When Inder Kumar Gujral visited the United States as prime minister, Bill Clinton greeted him at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel with the comment, “India has two ambassadors in the US. Mr Naresh Chandra and my wife!” Recent events confirm that by that token, Israel doesn’t need to post a diplomat as ambassador in the US at all. It has Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a practising Jew whose wife has converted to the faith, to ensure that the US pursues Israeli interests as its own foreign policy priorities.
He and the president’s long-time legal aide and special envoy on Israel, Jason Greenblatt, may have helped Mr Trump’s close ally, Benjamin Netanyahu, to survive a domestic political challenge by not divulging details of the Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal on which Mr Trump and his team have been working for more than 18 months. This survival may be, at the expense of the few rights, still left to five million Palestinians who live at Israel’s mercy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories that Israel conquered from its Arab neighbours and refuses to give back. The political struggle within Israel, in which the prime minister has just won a reprieve, is over who can be more brutal to the Palestinians. A peacenik has no place in Israeli politics.
The great irony is that Jews see themselves as victims of history who suffered death and deprivation down the ages, their travails climaxing under Hitler. No glimmering of that experience however lightens Israel’s ruthlessness in this contest between Right and ultra-Right where Right does not mean Milton Friedman’s free market capitalism or any economic theory for that matter, but only a refusal to tolerate any perceived concession to Palestinians.
There was discomfort in the Israeli camp when it emerged that Mr Trump had said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly he would prefer “two states”. Any attempt to implement that plan would have aggravated Israel’s constitutional crisis and meant a snap general election that might have brought down the coalition regime Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party has headed since March 2015.
All Israeli governments are coalitions because the system of proportional representation does not allow any single party to govern alone. The nationalist and religious parties that make up the present ruling coalition — and probably to the prime minister personally — are especially resistant to Palestinian claims. But it is living on borrowed time that could end suddenly if details of Mr Trump’s peace proposal are disclosed. However fond he is of Mr Netanyahu, and however much he might see Israel as a vital ally (like Saudi Arabia) in his determination to destroy Iran.
Mr Trump cannot ignore the Oslo process’s two-nation commitment. If he reneges on that, it will be flouting world opinion and everything the US has claimed to believe in and stand for. Caught in a cleft stick, the White House has kept few things under tighter wraps over the past two years than the contents of the peace plan. Reports indicate that Mr Kushner and Mr Greenblatt have strict instructions not to make any promises as to when it will be released. The president promised in September last year that details would be revealed by January but only vague generalities have been mentioned so far.
The present crisis erupted when Israel’s defence minister, the Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman, leader of a coalition constituent, the Yisrael Beiteinu party, resigned on 14 November after denouncing a ceasefire between Israel and the Gaza Strip which Hamas controls as “surrendering to terror”. The ceasefire ended a week of some of the deadliest fighting between Israel and Hamas since the 2014 war, beginning with the interception in Gaza of an undercover Israeli commando unit. Israeli tanks and aircraft opened fire in the ensuing firefight, killing seven Palestinians.
An Israeli commando was also killed. Hamas unleashed some 460 rockets and mortars at Israel over the next 48 hours — the heaviest barrage since 2014. Israel responded with 160 air strikes, targeting militant sites in Gaza. Eight more people (seven Palestinians and another Israeli) were killed before Egyptian mediation persuaded Hamas and Israel to stop hostilities.
Mr Lieberman was not alone in criticising the ceasefire. Another of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition rivals, Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, also condemned it as a surrender. While the outright hawk of a defence minister said the ceasefire had made his position untenable, Mr Bennett demanded the defence portfolio “so that Israel will go back to winning”, as he put it. His Habayit Hayehudi party is the third largest in the coalition which rejects the notion of trading occupied land for peace. Clearly, therefore, Mr Bennett was playing to ultra-Right hawks. His demand may also have been an ambitious politician’s tactical move since, historically, all Israeli prime ministers have previously held the defence portfolio.
The prime minister’s immediate worry was that Mr Lieberman’s withdrawal would leave his ruling coalition with just a one-seat majority in the Knesset (parliament). If the education minister carried out his threat also to quit, Mr Netanyahu would be left with an unworkable minority making a mid-term election inevitable. His finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party, which is vital to the coalition’s survival, admitted that he did not think the coalition could continue. Elections are not due until November 2019 at the latest but ministerial resignations would have left Mr Netanyahu no choice.
He was spared that test when both Mr Bennett and the justice minister, Ms Ayelet Shaked, also from his party, announced they would support the coalition providing it moves more to the Right. “If finally the government will bring us in a new path, to work as a real Right-wing government, it’s worth trying,” Mr Bennett said, calling for harsher measures against Hamas in Gaza, destruction of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank, and tougher reprisals against Palestinian freedom-fighters whom Israelis see as terrorists, and their families. “When Israel wants to win, we will return to winning,” Mr Bennett boasted.
The Palestinian Authority has refused to even meet Trump officials since the president recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there. His vote against the annual ritual of the UN resolution demanding Israel return the Golan Heights to Syria marked a dramatic departure from precedent for the US has always abstained on this issue. Israel and the US were the only two countries to oppose the resolution which 151 others supported while 14 countries abstained. “Israel will always remain on the Golan Heights” Mr Netanyahu crowed, “and the Golan Heights will always remain in our hands.” Palestinians blame Mr Kushner for his father-in-law’s partisanship which allows and even seems to encourage such triumphalism.
The writer is the author of several books
and a regular media columnist.