The Brilliant and Short-Sighted Strategy of the Israeli Right

Ever since 1948, Israeli governments have undermined popular support for a fully socialist society by playing the national security card, forcing people to choose between a civil struggle against fellow Jews who benefit from economic inequalities and an outward-looking struggle against Arab enemies and Palestinians seeking to return to their place of birth. That choice became even more intense in 1977 when Likud and its Thatcherite, Milton Friedman-esque worship of the free market took over. This worship shaped government policies, slowly undermined the public sector, allowed the kibbutzim to collapse under the weight of escalating and unaffordable interest on bank loans, and fostered the economic power of elite billionaires and millionaires whose media and political influence seemed overwhelming. So when a mass uprising began in the summer of 2011, with tent encampments rising in many Israeli cities and engaging hundreds of thousands of people in massive demonstrations, it wasn’t surprising that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government promoted the fantasy that the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to get recognition at the United Nations would launch a September intifada against which Israelis had to mobilize and hence not pay more attention to the allegedly solidarity-splitting demands for economic fairness. {{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

A glitch emerged in Netanyahu’s strategy, however: since there was no violent uprising in the West Bank, he could not put together a convincing case for why Israelis should stop focusing on the economic transformation of their society. Moreover, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas seemed to be winning global support for Palestine and an end to the Occupation. But then the Israeli Right pulled out an old trick: Hamas to the rescue!

Netanyahu wasn’t the first Israeli leader to look to Hamas for indirect help: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon developed this strategy to counter Palestinian legitimacy and to undermine the previous support for a peace agreement—support that was building after Yossi Beilin in 2003 had negotiated the Geneva Accord with leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Sharon unexpectedly announced in 2004 that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza strip, thereby in effect giving control over Gaza to Hamas rather than to the Palestinian Authority, which had been seeking to negotiate peace with Israel. By rewarding Hamas for its violence, rather than the Palestinian Authority for its willingness to make peace, Sharon continued a strategy that had led Israeli governments to help finance Hamas in the 1980s—the strategy of weakening the Palestinian people by splitting them into two opposing camps.

So in October 2011, Netanyahu took up that strategy again. To free Gilad Shalit, who had been held prisoner by Hamas for four years, and who could have been freed earlier had Israel been willing to engage in a prisoner swap sooner, Netanyahu negotiated directly with Hamas about which Palestinians to free in the exchange. The Palestinian Authority was totally left out of the process, thereby demonstrating a point that Hamas had been making for years and that Hamas made again immediately after the prisoner release: that Israel only responds to force and violence, not to the alleged weakness of the Palestinian Authority, which has been enforcing nonviolence in the West Bank. Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, had succeeded in freeing the prisoners. Even better, from Netanyahu’s standpoint, the media highlighted the most angry and vengeful among the freed prisoners—those who promised to launch new terrorist attacks against Israel. In this way Netanyahu orchestrated an event to show Israelis that they were faced with an intractable enemy who sought nothing but their destruction.

With Israelis’ fears renewed, Netanyahu and the Israeli Right were in a much better position to once again play the military danger card, with Hamas playing right along (perhaps soon to capture and imprison more Israelis).

The Palestinian Authority, which in September had grown in public support tremendously, is now losing support to Hamas. And Netanyahu and the Israeli Right, pointing to the new dangers posed by freed Palestinian terrorists, have regained the ability to scare Israelis into anything that would purportedly divide the society (like, for example, serious steps toward social justice in Israel, a country with the greatest divide between rich and poor of any Western society).

So why do we say “shortsighted”? Because as we’ve argued in detail before, and as I do even more fully in my new book Embracing Israel/Palestine, keeping the struggle with Palestinians going in the long run undermines Israel’s ability to survive and provokes global anger at the Jewish people, which is perceived as giving blind support to the oppressive and unjust Occupation policies of the Israeli state. But for the moment, this destructive policy has a new lease on life and so the Israeli Right can bask in its “brilliance.”


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