Israel Pulse

Netanyahu’s 'divide and rule' policy against Palestinians

Article Summary
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues with the same approach of ignoring the Palestinian Authority and destabilizing it through contacts with Hamas.

“Our security policy has not changed at all, not one iota,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the start of the Nov. 17 Cabinet meeting in summing up the latest round of fighting with the Gaza Strip. “The goals of the operation were fully met,” he emphasized. Presumably, the son of historian Benzion Netanyahu is familiar with the famous insight provided by Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz, one of the fathers of the modern warfare doctrine: “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” Netanyahu’s policy — on both national security and his personal security — can be summed up in one word: “survival.”

To advance his goal, the prime minister uses the good old-fashioned “divide and rule” tactic, with which the Jewish people are familiar from the days of the Roman Empire. In order to crush Jewish national unity, which empowered the rebels seeking to overthrow Roman rule, Gov. Aulus Gabinius dismantled the Kingdom of Judea and divided it into five separate districts (57 B.C.). Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, whose name is synonymous with manipulation and immorality, wrote in his book “The Art of War” that a leader must do all he can to divide the forces of the enemy.

A Nov. 12 Al-Monitor article described the limitations of Israeli efforts to divide the forces of the Palestinian enemy, otherwise known as the “policy of isolation.” Netanyahu aims at preventing the West Bank and Gaza from being considered as one Palestinian entity, and advances splits between the different Palestinian factions in order to weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ rule. The split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and between Hamas and Fatah and Islamic Jihad serve Netanyahu’s status quo policy in the West Bank as well as his attempts to engineer a “security arrangement” with Gaza. Every rocket that lands in the southern border town of Sderot is turned by the propagandists of the political right into a missile against the Oslo peace accord with the Palestinians and alleged proof that ceding territories to the Palestinians begets terrorism. But is the “divide and rule” policy an appropriate recipe for dealing with a complex conflict such as the Israeli-Palestinian one?

In an October 2017 article, then-Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai and his Palestinian affairs adviser Col. Michael Milstein analyzed the lessons of Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge against Hamas. They wrote that while an arrangement in the spirit of a “hudna” or “tahadiye” — a temporary pause between military operations — could provide Israel with a respite on the Gaza front, it could also help entrench Hamas rule in the long term. Their insights were published in Maarachot, a publication of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), not in a left-wing newspaper such as Haaretz.

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Brig. Gen. (Res.) Udi Dekel, director of the Institute for National Security Studies, also believes that choosing to make a deal with Hamas rather than with the Palestinian Authority (PA) weakens the only legitimate entity with which a future arrangement should be forged. In a Nov. 17 position paper, the former head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate recommended strengthening the PA by helping to transform it into a responsible, stable and functioning body and ceasing attempts to sabotage reconciliation measures with Hamas.

However, as Netanyahu himself said, the Nov. 12 Operation Black Belt against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad did not change Israel’s security policy one iota. It continues to ignore the existence of the PA, which is portrayed on the Palestinian street as helpless vis-a-vis Israel, at best, and an Israeli collaborator, at worst. When elections are held in the territories, all Hamas will have to do is dust off its campaign slogan from the previous elections, held in 2006, which brought it to power: “Five years of resistance succeeded where 10 years of diplomacy failed.”

The hopes entertained by aficionados of the “divide and rule” method that Israel would benefit from the differences between Hamas and Islamic Jihad were quickly dashed last week. Not only did the two organizations maintain their joint “war room,” but head of the Hamas political bureau Ismail Haniyeh and Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah agreed to preserve the alliance and cooperation between the two groups.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum announced that the organization would not allow Israel to continue its aggression against Gaza and to choose the time and place for every operation. That brings to mind the message conveyed by Netanyahu on the following day to his ministers: “We maintain complete freedom of action and we will hurt whoever tries to hurt us.” They will hit us, we will hit them, they will attack, we will attack, and so on. Just as Netanyahu pledged at the Knesset in October 2015, Israel will forever live by its sword.

Assuming that living by the sword is not an absolute necessity and that most Israelis and Palestinians do not yearn for such a life, Netanyahu’s policy of managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the divide and rule method will go down in history as the greatest injustice of the Zionist movement. It will share this dubious honor with his attempts to rule by sowing hatred against the state’s Arab citizens and turning the Jewish ones against their Arab neighbors. As former Meretz party Knesset member Issawi Freij wrote in a Nov. 17 Haaretz op-ed, Netanyahu is far more dangerous than the arch-racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was a fringe figure. The man who repeatedly incites against 20% of the state’s citizens is the prime minister himself.

Will the two peoples (Israelis and Palestinians) follow in the footsteps of fundamentalist movements, which have turned them into rocket and missile fodder in order to satisfy messianic desires and personal interests?

The answer lies in the reaction of Knesset member Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab Joint List, to Netanyahu’s Nov. 17 tirade in which he dubbed Odeh and his colleagues “terror supporters who want to destroy the state.” Netanyahu, Odeh said, is shaping his legacy as a bitter criminal hurting the citizens he is supposed to serve, and called on Israel’s Arab citizens and their Jewish partners to join forces in favor of peace, equality democracy and social justice.

Driving home his point, the “terror supporter” (Odeh) tweeted a photo of himself reading a story to his three pajama-clad young children, and writing below, “At the end of a long day, it’s time to put these three existential threats to bed.”

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Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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