The new government of Israel and the Palestinian issue

On May 17, 2020, the Knesset approved the 35th Israeli government and the statements of the two main leaders, Netanyahu and Gantz, were not long in coming. Benjamin Netanyahu said: “the people wanted a government of national unity and that is what they will have. The new government was established according to the will of the majority of citizens and will serve all citizens”, Benny Gantz said instead: “the alternative would have been some kind of civil war.”

Archiving three harsh election campaigns that took place in less than twelve months, Netanyahu told the Knesset, meeting in plenary session, that he and Gantz will work together successfully in the same way they collaborated during the military counter-terrorism operation in Gaza in summer 2014 when Gantz was Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces.

The government then took an oath to the Knesset and voted by 73 votes in favour and 46 votes against. In order to put aside the differences between the two main parties in the country and thus be able to form a government of national unity, the agreement that has been found is truly original. The new Israeli National Emergency Government will be led for the first 18 months by the former Prime Minister and for the second 18 months by former Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz.

It is the largest executive in the history of the country: 36 ministers and 16 deputies, after a delay caused by the uprising of some ‘senior’ members of Likud, the centre-right party of Netanyahu, who had not received government positions.

According to the agreement, Netanyahu will assume the leadership of the country for a year and a half, while former rival Gantz, who now assumes the chair of Minister of Defence and Vice Premier, will succeed him in November 2021.

The main ministers of this government are: Israel Katz Minister of Finance, Yuli Edelstein Minister of Health, Yoav Galant Minister of Education, Yuval Steinitz Minister of Energy, Amir Ohana Minister of the Interior, Miri Regev Minister of Transport, Gabi Ashkenazi Minister of Foreign Affairs and Avi Nissenkorn Minister of Justice.

Netanyahu, in response to the accusation that he launched a government that is too numerous and costly when the country’s economy is hit by the pandemic and has many unemployed, said: “we’ve been through three elections that have increased divisions and cost a great deal of money. A fourth-round of elections would have cost another 2 billion shekels”. Then adding that “the additional cost of the unity government will be about 85 million shekels per year, infinitely less than the cost of new elections: those would have been a real waste, which would have forced us to postpone the financial recovery from COVID-19 to an indefinite future”.

Netanyahu also praised Israel’s response to the pandemic during his speech, adding that the battle is not over yet and stressing that the new government will form a special anti-coronavirus cabinet in anticipation of a possible second wave of contagion. He also argued that the government will approve an economic manoeuvre to promote employment policies.

Gantz, who as prime minister vicar took the floor immediately after Netanyahu, said that “Israel puts an end to the worst political crisis in its history”, and urged to “end the era of incitement” and begin “an era of reconciliation”. Repeatedly interrupted by his former allies, now in opposition, Gantz said that the alternative to this government would be “a kind of civil war and this government of national unity will end the period when Israel was ruled by the government of half the population”.

Gantz during the speech also said that: “I, Prime Minister Netanyahu and 71 other elected representatives have decided to take on this national responsibility. This is an equal government, a government of checks and balances. My colleagues and I have opted for unity, with the aim of protecting the citizens of Israel not only from the challenges we face at our borders but also from the hatred that erodes us from the inside and damages the resilience that is vital to our security”. However, Gantz has declared that he is always open to dialogue with those who have chosen to remain in opposition.

Netanyahu then stated in his speech to the Knesset that the new government will continue to counter and remove threats to Israel’s security by preventing Iran’s rootedness in Syria and its nuclear project and will address the issue of sovereignty over settlements along the eastern border of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley.

In the agreement on the division of power between the parties, there is an explosive clause: the annexation of part of the West Bank.

At the international level, in fact, the agenda of the new government includes a possible declaration of sovereignty over the Jewish settlements and an annexation, already de facto, of vast territories of Area C in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. This new powder keg ready to explode in the region could set those territories on fire again.

Netanyahu has stated that: “We will fight the attempt to indict Israeli soldiers at the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes[1] and to accuse the state of Israel of the horrendous crime of building a kindergarten in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighbourhood and housing in the Shilo community: what hypocrisy, what a distortion of the truth! We are talking about areas of the country – continued Netanyahu – which are the cradle of the Jewish nation. It is time to apply Israeli law there and this step will bring the peace process closer. The truth (and everyone knows it) is that hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) will stay where they are, under any future peace agreement.

Netanyahu’s coalition agreement with Gantz sets July 1 as the date to begin the process of unilateral annexation of the colonies.

It is not entirely clear how many colonies the government intends to annex.

The West Bank has been under Israeli control since the 1967 six-day war, and over 400,000 Israeli settlers now live on its territory in 128 settlements. What is certain is that these territories, which are illegal under international law and whose legal status is governed by international conventions and law, would become an integral part of Israel and subject to its laws. But there is a huge difference between an occupation and an annexation: the status of these territories is governed by Security Council Resolution 242, so the occupying power would not have the right to change it.

Israeli propaganda claims, for its part, that this is an action in deep continuity with the past: the British Mandate would have destined the whole of Palestine to the creation of a Jewish

hearth at the San Remo Conference (1920), and the West Bank would have been legitimately conquered by the Israeli army in a war of self-defense in 1967.

Therefore, according to the Israeli side, this would not be an annexation – a term that conveys negative contents, echoing the recent Russian occupation of the Crimea and other illegal actions of an instant and violent nature – but the peaceful and gradual “extension” of Israeli sovereignty to areas that in fact already belong to the Jewish State and have been administered by it for years.

In short, the supposed annexation by Israel would rather constitute a regularization of the existing situation: an act of institutional clarity rather than a subversion of the status quo and the fact that the action is taken without the agreement of the counterparty would mean nothing, because Israel is regularly responsible for Area C under the Oslo Accords.

Netanyahu’s statements have had international repercussions.

On May 20, the Palestinian President, Abu Mazen, announced the end of all agreements with Israel and the United States and stated in a presidential statement published by the state agency Wafa that: “The Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Palestine are now exempted from all agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments, and also from all obligations contained therein, including security obligations”.

Abu Mazen therefore exhorts Israel to assume its obligations as an occupying power “with all the consequences and repercussions based on international and humanitarian law, in particular the IV Geneva Convention”.

This concerns, he adds, responsibilities for the security of the civilian population in the Occupied Territories and its property, the prohibition of collective punishment, theft of resources, land annexation and transfers of population from occupier to occupier, which “constitute serious violations and war crimes”. 

The Palestinian President reiterated the clear rejection of the US peace proposal and condemned the Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the city as the capital of Israel. On the other hand, the Palestinian president reiterated his support for an independent, contiguous and sovereign state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as capital, and “a just and comprehensive peace based on the two-state solution”.

In the meantime, the Palestinian National Authority is trying, with concrete facts, to remove the doubts that still surround the decision announced on 20 May by President Abu Mazen to release the Palestinians from the agreements signed with Israel and to put an end to intelligence cooperation with the Jewish State.

The Palestinian Security Units in fact withdrew in recent days from Azzariyah, Abu Dis, Biddu and Beit Iksa after their entry into the four suburbs of East Jerusalem – “Zone B” under mixed control under the Oslo Accords – with Israeli authorization to enforce the coronavirus containment measures. The move is an indication that the Palestinians will not passively accept large portions of the West Bank being unilaterally annexed to Israel. To this must also be added the broken communication with the CIA on security coordination with Israel and the refusal of aid sent by the Arab Emirates to the Palestinians on board a plane of the Emirate company Etihad that landed for the first time in Tel Aviv in coordination only with Israel.

The new Israeli Government ignores the Palestinians and considers them irrelevant in the context of the evaluations to be made for annexation. Some reaction has only come from the Israeli army and intelligence services. A security forces officer warned that the Palestinian decision will result more frequent incursions by the army into the West Bank “to capture wanted fugitives” and a larger deployment of Israeli units.

Abu Mazen’s appeal is an international call to responsibility and vigilance, the umpteenth SOS launched at the UN, the Arab powers, the European Union and anyone who still wants to listen and look closely what is happening in that land, tormented by over seventy years of conflict.

The response of the international community was not long in coming: in fact, both the UN, the EU and the Vatican have expressed enormous concern about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The situation is, as usual, extremely complex and delicate.

The timing and, above all, the ways the Palestinian Authority will move away from the agreements[1] are not yet clear.

The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, spoke on the matter, saying that: “whatever our individual assessments of the Palestinian response to the Israeli threat of annexation, it is a desperate cry for help, an invitation for immediate action. The Palestinian leadership is not threatening: it is calling for urgent action to preserve the prospect of peace”.

The Vatican also expressed strong concerns “about possible acts that could further undermine the dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Respect for international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions is an indispensable element for two populations living side by side in two states, with internationally recognized borders before 1967”, in a communiqué signed by Monsignor Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States.

The European Union has also taken a clear position and expressed very strong concerns.

Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, about Netanyahu’s intentions, said that: “International law is a fundamental pillar of the international order, based on rules. In this regard, the EU and its member states recall that they do not recognize any changes to the 1967 borders unless agreed between Israelis and Palestinians”. Borrell then concluded affirming that: “the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as future capital for both, is the only way to ensure sustainable peace and stability in the region. We must increase our efforts and influence on the main actors in the Middle East to prevent something we do not want to happen”. This is important because the European Union is Israel’s main trading partner.

King Abdullah II of Jordan, on the other hand, in an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel a few days ago announced heavy reactions in case Israel proceeds with the annexations.

Abdullah II said that “the two-state solution is the only solution. Leaders who support a one-state solution do not understand what it would mean. What would happen if the Palestinian National Authority collapsed? There would be more chaos and extremism in the region. If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a huge conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I do not want to make threats, but we are considering all

options. We agree with many countries in Europe and the international community that the law of the strongest should not apply in the Middle East”.

For the moment, the only relevant figure in Israel who is trying to act with common sense and diplomacy is the Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who said: “I give great importance to strengthening strategic ties with the countries that have signed peace agreements with us, Egypt and Jordan. They are the most important allies in dealing with regional challenges”. Still no reaction from Egypt, a silence that means waiting for events.

The Washington Post, on the other hand, in recent days reported an interesting analysis in which it explained Netanyahu’s haste: “Israel’s new coalition agreement provides that annexation can be implemented by a vote of the cabinet or parliament after July 1, but only if it has the approval of the U.S. administration. Observers say the window to implement the measure would probably close if President Trump failed to win re-election. And Joe Biden, Trump’s likely Democratic opponent, has repeated his opposition to annexation.

In this situation there is also a further dramatic statement that throws even more fuel on the fire. This was made by the Iranian Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, during his speech on the occasion of Quds Day (Jerusalem), the last Friday of the Ramadan period, which since 1979 has been dedicated to supporting the Palestinian cause. Ali Khamenei has indeed made an appeal for the liberation of Palestine. “Jihad and the struggle to liberate Palestine are Islamic duties. Victory is guaranteed by God,” said the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He then added that “the Zionism virus will soon be eradicated from the region”.

Khamenei then continued arguing that: “the main strategy of the arrogant powers and Zionism is to make Palestine fade to oblivion in the minds of Muslim communities. But the truth is that an issue as important as the Palestinian issue is not something that Islamic nations can allow to fall into oblivion, even if the Americans, the other tyrannical powers and their servants in the region use all their money and power to try to do it”.

Referring to the occupation of Palestinian land, the Ayatollah said that “the formation of the cancerous cancer of the Zionists as a basis for the West in the region must not be forgotten”.

In his speech the Iranian Supreme Leader pointed out that it is a serious mistake “to consider the Palestinian question only as an Arab question”.

The main objective of this struggle, Khamenei concluded, is “the liberation of all Palestinian lands and the return of all Palestinians to their homeland”.

In the general framework it is also important to report the denunciation-appeal made by Oxfam, the international confederation of non-profit organizations that for over 60 years has been working alongside the most vulnerable communities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Oxfam has in fact just presented the report on May 19, 2020 entitled “Violence and impunity in the West Bank during the COVID-19 pandemic” . As the report shows from the outbreak of the pandemic, in the West Bank, there is an unstoppable escalation of violence made by settlers against Palestinian civilians, with 127 attacks only since March 5.

The report gives evidence of abuses, fires and vandalism by settlers against the most vulnerable communities in the West Bank, where almost 3 million Palestinians and about 400,000 Israeli settlers live. Oxfam finally asked the European Union to put pressure on Israel to ensure “the application of the rule of law, without discrimination or exception, with regard to the violence committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, their property and livelihood”.

By Michele Brunori

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