Israel Pulse

First international blunder of Bibi's new government

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Article Summary
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's zigzagging over the plan to separate Jews and Palestinian workers traveling to the territories demonstrates the strong hold of the settlers over his fragile coalition.

“A government was elected. It has a clear agenda, which is the security of its citizens throughout the country, including in Judea and Samaria. People sitting in the cafes on Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv must not be allowed to set the country’s agenda.” That was part of a response by the Likud’s new Knesset member Oren Hazan to a decision to suspend a pilot program segregating Jews and Palestinians on buses in the West Bank.

Palestinians who enter Israel for work now can return directly to the West Bank using public transportation. According to the new plan, they would have to get off the buses for a security check when they re-enter the territories. What these instructions effectively do is create a situation in which Palestinian commuters are forced to leave their buses, while Jewish commuters can continue unhindered.

Apart from claims of apartheid, the program is a case of abuse of Palestinian workers returning home after a long day's work, even after they spent hours waiting at checkpoints on their way into Israel. This is especially abusive considering the position of the departing chief of the Central Command, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, that such commutes home by Palestinian workers pose no security threat to Israel, since anyone entering Israel must in any case first receive official permits from the police and Shin Bet, and must even undergo a full body search upon entry.

Hazan, a resident of the settlement town of Ariel in Samaria, has spent the past few years at the forefront of a group of activists from the Yesha Council (settlement umbrella organization), fighting to introduce the segregation of Jews from those Palestinians who take public transportation home from work in Israel. And Hazan isn’t the only member of the Likud Party in this group. The main argument being made by the people leading the fight for segregation is that it is intended to prevent attacks against Jews and thereby increases personal security. They rely on the testimonies of passengers, who claim that they have been victims of attacks by Palestinians on an almost daily basis.

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These arguments have been repeated again and again over the years and discussed in numerous security forums. In 2013, however, the Defense Ministry was handed to Moshe Ya’alon of the Likud. Pressure groups from Judea and Samaria suddenly had a sympathetic ear and access to the highest sources of power. Ya’alon is, in fact, considered to be one of the people in government with the closest ties to the settlers. As a Likud member, he regards them as a political power base. Furthermore, the momentum garnered by the HaBayit HaYehudi Party over the past few years and its participation in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalitions provided the Yesha Council with an additional means of applying pressure to the government.

So, for example, as a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Knesset member Moti Yogev, a colonel in the reserves and a resident of the settlement of Dolev, waged a long struggle on behalf of this kind of segregation. When the pilot segregation program was announced May 20, Yogev of HaBayit HaYehudi was quick to congratulate it, considering it a personal and political achievement. He responded to widespread condemnation of the plan by saying, “None of those criticizing the decision is actually familiar with the reality of the situation. What they are saying about it is hypocritical, false and irresponsible. The reality is that the Arabs in Judea and Samaria live better here than they would in any of the neighboring Arab states.

Ya’alon also defended his decision, saying, “There is no segregation. A properly functioning state can keep tabs on who is coming in and leaving. That’s all this is about.” This time, however, the use of public safety considerations to excuse the galling ethical injustice of segregated buses did not withstand the test of reality. Security arguments barely survived a few hours before Netanyahu ordered that the pilot be stopped. By then, however, the plan itself had already caused serious diplomatic damage to Israel, including the settlements of Judea and Samaria.

This example of segregation for reasons of security was immediately presented as an example of Israeli apartheid. As an exceptionally talented apologist, Netanyahu immediately recognized the potential damage that the sinister combination of buses and segregation would have in an enlightened international narrative, and particularly in the collective memories of the United States and South Africa. With the term “apartheid” appearing more and more over the past few years, in the context of Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria, Netanyahu realized that he must act quickly to limit the damage, and ordered the program to be suspended immediately.

Evidence of the rash and hurried way in which the move was initially made could be seen in the embarrassed response of new Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan of HaBayit HaYehudi. When asked to explain the pilot program’s suspension to the Knesset plenum, he made the unusual move of admitting that he had not been updated about it. “Allow me to admit openly that I did not know about it, nor was I updated about it. I don’t think it is appropriate to send me to respond, without me actually knowing about the decision first,” Ben Dahan said. “I admit that the move was wrong and inappropriate, and I intend to study it further.”

In an interview he later gave to Army Radio, Ben Dahan said, “At the time, discussions were underway between him [Ya’alon] and the prime minister. I was already at the dais when they made the decision to suspend the pilot program. By then it was too late to inform me of that.”

Nevertheless, on a personal level, he did not see any problems with the plan. “I don’t consider it apartheid,” he said.

Is there a connection between the timing of the decision to start the pilot program, and the fact that the narrow, right-wing government sworn in last week has no moderating voices from the center-left? The answer seems to be yes. The same program was under consideration one and two years ago, and the settlers had been applying pressure then as now. Now, however, with Ya’alon maintaining close ties to the settlers, his deputy minister a member of HaBayit HaYehudi, and Tzipi Livni, who tried to advance negotiations with the Palestinians in the previous government, now part of the opposition, it is only natural that there was no one else to block the move but Netanyahu.

Quite a few senior voices from the Likud and the right expressed their unequivocal opposition to the plan this week — although not one of them serves in the government, or even in the Knesset for that matter. In effect, this is further evidence of how reactionary Israel’s government is becoming.

President Reuven Rivlin commended the suspension of the program, while Dan Meridor attacked the move sharply.

It's a good thing that the pilot program was suspended. It would be even better if it were canceled once and for all. The incident itself was a warning shot fired at Netanyahu, who heads a narrow, right-wing coalition. He can be expected to deal with these kinds of political crises on a weekly basis, even as Israel’s foreign policy is facing a very volatile time ahead.

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Found in: settlements, palestinians, palestinian human rights, moshe ya'alon, israeli elections, israeli-palestinian conflict, habayit hayehudi, benjamin netanyahu

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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