by Richard Falk
We are pleased to crosspost this piece by JWE Board Member and International Jurist Richard Falk. The following is a modified version of Professor Falk’s responses to questions posed by Iranian journalist Javad Heirian-Nia.
A Preliminary Appraisal
Israel’s Knesset elections ended with the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. Many analysts believe that the cabinet headed by him will be the most right-wing cabinet in Israel. What is the effect of Netanyahu’s victory on the region?
The anti-Netanyahu political parties in Israel were united around a platform that contained few substantive changes from the policies expected to be pursued by the Netanyahu coalition. Their faulty focus was devoted almost exclusively to stopping Netanyahu from having an incredible fifth opportunity to become the next Prime Minister of the country.
It is now generally agreed that the election results are significant beyond this failure to block Netanyahu’s return to governing authority. What has emerged as potentially important is that Likud’s winning coalition depended on teaming up with the openly racist and exclusionary Religious Zionism Party, a political alliance of two far right religious parties that put the completion of the settler colonialist project at the top of their explicit agenda, although phrased in the language of Zionism and their understanding of ‘the promised land’ and what is meant to be truly a state of the Jewish people. It also reflected the growing strength of religious Zionism as compared to secular Zionism, and thus poses serious issues about the future character of Israel as a sovereign state.
The alliance of these two extremist ultra-religious parties gained 14 seats in the Knesset, the third most, and emerged not only as a strategic partner in Netanyahu’s triumphal return to power, but seems likely to provide the indispensable political glue needed by Netanyahu to prevent a crash landing of his tenuous coalition in the months and years ahead. This vulnerability will make Netanyahu, a master tactician and opportunist, pragmatically responsive to the extremist priorities of these ultra-Zionist allies. If current expectations are correct the first sign forming a cabinet that includes accords important ministerial portfolios to the leaders of the two political groupings making up the Religious Zionism (RZ) Party, such notoriously Israeli political personalities as Itamar Ben Gvir, and possibly even Bezabel Smotrich.
I think the regional impacts of these political developments will be a gradual downgrading of overt normalization diplomacy by the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Sudan, and even Morocco initiated during the Trump presidency under the banner of the Abraham Accords, continued by Biden within a less flamboyant framing as ‘normalization and peace diplomacy.’ These arrangements were significant legitimizing victories for Israel within the Arab world, the result of bargains by the highly pragmatic Arab governing elites that had long dealt with Israel on economic and security matters of joint interests covertly. Such reactions against formalizing normalization will undoubtedly take more seriously the sentiments of the outraged public opinion of Arab masses who remain overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, and regard their national elites as betraying the just cause of fellow Arabs and Muslims. I expect that this Israeli election, more than previous ones, will give rise to a new wave of pro-Palestinian activism in the Islamic World, but also at the UN, and perhaps more widely, including in the Global South.
But Netanyahu’s leadership is also extremely worrisome on other grounds, especially his obsessive hostility to Iran that centers on exaggerated concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Such a belligerent approach to Iran is likely to produce Israeli militarist provocations that will increase risks of a major regional war. We should recall that Netanyahu, then also Prime Minister, was fiercely opposed to the Obama approach that resulted in the 2015 Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA). Netanyahu also exhibits a seeming willingness to take unilateral military action against Iran with the goal of disrupting if not destroying its alleged ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons once and for all, as well as supporting initiatives aimed at destabilizing the government in Tehran.
At the same time, we can expect Netanyahu to ignore, if not renounce, the widely supported recent UN General Assembly urging Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal and abide by the inspection provisions of the Nonproliferation Treaty regime. The Resolution (A/C.1/77/L.2) adopted on October 30, 2022 by a vote of 152-5 (24 abstentions) in the First Committee of the General Assembly; of the five were unsurprisingly U.S., Israel, and Canada, joined by Palau and Micronesia. Such a resolution introduces a semblance of balance at the global level, at least, with respect to negotiations pertaining to Iran, which in the public aspects of the Vienna negotiations designed to revive the 2015 JCPOA have so far ignored the relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability, which both undermines regional proliferation constraints and disregards denuclearizing imperatives.
Netanyahu won while the Arab League meeting emphasized the Arab peace plan. What actions may Netanyahu take to undermine the Arab peace plan?
Netanyahu’s primary concerns in the period ahead will be to gain acceptance within Israel of his rightest leadership that will probably emphasize the threats posed by Iran to Israeli security, or unity through fear. Even prior to these Israeli elections there were growing indications of discontent with the normalization diplomacy initiated by Trump and continued by Biden. For instance, the leading Israeli liberal Zionist print media platform, Haaretz editorialized: “The Israeli election dealt a grievous blow to Judaism.” In effect, Jews elected a leadership that was programmed to push this already expansionist Zionist political entity in the direction of openly embracing and strengthening ethno-nationalist values and policies, which because of Palestinian demographic presence and continuing resistance will exert strong societal pressures to introduce new ugly episodes of ethnic cleansing combined with territorial expansionism particularly in the form of further annexationist encroachments in the occupied West Bank.
Even without the problem of a coalition dependent on the RZ, Netanyahu and the Likud Party have not the slightest intention of lending credibility to any Arab proposal for a negotiated peace, and especially one that revives the 2002 Plan put forward by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Israel public opinion seems firmly committed to the idea that there is no longer any security need to offer, even as was the case earlier, but even if only for the sake of public relations, the Palestinians national sovereignty or a meaningful form of statehood. The whole spectrum of opinion in the new Knesset lineup is to secure Jewish supremacy quickly as much of ‘the promised land’ as possible, while the world is distracted by Ukraine, COVID, and climate change. Concretely this means accelerated settlement expansion in the West Bank, punitive occupation in Gaza, and Israeli governance and further Judaization of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people. This entails increasing pressures on Palestinians by way of terminating tenuous residence rights, raising pressures to live elsewhere, preferably outside of Israel. For almost a decade it has become clear to anyone with eyes that wanted to see the realities on the ground that Israel had abandoned all pretenses nurtured by the Oslo Diplomacy to bring peace through negotiations of the parties prepared to compromise, and instead chose to rely on an imposed ‘peace’ sustained by what is now widely understood to be the Israeli apartheid state.
Netanyahu’s victory comes while the democratic government is at work in America and insists on the two-state solution. What will be the relationship between Israel and the US considering Netanyahu’s rise to power?
Contrary to the wording of your questions there is no U.S. ‘insistence’ on the two-state solution, only an empty rhetorical posture belied by the language of ‘strategic partnership’ highlighted in the Biden-Lapid Jerusalem Declaration of last July. If Netanyahu is openly collaborating with and dependent on religious extremists, his new indispensable allies, it will make Washington Democrats and liberal Zionists nervous and uncomfortable, gradually producing some lowering of public enthusiasm for Israel. Even this happens it will be without foreseeable policy consequences. It seems inconceivable at this point that there will be a groundswell of opposition in the U.S. calling for an abandonment of the bilateral partnership on regional security issues, including the annual $3.8 billion U.S. economic assistance given to Israel or American continuing efforts at the UN and elsewhere to shield Israeli policies and practices when it comes to dealing with Palestinian resistance or grievances, compliance with international law, and even with its special status as a known but still undeclared nuclear weapons state. Since the outcome of the 1967 War Israel has been valued as a vital strategic asset by the U.S. Government, which is societally reinforce by the strong pro-Israeli influence wielded by such powerful domestic grouping as the AIPAC lobbying organization and Christian evangelists.
Considering Netanyahu’s serious opposition to the JCPOA, how do you see the prospect of reviving the JCPOA?
I think it highly unlikely that JCPOA will be revived. The U.S. might be prepared to reach agreement with Iran absent Netanyahu’s record of opposition that goes back to its origins during the Obama presidency. Biden has strongly indicated that the domestic political costs are too high to break openly with Israel on such a crucial security issue. The power struggle for political control of the United States is at a critical phase and no mainstream liberal leader, such as Biden, is remotely likely to weaken Jewish support by openly alienating Netanyahu. Besides, even before the Israeli elections, Israeli back-channel pressures were influencing the Biden presidency to insist on unacceptable concessions from Iran. Given the background of Trump’s 2018 withdrawal and repudiation of JCPOA, coupled with the ramping up of sanctions despite Iran’s internationally verified compliance with the agreement, the U.S. from the outset approached negotiations arrogantly. If seeking agreement and hoping for normalization, the U.S. should been prepared to offer apologies and an incremental removal of sanctions rather than put forward additional conditions that needed to be satisfied before it would rejoin JCPOA. The Trump/Biden sanctions have brought prolonged economic hardship to the people of Iran in recent years, and it undoubtedly colored the Iranian approach even if it seemed not to matter to the U.S.
Netanyahu is Putin’s friend, and the relations between Israel and Russia are bad after the war in Ukraine. It seems that Netanyahu has to choose between America and Russia. What is your assessment?
I think there is little doubt that if such an existential choice ever were to confront Netanyahu, he would have not have a moment’s hesitation about choosing America. It is not only the years of closeness, but the U.S. is the more formidable geopolitical actor in the Middle East and the world than Russia, and massively helps Israel militarily, ideologically, and diplomatically. Besides, the Jewish presence in the United States has great leverage over foreign policy, and although somewhat less supportive of Israeli behavior than in the past, continues to regard Israel’s security and wellbeing as an unconditional commitment, ignoring and defying the apartheid consensus that has emerged in the last five years, by shamelessly continuing to include Israel in the ranks of countries governed as ‘democracies.’
Of course, Netanyahu would like to maintain friendship with both Russia and the United States if this can be managed. The Ukraine War, should it be further prolonged, might induce Netanyahu to side more openly with the U.S./NATO, especially in light of the difficulties arising from including the religious extremists in his governing process with their undeniable hostility to a two-state solution. Their priority is to move toward ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to complete the ultra-Zionist project of settler colonialism, which either requires the elimination of the Palestinians from Israel altogether or at minimum their complete marginalization through crushing Palestinian resistance morale. How Netanyahu handles this open departure from Washington’s two-state mantra will give hints as to his approach to other issues where pressure arises if Israel rejects the American effort to adopt a posture, however insincere, that does not explicitly reject basic Palestinian objectives. We must wait and see how this likely political drama unfolds.
Netanyahu has early tried to convey an impression that he is not captive of the RZ by indicating his continuing support for LGBTQ freedoms and rights. Whether this is a true demonstration of Netanyahu’s political independence or a symbolic marginal gesture that is to be soon offset by an unpopular implementation of the radical policy views of RZ. It is this cloud of uncertainty that hangs over what this renewed Netanyahu/Likud governance of Israel will mean for regional politics, the Palestinian people, and Israel’s standing in the world.