How Benjamin Netanyahu whipped up Israeli nationalism to strangle the Palestinians

The Israeli prime minister’s policies have inspired Donald Trump and far-right European leaders

epa07051938 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu depats after addressing the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 27 September 2018. The General Debate of the 73rd session began on 25 September 2018 and runs until 01 October 2018.  EPA/JASON SZENES
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From US President Donald Trump’s call for nations to focus on their heritage and to act in their self-interest to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ratcheting up of an American-led pressure against Iran while asserting the right of his country to prioritise the interests of only one of the nations in its borders, a new world order displayed its influence at the United Nations General Assembly last week.

The nationalism that has surged in Europe and redefined American politics is based on norms and values that Israel’s leader established a decade ago and for which the Palestinians are paying the price. While many Europeans and Americans worry about the impact these values will have, the fate of Palestinians under Israeli rule is a living example of their cost.

Under the Israeli drones that patrol Gaza’s skies, rivers of untreated sewage flow from the strip’s cities, towns and refugee camps into the Mediterranean. These armed eyes in the sky see the slow, open flow of waste from a sewage system devastated by Israeli bombardments. They hover over the coastline as it is pumped back into the bathrooms and kitchens of the besieged Strip.

They have become a permanent fixture above the enclave, watching as Palestinians struggle through a continuous Israeli and Egyptian blockade to rebuild the homes and schools that Israel’s military reduced to rubble in the 2014 war. Their monotonous hum is a constant reminder that, safe inside bases in Israel, their controllers are one click away from destroying it all over again.

Below the unmanned aircraft, the enforced misery at the heart of Mr Netanyahu’s success in transforming Israel is locked away.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a joint statment with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem,  July 19, 2018.  Debbie Hill/Pool via Reuters - RC13AF3278D0

Mr Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 in elections that followed Israel’s first Gaza war. Campaigning on a commitment to take the Gaza war further than Ehud Olmert’s scandal-plagued government with a call to march Israeli troops into Gaza City, he was carried into office on the shoulders of an enraged electorate prioritising their nationalism.  Mr Netanyahu in turn used this political capital to begin enshrining his system of permanent segregation.

Leveraging Israelis’ fear of an increasingly unseen enemy, the pattern of a Gaza war followed by an election in which the leader of Israel’s Likud Party heads an increasingly hardline nationalist coalition has repeated twice since.

Electorally successful in Israel, their results have led US Senator Bernie Sanders to describe Israel as a member of a growing “Axis of Authoritarianism”.

Alongside Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the nationalist governments of Central and Eastern Europe, Israel’s recent Jewish Nation State law and the country’s longest-serving prime minister are, according to Mr Sanders, part of a bloc crushing universal rights to serve nationalist interests.

The Basic Law, the equivalent to a constitutional article, exemplifies the core nationalist values of this bloc. It was pushed through Israel’s parliament, Mr Sanders argues, precisely because Mr Netanyahu knew he had the American president’s support.

Downgrading Arabic from official language status in Israel, defining national self-determination as “the unique right of the Jewish people” and prioritising the goal of “Jewish settlement,” the law codifies discrimination long seen in Israel into the founding values of the State.

At the UN General Assembly last week, both Mr Netanyahu and President Trump railed against opponents and called for international relations based on strong borders.

Hundreds of Palestinians gather in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 27, 2018 to watch on a large screen as Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addresses the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York.   / AFP / ABBAS MOMANI

In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described the effects of this new world order, speaking specifically about Israel’s new Nation State law.

“This law will inevitably lead to one racist state, an apartheid state and thus nullifies the two-state solution,” he said. “Israel practices discrimination, but [this law] comes at the epicentre of this discrimination.”

For Mr Netanyahu, its passage represents the cornerstone of an Israeli state that has been an inspiration to what Hungary’s Prime Minister and Netanyahu ally, Viktor Orban, proudly calls “illiberal democracy”.

Ironically, unlike Mr Orban’s claim that the will of the majority is a democratic mandate to take away the rights of minorities,  the majority under the Israeli leader’s control are Palestinians, most of which live in the occupied territories and cannot vote in Israeli elections.

Mr Netanyahu reclaimed the premiership amid a newfound sense of stability following the Second Intifada and Second Lebanon War. No leader since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 has governed over fewer Israeli casualties in its conflict with the Palestinians. Israel’s military prowess had only expanded since Mr Netanyahu’s first term in office in the late 1990s.

Taking advantage of the relative quiet, he has fashioned a conflict-based consensus that bolstered public support for his coalition and redefined the state’s central values. As Israelis enjoyed an unprecedented absence of Palestinians from their lives, his government has routinely ignited nationalist fervour by ratcheting up tensions with Iran and fighting wars in Gaza.

For the last decade, the Israeli government has channelled the fear and rage surrounding its conflicts into laws requiring loyalty oaths be sworn to a Jewish state and targeting groups in Israel which commemorate the Nakba, the forced displacement of an estimated 750, 000 Palestinians by Israeli forces in the 1948 war.


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As part of this policy of hostility, the government has gone after the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who make up over 20 per cent of the country's population. At the same time, rising Jewish nationalism has also targeted 40,0000 African refugees, who are regularly rounded up and taken to detention centres in the desert or deported.

Additionally, the government has targeted its domestic Jewish critics, passing legislation to curb foreign funding of human rights organisations and progressive NGOs.

The prime minister’s political victories have been particularly inspiring to European and American right wing populists, who already looked to Israel as a model ethnocracy and, more recently, for its assault on domestic political freedoms.

The weekend following the passage of Mr Netanyahu’s Nation State law, American white nationalist leader Richard Spencer tweeted: “I have great admiration for Israel's Nation State law. Jews are, once again, at the vanguard, rethinking politics and sovereignty for the future, showing a path forward for Europeans.”

An online lightning rod for the US far-right, Mr Spencer entered American mainstream discussion because of his active support for Mr Trump and his views have increasingly found sympathy in the White House.

President Trump’s embrace of European-style populism is typical of the ideological trends promoted by his ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who provided a platform for Spencer at Breitbart.

Now seeking to promote a coalition of far-right national parties to sweep next year’s EU parliamentary elections, Mr Bannon also holds the pro-Israel attitudes of anti-immigration politicians such as Party for Freedom chief Geert Wilders. Few EU populists have championed Israeli nationalism more than Mr Wilders, inspiring leaders from Hungary’s prime minister to France’s National Front to embrace Mr Netanyahu.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 26, 2018 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm

Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians have become leading examples to nationalists of how to implement their programme, from Mr Trump’s admiration for Israel’s West Bank wall to rising hostility towards immigration in the EU.

“You know, you look at Israel — Israel has a wall and everyone said do not build a wall, walls do not work — 99.9 per cent of people trying to come across that wall cannot get across and more,” the US president told his Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto a week after his inauguration.

The statement was not true. Palestinians in the West Bank regularly cross the wall illegally for work in Israel and the end of suicide bombings in Israel was mostly a result of Hamas officially abandoning the tactic in 2005 and the end of the Second Intifada.

Mr Netanyahu’s international support by like-minded movements has been paired with domestic criticism over corruption. Embroiled in bribery allegations, it is the claims of Mr Netanyahu’s backroom dealings with leading Israeli newspapers and his efforts to enforce his narrative on social media that have the broadest social implications for Israelis.

Still, for such a scandal-prone leader, Mr Netanyahu continues to enjoy relatively strong support among Israeli voters. For Palestinians, however, it is the seizure of their land and constant military presence in the West Bank, the curtailing of their citizenship rights in Israel, the attacks on their refugee status internationally and an unending siege punctuated by war in Gaza that puts Mr Netanyahu in this ‘Axis of Authoritarianism’.

Gazan streets are increasingly quiet. Stores lacking customers and products look onto roads with few cars, reflecting the 50 per cent unemployment and rising fuel prices created by the blockade. The two wars that his governments eagerly brought to Gaza and the ongoing frequent military strikes that indiscriminately kill Gazans and destroy their neighbourhoods has had a far greater impact on them than Mr Netanyahu’s inspiration and assistance to the far-right internationally.

“The last war was the most important war,” says Ahmed Abu Rtemeh in the office of an NGO located in a once thriving but now desolate commercial district.

The leader from the Gaza March of Return Movement is referring to the impact that 51 days of death and bombardment in 2014 had on Gazans, leaving them with ruins, continued siege and fear of the next war. He describes the March of Return as rooted in the devastation of that war.

The reaction of Israel to the March of Return has been shocking. Snipers have killed at least 191 Gazans during the weekly protests since they began on March 30. But the lack of international reaction has likely confirmed the Israeli prime minister’s view that he will not pay globally for his actions next door.

Mr Abu Rtemeh traces the origins of the ongoing Gaza protests to the 2011 Nakba Day events, where Palestinians inspired by the Arab revolutions marched on checkpoints and borders while Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinian refugees trying to march across the Lebanese border.

Now repeating that tactic weekly, Mr Abu Rtemeh believes that the inability of the armed struggle to secure Palestinian rights or end the siege motivates Gazans to continue to come out to the border. It is latest example of how Palestinians choice of fighting these conditions for the last decade, whether through rockets or protests, has been shaped by the conditions Mr Netanyahu has imposed.

Mr Netanyahu isn’t the only Israeli Prime Minister responsible for the militarised segregation that severs Gazan Palestinians from the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel, forcing them to live in a caged and impoverished isolation.

Rather, he made this reality of unending occupation permanent, used the hardline nationalism it unleashed to hold onto power and, in doing so, created a blueprint for the new world order that the Trump administration is creating.