The once and future Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not realize that he was being secretly filmed in 2001 when he boasted to a family of Israeli settlers in the West Bank: “I stopped the Oslo Accords,” a series of agreements signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s that was supposed to have culminated in the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the video surfaced in June 2010, the Obama administration was in the midst of an intensive push to reconvene Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with the goal of establishing a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel since 1967. The braggadocio displayed by Netanyahu in this video should have raised red flags for the president. Instead, the Obama administration pressed ahead with its ill-fated negotiations, naively believing that Netanyahu—a life-long, ardent opponent of Palestinian self-determination—now shared “the same objective,” in the words of Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, as the Palestinians.
As Netanyahu’s Likud party faltered in public opinion polls in the run-up to today’s election in Israel, with initial exit polls showing it neck and neck with its main electoral rival the Zionist Union, the prime minister frantically attempted to rally his base of support and reconfirm his hard line bona fides to Israel’s more extreme nationalist and pro-settlement constituencies in a gambit to retain power.
Today, the prime minister engaged in racist fear-mongering to boost right-wing turnout, claiming that his government was “in danger” because “Arab voters [Palestinian citizens of Israel, who form approximately 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry] are coming out in droves to the polls.” Netanyahu’s alarmism over Palestinian citizens of Israel exercising their right to vote reflects an increasingly anti-democratic sentiment within Israel’s body politic.
And Netanyahu’ last-minute campaign stop yesterday in Har Homa—an illegal Israeli settlement that sits within the expanded municipal boundaries of an East Jerusalem whose annexation is recognized by neither the international community nor the United States—served as an evocative setting to make his final pitch to Israeli voters.
After all, one of the major ways in which Netanyahu “stopped the Oslo Accords” was by building this settlement, whose name in Hebrew translates into Wall Mountain, on expropriated Palestinian land—much of which belongs to private owners—known as Jabal Abu Ghneim. Long before Israel built an actual Apartheid Wall cutting off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, the settlement of Har Homa served as both a figurative and emerging geospatial wall between these occupied Palestinian territories.
According to Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s point person on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Netanyahu portrayed the decision to begin construction on Har Homa in 1997 as the result of coalition pressures within his government after he signed an agreement to redeploy Israeli forces from part of Hebron. “I am telling you I don’t have a choice on Har Homa,” Netanyahu pleaded to Ross as related in the US official’s memoir A Missing Peace. “If I don’t do it, I will be in real trouble.” The Clinton administration, not wishing to see Netanyahu’s government collapse, bought the story, even going so far as to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlement.
But yesterday, true to form, Netanyahu revealed the real reason for building the settlement. “It was a way of stopping Bethlehem from moving toward Jerusalem,” he claimed. “Exactly because it stops the continuation of the Palestinians,” he stated, “I saw the potential was really great.” Another example of Netanyahu—who declared in the same 2001 video that “America is a thing you can move very easily”—playing the United States for a fool.
Netanyahu’s truth-telling about Har Homa also coincided with his full-throated repudiation of his alleged support for establishing a Palestinian state. “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands, is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel,” he maintained. To ensure no misunderstanding, when asked whether he would oppose Palestinian statehood if he forms the next Israeli government, Netanyahu responded: “Correct.”
During its first six years, the Obama administration had grasped at a June 2009 speech Netanyahu delivered at Bar-Ilan University in which he expressed support for an extremely conditioned, demilitarized and non-sovereign Palestinian “state,” as the basis for believing that Netanyahu was a partner for peace. With even that limited notion now renounced, the Obama administration’s misplaced hope has now gone down the drain.
Whether or not Netanyahu becomes Israel’s next prime minister, the United States must demand better than deceit and anti-democratic demagoguery from its supposed ally in the Middle East. Successive administrations have grown weary of Israel’s prevarications as it continues to illegally colonize Palestinian land and deny Palestinians self-determination. Only a more forceful U.S. policy, not wishful thinking, can compel Israel to end its oppression of the Palestinian people.