Next week, Israeli citizens will take part in a legislative election in which allegedly there are two mainstream candidates, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, competing for the leadership of the Israeli government. But the international community should be careful when it comes to trying to find differences between them.
Regardless of party allegiance, an overwhelming consensus exists among all mainstream Israeli Zionist politicians. They do not believe in a meaningful peace process with Palestine, have eliminated the two-state solution from the conscience of regular Israelis, and all call for further annexation of occupied Palestinian land as well as discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. In effect, they have become confident advocates of the dehumanisation of the people of Palestine.
As a result, anti-Palestinian rhetoric has dominated the current Israeli election campaigns, including those led by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz. These efforts have mainly come in the form of commitments to illegal policies, such as the annexation of occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, the settlement enterprise, and their continued support of a number of policies deemed violations of international law and, in certain cases, even war crimes.
Whoever becomes prime minister, Palestinians in occupied Palestine will continue to suffer from the consequences of the Israeli occupation, just as Palestinians in Israel will continue suffering from the institutionalised discrimination and racism of the Israeli establishment. Regretfully, the circumstances under which Palestinians are forced to live by the Israeli state have attracted little international action, even as the world watches to see whether Mr Netanyahu will be able to cling on to power for another term.
As this election clearly shows, under Mr Netanyahu, Israeli politics has moved steadily to the right. Now, stridently nationalist and discriminatory positions are espoused by supposedly moderate politicians. This shift in political culture is, of course, hugely detrimental to Palestinians, but it is also damaging to international relations as a whole.
The international community bears considerable responsibility for this. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital – including the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv – and Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights have given a considerable boost to Mr Netanyahu's popularity ahead of the polls. Both decisions signal the US's approval of land theft by force and send a stark message to Palestine and the entire region: "If you don't have military power to fight back, you shall accept our plans, even though it will deprive you of your rights, and forget all about international law and UN resolutions."
But the US is not the only problem. Only a few weeks ago, several European countries – including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – joined a campaign to protect Israel in the Human Rights Council. They chose to do so at a moment when Israeli violations and incitement of hatred against Palestinians, including Israeli citizens, are at an all-time high. On top of that, they chose to do that rewarding Israel, a state that has never implemented a single UN resolution. This excuse of “Israel is being singled out” in order to vote against Palestinian rights should be a reason for shame among those who endorsed Israeli talking points aimed at depriving Palestinians of the little they have to protect their rights: international law.
If these are the positions of the international community and if right-wing nationalism is a proven vote-winning strategy, what incentive does any mainstream Israeli Jewish politician have to advocate for an equitable peace process that will grant Palestinians their rights, ensuring a just and lasting peace for all?
The reality is that today there is no right and left in Israeli Zionist politics. Now, the discussion is about what degree of apartheid Israel will impose on the Palestinian people. Mr Gantz, who has been described as a centrist, maintains a policy approach reminiscent of those who initiated the colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territory. Meanwhile, members of his list such as Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon appear to agree with the Israeli far right on a number of issues, including attacks on human rights organisations and calls for the demolition of Palestinian homes, respectively.
This election has made it abundantly clear that the time of statesmen such as Yitzhak Rabin is long gone. As a member of the Israeli parliament, I can say that very few Jewish Israeli voices are left who understand the relevance of a comprehensive agreement, through the Arab Peace Initiative, which would grant Israel peace with the rest of the region in exchange for the ending of the occupation that began in 1967. That was partially the spirit that led Israel to sign the Camp David Agreement with Egypt 40 years ago. Now, the idea of “land for peace,” enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242, has been dismissed. Instead, it has been replaced with “peace for peace”, yet Israel has absolutely no incentive to move ahead.
From my experience in parliament, I know well that Israeli politicians are not going to change their positions without international pressure. In the past few years, however, I have seen a number of delegations visiting Israel as if it were a beacon of democracy. The fact that Israel systematically denies the rights of the Palestinian people based on religious grounds is not something that seems to bother them. Israeli politicians get these messages and act accordingly. This could be summarised in the message given by the EU Ambassador to Israel less than a year ago to the Israeli public: “We [the EU and Israel] share the same values. We believe in democracy, the rule of law and human rights … we have limited diplomatic disagreements that are insignificant compared to the co-operation away from the spotlights.”
This has had a direct effect on the situation of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Currently there are almost 60 laws approved in the Israeli parliament that target non-Jewish citizens. They extend from the denial of family reunification to land ownership and have reached a new level with the Nation-State law, which cements the foundations for perpetual discrimination. It is affecting not only Palestinians in Israel but also Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem carrying a mere "residency" in their hometown, while Israeli settlers have full rights.
Israel, the self-declared “only democracy” in the Middle East, has officially become what many now refer to as a “de jure” apartheid state. Yet, there has been no meaningful response from the rest of the world. Perhaps they have all been waiting for Mr Trump’s so-called “deal of the century”, while ignoring the magnitude of Israeli policies against the indigenous Palestinian population, including Muslims, Christians and Druze.
As Israeli politicians have understood – from Mr Netanyahu's Likud to Mr Gantz's Blue and White party, from Labour to the far-right parties Mr Netanyahu has allied himself with – Israel will not suffer any consequences for its illegal actions. Palestinian citizens of Israel are already paying a huge price for this, and after the election things may yet worsen.
Throughout the campaign, mainstream Israeli politicians have not talked about the peace process or even mentioned a Palestinian state. They certainly don’t want to discuss the idea of equality for all Israeli citizens. In fact, we have even seen the campaign of a Jewish politician featuring the mock killing of a Palestinian candidate for the Israeli parliament. Developments such as this are not a coincidence but an inevitable consequence of years of impunity.
The reality is that, in absence of decisive international action, whatever happens on April 9, the facts on the ground are not going to change. No lasting peace will be achieved without the fulfilment of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. For Israel to normally integrate with the wider region, it has to accept the Palestinian right to self-determination, return the Arab territories occupied in 1967 and get ready for coexistence with the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital. While insisting on this, we will continue working towards making Israel a state for all its nationalities, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Instead of increasing sectarian divisions, we must adopt an integral and comprehensive vision of citizenship. This should be the Middle East we are looking for. For regional peace to prevail, Israel should stop being treated as a state above the law. Action is urgently needed if peace based on justice, freedom, and equality for all is to prevail over racism, colonialism and apartheid.
Dr Ahmad Tibi is the co-chairman of the Democratic Front and Arab Movement for Change List