Netanyahu one more time

It’s not a record – Belgium took 18 months back in 2010-11 – but it’s still impressive: 13 months after going to the polls, on 9 April 2019, Israel has finally managed to put together a new government. It took a further two elections (in September and March), the coronavirus and much political manoeuvring, but the coalition cleared its last hurdle yesterday and will be sworn in next Wednesday.

Benjamin Netanyahu, in office since 2009, will remain as prime minister in a power-sharing arrangement with Benny Gantz, who was previously opposition leader. Gantz will serve as defence minister, and is then slated to take over the top job after 18 months.

Whether Netanyahu will actually be willing to relinquish power at that point, of course, remains unknown. And the question may well be moot, because the prime minister goes on trial later this month for bribery and corruption. While the Israeli high court yesterday ruled that his indictment should not prevent him being sworn in, an actual conviction would be a different matter.

Much as I detest Netanyahu, I think the high court got this one right. Indictments can be a political matter (although there’s no evidence that this one is) and on their own do not entail guilt; the question of whether in any particular case they should disqualify someone from office is up to parliament, not the courts.

As I said a few weeks ago, Gantz didn’t have a lot of options. There was strong pressure to respond to the health crisis with a government of national unity, and the opposition’s numbers in parliament were too brittle to guarantee a majority without Netanyahu. And with three elections already held in the space of a year, no-one wanted to take the responsibility of forcing a fourth.

But as usual, the Palestinians are the ones who lose out. The central common plank of the new coalition’s platform is the annexation of (unspecified) parts of the occupied West Bank. It’s very much the sort of policy that looks more attractive to a politician in campaign mode than to a minister trying to work out its practical implications, so don’t expect it to actually happen, but the fact that it’s even on the table is a bad sign.

The coalition agreement only commits Gantz to agree to annexation if it has American approval. The Trump administration, however, seems unconcerned, with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo saying baldly last month that “That’s an Israeli decision.”

In reality, of course, annexation would be in breach of the most fundamental requirement of international law, that boundaries not be altered by force. No-one suggests that the annexation of Crimea in 2013 should be regarded purely as “a Russian decision,” or that Saddam Hussein’s forcible incorporation of Kuwait in 1990 was just “an Iraqi decision.”

But in a sense Pompeo is just reflecting the reality on the ground: the occupation has been in place for fifty years, the Palestinians are powerless and for the moment Israel can do what it wants. The two-state solution is dead, and the debate instead is going to have to deal with the question of Palestinian rights within a single state.

Netanyahu doesn’t want to have to confront that question. His whole career has been based on demonising the Palestinians for his own political advantage, while postponing the hard decisions to a future in which they would be someone else’s responsibility.

Perhaps he will again find a way to kick the can further down the road. Or perhaps he will end up watching from the inside of a prison cell as Gantz or someone else tries to deal with the mess he has left them.

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