Voices from the Arab press: Netanyahu: The unexpected moderate

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 PALESTINIAN MILITANTS burn effigies depicting (from L) National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a military drill in Khan Yunis, Jan. 1. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
PALESTINIAN MILITANTS burn effigies depicting (from L) National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a military drill in Khan Yunis, Jan. 1.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

Netanyahu: The unexpected moderate

Asharq al-Awsat, London, January 8

For more stories from The Media Line go to themedialine.org

There are phrases I never thought I, as a student of history, would read, let alone write. However, there is one such statement that is in widespread circulation these days, and I feel no qualms about repeating it: Benjamin Netanyahu is a moderate politician!

Certainly, the “golden boy” of the Israeli political scene appears as a moderate figure within the government he just formed. Some commentators even call him the “only moderate” in his new government.

Others see his return to power as a sign that Israel is “a country deeply divided against itself,” as Alan Dershowitz puts it. Meanwhile, other commentators warn that the recent general elections, which ended in victory for right-wing parties, have pushed Israel “over the edge.” A writer who describes herself as a descendant of one of the victims of the Holocaust warned that “what was built in Israel in 75 years may disintegrate within a very short period of time.”

Indeed, the history of Israel as a newly revived state is filled with “extremist” and “dangerous” elements that have become paradigms of moderation.

 US NATIONAL football coach Gregg Berhalter: Statute of limitations?  (credit: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) US NATIONAL football coach Gregg Berhalter: Statute of limitations? (credit: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The problem is that, when it comes to Israel, the only criterion for deciding whether one is a political moderate or extremist is based on his or her position on the Palestinian issue.

Things get more complicated when we remember that the “Palestinian cause” was never clearly defined. It was dealt with incidentally, at first as a refugee problem with the slogan of the right of return. This resulted in keeping an increasing number of Palestinians inside refugee camps in several countries, without taking any measures to resettle them. As for the issue of a direct return to what has become Israel, this became almost impossible because, in order to achieve the right of return, the country to which refugees hope to return must have legitimacy. This was certainly impossible as long as the Arab states denied the existence of Israel in the first place. Decades later, some said they had discovered the two-state solution.

Naturally, the UN had proposed this plan, and the Israelis accepted it under the leadership of the “extremist” David Ben-Gurion in 1947, but it was rejected by neighboring Arab countries.

The revival of this proposal came from Western powers, led by the US, as a diplomatic attempt to achieve the impossible. For decades now, almost everyone has contented themselves with simply talking about an imaginary “solution” or “road maps” toward achieving this solution, without asking themselves whether the Israelis and Palestinians really want it.

The truth is that most opinion polls and election campaigns reveal that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians do not want a two-state solution, and I think that this is because it’s unclear what this solution means in the first place. Within the new Knesset, only 10 out of 120 members support this formula. However, even these supporters cannot determine where the borders of one state end and the borders of the other begin.

As this path reached a dead end, the “Palestinian problem” was redefined as the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. However, even at this point, the problem of ambiguity persists. For their part, proponents of settlements have never indicated how far settlements should be allowed to expand, while opponents of settlements have never specified how many settlements should be dismantled. In any case, the dismantling of all the settlements in Gaza did not succeed in achieving the desired peace. Over time, talking about the settlement issue has become tedious and consuming.

A new version of the “Palestinian problem” has emerged and has been recycled: Israeli apartheid. In apartheid South Africa, people of color and black people were not allowed to vote or be elected. On the other hand, we find that within Israel non-Jewish citizens can do both, which they do in practice. Palestinians in the West Bank do not have these rights, because they are not citizens of Israel.

Apparently, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank understand this, and the Palestinians understand that no Israeli coalition, whether left, right or center, is going to offer them a deal they can accept. They also realize that the “Palestinian cause” is often exploited by ambitious Israeli politicians to cover their own nakedness in terms of the credible policies they hold.

In 2000, Ariel Sharon visited al-Aqsa Mosque, accompanied by a huge entourage, as the opening shot in an election campaign that ended in his victory as prime minister. Today, the new national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is reenacting a similar scene, in which he appears as a dwarf cartoon image of Sharon.

The truth is that, as happened with Sharon, Ben-Gvir’s visit to the holy site received attention only once he entered office. Indeed, Ben-Gvir seems more interested in milking the Israeli state’s cow for worldly gains than in offering credible policies to Israeli society in general.

In fact, Dershowitz is wrong. Israel is not a country deeply divided. The reality tells us that less than 10% of the electorate chose what has been called the “extreme right” bloc, even though the haredi base on which it relies, an ultra-Orthodox version of Judaism, constitutes 12% of the total population. The most recent poll revealed that only 31% of Israelis view the “Palestinian issue” as their primary concern. Opinion polls within the West Bank also reveal that policies related to livelihood and the eradication of corruption are top priorities for Palestinians.

Thus, it becomes clear that the excessive obsession with the “Palestinian cause” is an issue that has no clear solution, and has diverted many efforts away from the current problems facing both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

A nation brimming with creativity like Israel should not be driven into a state of intransigence by politicians like Ben-Gvir over the “Palestinian problem.” Life is much richer than Ben-Gvir’s fantasies.

This problem will not find a solution until the Israelis and the Palestinians are convinced that a solution serves their own interests. It is clear that this conviction has not yet been achieved. And even if it ever materializes, there is no guarantee that those who have benefited from the problem and built national strategies around it will allow a solution to be agreed upon and implemented.

Meanwhile, we have no choice but to see the status quo continue to persist and pledge to preserve it. – Amir Taheri 

US soccer team in turmoil

Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, January 9 

Here’s a question for you: Can a university student be held accountable, after 30 years, for assaulting his girlfriend, then apologizing to her, receiving her forgiveness and marrying her? Is it the right of a soccer federation to hold one of its members or the coach of a national team accountable for old personal mistakes? Are there mistakes that can be forgiven and others that cannot be forgiven, no matter how long it takes?

The American soccer community began looking into these questions in the past few weeks, with the spread of news regarding Gregg Berhalter, the coach of the US national soccer team, who has been accused of beating his girlfriend many years ago, when the two were studying at the University of North Carolina. The US Soccer Federation waited for the end of the World Cup to dig into the affair.

Ultimately, Berhalter stood in front of the media and admitted to the accusations. He described an argument that arose between him and his wife, Rosalind, when they were younger, in which he kicked her in anger. Berhalter apologized to Rosalind and sought psychological counseling. After seven months of therapy, Rosalind forgave her partner and the two got married. They’ve been together for 25 years and had four children. Berhalter concluded his speech by saying that he had sinned against Rosalind one day and apologized to her, and she accepted his apology. During the remarks, Rosalind was standing next to her husband, confirming that it was an old story that has no effect on their relationship today.

However, Berhalter’s appearance before the media wasn’t the end of the story. The US Soccer Federation decided to assign the matter to a legal firm for further investigation. The federation announced that it would publish the results of the investigations as soon as they are completed.

The renewal of Berhalter’s relationship with the US national team was postponed, as his contract period ended with the end of the World Cup, and the US federation vowed not to take any decision until after the investigation is completed. One of Berhalter’s assistants was chosen to lead the national team in the preparation camp during the current month.

Many Americans are baffled by this story. There are those who believe that anyone who made a mistake must be punished for it, even after 30 years. But there are many who believe that this entire affair didn’t deserve so much attention and uproar, and that the only one who had the right to complain and accuse Berhalter was his wife, Rosalind. Meanwhile, the investigation – and the controversy – continues. – Yasser Ayoub 

Beirut Airport as a microcosm of Lebanon’s politics

Nida Al-Watan, Lebanon, January 7

If Alfred Hitchcock was destined to return to life, he could not have chosen a better scene than the scene of seagulls hovering over the Costa Brava Landfill located outside Beirut International Airport. Recently, the chairman of the board of directors of Middle East Airlines (MEA) demanded that the airline be allowed to bring in hunters to shoot the seagulls and prevent them from threatening aircraft.

This isn’t a fantasy, but a real proposal that may translate into a catastrophe for hundreds of people and their families. This story is a classic example of overlapping authorities between the Lebanese government, private corporations and average citizens – with no one claiming responsibility over the issue at hand. The issue of aircraft safety at Beirut Airport is one that should never be undermined.

But seagulls are far from the only threat to the airport’s operations. Several airplanes have been hit by indiscriminate bullets over the past few weeks. The government must step in and take ownership of this issue. This situation of overlapping powers and loyalties, conflicts between security agencies and widespread nepotism is unsustainable. Everyone is walking on eggshells when it comes to the airport.

Hezbollah refuses to let anyone intervene, with the fear that its steady source of dollars, arriving on planes from Tehran, would be interrupted. This is a microcosm of Lebanon’s problems and an example of the state’s problematic relationship with Hezbollah.

Expecting our corrupt political system to reform itself is too ambitious. But where are the deputies of the Baabda district, to which the airport land belongs? Where are the honorable deputies representing Beirut, who are seeing their country’s only international gateway being put at risk but aren’t lifting a finger?

Finding solutions isn’t difficult, provided that there is a will for compromise. Either the airport belongs to the state and is subject to state law, scrutiny and management, or it is owned by a substate actor that has de facto authority over it. – Bashara Charbel 

The pitfalls of an endless war

Al-Okaz, Saudi Arabia, January 13

With the onset of the new year, hopes rose that 2023 would usher in a new era of stability that would bring an end to the crises that have plagued us during the past few years: the war in Ukraine, inflation and the global pandemic. Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine is continuing to unfold without an end in sight. In fact, Russian forces are desperate to take over the city of Bakhmut, and have re-mobilized over half a million troops in an effort to occupy more territory.

Meanwhile, Kyiv is hoping to receive additional Western support that would prepare it for a new wave of battles. On his recent visit to Washington, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky managed to secure additional American guarantees for armored vehicles and air defense systems. He also secured extensive military support, in the form of armaments and heavy weapons, from several European countries.

The real crisis is that we are facing a zero-sum equation. There seems to be very little willingness on the part of any of the sides to concede to the other. Russian President Vladimir Putin put all of his eggs in one basket. He can’t afford to lose the war. Russia considers itself a great power. Therefore, Putin must achieve his goals or admit a resounding defeat. On their part, the Ukrainians believe that the crisis with Moscow isn’t about borders, but about existence. Therefore, accepting any Russian demands would mean the elimination of the Ukrainian state. Thus, there is no other choice but to repel the Russian forces and recover all occupied territories and cities.

The only party that has somewhat benefited from this situation to date is the US, which succeeded in positioning itself as a global leader capable of rallying its allies together in support of Ukraine. – Rami Al-Khalifa Al-Ali

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.