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Bridge-burning Netanyahu can’t walk back his election rhetoric

Damage control: Netanyahu interviewed for NBC. EPA/Amos Ben Gershom

When new Israeli elections were announced in December 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu was confident of victory. The campaign proved to be a very rocky road, but in the end, he and his Likud party survived a significant scare from Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union – and against the predictions of all pre-election polling, Netanyahu secured a clear victory.

But it wasn’t pretty. Particularly in its latter stages, the campaign showcased the ugly side of Netanyahu and his party – and saw the unravelling of any pretence to openness or flexibility.

On election day, Netanyahu appeared in a video exhorting the right to vote because “Arab voters are heading to the polling station in droves.” This overt racism piggybacked on the far more outlandish sentiments of Netanyahu’s coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman, who suggested that Israeli Arabs disloyal to the state should be beheaded.

Speaking in Har Homa, a settlement in southern East Jerusalem created under his rule in 1997, Netanyahu also unequivocally stated that a Palestinian state will never be established under his leadership. While this was undoubtedly designed to draw voters from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, it also seems to accurately reflect Netanyahu’s own hopes, consistent with his behaviour across all of his terms in office.

His rule has seen accelerated settlement construction, particularly in and around Eastern Jerusalem, and a lack of engagement in the peace process. His behaviour has not only thwarted any real advance in the peace process, but has made for strained relations with two US presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Same old Bibi

The Wye River negotiations, hosted by Clinton in 1999, were re-negotiations of previous agreements that Netanyahu refused to implement. He did everything in his power to scuttle the fragile Oslo process, but it came back to bite him: too obstructionist for the left and too generous for the right, his government collapsed.

A forced smile: Clinton and Netanyahu in 1999. EPA/Sharon Farmer

Learning from that bitter experience, the more recent negotiations spearheaded by Hillary Clinton and then John Kerry were more process than substance. True, Netanyahu did agree to a ten-month settlement freeze in 2009, but it did not apply to East Jerusalem and only came about under significant American pressure.

Verbal attacks on Kerry and the US from Israeli cabinet members have significantly soured the two countries’ relationship, as have Netanyahu’s shamelessly provocative speech to Congress to criticise negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme.

The prospects of a resumed peace process under a re-elected Netanyahu are therefore grim indeed. The conditions Netanyahu outlined during his campaign are nowhere near the minimum expectations of the Palestinians, and the US is unlikely to invest effort in a renewed initiative without some sign of openness on the Israeli side.

While many will mourn this development, many Palestinians view the issue very differently, as evidenced in the New York Times. As they see it, the charade of a peace process that has delivered nothing and simply masked an ever-growing occupation is finally over.

Mr Security?

Netanyahu’s “Mr Security” nickname is undeserved, since it’s hard to see how his ever more belligerent politics will make Israel any more secure.

The campaign proved that he offers no constructive solution to the challenges Israel faces: the occupation will persist and continue to cause conflict with the Palestinians, and Israel will remain on course to become a bi-national state, ending the prospect of a Jewish and democratic state once and for all.

For the next two years at least, relations with the US will remain strained, and any deal with Iran will happen whether Israel likes it or not. Worse still, sources within the White House have suggested that without Israeli commitment to the stated American strategic goal of a two-state solution, the USA might no longer automatically exercise its UN Security Council veto in Israel’s favour.

That could soon see Israel subject to a resolution stipulating a border based on the 1967 ceasefire lines and shared sovereignty in Jerusalem, which the Netanyahu government will of course resolutely reject.

More likely, the European Union and its individual member states will begin to impose economic sanctions and limit trade with Israel, or strengthen the Palestinian campaign for statehood by offering official recognition, as Sweden did in October 2014.

Apparently realising that he may have burned too many bridges, Netanyahu appeared on American news outlets NPR and MSNBC to backtrack on his disavowal of a Palestinian state, emphasising that he meant it was unachievable under current conditions. The White House, understandably, reacted with scepticism.

As he heads into his new administration, trust in the Israeli leader is in short supply. Martin Indyk, US special envoy to the recent negotiations, has said that “Israel does not need to be, and should not aspire to be, a nation that dwells alone.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak once boasted that he had unmasked Yasser Arafat for what he was; Netanyahu has now unmasked himself as an outright peace rejectionist. He has once again showed his remarkable political survival instincts, but the racism and fear-mongering which fuelled his triumph are as self-defeating as they are unpleasant.

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