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Another goat, another dunam
Doing Business in Israel is easy. Doing business in neighboring Palestine is not. I learned this the hard way, through experience. I was talking to a truly frustrated World Bank officer two decades ago at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Looking over the walls that were last mended by my Ottoman ancestors, I was trying to learn about her experience of working in the place. “If you have a project to support the Palestinian economy, you need to convince a designated Israeli official,” she told me. “You do your best. You’re happy to see progress over time, and you feel that you’re talking the same language with this official.”
“Alas,” she then frowned, “one day you go to your last scheduled meeting to finish things, and you meet a new guy as your new designated Israeli official, realizing that you need to start all over again.” Recurring is what you have over there. Things repeat themselves to no avail. No one says “no,” yet you go back to square one, over and over again.
I see a similarly recurring theme in Israeli politics. It happened with Ariel Sharon in 2000, and now it is happening again with Binyamin Netanyahu in 2021. When right-wing leaders have trouble holding together their own ranks, they resort to violence against Palestinians. In 2000, Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa compound, accompanied by a group of fellow right-wingers and a phalanx of riot police, provoked the second Palestinian Intifada. Now, the brutal use of tear gas and shock grenades inside the Al-Aqsa mosque appears to be a similar provocation and may start a new uprising. Why?
Let me start with the significance of the Al-Aqsa compound. Masjid al-Aqsa (the farthest mosque) is the second holiest site in Islam after Masjid al-Haram (the forbidden mosque), where Ka’ba is located. The compound is a bit less than 5,000 square meters, so by the Ottoman measure still in use there, 5 dunams. The Israelis were “skating on the thinnest ice of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” as one observer of the conflict said at the time, but it did close the ranks of the Israeli right at tremendous cost.
The move may have served its purpose in 2000, but how about now? With Arab Israelis protesting openly for the first time, Israeli politicians are skating on even thinner ice this time. Why? The focus of attention is not only Gaza and Ramallah and other areas where Palestinians have both military and administrative control, but inside Israel proper, in Lod and Haifa, where Arab citizens of Israel are living side by side with their Jewish neighbors. There are demonstrations in all these parts protesting police brutality inside the holy mosque. Note that Arab Israelis make up 20 percent of Israel’s population. Netanyahu is performing a very dangerous dance.
Is this Netanyahu’s last resort to stay in power? Probably. After the fourth inconclusive election in two years, Netanyahu continues to fail in forming a stable government. Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, had a good chance of forming one -- got the top job but won’t be able to hold on in light of the new facts on the ground. It is highly likely that the country is going to have a national unity government and hold a fifth election in which the entire spectrum will shift further to the right. This means that Netanyahu will cling to power. That is not a sustainable outcome for Israel. It may only end the short-term election cycles, as before, at a tremendous human cost.
Years ago, during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, I remember Karl Rove, who worked at the white house at the time, talking to journalist Ron Suskind. Rove infamously said in relation to Iraq: “When we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we’ll act again, creating other new realities.” People like to cite this as an example of hubris, but I don’t think the lesson has been learned at all. Politicians in Washington, D.C. and Jerusalem still act under the assumption that they are creating their own reality, that they are immune to the forces that doomed similar actions to failure.
There is a saying popularized by early Zionist settlers summarizing this notion of creating facts on the ground. It goes, “another goat, another dunam…and the country will be ours.” I don’t think so. The stakes are higher this time, and the cycle they’ve relied on, of edging out the Palestinians and deflecting international condemnation, is coming to its end. Israel urgently needs a new politics.