How hardline is Israel?

Israeli policy on Palestine is more fluid than many commentators think.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘Israel shows its muscle’ said the St Petersburg Times on 12 May 2002 (1), following claims that Israel is taking a ‘harder and harder line’ against the Palestinians.

First there was Israel’s threat of military action against the Gaza Strip. Following the suicide bombing of a snooker hall near Tel Aviv on 8 May 2002 – which killed 16 people while Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was meeting with US President George Bush – Sharon said he was ‘poised to order a forceful military assault’ on Gaza (2). ‘He who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt it and kill him first’, said Sharon, to international cries of concern (3).

But in the wake of that statement, Sharon was made to look like a dove after a ‘scalding defeat’ at the hands of his own Likud Party on 13 May 2002 (4) – when a majority of members voted against his proposal to ‘postpone any decision on a binding resolution against a Palestinian state’. By an ‘overwhelming show of hands’, Likud members passed a resolution saying that ‘no Palestinian state will ever be established west of the Jordan river’ (5) – leading one US journalist to declare that ‘Israel isn’t ready for peace’.

Do recent events really show that Israel is taking a ‘harder and harder line’? If so, what happened to the planned assault on Gaza? After the 8 May suicide bombing, Israel ‘began an emergency call-up of reservist soldiers’ and amassed extra troops and tanks on Gaza’s borders, while Gaza residents ‘braced themselves for a retaliatory assault’ (6). But it didn’t happen.

According to one report, ‘US pressure result[ed] in a last-minute suspension of the operation’ (7) – while Israeli defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said he was sending reservist soldiers home from Gaza, because we are ‘willing to give [peace negotiations] a chance and wait’ (8). As one journalist pointed out, in the past Israel has launched retaliatory attacks while the bodies of suicide bombing victims ‘were still warm’ – this time round, Israel not only held back but seemed to give in to international pressure to ‘give diplomacy a chance’.

What of Sharon’s defeat by his own party on 13 May? Likud’s vote against a Palestinian state has been described as ‘blinkered’, ‘disastrous’, ‘intransigent’ and an example of how the Israeli right is ‘stuck in the past’. But even here, the line being held by Likud is not as hard as it once was.

The UK Independent described ‘the decision by the party’s central committee, which has about 2500 members’, as a ‘scalding defeat’ for Sharon. In fact, the decision was taken by less than half of the committee’s 2500 members, as only 1161 of them turned up – 465 voting with Sharon and 696 voting against him. And for all the claims that former Likud Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who led the voting against Sharon, is ‘stealing the mantle of the right’ by ‘pursuing a traditional line’, he too thinks there could be Palestinain ‘self-rule’ – and even thinks that, if Palestinians stopped attacking Israel, ‘maybe a Palestinian state could be established’ (9).

The historic distinction between the revisionist Zionism of what is now the Likud Party and Labour Zionism is that the former often talked of creating a Greater Israel, with claims over the east bank of Jordan (part of Jordan’s territory) as well as the West Bank that was given over to limited Palestinian rule in the 1990s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Likud party line was that ‘the state of Israel has rights and claims to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and the Gaza sector’, emphasising that ‘under no conditions shall a Palestinian state be established’ (10).

Now, the fact that nearly half of Likud, including Sharon, accept Palestinian control over the West Bank and Gaza, and the possibility of a Palestinian state, illustrates a serious retreat from past policy. The fact that the other half talk about Palestinian self-rule, and the possibility of a Palestinian state under strict conditions, shows that Likud’s Greater Israel policy has been consigned to the dustbin of history. While much of the media accuses Likud of being ‘stuck in the past’, in fact the party has made some painful concessions.

The USA is no longer the all-out supporter of Israel it once was, as reflected in President Bush’s ‘historic statement’ on 4 April 2002, when he called on Sharon to end the occupation of Palestinian territories and expressed his support for a Palestinian state. Internationally, Israel is becoming more and more isolated. The Israelis are not about to completely cave in, as they know that could mean the end of the road – but their policy is more fluid than many Western commentators seem to think.

Looking at Israel, many Western politicians and journalists see an outdated, intransigent state that refuses to play by humanitarian rules – but for all its tough talk and tough actions, Israel is finding it harder to hold a hard line.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

US media: whose side are they on?, by Brendan O’Neill

Why the West is turning on Israel, by Mick Hume

(1) Israel shows its muscle, St Petersburg Times, 12 May 2002

(2) Israel prepares its retaliation, Guardian, 9 May 2002

(3) Israel prepares its retaliation, Guardian, 9 May 2002

(4) Sharon’s party rejects concept of Palestinian statehood, Independent, 13 May 2002

(5) PM loses Likud vote on Palestinian state, Ha’aretz Daily, 14 May 2002

(6) Gaza strike: Israelis prepare, Palestinians brace, US appeals, CNS News, 9 May 2002

(7) Gaza strike: Israelis prepare, Palestinians brace, US appeals, CNS News, 9 May 2002

(8) With Gaza move on hold, some Israeli reservists go home, Salon, 12 May 2002

(9) PM loses Likud vote on Palestinian state, Ha’aretz Daily, 14 May 2002

(10) See The Opening Position, by Boris Shusteff, Freeman Center for Strategic Studies

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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