Thursday 25 December 2008

Race to the Bottom

Khalid Amayreh

The upcoming Israeli elections appear set to be a competition in racist extremism.

As Israeli political parties and factions choose their lists of candidates to contest the 10 February elections, extremism and anti-Palestinian discourse are becoming the name of the game.

Last week, the Likud Party elected a list of 41 candidates, including Moshe Feiglin, an extreme right-wing religious fanatic who openly calls for violent ethnic cleansing of non-Jews from Israel-Palestine.

Feiglin got the 20th slot on the list, causing more than a small amount of anxiety within the Likud leadership, especially after the Israeli media began portraying the party as moving towards the far right.

Sensing potential damage to the party's image, especially in the United States where the new US administration is viewed here with a certain amount of caution and even a modicum of suspicion, Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu used legal tricks to demote Feiglin from slot 20 to slot 36.

Feiglin protested at the "undemocratic feat", but eventually refrained from contesting his grievances in court, saying that he doesn't have faith in the Israeli justice system.

Regardless, even with the demotion of Feiglin, the Likud remains an extreme right-wing party as most of the "newcomers" and the so-called "returnees" espouse decidedly extreme political views vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue and the peace process.

Indeed, those previously dubbed as Likud "rebels" (i.e. who were to the right of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and who resigned from the party in protest against Sharon's decision to withdraw the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip in 2005) occupy the first 10 slots on the Likud list. To be sure, Netanyahu had made strenuous efforts to get his close allies — like Assaf Hefetz and Uzi Dayan — elected to the first 10 slots on the party list, but to no avail.

Now, with clear-cut extremists like Gideon Saar, Gilad Erdan, Beni Begin, Silvan Shalom, Moshe (Bogi) Yalon and Yisrael Karts and like-minded Likudists occupying the first 10 slots in the party, there are real fears that any government formed by Netanyahu would inevitably pursue extremist policies vis-à-vis the peace process with the Palestinians.

Seeking to depict himself as the leader of a moderate party, Netanyahu has been meeting with foreign ambassadors and other diplomats in Israel as well as making a plethora of statements and interviews, stressing that his expected government would be committed to the peace process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has also been saying that the entire Likud was behind him and that he, not anybody else, was in the driving seat.

Very few Palestinian observers give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, especially with regard to his often-repeated theme of "economic peace", which Netanyahu is now saying would augment and supplement, not replace, the political process.

Veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar recalled this week that in 1996, on the eve of his election victory, Netanyahu promised that the Likud would recognise the facts created by the Oslo Accords and would conduct negotiations to reach a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. "What happened next is well-known. Netanyahu used Palestinian 'terrorism' as an excuse for his refusal to negotiate a final status agreement after talks officially began in the spring of 1996. Today, he can bet that the Qassam [rockets] will do the same job."

Eldar's prophecy seems to be fully vindicated by Netanyahu's own website ( where the Likud leader states the following: "The present peace talks focusing on a hasty settlement miss the point entirely. We don't believe that the Palestinians are ready for any historical compromise that would truly put an end to the conflict. There is no evidence that the Palestinians are prepared to accept even the least of any of Israel's demands [as] proposed by its leaders."

In other words, the Palestinians, according to Netanyahu, would be worthy peace partners only if and when they accept Israeli demands, including leaving the bulk of the territories occupied in 1967 under perpetual Israeli military control and the liquidation of the paramount right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees uprooted from their homes when Israel was created 60 years ago. In other words, Netanyahu expects total Palestinian capitulation to Zionism, which, according to him, would qualify them as ready for peace.

Kadima leader and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is Benyamin Netanyahu's main rival in the upcoming Israeli elections. She has been trying to project herself and her party as moderate and pragmatic, especially when compared to the jingoistic Likud and its hawkish leadership. However, Livni last week revealed, not for the first time, her own tendency and hawkish mind-set when she told Israeli Jewish high school students in Tel Aviv that the estimated 1.5 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens would have to seek their "national aspirations" in a future Palestinian state on the West Bank.

Livni didn't use the terms "uprooting" and "expulsion", but it was sufficiently clear from the tone of her words that this was exactly what she meant. While Jewish public opinion reacted with absolute silence to Livni's outrage, Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line angrily condemned the statements, coming from the woman who is trying to acquire the image of "peacemaker".

"With moderates like Livni, why need people like Feiglin," remarked Palestinian Knesset member Ahmed Teibi. Teibi challenged Livni to "unmask her face" and tell the public if she is advocating the ethnic cleansing of the Arab minority of Israel. "I want to remind Livni that we were here hundreds of years before her family immigrated to this country a few decades ago, and I assure her that we will remain here long after she has gone."

A stronger reaction came from Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip, who wondered how the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority leadership was continuing to negotiate with a woman who wants to finish what the Hanaga and Irgun gangs started in 1948. "I want to tell our brothers in the occupied land of 1948, 'You will not come to us, we will come to you.'"

Faced with an angry outcry within Israel's Arab community, and fearing that her remarks might eventually prove a public relations disaster, especially with regards to her party's election prospects in the Israeli Arab sector, Livni later issued a terse statement saying that her remarks had been misunderstood and that she wasn't calling for the ethnic cleansing of Israeli Arab citizens.

Seeking to foster the image of a tough leader, mainly to counter Netanyahu's reputed hawkishness, Livni has also been calling for "crushing the Hamas regime", and for "responding with strength to every projectile fired on Israel from the Gaza Strip".

Her statements, especially about crushing Hamas, however, are not being taken seriously by her other lesser rival, Labour Party leader and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Barak said this week that those who call for conquering Gaza might know how to enter the coastal enclave, but they have no idea how to get out once in.

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