Netanyahu may be gone but don’t expect a Middle East peace breakthrough - Ben Lynfield

Benjamin Netanyahu leaves behind a bitter legacy on what is likely Israel's most crucial issue: peacemaking with the Palestinians and reaching a two state compromise with them in the future.

Israelis celebrate the swearing in of the new government in Tel Aviv on Sunday
Israelis celebrate the swearing in of the new government in Tel Aviv on Sunday

But don't expect a peace breakthrough, rolling back of occupation or major shift under his successor Naftali Bennett. He has a record of being even more right wing than Netanyahu.

Moreover, despite the ousting of Netanyahu, the Israeli public and electorate remain decidedly right wing and sceptical that a peace deal is possible. And Bennett's razor thin Knesset majority is comprised of eight parties, many of them with sharply divergent views ranging from far left Meretz to Bennett's hard-right Yamina.

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Only the shared desire to oust Netanyahu and end his clinging to power despite his corruption trial and after four inconclusive elections brought the parties together. This was largely through the efforts of centrist former finance minister Yair Lapid. Under a power-sharing deal, Lapid is slated to take over as premier after two years. With vastly differing ideologies it is very unlikely this amalgamation could come up with or agree to coherent new positions to move things forward with the Palestinians

Rather they are expected to focus on the consensus issue of strengthening Israel's economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Many analysts predict a short life for this eclectic government, which will spend a lot of time trying to navigate the ideological and other differences of its constituent parties.

Netanyahu made Israel more right wing and less democratic, further entrenching occupation over the Palestinians.

A review of his policies, almost from the inception of his tenure shows he all along intended to deepen Israel's hold on occupied territory through a creeping annexation and the stymying of negotiations.

While his predecessor, Ehud Olmert engaged in intensive negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas aimed at a two state solution (which came up short when Abbas hesitated on some points and Olmert stepped down amid corruption allegations), Netanyahu did everything to avoid progress towards a peace pact occasionally going along with the formality of negotiations as a sap to the Americans but undermining a Palestinian state on the ground, often blatantly. Thus during a visit back in 2010 by then Vice President Joe Biden, Netanyahu set the tone with a major expansion of the Ramat Shlomo settlement on expropriated land in occupied East Jerusalem. His government subsequently backed Israeli settler allies who moved into previously all Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem to foreclose the emergence of a Palestinian capital there. Current plans call for the eviction of Palestinians to make way for more settlers in the Sheikh Jarah neighbourhood. The militant Hamas movement cited this intention when it fired rockets at Israel during the recent conflict, which also saw devastating Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.

When the very friendly Donald Trump administration was in power, Netanyahu actually boasted that he was blocking a Palestinian state or for that matter anything acceptable to the Palestinians "What I'm willing to give the Palestinians is not exactly a state with full authority, rather a state minus," he said.

Internally, Netanyahu took steps that made Israel less democratic, including the 2018 Nation State law, which advantages Jewish over Arab citizens, undermining the principle of equality. It stripped Arabic of its status as an official language. While being indicted and tried for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes he vilified Israeli governmental institutions including the police and attorney general and relentlessly attacked the media. He became the first Israeli premier not to step down in the face of indictment.

He also took a step towards mainstreaming anti-Arab racism by supporting the Knessset candidacy of Itamar Ben Gvir, a disciple of the late rabbi Meir Kahane who advocated the expulsion of Arabs and whose extremist Kach movement was banned.

On this last point, the place of Arabs in Israeli society, Bennett and Lapid have moved in a positive direction by including the Arab Ra'am party in the coalition, a first in Israeli history that will enable Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas to hike budgets and better conditions for his constituents.

But the peace process is a different story. Bennett comes from a religious-nationalist background, served as a senior aide to Netanyahu and was director of the Yesha Council, which spearheads settlement construction. He has been a strong advocate of annexing area C, the swath of land where the settlements are located and which Palestinians view as the only development area for their future state.

Moreover, with the Israeli public turning decidedly to the right beginning with the Palestinian suicide bombings of the 2000-2005 second intifada and later with Netanyahu's encouragement, tangible concessions would be highly unpopular. The last Knesset election results showed a clear majority for right wing and religious parties despite paving the way for Netanyahu's demise. Asked in opinion polls if peace is possible, a big majority in recent years consistently says no.

The timing is just not right for any contentious steps, says Israeli public opinion expert and scholar Dahlia Scheindlin, noting that Israelis have just been through a war with Hamas and a spate of violence in mixed Jewish-Arab cities. "No new government coming out of a precarious state would take controversial measures," she says.

Moreover, according to Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Israel's security establishment is anxious to maintain the status quo in the West Bank. This includes overall Israeli military control with the Palestinian Authority bearing the burden and cost of running autonomy, the day to day affairs of the Arab population. Meanwhile, the Palestinian security forces cooperate with Israeli counterparts in thwarting attacks on Israeli targets and quelling Hamas.

The new government will seek better relations with the Biden administration so that it might avoid blatant provocations and carry out settlement in a lower key manner.

But it promises to leave the Netanyahu system of occupation largely intact, which bodes ill for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

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