The new spirit of assertion by a hitherto supine leadership and the degree of support from governments across the world, speak of a dawn of hope for the Palestinian people. The bid for a unilateral declaration of independence from Israeli occupation, which the Palestinians hope will be recognised by the United Nations, emerges from the wider ferment in the Arab world. But because it involves Israel, it will be judged by a different set of standards. It embodies the spirit of hope and resistance. Yet, it could just as well, be the first stage in a new phase of confrontation, more bitter than anything in the past.
The dangers are embodied in the figure of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who basks in the glow of adulation from the U.S. Congress and self-righteously demands the unquestioning loyalty of what he, with surpassing arrogance, calls the “civilised world”. Unqualified endorsement of the creeping annexation of all Palestine – save the Gaza which would continue being the world’s largest open-air prison – is the minimum he demands, as blood price for past atrocities the Jewish people have suffered in the bastions of civilisation.
Netanyahu has ever since assuming office as Prime Minister of Israel, sought assiduously to change the subject: from the need for justice in Palestine to the putative nuclear threat from Iran; from the legitimate demand of those made refugees several times over by Zionist ethnic cleansing, to the imperative that the world recognise the eternally Jewish character of Israel (and thus Palestine). Netanyahu’s recalcitrance would be a sufficient threat to world peace were there not greater hazards lurking in the cabinet of right-wing extremists he has assembled.
Avigdor Lieberman, foreign minister of Israel under the power-sharing deal that keeps Netanyahu in office, is the other face of this hazard. A person who does not hesitate to use metaphors from the animal world in referring to the Palestinians, Lieberman sees no irony in saying in the very next breath that “Israel is now on the frontline of a battle involving not just the Jewish people but all Western civilisation”. His warning to the Palestinians is an unabashed assertion of imperial mastery: the relative stability of the last two years, with high rates of growth and relatively unimpeded movement, would be a thing of the past if the Palestinians were to persist with the intent to declare statehood.
What Israel demands, the U.S. soon fulfils. In his speech before the U.N. General Assembly on September 21, just hours after mass rallies were held all over occupied Palestine to celebrate the push towards independence, U.S. President Barack Obama warned against the entire enterprise. It was in part, a disavowal of much he had said at the same forum exactly a year before. Acknowledging as much, he reaffirmed his belief in a Palestinian state, but underlined that this was a moral imperative that could only be realised “between Israelis and Palestinians themselves”.
The meaning is clear: the final contours of a settlement should set in stone for eternity, the asymmetric power relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. A Palestinian “state”, simply because it involves a relationship of equality, is an unthinkable for Israel. What the world sees as a moral imperative is for Israel an existential threat. In addressing this dilemma, Obama has to make frequent concessions to the demands of justice and just as frequently recant.
Obama’s inner councils are restive at the indignity of the situation but uneasily aware that there is no way out, given the conflict between the configurations of domestic politics and the compulsions of maintaining a pretence of global leadership. Top cabinet officials in the U.S. may denounce Netanyahu in private as an ungrateful and mendacious ally. But any such statement in public would unleash a firestorm of rage from the far-right, unrepentant despite Iraq and energised by recent economic woes.
The far-right extremist John Bolton, who even a Republican Congress found inappropriate for the post of ambassador to the U.N., has resurrected the imperial fantasies the world hoped had died with the Bush administration: extinguish the Iranian threat through the use of force, pull out of the U.N. and cut all funding if it goes ahead with recognising a Palestinian state. His advocacy of a muscular U.S. military posture around the world – fanciful in the context of current economic realities, but still anchored in a semblance of rationality – blends with the messianic visions of those who are today the leading contenders for leadership of the Republican party. Israel is no mere ally in this perception, but a divinely ordained cause, nothing less than a fundamental act of commitment to good over evil.
The mood is mirrored in uncanny and disturbing ways in Israel, where economic difficulties – typified by growing inequality and rampant inflation – have exacerbated already sharp social divisions. Resentment is rising at the political influence of the extremist settlers, but so is the sense of siege, as popular attitudes darken in Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, till now considered Israel’s more dependable friends. It is a context in which political forces that successfully evade hard questions and tap the most deep-seated resentments – i.e., the most fanatical elements -- have a natural advantage. If the U.S.-Israel axis was for years an impediment to justice in Palestine, the prospective alignment of the extremist factions in these countries could soon become an active threat to world peace.