
In other words, Netanyahu and Lieberman are using the perceived anti- Arab loyalty legislation to exacerbate tensions at home and abroad and so maintain high levels of popular support for strong right-wing leadership. For now Netanyahu seems to be riding the Lieberman tiger. Likud still gets about twice as many votes as Yisrael Beiteinu. The question, though, is who will end up riding whom in this ultranationalist game.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LOYALTY coin is the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, a demand they adamantly reject. Indeed, when in early October Netanyahu offered a 60-day extension of the West Bank building freeze in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, most pundits suggested that he was playing a transparent blame game, with little intention of renewing direct talks, which the Palestinians have made conditional on a renewal of the freeze.
In fact, Netanyahu’s offer, rather than shift the onus onto the Palestinian side, helped strengthen a growing perception in Washington, among the Palestinians and among his left-wing Labor coalition partners that perhaps Netanyahu is less serious about peacemaking than he had led them to believe.
With the process deadlocked over the building issue, the Arab League has given the parties until early November to find a way out. The hope is that, in the interim, the US will be able to come up with an attractive enough package to get both sides back to the table. If not, the Palestinians say they will consider other options, such as going to the UN and requesting recognition for a Palestinian state, or conversely, dissolving the Palestinian Authority and making Israel responsible for the day-to-day running of the entire West Bank.
The Arab League deadline cleverly takes the peace talks issue beyond the November American mid-term election. The Palestinian thinking is that if talks have not resumed by then, US President Barack Obama, post election, will be freer to cajole or pressure Israel into re-engaging or to allow the alternative Palestinian initiatives to go ahead.
In a mid-October interview with Israel Television, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that his preference is still for a negotiated settlement. He said he had already had around 30 hours of one-onone talks with Netanyahu and implied that the two men had identified a historic opportunity for peacemaking. But he criticized Netanyahu for being more concerned about maintaining his right-tending coalition than making sweeping moves for peace.
To a large extent, the key to what happens on the Israeli-Palestinian front after the mid-term election lies with Israel’s embattled Labor party. Party leader Barak toiled long and hard in Washington in late September on a package of American inducements to Israel designed to persuade Netanyahu to extend the freeze and return to the peace table. Netanyahu’s rejection of what was, by all accounts, a very generous American offer made Barak look foolish. He too is now finally losing patience with Netanyahu and talking about pulling out of the coalition by the end of December, if there is no credible peace process by then.
Even if he is reluctant to move, his hand could be forced. Calls within Labor for withdrawal from the coalition are growing more insistent. Rebel party Knesset Members argue that Netanyahu has used Labor as a fig leaf to secure a modicum of international respectability without really adopting its positions on peace. As a result they say the party has lost relevance and point to its slide from 13 seats in the current Knesset to as few as six in some opinion polls.
Adding to the internal turmoil, two government ministers Yitzhak Herzog and Avishai Braverman have announced that they intend to challenge Barak for the party leadership and to lead Labor in a new direction.
DECISION TIME FOR NETANYAHU is fast approaching. Unless there is a credible peace process by the end of the year, Labor will probably pull out of his government; but if there is a viable process in which Israel and the Palestinians resolve key border and security issues within a few months, Netanyahu could lose at least some of his right-wing coalition partners.
Bluntly put, Netanyahu faces a choice between peacemaking with international acclaim and what he and others may perceive as long-term, right-wing domestic political interests.
In the short-term that could mean elections early next year to strengthen his rightwing mandate if Labor pulls out, or a peacemaking coalition with centrist Kadima if the right-wingers bolt. Some pundits see the proposed loyalty law as a sop to Lieberman in return for future extension of the building freeze and renewal of peace talks. This would enable Netanyahu to keep his coalition intact and go along with American plans to renew the peace dialogue.
But if the left-wing skeptics are right, even if peace talks are renewed, Netanyahu will schmooze his way through them, sweettalking Abbas, stringing Obama along, but not really achieving anything. On the other hand, if they are wrong, Netanyahu is still in a position to wring the coalition changes and to surprise them with dramatic peace moves. The future of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, Israel’s position in the international community, its ties with the US and its interaction with the moderate Arab world hang in the balance.