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There’s little cause for hope in Israel’s new government

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In his speech to the Knesset as incoming prime minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett had very little to say about his country’s biggest challenge, making peace with the Palestinians. It was as though by giving them only the briefest of mentions, the Palestinians, the nation that has lived under Israeli occupation for the past 54 years, would be obliterated out of existence. Instead he said he would “strengthen the building of communities across the land of Israel”, a statement clearly intended to include settlements in the occupied West Bank. Yet this was not the only violation of international law that appeared in the speech. In a clear rejection of the Oslo accords signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993 and 1995, he brazenly promised to “ensure Israel’s national interests in Area C”. This comprises some 60% of the area of the West Bank occupied by Israel in 1967, which according to those accords was to be handed back to the Palestinians.

Many commentators found hope in the fact that the new coalition includes an Arab party. Yet to the dismay of most liberal Palestinians in Israel, the United Arab List is a conservative religious party that opposes individual freedoms, including women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. By joining the coalition government this party has been willing to forgo the struggle for Palestinian national rights in return for winning some civic benefits for the Palestinians in Israel, such as better policing of Arab towns.

After the election results were announced, I reviewed the platforms of past Israeli governments to check whether any previous governments had provided me with hope. I found none. Even during the late 1980s, when the Palestinian intifada had convinced many Israelis of the necessity to come to some form of peaceful arrangement with the Palestinians, the staunchest opponent to peace with the Palestinians, Yitzhak Shamir, was elected to lead successive governments from 1986 to 1992. Shamir was more interested in building settlements in the West Bank than in supporting the Madrid international peace conference of 1991, which hoped to revive the Israeli–Palestinian peace process.

When Yitzhak Rabin formed a government in 1992, during the time when secret peace negotiations were taking place in Oslo between Israel and the PLO, there seemed to be a modicum of hope for peace. This ended in 1995 when Rabin was assassinated. A year later, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was openly opposed to the Oslo Accords, took over. Then began the inexorable drift to the right, becoming ever more pronounced. The present coalition government includes such parties as Gideon Sa’ar’s (deputy prime minister and minister of justice) New Hope, with six seats, which calls for the annexation of the West Bank, and Avigdor Lieberman’s (minister of finance) Yisrael Beiteinu, with seven seats, which is a staunch supporter of the illegal settlements.

It is true the coalition includes groups less intent on continuing settlement than Bennett’s party, which only won seven seats. Yet the likelihood that they can move the ship of state in the direction of compromise with the Palestinians is slight.

There are some possible benefits that might arise from this weak coalition, however. One example is the hurdles the government is expected to meet as it tries to extend the validity of the blatantly apartheid citizenship law of 2003 for another year. This law has been extended for the past 18 years. Under the law, a Palestinian citizen of Israel is not allowed to live in Israel with his or her spouse who is a resident of the Occupied Territories. This means the right of a Palestinian Israeli citizen to marry a spouse of their choice is curtailed.

Should the coalition government fail to extend the validity of this law, that would mean a reversal of the ban on family reunification. In relation to the larger issues facing Palestinians in their battered land, this might seem like an insignificant development. Yet it affects scores of families. Faced with an intransigent neighbour that still refuses to even consider recognition of the right of return, one searches for any measure, however small, that helps Palestinians hold on to their land.