Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Image: EPA/Yuval Chen)

Benjamin Bibi Netanyahu has taken the old adage that all politics is local, and reduced it still further. Politics is now house-to-house. Dispossession and evictions on an individual basis in East Jerusalem, that wind up resulting in targeted destruction of apartment buildings in Gaza. There is a hideous symmetry to that, and it is most likely intended as such.

The current attacks on Gaza by the IDF are all about survival — the political survival of Bibi Netanyahu. After four elections in two years, he has been unable to shift the needle in such a way as to give him a stable majority. He has been able to patch together temporary coalitions in between elections, but Israel’s crazy electoral system, which offers no sufficient “threshold” to disincentivise parties becoming ever smaller operations, has failed to deliver any sort of decisive change — and there’s little chance of it reforming itself.

Israelis will put up with election do-overs, but four has really been pushing it. After the last go-around, the other major contender — Benny Gantz, of the Blue and White coalition — was close to putting together a government, which would have included the Israeli Arab joint-list group for the first time in the country’s history.

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But Gantz is currently in Bibi’s government, as part of a pro tem grand coalition, and as “defence” minister, so he has his hands full at the moment. Now the Blue and White coalition has fallen apart, on Gantz’s entry into the cabinet and his willingness to support Bibi’s adventures. And the joint-list looks, to its base, enormously foolish.

External enemy

What Bibi needed was an external enemy, and the Sheikh Jarrah eviction crisis gave him what he needed. Sheikh Jarrah, a community right on the boundary that once ran between Israel and Jordan, was largely Palestinian under the Ottoman empire. The original Jewish population left after it ended up in Jordan after the 1948 war, and the neighbourhood filled with Palestinians pushed out of West Jerusalem neighbourhoods. Some of them were housed in these deserted blocks. Title was meant to be transferred by Jordan; it never was. In 1967, Israel got the whole of Jerusalem back after the six-day war.

What has now become a decades-long dispute over ownership became live, with the rise of the settler movement, and Likud’s use of it to extend into the West Bank and make an independent Palestinian state unviable. Settlers have dug into the Ottoman archives to find title deeds to the houses from the 1800s; Palestinians have done the same, and claim that some of the settler documents are forged. And on it has gone.

That makes it sound like a sort of fair fight, but of course it isn’t. Jewish citizens of Israel have been able to claim property of expelled Palestinians in compensation for property lost elsewhere; Palestinians can’t do the same, and have no right of return. The Palestinians in Sheik Jarrah can’t go back to Haifa from whence many came, and some of them have been there since many decades before that. The Palestinians are fighting the case in Israeli courts, but they’re on a hiding to nothing.

For the government, the crisis has been too good to waste. An Israeli High Court was imminent on “Jerusalem Day”, May 9, when Israeli Jews celebrate the reunification of the city after the 1967 war. Police raided Palestinian protestors in the Temple Mount. Bibi’s attorney-general inquired about being party to the legal case, at the behest of settlers. Jerusalem Day includes an “apprentice boys”-style march of Zionists through Palestinian neighbourhoods. Far-right Kahanists set up counter protests. Then it went off.

Effectively fascism

Planned? Stoked? Who knows, but Bibi was willing to be lucky. The rightward coalition on which he depends now includes “Jewish Power”, whose members praise terrorist predecessors such as Baruch Goldstein and Meir Kahane, and which is effectively a Zionist fascist party.

Criticism from within the centre right has been relentless. Netanyahu is also facing multiple charges of corruption. Many might have thought they’d be better off without him. That thought has faded.

Hamas, too, has its own interests in ramping up the tension for its own “local” politics — conflict with the Abbas and the West Bank Palestinian Authority. Indeed, some in Israel argue that Netanyahu is very happy for Hamas to grow and prosper as the enemy (cofounded by Israel, after all) he needs, and has allowed plentiful funds from Qatar to flow to Hamas coffers in Gaza.

Hamas’s open antisemitism is no barrier to such arrangements, given his close relations with figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and other authoritarian leaders who have revived that pre-WW2 political stance, the antisemitic Zionist.

This is something Netanyahu, Likud and further right parties have played up to over the last decade, with explicit designation of Israel as a Jewish state, that explicitly is not “there” for its citizens equally. It is part of the increasing celebration of strength and mercilessness to which Israel has appealed. Neoliberalism and corruption has worn away grounded Zionist social solidarity. It is reclaimed by projecting strength outwards.

The notion that this is a struggle between two identities is fatuous centrist nonsense. One side is identitarian, materially secure in its existence, now with the luxury to feel the anomie of modernity creeping upon it. The other side is fighting expulsion, dissolution and historical disappearance — a fight not for identity, but to secure the material preconditions that would make one possible.

Of course, beyond the electoral politics, there is a wider strategy — the “Holy Basin” program, to gradually break down Arab neighbourhoods in central Jerusalem, while leaving Jewish ones intact. Any Israeli government interested in even the crappy “peace” on offer would pass a law giving the Sheik Jarrah Palestinian residents title, and tell the “settlers” — none of whom have a childhood or living connection to the homes — to go further west to steal some land. It’s just faintly possible Bibi and others may regret not doing that.

The most encouraging thing to come out of this nasty clash has been not Hamas rockets, but the general strike of Palestinians across green line Israel and the territories. That is the possible beginning of the mass civil rights movement Israel leadership has been trying to frustrate for decades.

It may well have arisen from the Israeli leadership’s final abandonment of the country’s claim to be part of the liberal-democratic tradition, possibly a huge error on Israel’s part. But Bibi lives on politically, and all politics is local — an election or a missile on your apartment block.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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