février 4, 2023

thomas friedman 2
What in the World Is Happening in Israel ? By Thomas Friedman New York Times

A week of reporting from Israel and the West Bank has left me feeling that the prospect for a two-state solution has all but vanished. But no one wants to formally declare it dead and buried — because categorically ruling it out would have enormous ramifications. So, diplomats, politicians and liberal Jewish organizations pretend that it still has a faint heartbeat. I do as well. But we all know that the two-state option is not in a hospital. It’s in hospice. Only a miracle cure could save it now.

Alas, though, just because the two-state concept is vanishing doesn’t mean the one-state solution — with Israel alone controlling the West Bank, Jerusalem and pre-1967 Israel forever — automatically becomes the easy default. Not at all. The more you examine closely how Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have been living together between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea the more you realize three important things:

First, you realize that, despite episodic blowups, these highly diverse, often antagonistic, but deeply intertwined communities have been kept in rough equilibrium since the 1993 Oslo Accords, thanks to a combination of Israel’s security clampdowns, the workings of the Palestinian Authority, economic growth and a whole lot of pragmatic compromises and self-restraint exercised by all sides every day.

But you also realize that a variety of long-developing demographic, technological, political and social changes are reaching tipping points that are stressing all the balances between Jews and Jews, Jews and Israeli Arabs, Jews and Palestinians and Palestinians and Palestinians that have kept this place reasonably stable.

By that I am referring to the fading of the peace process and prospects of a two-state solution, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the corruption and breakdown of the Palestinian Authority and the prevalence of TikTok and other social media. In the past year alone, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, roughly 20 Israelis and more than 150 Palestinians have died in violent incidents.

I don’t think a day passed on this trip when I did not read about or see TikTok or other videos of a Palestinian shot by Israeli soldiers or Israelis rammed into or attacked with knives by individual Palestinians. This conflict porn is new, it’s pervasive and it is incredibly effective at instilling hate in 15-second bites that keep everyone in a permanent state of fear and rage.

And all this was before Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow victory in Israel’s recent election, leading to what soon will be the most ultranationalist, ultrareligious governing coalition in the country’s history. (My rule: Any party that invites the prefix “ultra” before its name is not a good thing around here.)

All of that drives the realization that Israel will need to practice a lot of self-discipline to preserve stability. All of the parties do — but Israel is the effective sovereign over this whole realm. Without self-restraint, the result will not be a stable one-state solution, with the mosaic of Israeli Jews, Israeli Palestinian citizens and Palestinians of the West Bank all living in harmony. No, without self-restraint, Netanyahu and his coalition partners could bury the two-state solution and the one-state solution in the same grave.

That would just leave us with the One Big Mess Solution.

If you ask me, that is now the most likely outcome — a total mess that will leave Israel no longer being a bedrock of stability for the region and for its American ally, but instead, a cauldron of instability and a source of anxiety for the U.S. government.

Why such a worry? Because Netanyahu’s new partners stand for the exact opposite of self-restraint. Four of the top five party leaders of the incoming coalition government — Netanyahu, Aryeh Deri, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir — have either been arrested, indicted, convicted or served prison time on charges of corruption or incitement to racism. These are not people known for stopping at red lights.

Moreover, Netanyahu is expected to name the ultranationalist, anti-Arab Ben-Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party, as his minister of national security. He is giving Ben-Gvir oversight not only over the Israeli Police but also over other law enforcement agencies, including the Border Police, which are very active in the occupied West Bank. Ben-Gvir would easily be able to weaponize these agencies against the Israeli Arab and Palestinian populations.

Netanyahu is also expected to make Smotrich minister of finance and also intends to give him and his party, Religious Zionism, responsibility over the Civil Administration, which has always been held by Israel’s Defense Ministry. The Civil Administration has power to expand Jewish settlements, to restrict Palestinian daily life and to enforce the law, including house demolitions.

Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are religious zealots who promote Jewish presence on Temple Mount, which is also holy to Muslims. The policing of Temple Mount is carried out by the Israeli Police, which Ben-Gvir is about to get control of. You get the picture?

Netanyahu has been basically telling American officials, American Jews and Israel’s Arab allies that although he’s putting foxes in charge of hen houses and distributing matches and gasoline to pyromaniacs, his personal power and savvy will be able to replace institutional checks and keep his extremist partners from taking Israel over a cliff.

We’ll just have to see. Color me dubious. In the meantime, allow me to take you on a quick tour of the political landscape and show you just how many equilibriums are being stressed and why Israel today desperately needs the most pragmatic, restrained government it could possibly produce — but is getting just the opposite.

One of my first stops on this trip was the Jewish community in the heart of the Palestinian area of Hebron, near the tomb of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. A few days before my visit, several controversial encounters unfolded there between Israeli soldiers, who clearly identified with the new right-wing government, and left-wing Israeli Jews who traveled to Hebron to show solidarity with Palestinians under occupation, The Times of Israel reported,

In one encounter, caught on video, a soldier tackled a Jewish demonstrator and punched him in the face. In a separate video, a soldier confronting other protesters is heard to say: “Ben-Gvir is going to sort things out in this place. That’s it. You guys have lost. … The fun is over.”

That boasting soldier, the newspaper added, “was wearing a patch velcroed to the back of his military vest that read: ‘One shot. One kill. No remorse. I decide.’ Patches other than those showing the logo of a military unit or an Israeli flag are against military regulations.”

What happened next, though, is where the story between Jews and Jews gets complicated. The Israeli Army sentenced the soldier who taunted the protesters to 10 days in military prison. The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said the soldiers caught in the video had acted “contrary to the values of the Israeli military.”

This prompted Ben-Gvir to criticize the army for sending a “harmful message” to soldiers. “We must not let the anarchists who slander us endlessly win,” he tweeted. Kochavi then issued a statement: “We will not allow any politician from either the right or the left to interfere in command decisions, or the use of the army to promote a political agenda.”

In the midst of all this — I’m not making this up — Netanyahu’s own son, Yair, retweeted a post calling on Kochavi to push “your disgraceful letter and its feigned governmentalese far up your ass.” The elder Netanyahu stayed silent for a couple days, before finally issuing a declaration backing up the army.

I was shown around Hebron by the spokesman for the Jewish community there, Yishai Fleisher, a couple days after the incident. He expressed his relief that hard-line Jews, like Ben-Gvir, were coming back to power, replacing what he deemed as weak ones. Or, as he put it to me: “The Israel we knew is back — that is, the badass Jewish state that protects the Jewish ethnic minority in this region has returned.”

I simply cannot imagine how this new relationship between Ben-Gvir, the Israeli military, the Israeli Police and both Jewish and Palestinian activists will find equilibrium.

Thomas Friedman
New York Times

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